Looking at Romans (Session 1)

Exposition of the letter to the Romans has been unduly intellectualised. This is not to say that the development of Paul’s thinking is not complex –opaque sometimes!- but the fact remains and must be reasserted, that the letter was written for lay people who were expected to understand, that the original ethos of the letter was devotional, rather than academic. This simple point underlies our work together at WCC. We are using the English text, sharing narrative discoveries, telling stories so that we might build bridges from the text into our world.


Session 1: So what’s the Good News? (Rom 1)


When is the news good news? Well I suspect if you're a parent with teenage children, it's good news when you get to use your own car, your own bathroom, and your own phone. And of course if you're a teenager with possessive parents, fit's good news when your parents stop going on about the car, the bathroom, and the phone. When is the news good news? Well if you're a student it's good news when the food that you put into the oven actually comes out as something vaguely edible. But what about when it comes to being human, when is the news good news when you're a human being? When it's about Jesus. Of course the message of Christianity is all about Jesus, the message of God's good news, God's gospel, the message which we're going to be looking at from these opening few verses of Paul's letter to the church in Rome.

Now at this point, you might be thinking, "This is going to be a session of exploring the incredibly obvious": after all, it's hardly rocket science to be told that the gospel is about Jesus is it? But actually, it wasn't that obvious to many first century Jews or Gentiles, and it's certainly not very obvious to many people today that the good news for human beings is about Jesus. It seems that the majority of first century Jews were expecting a Messiah (Messiah is just the Hebrew term, Christ is the Greek term, meaning Anointed One, and the one who was supremely anointed in the history of Israel was the King), a King, a descendant of David. And many in the 1st century were looking for a figure who would come and liberate the Jewish nation from their enemies - and as they understood it, no unreasonably perhaps, that was the Roman occupying power. They were looking for a King who would restore the fortunes of the nation of Israel; someone who would rule as God's King over God's people and bring great blessing. All of which seems to fit with much of the expectation of the Old Testament: we read before from the prophet Isaiah. Now he was one of many figures of the Old Testament who looked for the coming of a Davidic descendent, someone in David's line. Isaiah says he's someone who will be anointed by God's Spirit, that he will bring justice, restoration to God's world, he will bring peace and he will bring salvation, and that was the expectation of many people in the 1st century. Yet most of those who were confident of the coming of such a King, such a Messiah were equally confident that whoever the Messiah was, he certainly wasn't Jesus. So many of the Jews rejected Jesus's claim to fulfil the scriptures: as Jesus himself puts it in John 5, when he's discussing with many Jewish people, he says, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." (verse 39).

Of course the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah is a subject that occupies much of the book of Romans, so it's little surprise then that Paul begins his letter by reminding his readers that the good news is about Jesus who was indeed the Messiah, the King. Of course Paul, along with the rest of the New Testament writers, insists that understanding WHO Jesus is, is essential if we are to understand God's good news, if we are to understand the message of Christianity. It is striking, isn't it, just how tireless the New Testament writers focus on the true identity of Jesus. Everywhere you turn in the New Testament it's their constant focus. Like Colossians 1 that speaks mind-bending, mind-blowing truth about who Jesus is: "The image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation" (verse 15). That "God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (verses 19-20). Of course the New Testament writers merely reflect Jesus's own concern: it's something you see throughout the gospels: this question of who Jesus is. It’s the turning point in the middle of where the disciples finally recognise that he is the Christ, he is the promised King, opens the second half of the book, which looks at what kind of King he is.

And the shocking, surprising thing is that he is the King who must suffer, who must die. And so Jesus is not just the promised King, but that slightly enigmatic figure from Isaiah, who is a Servant, and who will suffer for his people. So the Messiah, the King is also the one who will suffer. The New Testament is tireless in focussing on who Jesus is, and yet we so often tire of the question. We assume we know who Jesus is. I remember doing some door-to-door work at a church where I used to go to, and we came to one lady who was an RE teacher: on the doorstep we asked whether she wanted to talk about Jesus Christ, and she said,"I think I know all there is to know about Jesus Christ!" I think it was one of those moments when almost, cartoon-character fashion, my jaw hit the doorstep! To really think, when the New Testament spends so much time reminding us who Jesus is, that we can reach a point in our life when we really think that we have got him sussed. Many of the early church fathers fought tooth and nail to defend the truth of Jesus's identity, and they would be astonished that we could be so naive that we could think we had sorted the issue of who Jesus is. They battled against Christological heresy, whereas we're more likely to settle for Christological indifference. In the past there have been men like Athanasius, the 4th century Archbishop of Alexandria who, wonderfully I think, has come to be known as the "saint of stubbornness". Of course, 'saint' in the Bible just simply means somebody who's a Christian. What a great epitaph, "saint of stubbornness"; I have this vision of a kind of Victor Meldrew in the 4th century! Athanasius understood what was at stake in getting Jesus's identity wrong. As one contemporary writer has put it: "If Christ were not God, he could not be the revelation of God (he couldn't tell us about God). If Christ were not God, [people have] not been redeemed by God. If Christ were not God, believers were not united to God. Above all, if Christ were not God, Christians had no right to worship him. Indeed, if they did so, they were reverting to pagan superstition and idolatry." (Donald Macleod). In defending the truth about Jesus, Athanasius faced enormous opposition, imperial opposition, death threats; it's hard for us to understand what a massive issue it was then: it would be a bit like today Prime Minister's Questions focussing on who Jesus is, and somebody like Tony Blair championing a true biblical understanding of who Jesus is, and the opposition party and Her Majesty the Queen threatening his life and sending him into exile in France - it was the hot potato issue of the day, not just in some sort of vague religious quarter, but right the way throughout society, so important was it.

Now we sing in that hymn "In Christ Alone" that the Jesus of history was "fullness of God in helpless babe." Now Athanasius in the 4th century wrote a very famous little book, and in it he talks about how important it is that we know who Jesus is, and he says this: "We must consider..the Word's becoming Man and His divine appearing in our midst. That mystery the Jews traduce, the Greeks deride, but we adore; and your own love and devotion to the Word will also be greater, because in His manhood he seems so little worth. For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on him, so much the more does He make his Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes most fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as ''human'' He by his inherent might declares divine. Thus by what seems his utter poverty and weakness on the cross He overturns the pomp and parade of idols, and quietly and hiddenly wins over the mockers and unbelievers to recognize Him as God." Athanasius's rallying cry was like that of the 16th century reformer Martin Luther: "Peace if possible, but truth at any cost".

Today of course we have little time for theological truth, we are more likely to say, "Truth if possible, if indeed there is such a thing as truth; but peace at any cost." But as one 19th century scholar, A. A. Hodge, put it:

"In the case of Christianity, the entire system, from foundation to superstructure, rests upon and derives its life from the Person of its Founder. The question of questions is [who] he was, rather than what he taught."

- which is why the Bible keeps reminding us about who Jesus is, for on the one hand we constantly forget, and the greatest enemy of faith is forgetfulness, which is why the Bible so often reminds us of things that we know, or think we know. And on the other hand our natural tendency is to make God in our own image. It's so much easier to have a diminished Jesus, to make him more comfortable, more manageable, so that he sees nothing and demands nothing, and so we can get on with our lives - with a little bit of morality thrown in to assuage our conscience, and a bit of church attendance to impress other people.

And yet having said all that, I think it is understandable that many of us find discussions about who Jesus is so difficult, because so often it all seems a rather dry debate about abstract theological ideas. I always used to remember at college when we were having lectures on Christology, feeling the need to wrap a wet towel around my head, because I thought it was just going to overheat! I felt a good bit of sympathy with one of the Reformers, Philip Melanchthon's comment: "We do better to adore the mysteries of deity than to investigate them". But Paul and the New Testament writers generally insist that we understand who Jesus is, not as a series of abstract theological ideas; we need to understand who Jesus is, as the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises, which is exactly what Paul does here in Romans. Paul says in verse 2, "...the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures" moves to verse 3, "regarding his Son."

So why does Paul insist that we understand who Jesus is in terms of the fulfilment of God's promises in the scriptures? Because it focusses us on the character of God as one who keeps his promises. For it is truly good news that God has made a promise, as we were looking at last week; that for people like you and I who are rebels, who have lived without reference to the God who made us; who have found in human solutions, both now and then, just empty and futile promises. It is wonderful good news that God puts us right in Jesus Christ, that he has made promises to do so, and her keeps those promises. Yet actually, the good news is not just that God makes promises, or that he keeps promises, but that he keeps his promises himself. You see, God keeps his promises, not by recourse to some third party, not by putting the contract out to tender, not by subcontracting: the good news is, verse 3, "regarding his Son". And so we can be confident that the God who has promised will do what he said, because he's done it himself, so to speak. Here is the ultimate "if you want a job doing, do it yourself". For God has kept his promises in his Son. And when we understand who Jesus is in terms of promise and fulfilment, then understanding who Jesus is doesn't merely fill our minds with information, it reassures our hearts that we can trust the one who has promised. For the good news is that Jesus is nothing less than God the Son keeping his promises. You see, the inescapable conclusion of verse 3 is that the Jesus of history is, just as men like Athanasius and many others recognised, God the Son, that he is the pre-existent second person of the Godhead, of the Trinity. So then, in Francis Schaeffer's memorable phrase, "The God who is truly there became a man in real history." How that can be is the mystery at the heart of the universe: "God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man." Or that amazing phrase in one of Graham Kendrick's hymns: "Hands that flung stars into space to cruel nails surrendered." How it can be that the eternal God can be both God and man in history, I don't know: but just because we can't get our heads round it doesn't mean it's not real. That's one of the things you'll find talking with children, whether you're teaching them at Sunday School, or children at home, that they have these questions about 'why?' Kids ask 1001 questions before breakfast, and it's always interesting, you're upstairs and you can hear my wife trying to answer the question about how Jesus can be both God and man, and thinking "Oh, my goodness! Am I going to have to go down and get involved in this discussion?" It's impossible to get your head round it, but just because you can't understand something doesn't mean it can't be real. There comes a point in all our questioning when we hit a point below which it's impossible to go. The eternal God in history.

You see, there comes a point in our questioning, the God of all eternity in the frame of a human being, where there are no more answers, we've reached ground level. And the good news is that Jesus is the Son, the pre-existent second person of the trinity; the good news is that Jesus is nothing less than God the Son keeping his promises. And that should reassure us that we can trust the one who has promised, for we don't just believe in some sort of abstract ideology, we believe in a person, the truth, flesh and blood, in real history.

You see, Jesus brings together a number of surprising statements in the Old Testament: the Old Testament expectation was that God would keep his promises in the Messiah, and sometimes the Messiah seems to be a human figure ("a descendent of David", as Paul puts it in Romans chapter1); but sometimes he seems to be more than a human figure. Turn back to Ezekiel chapter 34: here the writer is looking forward to the coming of the Messiah as the Shepherd King, which was of course what David was. But here the Shepherd King seems much more than a human figure, so verse 11 says, "For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I will tend them..." You see, according to Ezekiel, The Messiah, The Shepherd King who would rule them as the king, shepherd the flock with justice, is none other than the sovereign Lord himself. Which is why, as we turn back to Romans, Paul reminds his readers that Jesus is the fulfilment of God's promises through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures - because the gospel, the good news is regarding his Son, the good news is that Jesus is nothing less than God keeping his own promises in his Son. And so we can be reassured about the promise-keeping character of God. And it is a great encouragement in our lives, when we are tossed about by the turbulence of events in our own families and lives: facing illness, job insecurity, if you're a student, facing difficulties in a course, being a student away from home and conscious of difficulties at home. Is it not wonderfully reassuring to know that in Jesus, the God of all eternity is keeping his promises.

Yet it is important too, that in terms of his earthly life Jesus was a descendant of David, he was the promised King. Jesus was the promised Davidic King, with all that meant in terms of the Old Testament background, because the King was in the midst of his people; the King ruled his people, and as he ruled his people he brought them blessing. And yet I always think there is something very striking about the depiction of Jesus's kingship in the gospel accounts: you see, where is Jesus's kingship most clearly seen? - at the end of his life, when he is beaten and humiliated, when he is dressed in a purple robe, when he is crowned with a crown of thorns, when he is mockingly hailed as king by his executors. His glory displayed for all to see, not on a throne, but on a cross.

The scandal of the cross: as Paul writes elsewhere, the cross which is "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Corinthians 1:23-25).

Peter Jensen, the Archbishop of Sydney, said in one of his books: "Jesus is never so god-like as on the cross."

Or Edward Shillito, the First World War poet, in an amazing poem, Jesus Of The Scars, says this:

"The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;

They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;

But to our wounds only God's wounds can speak.

And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone."

To a rebellious world that, given half a chance, had sought to destroy its creator, Jesus seems a pitiful figure. If he was, as he claimed to be, God himself, God the Son from all eternity -- then surely the cross made his claim a scandalous blasphemy? If he was, as he claimed, the promised Davidic King, he was a far cry from popular expectation. Yet apparent weakness and defeat was, in reality, God's strength and victory; which is the thrust of Paul's statement about Jesus in verse 4: it's not the easiest of verses, and I think that the footnote translation in the church Bibles is probably more accurate - see the little 'b' at the foot of the page, that Jesus was "appointed to be the Son of God with power." But those details aside, the thrust of the verse is clear: from the time of his resurrection, Jesus was appointed the Son of God in power, and through him a whole new era in God's plan and purposes for the world has begun. For he was the Son of God from all eternity, and he became the Son of God in power, able for all time to save those who come to God through him. The contrast between verses 3 and 4 is this: the Son as Messiah in verse 3, became the Son and powerful reigning Lord in verse 4. And through the Spirit of holiness, or better the Spirit who GIVES holiness, Jesus displays his power and majesty - Jesus is the one who gives the Spirit, the guarantee that he has been appointed the Son of God in power. For the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the turning point in history: from the moment where the world was so dominated by sin, by death, and by rebellious human nature, now through the resurrection there is the age which is dominated by the possibility of being right with God, of having life not death, and the transforming power of God's Holy Spirit.

The good news is that God made a promise; that God keeps his promise. And the good news is that Jesus is nothing less than God the Son keeping his promise, the King who rules and brings blessing from the cross, the risen and exalted Lord who gives his Holy Spirit. And it is this King who Paul says astonishingly at the end of verse 4, is our Lord. Remember the hymn: "At your feet we fall, mighty, risen Lord", that without fear this King can be our Lord: how astonishing!

Teaching Notes
Webpage icon Are you ready for revelation? (1 Cor 2:9,10)
Webpage icon Looking at Romans (Session 2)
Webpage icon Looking at Romans (Session 3)
Webpage icon Looking at Romans (Session 4)
Webpage icon Looking at Romans (Session 5)
Webpage icon The church is a community…
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