Thursday, November 26, 2009

Romans 1:16, Part 4

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

In order to understand how the Jews, or any other people for that matter, have become a favored or a select nation to God, we have to understand something about the nature of covenants. The English word “covenant” derives from the Latin roots “con” and “venire” that mean “gather together”, with the added sentiment of “doing so by invitation”. When Jesus beckoned to those about him and said, “Come, follow me”, he was inviting his disciples to enter into a formal covenant with him. These invitations to be reconciled with God the eternal Father through His Son, Jesus Christ, have been extended since the days of Adam and Eve. Needless to say, those who have accepted the invitation have been blessed beyond measure.

The culmination of all of the covenants that can be offered to the sons of men is that which involves the duration of the posterity of the covenanters. Adam and Eve were promised that no matter what else happened to their children, a remnant would be preserved alive through all trial and tribulation. This promise was spectacularly fulfilled during the great flood wherein all of the inhabitants of the earth save eight perished in the waters. Noah obtained the same blessing, as did Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Portions of their descendants would receive certain invariable blessings because their fathers had been faithful and true to the covenants into which they had entered.

Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, was promised that through his loins would come the promised Messiah, the Son of God who would redeem the world. Thus, no matter what else happened to his vast posterity, no matter how much death and destruction prevailed against his children, there would be a remnant preserved who would eventually be the means by which salvation would come. This was literally fulfilled in the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Joseph, another one of the sons of Israel, received similar promises regarding the blessings that would come into the world,by means of his children, at the time just prior to the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, assuring him that his family line would not die out. Needless to say, in order to keep these covenant promises to His faithful servants, extraordinary measures would need to be taken to protect certain segments of the families of these men.

In any given dispensation, therefore, the first who were given an opportunity to receive the covenants received by their righteous fathers, were the surviving descendants of those servants of God. The Jews and the other remnants of the House of Israel were given the first opportunity to receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the time of the Savior’s mortal ministry because their faithful ancestors were promised by God that it would be so, as part of their eternal covenants with the Father and the Son. In the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times, the dispensation in which we live, the restored Gospel was first delivered to remnants of the family of Joseph, the son of Jacob, because that blessing had been promised to him while he dwelt in the land of Egypt.

Thus, people, kindreds, and tongues may receive preferential treatment from God, not because of any intrinsic worth or personal righteousness on their part, but because their ancestors had been faithful.

To our knowledge, the Greeks derived from ancestors who at some point had rejected the fullness of the Gospel of Christ and therefore had no covenantal promise to protect or prefer them over any other body of men. Hence, we observe Paul’s practice of first preaching to the Jews of any city before turning to the Greeks and the Romans who lived there. The Greeks had every right to receive all of the blessings that God had prepared for His children, but they could not usurp the promises made to goodly men generations before by which the Jews had a right to hear the truth first.

The English word “Gentile” derives from Latin roots that mean “countryman, kindred, of the same family”. Ironically, the Jews referred to “Gentiles” as those who did not belong to their immediate family. Many other religious groups have come to use the word in a similar fashion, regardless of ethnicity or history. To the people of Workmen’s Circle, I was a Gentile boy; in the same spirit, I suppose I could have said the same of them. Thus are the vagaries of semantics.

As an addendum, I am reminded of an incident that took place in Israel when my wife and I visited there in 1982. Our main guide throughout the Holy Land was a young woman named Susie. As I recall she originally hailed from Boston, but had felt inspired to immigrate to Israel. At some point in our travels, she pulled me aside and said, “You know, you people are different from all of the other religious groups that I have taken on tour in Israel. I can’t figure it out.”

I replied, “Well, part of it may be that this is our ancestral homeland. To us, we have, in a very real way, come home.”

“Oh! Then you are Jews, too!”

“Not exactly. Jacob had twelve sons, two of whom were Judah and Joseph. You are descended from Judah, I and my friends are descended from Joseph, most from his son Ephraim.”

“Oh! Then you are Jews, too!”

We talked about this for some time; I am not certain that I ever made myself clear. For Susie, anyone who pertained to the House of Israel was part of the covenant family and, therefore, a Jew. That was a wonderful connection for me, notwithstanding her misunderstanding of the terminology. I have a deep and abiding affection for the Jews throughout the world, not because I washed dishes and scrubbed pots for them as a boy, but because they are my literal cousins, part of my family, part of an eternal covenant which God honors even at this hour.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Romans 1:16, Part 3

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

I am as certain as I live and breathe that this last phrase was never part of the curriculum of my Daily Vacation Bible School course. I can remember no instance of direct anti-Semitism in the Canyon where I grew up, but what I do remember was the complete absence of any discussion whatsoever about the Jews in connection with the Old and New Testaments. I was in my late teens or early twenties before anyone of my acquaintance ever observed that Jesus was a Jew, or that the Apostles were Jews. For some odd reason, Judaism never was a topic in a religious discussion.

Racial bias was almost totally unknown in my childhood and I was practically clueless even as a young adult. In the Chino schools, I can only recall one black student, and he was well-liked. I spent the first through the eleventh grade in an academic community where half of the population was Mexican or of Hispanic descent. As a boy, I mingled with the brown kids as freely as I did with the white kids. I did not perceive that there was any difference between them. Later in high school, it became clear that there was animosity between the two groups, and even violence, but I was not involved in any of the hostilities and no one asked me to take sides. I cannot imagine anyone being more color-blind than I was as a child.

Religious bias, however, did exist. The Baptists and the other protestants who directed the affairs at the little non-denominational church in Sleepy Hollow were decidedly anti-Catholic, which on more than one occasion caused conflicts among the kids riding the bus to school. There were a couple of Catholic families in the Canyon who took umbrage at the anti-papist rhetoric, made their feelings known in no uncertain terms to the minister, and the furor subsided. When Jack Kennedy ran for the Presidency of the United States, his religious orientation became a short-lived issue much like the ones in the Canyon: it flared up and then quickly subsided.

There was another bias that existed in my childhood which was as real to me as anything I experienced as a boy: left-handedness. In the elementary school where I first learned my letters, left-handedness was persecuted. It was not allowed and the teachers went to great lengths to eradicate it from the classroom. My attention was particularly drawn to this issue because of my own writing problems. I wrote with a big hand; that is to say, I was so clumsy that I could not get the letters to fit inside the blue lines of our writing paper. My teacher fussed with me day after day, attempting to make me conform to the standard. The other aspiring writers who received her attention were the lefties. I have always have tried to blame my peculiar scrawl on that teacher and I have been sympathetic to every left-handed person I have ever met. What was wrong with being left-handed? I never understood the concern until I took Spanish. The right hand is the “la derecha”; the left hand is “la sinestre”. There was something “sinister” about being left-handed. Sixty years later, the sinister nature of left-handedness seems laughable, but in 1950 the teachers were in dead-earnest. The odd thing is that no one ever said to anyone that being left-handed was inherently evil.

It was the same way with the Jews in the Canyon. I cannot recall anyone ever saying that Jews were inherently evil, but the prevailing sentiment was as if they were all left-handed. Not two miles from Sleepy Hollow was a facility called “Workmen’s Circle”. It was rather like a resort, established by American Jews of German extraction. I worked there as a dishwasher and pot scrubber in the kitchen. I think that I started out at fifty cents an hour. I learned a great number of Yiddish words, most of which I think are inappropriate for polite company. I liked being among the people there, even though the work was hard. I took to wearing white clothes on Fridays because that is what everyone there did. I knew nothing about the Jewish religion or why Saturday was so special to them. Once I started working there, however, I was treated a little differently than I had been before by the kids on the bus, like I was left-handed. The father of one of the girls who rode the bus to school was one of the caretakers of the place and I recall that she was considered left-handed, too, even though she had perfect right-handed penmanship.

As I grew older, I learned where this subtle notion about the Jews came from. Judas Iscariot was a Jew, the only disciple from Judea, or so the pundits taught. The betrayer of Jesus was presumed to be, of all of the Apostles, left-handed, inasmuch as he was the most sinister. As I studied world history, I learned of the great atrocities that had been committed against the Jews in the name of Christianity, justified in large measure because the Jews crucified Jesus. I had read the New Testament and knew that the Romans were also directly involved in the Savior’s demise. Why were not Italians treated as roughly as were the Jews? I knew that Jesus and the other eleven Apostles were also Jews by birth and nationality. Why had that not ever been a topic of discussion? Was there more than one kind of Jew? What did modern Jews have to do with the death of Jesus? Were they culpable for the sins of their fathers? If the Jews were so evil in the days of the Jesus and the Apostles, why then did Paul say that the Jews were first in line to have the power of God unto salvation? And who in the world were the Gentiles? These were issues that troubled me for a long time until I came to a knowledge of the truth. Understanding the significance of that final phrase in Romans 1:16 has made all the difference in the world to me. I will attempt to explain in Part 4.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Romans 1:16, Part 2

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

I have to say at the outset that any quibbling about the difference between “faith” and “belief” is bootless. The English word “faith” derives from Latin roots, “belief” from Germanic ones. They mean essentially the same thing. To say that “belief” is “passive, while “faith” is "active" is a useful distinction for English speakers, under some circumstances, but there is no such clever distinction in the Greek.

I do not think that a Sunday ever passed by in my childhood when there was not someone saying to me that I ought to “believe”. I am certain that when I was attending Daily Vacation Bible School that the teachers reinforced that notion, that if I ever hoped to be “saved” I would have to “believe”. For a long time I was not altogether sure what was expected of me. Did I merely need to be intellectually aware of what it meant to be saved? Did I merely need to know something substantial about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ? Was knowing the facts of the matter the same thing as knowing the truth of those facts? If there was the difference, how was it possible for me to know what the truth was?

Intellectual inquiry is relative easy; I did that all the time in school. If my teacher was personable and engaging, I generally accepted what that man or woman taught without much fuss. Fussing the classroom would come later.

“Faith”, according to Paul, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”, or as it is translated in another place, “the assurance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1). I am certain that this verse in Hebrews was another one of the DVBS scriptures. I cannot imagine understanding this sublime passage at age eight or nine. How can one be “assured” or have “evidence”, if there is nothing to be seen or if there is nothing more than “hope” in the heart or mind? Science does not work that way. If I am in a chemistry laboratory, how can I “know” or be “assured” beforehand that the experiment is going to work just as it was outlined? Someone else may say to me, “Well, I have done this experiment a thousand times and I have never failed to get the proper result”. That is all very well and good, but someone else’s success is not necessarily mine, particularly if I have been a bungler of the first water in everything else I have ever done. I might be encouraged by an experienced party, but I cannot be “assured” success by a fellow student.

Can any man know the future as well as he knows the past, so that “assurance” can be complete? That question, actually, is at the heart of the matter. If I perform the chemistry experiment correctly, quantifying all of the results, I can say afterwards, “I know that this procedure works, for I have done it myself”. Can I know ahead of time that I am going to be successful in some endeavor, as certain as I am afterward? Yes! That is what constitutes true faith. It is substantive foreknowledge. The “evidence of things not seen” works essentially the same way. Can I see an event before it takes place? Yes! That is what constitutes the full weight and measure of the calling of a faithful prophet, seer, and revelator. The eye of faith sees in to the past and into the future with equal facility, and perceives the truth of any event, together with its connection with every other element of truth. A prophet living a thousand years before an event takes place can be as certain of all that would happen as if he had lived every second of the event. This is the power and effect of true faith. Is everyone equipped with this sort of faith? Apparently not, for there are multitudes who assert that it is not possible for any man to know the future.

What did Paul know and understand through faith that assured him of salvation. As far as the reality of the resurrection is concerned, Saul of Taurus had seen with his own eyes and heard with his own ears the personage and voice of the Lord Jesus Christ while on the road to Damascus. He therefore knew that resurrection was possible. How did he know that he himself would be resurrected? He certainly must have “hoped” to be resurrected. From whence came his personal “assurance”? Paul’s early life had been filled with deeds that would later bring him to grief. He had persecuted the Christian disciples, arresting them and hauling them off to prison, where some of them later died. Once he understood that his actions were offensive to God, he was struck with terrible guilt. When the prophet Ananias came to him and blessed him so that he could recover his eyesight, Paul learned for himself that it was possible to have one’s deepest guilt swept away through repentance and divine forgiveness. At what point did Paul know that all of his subsequent efforts were acceptable to the Lord. The forgiveness for his past sins was a fait accompli. How did he know that he would eventually find grace in the sight of God and be received into His presence with rejoicing? He saw in the future that it would be so, the Lord God of Israel testifying to him on the day of judgment that his life was in order. This eternal success could only be perceived by the eye of faith.

How does one acquire faith unto salvation? The formula is simple, though the experiment is somewhat lengthy.

First, a man must intellectually accept that there is such a being as God. This is usually a conscious decision, even though children generally are aware of the fact almost from birth. An atheist, by the way, has forced this default state of mind from his philosophy. With one’s temporal eyes open, with the acquisition of more and more awareness, even the most hardened unbeliever is persuaded that there is more going on in the universe other than his own self-awareness.

The second principle of faith unto salvation is a correct understanding the characteristics, attributes, and perfections of that God who had been intellectually allowed. Some of this knowledge comes through study, but most comes by obedience to the commandments given by God to His children. We learn for ourselves that His desires for us are not malignant, but rather are the product of an infinite and eternal love for us. We learn, too, that He is as His commandments suggest. He cautions us against immorality, perjury, and covetousness, because He exhibits nothing of these flaws in His own conduct.

The third principle of faith unto salvation is to know for ourselves that our course of life is acceptable unto Him. That can only come as a result of Him speaking with us, assuring us that we have found grace in His sight. There is no more poignant aspect of the need for personal revelation than in its contribution to our personal salvation.

Faith, in the end, is a gift of God that can be acquired in no other way than that which the Father of All has established. The first principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God, for without it, repentance, forgiveness, and the redeeming covenants are impossible.