“….the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life[a] was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power[b] by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. — Romans 1:4
Christmas is coming, and one of the big perennial issues in America these days is whether or not people should wish one another a Merry Christmas…
My own personal wet blanket for you this morning, however, during this most “wonderful time of the year,” is that no one deserves a Merry Christmas….
Not me. Not you. Not your family, your neighbors, your countrymen, your enemies.
Why would I say something like that?
Well, our text for today speaks, in brief, about death… when it says “by his resurrection from the dead….”
Of course the topic of resurrection would not be necessary were it not for death.
And so this brings up an underlying question: Why is resurrection even necessary?
Why, in other words, is there death?
Because it is death, not Christmas, that we all deserve….
A few months ago, someone told me about how her four year old son had begun to ask lots of questions about death…
Why did that animal die? Why wasn’t he coming back? What would it mean when Grandma and Grandpa were dead?
Kids are great, aren’t they?
I really don’t have difficulty picturing this kid taking Jesus to task a bit, asking why he would allow his friends to experience such a sad and terrible thing!
So why do we die?
The short answer is because of our evil, our sin. The sin that Adam and Eve brought into being and that we all perpetuate, for in sin our fathers and mothers have conceived us all…
And truth be told, the Bible shows us that it didn’t have to be this way.
In the beginning, God provided for everything that our first parents needed. They were told that they could eat from any tree in the Garden, and this would have also included the mysterious Tree of Life…
This was Paradise! Set to live forever with God in the very good creation that He had made, they lacked nothing. Without suffering, pain, and thorns, they really did “have it all”.
No true enjoyment or satisfaction would have been denied them, for all their desires were in line with all that God had made.
Everything was fit to purpose, “in the groove,” and it would have been, to say the least, a glorious time of feasting, fellowship, naming and playing with the animals, dancing, singing and shouting, loving and baby-making, all in sheer innocence, pure pleasure, and great joy.
When we hear the Apostle Paul say of heaven that “no eye has seen and no ear has heard what God has prepared for those who love Him,” it is no stretch to say that we should also think something similar about Eden as well!
“Hold on though…” you say… “God did tell them that there was one tree that they should not eat from, and that was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That one was off limits.”
Yes, that is true too. A test perhaps.
Would Adam and Eve keep the Garden from that Snake, that fallen angel the devil, who’d gone bad?
Would they continue to trust in their Creator?
Would they look to grow even stronger in trust, respect, and love?
Well, we know all too well, they fell.
Innocence was lost. They then did not run to God but away.
They blamed one another for the massive problem they’d created,
noticed their nakedness,
and covered themselves with fig leaves.
Everything had changed for the worse. Judgement and death had come, just as God said it would!
God still loved them though.
He didn’t scrap it all and start over (like I would have done) but instead promised them a Descendent who would undo what they and the Serpent had done.
In the meantime however, punishments would be administered and Eden – with its Tree of Life – would be off-limits:
“Behold the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and live forever…”
Those lost to sin, those fallen ones, could not live forever now with the venom of Satan in their bloodstream… a venom which they could not help but pass on, in millions of horrifyingly concrete ways.
And so, as the Apostle Paul tells us, making no bones about it: “the wages of sin is death…”
The truth is that if we see death as something “just natural” then it doesn’t necessarily need to be connected with sin and guilt. Then, we don’t have to be reminded about all of this…
That death is our fault!
Maybe this explains why another friend, whose father recently died and who has a nephew who appeared devastated by this, rejected my attempt to bring help and comfort when I told her that, in a way, Scripturally, her nephew had it right: death is an enemy to be destroyed…
“Well,” came the response, “it’s natural…a normal part of life”
Don’t go there though!
…because if you do, the really good news of the Gospel won’t seem that great.
Or maybe for that matter, even necessary.
You’ll never get the hymn, What Child is This, when it proclaims:
Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through
The cross be borne, for me, for you.
Hail! Hail! The Word made flesh
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Again, we must assert that the wages of sin is death – and that God Himself also sees death as something foreign too… an invader… an enemy… that doesn’t really belong in the picture…
Let me quickly concede though that it is possible that we could form some bad ideas here, bad ideas which might even cause our non-Christian friends to not learn more about the true nature of sin and death.
For example, it is good that we don’t say that every time people experience suffering it is because of their specific sins…
On the other hand, we experience suffering because all of us, corporately, will know certain effects of living in a fallen, or Genesis 3, world.
In Luke 13, Jesus tells us that things like natural disasters should be sign not just for some but for all persons to repent! To recognize the judgement of sin… of living in a fallen world.
And, also importantly, in the midst of things like death, pain, and suffering we must remember that Jesus said a man born blind was blind not because of His sin or His parent’s sins, but so that God’s glory could be revealed!
That said, of course things like death, suffering, pain, and disease no doubt remain a “wage of sin,” a punishment of sin.
Things are not the way they were supposed to be.
And let me say it again: death, the crown of all these things, not only literally stinks, it stinks through and through. It is, again, the last enemy to be destroyed…
Death stinks because our sin stinks. Our lack of fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
The angers, lusts, greeds, jealousies, and hatreds we play footsies with, instead of facing the temptations with the Sword of the Holy Spirit to drive through our stinking, black hearts…
Death consistently reminds us that we are in really bad shape. Terminally bad shape.
Let me take a breather at this point: you might be wondering whether we need to be talking about death like this so close to Christmas.
I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was highly useful to do so…
The whole New Testament reveals to us Jesus’ mission statement: the epistle of John explicitly tells us that He came to destroy the work of the devil.
Hebrews 2:14 says:
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil”
And in the Gospels He says that He came to seek and save the lost, to be a ransom for many, to set His face towards Jerusalem and die.
He is going to defeat death with His very own death!
This was prophesied right after the debacle in the Garden, when God said to the Serpent:
“And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring[a] and hers;
he will crush[b] your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
This is part and parcel of the gospel, or good news, our text asserts God “promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures…”
And so, following the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, we see Peter’s mighty preaching on the Day of Pentecost, touting our Lord’s prophecy-fulfilling life and deeds.
In that great sermon, Peter reminds us that Christ came with mighty works, wonders and signs, reminding us of, fulfilling that ancient promise of, the Descendent made to Eve who would crush the Serpent’s head.
When the Apostle says that God has made “this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” as “He was,” in fact, “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God…”
…we are not left wondering whether or not God has everything under His control.
Can corral the chaos we’ve made and make…..
Can shut death down forever….
Yes, we can massively mess this world up, but He is going to fix this mess, in His own time – the fullness of time as the Gospels put it – and in His own way!
His “foolish ways” the world cannot understand!
Salvation is going to literally be created in time, when the Son of God takes on human flesh, a human nature, and overcomes the fallen world the devil has made.
Living not only an innocent life, but a completely perfect one? He’s got that covered.
Taking on the massive debt of human sin, and cancelling the bill in His own body? Yes.
And remember, that though He really dies, no one takes His life from Him, for they fundamentally cannot.
Like Peter says in that same great sermon…. “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it….”
Unlike His ancestor King David, He, Light of Light and Very God of Very God, is Life Itself which cannot be snuffed out. He really is the “Holy One” who does not see corruption.
Such is the prophecy God delivers to us now…
And it is because of this that death, with all its stench, ultimately becomes for us just a door into the life that is really life.
In Him, unlike those Peter accused, we do not die in our sins.
Even though it is not of Him, God nevertheless uses sin’s fruit, death. God uses our suffering and pain. God uses Satan… all for our sakes…
For He holds all the cards.
And for now, in this life that we live in the world, but not of it, “[our enemies] can kill us, but they can’t hurt us…”
In Him, we are, really and truly, invincible. The new heavens and new earth, good beyond our imaginings, are indeed coming!
And by God’s Spirit and grace, we will increasingly live not only with, but from, that knowledge.
We’ve covered in some depth the phrases “the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son” and “by his resurrection from the dead….”
Let’s look now at some of the other key things in our text.
I love what an early church father, Ambrosiaster, said:
“God wanted [Jesus Christ] to be known through his power to cleanse humans from their sins by overcoming death in the flesh.”
Hence our text also reads that Jesus Christ was “appointed the Son of God in power…”
Maybe when you heard this read this morning, you were thinking: “But isn’t Jesus already the Son of God right away? Isn’t He ‘born that way’ as they say today?”
Why does the text not say something like “according to his human nature” AND “according to His Divine nature”?
Well, that’s certainly not in doubt at all. It’s just that Paul’s goal here is evidently not to talk about the specific nature of Jesus Christ… just who…what…is He?
…even as later on in Romans, in 9:5, he does goes on to explicitly say that the Christ, the Messiah, is “God over all…”
It is rather to say: “This is what the Christ… the Messiah… looks like and what He does… for your sakes! Pay attention!”
Hence He is appointed the Son of God…. this term for appointed in the Greek is horizo, where get word horizon from!
So it also means, depending on the context, to determine, ordain, fix, decree…. To “mark off by boundaries” as a horizon does with earth and sky….
And what this also means for Christians is that we “fix or designate the proper boundaries of a truth, or a doctrine; to distinguish its lines and marks from error” as well as “to show, or declare a thing to be so by any action….”
For action is critical here. Righteousness, holiness, and love not only are, but they act…
Really, the point in this text is that Paul is making clear how important and valuable to Him the flesh, the humanity… this world that “God so loved” … really is…
Yes, it is under Satan’s dominion…. ruled by the prince of the air ;
yes, the new heavens and earth, upgrading and enhancing the Garden of Eden which we spoke of earlier, will be so much greater… ;
yes, as it stands, the world is tainted by sin through and through ;
yes, it is, as many have put it a “vale of tears”….
…and yet, God deeply loves the world and hence desires to redeem this world that He made in all its temporal and bodily…fleshly even… glory!
This is why the focus here in Romans 1 is thoroughly on Jesus Christ putting on human flesh, and His activity among us for our salvation!
What about the phrase “according to the spirit of holiness…”?
We know the Scriptures speak of One God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Some say that this passage probably refers to the Holy Spirit, but I am of the view that here we are talking about the spirit of Jesus Christ specifically….The spirit of the God-Man Jesus Christ is also a spirit of holiness or “sanctification”.
In John 10:36, in responding to his opponents, we hear Jesus say “what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?”
The idea here is that Christ’s actions in the world for us, according to His sending, are what sets Him apart, or sanctifies Him, as the Son of God!
Again, the focus is on what happens in the flesh, on the earth, in Jesus Christ! It is only through Him and His work that the new age of redemption, of the Holy Spirit, can come forth!
And so, as One commentator put it hundreds of years ago: “the presence of the Godhead is seen in the peculiar and exceptional ‘holiness’ by which it is characterised….”
And how is this exceptional holiness characterized?
It is the Holiness which lives not to condemn, but to show mercy! It is the Holiness which seeks!
It is the holiness like that of Joseph, who though not believing Mary, longed to have compassion on her.
It is the holiness which has has compassion even on our Enemies!
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
Only with the birth we celebrate in a few days could we also proclaim with the Apostle Paul:
“For [God the Father] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Such is our glorious assurance!
No one deserves a Merry Christmas. Not me. Not you. No one.
We, in fact, deserve nothing but judgment!
And yet, He deeply loves us.
Hence we can sing:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive its King;
….No more let sin and sorrow grow
Nor thorns infest the ground:
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as the curse is found.
An essential part of Christianity is all about that term horizo… declaring, asserting, proclaiming…. Of marking off the boundary that is the Only True God who can save us from death.
Not shutting up.
Asserting. Asserting with confidence the joy, the relief, we know!
God’s doctrine, His teaching, is life for us! And for all!
How to share it?
Just remember what it is all about…
For God so loved the world, or better, For God loved the world in this way: that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish…die… but have eternal life….
Not long ago in my beloved wintry Minnesota, I went sledding with my boys….
The three year old could not walk up the steep hill.
One son said he wouldn’t help him.
Another said he couldn’t help him.
Only father was both good and strong enough to help.
Likewise, only the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is both good and strong enough to help us, to save us, from our desperate condition of the bondage to sin, death, and the devil.
And so, again:
Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through
The cross be borne, for me, for you.
Hail! Hail! The Word made flesh
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
The Son gladly submits. And so we live….
Don’t forget to wish one another a “Merry Christmas”!