Romans 1:14-17 pt. 2
This past week I got a phone call from a good friend, who also happens to be the person we buy our hay from. He said, “Jeff, I’ve got some good news, and I’ve got some bad news. I’m in the hospital. Came in through the ER last night.” And I said, “Is that the good news or the bad news?” And he said, “That’s the good news. They caught me before I keeled over. We’re meeting with the team tomorrow to talk about a quadruple bypass. The bad news is no tractor driving for 3 to 4 months, so I won’t be able to load you with round bales when you need it for quite a while. We’ll have to figure something out.” So, I reminded him that two years ago when he had shoulder surgery and couldn’t drive his tractors for several months, I loaded myself and it was fine. Gave him some sense of relief. That’s Chuck for you. “The good news is I’m not dead. That bad news is I can’t drive my tractors for several months.”
“You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing. You say I am strong when I think I am weak. You say I am held when I am falling short. When I don’t belong, oh You say that I am Yours.” That’s really good news. That’s what the word “gospel” means. Good news. The thing about good news is that we typically want to share it. When something good happens to us we have a compulsion to share it. We pick up the phone and call someone or we send a text. We post it on Facebook. A lot of the “God moments” we share during worship every week are good news. An upcoming wedding in the family. A baby on the way. A new job. Healing. God’s protection and provision. God’s faithfulness during a difficult time. When something good happens in our lives, we almost have a compulsion to share it with someone, don’t we?
Imagine for a minute that you are sitting quietly in a coffee shop with a couple of friends when suddenly the door bursts open and in rushes a stranger with a wild, excited look on his face. “Good news” he shouts. “You’ll never guess. The greatest news you can imagine.” What in the world can he be talking about? What could his good news be, and why does he think it justifies barging into a coffee shop and telling strangers about it? Here are three possible scenarios:
Scenario 1: Maybe the doctors just told him they had managed to cure his daughter of the disease that was killing her. That would be great news indeed, at least for his immediate family and friends, but it does not explain why he would announce it to strangers.
Scenario 2: Maybe he heard that the Lions had just beat the Vikings to seal up home field advantage in the playoffs. Most fans probably would have been at the bar watching the game with him. Why leave the celebration to tell the nonfans at the café?
Scenario 3: Maybe, in a region with high unemployment and poverty, he just learned that people had discovered huge new reserves of coal, oil, or gas. Suddenly there would be thousands of new jobs and a new start for everyone. I know places where that would cause otherwise quiet people to burst into a room and shout the news to everybody. That might justify such a dramatic announcement.[i]
St. Paul in his letter to the Romans says that God has some good news for you and I. God offers to declare us “not guilty” of all the wrong we have ever done, all the sin and yuck and darkness in our lives. We’re guilty and condemned to die. But God is offering to declare us not guilty because Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, is willing to take responsibility for our sin and the punishment to which it leads. God declares us righteous despite our guilt. God declares Jesus guilty despite his righteousness. He takes our life and gives us his. That’s good news! But do we see it as good news? Turn to Romans 1:14-17.
Good news compels us to share it. It drives us. It motivates us. And this good news isn’t just for us. When angels announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds, they said, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11). Good news. Great joy. For ALL the people. Look at V. 14. Paul says “I am under obligation …” I am obligated. To whom? To Greeks and to barbarians … to the wise and to the foolish.” Most cultures are ethno-centric. They view themselves and their way as the truly civilized and the standard to which all other cultures are compared. In the Roman world, those who had been Hellenized, exposed to Greek culture, were Greeks and everyone else was a barbarian. Saying “Greeks and barbarians” was a way of saying “everyone.” Today, we might say, “to Americans and to non-Americans alike.” Same thing with wise and foolish. All who have heard and received in faith the incredible news that Jesus offers to take our death and give us his life are obligated to share it with everyone. No one is unworthy to hear the good news.
And we are obligated to share it. The word translated as obligation here literally means debt. Paul says, “I am in debt to all people to share with them the good news about Jesus.” There are two ways to be in debt to someone. One is to borrow from someone and then owe them in return. The other way is to be entrusted with something to give from one person to another. If a minor is injured and receives a large sum of money as a settlement, that minor must have a trustee, usually someone unrelated who will be responsible for dispersing the funds at the appropriate time. The trustee is given control of the money, but it isn’t his or her money to use. It must be given to the person to whom it belongs when the time is right. The trustee is obligated to the person who will be receiving the money.
We have been entrusted with a priceless gift – the good news of Jesus Christ. But that gift wasn’t given to us alone. It is for all people. And we are under obligation to share it with everyone. Regardless of their race. Regardless of their status. Regardless of anything they have done or anything they have left undone. No matter the condition of their life. Wise or foolish? Doesn’t matter. Cultured or uncultured? Doesn’t matter. Everyone is loved by God, and everyone who is loved by God deserves to know. No barriers.
Now, when we tend to view an obligation as something we have to do that we don’t necessarily want to do. Obligation often has a negative connotation for us, doesn’t it? When we turn down an activity we’ve been invited to, we often say “I have an obligation that night.” What we’re really saying is, “I’d rather spend that evening doing what you’ve invited me to do, but I have this other obligation, a prior commitment, that I don’t necessarily want to do but I have to do. Or, if you’re an introvert like me, you say “I already have an obligation that night,” you leave out the words “with a good book and a glass of iced tea out on the patio” because you know you need some alone time. Either way, we tend to use the word “obligation” for something that we don’t necessarily want to do, at least in the moment, that we must do. But look at V. 15. Paul’s second “I am …” statement here. Obligated AND eager.
Truly good news always brings with it an element of passion. We want to share good news. We must share good news. When something good happens, we start looking around for someone to tell, don’t we? It’s like the news takes over and demands to be shared. How often do we use the word “eager” to describe something that we’re doing because God has asked us to do it? How often are we eager to gather to worship God together? Are we eager to serve in the food pantry? Are we eager to come in on a Saturday to serve a meal to the hungry? Are we eager to share the good news of Jesus Christ?
That doesn’t mean we have to go door to door like a vacuum cleaner salesman or suddenly become obnoxious and get into arguments with people. That’s our typical view of evangelism, of sharing our faith. But that isn’t what it has to be. In fact, in this world of social media when people who might not be jerks in public are sometimes more than willing to be jerks on-line, I’m a huge advocate of relational, life-style evangelism. We are in an era where we need to shut up and live. Sharing your faith through who you are and how you live first. Doesn’t mean you won’t share it verbally at some point too. You very well might. But it will flow much more naturally in the context of a friendship, of relationship. So instead of getting hives or having a panic attack whenever the pastor says the “E” word, let’s pretend that you are someone who might be willing, in theory, at some point, possibly, to consider maybe doing something that, while not “evangelism-type” evangelism, still could be in some way construed as a sort of sharing of hope. Kind of.[ii]
Even Paul, who was plenty bold when writing from 1,000 miles away letters that would be delivered over the course of months to people he MIGHT see again in two or three years, sometimes felt intimidated by the task of sharing the good news. Look at V. 16. Someone who has never felt ashamed wouldn’t feel the need to say “I am not ashamed.” Only someone who knew the feeling of shame, of fear, of intimidation, would say this. Paul was tempted to feel shame. Look at what he said about his message in 1 Corinthians. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1:18, 22-23).
In person, Paul probably wasn’t the fireball he appears to be in writing. At least he didn’t feel like one. In the next chapter of 1 Corinthians he says, “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” (2:3). He knows the fear that comes from the prospect of sharing the love of Christ, of loving someone with the love of Christ. He knows that the message he brings isn’t always what other people are looking for. That he looks foolish presenting it. But he won’t be ashamed of the good news, because “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). Sin turned this world upside down. That’s why the gospel seems upside down to so many people. It’s, in truth, right side up. But it doesn’t feel like it. It goes against our culture in so many ways. In obvious ways, and in subtle ways. But Paul won’t be ashamed of it. Why? Because “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes …” The word translated as “power” here is the word “dynamis,” which is the word from which we get “dynamite.” And that connection has often been used to describe the explosive power of God. But that isn’t what Paul is getting at here. “Dynamis” is also the word from which we get our word “dynamic.” It gets not at the gospel’s power to destroy something but at the gospel’s power to accomplish something. It is dynamic. It accomplishes what it is intended to accomplish. It does something in our lives. In Jesus Christ God declares us righteous and through the Spirit of Christ God is at work in our lives transforming us from the inside out. There is power in the gospel. There is power in the good news about Jesus Christ.
Sadly, we tend to take for granted the ways in which our world has been shaped by Christ. For example, children would be thought of differently because of Jesus. Historian O. M. Bakke wrote a study called When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, in which he noted that in the ancient world, children usually didn’t get named until the eighth day or so. Up until then there was a chance that the infant would be killed or left to die of exposure — particularly if it was deformed or of the unpreferred gender. This custom changed because of a group of people who remembered that they were followers of a man who said, “Let the little children come to me.”
Jesus never married. But his treatment of women led to the formation of a community that was so congenial to women that they would join it in record numbers … Jesus never wrote a book. Yet his call to love God with all one’s mind would lead to a community with such a reverence for learning that when the classical world was destroyed in what are sometimes called the Dark Ages, that little community would preserve what was left of its learning. In time, the movement he started would give rise to libraries and then guilds of learning …
He never held an office or led an army … And yet the movement he started would eventually mean the end of emperor worship, be cited in documents like the Magna Carta, begin a tradition of common law and limited government, and undermine the power of the state rather than reinforce it as other religions in the empire had done. It is because of his movement that language such as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” entered history.
The Roman Empire into which Jesus was born could be splendid but also cruel, especially for the malformed and diseased and enslaved. This one teacher had said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” An idea slowly emerged that the suffering of every single individual human being matters and that those who are able to help ought to do so. Hospitals and relief efforts of all kinds emerged from this movement; even today they often carry names that remind us of him and his teachings.
Humility, which was scorned in the ancient world, became enshrined in a cross and was eventually championed as a virtue. Enemies, who were thought to be worthy of vengeance (“help your friends and punish your enemies”), came to be seen as worthy of love. Forgiveness moved from weakness to an act of moral beauty. Even in death, Jesus’ influence is hard to escape. The practice of burial in graveyards or cemeteries was taken from his followers … It expressed the hope of resurrection … Death did not end Jesus’ influence. In many ways, it just started it.[iii]
Jesus Christ really is good news. And we are obligated to share it with passion, unashamed of the seeming upsidedownness of the Kingdom of God, because we know that in truth, the Kingdom of God is right side up.
[i] Based on an illustration from N.T. Wright, Simply Good News (HarperCollins, 2015), pp. 1-2
[ii] Steven C. Bonsey, “A Shy Person’s Guide to the Practice of Evangelism,” Episcopal Times (Summer 2005)
[iii] John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? (Zondervan, 2012), pp. 14-16