Give ear to God on high
Because His word alone
Can bring renewal to the dry
And life to lifeless bone.
Your flesh shall be restored
And covered with new skin,
That all may know He is the Lord
Because you live again.
From the four winds, O breath,
Come breathe upon the slain,
Delivering the dead from death
To make His mercy plain.
Your God, O Israel,
Will raise you from the grave
And bring you to His land to dwell
For He is great to save.
I am willing to preach on any Biblical topic, no matter how fraught with controversy it may be. However, I must admit that even my spirit quails a little bit at the thought of preaching one of the sermons that has been requested—a sermon on racism. It’s both a very simple and a very complicated topic, and the complications come from our personal and national history with race.
To illustrate this, let me talk about the complications of my own history. Don’t let the lack of accent fool you. The roots of my family tree are firmly in the South! The man in the picture on the screen is my great-great grandfather. His name was Thomas Jefferson Tynes. Though the picture is of him as an old man, in his youth, he fought for the Confederacy. In 1862, at age 16, he lied about his age to enlist in the 6th Virginia Cavalry. For the next three years, he fought with Robert E. Lee and rode with Jeb Stuart. During the Gettysburg campaign, he was wounded. I believe that he fought bravely, as did countless thousands of others who fought for the South.
However, it is also true that my great-great grandfather came from a family of slaveowners. He benefited from and probably participated in cruelty and injustice wreaked upon the innocent. Closer to home, I don’t have any trouble thinking of older relatives of mine who loved me and were good to me, but also were as racist as they could possibly be. They thought and did wrong, but these are my flesh and blood. These are my people, and that makes it complicated.
I say all this for several reasons. First, if you’ve got complications in your backstory too, I totally get where you’re coming from. Second, when we encounter those who speak passionately from their own history and experience, let’s remember to respond with understanding and grace. If somebody looks at my family and says, “What a bunch of evil oppressors!”, I get where they’re coming from too.
Third, though, as present as the past is when it comes to racism, we can’t allow the past to define us. Rather than being conformed to history, we must be transformed by Christ. With this in mind, then, let’s consider racism from a Biblical perspective.
From this perspective, I see three problems with looking down on someone else because of their race. The first of these is that GOD SHOWS NO PARTIALITY. Look at Acts 10:34-35. The context here, of course, is Peter preaching the first gospel sermon to the Gentiles. Why is he doing this? Fundamentally, because everyone is equal in the eyes of God.
The usual racist argument, by anybody against anybody, is that Race X is better than Race Y because members of Race Y aren’t as smart, aren’t as moral, etc. I have two issues with that. First, I don’t think it can be proven. For instance, lots of racists like to point to standardized test scores as evidence, but I suspect that test scores do a much better job of measuring wealth and educational opportunity than they do of measuring intellectual ability.
Second, it’s ungodly to measure anybody’s inherent worth by their ability. Jesus didn’t just die for smart people. He didn’t just die for people who are good at math. He certainly didn’t just die for white people! He died for everybody, regardless of ability, regardless of race, and if Jesus looked at somebody and said, “He’s worth dying for,” who am I to argue?
We have no right to assign to anybody a value different than the one that Jesus assigned, and to Him, everyone is precious. When we consider how to treat others, we’re not supposed to take our cue from our families. We’re not supposed to take our cue from the world around us. We’re supposed to take our cue from the Lord, and His love allows no room for racism.
Second, racism is problematic because IT BELONGS TO THE OLD SELF. Look at Colossians 3:9-11. In this context in Colossians, Paul is talking about the spiritual transformation that Christians are to undergo. There are attributes that Christ calls us to put off, and there are attributes that He calls us to put on. We aren’t to be our old selves anymore. We are to become new creations in Him.
As this text reveals, one of the characteristics of unregenerate humankind is that it assigns different values to people in different categories. We think of racism as a uniquely modern and American problem, but in reality, it’s as old as the tower of Babel. 2000 years ago, there were all sorts of labels that the people of the ancient world liked to assign to each other. You were a Greek, you were a Jew, you were a barbarian, you were a Scythian, you were a slave, and so on. Typically, you sought out the company of people who shared your label, and you sneered at the ones who didn’t. Many of the ancient Roman plays were filled with racial stereotyping. The more things change, the more they stay the same!
Paul says, though, that such a labeling mindset is part of the old way of thinking. Just as Christians are to put aside anger, lying, and dirty jokes, they are to put aside the labeling of racism. Racial labeling is evidence of a mind that has not been renewed in knowledge after the image of God. We’re not supposed to look at people and see skin tone and ethnic background. We’re supposed to look at people and see souls, because that’s what God wants us to see.
The third issue with racism is that WE ARE ONE IN CHRIST. Consider with me Galatians 3:27-29. As Christians, it is wrong for us to evaluate anybody according to characteristics that have no spiritual significance. It’s doubly wrong for us to evaluate one another that way.
I know you’ve heard me tell stories about O.J., a black brother who was part of the Joliet congregation and a dear friend of mine. Sadly, during my last few years in Illinois, O.J. developed brain cancer and died. The man who preached his funeral was John Meyer, one of the former elders there, a man who is as white as I am.
O.J. was an important man in the black community in Joliet. The funeral home was packed, and the only white people there were members of the Joliet church. John began his eulogy by saying, “O.J. was my brother. I’m sure you can all see the resemblance.” He brought the house down!
The thing is, though, I can see the resemblance between John and O.J. They didn’t look a thing alike, of course, but they both loved God, loved His word, and earnestly desired to be more like Jesus. In the things that matter, they were and are brothers, and they loved one another as brothers.
This is how we must be. As I said at the beginning, blood is important. Family ties matter. However, the most important blood in our lives must be the blood of Jesus, and the most important ties, the ties that bind in Christ. Perhaps overcoming racial division is impossible in the world, but it is mandatory in the church. Only when we find unity with one another can we find unity with God.
Psalm 131, another Song of Ascents, compares our relationship with God to a small child snuggling with his mother. Just like that child is calm and at peace, so our soul isn’t disturbed within us. Just like the child doesn’t worry because he trusts his mother, we don’t worry because we trust God.
Psalm 132 compares the pilgrim’s zeal for the temple to David’s zeal for the temple. The psalmist begins by observing that even though David didn’t build the temple, he very badly wanted to, and indeed vowed that he wouldn’t sleep until he began the project. Similarly, the pilgrims have resolved to go to the temple, where they ask God to be present and sanctify His people.
After this, the psalmist returns to the subject of David, noting that God promised him that his descendants would reign forever so long as they remained faithful to Him. As a consequence of this oath, God has chosen to dwell in and protect Zion. There, God will bless His people and confirm David’s descendant as king.
Psalm 133 reflects on the subject of unity. It describes unity as a good and pleasant thing, and it compares it both to the priestly anointing oil that was poured abundantly on Aaron and to the dew that fell on Mt. Hermon. In both cases, the message is clear: unity is a blessing that God pours on us from above.
Psalm 134 is one of the shortest psalms in the book. It’s addressed to the night watchmen in the temple. It urges them to bless the Lord and in turn expresses the wish that the Lord would bless them.
Psalm 135 is the final Song of Ascents. It calls all of God’s servants to praise Him. God should be praised because praising Him is pleasant and because He has chosen Israel to be His people. The psalmist then explores the power of God, observing that He does whatever He pleases. Incidentally, doing whatever one pleases is the Biblical definition of omnipotence, and it avoids the hypotheticals of the skeptics like, “Can God create a rock too big for Him to lift?” (A better question would be, “Why would God be divided against Himself?”)
The psalm then enumerates various works of God, from controlling the weather to delivering Israel from Egypt to conquering Israel’s enemies in Canaan. Because of this, God’s fame is worldwide, and His servants can be confident that He will continue to bless them.
By contrast, the idols of the nations are mute, powerless, and lifeless. As a result, they won’t deliver anybody, and those who trust them will become mute, powerless, and lifeless too. The psalm concludes with inviting various portions of God’s people to bless and praise Him.
As I continue to make my way through the list of sermon requests on my phone, the next on it came from Spud, who asked me to preach a sermon on faith. For the rest of you who have asked for a sermon, there are six more on the list, so I haven’t forgotten you!
That notwithstanding, I think that faith is an excellent subject for a sermon. This is true for a number of different reasons. First, it is a subject that is generally misunderstood in the wider religious world. Commonly, when we talk with our friends and neighbors about faith, we find that they mean something along the lines of mental assent, a bare acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God. This concept has about as much in common with Biblical faith as a jumbo shrimp does with a jumbo jet!
It is also true, though, that distortion of the Bible’s teaching on justification by faith has led some brethren to go too far in the opposite direction. Just to make sure that we don’t end up in the camp of the do-nothings, too often, we turn salvation from the work of God back into our own work. Neither one of these alternatives is useful, so this evening, let’s look at Bible teaching on saving faith.
In particular, I want to consider three characteristics that saving faith has. The first of these is that it COMES FROM THE WORD. This is evident from Romans 10:17. This is a familiar text to many of us, but I think there’s much more here than we commonly notice. It’s not only true that we have to hear the gospel in order to become a Christian, which is how we commonly apply this passage. Instead, throughout our lives, our faith always will be connected to the time we spend with the word.
This is most obvious in those who don’t spend time with the word. Back when I still lived in Illinois, with some regularity, I was invited to preach the funeral of unbelievers. Somebody knew that I was the preacher where Mom and Dad had gone to church, or where Grandpa and Grandma had come to church, and so, when there was a death in the family, even if they’d never met me before, they’d call me.
These people were not churchgoers, but at funerals, just about everybody wants to be religious, because otherwise you have to believe your loved one is dead forever and you’ll never see them again. So I’d hear all these irreligious people talking about how Mama had gone to heaven to be with Jesus, but the funny thing was, you could tell from their voices that they didn’t believe it. They didn’t spend time with the word, so they didn’t have any faith, so they didn’t have any hope.
To the extent that we will not commit to spending time with the word, that’s where we will end up too. If we decide that we’re only going to come to church once a week, or once a month, we’re going to hear less of the word, and our faith will weaken. If we decide that we’re too busy to spend time reading our Bibles every day, we’re going to take in less of the word, and our faith will weaken. Without exception, the more we interact with the word, the stronger our faith will become.
The second characteristic of saving faith that I want to consider is that it TRUSTS IN GOD. Look at the way Paul expresses this idea in Romans 4:4-5. In this text, we see two kinds of people. The first is purely hypothetical. It’s the man who earns salvation for himself by perfectly keeping the law of God. Nobody on earth today is doing this, and the only who ever has done it is the Lord! Nonetheless, if we were to keep the will of God perfectly and never sin once, we could contemplate the day of judgment with great confidence. We could demand entrance into heaven, because by our own righteousness, we had earned it.
On the other hand, we have the one who does not work, who has not kept the law perfectly. This does not mean that he’s not trying to keep God’s law at all, merely that in some point, he has failed. He has not earned the right to eternal life.
However, this non-worker does trust in God’s ability to justify him even though he is ungodly, and as a result, his faith is reckoned to him as righteousness. In other words, even though he has not been righteous, he is counted as righteous because of his faith. He gets the reward of eternal life even though he did not earn it, an accounting maneuver that is only possible because of the blood of Jesus.
Notice, though, that just as the perfect law-keeper contemplates eternity with confidence, so too can the one who is justified by faith. The law-keeper is confident in himself, but the recipient of grace is confident in God. I know that in my life, I have sinned, both before and after my baptism. Even though I hate sin and struggle against it, I am sure that at some point in the future, the cunning of the devil will tempt me to sin once again. I hate that thought, but I’m not discouraged by it, because my own personal record of righteousness is not the determining factor in my salvation. Instead, I trust in God to deliver me, and as long as I continue to trust Him, my salvation is certain.
Nonetheless, it is also true that saving faith IS OBEDIENT. Among other passages, this thought appears in Romans 1:5. Just as one of the characteristics of a tree is that it has a trunk, one of the characteristics of faith is that it obeys. Indeed, the more perfect the faith, the more perfect the obedience. Conversely, as the notion of a tree without a trunk is ridiculous, the notion of faith that doesn’t trouble itself to obey is ridiculous too.
This is true for several different reasons. First, belief that Jesus is the Son of God is an idea with consequences. If I believe that Jesus is King and the Bible is His word, then I am going to do my best to do what the Bible says. If the Bible says, “Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins,” I’m going to be baptized for the forgiveness of my sins, because that’s what King Jesus told me to do. For that matter, if the Bible tells me to stand on my head for 30 seconds while singing “Baby Shark” at the top of my lungs for the forgiveness of my sins, I’m still gonna do what King Jesus says--because I believe He’s King! What we believe is always going to be reflected in what we do.
Similarly, saving faith leads to obedience as an expression of gratitude. Once I know and understand all that Jesus has done for me, I should be overwhelmed by it. It’s not that Jesus merely saved my physical life. He saved my soul from eternal torment in hell, not because it was easy, not because I deserved it, but because His love for me was so great that it drove Him to the cross to die for me. Once I get that, how can I possibly think that my life belongs to me anymore? So-called Christians who don’t live lives of obedience have lost touch with the sacrifice of Christ. The more that sacrifice is in our hearts, the more we will strive to live for Him.
During my sermon last week on women exercising authority in the church, I noted in passing that some brethren try to argue for the existence of female apostles from Romans 16:7, but that I did not find the argument convincing. I had assumed that most were familiar with the argument, but after services, my wife told me that my offhand comment generated a flurry of page-flipping in some quarters. I guess I’d better explain!
The textual question in 16:7 is not obvious in most translations. The ESV says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” Standard Pauline greeting, right? What’s the big deal?
The argument that this is a text about a female apostle is twofold. First, it identifies the person the ESV calls “Junia” as female. Second, it asserts that the ESV rendering “well known to the apostles” should instead be translated as, “prominent in the apostles.” Thus, Junia would be a prominent female apostle, which would have all kinds of implications for our understanding of the role of women in the church.
The problem is that this conclusion rests on shaky foundations. First, it is by no means certain that “Junia” is female. The ESV thinks so, but the NASB thinks “Junias” is a better translation. “Junias” would be a contraction of “Junianus”, and thus male. Most translations opt for “Junia” here, but reasonable doubt on the issue exists.
Second, it is unclear what relationship Junia/Junias has to the apostles. Are they merely well known to the apostles, or are they a prominent member of the class of the apostles? The Greek here is ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις, which is literally translated as “of note in/among the apostles”.
The text does not straightforwardly say that Junia/Junias was a remarkable apostle, as Barabbas is described as “a notorious prisoner” in Matthew 27:16 (“notorious” being the only other use of this word in the NT). Instead, it allows for either interpretation. Additionally, if Junia/Junias is a prominent, famous apostle, how come Romans 16:7 is the only place where they appear?
On balance, I think that “Junia” is probably correct, but I also think that she is well-known to the apostles rather than being a well-known apostle. However, that conclusion is not necessary to settle the issue. It’s enough to observe that the gender and position of Junia are uncertain.
In such cases, the principles of Scriptural interpretation call us to a) prefer harmonious to contradictory readings of the Bible and b) read unclear passages in the light of clear passages. 1 Timothy 2:12 is clear (except to those who are engaged in eisgesis rather than exegesis), and it forecloses the possibility of women taking on authoritative roles (like the role of an apostle) in the church.
Thus, we are compelled to adopt a harmonious rather than contradictory reading of Romans 16:7. Sorry, Junia! You’re not an apostle, because if you were, you’d be violating 1 Timothy 2:12.
All of this probably strikes many brethren as a finicky, fussy sort of argument, which is why I did not spend much time exploring it during the sermon. There’s a reason, though, why the subject of women in authority generates these kinds of arguments. If you stick to the obvious stuff in Scripture, you’ll never find reason to believe that women should lead in the church.
However, if you believe that women ought to be leaders, and you’re searching for Scriptural justification for your beliefs, that will drive you into the weeds. Here, as elsewhere, we must be suspicious of subtle arguments that contradict the plain meaning of the text. Their presence is usually a sign that somebody is trying to serve not God, but themselves.