There has been a lot written about Paul’s words to the church in Rome as he summarizes the history of the human race. While some thinkers see this scripture as pertaining solely to Gentile culture, others see it more broadly as the way all cultures have failed to recognize God, the creator of the world and the judge of all unrighteousness, and that is the position I find myself prone to take. The reason for a more broad approach is because I think a reader of the Old Testament can easily see that idolatry and dehumanization was just as prevalent in Israel as it was in the surrounding “pagan” kingdoms. In fact, Old Testament scholars point out that at any given time in the history of Israel, monotheistic loyalty to Yahweh was never fully established, and the chasing after other gods was a reality present throughout the history of the wilderness wanderings, the time of the Judges, and the monarchy…not to mention a cited reason for the fall of Israel and then Judah, Northern and Southern kingdoms, once divided.
So, Paul addresses the scene that has played out amongst all nations; and particularly, the downward spiral from the intended and godly purpose of humanity to what we have made of ourselves. Of particular interest to us today is the notion of natural and unnatural relationships cited in this text which leads us to a discussion of human sexuality, sexual freedom, and homosexuality. Here is the text of Romans from the NLT:
Romans 1:24 So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. 25 They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. 26 That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. 27 And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.
28 Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. 29 Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. 30 They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. 31 They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. 32 They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.
Needless to say, this text is extremely controversial and has been used to condemn homosexuals, to contrast the type of homosexuality practiced today from ancient practices, and to particularly condemn those who switch back and forth from heterosexual practices to homosexual practices. Yet, what we need to do when studying a text like this is to remember that Paul was addressing the particular situation in Rome, and after extracting the principles and lessons that he wanted to communicate there, we can properly move from the ancient world into ours in an effort to understand what this text means in our contemporary world.
An aspect of this text I want to point out is that Paul is not speaking of individual choices nor individual behaviors nor individual morality. Paul is speaking about a culture of idolatry in humanity at large. This is to say that Paul is not interested in case study or a small scale sample, he has seized on the human condition of worshipping the wrong things and being deceived to think that that worship of lesser beings would bring about the same ends as the worship of God.
For Paul, this worship of lesser things has resulted in a damaged relationship to God, each other, and the creation as a whole. Particularly, Paul cites the sexual practices that were currently happening in Roman pagan culture as a direct result of inaccurate worship. Humanity has “traded the truth of God for a lie” and in so doing they have treated each other’s bodies as objects to be explored and exploited. This argument is “that the existence of homosexual practice in a culture is a sign that that culture as a whole has been worshipping idols and that its God-given male-and-female order is being fractured as a result.” (NT Wright, Romans, New Interpreter’s Bible, p.435)
While it is evident that Paul regards homosexual practice as a dangerous distortion of God’s intentions for sex and sexuality, and while we might agree or disagree with Paul given what we have studied about human sexuality and psychology; what we cannot do is simply sidestep this passage when it comes to Christian ethics and what it says about culture and accepted practices of sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual to be inclusive, in any given culture. However, if we are going to take the citation of homosexuality seriously in the passage above, then we must also head the warning against innate moral superiority that is coming in the next section of scripture starting in Romans 2. That is to say, while some participate in dehumanizing behaviors through “shameful desires of the heart,” others stand aloof to these practices as if they are outside the widespread problem of sin…as if only “those” people sin and “we” do not. Paul finds this to be complete nonsense and a type of unrighteousness that is just as damaging to the human condition. (So, Paul would categorize any attempt to condemn and hurt a homosexual for being such alongside the very practice of homosexuality—“falling short of God’s glory”)
A phrase that gets special attention is at the end of verse 27, “They suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.” While some commentators will point to modern sexually transmitted diseases or even make mention of AIDS in this context, I don’t think Paul had any specific disease in mind. Paul is making reference to the fact that the end of sin is DEATH. I think that becomes clear in the following paragraph and even later in Romans where Paul would assert that sin pays you in death…(“the wages of sin is death” - Romans 6:23). I think it is also telling that Paul, along with other Jewish thinkers would see DEATH as a separation and isolation from God, from each other, and from creation (or the natural world) and less of an event at the end of a life. So, in the second paragraph of our text above, we see God hand them over yet again, showing a growing separation between God and humanity. We see examples of relationships being torn apart in the actions associated with… sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip…and even the “disobeying of parents.” Again, we see this as a result of idolatry, moving to dehumanizing behaviors that then play out in our relationships… As it pertains to the natural world and creation, Paul would argue that men were made to naturally fit with women and that women were designed by God to naturally fit with men. And therefore, what we have is, “DEATH” and the process of dying that started when humanity decided to not worship God or even give him thanks, and they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused…
I want to end with some questions for us to ponder:
by John Dobbs (bio below)
Who am I to do such a thing?
I’m not good enough.
I don’t have what it takes.
Someone else would do it better.
When you have visions of great things you’d like to do for God, are your visions followed with thoughts like those above? If so, you are not alone. Those are the kinds of statements made by some of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, just before God used them to do incredible works. Men like Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah were normal people of faith being unshackled to do amazing things empowered by an awesome God.
I believe it is one of the tasks of faith to name the shackles that bind us and keep us from the things we would like to do for God. In naming them, we identify the reality and pry apart the grip they have on our lives. What is keeping you from doing something for God that you have dreamed of but never taken steps toward?
EXCUSES. If you are like me you get defensive when someone identifies your perfectly good reasons as ‘excuses’. We need to be honest with ourselves. Are we making up excuses so that we do not have to experience the potential of failure as we try to do something great for God?
I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child. - Jeremiah 1:6
SHAME. Maybe we think that if we try - and fail - in service to God that this is somehow a terrible thing. Jeremiah preached for forty years without a single recorded positive response to his messages. He struggled, but he didn’t quit trying.
I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. - Isaiah 6:5
SIN. The biggest shackle of all. We feel unqualified because we wrestle with sin - and maybe one ‘besetting sin’ - that just won’t go away. As we attempt to glorify God in our lives how easy it would be for someone to point out our flaws. They could paint us as a hypocrite. Sin takes feelings of shame and rationalizing excuses and forms a weapon that destroys our hearts.
Who am I ... What am I supposed to say? - Exodus 4:11,13
I encourage us all today to stop letting our shackles keep us from an exciting journey of faith. Yes, we need to name our shackles and identify them as weapons - weapons our enemy is using to diminish our work for God.
No weapon fashioned against you will succeed, and you may condemn every tongue that disputes with you. This is the heritage of the Lord’s servants, whose righteousness comes from me, says the Lord. - Isaiah 54:17
Read again the powerful armor God has provided every Christian to withstand the weapons of the enemy in Ephesians 6:10-18. Remind yourself of the power of the cross and the assurance of the resurrection to defeat sin and give you new life. Ultimately everything we do for God is not controlled by our hands. He uses us in ways we couldn’t have guessed. His surprises keep us attentive as we walk by faith. We will begin to notice that we are not, by our efforts, directing God’s work. When we walk by faith we are falling into His works in such a way that the old excuses, shame, and sin are remnants of the shackled life that is now free.
Be mindful that no one does this perfectly. Don’t ever let a failure keep you from taking the next step with God. He’s never used anyone who wasn’t a failure in some respect or another. Remember that you do not have to see the end of the story, you just need to walk in the story.
We live by faith and not by sight. - 2 Corinthians 5:7
John Dobbs is the minister of the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, Louisiana (http://facoc.org). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter (@johndobbs, @facoc) and Instagram (@bigpoppa1130). Weekly sermons can be heard at http://forsythechurch.podbean.com/ (or on Forsythe’s podcast on iTunes). Even with all of that social media, there’s a special place in his heart for his blog located at http://johndobbs.com. Happily married to Maggy for 30 years with two children and two grandchildren.
Today I was listening to Christian radio after thinking about this text in Matthew regarding the “unforgivable sin” and the speaker, John McArthur, a well-known voice in Bible study said that rejection of Jesus is the unforgivable sin. That is to say, if someone rejects Christ as Savior, then his or her destiny is Hell. Now, this is representative of what his claim was, and it puzzled me and I’ll explain by having you read a passage of scripture that is JESUS’ own words in the Gospel.
Matthew 12:31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
This is puzzling to me because Jesus actually contradicts the notion that those who reject Christ cannot be forgiven…and seems to place more emphasis on a more abstract notion of “blasphemy” or rejection of the Holy Spirit over and above His own treatment. So, if you are scratching your head, then you are in good company because I think this goes against the Evangelical notion that those who believe in the Lord will be saved and those who “believeth not” will be condemned. And this is why context is so important…in any scripture study that we can do! You might notice that our text begins with the word, “Therefore” and so as Mike Cope used to preach, when we see therefore we should stop and ask, “What is that there for?” So, leading up Jesus’ teaching on the unforgivable sin was this…
Matthew 12:22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
When the Pharisees heard it they decided that this could not be the work of the Holy Spirit but the work of the prince of demons. This is a striking judgment…one that is motivated by their need for power and control, enticed by their religious superiority, walled in from any experience of the divine that was outside their theological boundaries. The question that was raised by the people who saw the miracle was asking if Jesus was the Messiah or Son of David…and the Pharisees do not speak against Jesus, but against the power, or empowering force, that makes the miracle possible. Jesus sees into their thoughts and motivations, and provides a lecture correcting their terrible logic and even worse understanding of the spiritual world. Then comes the hammer…
Jesus essentially says, “It is one thing to question who I am and to make claims about my validity…but when you question the very working of God, that being the Holy Spirit, and judge God’s action to be something else, you make an eternal mistake.” It makes you wonder who would have that type of arrogance? Who would place themselves as judge over the actions of God? Well, the Pharisees would…that’s who and that is why Jesus speaks so harshly to them. You see, the unforgivable sin is not the one time rejection of Jesus, because as long as there is breath in our lungs, we can choose to come to Christ. Speaking against Christ was not the issue here, but the issue was making oneself the judge over the Son of God’s action, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The thing that is clear to me is that the unforgivable sin is not something that the faithless commit…because they are ignorant. I’m not suggesting they don’t sin, I’m simply suggesting that the Bible and Jesus do not argue that the lost, or those outside of Christ, act in a way that is beyond the forgiveness of God. Therefore I must also conclude that God forgives many of the sins that some of our more conservative thinkers might see as a challenge to the church's purity. So, who does? Well, whether it is this passage or the warnings in the book of Hebrews and elsewhere, it is the religious person whose righteousness is prized over the Lord God to the point that they become the judge of whether or not God is acting or working in a particular case…those are the ones most at risk of committing the unforgivable sin.
It seems that those who are empowered by the Holy Spirit and in Christ Jesus should be able to see God at work as discern it correctly. And yes, sometimes we miss it due to distraction or apathy or a myriad of other reasons. But that is not the same as a blatant condemnation of something God is doing among us that doesn’t fit our theology or our experience of religion. Let’s be cautious not to misrepresent the one who has been given as a gift to us empowering the work of God in our time, in our world.
In the writing of Zephaniah, there is a recurring theme of the “Day of the Lord.” Two points to be made about this “Day of the Lord” is, first, the prophets use it to point us to a particular moment in which the Lord’s intended order of things will replace the brokenness and corruption we know and live currently. Second, there may be several “Days of the Lord” before the grand and never changing “Day of the Lord” in which God’s justice and will correct a piece of the whole, but not the entirety of the world.
Zephaniah displays this in his oracles against nations and cities, using flood and fire language to talk about wiping them out and leaving them desolate for their arrogance and complacency. In fact, one line that stood out to me was from 1:12 which reads:
“I will search with lanterns in Jerusalem’s darkest corners
to punish those who sit complacent in their sins.
They think the Lord will do nothing to them,
either good or bad."
In the midst of this alarming and terrible imagery, there seems to always be a way out of the judgment that is eminent. For example, Zephaniah, shares this with the people at the beginning of chapter 2:1-3
Gather together—yes, gather together,
you shameless nation.
Gather before judgment begins,
before your time to repent is blown away like chaff.
Act now, before the fierce fury of the Lord falls
and the terrible day of the Lord’s anger begins.
Seek the Lord, all who are humble,
and follow his commands.
Seek to do what is right
and to live humbly.
Perhaps even yet the Lord will protect you--
protect you from his anger on that day of destruction.
One of the aspects that we must face in thinking about the “Day of the Lord” is the fact that God has feelings and the “Day of the Lord” is prompted by God’s pain and anger that peoples have not responded to God’s actions in their lives…God’s care and protection and victories have gone unappreciated. God speaks in Zephaniah 3:7 and listen to his words, you may even begin to sense the pain that God is feeling here:
I thought, ‘Surely they will have reverence for me now!
Surely they will listen to my warnings.
Then I won’t need to strike again,
destroying their homes.’
But no, they get up early
to continue their evil deeds.
I like the ESV that ends this verse by asserting: “But all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt.” So God has poured out his love, protection, and in the law a guide to help humans live a righteous life, and in return their actions have prompted this “Day of the Lord”
Yet, in the end we cannot simply see the “Day of the Lord” as purely negative, and we must flip the metaphorical coin over on the other side and see this event as a stoppage to the broken world and as a world that truly is full of God’s order. Some the verses in Zephaniah 3 speak to this order:
9 “Then I will purify the speech of all people,
so that everyone can worship the Lord together.
11 On that day you will no longer need to be ashamed,
for you will no longer be rebels against me.
I will remove all proud and arrogant people from among you.
There will be no more haughtiness on my holy mountain.
12 Those who are left will be the lowly and humble,
for it is they who trust in the name of the Lord.
17 For the Lord your God is living among you.
He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”
20 On that day I will gather you together
and bring you home again.
I will give you a good name, a name of distinction,
among all the nations of the earth,
as I restore your fortunes before their very eyes.
I, the Lord, have spoken!”
Yes, the “Day of the Lord” has a positive side, it is the world we long for and one that can only happen through the purifying work of the Lord. Which brings us to the notion that there are several “Days of the Lord” before we get to the ultimate and full “Day of the Lord” Every time we are called to deeper faith, greater service, purer hearts, and truthful speech, we are experiencing a “Day of the Lord” that is preparing us for the “Day of the Lord.” If we choose to obey and not rebel, then the “Day of the Lord” is not something to be feared and dreaded, but something to be celebrated and enjoyed. Lord, help us to hear your word, obey your will, and wait for your Day to come!
Something came along my news feed the other day proclaiming that Matthew 18:20 is one of five of the most misused verses in the New Testament by ministers. Yet, I’m not sure my father misused the passage given his particular bent that if the Bible says, and I believe it, than that settles it. Also, this verse was used as an encouragement for many evening services in which a majority of the congregation would choose not to congregate. It reads this way:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I among them.
It is the anthem of small church gatherings everywhere. This verse out of the Gospel reminds us that the size of the gathering doesn’t matter, and that Christ is indeed with his followers regardless of the number. However, to truly read the Bible as God’s Word and strive to take it seriously, we must consider the context of Jesus’ saying here. I other words, does this verse truly apply to evening services of the church in which only a few choose to attend?
To answer this question, we must expand our quotation to the entire passage that is broken out as a paragraph for us by those who have translated and put together our bibles. Therefore, we will look at Matthew 18:15-20:
15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. 19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
Immediately, we should see that this instruction from Matthew really has very little to do with church events, and much more to do with church community…that is relationships among believers. It starts off…”If another believer sins against you…” and then proceeds to lay out a plan of action. We will get to the plan in a minute, but what needs to be stressed is that when a plan of action is carried out, there will be believers who will not agree with the action taken. Yet, Jesus makes a really strong statement that we must not only understand, but use it as a barometer for what is appropriate and godly for believers to engage in. Jesus says that there is a direct correlation between what is permitted and forbidden in the church, and what is permitted and forbidden in heaven. Jesus clarifies that with a serious, “I tell you the truth.” The encouragement comes to those who are trying to restore the person back to the congregation…Jesus tells them that once these steps have been taken and there has been pain, prayer, and pastoring; The end result may or may not be to the liking of the group, but Jesus is there among them.
So when times get rough and people hurt each other and it makes an impact on the church, Jesus is there is the agreement and efforts of those who have come together to help a believer in Jesus live the Christian, or heavenly Kingdom, life. Now, As far as we have come, there is a message of grace to the leaders of the church and the victims of the offense…Jesus is there with them. One of the things that must be stressed is that that dignity and harmony of the church is prioritized over the individual in sin. Jesus message is clear, persons fall into sin, but the church must be a community that confronts sin and loves these persons back to the life of righteousness. With that point made, there is a message of grace for those who would be the offender in this scenario.
If you have sinned against a fellow believer, that believer is not given license to gossip or spread information about you…that person is to come to you and tell you what has happened. If that doesn’t resolve the problem, then they gather some of your friends to talk with you regarding the sin, notice that these friends serve as witnesses and not a firing squad. They listen to both sides of the dispute and provide counsel as to how this might be resolved. If that fails, then the whole church gathers to hear the dispute and if the matter is still unresolved, then someone could get removed from the community of believers because the last thing the church wants is a sinner who is unwilling to confess and humble themselves in the guidance and protection of the church. So, the message of grace is twofold in this plan of action; first, a person who has a problem with you is never grounds for your dismissal from the church because of arbitrary drama or hasty reaction and second, at any point there is a confession of sin then the matter is resolved because that is what Jesus asks of us is to simply own our sin.
You can imagine that those who are caught up in the middle of such disputes will question there actions and even begin to wonder about there prayers…because relationships in the church are sticky at times, and even brothers and sisters can have deep seated anger and resentment. That is why Jesus reminds those in the thick of things that He is there with them and that in their agreement they will find a pathway back to the Kingdom of God…a place where every citizen belongs, and a place that deserves our best efforts to be peacefully in community with each other.
So while I do not think that this verse applied directly to the small church crowds and should not be used as a slogan for a church group who is small thinking that they are doing the right thing by hosting small numbers. Jesus is in the large numbers too… I do think that this can be an encouragement for those who are motivated to help others in their discipleship, especially within a culture that puts much more emphasis on individual fulfillment than it does community engagement. The Kingdom of God is a church community, not an idealized individual progress plan. That can be found in other religions, but not the one Christ died for…Christ died for a group, not so he would be fulfilled, but so we together might find fulfillment through him in having a true and real relationship with God. So, where a few gather in the name of Jesus, God is present!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.