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July 11 lesson: Power of the Gospel

July 05, 2021
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Power of the Gospel

Summer Quarter: Confident Hope
Unit 2: Faith and Salvation

Sunday school lesson for the week of July 11, 2021
By Dr.
Jay Harris

Lesson Scripture: Romans 1:8-17

Introduction to Unit Two

The second unit this quarter focuses on the Apostle Paul’s epistle, or letter, to the church in Rome. We will feel the switch from the gospels in the first unit to an epistle written by Paul. Gospels and epistles present two distinct literary forms. Christian tradition calls Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the four “evangelists.” In the epistles, we also see the Apostle Paul as the quintessential evangelist and missionary. Being evangelists is what the writers have in common. Although they present the message in different ways, they are all presenting the same message of salvation. Unit Two is entitled “Faith and Salvation.” So, in Unit Two, pay special attention to the evangelistic heart of Paul and the way he puts the message of salvation in Jesus Christ front and center. Note his passion, his thinking, his outlook, and his tools of persuasion.

As the writer for the lessons in this unit, I have had to resist saying more in each lesson for fear of getting into the subject matter of the next lesson and the next, and so on. All four lessons in this unit build on each other, which is actually very exciting. Hopefully, you will come out at the end with a fuller understanding of faith and salvation through the mind of Paul as he reveals his vast knowledge through his letter to the Christians in Rome.

Paul, the Evangelist and Missionary

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you.

Paul was grateful to God because of the way that the gospel, the good news, had taken root in Rome. Paul was not only grateful for every convert, he could also appreciate the strategic importance of having a Christian community planted in the political center of the empire. Rome was a notoriously pagan city, so to have a Christian community planted in Rome, of all places, was big news. Just as all roads lead to Rome, they led out from Rome as well. News traveled and the faith of the church in Rome would have been proclaimed throughout the known world.

It is true that Paul served God with his whole spirit to announce the gospel of his Son. When Paul says he prayed for the church in Rome without ceasing, we can believe it. Paul’s great desire was to travel at last to Rome and connect with what God had been doing.

As a missionary, Paul was ordinarily on the leading edge of the spread of the gospel. It was his stated desire to preach the gospel where it had not been heard before so that more and more people would have the opportunity to hear about Jesus and the salvation he offers. It’s hard to believe that Paul once persecuted the church, but Paul’s conversion changed all that and fueled his passion as a missionary. Whereas Jesus’ travels were limited to the villages of the relatively small area of Galilee and Judea, Paul’s missionary travels took him across a much larger territory to the urban centers around the northeastern Mediterranean. Paul took advantage of the improvements in transportation that allowed him to travel throughout the Roman empire. Paul also knew the Greco-Roman culture, which also helped him to move with ease among the people from region to region. Serving on the frontier of the Christian movement like he did meant that Paul and his companions were often instrumental in planting new Christian communities where they had not existed before. 

So, it is noteworthy that Paul had not yet made it to Rome. The gospel arrived in Rome before Paul could get there. The church in Rome was already established through the efforts of others and through the work of the Holy Spirit. We get glimpses of ways the gospel could have spread to Rome from the Book of Acts. One force contributing to the spread of the gospel was persecution. We’re told that when Stephen was stoned to death for his faith, a general persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and the Christians began scattering throughout the countryside: “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” (Acts 8:4) Imagine this scattering of Christian witnesses spreading wider and wider. In the second century, the Christian apologist, Tertullian, would describe this phenomenon: “The more often we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” Imagine this scattering coupled with the intentional missionary efforts of the apostles. Imagine more and more pastors being called by God and more and more new converts eager to witness to their newfound faith.

Paul may have not planted the church in Rome, but he prayed earnestly that he might finally make it to Rome to help build up the church there. What was Paul’s mission to be in Rome?

The Harvest Field

For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles.

Paul believed he had some spiritual gift to share with the church in Rome to strengthen them. Paul was a great teacher who was capable of instructing them and leading them deeper in their faith. He also believed that they could be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. In other words, Paul knew he also had much to receive from them. Perhaps Paul greatest desire was to reap a harvest among the Romans as he reaped a harvest among the rest of the Gentiles. Paul certainly had great success in preaching the good news of Jesus Christ to Gentiles. Typically, when Paul went to a new area, he started in the local synagogue, and some Jews would believe and become converts to the Christian faith. Then, however, Paul would move out into non-Jewish circles. He would go into the dominant pagan culture of the land where he found a hunger for change in people’s spiritual lives.

The advantage for Jewish converts was that they were already acquainted with the God of Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets. Jews believed in one God, creator of the universe, whereas the Gentiles started from polytheism. Jews believed in a holy God who called them to a moral life. The false gods of the Gentiles were not particularly noted for their moral lives. Paul’s approach with Jews was to remind them of the covenant God had made with them and show how Jesus was the fulfillment of that covenant.

Despite the fact that the Gentiles lacked the advantages that Jews had, there was a great emptiness many Gentiles felt. Paul’s approach was to help them see that the only thing that could address their emptiness was the salvation Jesus offered. Our scripture shows that Gentiles fell roughly into two groups.

I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish – hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

When Alexander the Great began conquering the regions around the Mediterranean Sea in the 4th century B.C., he had a desire to spread Greek culture. When the Romans came later, they spread their own adaptation of Greek culture, often referred to as Greco-Roman culture. They believed that Greco-Roman culture had the power to unite the masses of people scattered throughout the conquered territories. Because it was the culture owned by the rich and powerful, it was not difficult to see how many might aspire to this culture. It was the Greeks who coined the term “barbarian” as a way of referring to foreigners. To Greeks, the language of foreigners sounded like “bar-bar-bar.” When Paul said he was a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish, he was saying he was obligated to share the gospel with both the affluent and cultured and to the outliers and underdogs, for they were the same in his eyes – a bunch of people to whom he was eager to proclaim the gospel.

What we see is Paul describing the harvest field before him. As the quintessential evangelist, he is aware of people’s various hungers and their various starting points, if he is to make a connection. Yet, as much as he tailored the message for his audience at any given time, the basic message is the gospel of Jesus Christ. No matter how the various questions might be framed, the ultimate answer is salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Power of the Gospel

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’

When Paul is saying that he is not shamed of the gospel, he doesn’t mean he’s not ashamed of believing in God. Some people might ridicule people of faith for believing in God. They might accuse us of being unenlightened. This however is not what Paul is getting at.

Paul is saying that he is not ashamed of the gospel, even given the fact that the gospel involves a crucified Savior. Paul is addressing the potential sticking point head on. The gospel is built on a crucified Savior and the belief that he rose again and lives today. Paul is not ashamed of the gospel and has no intention of watering it down to make it more palatable.

Paul feels no need to dress up the gospel to mimic an intellectual, philosophical, or mystical fad of the day. Jesus himself never traveled to Athens or Rome. He was a Jewish carpenter who for three years lived as an itinerant preacher and teacher. His disciples came from common Jewish stock, not from priestly families. By normal standards his work appears to have resulted in failure because he was publicly executed. Of course, we do not believe Jesus was a failure. We believe Jesus was an obedient servant of God. We believe that, contrary to appearances, Jesus was and is the Son of God who came to offer his life as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. He succeeded in his mission.

In other writings of Paul, he admits how scandalous it all seems. To Jews, Jesus dying so publicly and exposed on the cross and in such a humiliating way would ordinarily make Jesus the object of shame. For non-believing Gentiles, both Greeks and non-Greeks, the thought that we would build our lives on this story sounds incredibly foolish. Nevertheless, those who have accepted Christ’s invitation do not shy away from this story – they lean into it. This story is in no way an embarrassment. Don’t think you can improve upon the gospel. If the gospel had never happened, we couldn’t have invented it. As Paul said, the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.

We begin with the idea that everyone needs saving. Everyone sins, and sin is death-dealing. Sin is not some made-up attempt to repress individuals. The acknowledgement of sin is itself a starting point because it explains so much. Sin accounts for our reality, but sin does not have to have the last word. Everyone needs saving, and Jesus provides the means for our salvation. Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, the righteousness of God can cover our sins.

All this is revealed “through faith for faith.” Some knowledge can be discovered, but some knowledge has to be revealed before it can then be discovered. By exercising his gracious prerogative, God reveals the truth of the gospel, and our faith receives it, and it becomes our faith. Faith is both a gift and our response to God’s gift. As Paul quoted from Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous live by their faith.”

All this is real, and we know it to be real, because when we receive the gospel by faith, we are changed. A difference is made in our lives. It is foundational to us and how we live our lives. As I write this, it is the anniversary week of when I gave my life to Christ one summer day near the end of June in 1978, a couple of weeks before I turned 14. I immediately felt a change in my life and the confirmation of that experience grew.

A Word of Caution and the Awesome Opportunity

When I hear Paul say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” I think of some well-meaning evangelists who think only of their obligation to share the gospel, but do not give much care to their presentation and how others might respond or receive their presentation. Some who share the gospel feel they must become argumentative, aggressive, or abrasive in order to rush their listener into making a decision for Christ on the spot. When the one sharing the gospel is rejected, they may refuse to change their approach with the next person, because to do so might seem like an admission that they are somehow ashamed of the gospel.

We share some responsibility for the manner in which we proclaim the gospel to others. We want to be careful not to burn any bridges with people with whom we share the gospel. Even if someone rejects our attempt to share the gospel with them, we would hate for the manner of our presentation to keep that person from ever listening to someone else share the gospel with them at a later time. Often, people go through different stages of receptivity in their lives until the time is right, and the Holy Spirit opens the door. When we share the gospel, we want to do so in a way that keeps the door open. We never know when our sharing of the gospel results in the planting of the seed, the watering of the plant, or the awesome harvest moment when a person accepts the gospel of salvation.

Demonstrating this kind of sensitivity to our listener does not mean that we are somehow ashamed of the gospel. It means that we are being faithful and trusting God for the results.

We will continue to ponder faith and salvation throughout this unit. This week it is enough to think about a Christian community being formed in Rome of all places – not because the converts were convinced by intellectual arguments, but because the converts heard the gospel of a crucified and risen Savior who offered the salvation they needed. And their faith was proclaimed throughout the world. Paul had witnessed this kind of thing happen time and time again. His heart’s passion was to see more people be saved. What has the power to save people is the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Prayer

God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, you sent your Son to give his life as a ransom for all and provides the means for our salvation. Grow in us an appreciation for the uniqueness of the good message of Christ and its power to save, that our passion to share it with others might grow and that our witnessing will bear fruit in the lives of others. Through Christ our Lord, who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God, now forever, Amen.

Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at jharris@sgaumc.com.

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