Monthly Archives: July 2013

Wednesday, July 31, 2013 – Great Is Thy Faithfulness!

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.  God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?  ”Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.”  But what is the divine reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”  So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.  But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace. – Romans 11:1-6

The centerpiece of Paul’s Letter to the Romans is the assurance that God can be trusted, that God is not fickle or subject to change his mind.  Paul anchors his writing, his theology, his faith in the sovereignty of God, the righteousness of God, the compassion and mercy of God, and the eternal will of God.

As the Christian faith spread wildly in Gentile areas and more slowly among the Jews, especially among the powerful and influential leaders in Judaism, the question arose, “has God rejected his people?”  Paul’s answer was clear and direct,  ”Absolutely not!”

Paul supports his strong assertion that God had not rejected his people, first by his own personal example.  Paul was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, and God had not only not rejected Paul, but had fully accepted him and had called him into his service to spread the Gospel.  Paul then offers an historical perspective to demonstrate God’s faithfulness.  Back in the days of Elijah, the Jewish power-holders and institutions had rejected God in extreme ways by killing prophets, destroying worship centers, and turning to pagan gods.  But Paul reminds his Roman readers that even though the leaders and institutions had failed, God was faithful.  God never gave up on his people, and he held tightly the faithful remnant who did not reject him.  They may not have been numerous or powerful or influential, but God did not turn away from them, and they did not turn away from God.

Paul declares that God’s truth and grace prevailed then, and they prevail now – not because of majority rule or popular vote, but only because God reigns supreme.  God holds true to his word.  He always has; he always will.  And Paul fully expects God to pour out his grace and truth to both the Jew and the Gentile until his will is fully accomplished throughout the universe.  Though institutions and leaders and popular opinion are fickle and turn away, there is one thing we can be certain of – great is God’s faithfulness!

…this I call to mind,and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.  Amen. - Lamentations 3:21-23

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 – “Beautiful Feet” Tend and Ex-Tend Faith…

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?  And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” – Romans 10:14-15

As Paul makes his case that he is a divinely appointed missionary to the Gentiles, he bases his theology of evangelism on the long-standing Jewish practice of welcoming converts.  There were Gentiles who had come fully into Judaism both by becoming part of the covenant community and by being fully observant of the law.  These persons were known as “Righteous Proselytes.”  A second group of persons who lived in Israel and followed most of the customs of the Jews were referred to as “Gate Proselytes” or sometimes as “God Fearers.”  While these persons were not bound by the covenant of circumcision, they were included and accepted as being on the fringes of Jewish society.

The thought of moving beyond the gate, deep into the Gentile world, with the grace and truth of God seemed unthinkable to many pious Jews and early Christians.  Yet to Paul such a move was merely an extension of the existing practice.  Using a string of rhetorical questions, Paul justifies his call and moves both his reader and the early church step-by-step from the center of Judaism deep into the Gentile world.

  1. Step one: “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?”  Paul has previously affirmed that ”Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).  How could anyone be expected to “call upon the name of the Lord” without first believing that Jesus Christ is Lord?
  2. Step two: “How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?”  There is an invincibility of ignorance, to which Paul appeals – no one can believe that Jesus is Lord without first hearing of him.
  3. Step three: “How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”  Even great news is of no value without a medium to convey it.  How can those far from the center know of the good news of Christ Jesus without someone to tell them?
  4. Step four: “How are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”  For the gospel to spread, someone must be sent out from the community of faith.

Paul accepts his commission to the Gentiles as being from God.  He concludes his step-by-step movement from Judaism into the Gentile world by calling to mind Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  Who can argue with such step-by-step logic?

Every time I read this passage, I am reminded that the fragrant flower of faith which gives you and me life and which bears fruit in and through our lives has come from the plant of a seed planted ages ago.  That seed and that plant have been faithfully tended and extended from generation to generation.  As I think of those whom I know who have been a part of the tending and extending of faith in my life, I raise my voice to affirm, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Lord God, I thank you for faith and for those who are faithful in extending it in the lives of others.  Amen.

Monday, July 29, 2013 – “There Is no Distinction…”

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.  For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” – Romans 10:12-13

Paul lays out the basic claim for his role as the missionary to the Gentiles, as he explains God’s plan through Christ Jesus, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  His expansive outreach was based on the belief that God’s plan of salvation had always included all the inhabitants of the earth, that Israel’s chosen status had positioned that nation to reach out in truth and love to all nations, and that Christ Jesus’ action on Calvary had fulfilled God’s desire to offer salvation to all.  Paul was convinced that there was nothing new about God’s concern for those persons outside Judaism.  God’s call of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, included these words, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).  So, as Paul began his work to reach beyond his own people and to share the love, blessings, truth, and grace of God with the Gentiles, he did so in the confidence that he was standing in the center of God’s eternal will.

The problem Paul faced was that as the faith had been institutionalized, it had turned inward.  The passages about all the people of the earth had been re-interpreted to mean all the Hebrew people of the earth.  Thus, there was no effort to extend the faith.  Instead, Jews were instructed to pursue purity by segregation, to have little doings with Gentiles, and to avoid contact with sinners.  Such instruction led to the development of institutionalized beliefs that God’s compassion, mercy, and grace were limited to a select group of people.

Paul was chief among those who believed and taught such things prior to his encounter with Jesus Christ.  His conversion – and indeed all conversions to Christ – included not simply a new understanding of himself in light of his faith, but a whole new understanding of others.  Paul’s new insight was anchored deeply in the ancient teachings of Israel that God “is generous to all who call upon him,” and in the recognition that “the same Lord is the Lord of all.”  In Paul’s context, such beliefs took focus in a shocking affirmation, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek.”

One of the signs of new life in Christ is an incredible compassion for others, especially for those previously held in contempt.  It seems to be the case over and again that those in Christ become peace-makers and sense a strong calling to invest themselves in breaking down the dividing walls of hostility. Such was the case with Paul.  Such is the case with you and me.  Faith in Christ does not merely transform our relationship with God, it also radically transforms our relationships with those who share this world in which we live.

Lord Jesus, live in my heart and make me an instrument of thy peace.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston.

Friday, July 26, 2013 – “Has the Potter No Right over the Clay…?”

But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God?  Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?”  Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? – Romans 9:20-21

[Webmaster Note: Audio versions of sermons are now included on the Pure and Simple site under “The Simple Truth.”  An audio version of the latest sermon “Blind Faith” has been posted, and audio and written versions are available of “And He Ran” and “The Question Jesus Asks Us.”]

Life is not fair.  We might as well admit it.  The blessings and burdens of life are not evenly distributed.  Some people live healthy lives and thrive amid plenty, while others struggle merely to survive.  Some people find that their family of origin gives them a strong launch pad for pursuing grand dreams, while others find their family of origin presents a significant handicap for their success.  It can be tempting for us to spend time questioning the ordering of the universe, the basic unfairness of it all, but there is little to be gained from it.

Paul addresses this issue in our text for the day – a central theme in a variety of his letters.  There are clearly differences among individuals in terms of genetic profile, physical attributes, intelligence, environment, educational and vocational opportunities, exposure to faith and truth, but these differences do not indicate a variance in God’s love.  ”God shows no partiality,” Paul reports earlier in Romans, as well as in Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians.  God has created people to be different from one another in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons.  We do not all need to be alike to be part of God’s grand plan.  For what all persons have in common is the same loving, purposeful creator.

Spending time comparing ourselves with one another is of no ultimate value.  It is far more useful to find contentment and meaning by living out God’s purpose for our lives.  It is to that end that Paul addresses a series of strong rhetorical questions by showing the insolence of the creation to question the intentions of the creator. “But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God?…Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?”  The questions have an edge to them, as Paul seeks to redirect people of faith from pointless boasting and complaining to purposeful living to the greater glory of God.

Let God be God!  Paul is saying, and seek to find the fullness of life by living in agreement with his will and in harmony with all of creation.  It was an important message to the Romans; it is an important message for us.

Have thine own way, Lord; have thine own way.
Thou art the potter; I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after thy will
While I am waiting, yielded and still.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Thursday, July 25, 2013 – “I Will Have Mercy…”

What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!  For he says to Moses, ”I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. – Romans 9:14-16

It is a temptation for us to believe – almost like superstition – that if we do certain good things, then God will reward us, and if we do wrong, God will surely punish us.  It was a popular and prevailing view in Paul’s day.  People believed good fortune, health, and prosperity were dutifully earned.  People who thus prospered were held in high esteem, while those who were poor, diseased, or troubled were pitied as being the recipients of the swift and sure justice of an intolerant God.

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul rejects such a viewpoint outright.  There are many problems with such an ordering of justice.  First, while the idea satisfies our desires for maintaining order, the prosperity of the ungodly and the suffering of the righteous are as cliche now as they were when Job and Jeremiah uttered their laments. Secondly, such a concept of divine justice creates a mean, judgmental spirit among God-fearing people and creates deep pockets of ungodly self-righteousness on the one hand and despair and hopelessness on the other.

Perhaps the greatest problem with a viewpoint that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wayward is the center of Paul’s writing in our text today – that the execution of absolute justice shifts power from God to humanity. If there is such strict and immediate justice, then like a judge whose hand is forced by the law to rule in a certain way, so God’s hand would be forced by human action.  When we do well, God would be indebted to us the way an employer is indebted to an employee for unpaid wages.  When we break a divine ordinance, God would be forced to punish us for our misdeed.  In such a universe it is not the creator who rules, but rather the creature.

Paul finds such an idea abhorrent.  ”Is there injustice on God’s part?” Paul asks.  ”By no means!” He replies.  God’s mercy and compassion are poured out by God’s determination alone.  Paul reminds us with great certainty that God is sovereign, and what God said to Moses is just as true today as it was when it was first declared, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Exodus 33:19).

God’s penchant for showing mercy and compassion may not satisfy our desire for quick and clean justice, but it satisfies a far deeper longing and a far greater need.

Eternal God, how I thank you for your love and mercy and compassion!  As I receive them freely from your hand, may I offer them freely to others.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 – “Children of the Promise…”

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.”  This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. – Romans 9:6-8

In the ninth chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul takes on the prevailing view of his day – that the descendants of Abraham were in a special, saving relationship with God as their birth-right.  It would have been the equivalent of the popular belief in our day that God blesses America to the exclusion of other lands.  Such prevailing nationalistic views are difficult to untangle.  They were then; they are now.  There is a strange and strong temptation to blur citizenship and faith, to claim corporate superiority and wrap it in false righteousness, to demonizes opponents, and to substitute corporate or national allegiance for a personal faith relationship.

Paul acknowledges that the Jewish people rightly claim a special relationship with God, in that God has entrusted to them the law and the prophets, the Word of God, Temple worship, and the bloodline of the Messiah.  But Paul is careful to note that salvation has never been a matter of tracing a bloodline to Abraham.  In our passage today, Paul uses the Hebrew scriptures to differentiate the “children of the flesh” from the “children of the promise,” to show that merely being a descendant of Abraham does not make anyone a covenanted child of God.  Paul shows that the true children of God and heirs of God’s blessings are those who are “children of the promise.”  Such is the essence of faith.

Paul is convinced that this understanding does not contradict God’s Word but actually fulfills it.  There never has been a way to enter into relationship with God other than by giving up ourselves and living to the greater glory and purposes of God.  That is how Abraham came to faith; that is how Isaac came to faith; that is how Jacob came to faith; that is how the Apostle Paul came to faith; and that is how we come to faith.  ”It is not as though the Word of God ha(s) failed,” it is rather that the Word of God is as true today as it was when Abraham said “no” to self and “yes” to God, based on nothing more than a promise.  So it is that when we say “no” to self and “yes” to God, we too become “children of the promise” and we too “are counted as descendants.”

Good Father, thank you for entrusting your Word and promise to me.  Help me turn away from my own devises and lay claim to the promise that is mine through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Pure and Simple Logo 2.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013 – “Unceasing anguish…”

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever.  Amen. – Romans 9:2-5

Having expounded with extreme confidence on the faithfulness of God and the power of God’s love to redeem, reconcile, and recreate, Paul acknowledges with great sorrow that not all persons come into a saving faith.  It seems that most of the people who do not respond to God’s offer of healing and wholeness fall into one of two categories.  Either they do not think that they are worthy to accept God’s offer, or they do not think that they need it.

Some convince themselves that they have so distanced themselves from God that they simply cannot be reached by his grace – that is, they cannot be reconciled, cannot be restored, cannot be renewed.  Accounts in scripture show us over and again that God’s love knows no boundaries, as Paul expresses powerfully throughout his letter to the Romans.

The second group who absent themselves from God’s offer of grace is a tougher crowd to reach.  When a person is convinced that he doesn’t need the grace of God, his heart is not open to God’s offer of new life with all its possibilities.  Such was the group that is the focus of Paul’s consideration and lamentation in our text today.  Paul is speaking here of his Jewish brothers and sisters, but we would do well not to turn his teaching into a condemnation of Judaism.  He is simply expressing his pain over institutional arrogance, which prevents persons both from acknowledging a need for and from responding to the movement of God’s grace.

The institution had substituted law and doctrine for true faith and love.  That substitution served not to draw persons closer to God but rather to satisfy them with a poor imitation.  The problem is not limited to institutional Judaism in the first century.  It remains an easy trap for us all, and it serves to short-circuit faith, distort truth, and exclude us from God’s richest blessings.

Anytime we think we are beyond the need for God’s grace, we cut ourselves off from the very source of all life. Such an idea is tragic. In fact, just thinking of those who believed they had no need for God’s grace created in the Apostle Paul “unceasing anguish.”

Eternal God, forgive me for substituting anything for your great love and grace.  Continue the work you have begun in me until I am fully recreated in the image of Christ Jesus my Lord.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Monday, July 22, 2013 – “Absolutely Convinced…”

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39

Perhaps nowhere else in scripture do we find the confidence that exudes from the final sentence in the eighth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which begins with the words “I am convinced…,” or as in the King James Version, “I am persuaded…”.  It may be that Eugene Peterson’s recast of the scripture in The Message captures Paul’s degree of certainty best, “I’m absolutely convinced… .”

This final sentence sums up the totality of the chapter and, really, the entirety of Paul’s letter, as it assures the reader that regardless of the circumstances or difficulties of life, God is absolutely trustworthy.  Paul writes that nothing in life, and not even death itself, can separate us from God.  What a tremendous statement this is!  Those who are in Christ, as Paul defines it earlier in his letter – by having crucified their sinful human nature and having been filled by the Holy Spirit – are in an eternal irrevocable love-relationship with almighty God.

This relationship is not subject to the powers of earth or heaven, nor to the passage of time, nor to any force or feeling or fickle fancy.  Paul’s certainty is that all other relationships, all other powers, and all other forces are subordinate to the love of God we experience when we are in Christ.

The sentence provides a fitting, fabulous finish to this triumphant chapter.

I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.  (The Message)

Eternal God, thank you for the confidence we have in Christ.  Help us to live lovingly and grace-fully in the assurance that nothing can separate us from your love through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Friday, July 19, 2013 – More than Conquerors

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. – Romans 8:35, 37

Thus far in his Letter to the Romans, Paul has made his case for the trustworthiness of God, the grace of Christ Jesus, and the grand design of God’s plan for his people.  Paul’s final word about the salvation offered through Christ concerns the assurance which his followers have that God will never forsake them nor lose them.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul inquires.  His answer comes in the form of another question, “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”  Paul surveys the fears and foes of life – a partial list which has the effect of asking, “Is there any evil force or tragic event or frustration in life which can strip us out of the arms of our Savior?”

Paul leaves this question hanging for a brief moment as he reflects on the precarious nature of genuine discipleship – both in his age and in ours, as he quotes Psalm 44:22, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36).  But Paul’s confidence overwhelms his concerns, and he is compelled to shout out his answer in the strongest of terms.  ”No!”  And then Paul adds even greater emphasis, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  This is Paul’s way of saying, “Not just no, but absolutely no!”  His affirmation brims with confidence that those who are in Christ can be neither diminished nor dismissed by any foe.  Rather, through the grace and power of God, those in Christ shall prevail as victors.

Lord God, truly you are the “love that will not let me go.”  I give you thanks and live in the confidence that you hold me forever in your care.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Thursday, July 18, 2013 – “What is there left to say?”

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? – Romans 8:31-32

A rhetorical question is asked, not in order to elicit an answer, but to make a point, to accentuate a known truth, to create a dramatic effect.  As the Apostle Paul moves to close this section of his Letter to the Romans, he uses at least seven rhetorical questions, beginning with the three in our passage today.

These three questions work almost like a grand crescendo to prepare the reader for all that is to come.  Often in scripture when a word or a sentence structure is expressed as a triplet, it has the effect of taking the idea to the superlative.  ”Holy!  Holy!  Holy!” in Revelation 4 is another way of saying, “The holiest.”  Here, Paul uses three rhetorical questions to raise the stakes to the very highest level, as if to elicit an affirmative shout at the end.

“What then are we to say about these things?” Paul asks.  ”Considering all that has come before in God’s mighty movement of salvation, what is there left to say?”

“If God is for us, who is against us?” Or, as the King James Version translates it, using the grammatically correct subjunctive mood, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”  The use of the subjunctive here is not counter-factual, the way “if” statements often are, “If I were king…”.  It is instead a supposition, “If this is true, then what else must be true.”  Paul is saying, “Just suppose that God almighty is for you, how would that change things?”  Since it is written as a rhetorical question, it is presented as a certainty, “If God is for us, who can possibly be against us?”

And just as we are about to burst forth with a response, Paul asks a third rhetorical question, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”  Here is the over-the-top third question, “If God did not withhold his own Son, is there anything he would withhold?”

Paul has just announced in the previous verses that God knew us, God planned for us, God calls us, God justifies us, and God glorifies us.  Now, the only question left to be answered is, “Can you trust this God with your life?

Good Father, how can I not trust you?  Help me trust you in all things.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston