How to Read Romans [Studies in Romans]

Certeza Unida and Kairos will publish my Romans commentary as part of their Comentario Bíblico Contemporáneo (Contemporary Bible Commentary). More than 160 scholars participated in the project.

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What follows is adapted from the section “How to Read Romans,” in which I show its particular application for Latin America.

The epistle to the Romans meets the Christian on two levels: (1) as a treasure house of beloved gospel texts; (2) as an ancient missionary letter, written for a specific moment in Paul’s work among the nations.

Both levels are valid, since the disciple today first comes to know Romans because of its neat formulations of, for example, the deadliness of sin (3:23), the free gift of eternal life (6:23), the transformation of the new person in Christ (12:1-2). Then beyond that, we must enter into the mind of Paul and appreciate his plan for the final years of the AD 50s – a missionary journey that would take the gospel farther west from Jerusalem than it had ever gone, across several of what we know as time zones. We then see that Romans, when first delivered, was a clear call to action for the believers in the capital to receive Paul for a time, and later to sponsor his trip to evangelize Spain.

In Latin America too we are arming ourselves to take the gospel to the nations, in particular, unreached ones. We too will benefit from knowing, not just what Paul said about salvation, but why he said it to these Christians in Rome, and by extension how it is God’s summons to us to show forth the gospel.

Romans is the largest extant letter by Paul. It is also the most systematic in its structure, touching on many facets of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) but saying little about other themes, for example, the Last Days. Paul begins with the lostness of the world, then God’s solution in the death of Christ, the power of the new life in the Spirit, and later, details about how to live the Christian life. He also introduces a long section in chapters 9-11 to answer the questions Why don’t Jews believe in their own Messiah? Will Israel come to God eventually?

The best way to enjoy this letter is to read it; one can read Romans aloud at an unhurried pace in about one hour.

“How to Read Romans [Studies in Romans],” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Published in: on February 8, 2017 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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‘Christianity-without-Christ’ and Other Pointless Projects

This was a commencement address that I gave in 1998 at Biblical Theological Seminary. You can download the text here. Shogren_Christianity without Christ

In the last century, during the heyday of Liberal Christianity, a fringe group of thinkers raised the question, “Does a person really have to believe in Christ in order to be a good Christian? Does the absence of Jesus do any real damage to the Christian faith?” Theodore Parker, for example, preached:

If it could be proved…that Jesus of Nazareth had never lived, still Christianity would stand firm, and fear no evil.[1]

Shouldn’t it be possible, they conjectured, to go forward with the lovely system of ethics that Jesus might have taught, but not accept all that religious baggage about miracles and the virgin birth and the resurrection?

One wonders, parenthetically, what charming ethical points they were talking about. Surely not the one about hating your mother and father for Christ’s sake? Or the warning about going to Gehenna if you slander someone? Well, no matter, let’s just run with the theory as it stands.

Now, if I were really lazy, I could raise that theory today, that is, can there be Christianity without Christ. With this crowd, I could probably knock it down with a one-word rebuttal (or two, if I wanted to use my boys’ lingo and say, “Well, duh!”). And we could all go downstairs for punch and cookies.

Instead, let me point out a few truths, old truths that are worth repeating.

First, yes, of course, we must reject a system “without Christ,” one in which Christ plays no part at all. Second, having repelled the obvious error, might we succumb to a subtler one? Might we settle for a Christianity in which Christ plays not large enough a role? We could strain at a “Christianity without Christ” and swallow a Christianity without, well…not quite enough Christ.

Is this man dispensable?

Is this man dispensable?

Could your existence actually degenerate into a farcical stage play in which the really memorable characters are named Committee, Strategy, Effort, Advancement – and in which a minor character named Jesus Christ occasionally makes a walk-on appearance to bail you out whenever you get panicky enough to try prayer?…What if we have a heart in which Christ is present, our best God, if you will, but not all-consuming? (more…)

“Oh, before I conclude let me just say…” 1 Thess 5:12-28 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 15]

These are notes of a sermon outline, not a full message.

This is an exciting epistle, full of joy and energy. Despite all the persecution they have experienced, the Thessalonian church is thriving and growing and reaching out with the gospel. Sure, Paul has to remind them about the resurrection of the dead when Jesus returns; and he also wants to remind them to work hard, to keep pure, to be alert for Jesus’s coming, but in general things are fine.

So as he concludes, it’s upbeat and encouraging.

This is common with Paul and other letter-writers of his day, to conclude a letter with a brief list of commands or exhortations. “Time is running out, just a little more space on the page, Do this, don’t do that, don’t forget this! (more…)

Published in: on September 30, 2015 at 1:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“A Thief in the Night” 1 Thess 5:1-3 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 13]

Note: These are sermon outlines, not full messages.

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

How do you prepare for the Second Coming?

Some say – we prepare by setting dates! I know of 242 examples of people doing this, from the time of the early church until 2011, but I think there are probably many more that didn’t make the list.

Others are selling things, robbing people: buy my book! Buy my survival kit!

Paul now examines the coming of Christ from the angle of daily living. First, no one knows the time of his return (more…)

Published in: on September 16, 2015 at 1:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“The Resurrection, Our Goal” 1 Thess 4:13-18 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 12]

Note: These are sermon outlines, not full messages.

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Paul has said, You know how to love one another; you know how to live in purity; you know how to work and have a good reputation before “outsiders” – you are all set, just keep on doing what it is you do

Now – Timothy has gone and returned, and he says, “there is only one (doctrinal) problem, one thing where they are confused”.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death (more…)

Published in: on September 9, 2015 at 1:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“The Unglamorous Christian Life” 1 Thess 4:9-12 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 11]

Note: These are sermon outlines, not full messages.

For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.

Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10 And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

We continue on in a section where Paul tells the people how to live; and what’s interesting about this letter is that he don’t need to correct them, and least not very much.

Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.

He uses a particular word for love, which is Philadelphia. In this epistle alone, he speaks to the Christians as “brothers and sisters”. In 1:4-5 he said For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. That is, calling them brothers and sisters is not just being friendly, but he means that it’s through the gospel that we are now family. (more…)

“Sex and the Christian Life” 1 Thess 4:1-8 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 10]

 

Note: These are sermon outlines, not full messages.

As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.

When I was taught the epistles of the New Testament, they told us – okay, these chapters are the “theology” ones, and then come the “practical” ones. So Romans 1-11 is doctrine, and then 12 to 16 is application. Ephesians 1-3, doctrine, 4-6, practical. Although there is some truth to that, we have to keep this in mind: sound doctrine must lead to holy living; if not, there is a breakdown somewhere.

And today it is popular to preach “here are practical tips for successful living” – but they avoid the underlying truths, the doctrine. (more…)

Published in: on August 26, 2015 at 2:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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“Paul’s Frustrated Travel Plans” 1 Thess 2:17-3:13 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 9]

These are notes of a sermon outline, not a full message.

17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.

3 So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.

But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.

11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13 May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

INTRO – frustration at travel plans

2:18 – following hard on the first statement is that “Satan blocked” Paul and Silas (2:18c). Paul introduces this event with a bare “and” (καὶ), which seems to be a deliberate understatement on his part. It is an abrupt, harsh description, without elaboration: Satan just shut us down. (more…)

“Imitating other Believers in Judea” – 1 Thess 2:13-16 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 8]

(13) And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. (14) For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews (15) who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone (16) in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

Paul here goes back once again to the major theme in 1:2, in his thanksgiving: You Thessalonians didn’t just hear the message, but you accepted it.  When he says word of God in 2:13 he is not speaking of “the Bible” – in this case the Old Testament – but the gospel message.

They accepted it “not as a human word”, in the sense of “not as something that people made up”, but as what it is, the message God spoke. See how he keeps repeating the word “God” (we have underlined it above).

And the gospel message works in them, transforming them from the inside out. This reminds us of a key text from Isa 55:11:

…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

And now these new believers were responsible to pray for those who were even then hearing the gospel for the first time in Achaia, as we see in Paul’s next letter:

As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. (2 Thess 3:1)

So, the Thessalonians imitated Paul, the Lord Jesus (1:6) and also other churches, especially the churches in Judea. It is interesting that the bulk of new believers in Thessalonica came from paganism (1:9-10), but most Jews did not receive the gospel in that city, nor in Jerusalem and Judea.

Like the Jewish Christians, these Gentile disciples suffer at the hands of their own people, their neighbors, and their local government. Thessalonians suffer at the hands of Thessalonians, while the churches in “Judea” (2:14a) are persecuted by Judeans. When Jews or Gentiles receive Christ, they find themselves cut off from their former people and persecuted by them. The underlying premise is that, if the people of the covenant act this way when their fellow Jews receive Christ, then imagine the reaction of the Gentiles among whom you live.

Some people point to this paragraph, which has very strong language, and they ask whether Paul is anti-Jew, anti-Semitic. But we need to keep in mind that Paul is not speculating about race but is responding to a concrete historical situation: the synagogue wielded great power in Judea and enough power in Macedonia to cause serious persecution to the Christians there.

Ruins of the Ostia synagogue, outside the city of Rome

Ruins of the Ostia synagogue, outside the city of Rome

(more…)

“Be like a child, a mom, a dad!” 1 Thess 2:7-12 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 7]

1 Thess 2:6-12 NIV 2011 – We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. 7 Instead, we were like ** young children ** among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

Instead of “little or young children” (so CEV, NET, NLT) some manuscripts read “gentle”, as in the NKJV, the NIV 1984 version, and most other English versions, because it seems jarring to have “we were like little children” then “we were like mothers”

Thus the NKJV of 2:7 – “But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children.”

Our solution – Paul things of three ideas: little children (not powerful); nurturing and hard—working mothers; wise and caring fathers:

We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. 7a Instead, we were like YOUNG CHILDREN among you.

7b Just as a nursing MOTHER cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.

11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a FATHER deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

So, Paul and Silas were like little children, like a mother, like a father. That is how they behaved when the evangelized Thessalonica; and if the Thessalonians want to be evangelistic, they should do the same.

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2:7 – Instead, we were like YOUNG CHILDREN (or little ones) among you.

Instead of being bossy adults, they took the role of small children. (more…)