Monthly Archives: June 2015

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015 – “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.

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Monday, June 29, 2015 – “Has the Potter No Right…?”

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

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

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Saturday, June 27, 2015 – “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

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Friday, June 26, 2015 – “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

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Thursday, June 25, 2015 – “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

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015 – “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

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015 – “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

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Friday, June 19, 2015 – “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

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Thursday, June 18, 2015 – “Calling…Justifying…Glorifying”

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. – Romans 8:29-30

In these two verses, Paul challenges the notion that God simply wants us to be good or that God simply wants us to go to church.  In these two verses, Paul radicalizes our understanding of what it means to follow Christ.   For in these two verses, Paul expresses both God’s intention before the dawning of time and the step-by-step progression of faith through which God accomplishes his purposes.

“Those God foreknew,” Paul begins, firmly establishing both that salvation originated in the mind of God and that God knew us long before we even knew ourselves.  ”Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”  Paul writes that it is God’s eternal plan that we shed our human nature and take on the divine nature of Christ.  Paul is telling us that we are created by God to be Christlike both in our motives and in our relationship with God.  God’s great desire, according to Paul, is that we be God’s fully reconciled children, with Christ as our elder brother, “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”

And having revealed the grand purpose of God, Paul then tells of the movement of faith, which takes us from lowly sinners to glorified saints.  ”Those he predestined” (which would be everyone God foreknew according to Paul), God “also called,” or invited into new life in Christ. “Those he called, he also justified,” Paul writes with certainty of God’s grace to forgive and restore.  ”Those he justified, he also glorified,” Paul affirms, confidently expressing God’s work to sanctify, complete, and perfect his children.  Thus we behold both the plan and the progression of faith – foreknown by God, predestined by God, called by God, justified by God, glorified by God.

These two verses are power-packed to raise our understanding of God’s desire for our lives and to show us the progressive nature of our faith.  The fact is, God has great plans for you and me, and he pours himself out to bring us along until we are fit for the very household and kingdom of God.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!
Praise him all creatures here below!
Praise him above, ye heavenly hosts!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
Amen

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Monday, June 15, 2015 – “All things work together for good…”

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28

Even people who don’t know much about the Bible tend to know Romans 8:28 – or at least they tend to know a version of it. Sometimes this verse is misquoted to say things like, “All good things come to those who love the Lord.”  Clearly, this revision is a gross distortion of Romans 8:28.   The reason we often hear – or say – such a misquote may be because we all want to believe that there is a payoff for faith, that good things will come to us if only we believe.  However, nothing could be farther from the truth – in Paul’s life, in the life of the disciples, and in your life and mine.  The invitation to discipleship is not an invitation to a God-sized payoff.  It is more an invitation to sacrifice.

Think about it.  Could we call it a good thing when Paul was mistreated, mocked, jailed, stoned, beaten, shunned, condemned, and martyred – all for his faith in Christ?  Could we call it a good thing when most of the early leaders of the Christian movement were deprived of their possessions, jailed, exiled, and martyred – some even crucified like Christ Jesus?  Could we call it a good thing in our day when those who have faith in Christ Jesus experience unbearable heartbreak, sorrow, and grief, when good and honorable people are disgraced or mistreated, when innocent people are harmed or killed?  Surely we cannot believe in Paul’s day or in ours that “all good things come to those who love the Lord.”

The popular misquote is profoundly untrue.   Paul’s words are “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  Paul is assuring those who come to genuine faith that while they may suffer greatly, God is at work in their pain and will not allow their suffering to get the last word.  Paul wrote these words to offer us assurance and direction that our movement toward sanctification, toward godliness, is not a movement of ease and comfort.  We still experience all the suffering and pain this world can bring, but our hope comes from knowing that God does not forsake us in our pain.  Instead he works through our suffering to bring good.

It is not that God robs suffering of its pain.  It is rather that God robs suffering of its power.   God’s will is neither sidetracked nor vetoed by disappointment or loss.  Quite to the contrary, God redeems these foes and extracts good out of them.  In fact, God is so masterful in taking pain and heartbreak and using it for good, that sometimes we have to remind ourselves that God did not create the suffering.  He just redeemed it and used it for his greater purposes.

So, let us affirm both by learning and by living the great truth of Romans 8:28: “all things (good and bad) work together for good (and are woven into God’s great plan) for those who love God (whose allegiance is to God) and who are called according to his purpose (living their lives both for God’s higher purpose and to God’s greater glory).”

Eternal Father, help me to trust you when things are going well and when things are not.  Redeem, I pray, all of my life – the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows – to bring good and to advance your grand purpose.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston