In this chapel message, Dr. George O. Wood reflects on the four-stage process of suffering Paul outlines in Romans 5:1-5: suffering, endurance, character, and hope.
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What is the purpose of Christian theology?
Since I was a high school student, I have enjoyed reading books about God. Not devotional books, however—much to my mother’s alarm. No, I enjoy reading theology books, and the bigger they are, the better. I enjoyed reading books about God so much, in fact, that I chose a career likely to pay me for reading them.
Over the last twenty years, however, I have noticed something about big theology books. Many of them inform us about God, but they do not inspire us to worship him. I cannot tell you how many times I have turned the last page of a theology book and said, “Well, that was interesting!” rather than, “Well, it’s time to pray!” But shouldn’t prayer be the proper end of theology? Shouldn’t we learn about God in order to worship and serve him?
Paul certainly thought so. His letter to the Romans was in many ways the church’s first theology book. It didn’t just narrate the life of Jesus and the early church, however, as did the Gospels and Acts. It interpreted their significance. It explained what God was up to through Jesus Christ. And it ended on a note of praise.
Consider Romans 16.25-27:
Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.
These three verses are a doxology, a word (logos) of praise or glory (doxa) about God. “Now to him…be glory forever through Jesus Christ!” The theology of Romans centers on the grace of a God who justifies sinners by faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. If we read Romans and our only response is, “Well, that was interesting!” then we haven’t understood a word of what we’ve read. Or rather, we may have understood it, but we haven’t applied it to ourselves. Sinners who do so fall to their knees in undying gratitude. We’ve been saved from hell; we’re destined for heaven. When that realization sinks in to our brains, what can we do but give thanks?
Who is this God we praise? He is powerful, he is revealing, and he is wise. Let’s look at those in reverse order. First, he is wise. God knows the way we ought to live. He knows how far off the path we are. And he knows how to get us back on track. Second, he is revealing. Not only does he know, he communicates. He reveals “the gospel,” literally “good news.” He doesn’t keep the way secret; he tells everyone. And third, he is powerful. God doesn’t tell us how to save ourselves. He saves us. He is “able to establish” us on the path of salvation. He is our Guide. He knows the path to heaven, tells us about it, and pulls us out of the thickets when we stray.
It is a good thing to know more about God. I still read theology books, after all. But it is a better thing to praise more. And we have much to praise for.
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Today, I want to talk about God, Satan, Jesus, and you.
In Romans 16.20, the Apostle Paul brings all four together when he writes, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.” Let’s take a closer look at each phrase.
First, the God of peace. What a wonderful description of God, especially in the turbulent times in which we live! How many times have we turned on the TV news lately only to see stories about radical jihadists who are killing innocents in the name of God? Their god, it seems, is a god of war. But our Heavenly Father is “the God of peace.” He works to create peace between himself and us, not to mention between you and me. In the Christian tradition, in other words, peace is both vertical and horizontal. It pertains equally to our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.
And yet, that peace comes through warfare. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. How many times have we heard America referred to by violent jihadists as “the great Satan”? Too many times! But in Christian theology, human beings are not the enemies to be crushed. As Paul writes in Ephesians 6.12, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Human beings are the battleground over which God is fighting the devil. We are what he is fighting for, not what he is fighting against. And in this verse, God promises us ultimate victory over the spiritual forces that attempt to destroy our lives.
Third, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. How does God give us victory? How does he save us? As Paul writes in Ephesians 2.8-9, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” I sometimes hear Christians speak of “spiritual warfare.” They talk about prayer and other spiritual disciplines. They also talk about “coming against” the devil. That’s all well and good, of course, but I don’t hear them mention that grace is the primary weapon God uses in his spiritual warfare for us. Remember, human beings are the battleground, not the enemy. Grace is what wins the victory.
Finally, you. On June 6, 1944, the Allies poured tens of thousands of men onto the beaches of Normandy in order to turn the tide of World War II. Wave after wave of soldiers sacrificed themselves that day to win Europe’s freedom. In the battle for you, God sends wave after wave of grace through Jesus Christ to rescue you and turn the tide of battle in your favor.
God is for you. Satan is against you. But God gives more grace so that you can have more peace.
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This past spring, just in time for Easter, the National Geographic Society released a documentary on The Gospel of Judas, along with the text of the gospel and a book about its discovery. That gospel was a fourth-century copy of a second-century text, purporting to describe a secret conversation between Jesus and Judas Iscariot. It did not tell us anything historically valuable about Jesus or Judas, although it did give us interesting information about a small sect of second-century Christian heretics.
So why did The Gospel of Judas get so much attention? In my opinion, the answer to that question involves three things: money, history, and novelty.
The National Geographic Society intentionally timed the release of The Gospel of Judas at Easter in order to boost sales of the documentary and books. What better time to sell a book about Jesus than a time when people are thinking about him?
The profit motive was only one factor, however. The Gospel of Judas was a genuinely important historical find. It deserved to be published because of what it tells us about the interaction between orthodoxy and heresy in the second century.
A third reason why The Gospel of Judas garnered so much attention was the average Americans’ desire for spiritual novelty. We are a restless people. We like whatever is new and improved. When it comes to cars and dishwasher soap, new and improved may be a good thing. But when it comes to matters of the spirit, novelty is not always in our best interest.
In Romans 16.17-19, Paul warns us about people who peddle spiritual novelties:
I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.
For Paul particularly, and for biblical Christianity generally, there is a real distinction between orthodoxy and heresy. In this passage, he speaks of “the teaching you have learned.” That teaching was rooted in Scripture, proclaimed by Jesus, and promulgated by the apostles. It included such basic doctrines as justification by faith, the theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans. To depart from that teaching was to walk away from Scripture, Jesus, and the apostles he himself appointed to carry on his work.
And so, Paul warns the Romans to be on guard against anyone who tempted them to depart from orthodoxy. Be wary of the motives of people who proclaim spiritual novelties in the name of Christ. Pay attention to their rhetoric. Do they use smooth words to advance heretical teachings? And in general, use your brain. God gave us minds, and he wants us to use them. “Be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.” That’s good advice in every century, whether the first or the twenty-first!
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The final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans seems anticlimactic. Chapters 1-11 teach Christian theology. Chapters 12-15 teach Christian ethics. But chapter 16 merely sends Christian greetings to 26 individuals, 24 of whom Paul names. Those greetings may seem anticlimactic, but in reality, they are the point of the entire letter.
Think of the issue this way. The theology of Romans tells us that God saves sinners by grace through faith. The ethics of Romans tells us that God empowers those whom he has saved to perform good works. But sinners and saved are not abstractions. They are flesh-and-blood people. They have names. By concluding Romans with a long list of names, Paul reminds us that Christ entered the world not to rescue humanity in general but human beings in particular—people with names like Phoebe and Priscilla and Aquilla and Epenetus and George—and, of course, you!
By listing individual’s names, Paul also reminds us that Christianity is an inherently social religion. Christ did not merely die and rise again to save your individual soul and to reform your individual life, although he certainly did that. Rather, Christ died and rose again to form a new community, in which people of faith form strong social bonds with one another in Christ. Notice the way he describes people: “our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church”; “Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers”; “my dear friend Epenetus”; “Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me”; “Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord”: “Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ”; “my dear friend Stachys”; “Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord”; “Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.” For Paul, anyone who is “in Christ” is a family member or coworker or best friend to everyone else who is in Christ. The church is a social network of love: loved by God and by one another.
Third, by listing individuals’ names, Paul reminds us that everyone in the church has a job to do. Many of the people he names were evidently leaders in Roman house churches. After mentioning Priscilla and Aquila, for example, Paul writes: “Greet also the church that meets at their house.” For another example, “Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them.” But not everyone was a house church leader. In verse 22, we read, “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Evidently, Tertius was the secretary to whom Paul dictated Romans. Notice also the prominent women who exercised ministry roles in the Roman church: Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Junias, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Julia, Nereus’ sister. In the church, everyone has a place of service, no matter what it is and no matter who they are.
Finally, notice that Paul considers all these people “saints” (verse 15). A saint is not “a dead Christian, revised and edited,” as Ambrose Bierce once defined the word. Rather, a saint is any Christian whatsoever, saved by grace through faith for good works.
So, when you come to Romans 16 and its long list of names, don’t turn the page. Read the names! Look closely enough, and you’ll find your name there too.
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“Life is difficult.”
That is the first sentence of The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, and it is one of the truest sentences I have ever read in any book. We cannot escape life’s difficulties; we can only struggle with them. And as Christians, we struggle first and foremost by praying.
The Apostle Paul knew how difficult life could be from personal experience. In 2 Corinthians 11.23-28, he enumerates some of the hardships he endured in his missionary journeys:
If I were Paul, I would’ve been tempted to cut and run from Christian service after my first imprisonment. Perhaps Paul himself was. But he resisted that temptation and struggled on. He endured hardship to ambitiously pursue Christ’s purpose for him. And it’s a good thing he did. Because of Paul’s difficult evangelistic labors, you and I Gentiles are Christians today.
If I were Paul, I’d also be tempted to judge others’ Christian faith by whether they were suffering as badly as me. Misery loves company, after all. If I have to suffer for my faith, you should too. And if you’re not suffering, there’s probably something deficient about your faith. It’s a good thing Paul didn’t fall prey to this spiritually immature attitude. He recognized that Christ had called him to a unique form of Christian service, with both unique rewards and dangers for his service.
To use a military analogy, Paul considered himself a front-line soldier. Not every soldier can or should serve on the front line. The church needs a supply train, after all, as well as medics and logistics experts and battle strategists. For Paul, what is important is not where you serve in God’s army, but that you serve. Not every Christian is called into front-line warfare, but every Christian must contribute to the struggle.
According to Romans 15.30-33, we struggle by praying:
I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, so that by God's will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen.
Specifically, we struggle by praying for four things: rescue, service, God’s will, and peace. We pray that God would rescue us from the forces of evil, both in this life and in the life to come. We pray that God would give us success in our various forms of Christian service. We pray that we would know and do God’s will in every area of our lives. And like all soldiers, we pray for peace, both between God and us and between you and me.
Life is difficult. Are you struggling against it with prayer?
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We all know that the Apostle Paul was one of the greatest missionaries of the first century (or any century). But did you know that he was also one of the greatest fundraisers? Paul mentions his fundraising activities in Romans 15.25-29:
Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this fruit, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.
Notice several things about these verses:
First, Paul raised funds for a specific project, which he refers to as “a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.” We are not sure why the Jerusalem believers were in such desperate financial straits. But Paul knew, and he believed that it was the responsibility of wealthy believers to supply the material needs of the Christian poor, whether around the corner or across the sea.
Second, the motivation for Paul’s fundraising was gratitude. Paul notes that he raised the funds from Gentile churches in Macedonia and Achaia, that is, modern Greece. “They were pleased to do it,” he writes, “and indeed they owe it to them.” Sometimes, we have obligations that we are not particularly happy to discharge. The Gentile Christians felt otherwise about their donations to the poor believers in Jerusalem. They owed their eternal salvation to the efforts of Jewish Christians who told them the good news about Jesus Christ. The Gentiles “shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings”; they returned the favor by sharing “their material blessings” with the Jews.
Third, Paul undertook fundraising with appropriate accountability. He wrote the Romans and other Christians about the funds he was raising. Not only that, he promised to “complete” the task and “make sure” the intended recipients received every dime. Paul stated his intentions and actions publicly and welcomed public scrutiny. Today, all churches do well when they follow his example.
Finally, Paul mentioned the end result of his fundraising activities: “the full measure of the blessing of Christ.” Paul wasn’t just raising money for the relief of the Jerusalem poor. In his day, there were many tensions between the Jewish and the Gentile wings of the Christian church, based on differences in their religious and cultural backgrounds. One effect of Paul’s offering was to release those tensions. Genuine compassion has a way of bringing diverse people together. And when it does, Christ’s blessing is the result.
More money equals more ministry. And more ministry equals a better church. Let’s give and serve for that purpose!