July 15, 2016

Obligation is not just about a debt . . .

A wonderful book by James W. Thompson broadens my understanding of church. The title is, “The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ. Thompson’s exhaustive study of the New Testament both clarifies God’s plan and addresses contemporary misunderstandings. He makes me aware of a larger context for any statements Paul makes about the Body of Christ and about reaching people with the gospel.

Chambers begins today’s devotional reading with a statement by Paul as he writes to the church in Rome . . .  

“I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” (Romans 1:14)

Chambers interprets this to mean that Paul was “overwhelmed with the sense of his indebtedness to Jesus Christ, and he spent himself to express it.”

Thompson’s book doesn’t give that as Paul’s motivation, nor can I find it in Scripture. Also, being “under obligation” can mean other things besides a sense of debt. After comparing several Scripture passages, the big picture for God’s plan reveals far more than I supposed.

Thompson links patterns in the NT with the history of the Old Testament. He shows how those events shaped expectations in the time of Christ and also how OT understanding affected new Christians. He uses dozens if not hundreds of Bible passages to show how everything Paul says about church and church planting (which covers most of his writing) is better understood when considering the whole Bible.

In the beginning of Romans, Paul is bringing out the reality that all people understand truth about God, but in unrighteousness they suppress the truth. However, this truth is for all people, Jews and Gentiles. God sends Paul to both groups at first, but eventually tells him to focus on the Gentiles. Paul’s desire is to reap a harvest of fruit resulting from faith, whether those Gentiles are wise or foolish, Greeks or not.

This grasp of God’s redemptive plan motivated him to bring the entire world under the sound of the gospel. The Jews were to be light to the Gentiles but had not done that. Paul understood that because their Messiah had come, it was not time to be that light. He may have thought of verses like the Lord’s words in Isaiah . . .  

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

Preaching out of indebtedness to Christ reminds me of the parable Jesus told of the man who owed a huge sum of money and offered to repay it, but his master knew he could not and forgave his impossible debt, so he forgave the debt.

I am also a debtor to my Master, also a debt I cannot pay. It is far too great. However, by grace Jesus forgave all that I owe Him and by grace allows me the privilege of being His servant. I cannot pay the debt, but, I can serve Him because I love Him and because He empowers me to do His will.

Scripture declares all our debts are forgiven. The only debts mentioned are to love one another, and not owe our old sinful selves anything (Romans 8:12).

Also, it seems there is a difference between the obligation to pay a debt and the obligation to be obedient to God’s commands. Paul said that He did it because God gave him the job . . .

“ . . . I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised . . . and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” (Galatians 2:7–9) He preached in obedience.

Paul also wrote . . . “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) Paul preached in humility and love for others.

Personally, I’m keep realizing the size of my debt and the reality that I cannot repay Jesus by anything I do. He asks instead that I humbly rely on His power and grace to do whatever He asks and equips me to do.

With so great a debt, even breathing is a privilege, never mind being given the spiritual task to speak to those who need to hear the gospel.

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