Romans 10:18-21 “But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.’ Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, ‘I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.’ And Isaiah boldly says, ‘I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But concerning Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.’”
There are people who have attended a gospel church for years but still are uncommitted to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. There are children who grow up in Christian families and know what the Bible teaches but do not trust in God. There are students who come each week to the Christian Union meetings at university but are still sitting on the fence at the end of their time in college. They all remind me of the apostle Paul’s fellow Israelites many of whom knew the story of the creation, the fall and the promises of God to send a Redeemer and yet they rejected the Messiah when he came. What is the reason for this unbelief? We live in a church culture which is quickly shrill to answer, “It is all our fault. We did not speak to them. We did not reach out to them. We did not speak simply to them. We did not pray for them. We did not live credible Christ-like lives before them.” Always the reason for people’s unbelief is placed squarely on the shoulders of Christians. It is the fault of the preacher, the fault of the congregation, the fault of the parents, the fault of fellow students. In the verses before us Paul is addressing this very problem of his fellow countrymen’s unbelief. He says it bleakly like this; “Not all the Israelites accepted the good news” (Roms. 10:16). He had been beaten with rods and also stoned by Israelites for preaching this message, but that was nothing new. So many of the prophets that God had sent to his people had been killed by them, and Paul quotes the greatest writing prophet, Isaiah, saying to God, “Lord, who has believed our message?” (v.16). It seemed to him that there was no one hearing his Spirit-filled preaching and responding in repentance and faith. Why was this? This is Paul’s concern in the passage before us.
HAD THEY NEVER HEARD THE MESSAGE?
Is that it? They never heard a clear message? Did Noah fail to preach the message of righteousness? No. He preached it clearly and long, for 120 years, warning and pleading with the people to prepare for the judgment to come. Did Moses fail to speak to the people about their sin and lay on the consciences the ten commandments? No failure there. Shining-faced Moses was a friend of God speaking on behalf of Jehovah all that God had given to him on Mount Sinai. And time does not allow us to speak of Joshua and Gideon and Samuel and Elijah and Elisha and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Ezra and Haggai and Malachi. They and many more were men full of faith as they declared the word from God to the people. Had they heard the message? Yes.
Paul says, “But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.’” (v.18). Paul is quoting Psalm 19 and the fourth verse. Paul is taking a psalm which speaks of the general revelation of God seen in sunsets and the evening star, and in the aerial acrobatics of the ten thousand starlings. What glory of our God is declared in creation! And Paul takes that truth and now he is saying, the voice of grace in the word of God has gone out into the whole world. When Paul wrote that it was an understandable hyperbole, a figure of speech. Remember the context? Less than thirty years earlier the gospel was confined to Jerusalem and Galilee, and then Jesus spoke the Great Commission and sent his servants to preach the gospel to the uttermost ends of the earth. Off they went, as the book of Acts tells us, and soon Ethiopia and Rome heard the word. Paul could write to the Colossians in Turkey around the time he was writing these words to the Romans and he said to the Colossians about the gospel, it “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven,” so that, as a consequence, “all over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing” (Cols 1:23, 6). Of course Paul was not thinking in terms of China and the Americas and Australia. He was thinking that wherever his fellow countrymen had gone trading and doing business and erecting synagogues then in all those places there were also congregations and evangelists preaching Jesus the Messiah. The Jews had heard the claims of the risen Christ. They could not blame their unbelief on the fact that no one had told them.
God’s will for us is that from us the voice of Jesus goes into all the earth, and the words of Jesus go to the ends of the earth. We are to be engaged in this breathtaking project because the God who is worthy to be known and served for who he is, is himself the answer to this world’s longings. And we who know him best are best equipped to serve him. He is our message. If we have discovered the glory of God in the face of Christ, we dare not hold back. The God of glory must be made known. Have we learned to live on God? If we have – to any degree – we are equipped to that extent. We are equipped to serve the glorious God! We can grumble at the low views of God in modern Christianity. But such criticism is also a call to us to do better. It calls us in two ways. First, it reminds us to deepen our own knowledge of God. We must know the words we take to the end of the world. “Search the Scriptures,” Jesus said. “They testify of me.” So let’s mine the treasures of the Word. May God help us to do so! That treasure is what others need. We have the knowledge of God as he has made himself known in Jesus Christ. If low views of God won’t save this world – and they won’t – then our task is clear. We must support the sending of the messengers to the ends of the earth with the message of God in Christ. We must be able to stand before God and say, “Here am I send me.” How easy it is to criticize! How readily we may point the finger at others! What little effort it costs! And how little it will accomplish!
God has shown us a lost world, and he is teaching us compassion. We have seen it in the face of Jesus Christ. It has moved us. The sight of lost men has called Christians to the ends of the earth. From this congregation they have gone out to Bethlehem, to Kenya, to Austria, to France, to Latvia, to Japan, to Ecuador, to Dublin, to Niger.
But there is much to do in Wales and in Aberystwyth. Paul’s concern was for his fellow countrymen. What, then, must we do? We must take up a phrase of Paul’s, “forgetting those things which are behind”. We needn’t look back to the labours of those who have gone out. We must push ahead. We must never cease telling out God’s glory among the nations. The task is now ours. It no longer belongs to them. A number of them who went out from us have rested from their labours. Their voice has gone out into all the earth; their words to the ends of the world” (v.18). They have handed on the baton to us. The task is now ours. What shall we do with it? May God help us not to hesitate. If we love our Saviour let us seek to make his words known. Let us carry his character, his person, to the regions beyond. Let us work the works of him who sends us while it is day. Let us say on his behalf, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else!”
We have the smallest confidence in ourselves, and that is good. That is good indeed. And if we have other fears we will look them in the face knowing that God is greater than them all. The cause of God must prevail. Men must hear the message. And even if we must tremble as we work, we will say with Paul the missionary, “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us. Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21). So men have heard the real gospel message. The Israelites could not use that excuse for their unbelief.
HAD THEY UNDERSTOOD THE MESSAGE?
People can hear the message of Jesus Christ and not understand it. It happened when our Lord himself preached to them. They argued amongst themselves as to what Jesus was talking about. Then others called the greatest of all saved preachers, Paul, a ‘babbler’; one ruler heard Paul speak to him and he said that he concluded that Paul was crazy, that much learning had made Paul mad. So the world heard the message from Jesus himself and from his own trained apostles but the world failed to understand. They were quite antagonistic to the diagnosis of man in sin, and one Saviour, the Son of God. Have you faced up to the possibility of your not being able to understand? Have you considered that you might come to this church and hear me and not grasp what I am talking about? You must pray, “Oh make me understand it; help me to take it in” because millions in the country don’t understand the message of salvation in God’s own holy word.
But Paul now swiftly answers this second rational for Israel’s unbelief that Israel’s problem was we made the Christian faith so complicated and hence their lack of understanding of the word preached. Paul quotes from the law and the prophets to support his disdain of that plea. First, he says, quoting from one of the first five books of the Bible, in Deuteronomy 32 “Moses says, ‘I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding’” (Deut. 32:21). Take the people of Nineveh for an example. They were not the holy nation, chosen and loved by God, and they had little understanding of the Scriptures, and yet when the reluctant prophet Jonah went there and preached to them the whole city repented, the king on his throne repented, the beggar sleeping on the street repented, from the greatest to the least there was a pervasive transformation of the country through understanding the word of God that Jonah preached to them. Think of it, a country that disdained the God of the Jews, with a tiny grasp of the Scripture, and yet what Nineveh did understand of the word of God – “You are on a broad road that leads to destruction” – she took very seriously. She changed her life! And Jonah the appointed Israelite preacher was green with envy at the mercy God had shown them, and he became angry by this fact. ‘Non-nation’ pagans were understanding the word of Jehovah, Jonah’s God. It also happened at the siege of Jericho where a ‘non-nation’ harlot understood the word and was saved while many in Israel was being tempted to serve Baal. It again happened to a Midianite woman called Ruth. She understood and wanted this people to be her people and their God to be hers. In Babylon a pagan king Nebuchadnezzar understood more than many an exiled Jew. In Jesus’ day a centurion understood the source of the power of Christ more than most of the Jews who heard and understood but rejected the word. Did many of the Jews who were delighted that the centurion had funded the building of a synagogue feel anger and envy that he had such exalted views of the Lord Jesus? That centurion had not come to Israel to seek out the Messiah. He had been commissioned by the Emperor to do his tour of duty there and to keep the people of Israel in subjection. Yet what God said through the prophet Isaiah was fulfilled in him; “and Isaiah boldly says, ‘I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.’” (v.20). That is exactly what happened to the prostitute in Jericho, and to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, and the Roman centurion in Israel. They all had these serendipity moments; they stumbled across the Messiah. He was found by those who were not seeking. Jesus revealed himself as the incarnate Almighty one to a Gentile soldier who was not agonizing and crying out for him. He understood the power of Jesus when the teachers of the law and synagogue preachers refused to understand him. One alone came by night to Jesus to learn that he had to be born again to see the kingdom of God.
So now all over the Roman Empire there were people discovering Jesus Christ the promised Messiah, the Son of God, while God’s old covenant people were rejecting him. Gentiles who never asked what the Jews believed were confronted the message of the risen Jesus and were understanding it – the one the Jews rejected. Israel understood perfectly well what Paul preached in their synagogues. He made his message transparently clear. “God has sent the promised Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. The proof of that was in his preaching and mighty works. He died to make atonement for our sins and we know that because on the third day God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of these things. I have met the risen Jesus.” There was nothing enigmatic or mysterious about that message. They couldn’t wail, “We don’t understand.” They had heard and they had understood. They were without excuse.
So the application to ourselves is clear, that we are to make sure that men and women understand the gospel we speak to them. You might think that this is just the great challenge that I face, and certainly it is especially poignant to me to think that I might preach with the tongues of men and angels and yet to some in the congregation I might just as well be a sounding brass gong or a tinkling cymbal for all they understand of what I am saying. Yes, I am massively challenged week after week to try to make my message simple, but yet not simplistic. I believe in a simple gospel but not a silly gospel.
I do believe that it is imperative for every one of us to speak our message so that people understand all its great implications. For example, when you are talking to people about Christianity then it is not enough to ask them whether they believe in God. Many will say yes. You must ask them another question; “Does sin separate you from God?” Then their answers will tell you much about their understanding of God. They might say, “No, why should it?” Or they might say, “I don’t believe in that kind of God.” Or they might say, “I think of God as someone who loves me.” They say they believe in God and yet they define God by their own personal ideas and values. So let me make the Christian message very clear to you. You need to listen carefully to four things God wants you to understand
i] You need to understand that God is the Holy and Loving Creator.
He is a Sovereign Creator: out of his pleasure and utterly freely God created the world and he sustains us. So we are utterly dependent upon him for everything we have. We have no inherent rights. God is light, which symbolizes his majesty, purity and holiness. He sets the standard of right and wrong. He is God Almighty in heaven over his creation.
He is a Personal Creator: We are neither impersonal machines, nor puppets, nor are we animals. Our significance is derived from our unique creation in the image of the God who is a person. God is light and so we have a conscience. God is love, and he made us for the purpose of communion with him, to worship him, and to honour him, and to fellowship with him, and to delight in him. He is God, the Father of us his creatures. So he has an absolute claim on our lives as our Creator, and we are responsible to reflect God. That is our goal in life. That is why he keeps us alive, to do that, to glorify and enjoy him.
ii] You need to understand that we men and women are fallen and sinful creatures. That is the reason for the suffering in the world. The congregation of a friend of mine two or three weeks ago at Easter went onto the streets with free hot cross buns and with cards on which a question was written with a space for a response and an address or an email address. The question was this, “If you could meet God what question would you ask him?” Now the majority of the answers given in were about the suffering there is in the world. Why the pain? But much of the suffering we meet is due to personal sin or the defiance and fall of our father Adam that has brought sin and death into the world.
When I talk about ‘sin’ I am referring to wilful rebellion against God by refusing to do what God commands; being determined to do what God forbids. We find ourselves playing God: running our lives as if God didn’t matter; ignoring God; trying to be self-sufficient and self-made people; scorning God: violating and disregarding his Law for living; wanting to decide for ourselves what we think is right and wrong.
The consequences of sin are death, both physical and spiritual death, which is due to the wrath of God.
Living Death: separation now from God, inward death of soul, resulting in guilt, loss of identity, purposelessness, distorted relationships and so on.
Eternal Death: separation of our souls from God forever. Hell is real, and we are self-deceived if we think we are living out of our own resources, when actually we are creatures and guilty rebels under judgment who cannot help ourselves. We have chosen to reject God. The consequences are lives with him and an eternity under his judgment.
iii] Thirdly you need to understand that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Merciful Redeemer
A. He offers to become our Teacher: Christ’s words and life reveal the nature of God. He communicates to our minds, and he speaks to us through the prophets and apostles of Scripture.
B. He offers to become our Sin-bearer: He offered himself as the innocent, substitutionary sacrifice for sin on behalf of all who acknowledge their sin. He took the guilt of sinners upon himself and endured God’s judgment for it in his death on the cross. He redeems them by his blood poured out; that sacrifice satisfies the just anger of a holy God against sinful people.
C. He offers to become our King: He rose from the dead (conquering sin and death) and he ascended back to his Father to be cosmic Lord of the universe, of heaven, earth and hell. His life of perfect obedience is now vindicated, and he freely and sovereignly gives his reward of righteousness to undeserving sinners. He dispenses grace (unmerited favour) to whomsoever he will, and he rules in love, over all who’ve been united by trust and repentance to him.
iv] You need to understand what is our necessary response to being united to Christ. On the basis of what he has done and said – these unchangeable facts and historical truths – and because Jesus Christ is alive today, God invites and commands us now to turn from and turn to:
A. Turn from our rebellion to submitting to Jesus Christ as Lord and to do this with our whole selves in every part of our beings and personalities. In other words, with our . .
Minds: Agree with God that we have wronged him and deserve his judgment. Realize that his goodness shown to us in many ways was designed to humble us unto repentance.
Emotions: Despise our sins, and starve and strangle our sinful nature.
Wills: Determine to turn from our rebellion and serve our Creator and Redeemer.
Christ alone is the one who paid for our sins by his redemption, and he alone has power over our sins to deliver us daily from them.
B. Turn to the Lord Jesus. Trust in nothing that we can do, but only in the finished work of Christ as Saviour. In other words with our . . .
Minds: Recognize Christ as the necessary and sufficient payment for sin.
Emotions: Long for Christ and rejoice in his love for the undeserving.
Wills: Commit our lives to Christ by casting ourselves upon him as our only hope for reconciliation with God. Transfer our trust from ourselves to him. Take for ourselves his gift of forgiveness and righteousness. Ask for God’s mercy. A person can only become a Christian by turning from a sinful life to Christ, and by trusting in him as Saviour and Lord.
This week witnessed the funeral service of former British Prime Minister Lady Margaret Thatcher, and many people have spoken very positively about the way her grand-daughter, Amanda Thatcher, read from Ephesians 6. She read as if she knew the God who inspired those verses on the Christian armour. The reporter for the Daily Telegraph, Peter Stanford was most impressed by this and curious, and she asked the family’s closest friend, Adryana Boyne, what was the reason for this. “Amanda Thatcher is an evangelical Christian,” she told him. So what does that mean? What is an evangelical Christian? He was told “She has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is not about belonging to a denomination. It is about realising that we need a Saviour because we are sinners. That informs how you are and everything you do. Her step-father is also such a Christian and it was their mutual love for Jesus Christ that brought her mother and step-father together. So do you understand? Have you grasped the gospel and what God wants you to do?
HAD SOMEONE PLEADED WITH THEM TO COME TO CHRIST?
Do you understand? Here is a man who is a Freemason, but he’s never spoken to you about becoming a Freemason. It’s obviously not that important to him. Here is a woman who is a member of a political party but she’s never urged you to join it and told you about the wonderful goals this political party has. Here are some Welsh language speakers, but they didn’t bother to speak to their children in Welsh. You see Paul’s argument. Why are the children of Abraham, these Hebrews, not following Jesus Christ? They never heard of him? Wrong. These Christians are evangelizing and telling everyone about the Messiah Jesus. Is it that they have indeed heard about Jesus but it was all rather incomprehensible to them? No. A million people with no background at all in the Old Testament and the promise of the coming of the Messiah heard from the first century Christians and they have responded and believed in him – much to the envy and anger of the Jews who reject him. So is the reason these Jews have rejected Christ because of this, that they have been the victims of discrimination? They have been spoken to about Jesus of Nazareth, but reluctantly and coldly and in a very peremptory manner? There has been no persuasion and passion and earnestness. Maybe the Gentiles thought, “These are the people responsible for the death of Christ.” And so they didn’t want them to be forgiven. They failed to love them, and lovingly evangelize them.
How concerned are we that people believe the gospel? I remember once going around a hospital ward and after I had visited one of our members I spoke to another middle-aged lady. “How long have you been in hospital?” is a pretty safe opening gambit. “Today,” she said and she told me of how her daughter was driving her along the road when a car came shooting out of a side road right into them totaling their car. The ambulance took her into hospital as a precautionary measure to make sure there was no concussion. “The car is gone and our journey together was a disaster,” she said. Then I spoke to her about God, about how he is the God of providence and that he can make our worst things work for our good, and that he had sent his Son on a journey that had taken him to Calvary but that his death was followed by resurrection and triumph. She looked bleakly back at me and said, “Words . . . only words.” Now the gospel had come to her but it had come in word only. Maybe I was too hesitant and too nervous before this intimidating woman. More than words are needed when you speak of Jesus Christ. You need some authority and you need the Holy Spirit and you need to be assured that what you are saying is the most important and relevant thing for them in all the world.
When Paul spoke of the cross of Christ to men and women he did so as if he were an ambassador who had been sent by his mighty ruler to take a message to this people. He did not read from a scroll, wrap it up, put it back in his bag and then move on. What does he say? Listen! God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cors. 5:19&20). He told them the message in terms of a heavenly authority, as utterly true with no error whatsoever, and then he urged them to believe it. He beseeched his hearers to end their alienation with God and be reconciled to him. “Some gave his life for you. Do you know it? Christ has died,” he told them “and then God made him to be sin for us and so clearing all our guilt away, and God has also imputed his righteousness to us. Believe it! Accept it as the truest truth you will ever hear!” Paul was urgent and imploring. There was no, “Take it or leave it. I’m moving on.”
So when the messengers of the true Messiah brought the gospel to Israel were they weary and bored? Did they speak dispassionately? Were they cool? Were they embarrassed by enthusiasm? Were they afraid of people saying, “I didn’t like him getting excited. I didn’t appreciate him shouting. I was embarrassed by his tears.” No they weren’t. Their great Saviour wept as he saw the unbelief of Jerusalem. How did the Lord preach? “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (v.21). Do you see what he is saying? He began to speak to them just after breakfast and all the day he spoke clearly and lovingly, explaining they’d been ruined by the fall but they could be redeemed by the cross and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Others went home for lunch but his arms were still outstretched to save them, and through the heat of the afternoon he was still there exhorting, pleading, beseeching, his hands still stretched out to them in welcome. The arms of love that compassed him would all mankind embrace. The audience defied him, but he would still take them as his children. They were obstinate but he still offered them the best news they could ever hear. “I have a Saviour for you, a teacher who will enlighten you, a sacrifice who will cleanse you from all your guilt and shame, and a shepherd king who will protect and keep you. Trust in him. Take him for yourself. I plead with you. Confess your sins to him and close with him. He is able to save you. He is willing to save you. Doubt no more. If you tarry till you’re better you will never come at all. Jesus did not come for good and righteous people but for sinners. Today his mercy calls you. I have the best news for the worst of sinners, that if you but turn in faith to him and abandon your unbelief then he will welcome you and restore you. He will give you the right to be called a son of God. You know the very worst things that you have done that cover you in shame, that you think are almost beyond redemption, God will pardon those crimson sins. You know the persistent sins that pull you down, God will forgive you those too. There is one safe place in all the world and that is to be in Christ. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.
You have heard the message, and you have understood the message and God is pleading with you now to receive the message into your mind and heart and life. God has brought you here because he loves you. He has put up with your long rebellion against him. He sincerely is urging you now not to delay for one moment longer. Just as you are, without a single plea except “Guilty!” you come. His blood was shed for sinners just like you. He patiently taught sinners just like you. He promises to keep sinners like you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy. If you come to him then there is no way that he’ll rebuff you or throw you out. Come to him. You come to him. It is a moving of your heart and soul as the Spirit takes the word and applies it to our hearts and draws us so that we know we must have Jesus Christ and he is willing to receive us. O Lamb of God I come. I come.
21st April 2013 GEOFF THOMAS