Theology and Worship (Romans 11.33-36)


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About halfway up the 286 spiraling stone steps of the Oleviste Church tower, I began to wonder whether the view it afforded of Tallinn, Estonia, was really worth the heart-pumping, lung-burning, knee-buckling effort. Construction on the Oleviste Church began in the 13th Century. At one time, it was the tallest building in Europe. And the only way to the top was one unevenly sized, medieval stair at a time. 

I thought about the Oleviste Church tower when I read Romans 11.33-36. Romans is Paul’s most theologically systematic and rigorously argued letter. About halfway through it, in chapters 9-11, we encounter some of the most difficult theologizing ever put by pen to paper. The heart pumps, the lungs burn, and the knees buckle as we climb the spiraling steps of Paul’s argument about his fellow Jews’ rejection of Christ.  

The theology of these three chapters is intrinsically difficult, but the sociological issue behind them is difficult too. Honestly, when was the last time you—a Christian—thought theologically about the first-century Jewish rejection of Jesus? In Paul’s day, that was an important theological issue. Two millennia of Gentile Christianity have mostly pushed it out of our minds. But still we climb Paul’s steps anyway, one at a time. 

More than once, I have grown frustrated with Romans 9-11. I haven’t known what to write. Sometimes, I have wanted to give up, skip the entire section, and move directly to Romans 12-16, which are very practical in orientation. But Bible reading—like stair-climbing—is a discipline. You have to take the steps as they are, not as you want them to be.  We might wish that Paul would skip directly from Romans 8.39’s assertion that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” to Romans 12.1’s conclusion, “Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” But that’s not the way Paul built the staircase. And anyway, how could we ever reach the top by skipping the middle of the climb? 

When I reached the top of the Oleviste Church tower, the panoramic view of Tallinn’s old town made the climbing worth every palpitation, wheeze, and cramp. If you ever get the chance, climb the tower. Tallinn is beautiful. 

So is God, only more so. We do the hard work of theologizing so that we get a better sense of who God is. Romans 9-11 teaches us, in essence, that God is faithful even to the faithless, whether Jew or Gentile. “God has bound all men over to disobedience,” Paul writes in Romans 11.32, “so that he may have mercy on them all.” And when we get that breathtaking view of God’s universal mercy, all we can do, like Paul, is excitedly exclaim: 

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  

"Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?"    

"Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?"    

For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

 If your theology of God doesn’t result in heart-pumping, lung-burning, knee-buckling worship, then buddy, you’re probably climbing the wrong stairs.

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