Comments, Observations, and Questions
We’re almost there. The journey is almost ended. Joseph and Mary are nearing Bethlehem; the manger is in view for us now. The long period of waiting is nearly over, so in this lectionary reading from the epistles we turn from eschatology to doxology. As the angels will soon fill the night sky over Bethlehem with the cry, “Glory to God in the highest,” Paul calls us to give glory to God right here on earth for the incredibly complicated thing God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. It’s a fitting end to Paul’s long journey through the dense woods of great theology in Romans and a rousing conclusion to Advent. We can stop waiting now and give full voice to our praise– “to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ.”
As I turned this theologically thick doxology over and over in my mind, trying to find a way to preach it, my attention kept returning to that word “wise.” On this last Sunday of Advent, Paul calls us to praise God for his wisdom. That’s not the attribute of God I would have chosen as a summary of all God has done in Jesus Christ. I would have focused on love, or grace, or mercy. Or being an old fashioned Reformed preacher I might have talked about the shadow side of those attributes, about justice done or wrath satisfied or holiness displayed. But as Paul ends his great theological treatise in which he covers all those attributes of God, he focuses on God’s wisdom. Why?
Well, think about how often we ask the great question, “Why, O God?” We don’t ask that in wonder because things have gone so well. We ask it in agony because we simply cannot understand why God allowed such awful things to happen to us and to his world. Why ebola? Why beheadings? Why the death of a child? We cannot fathom the reason for these things and we, frankly, disapprove of God’s allowing them. What was he thinking? What kind of God rules a world so full of suffering? Paul says, “the only wise God.” And rather than criticizing or questioning God, we should give him the glory.
Paul has said the same thing earlier in Romans, as he concluded his complicated explanation of God’s dealings with the Jews vis a vis the Gentiles. Remember how he ended that section? “Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths are beyond tracing out. Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:33-34) Now at the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul summarizes the wisdom of God in this tightly packed, theologically dense doxology. In essence, Paul wants us to give God all the glory for his wisdom displayed in the mystery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps if we unpack this doxology, we’ll join Paul in his shout of praise as we approach the manger.
He begins by identifying God as “him who is able to establish you….” If Paul ends with a focus on the wisdom of God, he begins with God’s power (dunameno). After explaining the doctrines of salvation in great depth, Paul ends with this assurance that the Romans will not lose their salvation. By his great power, God will preserve his saints. We may not be able to hold on to God through all the challenges of our journey, but God is able to hold on to us. The one who brought us to faith will establish us in that faith to the end.
God will establish us “by my gospel” or, more accurately, “according (kata) to my gospel.” It was by means of the Gospel that God brought us to faith; “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) And it will be by the preaching of the Gospel that God will keep us in the faith. God exercises his saving power through the Gospel; it is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16) I can’t think of a more powerful argument for regular church attendance. This is why there is no salvation apart from the church. Here is the first demonstration of God’s wisdom. The power of God to save the world works through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Who would ever have guessed such a thing?
But that’s just the beginning of the mystery that shows God’s wisdom. The very heart of the mystery is Jesus himself. Paul speaks of “my Gospel” not because he invented it, but because it was given to him by God (cf. the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9). Lest there be any doubt about the nature of the gospel, Paul says it is “the proclamation (kerygma) of Jesus Christ.” In a world that proclaimed many ways of salvation, Paul and the rest of the early church insisted that there is just one way. Here’s another part of God’s wisdom. The power of God to save the world works only through Jesus Christ. Is that a restricting message! Only one? Paul didn’t see it that way. It was a liberating message. There is a way for everyone regardless of where they begin.
That universality of God’s mysterious plan is where Paul goes next in his explication of God’s wisdom. “The proclamation of Jesus Christ” is “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….” What was the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed? If Ephesians 3:3 and Colossians 1:26 are any indication, the mystery was that the Gentiles will be saved as completely as the Jews. Even they will have “Christ in them, the hope of glory.” That great truth had been revealed through the prophetic writings, but in a way that wasn’t clearly understood by the Jews. But now that the Jewish Messiah has come, the apostles preached about him using those prophecies that were formerly obscure. For example, think of the frequent use of Isaiah 53 or Psalm 110 throughout the New Testament.
Calvin put it well many years ago. “Although the prophets had formerly taught all that Christ and the apostle have explained, yet they taught it so much more obscurely, when compared to the shining clarity of the Gospel, that we need not be surprised if those things that are now revealed are said to have been hidden… We may, however, more properly conclude from the subject itself that only when God appeared to his ancient people face to face through his only begotten Son, were the shadows disbursed and the treasures of heavenly wisdom finally opened.”
Here, again, we see the wisdom of God in using formerly obscure prophecies to make clear what he had now done in Jesus Christ. We should not think that because God’s ways are unclear to us at this moment, they have no meaning in his good plan. What seems mysterious now will be revealed as part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In him, God is accomplishing his good purpose even when we can’t see it. Preaching the Gospel faithfully means using the obscurity of the prophets to reveal God’s wise plan to save us.
Paul reminds us that in his wisdom God intended to use the Jews to save all nations. Over the years, many of the Jews had forgotten this, even though God had announced it at the very beginning of his covenant dealings with them (Gen. 12:3) and reminded them again and again in the prophets. They had been called to “the obedience of faith,” and they saw that as a great privilege. But God always intended to use their obedience to draw the world to himself. Rather than overwhelm the world with his power, God chose one little nation to be the light that would draw the nations to himself. When Israel failed to be that light, the time was right to send “The Word” to be “the light of the world.” (John 1)
The light shined in the darkness, so that all nations might “believe and obey him.“ The Greek there in verse 26 is literally “the obedience of faith,” a pregnant expression that might mean the obedience that springs from faith or the obedience that is faith. I think the latter is more correct, though the former is true as well. What God demands of us first of all is faith. When the Philippian jailer asked what he had to do to be saved, Paul replied, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” That’s the obedience of faith, and God wants all the nations to come to such obedience and be saved. God’s ways in the world among the nations might make us ask, “Why, God?” But Paul assures us that God in his wisdom is saving the world, drawing men and women from all nations to himself.
Paul concludes that we ought to give God glory because of Jesus Christ, or through Jesus Christ. The Greek order here makes this hard to figure out. Paul says literally, “to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be glory forever.” Does he mean that we ought to give God glory because of what he has gone through Jesus? Or does he mean that we see God’s wisdom in what he has done through Jesus? Probably both are true. But I like the idea that we see God’s wisdom most clearly through Jesus. Recall how Paul speaks of Jesus in I Corinthians 1:30: “in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”
Think of it this way. Wisdom is practical and effective knowledge, not just head knowledge, but life knowledge, the best application of means to achieve an end. We say of a wise person, “She knows how to get things done so that life works,” as opposed to a highly educated, intelligent, knowledgeable person who “doesn’t have a clue about how to live in a right way.” In God’s wisdom, God knew how to get things done, how to make us right in his sight, holy in our lives, and completely reconciled to God. The only way to accomplish all that was through Jesus Christ. Through him, God makes individual lives and the history of the world work the way they are supposed to work. Jesus is the wisdom of God.
So, through him, we give God the glory for his wisdom. Who but God could have dreamed up and executed such an unusual, complicated, and effective plan to save the world he loved. As we gaze into the manger this week, let us join the angels in singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” As I Peter 1:10-12 says, “angels long to look” into the mystery of salvation that has now been revealed to us in Christ.
How can we glorify the God who already has all the glory? What can that mean? The other day I read a report about the first official scrimmage of the Cleveland Cavaliers since LeBron James rejoined that team. Everyone already knows that James is the best player in the National Basketball Association. Accolades have been heaped upon him ever since he began to play basketball. He already has all the glory. But the article described how glorious James was in this first scrimmage—how he passed, how he rebounded, how he dunked, how he shot, how he defended, how the whole team was better because he was there. This report proclaimed the glory of LeBron James in a way that made him seem even more glorious. His glory was magnified for all to see. That’s what Paul calls us to do with God in our own lives and in the world. Give him the glory because of his wisdom displayed in Jesus Christ.
In his magnificent book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller gives a personal example of the wisdom of God’s mysterious plan. “ Redeemer (Presbyterian Church, the church Keller pastors) exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were sent to New York City to start this new church. Why were we sent? It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church planting and that sent us out. But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination? We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and beliefs of Presbyterianism. But why was that professor at the seminary at that time? He was there only because, after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the United States.
“This professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa. For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications. What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester? I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level of help. The student was the son of the sitting President of the United States at that time. Why was his father President? It was because the former President, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur? I understand that it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door.
“What if the security guard had not noticed that door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction? In that case—nothing else in the long string of ‘coincidences” would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city. I like to say to people at Redeemer: If you are glad for this church, then even Watergate happened for you.”
We don’t usually get to see how things fit together in God’s plan that way. Christ is the ultimate proof of God’s wise plan for those times when it’s all just a mystery and we ask, “Why, God?”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Romans 16:25-27 Commentary