The New is in the Old Contained (Chapter 1 Verses 1-7)
The Gentiles may think this gospel message to be some strange and new teaching, Paul assures them it is not (v2). It is what God had been promising in the Old Testament for many years. Of course the Old Testament would be read in the context of their worship, so this would become meaningful to them. Now, it is vitally important that we study the Old Testament too, there is not enough attention to it today, and the Church is impoverished by it. It is important that we see the gospel in the Old as well as the New, that we grasp the continuity, the flow, that when we come to Matthew’s gospel it is not something totally different that is happening. Simply a continuation, or a fulfilment of what God had been promising all along. An example? Jesus points to the dawn of his ministry (Luke 4.18), as the fulfilment of God’s promise through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 61.1).
Those prophets were the medium through which the promises of God concerning the gospel came, conveyed in words. It is an amazing, incredible thing, the Scripture. How that God most reliably enabled first the Old Testament prophets, then the apostles in the new, to transmit his word, exactly as he wanted them to. This is the simple and biblical fact of verbal inspiration, every word of it is God’s word. It is because it is God’s that it gets the designation of being Holy, whatever men may think of the Bible, scholars and the like might downgrade it, but be assured God does not. It is his holy word, in and through which he speaks to us for our learning (Romans 15.4). We ought to have a great respect for, and delight in our Bible’s, because it is God speaking to us, in the Old Testament (Hebrews 1.1; Romans 3.2; Romans 9.4; 1Peter 1.10-11), as in the New. God by the power of his Spirit brought his word to the men he was pleased to use, to declare it to us (2Peter 1.19-21). Not just the doctrine, the actual words themselves, choosing them carefully. So every word comes to us as immediately from God, it is his voice, it therefore comes with the same authority as it did to the original prophets. That is why the true Church of God looks to the Bible as being fully authoritative in all matters, we will not come short of it, or go beyond it. I leave you with a question, can a Church, that does not recognise the full authority of Holy Scripture, or declare that prophetic word of God, really be called a Church?
The use of salt as a preservative, keeping food from spoiling is in mind here (v49). When Jesus calls his disciples salt, the thought surely is of both their teaching and conduct counteracting the corruption of the world (Matthew 5.13). The principle that counters and corrects is the Divine revelation, the word of God, given and entrusted to them. They have believed it, received it (John 17.8), been sanctified through it (John 15.3; 17.17), and so will others (John 17.20). It is the saltiness, the preservative of this Divine word that will do the work of countering corruption. Yet another reason beloved, why we cannot leave this word behind is, it must go with us, be in us, part of us, the very warp and woof, the fabric of our Christian lives, the word of God read, applied and lived out through the energy of the Holy Spirit. The word of God without the Spirit of God? Jesus parable of the ten virgins, their problem? They had the lamp (Psalm 119.105), but they ran out of oil (the Holy Spirit), they left him behind, they did not “walk, or keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5.25). It is a sadness but there are Christians who know an awful lot of the Bible, but little of, or no fellowship with the Holy Spirit. No, bread alone is insufficient, you need every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew 4.4; Luke 4.4), and we need the help of God’s Spirit if it is to be effective. Too many head-workers not enough heart-workers in both pulpit and pew today.
The calamities of the previous verses (vv42-48) are to be avoided by taking heed to the Bible, it is by this word we are born anew (James 1.21; 1Peter 1.23- 25), it is by this word we are sanctified, cleansed (John 17.17), it is by this word we are rebuked, corrected, trained and equipped for service (2Timothy 3.16-17). If you neglect the word of God how can you be saved (Hebrews 2.3)? So many spiritual tragedies could have been avoided if only people had kept closer to the word of God, cherished and hidden it in their hearts. The fire of this verse (v49), cannot be hell, because the fire of hell does not preserve, hell is not reformative, it is penal, from there, there is no way back. Salt has its own fiery property, burning and destroying the germs of corruption. The word of God in all its power has the ability to destroy the germs of sin, and burn them out of our hearts. The salt, the word is good (v50). It is spiritually wholesome and beneficial. To lose our saltiness, to become worldly again, to backslide into unbelief needs to be guarded against, but again keeping close to the word is the only corrective. Have that word (salt) in you says Jesus, all the time (Psalm 119.11), not in your hand, or your Church, those are included, doubtless, but in your heart. Using the word constantly, daily to keep you free from evil, corruption, from backsliding, to keep you clean and pure. That is the answer to the arguments too (v33), that is what will bring peace and harmony amongst them, living out the word. Salt less salt? Unimaginable. But only too true of many professors.
The theme is the gospel, good news (Romans 3.24), which is necessary for everyone, whoever they are, wherever they are coming from. Whether they be poor or rich, religious or not, Jew or Gentile. It is an effective gospel, Paul claims, because it produces the goods of peace with God, holiness of life, and liberty in the Holy Spirit. Only the gospel of God can do such as that. He begins with this salutation (vv1-7), which is unusually lengthy and jam-packed full of theology. Paul begins by introducing himself, who he is, and what he is (v1). Notice the lovely common bond between Paul and his readers, and all who are true Christians (v6). When Paul describes himself as a servant or slave of Christ he is describing all Christians really, because we too have been bought by Christ, through his precious blood (1Peter 1.18-19). We belong to him lock stock and barrel as we say (Ephesians 6.6; 1Peter 2.16; Romans 6.16-20; Romans 14.4-8; 1Corinthians 7.22). That means we, like Paul, are not free to please ourselves, to do our own thing, but from a heart filled with love, to please our Purchaser, Christ Jesus, our anointed Messiah, Prophet, Priest and King.
Paul of course was an Apostle in the sense he received a direct and immediate call from the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 22.21; 26.17). We must remember there were others who were designated apostles (Romans 16.7; 1Corinthians 12.28). The Twelve were special, no question, but there were others who were sent, that is what apostle means. They would be sent like Paul to plant and establish Churches, to encourage and edify believers, very much an itinerant ministry. There is still a Biblical warrant for such a mobile ministry today surely. It was for such an apostolic ministry that Paul was set apart. The New Testament pattern is that the itinerant evangelist is given the financial support of the Church, the settled pastors find work and support themselves. Today we appear to do it the other way round.
The gospel of God, well we could preach several sermons on that one phrase. There seems to be so many who do not even understand what the gospel is, professing Christians I mean. It is God’s call to people, calling them to repentance, faith, costly discipleship, to live under Jesus’ Lordship, through the gospel God calls folk to himself. It is something God does, not man. That gospel is God’s, it belongs to him, that means we have no right to interfere with it, to change it, dilute it. Because to do so would be catastrophic for people, for as we have seen in our study of Mark’s gospel, it is a saving, a rescuing message. Saving from the dreaded disease of sin and its consequential judgment.
The stumbling of a young disciple is future (v42a), and now with the would be stumbler (sin is not strong enough), he changes to the present tense. In other words it would be better for the stumbler now to be cast into the sea and that with a millstone about his neck, than for him to carry out the future deed of ever stumbling, spiritually destroying the young disciple. Because of the guilt, the penalty that that would bring upon him. It is the enormity of the crime Jesus seeks to convey to us. In the next verses (vv43-47) Jesus turns to the idea of snaring ourselves (Matthew 5.29; Matthew 18.8). But again the thought is of a spiritual fatality, not just sinning. On what basis do those bodily members work, the eye, the hand, the foot? Of their own accord? No! They are motivated from the heart, the evil that lies in the human heart is the source, the fountain (Jeremiah 17.9; Matthew 15.19). So if you actually removed one of each of those limbs you would still have another of each to carry out those evil deeds. The answer? The heart! It must be changed, cleansed, purified, unless it is changed there is no hope (John 3.3; 2Corinthians 5.17). If you had gangrene in your foot, you would willingly have the foot removed in order to save your life, everyone would agree with that? But in order to remove the hands, feet, eyes that are used to offend, all of them, would mean eventually cutting away the whole body, absurd. Yes! The alternative? Carry on with sin and face the consequent everlasting hell? Jesus is seeking to drive home the message, we need to make every effort, exertion, to escape hell and gain heaven. So what is the answer, there must be another way? Well if we have been taking heed to Jesus teaching thus far, we will know, we will realize the heart needs to be changed, converted, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, then we will be able to control those members.
The fire spoken of (v48), is beyond human comprehension, it is unquenchable, it is eternal, and it is Jesus who tells us of it, he whose word cannot be broken (John 10.35). I believe in the doctrine of hell not because I am a sadist, but because my Saviour teaches it, so clearly, so definitely. And if he is wrong there where else is he wrong? There are far too many professors who pick and choose what they are going to believe from the Bible. They, I think, need to take heed to this very teaching. They need a change of heart (Matthew 18.3).
The Book of Romans has been described as the gospel according to Paul, that is a very apt way of describing it. Wherever we go in the Bible it is all the gospel, is it not? Paul wrote Romans, it is thought, around AD.58, at the end of his third missionary journey, at the end of his stay in Corinth (Acts 20.1-6). Paul is the author on the human level, the Holy Spirit is the author on the Divine level (2Timothy 3.16; 2Peter 1.21). The letter was designed for the Church in Rome obviously. We think that to declare that Peter was the supposed head of the Roman Church supposes just a little too much. Would the great Apostle be so uncouth as to write a letter to a Church in such a major and strategic place as this was, in the then known world, knowing, it had an Apostle as its Pastor and not offer some kind of salutation to him in the opening greeting? We think not. There is not even a mention of him in all the greetings offered at the end (Romans 16.3-15). The Church was made up of Jews and Gentiles, though mostly of the latter (Romans 1.5-6). It is Paul’s desire to visit them when he can in person (Acts 19.21; Romans 15.23), because his Christian heart wants to bless them (Romans 1.10-11). He himself wants to be refreshed by them (Romans 15.32), no doubt in Christian fellowship. At the same time he fears he may never arrive and so writes this letter to them.
The Church in Rome is surrounded by unbelief and worldly philosophy. So Paul seeks to instruct them in defending and confirming the message of salvation, because that very gospel of salvation was at stake then, just as it is in many ways today. He makes a clear presentation of what the gospel is (Romans 1.16), as well as commending them for the goodness amongst them (Romans 1.8). They still have a need to learn, as we all have, that is a particular aspect of our Christian lives we need to pay particular attention to, Christian learning, growing in our knowledge of our Saviour and the salvation granted to us (2Peter 3.18). It has been suggested by some that Paul’s letter to the Romans would have been above the heads of his readers, but is not that true of all Scripture, and of ourselves too, but we need constantly to be stretched, to wrestle with truth, and we certainly need the solid concrete, the granite of Romans under our feet in these dreadful days we live in. No Scripture truth is grasped by mere intellect, only by the inward working of the Holy Ghost (1Corinthians 2.9ff). That is a poignant reminder to us all, that our need is not only the Word of God, but the Spirit of God also, His help, illuminating the Scripture, our hearts and minds too, as we read and study it. So as we study Romans let us together ask for His sovereign help to wrestle with and grasp the truth revealed.
The actions prove the reality of the profession (v42a). This stumbling, this causing to sin, is a spiritual death-trap, a snare, spiritual destruction is what is in mind. You destroy a child-like believer of mine says Jesus, and you are history, worse than dead meat (v42b). Better you had never been born. This is serious stuff. The least possible good you can do a disciple, is give him or her a cup of water (v41), the worst possible damage you could do, is cause them to sin (v42a). But the ultimate action lies way back down the line (Matthew 5.21; Matthew 5.27 etc.), that is why it is so important that we deal with anger before it gets out of hand and becomes murder. That is why we must deal with the lustful look before it becomes adultery. The lesser is condemned as is the greater. And Jesus takes us to this extreme, the worst you can do to a disciple of his, is to spiritually destroy him or her. That is how precious one disciple is in the sight of Jesus (1Corinthians 8.11-13). What a sound warning to all of us, parents, Sunday School teachers, Pastors and evangelists, all in positions of influence. To think that through our wrong teaching or bad conduct one soul could be lost.
The little ones does not necessarily mean children though it could include them. The scarcity of children who truly believe in our own day does not negate the possibility of children believing. Of course it is an area where great care is to be taken, evangelising children I mean. This abominable practice in our day of dragging prayers and confessions out of children, is to be dismissed. I have seen children evangelized who will trustingly, humbly, because children are like that (Jesus very point), do anything they are asked. There are three principles that need to govern our handling of children in our Churches I believe. The three I’s. 1. Instruct them. 2. Interest them. 3. Impress them. No more, no less. If we teach them God’s word, if we give them a good grounding in Christian education, yes, including God’s law, not just the stories about Jesus. if we engender and keep their interest in Christian things and impress them with both the word of God and our conduct. It is the Holy Spirit’s work to regenerate them, not ours. We do not need to interfere in that. He, and he alone is quite capable of leading anyone including children, to Christ. Hands off! Let him do it! It is well-meant but I believe in the long run it is more harmful to get a child to make a profession of faith when he or she does not understand for one moment what they are doing. It could lead them to a false assurance, or eventually away from the Lord altogether. Tried it, does not work, how often have we heard it? Simply because there never was any spiritual reality there to begin with. Of course when we are speaking of and dealing with covenant children that is different. We bring them up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). The promise is for them as well as their parents, “for the promise is unto you, and to your children” (Acts 2:29)