The Next Step

The next step is always the scariest.  The next step could be the one where the earth falls from beneath you.

Genesis 15 records a conversation between Abram and God.  Abram is getting up there in years.  He is somewhere between 75 and 86 years old (Gen. 12.4; 16.16) and he has been on a journey.  He has been given the promise that his descendants would be “a great nation”, but that was many years back.  Is there an expiration date on the promises of God?  That would have been in the back of my mind.  But Abram now gets told that he will have a son, from his own lineage. (Gen. 15.4-5)

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15.6)

Abram “believed” is in the Hebrew Hiphil tense meaning “caused to believe”.  Abram was convinced.  He seems like a man who can think differently about situations.  Later his name would be changed to Abraham (this is how he will be referred to from now on). This is how I reconcile the strange verse in Hebrews 11.17-19:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice.  He who embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”  Abraham reasoned [gk. logizomai] that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from the dead.

The idea of bodily resurrection, let alone individual resurrection, would have been a revolutionary concept.  Abraham is an outside the box thinker.  He has convinced himself of God’s faithfulness to his promises.  Abraham takes the first step out of Ur on faith.  The next step is into the nursery with his son Isaac.  The next one is the first step to ascend the Mountain to kill the one walking behind him.

So what’s the next step on the journey?

Is it salvation?  It’s graduation Sunday.  All across Kansas, students will be turning their focus to college by 3 p.m. Sunday.  Thirty-two thousand students will walk across a stage towards a diploma this weekend.  A year from now, 60%, or 19,000 of them will walk away from their faith.

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Rom. 4.2)

Paul writes in Romans that it was salvation that Abraham stepped into in faith.  It was right-standing with God that Abraham walked into by trusting God.  The question had been posed: “was Abraham justified by works?” (2)  Could he have saved himself?  To that Paul points to the faith of Abraham as he argues in the previous paragraph:

For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom. 3.28)

Abraham is Paul’s case study for justification by faith.  In a world where love and trust are performance based, the idea of salvation in exchange for faith is a tough sell.  Maybe that is where it should start?

Is it Spirit-led?  Maybe salvation has happened, but “life” isn’t happening.  The Galatian Church was struggling with the same issue that plagued the Roman Church: “What saves a man?”  Was it “faith” or “works”?  Must the faith be followed by action?

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Gal. 3.6)

There is a difference between surviving and living.  That is what living with the Spirit brings.  Paul used Abraham as an example of salvation by faith alone in Romans; in Galatians, Abraham is an example of a Spirit-led/fed life.  He precedes the quote of Genesis with this question: 

So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal. 3.5)

His answer: Abraham believed.  Great things happened because Abraham had faith.  He pairs this with another Genesis quote a sentence later:

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you!” (Gal. 3.8 quoting Genesis 12.3)

Being in-step/taking the first step with the Spirit changes lives.  It empowers middle schoolers to raise money to buy freedom for modern day slaves.  It challenges women to serve by making blankets for sex trafficked victims.  It encourages men to step up, step out and lead other men in study.  Is the next step, the same step Abraham took in Galatians; one of believing in a leading Spirit.

Is it disciple-making?  When writing to people scattered all over the Roman world about living as a Christian, one man wrote this in response:

Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. (James 2.23)

It was in the same context as other uses. It was a debate about faith vs. works.  James chimes in from left field.  He brings up Abraham but honors him for his action.  Check out the question he poses in verse 21:

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did…?(James 2.21)

And you gasp!  Isn’t this the exact opposite of Pauline theology.  In Romans and Galatians, Abraham was righteous because he believed; however, James understood him as righteous because of what he did.

James is a book of activity.  Your faith must be animated, according to James.

  • “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.” (1.22)
  • “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (1.27)
  • “What good is it, my brothers and sisters if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them? (2.14)
  • “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (2.17-18)
  • “Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (3.13)
  • “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (4.17)

James has an agenda.  While Jesus was on this Earth, he doubted.  Now that Jesus has ascended, he is leading a church and a following of people trying to live like Jesus.  His advice:  live like Abraham.

First things, first:  salvation.  Second things, second:  letting the Spirit sanctify and animate.  Finally, we must discipline (notice the “disciple” in that word) our lives to that of Jesus.  Verse 22 brings the argument together:

You see that his [Abraham] faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete [gk. teleioo] by what he did. (James 2.22)

The greek word translated “made complete” and its cognates aren’t rare in the New Testament.  James, however, only uses the idea 8 times in his book (teleios-1.4 [2x]; 1.17; 1.25; 3.2; teleioo-2.22; teleoo-2.8; telos-5.11).  The idea is that “the goal has been reached.”  It is the ending, not the beginning.  James understands that “what he did” (21) was the goal in mind (22) when the “belief” began (23).  Faith comes first, but isn’t finished until follow through.  Belief is where it all starts but it isn’t done until action takes place.  Do I have to be in church every Sunday?  Do I need to pray every day?  Do I need to study my Bible?  Can I drink alcohol?  Do I have to tithe?  All these questions are questions of works.  They are actions that are to done.  We are saved by faith and faith alone; but, a part of faith is “the doing” of something.

In Hebrews 11, what some have called the Hall of Fame of faith, Abraham is admonished for three things.  Each is preceded with these words: “By faith…” (Hebrews 11.8, 9, 17)  He left Ur and followed.  He stayed and made a home in the Promised land.  He was willing to sacrifice Isaac.  He was commended for all these things.  Rounding out the section on Abraham, the author of Hebrews writes:

Abraham reasoned [gk logizomai]  that God could even raise the dead…(19)

Logizomai is the same word translated “credited” in every one of the passages above.  It was “credited to him as righteousness”.  God counts righteousness to Abraham all because Abraham counted all on God.

Easier said than done right?

Isaiah 53: Paul’s Transition

If you have never had the pleasure of trying to “cut” cows on a true pure bred cutting horse…consider yourself lucky.

Most of the horses I have ridden were not bred, nor trained to cut cows.  They were ranch horses who would look at a cow but not really work one.  A true cutting horse will stop on a dime, shift its front end at break neck speed, with little warning.  If you aren’t prepared for such a maneuver, then you will soon find yourself performing different manuever that ends with you on your backside in the dirt.  But hey, I’ve never really been considered much of a horseman, so operator error is a valid explanation.  True cutting horses are quick, intelligent, intuitive, and powerful.  They will plant their back feet, roll their hips, and head another direction before the rider even cues them.  Paul does the exact same thing with Isaiah 53.  See, Paul uses Isaiah 53 as a turning point, as a transition.

The purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans is found in Romans 1.16-17 where Paul writes:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.  For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness from God is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'”

Located in this verse is a comparison, a contrast, and a transition.  “First for the Jew, then for the Gentile” shows the two sides.  At this time it was argued as the two sides of salvation. The Jews were saved; the Gentiles were on the outside looking in.  That was until, Peter opened the door to the Gentiles in Acts 10.

Romans is about bringing both the Jew and Gentile to faith..but there was a problem.

What is needed is a transition in thinking.  In both of Paul’s quotations of Isaiah 53, in Romans 10.16 and 15.21, the verse begins with the word “but” (gk. alla).  “But” signals a change, a transition, in thought.  A simple look at Romans 10 illustrates this point:

  • Romans 10.1: “Brothers, my hearts desire and prayer to God for the Israelite’s is that they may be saved.”
  • Romans 10.12-13: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all of who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
  • Romans 10.16: “But not all the Israelite’s accepted the good news…”
  • Romans 11.1: “Did God reject his people? By no means!” He then goes on about the remnant.
  • Romans 11.11: “…salvation has come to the Gentiles…”

The hinge of this entire section is verse 16 at the word “but” and Isaiah’s question: “Lord, who has believed our message?”  Isaiah and Paul both are asking where the belief lies.   Paul answers it in the “Gentiles”.  This is why he can claim in verse 13 of chapter 11: “I am talking to you Gentiles.  Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles…”

In Romans 15, instead of using “Jew” and “Gentile” as categories, he uses the terms “those who have heard” and “those who have not”.  Paul clearly states his mission as: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” (Rom. 15.20)  Then there is that word “rather” (gk. alla) elsewhere translated “but”.  Then he quotes Isaiah 52.15.   Thematically the end of chapter 52, starting at verse 13, gels with Isaiah 53.  For sheer ease, I refer to the whole prophecy as Isaiah 53.  In this case Paul quotes the last verse of Isaiah 52: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.”  Paul uses Isaiah to transition thinking about who needs the Gospel.  For Paul the answer is clear…those who have not heard.  That is why Paul had not been able to come to this body of believers yet. (Romans 15.22)

Secondly, Paul Romans 10.16 as a transition of salvation.  Paul attunes his readers to the fact that the Gospel changes peoples lives.  Romans 10.9-10 makes it very clear:

“That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”

and then he adds: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (10.14)  Paul understands that hearing leads to belief, and belief to confession, and confession to salvation.

But not all Israel believed.  Then he quotes Isaiah 53: “Lord, who has believed our message?”  Isaiah was originally written in the hebrew language.  In around 270 B.C. the Old Testament was translated from hebrew into greek so that people could more easily read it.  This is called the Septuagint, or LXX for short.  Paul quotes the exact words of the LXX here.  He uses the common Greek word for belief (gk. Pisteuo) and equates it with “accepted” in the quotes introduction.  The greek word for “accepted” is intriguing. The word used here (gk. upakousan) is a word that means “to answer the door”.  It is used of Rhoda in Acts 12.3 when she “answered the door” after Peter knocked.  You get the picture here.  The Jews refused to let Jesus in…but the Gentiles were willing.  A transition in those who are saved.  But there is another transition that Paul uses Isaiah for in Romans 15.

Finally, Paul uses Isaiah 53 in Romans 15, to show his transition in ministry.  The first quotation was about salvation, this one is about evangelism.  The change in thought, led to a change in ministry.  If you are unfamiliar with Paul’s story the short version is this.  He was a persecutor of the church (Acts 8.1) but after an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), Saul (his former name, more on this later) would spend a few years in the desert (Gal. 1.18), then 14 years preaching in Judea to the Jews (Gal. 2.1), and finally was called to preach to the Gentiles (Gal. 2.2,7-10).  He had a transition in ministry.  When Saul, a Hebrew name from his parents, took off on his first missionary journey, to plant churches among the Gentiles, in Acts 13.9, he took on a Greek name, Paul.  A transition in ministry.  He defends his ministry with this: “I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 15.15-16)

When Isaiah penned his words in Isaiah 53, 700 years before Paul, he was finishing his work.  The Servant whom this prophecy was about was the exclamation point to his entire work.  This was the figure that was the end, the goal of Isaiah’s words.  He would bring the people back from the exile.  He was the one that Isaiah waited and hoped for!.  But for Paul, Isaiah’s words were a transition.  Paul’s mission, his ministry, and understanding of salvation all hinge on Isaiah’s Prophecy in Isaiah 53.  Paul thought of Isaiah’s words as a new beginning in thought, salvation, ministry.  His words opened up the ministry to the Gentiles, it was a gateway for Gentile salvation, and a step towards a new understanding of people.  Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 2.4: “But, because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved.” For Paul, and in many ways us, Isaiah’s quotes can be seen as the first steps toward a great adventure, if we are able to understand, believe, and confess this “Suffering Servant” and his name is Jesus.  Our lives can turn on a dime; they can transition when we call on the name of Jesus.