Wandering the savage garden…

July 2012Monthly Archives

Romans 6:1-14: Dead to Sin, Alive in Christ

The Bible study this week in Romans focuses on the first part of chapter 6 of Romans, a pretty well-known piece of scripture if memory serves. (It was one of the parts of Romans I could quote before I really started getting into the New Testament, which is the best barometer I have for such things.)

It contains an interaction Paul had with a hypothetical question in response to the closing of the previous parts of the letter to the Romans, in what we see as chapter 5, in which Paul says that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Romans 5:20, ESV).

You see this a lot in Christian circles, especially in affluent circles, where people point out the spirituality of oppressed people in third world countries: “They trust in God and see His work among them! Even in their oppression, they are blessed!”

The problem with this expression isn’t that it’s not true – it’s that it tends to engender a question of why the one offering that expression hasn’t gone to be oppressed themselves, such that they can experience God more authentically.

“Should we not also consider ourselves oppressed, such that we can force ourselves to depend on God all the more?”

…except the answer is, typically, “No, of course not.” We might want the hand of God in our lives, but we are rarely willing to offer ourselves suffering in order to see that hand.

Is that proper? I don’t think so – I think the key is to remember to thank God for our circumstances, even in our pleasant circumstances. We feel guilty that we do little to alleviate the suffering of others, and that’s probably a good thing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are to punish ourselves for the riches that God has granted us… as long as we remember that God has granted us those riches.

So: back to Romans 6! Paul offered a statement that where sin was multiplied, grace was multiplied also, creating the question of whether one should sin more such that grace would grow even that much more. (“Grace is a good thing; if sin increases grace, is sin therefore not ‘good’ as well?”)

We don’t know if Paul was literally asked this question or not. He may have been, but the form of Romans is as a letter, not as a series of responsum. Paul was a thorough and rather nitpicky thinker (I don’t have any experience with this, personally! Oh, wait…) and more likely anticipated the question as a logical extension of his previous wording, so responded to the potential question.

And what was the response? The response goes back to a condition, a status. Paul says in the first part of Romans 6 that we are dead and raised with Christ:

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:5-7, ESV)

We are united with Christ in His resurrection, and united with Him in His death as well.

The metaphor is one of baptism: baptism, or the mikveh (מִקְוֶה), is given as a picture of death to what wasis.

It’s a transition: the mikveh is a transition from impurity to purity. Baptism is a transition from a former state to a new, pure state. We enter the water as Yona did, in defiance of God and dying in our sin, to enter the great fish, the דג גדול, which symbolizes death. We leave death behind, and enter a new life of obedience.

(A crucial difference is that a mikveh is a continual immersion; an Orthodox adherent to Judaism undergoes a mikveh regularly, and women use it based on their menstrual cycle, as it’s part of the purification post-menses. Few Christians undergo repeated and/or constant baptism. Your mileage may vary on the metaphor’s appropriateness; personally, I see the mikveh as part of repentance.)

So Paul constructs the picture of death and life, with life freeing us from the bonds that held us before our deaths to our old selves: as those bonds are sin and the result of sin, we are to act as if we are no longer held to our sinful natures.

Does that mean we never sin? No. Yet it means our master is Christ, and we should strive to let Him lead our lives, repenting our trespasses and living in such a way that we honor Him, and not sin.

Inreach

We actually did not do our regular Romans study last Friday night. We had initially planned to have a regular small group get-together, with music and a study on Romans 6, with a few minor changes as three of the teens in the group (some of our kids) are out on a missions trip, but my wife and I had been discussing doing something a little different…

One of the decisions made early in the life of the small group was to focus on studying the Bible, and to let bonds within the group form organically. People would gravitate to each other given time, and with a limited number of connections, people would naturally form ties to everyone, creating a strong (and natural) group.

However, that’s a very slow process – and without constant presence, it’s even slower. (It’s more time than it could be, when you meet for a few hours every week… but it’s nowhere near the time given to, say, kids in grade school. They have hours every day that they can use for this kind of thing.)

So we thought we’d skip the music this week, and use the time (normally twenty minutes or so) to do an inreach, a chance for us to really focus on getting to know someone in the group.

What we set off to do was pretty simple: we’d put all our names in a hat, and draw one at random; that person would then give a short testimony about themselves, and then the whole group would ask them questions. The idea was that everyone would get to ask a question, and the person could answer as they chose, hopefully with an open heart so we could get to see that person for who they really are, without all the armor we normally wear.

It didn’t quite work out that way; I’d originally envisioned people going around the room clockwise, because that way everyone knew they’d have a turn (and they would have to value their turn). Everyone was able to ask questions, but it was rather random and undisciplined.

That said, it went well. It’s interesting seeing the things someone things are the crucial events and factors in their own lives; sometimes you get to peek under the hood to see not who they think they are, but who they really are. That’s where you can actually find someone’s heart and connect with them.

That’s where you really get to know them and not the façade they put up for others.

For one example question, “What’s your favorite color?” It’s green, with blue being a close second. But this is a fairly revealing answer, even though it’s a trivial question!

It says I’m the kind of person who has a favorite color. Perhaps this indicates a certain immaturity on my part, or a childlike demeanor in some ways. (I’m pretty dour; “childlike demeanor” might apply to some stratae of my personality, but certainly wouldn’t be a generic description… unless you were used to really sarcastic, dour kids.)

But just like an infomercial, there’s more: why green? Why is blue a second-favorite? What about those colors attracts me to them? Considering that blue is the Jewish color representing divinity, why is blue my second-favorite? Why wouldn’t it be my favorite? (It’s because I prefer woods to sea and sky, although I definitely love open water.)

That’s just a simple throwaway question, of course. What do you think will happen if someone asks something like “What do you consider to be your greatest struggles in life?”

Of course, some people will dodge some questions, not being open or vulnerable enough to address them… and that’s all right. The whole point of this exercise is not to force someone to be open or vulnerable; it’s to create an opportunity for future transparency.

Sometimes the knowledge that someone is unable or unwilling to talk about something is just as relevant as what they would say about that subject if they were willing to speak.

One last suggestion I’d like to add: let the person speak on their own. If you know someone well, feel free to ask a question that answers something you are interested in – but don’t spend your time guiding the person down a line of thought. It’s their turn to speak as they wish, and modifying their time for them focuses the attention on you, rather than them, even if they’re doing all the answering… let them drive themselves, because otherwise people see them through a reflection of your interests, and that’s not the point.

The Impact We Have on Others

Last Sunday, our pastor taught on 1 Timothy 3:1-16, which covers the requirements for being overseers (or “bishops”) and deacons in the church – leaders, basically, with different roles.

The term translated as “bishop” or “overseer” is Επισκοπῶν (“episkopon”), which is a supervisor. The role being described here has two other terms associated with it: πρεσβυτερίου (“presbuteriou”) in 1Tim 4:14, or “elder,” and ποιμένας (“poimenas,” “pastors”) in Ephesians 4:11 and others.

The description of the requirements for being an overseer really affected me, and it highlighted a conflict I don’t yet know how to resolve.

The requirements for an overseer can be seen in terms of external and internal loci, meaning that their focus (or “place,” which is what locus means) is either internal or external.

An overseer must be:

  1. above reproach (external locus)
  2. the husband of one wife (internal locus)
  3. sober-minded (internal locus)
  4. self-controlled (internal)
  5. respectable (external)
  6. hospitable (internal)
  7. able to teach (internal)
  8. not a drunkard (internal)
  9. not violent but gentle (internal)
  10. not quarrelsome (internal)
  11. not a lover of money (internal)
  12. must manage his own household well (internal)
  13. must not be a recent convert (internal)
  14. must be well thought of by outsiders (external)

A “locus” in this case refers to who controls the validity of an attribute. You control your ability to cleave to one mate; therefore, “the husband of one wife” is an internal locus. Likewise, you control your own self-control; internal locus.

Some attributes are controlled by others, though.

Others can quarrel with you, but you have the ability to respond with kindness and not argue back in passion; therefore, “not quarrelsome” is an internal locus of control.

That said, “well thought of by outsiders…” — for better or for worse, that’s something the outsiders control, not you.

You can act in a way such that outsiders should think well of you, but that doesn’t mean they will think well of you. What’s more, the Bible even suggests that we’ll be hated for His sake, which makes fulfillment of this requirement even more difficult.

Our pastor did walk through each of these in order, and I’m certainly not qualified to be an overseer even according to those factors for which I am entirely responsible, even through Christ’s help.

Yet the requirements that stood out to me, the ones that bother me the most, are the ones with external control.

Two circumstances play out here, applying to two different people (one of whom was me.)

As an example, consider: recently I chose to leave an IRC channel entirely. I’ve been struggling with some things lately, a matter of circumstance. The circumstances themselves aren’t very important, of course, but I mentioned my struggles in this IRC channel.

The response I received was enlightening, but not helpful. I was castigated for caring about these circumstances.

The interesting thing here is not that what the person castigating me was telling me was wrong. They were right, realistically; the things I’m enduring are frustrating, but in the end they’re a testament to the provision of God that these things are things I can easily handle and correct.

The issue I had was the delivery; it was offered in such a way that it was an insult to my character and witness, even though the reason I was saying it in the first place was because I was hurting in a mild way and needed support.

The response I received indicated that I’d failed the requirements for an overseer, as per 1Tim 3:7, which states that an overseer must be well thought of by others.

Another example, hopefully obscured sufficiently: someone was describing some difficult circumstances, saying that they were hurting. The response this person received was similar: a biting attack rather than a recognition of pain.

The thing about pain is that regardless of whether the pain is justified or not, it’s still pain.

The quandary I have is that I don’t know how to really understand 1Tim 3:7 in such a way that these responses don’t indicate a failure of compliance with the requirements of being an overseer. It’s not that everyone is called to be an overseer or pastor; I know I’m not! Yet compliance is a desirable thing, I think.

The observation I have is that I need to make sure that I’m not acting in such a way that others feel as I do right now, that a failure to meet an external requirement is laid at my feet without due cause.

Thoughts for being leaders for our families

The men’s study for Monday nights has started back up. This week, the fellow speaking (one of my church’s pastors) asked for a more interactive session, where men contributed some of their ideas for being “lead learners” for their families.

The text was the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

In English, from the ESV:

4“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

This particular pastor was a teaching pastor at his church years ago, and had this position despite being a “pioneer Christian,” meaning a Christian whose family was not Christian, and who had no family support or education in the faith. A mentor told him that he should become the “lead learner” for his church, meaning one who learns first and teaches as he learns.

It’s worth pointing out that this pastor is a fine man, a strong Christian, an honest person who is a wonderful example of an overseer in the tradition of 1 Timothy 3:1-7. He blesses those around him.

So he went into the Shema as a source text, showing us that this core statement of Judaism (and thus Christianity, being echoed by Jesus as the “Greatest Commandment” in Matthew 22:35-40) tells us, as leaders of our families, to be the same “lead learners,” to focus on our own lives in Christ such that we can help others in our families as well.

It was interesting feedback. From memory, and thus poorly quoted and incomplete to boot:

  • Find a mentor.
  • Love the Bible, and study it.
  • Study with your family.
  • Discipline yourself to make study a regular occurrence.

I wanted to add “be willing to fail” to the list – because one of the things I want my sons to know is that the attempt is the thing, not success. That isn’t to say that I want to try to fail, because I don’t.

But I want my sons to see me picking myself up, returning to the task until it’s finished or I have an alternative solution. I want them to see my dedication to accomplishment; I don’t want them to think any failure is the same as all failure.

One thing I’ve started doing recently: I’ve started praying with my family. I started taking time to pray for my family a few months ago, but they don’t see me praying for them; it’s something I can say that I do, without actually doing it.

But if I pray with them, they see the evidence of me taking the time, instead of thinking I’m spending some abstract moment perhaps in prayer for them – they know, without a doubt, that I’m committing time and energy to prayer, they see how I pray and when I pray.

They may not follow my example. They may not even believe my sincerity; that’s all right. Time will heal every issue there, by the grace of God. I just want them to see real evidence of someone taking time to pray for and with them, so that some day they might remember that old, grey, broken-down fellow who took the time to care, and lead the best he could.

And who knows? My sincere hope is that some day they exceed me in every way – and they now see the bar I’m trying to set in my own life.