“Now I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause dissensions and obstacles contrary to the doctrine you have learned. Avoid them, for such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites. They deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting with smooth talk and flattering words. The report of your obedience has reached everyone. Therefore I rejoice over you. But I want you to be wise about what is good, yet innocent about what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. Timothy, my coworker, and Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, my fellow countrymen, greet you. I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus greet you. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Now to Him who has power to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation about Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept silent for long ages but now revealed and made known through the prophetic Scriptures, according to the command of the eternal God to advance the obedience of faith among all nations — to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ — to Him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 16:17-27 HCSB)
For those of you who don’t know, I serve this church as pastor in addition to working a full time job in the computer field. In essence, I have two full time jobs for which I am “on call” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days per year. Hectic? Sometimes. Busy? All the time. But I love it and wouldn’t change a thing – though I am looking forward to retirement and spending more time fishing, traveling and with my family. We are a financial services institution that specializes in managing and investing money and providing financial services and loans for non-profit organizations. Our mission is to financially empower ministries to change our world through the Gospel and have an impact on the Kingdom of God. As a part of my job, I have to keep our staff trained and vigilant at recognizing and properly responding to security attacks against our data and our client’s financial resources.
One of the best ways that I’ve found to train our staff to recognize an attack is by knowing how our systems work, act and look. I’ve been told that the US Treasury Department trains Secret Service agents, working in their counterfeit division, how to recognize “fake” money by learning what “real” US currency looks like. In other words, they can recognize a fake best by intimately knowing the real thing. That’s the approach I take in training my staff in recognizing a cyber attack against our systems. Recognize a fake by being intimately familiar with the real thing. I think that’s also the best approach to recognizing “fake” faith, too.
This week, we finish up our study in Paul’s letter to the house churches in Rome. It has been a long but rewarding journey. Paul ends the letter in a way very similar to how he started it, focused on the power of the Gospel of Christ and the obedience of the Roman Christians to its teachings. At the beginning of chapter 12, Paul had urged these Christians to consider how they should respond to God’s mercy and now he urges them to watch out for those who would cause divisions among them and toss obstacles or diversions onto their path, things that are contrary to what they have already learned. This was of great concern to the Apostle and it should be to us, as well. We are often and easily distracted from the importance of the Gospel by the urgency of the trivial. How do you recognize those who would cause division or toss diversions in your path? Two ways: first, by comparing their teaching to “the doctrine you have learned” and second, by examining their motives.
That’s an important process to understand and utilize. Compare what’s being taught by these people with the scriptures and its doctrinal truths and examine their motives. One word of caution, the “doctrine you have learned” is specifically referencing the biblical doctrine the believers in Rome had been taught by skilled, competent and biblically grounded teachers Paul knew and trusted. The source of the “doctrine” is of vital importance. Many folks are taught core doctrinal beliefs that are simply not consistent with scripture and the scriptures must be our source of authority for our beliefs. Anything less is fraught with human error and selfish motives. Paul was not only concerned about the source but also with the teacher’s motives. It is easy to take scripture and twist it for selfish gain.
Notice the results of these false teachings: they “cause dissensions” in the church and “obstacles” to the church’s mission. So, these false teachings divide us and get us off course with the focus and true purpose and mission of the Gospel. We are told to “avoid them” because they aren’t serving Christ. They are simply serving themselves (or literally: their own bellies/appetites) and deceiving others with “smooth talk and flattering words.” The challenge we all face is to recognize when someone is simply telling us what we want to hear instead of telling us “thus saith the Lord.” This is often what happens when the church gets involved in politics, we are deceived with smooth talk and flattering words, the Gospel suffers, divisions develop and obstacles are thrown onto the path that divert us from our purpose and mission. So, let me state this emphatically: the Church of Jesus Christ does NOT need the power, prestige and influence of politics or politicians to achieve its goal. We ONLY need the power and presence of God – there is nothing more and nothing less will suffice.
Now, notice that Paul continues this theme as he addresses the church’s obedience to the Gospel. He rejoices over them because news of their obedience is being shared by everyone but he wants them “to be wise about what is good, yet innocent about what is evil.” There’s an old saying, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” That is NOT Paul’s approach to good and evil. To be wise about what is good requires much, much more than a cursory knowledge of scripture. In Acts 17, Paul’s teaching causes a riot in Thessalonica and he is quietly escorted out and sent to Berea. The people there were “more open minded” and listened to Paul but “examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Consequently, many of them believed, including a number of the prominent Greek women as well as men.” (Acts 17:10-12) They were excited by what Paul taught, but they searched and examined the Scriptures to determine whether these things were true or not.
Note this quote from an article by Dr. Ed Stetzer: “The United Kingdom Bible Society surveyed British children and found many could not identify common Bible stories. When given a list of stories, almost 1 in 3 didn’t choose the Nativity as part of the Bible and over half (59 percent) didn’t know that Jonah being swallowed by the great fish is in the Bible. British parents didn’t do much better. Around 30 percent of parents don’t know Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, or the Good Samaritan are in the Bible. To make matters worse, 27 percent think Superman is or might be a biblical story. More than 1 in 3 believes the same about Harry Potter. And more than half (54 percent) believe The Hunger Games is or might be a story from the Bible.”
Unfortunately, this is where America is headed. Lifeway Research found that only 45% of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week, 40% read it one or twice a month and just under 20%, or fewer than 1 in 5, never read it – essentially the same percentage as those who read it daily. We don’t recognize false teachers because we can’t recognize and don’t know the Scriptures. We are quickly becoming Biblically illiterate. Paul says we need to “be wise about what is good, yet innocent about what is evil” and instead we’re innocent about what is good and wise about what is evil. A word of warning:
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness, who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20 HCSB)
Why is biblical literacy important? You can’t be obedient to God’s Word when you are ignorant of its teachings and commands. Paul says that because of their obedience, “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under” their feet. God was using the obedience of the Roman Christians to strike a crushing blow to Satan’s work and influence in the capital city. Be wise about what is good, yet innocent of what is evil.
Paul then takes a moment to send greetings from his ministry team. Most of us recognize Timothy but not many of the others. Tertius, Paul’s “secretary” for this letter, adds in his own personal greeting. Gaius is likely the same as “Titius Justus” (Gaius Titius Justus) who is noted in Acts 18:7 who hosts Paul and one of the house churches in Corinth – the location from which Paul writes this letter. Erastus is the “city treasurer” and a monument bearing an inscription to Erastus exists among the ancient Corinthian city ruins. Quartus is “the brother” and may be the actual brother to Tertius, Paul’s secretary. Tertius means third and Quartus means fourth and may indicate their birth order as siblings – a common practice. I included all of this to simply say, ministry is a team effort. I am thankful for my team and pray God’s blessings on your teams. Stay focused, stay strong, stay in the Word and keep pressing towards the goal (Phil. 3:13-14).
Finally, Paul pronounces one of the greatest and most beautiful doxologies in scripture: “Now to Him who has power to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation about Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept silent for long ages but now revealed and made known through the prophetic Scriptures, according to the command of the eternal God to advance the obedience of faith among all nations — to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ — to Him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)
The power that strengthens the Roman believers is the same that brought salvation – the Gospel proclamation about Jesus Christ. We often overlook this simple truth. The gospel is not only the power of salvation from sin it is also the source of power for living in the midst of a sinful world. The resurrection power of Jesus Christ brings the power to destroy sin in our lives, past, present and future. We were saved (justification), we are being saved (sanctification), and we will be saved (glorification) all through the same gospel truth and power. So, the same grace, faith and power that brought our salvation enables us to live obediently, day by day.
I think we often miss that. In fact, Paul points out that this has been a mystery and kept silent for a long time but has now been revealed and made know through the prophecies by God’s command. When Moses said, “If I go, they’ll ask me for your name. What shall I tell them?” God replied, “I AM WHO I AM. That is what you are to say. I AM has sent me to you.” Later, God commanded that His name should NEVER be used in a vain way. So in a misguided effort to be obedient, the Israelites simply refused to speak it. He became “the God who shall not be named” and they substituted other words and names in its place. That is NOT what God wanted…
Jesus came and began to reintroduce the people to the great I AM:
1. I am the bread of life… John 6
2. I am the light of the world… John 8
3. I am the door/gate of the sheepfold… John 10
4. I am the good shepherd… John 10
5. I am the resurrection and the life… John 11
6. I am the way, truth and life… John 14
7. I am the true vine… John 15
I believe God’s intent was for Israel to realize that HE WAS all they needed. I believe Jesus’ intent is for us to realize the same thing – HE IS all we need. If I were to ask you, “Who are you?” you’d probably reply with your name, your occupation, your family ties or relationship to me. Something along those lines. But if God is the source of our existence, our being, then our response SHOULD be tied to Him. Who are you? I am a servant of the Most High God. I am a child of the King of Kings. I am a sheep in God’s flock. I am the under-shepherd of the Hilltop flock.
So, let me ask that question… who are you? I started out talking about recognizing fakes or counterfeits. Real life can only be found in Jesus. I believe that. Do you? Then let’s start living it on a daily basis. Not some pseudo or fake Christianity that soothes our conscience and assuages our guilt but leaves us empty and powerless. We need real faith that energizes us by transforming our minds, empowering our actions and impacting our neighbors. You won’t recognize the fake by examining the fake, you recognize the fake by examining and becoming intimately familiar with the real thing. It is only when the world begins to see what real Christianity looks like that they will abandon the counterfeit that’s so prevalent in our culture.
Maybe you’re asking yourself that question. Is it real in my life? Just remember, you’re not saved because you deserve it or because you’re good enough. You’re saved by grace, through faith… If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead then you will be saved. You aren’t saved because of your goodness but because of His. You’re not saved because you deserve it but because you desperately need it, deeply desire it, absolutely trust Him for it and call upon Him in the midst of that need. Those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.
“So I say to you, keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10 HCSB)