In Romans 1:16, Paul called the Gospel “the power of God,” but how often have we turned it into a tame thing more fit for nursery rhymes and children’s plays? The Gospel is God’s power to save men! Only the Gospel could turn a terrorist into an apostle, an atheist into a Believer, an addict into a lover of God, or a gang member into an evangelist. Only the Gospel could “persuade a strict dictator to retire, fire the army, teach the poor origami,” as the Newsboys put it so eloquently.
Once a week for a while now, I’ve been discussing a new metaphor the Bible uses to explain the power of the Gospel. If you missed the earlier posts, check them out here. Today, let’s look at how, through the Gospel, God reconciled us to Himself.
Paul tells us in Colossians 1:21-22, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”
I love this section. There’s so much going on here, so bear with me as I unpack it a little.
In two verses, Paul shows us the power of the Gospel in a nutshell – who we were, what God did for us, and who we’re becoming.
Here’s the picture of who we used to be: we were alienated, hostile in mind, and doing evil deeds. These aren’t pretty words. These aren’t nice words.
When Paul says we were alienated, he means we were shut out from fellowship and intimacy with God, cut off from Him and all His blessings. The Greek word he uses implies a former state that we’ve departed from as our relationship deteriorated. The word was used to describe the breaking apart of the marriage covenant through unfaithfulness and to the division of property. So Paul is not so much saying that God closed us out because He didn’t like us but that, through our unfaithfulness and stubbornness, we let our relationship fall apart and therefore separated ourselves from Him.
He says we were hostile in mind. I don’t think the English word hostile carries the weight of what Paul is getting at here. The word he uses is usually translated “enemy” in the New Testament and sometimes refers specifically to the devil himself. When Jesus says to love our enemies, He’s using this word. When He says the enemy sows tares in the midst of the wheat, it’s this word. When Paul says Jesus will put all His enemies under His feet, and when he says that many have become enemies of the cross, you guessed it, he uses this word. This is not describing someone who was just a little ticked at God, a little hostile. It’s describing an enemy of God, “someone openly hostile, animated by deep-seated hatred,” implying “irreconcilable hostility, proceeding out of a ‘personal’ hatred bent on inflicting harm,” as the Helps Word-studies on BibleSuite.com put it.
Paul goes on to describe us as doers of evil deeds. The Strong’s concordance defines these deeds as “bad, of a bad nature or condition,” “diseased or blind” and “wicked or corrupt.” No matter how good you think you may have been, without Jesus, even your good deeds were based in selfishness, fear of man, trying to prove something or earn something. Paul says we did evil, corrupt, diseased, wicked works. BibleSuite.com goes on to describe these evil deeds as “pain-ridden, emphasizing the inevitable agonies (misery) that always go with evil.”
The word Paul uses here that we translate as evil, poneros, is not the only Greek word for evil, but it is the one that specifically emphasizes the corrupting, disease-spreading, pain-ridden fruit that results. According to Richard C. Trench in his Synonyms of the New Testament, three Greek words are often translated “evil” in the English Bible – kakos, phaulos, and poneros. Kakos has to do mainly with the idea of lacking something that would make it worthy, like the wicked servant at the end of Matthew 24 who lacked good character and honesty. Phaulos deals with the idea that something is good for nothing, worthless, and devoid of any possibility of good coming from it. Poneros, on the other hand, Trench calls, “the active worker out of evil.” He goes on to write, “The kakos may be content to perish in his own corruption, but the poneros is not content unless he is corrupting others as well, and drawing them into the same destruction with himself.” That, Paul says, is the kind of works we were doing before we knew God.
We had separated ourselves from God, we had made Him our hated enemy, we lived to spread evil, agony, and pain in the world, and God chose to reconcile us. That’s nuts.
Before looking at what the word “reconcile” means, let’s jump to the end of the section first, so we can see the results of His reconciling efforts. Where are we headed? What is God creating in us, these former enemies of His? He wants to make us “holy, blameless, and above reproach.”
He’s making us holy, turning us into saints, no longer separated from God but separated unto God. Holy like the Temple in Jerusalem. Holy like the ground Moses was standing on. Holy like God Himself. Different, separate, set apart from the world. The majority of times this word is used in the New Testament it refers either to the Holy Spirit or to the saints, the church. That’s what He’s after in us.
Blameless, meaning without spot or blemish. Morally perfect, with no defects and no cause for blame. 1 Peter 2 refers to false prophets and teachers that Peter calls “blemishes” full of lust and deceit, unsubmissive, blasphemers, like irrational animals, born to be caught and destroyed. God’s making us into the opposite, into those with no stains or spots or wrinkles. The old person we used to be, who spread evil and pain and disease without even trying, He’s turning into someone who is blameless before Him.
Above reproach. This is a legal phrase that essentially means if someone were to take us to court, the case would be thrown out because there’s no evidence to support the spurious claim. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon describes it as, “that which cannot be called into account, unreproveable, unaccused, blameless.” BibleSuite.com adds, “not convictable when a person is properly scrutinized (i.e. tried with correct logic).” This is where we’re headed, according to Paul – that if someone were to take us to court for how we’re living, every allegation would be thrown out for lack of evidence.
So whatever God did through the cross, He plans to take these people who hated him so vehemently and turn them into people set apart for Him, without any stain, with no evidence of any guilt or wrongdoing in their lives.
What He did was reconcile us.
The roots of this word go back to the idea of exchanging money, like going from US dollars to Romanian lei. The idea is that the situation has completely changed. Where you once had dollars, now you don’t have anything remotely like dollars. You’ve got an entirely different monetary unit, made of different materials, with different artwork, usable in a different country. From this root, the word evolved to mean a ruined relationship becoming completely changed into a restored one. In the New Testament, it’s used to describe a wife being reconciled to her husband after leaving him, in 1 Corinthians 7:11. When God reconciles us, he takes a relationship that’s been destroyed beyond fixing, and He fixes it completely.
This is the simple power of the Gospel! What you were no longer applies. You’re new now. You’ve been reconciled to God, you’re old relationship of enmity thrown out and replaced by a new one of friendship, headed toward purity and holiness in all things.
Through Jesus, God reconciled us to Himself, restoring our relationship we had broken.
Way back here, I started a series on the different ways the Bible describes the work of the Gospel in our lives. As Paul wrote in Romans 1:16, the Gospel is the “power of God” for our salvation. It’s the power of God, something meant to turn whole nations upside-down!
The Gospel is God’s plan to restore and repair everything ruined by sin and the cruelty of man. He has no Plan B, no alternative worked out in case the Gospel fails. This is it. This is His route to glorify His name, rescue His people, and rebuild His creation.
Here’s the next illustration I want to take a look at:
Jesus came to ransom us. Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” What’s that mean? To answer that, we gotta go back to the world Mark was writing in, a world shaped by the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament, the concept of ransoming something entails an exchange, paying a price for another’s release, much like the modern-day concept of paying a ransom to a kidnapper.
In the beginning of Israel’s history, God had laid claim to every firstborn male. Like a 2-year-old around toys, God pointed at the firstborn men and said, “Mine.” Every firstborn male, He said, belonged to Him and had to be sacrificed.
Since God isn’t a fan of lobster and doesn’t like human sacrifice, however, He allowed for certain firstborn males to be ransomed, exchanged, so they wouldn’t have to die as an offering. Every firstborn human male was required to be ransomed. In exchange for their lives, God took the Levites and 5 shekels (about $60) a head. Firstborn men in Israel could go on living because God took the Levites’ service as exchange for their lives.
Similarly, firstborn male unclean animals (like lobster) were required to be ransomed, since offering something deemed unclean in sacrifice would be unthinkable. Everyone who owned a firstborn male of an unclean animal was required to pay 5 shekels to ransom each one, so God wouldn’t have to accept your unclean sacrifice and you could go on running your lobster farm I guess.
Curiously, donkeys were also allowed to be ransomed, at the owner’s discretion. A firstborn male donkey headed for sacrifice could be exchanged for a lamb if the owner wanted to make the substitution. My guess is God gave this as a mercy to poor farmers who only had one family donkey that they really needed to survive.
Jesus ransomed us. On the cross, He exchanged His life for ours. We deserve the wrath of God, we deserve punishment, we deserve judgment in Hell for eternity, but Jesus took our place, receiving God’s wrath poured out on sin in our place, paying His own life as our ransom. We were like a donkey headed for the temple to be sacrificed, when Jesus, our lamb, gave Himself in exchange, so we could go on living.
In Romans 1:16, Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The Gospel is the power of God for salvation. I’ve been meditating on this idea lately, thinking about how we can so often turn the Gospel, this thing of dynamic power that’s meant to turn the world upside-down, into a small thing that’s easy to digest and grab hold of, packaging it in bumper-sticker slogans and T-shirt phrases that are easy to remember and equally easy to forget.
But the Gospel is the power of God on display, His infinite grace working in the lives of finite men.
Over the next few months, once a week, I want to look at some of the metaphors and illustrations the Bible uses to describe the power of the Gospel, skipping over some of the usual ones like “saved,” “born-again,” or, if you’re in Romania, “pocaiti.”
So today, let’s look at the first one…
Galatians 4:4-5 says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Through the Gospel, God takes us and makes us part of His family. We were orphaned, without a father, left to our own, and God found us, took us in, and made us part of His family.
But this is no Cinderella story where the stepsister is mistreated and hated but the real sisters get the perks of family living. Through Jesus, God has made us sons and daughters, with all the same family privileges the real Son gets.
The word “adoption” Paul uses here is a Greek word made up of two smaller words (also Greek, believe it or not), meaning “son” and “to set in place, to make, to establish.” Literally, it means He made us into His sons. We’re not orphans taken in by the state. We’re not street kids befriended by a kindly old man. We’re not even, technically-speaking, adopted, where we still have a birth mother and father who might try to track us down some day. We’re changed. Those who weren’t sons have been brought home and made into sons.
We’ve been made into sons. We’ve been “son-ized.”
Here in Romania, we’ve come in contact with some pretty impressive Americanizing. If you’re just coming out of your 1950s bomb shelter, Americanization is the phenomenon of American culture influencing nations all over the planet, for better or worse. It’s the reason why, here in Bucharest, you can go to an American restaurant, eat American food, hear American music on the loudspeakers, and hear people speaking the American language of English, all while discussing American movies and wearing American t-shirts. It’s why Parcul Herestrau here has a statue in honor of Michael Jackson. Thank you, America.
Yet, despite all the Americanizing, all the aspects of American culture that are evident here, this is very much not America. This is Romania, and though parts of American culture are influencing this nation, Romanians are still Romanians. They will never be Americans, no matter how much MTv they watch, how many Nikes they wear, how many Hollywood movies they download, or how well they learn to speak English. Americanizing can never delete the fact that this is Romania, filled with Romanians who have their own culture and their own way of thinking and their own contributions to give to history.
When God adopts us into His family, He doesn’t just influence our culture from the outside, like Hollywood sending its movies all over the planet, infiltrating society through images and stories. God changes us deep down inside. God doesn’t just influence us so we begin to act like sons, talk like sons, think like sons, feel like sons. No, he makes us sons. And sons, by their nature, act, talk, think, and feel like sons.
The Gospel is the power of God to turn us into sons of the King.
I haven’t blogged in forever. Let me offer a lame excuse. We’ve been so busy with regular meetings, unannounced events, language learning, and simple survival as a big family in an even bigger foreign city that by the time I sit down to write a blog post, a million other things seem way more important. It happens every time.
I’ve got tons to say, as always. I just haven’t made the time to sit down and say it.
Today we visited Elim Pentecostal Church with our friend Andrei who’s known as Kaze. Before he met Jesus, everyone called him Kamikaze because he was, well, a little bit crazed. Now that he’s mellowed out, the shortened version has stuck with him. I’ll have him tell his whole story on here sometime, but as we were talking and he was sharing some of his testimony, it reminded me of the dangers of repenting in an Orthdox-dominated society.
In America, when someone becomes a Christian, we’ve got all sorts of terms we use. We say, “I was born-again,” or “I got saved,” or “I became a Christian,” or “I found Jesus,” or “I asked Jesus to come into my heart.” Or, conjuring up disturbing images of Freddy Krueger and Jason, “I’ve been washed in the Blood.” You can argue forever which one you like better, but each comes with an amount of baggage.
Here, the loaded term is “Repentant” or “Repenter.” Pocait, in the Romanian language. Christians bear the name proudly because, yes, they’ve repented of their sins and been forgiven by the blood of Jesus. Non-Christians and Orthodox churchgoers cast it around as an insult, mocking the Christians for thinking they need to repent. “We’re Orthodox,” I’ve heard so many people say, “We don’t need to repent. We were born Christians.” Trusting for their salvation in their Orthodox heritage (which is rich indeed) and in their infant baptism, they mock the very truth that could set them free.
I’m sure there are genuine Believers in the Orthodox church, but I have not yet met one, and from what I’ve witnessed, I don’t think the Orthodox church would suffer to share communion with a dreaded Pocait for very long.
I’ve heard stories that remind me of what’s coming out of the Muslim world when someone turns to Jesus. Not every story is as sinister, but I’ve heard of fathers beating their daughters for repenting of their sins, mothers driving their children out of the house, extended families holding secret meetings to pressure new converts to give up their hopes of repentance… When a friend of mine repented, he was told by his mother, “You are not my son. You are dead to me if you become a Pocait.” Another was told that he was an embarrassment to his entire family, that his dead relatives were shamed because he had abandoned their faith. Another that she was wasting her life and would amount to nothing because she had chosen superstition and rebellion over conforming to the family’s desires.
When another friend of ours was first considering going to a Christian church, she asked her Orthodox priest for advice. “Be careful,” he told her. “They’ll turn off the lights during the service and have wild orgies.”
This is one of the main rumors I’ve heard spread about Pocait Believers, and not just from a couple of people. Whether they’re talking about Baptists, Pentecostals, or some other flavor of Christian, Orthodox churchgoers seem to genuinely believe we have mass orgies at every service. Now, I can’t vouch for every church in Bucharest, but I’ve visited quite a few, and though I may have missed something, I don’t think I’ve noticed any mass orgies going on. Heck, not even small ones.
And, for the record, we do not currently have and will not in the future be having any mass orgies at any churches we’re planting. But we are Pocaits.