Sunday 24 June 2012

Not shy (Romans 1:16-17)

Back in Singapore, whenever we saw someone throwing litter on streets, or a car irresponsibly parked where it shouldn’t be, or a shopper cutting into a long queue at the checkout line, the expression we would use to describe such bad behaviour is, “Beh Pai Seh!” a Hokkien expression which means, “Not shy!”

That is, we wouldn’t simply look at a bad behaviour and condemn it as bad. We wouldn’t simply look upon irresponsible actions and condemn them as wrong. Instead we would say that such a person is “Beh Pai Seh” or “Not shy”, as a way of saying that he or she has no shame. He or she is shameless.

As Asians, we come from a shame culture. Ours is a culture which places a premium on personal integrity, on respect for elders, on maintaining the honour of our traditions and our way of life. Meaning, offensive behaviour isn’t simply that which is bad or destructive, but behaviour which brings shame to our family, actions which cause embarrassment to our community.

Which is why the text we are looking at today is so puzzling. Because Paul says that he is someone who is not ashamed of the gospel. Someone from a Western background reads that and thinks that Paul is simply saying that he is bold; that Paul means to say that he is proud of the gospel; that Paul wants to shout the gospel from the rooftops and let everyone know that he is a Christian and that he is proud of being a Christian.

That is not what Paul is saying at all. When Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he is actually admitting that there is a part of him that is tempted to be ashamed, that is tempted to feel embarrassed for confessing that he is Christian. Do you ever feel that way sometimes? Someone asks you what you did on Sunday and you might tell them that you watched the football. What you won’t say is that you came here to church and heard a talk from the bible. Why? Because that would embarrassing. Paul is saying to you, “I know what that feels like.” And yet, Paul is also saying to you, “You shouldn’t be ashamed. I’m not.” And then he tells us why.

Let me read to you what Paul says in verses 16 and 17:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Romans 1:16-17

I want us to see just two things today: two reasons why we should not be ashamed of the gospel. The first reason is, God saves us through the gospel. And the second reason is, God makes us righteous by faith in the gospel.

God saves us through the gospel

Reason number one: God saves us through the gospel.

Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” or you might even read it as, “I am not shy about the gospel.” That is, when it comes to talking about Jesus and living for Jesus, Paul is teaching us that we should not be ashamed. Instead, we ought to be Beh Pai Seh or Pu Ke Qi (Mandarin: “Do not stand on ceremony”) whenever it comes to speaking about Jesus Christ.

Why? Because it is God’s power for the salvation of everyone who believes. God wants to save his people through the gospel and he uses men and women who are not shy about the gospel.

You see this in the opening verses of Romans. Romans is a letter which Paul wrote to Christians living in the city of Rome, and I just want to point out to you how not shy Paul is in the way that he addresses the believers in this church.

First, I thank my God for through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times.
Romans 1:8-10

What kind of person says, “Do you know that I am always praying for you? No kidding, I even call God as my witness, how I remember you in my prayers at all times.” That’s what Paul is saying in these verses. Who would you say this to? A good friend? A close family member? You read these words from Paul and you may be forgiven for thinking that Paul is a close buddy of Roman Christians. You might be forgiven for thinking he used to be their pastor, who planted their church, who preached Sunday after Sunday and brought many of their members to Christ. That’s why he says that he prays for them and is writing this long letter of sixteen chapters to them.

Actually, no. Paul is neither a close friend nor a pastor to the Roman Christians. Just look at what he says in verse 10:

And I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
Romans 1:10

Did you get that? Paul has never met them before! What he says in verse 10 is: He is praying that God would open the way for him to visit them for the first time! How not shy is that? You turn up in church today and a stranger runs up to you and gives a big hug and says, “Hello brother! I’ve missed you sooo much!” You’re going, “Who is this guy? I’ve never met him before. Help me, someone call the police!”

Some of us know people like that: who are sociable, affectionate, outgoing. Is that what Paul is doing, though - being ultra-friendly? Look at verse 14, because there Paul tells us the purpose why he is so eager to visit Rome. It is not simply because he has heard how wonderful and loving the Christians are. It is not simply because Paul loves travelling and would like to see the world. Actually what he says is that he is eager to visit them in order to do one thing above all, and that is, to preach the gospel.

I am bound to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and to the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.
Romans 1:14-15

It all comes back to the gospel. Paul’s not shy-ness, his eagerness, his PDA (Public Display of Affection) is not a result of an outgoing personality. The reason is the gospel.

Now that says something to those of us who aren’t naturally outgoing, who aren’t comfortable with the idea of imposing upon the hospitality of our friends (or indeed, in having friends who are not shy in imposing themselves upon us). We would much rather mind our own business. If we have to organise church events, let’s keep them within the regulars and members. We don’t want to trouble others; we would rather not have other Christians, missionaries, churches stick their noses into our church affairs, thank you very muchly!

Aside from being unloving, such an attitude reveals a deeper misunderstanding about who we are and what we do as the church. And I want you to notice how Paul puts it. He says, “I am bound” - some translations have, “I am obligated” - to Greeks and non-Greeks. For Paul, the fact that God has entrusted him with the gospel means he cannot keep it to himself. He cannot keep it within his church. He cannot even keep it within his own culture or community. What does he say? I am bound, obligated to preach this gospel to those who are in the Greek culture and those who are not. If you read this verse in the English Standard Version, it actually says “barbarians”. What Paul has done is listed two completely opposing cultural standards - on the one hand, the Greeks, representing a culture that was sophisticated, accomplished and well-mannered; and one the other, the barbarians. Think Conan. Think uncivilised, uncouth, insensitive. The word, “barbarian” was a term of insult. To the Greeks, the barbarian language sounded like nonsensical babbling, and it was actually in mimicking what they heard, that the Greeks named them barbarians. Here, Paul says that he is obligated not just to those from the Greek culture, which he would have been familiar with, having grown up as a Roman citizen and tutored by the best scholars of his day. He was obligated also to the non-Greeks.

And he would say to those of us who have the gospel and understand the gospel, do you know who you are obligated to speak the gospel to? It’s not just to the Chinese, you know. It is both to the Chinese and to the non-Chinese. The reason why we have an English-speaking congregation, the reason why we have a Sunday school, is not so that the main congregation of Chinese speakers can get on with the big responsibility of reaching the Chinese people here in Cambridge. We have an obligation. To the kids who are joining us here today, I want you know, that the bible says, you are supposed to be here. You are welcome here, this is your church. And I am obligated to tell you about Jesus, I hope you know that.

This is not to say that it would be wrong to focus on telling the gospel to those who are Chinese here in Cambridge. After all, in verse 5, Paul reminds us that God has sent him as apostle to the Gentiles. It is a specific focus that God himself has set for Paul: to preach to an audience who were not Jewish (That’s what the word “Gentiles” refers to. It means “nations”, which in the Old Testament, referred to all the other nations apart from the one nation of God’s people, the Jews.) Now, notice that Paul wasn’t sent to his own people. He had a mission, yes. It was a specific focus, yes. But it wasn’t the kind of mission or focus that he chose himself, or that many of us would choose for ourselves today. We choose jobs which play to our strengths. We choose to focus on people who look like us, who sound like us, using the excuse that we are making use of the gifts God has already given to us. Yet when it comes to the gospel, Jesus calls us to make disciples of all nations, not just our nation. Of all peoples, not just our people. For us here in the Chinese Church, this means intentionally thinking about cultures and communities which may have nothing to do with China, Hong Kong, Malaysia or Singapore, but looking beyond to people from Western nations, African nations and Muslim nations. This isn’t some optional extra. Missions is at the heart of gospel ministry. Jesus Christ died on the cross, in order to purchase with his blood “men from every tribe, language people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

I know that sounds scary. Much easier it is to look at what we have and what we’re good at; to do what we have always done and which has always worked for us so far. What we need to do is to look at the gospel. Do you know what you have in the gospel? It is the power of God to save everyone - everyone who believes and trusts in the gospel.

If you understand that, it will transform the way you speak the gospel to people whom you’ve never imagined you’d ever want to speak the gospel to. Not just your friends, but your enemies. Not just your colleagues whom you get along with, but the boss who signs your paycheck. Some of us are terrified to speaking the gospel to our parents, to family members who are older than us. Paul is saying to us, “Look at the gospel. See there God’s power to save. Then look at that person whom you’re hesitant to talk to and say to yourself: I owe it him or her to tell her about Jesus.”

So, Paul is obligated to Greeks and to non-Greeks - meaning, to every culture, and especially to those which were most unlike his. He is obligated to the wise and to the foolish - meaning, not just to the Cambridge graduates and those with PhDs, but he wanted to make the gospel understandable even to those who have never read the bible ever before (these days that includes most Cambridge undergraduates and PhD students), ie. the foolish. Yet, notice his audience in verse 15: “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.”

Now get this, the Romans whom Paul was writing to, were already Christians. Earlier, Paul says, “I thank my God... because your faith is being reported all over the world” (Romans 1:8). And yet, what is Paul’s purpose is visiting these Christian believers, whose faith was so famously known by every other church in the Christian word? To preach the gospel.

Christians need to hear the gospel, not just the non-believers. Did you know that? The reason why we meet as the church, every Sunday here as the Chinese Church, every Wednesday at Rock Fellowship, in our various groups - Joshua, Timothy, Esther groups - is to gather as God’s people around the gospel. We are reminding ourselves that Jesus Christ is Lord. He died for our sins, he was raised for our justification. And whenever someone says to you, “Can’t we move on? Why do we need to keep hearing about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, over and over again? I already know the gospel.” That’s a person that needs to hear the gospel because the bible keeps bringing us back to the gospel. It is God’s power to save us and it is God’s grace to keep us in his salvation.

There are two reasons why someone might want to move away from the gospel. Either they do not know the gospel or they are tempted to be ashamed of the gospel. Some people don’t know the gospel. Actually, the truth is most people do not know the gospel and indeed, they cannot know the gospel unless by the work of God’s spirit. It is therefore a dangerous and irresponsible thing to assume the knowledge of the gospel.

We were having a music practice yesterday afternoon, and after going through all the songs, I said to Yao and Andi, “These are good songs. I love these songs. But there’s one thing we’ve missed. There’s not a single song here that mentions Jesus by name!” Now I know Yao and Andi well and after all these years, I can say in good conscience that these two good brothers of mine know the gospel and they have certainly heard the gospel, week after week here in the Chinese Church and in Rock Fellowship. And again, I thought that the song selection was marvellous, praising God for his salvation in Jesus Christ (which they made special effort in being clear about in their bible readings and introductions). And what i wanted to get across was: Let’s be extra clear about the gospel, even in choosing the songs that we sing. After all, how many times after a Sunday meeting have you had a deep discussion about the sermon (I hope you have had at least... some!), and comparatively, how many more times have you left, humming a song about Jesus we had just sung together? For the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we want to remind them of the gospel in which they have taken their stand. But also for the sake of those who have yet to know Jesus, we want to give every opportunity for them to respond to him by hearing the gospel and giving their lives over to him in repentance and trust. Not everyone knows the gospel, and it is actually unloving to assume such knowledge of Jesus even in a regular gathering of believers but strive to make the message of his salvation clear and understandable to everyone.

But secondly, the reason might be shame. Paul, in speaking to a Christian audience here in Romans, says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel”. Why might a Christian be ashamed of the gospel? Simply put, the gospel is a shameful message. The gospel says that we are sinners deserving God’s punishment because all of us have rejected him as God. None of us wanted God as our King. None of us loved God as our creator. All of us choose to live our lives selfishly for our own good and not for his glory. That’s shameful, to admit that you and I are sinners. There is an old Christian prayer of confession that even says to God, we are miserable sinners. The gospel is shameful because it means we have to admit our shame before God.

More than that, the gospel is shameful because God saves us by taking our shame. Jesus Christ was strung up on a cross, hung there and left to die. The cross is a symbol of utter humiliation. Men and women cursed Jesus to his face in his dying moments, because they thought, “No way would God allow his son to suffer such a horrible punishment!” Many still think that today. And yet, that is precisely what God did in sending his Son to earth, to take on humanity, to suffer our rejection, and on the cross, to suffer the punishment of death for our sakes. On the cross, God poured out all his anger upon Jesus. And Christians point to that one event of Jesus hanging on the cross, saying, “That’s how I know I’ve been saved. That is how I know I am loved.”

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” He also says, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Keep telling people about Jesus dying on the cross for sins and they are going to say to you, “What a load of nonsense!” It is a foolish message. It doesn’t make sense to the wise. It sounds weak to those who are strong. And yet for us who are being saved, it is the power of God to save.

The gospel is a shameful message. It brings us to terms with our shame in our sinfulness. It brings us to terms with God who takes our shamefulness and puts it onto Jesus, who then clothes us with his righteousness, holiness and love. Ironically, it is only is acknowledging the shamefulness of our sin and the shamefulness that Jesus bore on the cross, that we become not ashamed of the gospel.

Paul is not ashamed of the gospel because though it is a shameful message, it is God’s answer in dealing with our shame. On the cross, Jesus Christ bore our pain and our shame, dying our deaths and taking our punishment, so that we could be free from guilt and free from shame. For all those who trust in his death on our behalf, the gospel promises salvation. It gives us new life and a renewed relationship with God. But more than that, the gospel offers us something called righteousness. That brings us to our next point: God makes us righteous by faith through the gospel.

God makes us righteous by faith through the gospel

For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith.”
Romans 1:17

I want you to notice that though the word “righteousness” several times in this verse, in the first two instances it is talking about God’s righteousness - “a righteousness from God is revealed” - and only in the last instance is it talking about our righteousness - “the righteous will live by faith”. So, it’s God’s righteousness first, followed by ours. And that’s an important order to get right because Paul is describing how something that intrinsically belongs to God is transferred to us as Christians.

What does righteousness mean? You can think of righteousness as a list of requirements that someone has that makes him acceptable and opens doors for him or her. So, when you go for a job interview, your CV is your righteousness - a list of achievements you’ve made in school and in your previous work experiences - that you put forward to your prospective employer to say, “I can do this job. Please hire me.” Or when, Cambridge graduates walk up to Senate House next week, their righteousness is their Tripos results - they have passed the exams, they have worked hard for their grades - therefore, each student is then presented to University Chancellor, “Please admit him or her into their degree.” In other words, righteousness is like a ticket of admission. You present it and you gain entry and acceptance into a place, a position or a relationship. This is how much of our world works and understands righteousness - in school, in the office, even in clubs and restaurants - that is we tend to think of righteousness in terms of morality, goodness, uprightness and fairness, respectability.

Which is why many people think that’s how it ought to work with God. We expect that God will let us into heaven as long as we present the right credentials and tick off the right boxes on his to-do list: Be nice to your mum; Eat your vegetables; Attend church every week. That’s our righteousness. Our list of requirements and accomplishments that we present to God and say to him, “Accept me.”

But remember, Paul doesn’t begin with our righteousness. He starts by talking about God’s righteousness. And he says that when we look at the gospel, what we see is God’s achievement. God’s accomplishment. Now, the fact that Paul uses the word, “reveal”, hints at the fact the this isn’t obvious to everyone. I wonder if you’ve ever heard the gospel and realised that it’s not about you, or what you have done, or what you need to do. Often times, we mistake the gospel for religion. Religion might sound like the gospel, in that it talks about heaven and God and eternal life. But the big difference between religion and the gospel is that while religion talks about what we need to do to get to heaven, what we need to do in order the accepted by God, what we need to do in order to gain eternal life - it’s always do this and do that - the gospel reveals to us what God has done. And what God has done is saved us. That’s his righteousness. He has sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins, so that we would be saved.

Interestingly, Paul doesn’t stop there, because he moves on to talk about how we receive - not simply God’s salvation - but God’s righteousness. He says that this righteousness is “by faith from first to last”. What does that mean? It’s saying that all the credentials and CV points that Jesus did have been transferred to us. This includes all his goodness, all his reward, all his humility, all his holiness, all his glory - he takes that and he covers us with them. Like a soldier who risks his life by fighting in a war and is awarded a medal of bravery, but then pins that medal onto someone else, Jesus takes his medal and pins it on us, as if to say, “Everything I did on cross and everything I deserve for dying on the cross, I share with these brothers and sisters of mine.” That’s an awesome picture of salvation. It’s saying that we aren’t simply cleared of all our debts of sin, but our accounts are credited with all of Jesus’ wealth and reward. It is saying that we aren’t simply washed of all our guilt and shame, but that we are clothed in Jesus’ holiness and righteousness. Therefore, if you are in Christ, God looks at us as if he were looking at Jesus; with the same regard, with the same love he has for his own Son.

And Paul says we receive all this by faith. To have faith means to trust, to rely and to depend; and what we trust in are God’s trustworthy, reliable and dependable promises found in the gospel. Faith means we do not deserve salvation, yet God grants it to us as a gift. Faith means we could not do this for ourselves, we receive it simply by trusting in the gospel. So, when Paul writes that this righteous is by faith from first to last - literally, if you look in your footnotes, “from faith to faith” - what he is saying is, “You began by trusting in the gospel; so carrying on trusting in this same message of the gospel”. We begin with faith, we continue in faithfulness, continually coming back to the gospel, continually being reminded of the gospel.

How do we receive God’s righteousness? By trusting in Jesus, and by continuing to trust in Jesus. That’s Paul’s unpacking of the gospel. But remember that it is also Paul’s explanation as to why he isn’t ashamed of the gospel. You see, Paul is banging the same gospel drum here when he uses the word faith. He is saying, “You began with faith in the gospel, well then, continue on in that same faith.” In other words, don’t add anything to it. God’s righteousness comes to those who trust in Jesus and keep on trusting only in Jesus.

What he is dealing with, therefore, is a kind of embarrassment over the gospel, that tries to add something extra to the gospel. That implies that faith is good, but what you need to keep on going is more than faith alone. Paul quotes an Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk, to deal with this point. He says, “Just as it is written, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Quoting Habakkuk 2:4) And this could be a reminder that those who have been made righteous, that is accepted by God through Jesus, ought to go on living by faith. However, the prophet Habakkuk was talking not about daily living, but the salvation of God’s people in the midst of terrible judgement. God promises Habakkuk that he will spare his people - the righteous - and that they will not die in his judgement, but instead, will live. Therefore, Paul is talking about who will ultimately be saved in the final judgement. Verse 17 could be better translated as “The righteous by faith, will live”. Meaning, only those who trust in God are righteous in his eyes. Only those who trust in the gospel are saved.

Paul is saying that embarrassment over the gospel is no small thing. It is a matter of our ultimate salvation in Jesus Christ. The gospel is the power of salvation of everyone - but everyone, that is, who trusts in the gospel. And Habakkuk reinforces that statement by saying that only those whose trust is solely in God’s gospel will be saved.

God is not ashamed

To recap, Paul gives us two reasons not to be ashamed of the gospel.

Firstly, it is God’s power to save. The gospel gives us a boldness and eagerness to tell our friends and family about Jesus because in his great mercy, God has chosen this message to offer forgiveness and eternal life to everyone who trusts in Jesus death for them on the cross. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel. Instead, announce it clearly and confidently, trusting in God’s power to save through the gospel.

Secondly, it is God’s righteousness for those who trust in him. It reminds us of the goodness of God and the goodness of the gospel. We did nothing, Jesus has done everything on the cross. Therefore, each we live is by faith, trusting in him, and being made righteous in Jesus.

In closing, I thought it would be interesting to briefly look at another bible passage which talks about God who is not ashamed of us. That’s a funny thing to think about, that God could be ashamed of us, but then again, we have been reading today about our temptation to be ashamed of God. Hear what the bible says God is not ashamed of:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only say them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.

If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

Who is God not ashamed of? Those trust in him, and continue trusting in him even when they were tempted to turn back. Why? Because compared to everything they knew and had, they trusted in God’s promises when he said that he was going to build them “a better country - a heavenly one”.

If you are a believer who has been trusting faithfully in God’s promises through Jesus Christ, I want you to know, this passage is talking about you. His eye searches for men and women, for boys and girls who hear his word and go, “There’s a promise I can trust. My God is faithful in keeping his word.” The world may look at you call you an alien and a stranger. A barbarian. Pu Ke Qi. Beh Pai Seh. Not shy.

God looks at you and your perseverance and faithfulness in Jesus and says he is not ashamed to be called your God. Keep trusting in him and keep proclaiming Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.

At the cross
God demonstrates His love for us.
While we were sinners Jesus came to die
so by His blood we could be justified.

At the cross
God demonstrates that He is just.
Unpunished sins could not be overlooked
so Jesus took them on Himself.

So be not ashamed of the cross.
It brings salvation to all who believe.
God is revealed.  Guilt is removed.
Forgiveness can now be received.
So be not ashamed of the cross.
Tell of its power to all who will hear.
Great is our joy.  Glory is ours.
From death we can now be set free.
(“At the cross”, Bryson Smith and Philip Percival)

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