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Divine Operation

Sermon passage: (Romans 2:17-29) Spoken on: May 31, 2015
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev Enoch Keong
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Romans

Tags: Romans, 罗马书

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About Rev Enoch Keong: Rev. Keong is currently serving as a pastor in the youth and young adult ministries, as well as the John zone pastor in Jubilee Church.

Speaker: Ps Enoch Keong
Title: Divine Operation
Text: Rom 2:17-29

Since the the church launched the sermon series on Romans, we have up to this point in time read 61 verses of what Paul has written. If I were to request all of us to make a description of Paul based on what we have read thus far, what would your version sounds like? Based on the verses we read, it seems to me that Paul is someone who instead of sorting important matters out calmly, would heat up to the point of eruption as he dwells on a heavy going subject.

Paul in writing about human weaknesses launches words of attack beginning from the second half of chapter 1. The intensity of his critique only increased as he writes. The way he opens the present chapter is by saying, “Therefore, you are without excuse.” And by the time when he comes to the verses that we are now reading, we find these words in verse 24, “the name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” The way in which Paul when about chiding just got more stern and harsh as he goes.

Let’s shift our gaze from Paul to the recipients. As we hear Paul’s words of accusation, it is only natural for us to start scratching our heads and wonder what could have been the sins that the recipients have committed to have invited such chiding from Paul. But a quick reference to 2 other verses in the letter, and I believe we will begin to form a rather different opinion of Paul and the recipients: “First of all, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is pro-claimed throughout the whole world.” (1:8) Paul penned these words just a few lines before he began talking about human weaknesses. The next verse – found toward the end of the letter – sounds even better, “But I myself am fully convinced about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another.” (15:14) It appears that Paul had high regards – very high regards in fact – of his recipients. And it would alto-gether be strange and inconsistent for Paul to be reprimanding them so harshly in between these 2 sentences that contains words of commendation.

Furthermore, when we turn to the portion of the letter where Paul dealt directly with the issues that caused grievances between the Jews and non-Jews in the Roman church, we read of issues that were way less serious as compared to the ones mentioned at this point in the letter. The crimes mentioned here are stealing, adultery and sacrilege, which are moral and religious sins spoke against in the Ten Commandments. The actual issues that caused grievances in the Roman church on the other hand appear to be something rather different. The folks back then, especially the Jewish Christians, were struggling over issues such as whether certain edible things should or should not be included into the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, and whether certain day of the week should be regarded as being more holy compared to the others. The difference in opinion overs such issues in turn developed into quarrels and a situation of disunity between the Jew and Gentile Christians in the church (cf. 14:1-23). Hence, even if we were to stretch the definition of sin a bit and regard disunity as a religious sin, there’s just not a trace of serious moral sins such as Paul has listed in this chapter.

When we put side by side Paul’s words of commendation, the actual issues that he needed to solve and the accusations launched in this chapter, we see a mismatch. We see also a Paul who is unnecessarily critical, and even jittery. I don’t know about us, but this mismatch is something that has always cause puzzlement whenever I turn to the Book of Romans, and I have to confess that I did not try to get this sort out till I need to prepare for this morning’s sharing. I believe the correct way to read Paul goes like this: Paul, the learned apostle, who claims that he was like a nursing mother in the way he handled the Christians in Thessalonica (1 Th 2:7), could not have been unnecessarily harsh to the Christians in Rome. Starting from the second half of chapter 1 where he spoke against the unrighteousness of the Gentiles, all way into chapter 2 till Chapter 3: 20 where the subject matter became the Jews, Paul was using the inability of both groups to achieve righteousness before God in a general sense to bring across the point that it takes the gospel, in fact, it takes God’s direct involvement and help for one to stand righteous before God.

In short, Paul wasn’t at all harsh toward the recipients. The harshness was a rhetorical device to help the Roman Christians to see how beautiful, wonderful and needed the gospel is, to whosoever, including the Jews.

The Jews however would not readily see their need of the gospel, and it’s easy to see the reason why. They have the law and the mark of circumcision.

I don’t think many of us would find the first 5 books of Moses to be very captivating, especially the many pages after the story about the chariots of Egypt turned into homes for fishes and other sea creatures. Yet, would it not be incorrect to say that at the time when Paul wrote this letter, between 55 to 60 AD, one can find nothing better than the Old Testament law in helping a person to know God and to worship him? And this is so simply because it is through the Old Testament law where God talked about himself and conveyed his statutes and requirements. The law contains and reflects the will and the heartbeat of God, his purposes for humankind, and the necessary boundaries to observe in order to prevent people from doing wrong and courting troubles. It also contains words of wisdom not only on how to play fair but to be a blessing to one’s neighbors and the society. And most importantly for the Jews, the law declares God’s goodwill in electing and embracing them, calling them to be his people. The best guide on how to know God and worship him, up till the time when Paul wrote; God placed it in none others but the hands of the Jews.

Apart from the law, the Jews also find confidence through circumcision. The permanent physical mark on their bodies to categorically demonstrates that they are special in the eyes of God. Once again, it is something special given to none others but the Jews.

And let me risk by throwing in one other reason for them to have great confidence that salvation is certainly theirs. Paul did not mention this one perhaps because it not a mark of Judaism like the other two. Yet, we can be quite sure that the Jews had this reason kept at the back of their mind. Many generations has come and go since Israel was entrusted with the law in the wilderness. The number of would be even greater if our count is based on circumcision – the mark for covenantal relationship since the days of Abraham. And through the many generations, where they often proved to be faithless with their disobedience, to the point where they were removed from the Promised Land; one thing did not change; God re-mained faithful and did not disown them. They even regained the Promised Land after the days of captivity. In other words, God in being faithful was patient with them, he gave them time to refine and grow in their faith.

So, Paul could have lengthened his list of accusation about the Jews practicing hypocrisy and disobeying the law had he wished to, and the Jews would not even deny what Paul had said. But so what if the accusations are as lengthy as an Oxford dictionary? It would not shake a bit their confidence in thinking that they remained special in God’s sight. Because, to any Jew, the law that was specially entrusted to them is still seating in their hands. The mark of covenantal relationship is still applied on their bodies. And through their wild days and mad existence, they have a God who simply kept his promise, and he according to his faithfulness is still the God of Israel. Having the law and the mark of circumcision coupled with the faith-fulness of God which expresses itself in terms of loving kindness, patience, forgiveness, etc, the combination looks like a sure-win formula for spiritual success. But we know that it didn’t work.

Allow a minute’s digression on the faithfulness of God before we return to what Paul has to say. Brother and Sisters in Christ, the same God and the same faithfulness, we find in our lives today. We as Christians sing songs about God’s faithfulness all the time, because he is indeed faithful at all times. But we can perhaps pause and allow ourselves to be reminded on something as we read these words of accusation. God’s faithfulness when combined with our human tendencies is capable of producing effects that is less than helpful. In the case of the Jews, God’s faithfulness when combined with their sense of being the privileged ones produced a history of disobedience; although we must say that not all Jews were disobedient. In Singapore, where Christians by and large live reasonably comfortable lives and a life of faith that’s equally comfortable, we tend to get complacent in our spiritual quest. Combining God’s faithfulness and our complacency, and we can become happily stagnant in our walk with God. But let us remind ourselves this day, ours is supposed to be a journey where we become more holy, more loving, more godly, and becoming a greater blessing.

God’s calling to the Jews was in no way different, but the formula for spiritual success didn’t work and they were unable to live up to their calling. The repeat failures of the Jews throughout biblical history make it clear that the new covenant had to happen. For humans with all the best gifts and all the time on earth given to them, would still fall short from becoming truly spiritual people. When Paul says circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit, he is saying that God needs to perform an operation on and also operate in our hearts in order that we will live godly lives.

I like to share a story about a boat ride once taken by a missionary, and I hope that the spiritual truth that we meditate upon this morning, something that we have heard many times over, can gain some freshness and find an even more permanent place in our lives.

Wilfred Grenfell was a medical missionary in the early part of 20th century who served at Labrador, a place located at the eastern part of Canada. Grenfell once had to visit a patient who lived on an island in the night. The missionary had at point a new boat, so off he went with the new vessel. Grenfell knew the direction to steer the boat, but because it was night time, he instead relied on the compass for direction. After travelling on the waters for some time, he began to realize that boat was not in fact heading toward any island. Instead, it was sailing on waters that was getting more choppy. He soon discovers that he was actually heading toward the open sea. Thankfully, he was able to navigate his way, and finally return to the land safely.

The cause that had him nearly landed in danger was discovered the next day. The compass on the new boat was fitted with a screw made of steel instead of brass, and the screw made of steel had attracted the magnetic tip of the compass to itself, instead of letting needle point to the earth’s magnetic poles. As a result, Grenfell he went off course.

Friends, the written law in human hand is only as good as a compass fitted with a screw made of steel. The point of reference will be anything and anywhere but God. On the other hand, God the Spirit that dwells and operates in our heart is like the needle of a compass properly fitted and doing its work. It points constantly in one direction; pointing us to God, reminding us of his will, his power, his grace and patience and his care, and through doing so steers us in the right direction in our spiritual pilgrimage.

The Jews had the best guide (the law), while followers of Christ have the Holy Spirit. The best guide is something external, while the Holy Spirit indwells us and operates in us. The best guide provides a sense of security, at least for the Jews. The Holy Spirit on the other hand provides not so much a sense of security, but prompt us concerning our true purpose, the directions to take and enables us to do so.

The Holy Spirt like the compass does not do all the work, although it certainly points us the right way forward. Yes, the Holy Spirt like the compass does not do all the work...