"Rome: The Gospel Comes to Law and Order People" #82-03
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 21, 2014
By Rev. Gregory Seltz, Lutheran Hour Speaker
(Q&A Topic:The Gospel Goes To Rome, Is That Important?)
Copyright 2014 Lutheran Hour Ministries
Text: Acts 28:11-16, 28-31
Christ is risen, He is risen, indeed, and His message of grace is for all people, and by His grace He is here for you and me too. Amen.
Last week we spoke about the fact that "God is just that way;" meaning that He is willing to come all the way to where we are to bring us His undeserved grace and mercy in ways we can understand and receive. God is just that way, He doesn't wait for us to come to Him, He doesn't wait for us to be worthy of His grace; He comes, He lives, He dies, and He rises again so that we might be reconciled to Him. By God's grace, He builds bridges of His blessing to bring His mercy to each one of us, whether in simple towns, or hamlets, or even the greatest metropolises of our modern world. Why? God is just like that.
Did you ever hear about the organization that builds footbridges in Africa? It's called "Bridging the Gap Africa." The effort is based on the simple fact that most people in rural Africa walk everywhere they go. Families that live in the bush will spend an average of seventy-two hours each week walking places. This is the way of life and it serves the families well except for one complication: rivers. When the rains come and when the animals roam, rivers become dangerous and impassable. Rivers become barriers to food, healthcare, livelihoods, and education. So Bridging the Gap Africa builds footbridges. They estimate that 600 lives are saved each year by providing access from one place to another. Simple, yes, but heroic!
In the first century, God began to work at bridging the gap--not merely by constructing footbridges in remote communities, but by opening up access to the Good News of salvation for all people through Jesus Christ.
And, incredibly today we celebrate the fact that God even bridged the gap from the dusty countryside of Judea to the cosmopolitan center of the world at that time: the city of Rome. Yes, God brought the Gospel of Jesus to Rome. It was part of the fulfillment of Jesus' promise to the disciples before He ascended into heaven. Jesus said, "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
Rome - for the world of that day, Rome was the ends of the earth. It as the city a top seven hills. Latin poet Tibullus called it "The Eternal City." Others called it the "capital of the world." Above all, it was the place of power; it was the place of law and order in the ancient world. On our "Footsteps of Paul" travels, we saw the ruins of the Coliseum, the triumphal arches of their military conquests, the vestiges of the Caesars and the Senate. Even to places like this...God bridged the gap.
Yes, God bridged the gap from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Rome and even more incredibly, to you and me. At this very moment you are hearing that God loves you, that He cares about you, that He paid the price to wash your sins away and give you a new beginning, a restored hope.
And this incredible outreach of grace into the non-Jewish or Gentile world was led by a person named Paul. Today we call him, the Apostle Paul, one who was sent to preach the Good News to places like Rome and beyond.
You may have heard of Paul. He too was a recipient of God's bridge-building grace. Before becoming a believer in Jesus, he was actually a persecutor of the church. He was a villain of the followers of Jesus. He seethed when he encountered people who followed Christ. He rejoiced when they were imprisoned, beaten, and even put to death. Paul was a brilliant student under the instruction of the Pharisees. He was all about the law--the Jewish ceremonial law. This law formed the identity of his people dating back to the great prophet Moses. The Pharisees developed hundreds of additional legal requirements to safeguard the purity and obedience of the Jewish people. Part of those legal requirements included staying away from foreigners--especially the pagan Roman people. These people were called Gentiles. Uttering the word "Gentile" caused derision and fury. Gentiles were unclean lawbreakers who had no worthy standing before the true God. At least, that's what the Pharisees taught.
One day, Paul--known at that time as Saul--was walking to the city of Damascus with letters of permission to imprison followers of Jesus. Suddenly a bright light blinded him and knocked him to the ground. A voice from heaven said, "Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14)
Saul cried out in fear, "Who are you, Lord?" The voice replied, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Jesus went on to give startling instructions to Saul. He told Saul to go into the city of Damascus and be ready because now this righteous Pharisee, this learned scholar, this zealous persecutor of the followers of Jesus would be the one who brought Christ's Gospel message to the Gentiles.
Fearful, blinded, and helpless, Saul was led into the city. There, a man named Ananias healed his blindness and baptized him. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Saul spent time with the followers of Christ and started the long journey of being shaped by the Spirit of God into one of the greatest advocates of the crucified and risen Christ in all of history. Now, dear friend, this is one of the most radical stories of a changed life ever. It is a story of transformation, forgiveness, a second chance. And let me tell you this today, if God could build a bridge of grace to a person like Paul, if Saul the Christian persecutor, could be changed into Paul the Apostle of Christ for others, think of the change, the new beginnings possible for you today by that same grace of God.
Think about it, God changed a maniacal tormentor of people into a man who cared about the least of these. The man who ordered his life by laws and systems, by adhering to his plans and controlling his destiny; this law and order man who judged outsiders harshly was changed so much that by the gracious work of Jesus he declared to the law and order people of Rome: "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 Greek" (Romans 1:16 NIV).
God bridged the gap to the heart of a man dead set against Him. And with that transformation, God was poised to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to places no one ever thought it could penetrate: and to proclaim even more boldly that Good News in the city of Rome.
But hear this, dear listener: this isn't a history lesson; this is an eternal message in history that was meant for you and me too. Today, will you let the God who redeemed and rescued Paul, build that same bridge of His grace and renewal into your life? His forgiveness of sin, His gift of faith in His grace; that is the transformation that is here for you today. All of us have our ways, our routines, our habits, our beliefs. We try to keep things in order, but what happens when things get bigger than we can control, as they always do?
The history of Rome teaches us that our plans can take us only so far, but God's eternal ways open doors to life beyond your imagination. This radically changed man, Paul, said it this way: "I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge-that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:17-19 NIV).
Rome, Romans needed the Gospel, and the Gospel came to Rome. Paul needed the Gospel, and the Gospel came to Paul. And, by God's grace, now Paul would begin a journey to share this grace with a Roman world that was, on one hand, satisfied with its laws, systems, wealth, and power, but, on the other hand, from God's perspective, oppressed, poor, and trapped in its political and spiritual emptiness.
How did Paul, a relatively insignificant Jewish man from the far away city of Tarsus, begin to have an impact on the capital of the Roman Empire? Even here, it's in ways that are beyond our understanding, for the message came through suffering and through the system to save the people of the system from the eternal suffering they deserved. Let me explain.
After Paul had taken a number of missionary journeys to Asia and Greece, he began a trip back to Jerusalem to bring offerings from believers to the poor and suffering Christians there. But it was a dangerous journey to travel back to this center of Jewish life, laws, and regulations. The Jewish leaders of the Pharisees and Sadducees were incensed because of Paul's contact with Gentiles around the world; even some Jewish Christians were bothered by it too. To make matters worse, religious officials from the towns Paul visited came to Jerusalem to hunt him down. They wanted him dead.
But Paul knew he couldn't run away. He had to face his tormentors and take a stand for the Gospel. So he went. It didn't take long for trouble to start. As Paul worshipped in the temple, religious authorities and the high priest dragged him into the streets. A violent riot started. Paul would have been killed if it weren't for the Roman soldiers who intervened. The Roman commander took Paul into custody for Paul's own safety. This was the beginning of Paul's long odyssey of being imprisoned, interrogated, and transported to Rome for a hearing before Caesar himself. The journey lasted for years. But through suffering, Paul made it to Rome.
While he was in the initial stages of imprisonment, as we hear in Acts 23: "The Lord stood by him and said, 'Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome'" (Acts 23:11ESV).
Sometimes God bridges gaps in the lives of others through your suffering and trial. Your first reaction to difficulty or hardship in life may be complaint, negativity, or grumbling. But it might be better to look deeper into your difficulty and ask, "What does this mean? What might God accomplish through this?"
You can be assured that the God, who endured the cross for you and me, He will always work to accomplish something in the midst of struggle. Even Paul said to the citizens of Rome in the book of Romans: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).
So, what does your difficulty mean right now? What might God do through your suffering or struggle? Will He draw you closer? Will He give you insight? Will He provide a platform for you to bless others? Will He allow you to see how He heals you and walks with you? God is in the bridge building business of blessing to you and through you to others.
God assured Paul that even through suffering he would have a pathway to bring the Gospel to Rome. This would not have been Paul's plan. I'm sure he wouldn't have designed the system, his ministry, this way. But we seldom--if ever--get to design the system that grows us or gives us remarkable opportunities. God, however, shapes our lives so that they can have a deeper meaning than we could ever imagine. The Lord crafts plans that have an eternal impact. Even Paul admitted to the Romans that God's ways are higher and richer than we could ever plan. He wrote: "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ... For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:32-36).
And so, the door to Rome was opened through suffering. But it was also opened through the system--the Roman legal system to be exact. The Roman Empire was a kingdom of law and order. Precise political structures permeated the nation. The judicial process for citizens was envied the world over. Citizens knew the perks of being a Roman. Insiders knew how to use this system for their personal benefits. And God knew that Paul, a Roman citizen by birth, could reach the highest officials of Rome with the Gospel only by being immersed in the system. So what began as a rabble in Jerusalem unfolded as a systematic legal procedure that allowed Paul to boldly bring the Good News of the risen Savior Jesus into the capital city of Rome, so that its entire empire would ultimately be transformed by this message of grace.
Do you see what happened? God used the culture to reach the culture. He used the system to open doors to reach the system. God got in. That's important news for you to know. Sometimes your best hope is not in escaping from your situation, but in embracing it. Sometimes you discover God's gracious blessing and plan not by getting away from your reality, but by digging into it and living it fully. That may be why Paul could proclaim in Romans, chapter eight: Who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword? ...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." And then he said these incredible words: "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nothing in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 8:35, 37-39).
So God used this law and order of the empire to bring Paul to Rome. It started with a plot of forty Pharisees. They took a vow to ambush Paul and kill him as a religious rabble rouser. The Roman commander imprisoned Paul to calm the situation. But, when the politics of the day would have delivered him to Jerusalem as a sacrificial lamb of policy, Paul, a Roman citizen, appealed his case to Caesar. Every Roman citizen had the right to be heard by Caesar. Knowing that his life was in danger in Jerusalem, Paul made the plea. With that request granted, Paul began his journey to Rome. Along the way, he shared the Gospel with kings and commanders, centurions and sailors, island tribes and fellow prisoners. The system of law and order took Paul on a journey, a journey to proclaim the Gospel to a world whose problems were beyond mere law and order solutions.
God had bridged the gap from Jerusalem to Rome. He was bringing something new and life-giving to a law and order city--to a city, to a people that needed God's Good News in Jesus Christ.
Think about it this way, at the end of the book of Acts we hear about Paul in Rome: "He lived there two whole years... proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance" (Acts 28:30-31).
God bridged the gap; He brought eternal, glorious change even to Rome and its people. And because Rome was changing, the world was changing. And because the world was changing, the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen has even come to us; to you, to me. Dear friend, God has built a bridge of the Gospel into your life. I pray that you are never the same!
LUTHERAN HOUR MAILBOX (Questions & Answers) for September 21, 2014
Topic: The Gospel Goes To Rome, Is That Important?
ANNOUNCER: The Gospel came to Rome and we are still feeling the effects of that encounter. I'm Mark Eischer, here with Pastor Gregory Seltz, continuing with our series of questions based on "the Footsteps of St. Paul." Pastor Seltz, last year, you visited places where the Apostle Paul proclaimed the Gospel. Why was his work in Rome so important?
SELTZ: First of all, Mark, Rome is both important and not-so-important at the same time.
ANNOUNCER: What do you mean?
SELTZ: Think about it, when we read or hear the Biblical accounts, we don't hear as much about what was happening in the broader world at the time that these Biblical events took place. In the recounting of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection in the New Testament, we hear references to the government at the time, but there really isn't an extended explanation of the political situation of the day.
ANNOUNCER: Because that's not the main purpose of the Bible.
SELTZ: Exactly. The main purpose of the Bible is to bring us the news of how God saved us from sin, culminating in the gift of His Son, and pointing us to Jesus' second coming. But humming in the background of Jesus' life was a dominating political realm: the Roman Empire.
ANNOUNCER: You wouldn't think a Carpenter from Galilee and His little band of followers would have had much impact on the mighty Roman Empire.
SELTZ: Right, and that's what makes this message so special. One of the beautiful and miraculous characteristics about the unfolding of Jesus' life, His ministry, and message is that His Good News of God's love and forgiveness overtook the citizens of the Roman world!
ANNOUNCER: Well, how did it happen?
SELTZ: By the time that Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, the Christian Church had already made its way to the capital of the Empire. After Paul's later arrival recorded at the end of the book of Acts, he was kept under house arrest for 2 years but was allowed visitors and was allowed to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus without hindrance. By his work, he surely solidified the church there.
ANNOUNCER: What were some of the barriers to Christianity in Rome?
SELTZ: The entire Roman world was founded on a pagan pantheon of gods. Temples to many gods were set up in every city. You're probably familiar with the names of some of these Roman gods: Apollo, Diana, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Juno, Mercury, and Vulcan.
ANNOUNCER: I recognize some planets there.
SELTZ: Yeah, that's where we got the names. You see how those gods dominated the culture.
ANNOUNCER: But, was there also room for Christianity?
SELTZ: Actually, not at all. Several factors actually pushed against the Christian message. The gods of Rome were woven into every aspect of people's lives: family, business, friendships, and personal life. The Roman people didn't welcome a God who called for faith in Him alone as Savior. The people also didn't want to give up some of the superstitions and immoral practices that went along with their gods.
ANNOUNCER: And worshipping Jesus as Lord was, somehow, seen as being against Caesar.
SELTZ: Since Caesar was considered divine too, yes. As crazy as it sounds today, Christians were viewed not only as counter-cultural and counter-religious, but some Romans labeled them as atheists because they denied the Roman array of gods.
ANNOUNCER: So, how did Christianity make its way into this hostile environment?
SELTZ: We get an indication through Paul's journey to Rome. God intervened in some very special ways during Paul's journey there. Every time God intervened, the people surrounding Paul--soldiers, officials, and prisoners alike--began to believe in the true God who raised Jesus from the dead. And of course, Christians who journeyed to Rome, who settled down there....as they shared their faith in Jesus and His work on their behalf, Romans came to faith too.
ANNOUNCER: So, in this way, God used Paul, then, to undergird that growing group of believers right in the heart of the empire.
SELTZ: Yes, his earlier letter to the Christians in Rome is still one of the finest summaries of the predicament of humanity before God and God's miraculous salvation for all in the person and work of Jesus. Paul's personal presence in Rome helped. God did some incredible things that allowed Paul to be physically protected and to preach the Gospel of Jesus unhindered for two years in Rome--even as he was under house arrest. God was planting powerful seeds of the Gospel that would bear great fruit.
ANNOUNCER: And 300 years later, Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire.
SELTZ: Yeah, and who could have ever predicted that? But you see how significant Paul's journey there became! It lets us know that God uses us where we're at in small ways that can result in some very big things--bringing blessing to many as we share Christ's good news, even in Rome.
ANNOUNCER: Thank you, Pastor Seltz. This has been a presentation of Lutheran Hour Ministries.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"The Law of God Is Good and Wise" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)
"Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)