Click here to download the October 1 Sunday School lesson
Fall Quarter 2023: God’s Law Is Love
Unit 2: Faith Triumphs, Law Fails
Sunday School Lesson for the week of October 1, 2023
By Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Romans 2:1-29
Key Text: Romans 2:29
- To understand the importance of historical and personal background to better understand the message of the text.
- To understand Paul's style of writing.
- To realize the book of Romans is unique in that it is one of the most "theological" letters of Paul.
- To recognize the major issue in Romans: the melding together the Jew and Gentiles.
- To understand the connection between the outer Law and the inner Heart.
Rome had become one of the most important cities in the world. Paul wanted to use Rome as a “launching place” for the Gospel. Roman roadways allowed people, such as Paul, to travel to parts of the world they had not visited. As a strong commercial center, new Christians could travel home after conducting business in Rome and spread the Gospel. Though the Church began in Jerusalem, it quickly spread to the Gentile world. Paul had not yet visited Rome, but a church had taken root. Most likely the Roman church was started by Jewish Christians. It is probable that these Jewish Christians were in Jerusalem during Pentecost. The Holy Spirit birthed the Church in the upper room, and the new converts took the good news of the resurrection to the streets of Jerusalem and beyond. Paul has heard of the Roman church and its vitality. In Romans 1:8 Paul wrote “your faith is being reported all over the world.”
The early Christians had no bible. The Jewish Christians had their Old Testament knowledge, but the Gentiles had little familiarity with it. What was it the early Christians used to share the story of Jesus? What was present in the early church that attracted its listeners, later becoming converts? How difficult do you believe it would have been to enter your home city with a “new story,” the story of Jesus Christ and preach or teach? From where did they receive the strength to share the Gospel?
There was conflict within the church as Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians attempted to follow Jesus together. Paul longs to visit to more deeply anchor them in the Gospel and bind them together in love. We often fail to consider the tensions and conflicts with which Paul dealt. One of the common, yet painful, issues in the early church was the melding together of people from totally different backgrounds. The Jewish people were strongly monotheistic; whereby the Gentiles engaged in polytheism, philosophy, and Emperor worship. For most of their life, the Jewish people had been taught that they were God’s chosen, and in their thinking God had dealings with the Gentiles only as they related to Israel.
How difficult do you believe it would have been to bring unity to a group of people who shared a history of dislike? The Jewish Christians had been taught all their life that God loved them, almost exclusively. Do you think there was a temptation to think of themselves better, or holier than the Gentiles? The Gentiles most likely resented being asked to love and become family with a group they felt looked in condescension upon them. How would you meld these two groups together?
One of the most beautiful dynamics of the Gospel is its global message. Jesus came to redeem the entire world! God loves Jew and Gentile alike! This new revelation would change the world; however, it also birthed early conflict. Most of Paul’s letters addressed conflicts experienced in churches throughout the near eastern world. Again, it was not easy for the Jewish Christians to simply “turn on a switch” and accept the Gentile world. Those of us who have lived through the slow (too slow) dismantling of racism remember the early years of integration. We were being called to a new life, a godly life of inclusion and of inclusive love. Many of the Jewish people had been reared to look upon the Gentile world in disdain. Now, the Gospel was calling them to totally lay aside all beliefs and thinking that segregated and divided the human family. The Gentiles almost certainly had difficulties accepting the Jewish people as family. Many Gentiles understood the Jewish people as proud, arrogant people. After all, “their God” wasn’t concerned with Gentiles. However, the Gospel proclaimed that “God so loved the world.” As Paul underwent his spiritual transformation in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, he would later write, “In Christ there is no male or female, no Jew or Greek.” This was an inspired radical message! In the early church the Christians were attempting to lay aside past beliefs about their new brothers and sisters through the power of the Holy Spirit. Though born of the Spirit, our humanity is very much alive. We are walking toward perfection in love, but the road is long and, at times, difficult. The greatest battle then and now has always been within us. As Jesus said, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). We must, with the Spirit’s help, receive those who are different from us as equal and precious in the sight of God.
Sadly, can you identify racial and ethnic divisions in the Body of Christ? Can you share the gains we have made toward becoming one body bound together by love? Can you share what we can do further to strengthen the bonds that bind us in Christ and as the church?
Paul the Ex-Pharisee
It is always important to understand the historical time in which the author of a biblical book lived. It is also important to be acquainted with their worldview. Paul was a “Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). He studied under a very influential Pharisee, Gamliel, who believed in faithful obedience to the Law; however, he taught his students to be more lenient in relation to women and later to the Christian community. Though an influential teacher of Paul, the young Paul’s behavior took another trajectory in the beginning. He persecuted Christians and most likely ordered the deaths of many. The stoning of Stephen is perhaps the most memorable of Paul’s disdain for the Jewish Christians. They were enemies of the true faith of Judaism. However, the stoning of Stephen also served as a revelatory moment concerning Paul’s heart. He had ordered the stoning death of a pious, loving young Christian. Paul even holds their cloaks, allowing them to throw unencumbered. Many believe this is the moment when the conflict ongoing in Paul’s heart came to light. As a strict Pharisee he felt himself doing the right, godly thing. However, Stephen’s words and humility deeply touched Paul. Some scholars believe this event is recorded in Acts to help the reader know that it was Stephen’s death that opened Paul’s heart to the risen Jesus. It is interesting to note that as a Christian evangelist, Gamliel’s teachings on leniency would reveal themselves. For many today, Paul’s elevation of the status of women in the world is weak. However, for this Pharisee and Hebrew of Hebrews, teaching the churches that in Jesus there is no male or female, Jew or Greek was powerful and revolutionary.
What was it about the stoning of Stephen that disturbed Paul? Do you believe his heart was pricked? Do you believe Paul’s conscience spoke loudly against the taking of Stephen’s life? What was it Stephen said that might have touched Paul deeply? Are Stephen’s words familiar with those of Jesus? In what way? What does the stoning of Stephen reveal about the power of our conscience? Can you recall a time when your conscience called you to take different action from the action culture was demanding of you?
The Conflict in Rome
Rome was experiencing great division between the Jewish people and the Gentiles. In 49 AD, Emperor Claudius drove all the Jews, not just Christian Jews, out of Rome. Historically, the Jewish people were often used as scapegoats by Roman leadership. Instead of taking responsibility for destructive actions, the emperors found a way to blame it on the Israelites. There had been conflict between Judaism and Rome many years earlier. After the death of Claudius, the Jews began to move back to Rome. One would think Rome would prove a difficult place for Gentiles and Jewish Christians to become one family.
Notice the exodus in 49 AD occurs in the early years of the church at Rome. The church at Rome had been dealing with the Jewish/Gentile issue almost from the beginning. The forced exodus did nothing to help create unity in the church. The church in Rome was most likely founded by Jewish Christians. Thus, they had been instrumental in converting Gentiles to the faith. However, some of the Jewish people who had been leaders in the early church were trying to reestablish their positions in the new church. As most of us have experienced, establishing “who is in charge?” can be a difficult issue in a church.
Consequently, the church at Rome was having difficulty “putting down its roots” and establishing a unified family of Christ. Still, to their credit and the glory of God, they persevered and earned the reputation of being a people of great faith. Paul wanted to visit to help them plant their roots in the Gospel more deeply. Always the teacher, Paul still attempts to pave the way by attempting to solve the problem through his “pre-visit” letter.
Paul had to find the means of affirming the Jewish Christians in their devotion to Mosaic Law. Though they were Christians, they still clung to many of the tenets of Judaism. Paul never disregarded the Mosaic Law. He interpreted the Law differently through enlightened eyes. He now perceived the Law as it points to Jesus. The Law, in and of itself, was insufficient apart from Christ. In Christ, however, the Law found its perfect, full, holy meaning. He also needed to assure the Gentiles that they were equal to their Jewish brothers and sisters, even if they were not reared in Law, or knew little about the Torah. When we read our text we will see Paul attempt to bring both sides together in Christ, amazingly, using the Law.
The Theological Beliefs of Paul That Relate to Our Text
As we begin to walk through our text, let’s first glean an understanding of Paul’s belief concerning the Gospel, especially in relation to grace and Law. It is important to remember Paul is “looking backward” on the Law. That is, he is Christian and is understanding the Law as it relates to Christ and the Church. The Law is not an end in and of itself. It points toward Jesus the Christ and the Body of Christ, the church. It is also important to note that Paul has no “bible.” His writing predates the Gospels. Paul’s conversion is believed to have occurred in 33-34 AD. Our earliest Gospel is Mark, which is dated from the mid-60s AD to 80 AD. He did have the Old Testament and especially the Torah. The Old Testament would inform Paul’s understanding of Jesus Christ and the Gospel.
Since Paul did not have a bible (other than the Old Testament) what inspired and informed his writing? First, the oral tradition. Though the Gospels had not been written, the stories and narratives we find in the Gospels existed in oral tradition. These were orally shared, and the speaker was careful to keep the story as intact and credible as possible. Though Paul did not have the Gospels to read, he nevertheless knew most of their content. Secondly, Paul learned from his personal experience with Jesus. Paul was taken aside for years as he was taught by the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, Paul was informed through human experience. Paul had learned to see God’s Spirit at work in the lives of men and women. Under the inspiration of the Spirit, these sources informed Paul as he addressed the early church’s difficulties in his letters and teaching. He offered them answers, prayers, and encouragement.
From Paul’s letters we glean his theological understanding and teaching. In over-simplified form, here are the basics of Paul’s belief:
- The Mosaic Law was a gift from God, as were the other Old Testament writings. Like all Pharisees, Paul was steeped in knowledge of the Mosaic Law as it existed in the Torah.
- As a Christian, Paul now understood the role of the Torah in one’s faith differently from the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed one found favor with God through their obedience to the Law. Disobedience led to a “cursed” life. Sadly, no one could keep the Law perfectly, though some Pharisees believed themselves to have done so or were close enough to merit God’s favor, and granting them the right to judge the masses. Paul, on the other hand, realized no one could keep the Mosaic Law or earn favor with God. We all fall short, thus deserving judgement. Consequently, Paul believed the Mosaic Law was given by God to reveal our need of grace. The Law reveals our inability to keep it! (Read Galatians 3:24 forward.) Paul referred to the Law, in Galatians 3, as our “school teacher or school master.” Without the Law we could not realize our need of forgiveness and grace. There would exist no subjective moral standard by which we determine actions that please or displease God. Therefore, the Law revealed the moral standards of God’s Kingdom, while revealing we fall so very short of those standards.
- Paul, through Christ, understood the importance of the Shema (Deut. 6:4). Jesus called the Shema the “Law of Love.” Jesus taught that if one keeps the Law of Love, the Shema, one keeps all the Law. For the Pharisees, the Shema meant to love God and the Law. One was to love the law with all their heart soul mind and strength. They ignored and neglected the human dimension of the Shema. We love God and one another as the Shema requires. The Shema was the new covenant written on the heart as Jeremiah prophesied in Jer. 31:33. The Shema was old, written in the book of Leviticus. Under the teaching of the Pharisees, it became a part of the outward Law one must obey. However, in Jeremiah, God prophesied a day was coming when it would be written in the heart, in the internal life of men and women. Yes, we still sin and fall short. However, rather than earning the judgement and wrath of God, we are forgiven, blessed, and receive a new beginning. The Pharisees understood life to be a walk with the Law. We spend our entire life trying to perfectly obey the Law. Jesus had revealed, Paul taught, that life is a journey of obedience to the Shema, of seeking earnest forgiveness, and a life of experiencing eternal life in the here and now. Our obedience to the Shema was to love God with our entire being and our neighbor as we love our own self. Again, we still sin and fall short. However, forgiveness offers a new start as we place one foot after another moving forward in our faith.
- Paul believed Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. He began to read the Old Testament as it related to the coming of Christ Jesus. Jesus was God-incarnate. Thus, it was God in Christ who died for the forgiveness of sins and was resurrected to bring new and eternal life.
- Paul believed God is the initiator of all redemption. God loved us first (as John wrote in his letter). Paul’s belief in the relationship of grace to salvation is written in Eph. 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith; and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.”
- The Holy Spirit is the indwelling of God in the human heart. The Spirit is the gift that “seals” our relationship with God, much as a wedding band seals the relationship of marriage. The Spirit is the power to live a life of God’s love. Paul speaks in trinitarian terms often, but feels no need to explain the trinity. It is a spiritual mystery we accept by faith. Yet our faith isn’t a blind leap in the dark. Our belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are validated by what we’ve read in Scripture, witnessed in human history, and what we experience as followers of Jesus Christ.
- It is our acceptance of Jesus and the Spirit filled life that empowers us to keep the Shema and obey it with a compassionate heart. We cannot keep the Shema on our own. However, we receive the power of the Holy Spirit to love and be the church.
- All things are moving toward the ultimate triumph of goodness and love. All things are moving toward the reign of God and God’s Kingdom in all its fullness. (Romans 8)
Of course, Paul’s beliefs included far more than these few gleanings. However, the above beliefs are helpful in understanding Paul’s writing, and our text in particular. The major thrust of Paul’s belief was the insufficiency of the Law to save yet the importance of the Law to help us understand our sins and shortcomings. Thus, pointing us toward the only one who can forgive, save, and offer a journey in love.
Paul’s Style of Writing
Paul’s writings can often prove difficult to understand. In my early ministry I referred to Paul as the master of the run on sentence. Actually, Paul’s mind is akin to a teacher, attempting to explain the eternal in human language and has more to say than can be said. In writing, Paul moves from his major subject to other passages or events that enlighten his subject and back to his major subject. The following is a verse from our text that serves as an example of Paul’s “migratory” style of writing. In 2:17 forward: “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?”
This sentence may appear to be rambling from our perception. We have to first understand the larger paragraph or passage in which this sentence is found. We ask, “What is Paul’s main message in the passage?” Then, “How does this sentence relate to that main message?” This one sentence has several “ifs”: “If you call yourself a Jew.” “If you rely on the law and boast in God.” “If you know his will and approve of what is superior.” “If you are convinced you are a guide to the blind.” At this point you can sense Paul attempting to explain his point with as much light as possible. At this point in the same sentence, Paul launches into “who we believe ourselves to be.” He writes, “are we convinced we are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth …” All of the “ifs” and the “who we think we are” passages are contained in one sentence. So, Paul’s letters need to be read prayerfully and slowly. We need to pray to recognize the subject that connects all of the phrases. Then, we need to seek to recognize how this subject relates to the entire passage.
We must never forget that Paul can also write poetically and beautifully. I Cor. 13 is one of most beautiful poems about the most beautiful subject of love. There are other passages where Paul writes like a tender father. In others he is a man aware his end is near and writes as one looking behind to grasp all that God has done in and through him as he prepares to be with Jesus in the life to come.
The Epistle to the Roman is one of his most theological letters. He seeks to impart inspired truth that will liberate, encourage, and anchor the church at Rome. Therefore, the reading of this letter is more difficult than other Pauline letters. However, it speaks truth! His audience in Rome would have been able to grasp it, and what they did not understand they could ask when Paul arrived. This isn’t a passage of rambling thoughts; it is the writing of an inspired man who understands more than he can share. For almost 2,000 years, this theological epistle has blessed, informed, and transformed the life of those who read and study it. t has shaped Christian theology in a remarkable manner.
Walking through The Text
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the Law
Remember, Paul believed and taught the value of the Law as being our school master. The Law teaches us the high bar of morality, which we should meet, while teaching us that we continually fail to meet it. The school master must teach the student they have failed or fallen short. However, the intent of the Law, our school master, is to point us toward grace, forgiveness, mercy, and new beginnings. Thus, the purpose of the Law is to not only reveal that we fall short, but to reveal our need for forgiveness and empowerment as they are offered in Jesus Christ.
All people have some degree of morality. However, those born without the Law (the Gentiles) do not have the “school teacher.” They are unaware of the deepest and most righteous morality. When most keep the law, they are keeping the social laws of the community in which they live. The law is a series of expectations and requirements that establish social order, and, in many cases, keep their gods happy. They are unaccustomed to the written Shema and the Laws that establish the way we are to live with each other as well as God. They also do not understand the way we are to live with each other is the way we live with God. “If you cannot love your brother whom you have seen, how can you love your brother whom you cannot” (I John 4:20). Since they do not have the Mosaic Law they do not realize their own shortcomings and sin. Consequently, those living “apart” from the Law will perish without it. The moral Law of Moses has always pointed to the Shema, and, from there, the Shema embodied in Jesus Christ. To step outside the Law and live separated from it is to live outside the redemptive flow of God’s grace and mercy.
All who sin under the law will be judged by the law
The pious and devoted people live under the law and are judged by the law. Without Jesus the Messiah, well-intended men and women are left to believe their hope of favor with God totally depends upon their obedience to the Law. Since they cannot obey the Law, where do they go once they realize that though their intent is pure they do not have the inner power to perfectly keep the Law? They are left to “try harder” to keep all facets of the Law and participate in the rituals of the temple that offer forgiveness. The forgiveness offered in the temple, however, is “time-limited.” On the day of Atonement, the priest enters the holy place, pouring the blood of the sacrificial animal over the mercy seat, and thus ensuring the people are forgiven for the year. The following year and every year beyond must be repeated. Read the narrative of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16. The people’s sin is cast upon the goat, with its horns wrapped in scarlet cord, and sent out of the camp
into the wilderness facing certain death. Still, this was repeated yearly. Was it possible to receive forgiveness for all time? Could we receive forgiveness outside of ritual through earnest prayer?
Jesus was the Old Testament scapegoat. He was perfect, chosen, and “marked” as the sinful one by the religious leaders. Hebrews records he was “crucified outside the gate
” of Jerusalem, dying for our sin. However, the forgiveness in Christ is for all sin and for all of life. When we stray, we can immediately pray for forgiveness with earnest hearts and walk again in the fullness of Law. Jesus taught the Shema is “The Law of Love.” He claimed he did not come to do away with the Law of Prophets, but rather to fulfill them. He fulfilled both for he was the embodiment of the Shema. To keep the Shema was to be faithful to the Law and Prophets. To keep the Shema was to accept and follow Jesus.
For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who are declared righteous
For Paul, it wasn’t enough to gain God’s favor through hearing the Law alone. One’s inner life must be in harmony with what we hear and say. Again, even when we hear and obey the Law, we fall short. We always stand in need of forgiveness and grace for all are guilty of moral inconsistency and spiritual inconsistency.
It sounds as though Paul has written a contradiction by writing “those who obey the law are declared righteous.” Repeatedly, Paul has taught that obedience cannot save us any more than simply hearing the reading of the Law. However, one word in this verse clears the inconsistency and fulfills what Paul has taught. The word is “declared.” The verse reads again, “those who obey the law are declared righteousness.” We do not earn righteousness. In Eph. 2 Paul wrote, “By grace we are saved through faith, it is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast.” We can’t earn righteousness and therefore cannot boast about our salvation. Our righteousness is a gift from God, and thus Paul writes we are “declared righteous.”
The word as it is used by Paul is a legal term that would be used in a court of law. A person can be declared righteous even if they are a sinner or guilty. The “judge,” for reason of mercy, declares the person forgiven and declares them newly innocent. The person who sincerely desires to keep God’s law, who diligently attempts to live the law in their everyday life will be drawn to Jesus Christ. Jesus offers them the love of God, forgiveness, and the one law that will allow them to live in the Law and be truly righteous. This Law is: “Though shalt love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and thy neighbor as thyself.” Their life has been transformed and redirected. No longer do they believe they have pleased God by meticulously keeping all of the Law (some 612 laws). They realize they please God when they love God and others.
Judging the Gentiles
People even to this day ask about those who never heard of Jesus, who had no Bible or witness. How can they enter the family of God without realities we enjoy as Christians? Paul, inspired, taught that though Gentiles did not have the scrolls of the Mosaic Law, they nevertheless possessed the law in the hearts. Many of the God’s laws that govern a community and arouse spiritual curiosity in their hearts that leads them to seek have been revealed to them in life, and revealed within their own heart. They may be unaware of Jesus asking us to love God and one another, yet they do love. Their love might be limited and misdirected, nevertheless love does exist in their hearts. A basic sense of right and wrong also dwells in the hearts. They, also like all people, own a conscience. They feel guilty and are aware when they have violated love or community customs and norms. When all stand before God, those who know Scripture and Jesus stand before God with those who have the law and love within them though they are unaware for from where law and love in their hearts came.
Perhaps few illustrations from literature illustrate the above teaching of Paul better than when C.S. Lewis wrote a remarkable “fairy tale” filled with Christian truth, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” I will offer a synopsis, though I encourage you to read this fascinating book. The dialogue is from memory but consist of the meaning. In the story Jesus is represented by a lion named Aslan. At the end of the world all creation runs toward Aslan. The Christians are sheep, and non-Christians the goats. As both near Aslan, the Christians are comforted. They know Aslan. They have a relationship with Aslan; thus, Aslan directs them to the right. The goats are afraid. They don’t know him, for they never sought to know him. In their fear they run to the left. This is the dividing of the sheep from the goats. However, there is a goat that stands confused. He is not afraid. He is not led to flee to the left. He asks Aslan, “Why am I not afraid, I don’t know you.” Aslan answers, “O, yes you know me.” “When you loved unselfishly, you knew me.” “You may not have known my name, but you know who I am.”
C.S. Lewis goes on in his story to claim many know Jesus by a different name. The question arises, “Is it knowing the name of Jesus, or knowing the person of Jesus that saves us?” History is filled with people who used Scripture and invoked the name of God, yet their behavior does not reflect the life of Jesus at all. Then there are those from cultures in which the name of Jesus was never spoken. The name of Jesus might have been forbidden to speak. Still, there are some with limited understanding who have a strong awareness of right and wrong and especially a knowledge of selfless love. In embracing the truth they know and living the life they know, are they following Jesus?
Paul, in attempting to reveal the spiritual value of the Law, feels compelled to address those Gentiles who have never heard of Jesus and the Law of Moses. Fully grasping Paul’s intent may require studying such texts as this for a long time during our walk. Still, we must continue to read it and seek understanding.
Many people are quick to rush those who do not know the “spiritual language” Christians use. They do not understand much of what they hear. However, they do know selfless love. They seek to live a righteous life that treats others with dignity in love. Do you feel they know Jesus? Do you think it is impossible to know the “person of Jesus” without ever hearing the name? If we answer yes, what does this say about “faith vs. works?” Did they earn their salvation? Where do you see grace at work in such a person’s encounter with Jesus? What do you think Paul is attempting to say to the church at Rome and why?
Arrogance and Hypocrisy
As noted in the introduction, the church at Rome was founded most likely by Jewish Christian who left Jerusalem after Pentecost. All Jews were expelled in 49 AD from Rome. Thus, they lost their leadership roles in the new expanding church. They were certainly welcomed back after Claudius died and the expulsion was over. However, many were not welcomed back to their previous positions of leadership. Still, many moved into leadership, especially as teachers. Being Jewish, they did possess a great appreciation for the Mosaic Law, and it was rather easy for their past legalism to seep into their teaching. Paul recognized the subtle presence of hypocrisy in their teaching and instruction. Paul also learned that the teachers were violating the very law to which they demanded obedience. Paul’s question was direct and to the point, “Why don’t you teach yourself?” He goes further with the stinging charge of blaspheme against God. To speak obvious truth and then intentionally violate that truth is to have desecrated the name of God.
Without doubt, some of the Jews felt themselves greater in stature than the Gentiles. In Judaism, the Law of God was an inspirited gift, revealing the nature of God; obedience to the Law could still bless your life. However, when hubris fills the heart and seeing others as “less than” can lead to a shameful witness. In the local church today, are there those who seem to enjoy knowing more than another, though they are Christians? What harm is done when arrogance is present in a classroom? Have you witnessed some though the years some who feel they were “owed” position or status? In your humble estimation, who do you think can help to establish a spirit of unity? Read John 17. What did Jesus pray about the unity of the church?
Circumcision: Outer versus Inner
The act of circumcision predated Abraham. God chose circumcision as the mark of the Hebrews being his people. Later in Jewish law, a male child was to be circumcised on the eight day. This act physically marked the child as a member to the tribe, clan, and family. The child was unaware of what was being done. Circumcision marked the child as a member of the Jewish family. They would always belong to a people and to their God. Jesus himself was circumcised.
As Gentiles entered the Christian community many of the men were not circumcised. Some of the Judaizers demanded Gentiles become Jews before they became Christians. In other words, the Judaizers felt the Gentiles should become Jewish Christians to be legitimate. Circumcision did not mark a child as a Christian. It did mark them as members of the family of Abram. In the New Testament, baptism took the place of circumcision. It was the mark of the new covenant. We were becoming part of Jesus’ family. Thus, infant baptism was not the child becoming a Christian. The child was becoming a preparatory member of God’s family. For the ensuing years, the circumcised child would be reared at home and in Jewish community in the Jewish faith. At the age of bar or bat mitzvah, they became accountable for their own faith. In the Christian church, we baptize the child in the family of a church, and the child is reared at home and in the church family until at confirmation they make their baptism and faith their own.
Though baptism is ritually and spiritually important, it is not the outward act that makes us a child of God. We must accept the meaning of that baptism within our own heart. All outer ritual is to point to the inward heart and spirit.
How have you understood baptism as a member of the Christian years? Do you now understand why Methodists baptize infants? Do you understand how circumcision was related to the inner heart in Old Testament Judaism? Can you relate to how baptism is the new circumcision. How are these two rituals connected together?
Almighty God, thank you for the gift of our moral standard in the Law. And especially thank you that Jesus desired to birth that moral standard into our personal heart. Thank you for the liberation we find as we embrace the truth of Jesus. May the law of love indwell our hearts, and with the power of the Holy Spirit, embrace the world about us with the love of Jesus. In Jesus, name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at email@example.com.