Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.
This is the beginning of one of Paul’s long sentences. There is a longer one at the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians. That is eleven verses in length and 202 words long. It is the longest sentence in the Bible, while this one stretches out for seven verses. You couldn’t tell that from any English translation because the sentence necessarily is broken up into smaller parts, but in the original it is one, 176 words in all, starting with these words of our text, going on to end with “from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” in verse 7.
The structure of Paul’s opening words is not typical of first century letters. What is typical is the name of the author coming first, unlike our letters where the name of the author is the last word written. Letters in ancient times began very simply, “Aristarchus to Caiaphus, greetings!” Then came the body of the letter, but Paul departed from that practice, and he did so for a good reason. His readers hadn.t met him. He’d not been to Rome. Few of them had any personal knowledge of Paul. They knew a little about his life story and they knew he was sound in his doctrines, but his credentials in writing as he does to them, why they should listen carefully and heed this letter, these were matters they knew only vaguely and they were unsure about things. This was probably the first letter of Paul that they’d ever seen, and they’d never read a gospel. Hence the lengthy introduction where Paul lays everything on the table before them.
Can I turn this approach this way? We have a need not only to listen to the people to whom we’re speaking about the gospel – we are often reminded of that – but we need to bear testimony to them about how we became ‘religious’ and what we’re doing in this community and why we’ve come to believe the things we do, and from that information go on to explain about our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Give them the bare essentials, that’s all and then you’re not so anonymous. They’re more comfortable with you and what you say to them. So let me continue with this introduction by saying a word about the author of the letter, Paul.
In prime place, even by word order, is Saul of Tarsus whose name was changed to its Greek form, Paul, as he traveled in the Greek speaking world. He was a man who hadn’t been raised as a Christian, but rather had become a fierce opponent of Jesus Christ, and then had been converted by an intervention in his life of the living God himself. That is the only explanation for this 180 degree change of direction from judging Jesus Christ to be a blasphemer and a liar, one worthy of capital punishment, even death by crucifixion, to believing that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God. This bigoted fanatical Jew, a Pharisaic fundamentalist, became a Christian, and for the rest of his life he sought to win his fellow countrymen and any who would hear him to worship and serve the Messiah in whom Paul had put his trust.
I once heard Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaching on the incident of Paul reasoning with King Felix about righteousness, temperance and judgment to come, and the Doctor was introducing us to the two protagonists, the king and the apostle. And he said one little thing about Paul that struck me then that I’ve never forgotten. I’ve tracked it down finding it in the first of his studies of Paul’s letter to the Romans. These are the words that I heard over fifty years ago. “What do we find when we look at the life of Paul? We find that he was a man who was endowed with unusual and exceptional natural ability. There is no question about that. It is something that comes out everywhere in all his epistles, and in what we are told about him in the book of Acts. This man undoubtedly was one of the great brains, not only of the church but also of the world. That is something that is acknowledged by people who are not Christian at all. [Then this is it . . .] I remember that towards the end of the Second World War a series of lectures was given in London on ‘The Master Minds of the Ages’. It was a secular society that arranged them, but in the list of the men dealt with came this man, the apostle Paul, because they had to recognize and to admit that he was, one of the master minds of the ages. And that is something that comes out very clearly in everything he does. You cannot help noticing his tremendous reasoning power, his logic, his arguments, the way in which he marshals his evidence and his facts, and presents them. He was, then, a most amazing man if you look at him only from the natural stand-point and consider the unusual ability which he had” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 1, Banner of Truth, 1985, p.8).
So a brilliant mind, but joined so beautifully to a personality that was truly humble. He was prepared to make tents not to be a burden on his followers. He escaped capture on one occasion by being let down in a basket attached to a rope from the city walls of Damascus. This man is no precursor of the tele-evangelist asking his followers for their tithes and offerings and telling them that this would guarantee them getting more money themselves while he himself owns a fleet of expensive cars and lives in a mansion as a millionaire. This genius, Paul, was also a humble man and often a humiliated man, zealous, loving and beloved. You remember how he comments to the Christians in Galatia that they would have given to him their own eyes if he needed them, and again, how when he said good-bye to the church in Ephesus the congregation broke into weeping on the beach as he set sail from them because they were not going to see him again. So he was a man capable of warm affection and also a deeply loved man. There are three things he tells us about himself in this opening verse. He introduces us to the one who was his Master. Then he introduces us to his God-given office, and finally he introduces us to his purpose in life.
- PAUL WAS A SERVANT OF CHRIST JESUS.
That is the first phrase by which he defined his life and its goals. “If you want to know who I am and what my relationship is with Jesus Christ then let me be absolutely clear with you that I am his bond-slave (it is the word doulos) and he is my Master.” Paul is here identifying himself with everyone hearing this letter read in Rome and with all of us. We are drawn into this aim in our lives. We believe that man’s chief end is to serve the Lord Jesus, and so in this regard we and Paul are on the same level. It will not be like that when we come to Paul’s second phrase because unlike any of us he was uniquely an apostle, but here in his opening words he speaks for every Christian. We are all servants of our Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul wasn’t writing this letter to lord it over the Romans but to show to them by his life and beliefs what it means to be a Christian. We are servants of the one who was himself the great suffering Servant of the living God, whose delight it was to do God’s will. Paul’s mission in life was to serve Jesus Christ 24/7, and the motive for serving him was his love to Christ and Christ’s love for him. He said of the Lord, “He loved me and gave himself for me.” So his relationship with his Saviour was one of loving service.
These are years when Downton Abbey is a popular series on TV trying to capture the dynamics of servants and masters almost a century ago in a vast mansion in England. There was respect and love between the employed and the employer, but a mere drama like that doesn’t help me at all to make this phrase clearer. So I prefer to go back to the book of Psalms and the wonderful opening of Psalm 123 where we read of the psalmist serving God; “I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy.” That was the kind of loving, awe-filled relationship of Paul the servant to his great Lord Jesus, and that is so important to grasp particularly in the light of how some people in the world will criticize the apostle Paul.
My family in London, Rhodri’s parents, live in the Cricklewood area of north-west London, and somewhere nearby lives the actor Tom Conti. They know this because they’ve occasionally seen him over the years walking about or shopping in their neighbourhood. Conti has been an actor and director for over fifty years, an international star of the West End, Broadway, Hollywood and television. He is four years younger than me, and he’s from Scotland and presumably with his Italian name is from a nominally Roman Catholic family. The week before last the Daily Mail Weekend Magazine featured him in a two page spread. He was asked this question, “For what figure in history would you most likely buy a pie and a pint?” He answered immediately, “St. Paul. He started Christianity by creating the myth of Jesus. I don’t believe any of it, so I’d ask him why he made it up.” Now it was obvious that Conti had a thoughtful mind because he claimed in the interview that he was deeply interested in quantum physics, and believed that that science would eventually lead mankind to ‘extraordinary revelations.’ Conti tries to understand quantum physics. His hope for himself and the future of the world was in quantum physics. Why doesn’t he give the same respect to the scientific evidence that’s available in the biblical revelation of Jesus Christ? I am thinking of the 27 documents that go back to less than fifty years after the resurrection of Christ? Has Conti used his mind to examine the uninventable life of Jesus Christ as recorded by one of the gospel writers, not Paul now, but Matthew, Mark, Luke or John? Has Conti ever read this letter to the Romans?
In the first half a dozen words of this letter Paul tells the Roman Christians that he is a bond-servant of Christ Jesus. Who is right? Has Tom Conti and those who think like him got it right, that Paul was a myth-maker, that he invented the story of Jesus, and so he was a liar, an egotist, a conspirator and a deceiver? Or is Jesus in fact the Christ, that is, the Messiah of God? He was killed around the year 30 by a combination of Jewish priests and the Roman governor. There are one or two other historical documents that bare witness to this fact. He died by crucifixion. But here is Paul and there is no hint of Jesus being some figure that he’d fashioned but that Christ was in fact his Master; Paul was this man’s slave. So what are the 16 chapters of this letter to the Romans? Do they seem to you to be the writings of a conspirator, a stupid and an evil man who yet suffered greatly for his beliefs and even died a brutal death, and that was for a myth that he had invented? Is that the truth and Conti has discovered it? You must think about this. It is too important a question for you to ignore.
Paul’s own claim is that his whole life was lived working out day by day the implications of his relationship with the Lord Jesus, as one whose life had been bought and was owned and ruled by his Saviour, the one who had died and was risen from the dead – Christ Jesus – ‘bought and owned,’ because that’s what being a bond servant implies. In 1 Corinthians 7 and verse 23, Paul says, “You were bought at a price; don’t become slaves of men.” In other words, Christians are owned by Christ because he purchased us with his own precious blood. So Jesus possesses every single Christian. “You are not your own. For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Paul is the bond-slave of Christ Jesus because Christ went to the Sinners’ Slave Mart and he bid for him and purchased him, the price his own life’s blood and Paul became Christ’s servant. So you don’t slip back into becoming a slave to the fashionable and popular anti-Christian mood of our day without thinking. It is contagious and fashionable and everywhere. Don’t drift into that slavery if Christ has bought you and made you free from atheistic despair.
But this opening phrase also means that this living Christ daily ruled Paul, his choices and ambitions and use of time and relationships and so on. He didn’t just do what his peer group did – find out what they’re watching and watch it; find out what they’re drinking and drink it; find out what they’re laughing at and laugh at it; find out what they’re buying and buy one. No. Paul was different. In Galatians 1:10, Paul says, “Am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” That is the choice. Am I going to please all my non-Christian friends and family or am I going to please Christ? Being a servant of Christ means happy submission to what pleases him, not what pleases anybody else. Let me turn this truth in this way. If we as a congregation are going to have any impact under God on this small town of ours then it can only be in this way, that we see ourselves as a community of servants and love our neighbours as ourselves. There is no other way to true church growth except by that.
So Paul’s self-understanding is that he is someone who belongs to Jesus of Nazareth – as a bond-slave belongs to his master – belongs to this God- man who was killed as a criminal perhaps 25 years before this letter was written, and who, Paul will go on to say in verse 4, was raised from the dead and is the absolutely unique and powerful Son of God. In other words, here in this history-making letter we are not merely dealing with a genius. We are dealing with a man whose life was spent serving his Owner and his Ruler and his God, Jesus Christ. This begins to explain why the letter is no ordinary letter. Paul introduces us first as a slave to the one who was his master, and then he introduces us to his office.
- PAUL WAS CALLED TO BE AN APOSTLE.
An apostle is someone who has been sent on a mission, literally a ‘sent-one.’ He is a messenger delivering his master’s message. He is a herald speaking on behalf of the king who gave him the words to tell the people. So the Lord Jesus Christ summoned his twelve apostles and commissioned them to speak what he had taught them. As the Father had sent him so he was sending them. He told them that those anyone who listened to their message would in fact be listening to him. Jesus further told them that he would give them the Holy Spirit and that he would lead them into all truth, that the Spirit would bring to their remembrance the things that he had said to them. So when they were getting older and more prone to forgetfulness that the Spirit had power to breathe life into a dying memory cell, and recapture the exact words of Jesus, even the tone of his voice, and the circumstances in which Jesus had said certain truths. Those factors would all come alive so that the apostles would be given the right words and record the right truths in the right spirit. That was the special gift of being an apostle.
There were certain conditions necessary for being an apostle and some of them had to be fulfilled by Paul. You find some of them listed in Acts chapter one when the apostles came to recognize who it was that God had prepared as a sub. for Judas. “It is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21&22). So the sub. had to be familiar with Jesus of Nazareth. He’d been with him, eating, walking, sleeping in the same bedroom, always observing him and thinking about what had happened as one memorable day followed another.
Then also and more importantly the man “must become a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:22). The latter qualification was crucial, and so Paul could say to the Corinthians where some were challenging his apostleship, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (I Cor. 9:1). You understand that it was not a vision of the Lord Jesus that Saul of Tarsus had seen on the Damascus road. He had seen and heard the risen Jesus Christ. He told the Corinthians, “Last of all he appeared to me also” (I Cor. 15:7&8). It was on a par with his other appearances to the twelve.
Then there was something more, that an apostle needed a commission from the Lord himself, a personal divine calling to the office. See our text and its exact wording, “called to be an apostle.” Paul can begin his letter to the Galatians with these words: “Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” Jesus had said to Paul on the Damascus Road, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them” (Acts 26:16). So while the eleven apostles could look back to times they had spent with Christ, Paul could look forward to times he was going to spend with Christ, especially in Arabia.
So you see how the twelve were very self-conscious that they had no right or authority to appoint a new apostle. Who were they to do this? And so what they did was actually to draw lots, and so the stick they took out of the box had the name of Matthias written on it. Thus they believed that God had appointed him as indeed he had guiding the hand in the darkness to take that stick and not the other one. But there was one thing more; there was also the ability to do miraculous signs that marked out an apostle, and Paul had this gift in abundance. He reminds the Corinthians about his apostolic ministry among them, “The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance. How were you inferior to the other churches?” (2 Cors.:12&13).
So the apostleship was an office of enormous authority and influence, and to qualify for it there were these fences erected around it, the fence of being a companion with Christ since his baptism (and even Paul did not qualify for that but he became Jesus’ companion later), being a witness of the resurrected Christ, having a special summons from God to this divinely appointed office and manifesting the signs of an apostle in doing miracles. So the apostleship was a foundational office of the universal church. It could never be a continued office in the church like pastors and elders and deacons because of the simple necessary qualification of being a witness of the resurrected Jesus. The gift of an apostle ceased when the last of the twelve died. Their work was over; the foundation for the church of the ages was laid; their task was complete. But the gift of the apostolic teaching has been given to every gospel congregation since the time of the apostles. Every church has to be built on the foundation of the apostles. Are the elements of our worship – praise, preaching, prayer, the Lord’s Supper and baptism – apostolic elements? Are the ethics we encourage apostolic ethics? Are the doctrines we teach actually in accordance with this letter to the Romans? Are we building on the foundation of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude and so on year after year throughout our lives? There is no other foundation that anyone can lay except that in order to do the will of God, and know God’s blessing and the work of his Spirit.
One of the Pentecostal churches is called the Assemblies of God. I love that label. I wish our church was called Aberystwyth Assembly of God. It’s quite impossible, I know. But we here are an assembly of God because God is present in our midst and all we do is done to give glory to God. Another of the Pentecostal denominations is called the Apostolic Church. I love that label too. We are an apostolic church because we build on the foundation of the apostles, and we preach as truths to be obeyed all of this letter to the Romans. That is why we are going to spend some time seeking to understand and obey everything that is written in it. These are not the words of a man one brick short of a load who scribbles on a graffiti-covered wall. These are not the words of a newspaper columnist who has to fill three columns every week in a paper. These words come from an apostle of the Lord Christ. To hear them is to hear the Lord Jesus himself. We receive this message not simply as one coming from a fine servant of Christ Jesus, but from one who was called to be an apostle. This letter is great not simply because the man who wrote is has been considered a genius for 2000 years but because it is the word of God written by one of Christ’s apostles.
Now you have spotted right here in the opening ten words of this epistle this emerging note of authority. Paul is here to serve his Master’s agenda, even the Lord Most High. It’s God’s gospel that Paul is writing here. The Roman Christians needed to face up to this 2000 years ago as one Sabbath morning an elder got up and told the gathered church that they had received a letter from Paul, and in the next half an hour he read this entire letter to them. But we too here and now have to face up to this note of authority. There are radical truth claims that Paul is making here, and we live in a day and age where people are uncomfortable with authority and with truth. We often hear the claim that there are no absolutes, no absolute truth, and no absolute rights and wrongs.
My friend Dr. Ligon Duncan once had a Russian history professor. Ligon reported the encounter like this, “We were studying the Soviet Revolution, and he said to the class, ‘The Bolsheviks were a lot like Christians. They thought they’d found truth with a capital T’ and then he stopped to give us some pastoral advice about this. He said, ‘If you ever run into anybody who believes in truth with a capital T, you run in the opposite direction as fast as you can.’ That’s an example of the world being very uncomfortable with absolute truth claims because the world is afraid that that’s going to restrict its freedom to do as it pleases and believe what it wants.” Now, of course, that’s right. The words of an apostle who’s been commissioned and inspired by God are going to delimit our behaviour and beliefs.
But authority is the only thing that will save you from authoritarianism. It is only the belief in a transcendent truth that doesn’t change, that saves you from the tyranny of the fifty percent plus one majority. If a man tolerates you only because he believes that there is no truth, or that the truths that exist are all relative, then such a person can change his mind tomorrow. He becomes a social butterfly. If you remove belief in transcendent truth, then you’re in trouble. Anything goes. Millions have been butchered in the name of giving ‘liberty’ to powerful merciless people to do what they believe is right to the unprotected common people.
It’s so important for us all to face up to this authority claim that is built into this office of Paul, “called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ.” Like the Master he serves he says that he’s got a message from God for us, and he wants you to understand that his message has enormous consequences for the whole of your life; for the way that you think, for the way that you live, the kind of marriage you have, how you raise your children, how you spend your money, your relationships with other people, how you treat your body, what will be your enthusiasms and delights, and also for the place where you’ll spend eternity. If the Creator God is real and he has spoken through prophets and apostles and his own Son then we will prick up our ears and think about what we read here.
Paul, you understand, is claiming to address us directly on behalf of God. Paul is not saying, “Now this is the church’s opinion, this is the community of faith’s opinion, this is my individual opinion, this is the result of my private mystical encounter with God.” He is saying, “I have been called to be an apostle and this is God’s word for you. This is the good news of God.” And, men and women, it is vital for us to face up to that challenge. Please consider embracing this gospel, not simply because it feels right or that you think it could be good for you, but because it’s true. And if it’s not true, it’s not good. And as I have said, we live in an age that isn’t comfortable with truth. We’re much more comfortable with sentiments like, “Well, this works for me, and that works for you.” But that’s not how Paul presents the gospel. He doesn’t present the gospel as one of many options that might work for some people. He presents it as the truth of how our holy Creator relates savingly to sinners. If it’s rejected, it means eternal damnation. If it’s embraced, it means eternal bliss. It’s that simple. That’s not popular, but that’s what Paul is saying. And I want you to feel something of the force of that in the relativistic, pluralistic age in which we live. Paul is throwing down heaven’s gauntlet. He is saying that these are God’s directives for you. There’s one way, one gospel, one hope, one Lord. And so the letter that Paul writes is the expression of one who lovingly serves his Master Jesus, and it is an authoritative letter because Paul was an apostle.
- PAUL WAS SET APART FOR THE GOSPEL OF GOD.
Here was this former Pharisee and he knew all about being separated from the world. He was a gold medalist in that category! The name ‘Pharisee’ means ‘a separated one’ but isn’t it interesting that all the memories of how he used to behave so abominably as a Pharisee, that he must have been desperately ashamed of, hadn’t scarred him from using that word to describe himself. The reason for that was that he had found true positive separation just like the psalmist had in the first psalm: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” He is separated from, yes but also separated to. You might have had a horrible abusive father whom now you never see, but that hasn’t prevented you from addressing Almighty God as ‘Abba Father.’ Grace has changed you as it had changed this man. You are unembarrassed in saying that you’ve got a real loving Father. Paul was now a truly separated man. He’d thought of himself in those bad old days as sublimely set apart from other men. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, in other words even the other Pharisees said, “That’s a real Pharisee.” He would cross the street lest the shadow of some dirty sinner fell on him. He tithed the very herbs in his back garden. He’d never go to a butcher who sold pork and so on. There was an endless list of thing he didn’t do, and places he didn’t go and food he wouldn’t eat, but when Christ met with him on the Damascus road his life as a Pharisee was blown apart. Before, he had been separated from all manner of things and was so self-righteous about all of that. Now he was positively separated unto something, to the gospel and to gospel work, and gospel days, and gospel meetings, and gospel praise, and gospel fellowship, and gospel forgiveness, and gospel prayers. His new life was expansive and joyful. Don’t you see how you need that? You don’t just need to separate yourself from pornography, and nicotine addiction, and alcohol, and abusing your body in refusing to eat or eating too much. You also need to fill that vacuum that your abstinence has caused. You need to separate yourself to a loving heavenly Father, someone who knows all about your past but is forgiving and merciful and will take your life on board and help you day by day.
When did Paul’s separation begin? He tells the Galatians that God has set him apart from his mother’s womb (Gals. 1:15). In other words, before the Lord met him on the Damascus road, and before he was born God had set him apart from other men, and all that had been happening to him before Christ confronted him was all part of being separated to the gospel. His memorizing of the Old Testament, his studying under Gamaliel, his hearing Stephen preach the word of God, his kicking against the goads of conscience – all that was planned by God as part of his separating Paul for the great work that would take up every day for the rest of his life – living out the gospel and explaining it to everyone he met. God was the one who did the separating. God prepared Paul from his mother’s womb to do this. God didn’t leave anything to chance in the founding of the church and the preparation of Paul to write his letters. He set him apart before birth, in his mother’s womb, in his nurture and admonition, in his education, in providentially directing him to hear Stephen and so on. Everything was working to his separation to the great vocation of his life.
And you? Do you see that your life, your gifts and talents and interests so far have been a divine preparation for the future? Do you see how God has been releasing you from the legalism of doing what the crowd does in order to bring you into the freedom of doing the will of Jesus day by day? Your heart has been set on something eternal and glorious, something very enriching, a life of usefulness to God and to your fellow man. You have been separated to the gospel. That is your commitment, and that is your calling, and it is the greatest of all privileges. All things else without that you now view as dung and less than dung in order to have the privilege of a life spent serving the good news of Jesus Christ the Saviour, the one who died to remove the guilt of our sins and who lives to take us safely home to heaven. What good news of a life spent serving such a Saviour.
29 September 2013 GEOFF THOMAS