Posts tagged Romans
The Hamster Wheel

Hamsters must be the most physically fit rodents on earth. Rather than letting them sit around stuffing their jaws with little pellets of food, their owners supply them with an exercise machine, the hamster wheel. You know what it looks like, and if you’ve ever had a hamster of your own, you know what it sounds like at 3 AM! The hamster runs in the wheel, and if you think about it too long, you can almost start to feel sad for them. They exert so much energy, but never actually get anywhere. Maybe you can relate.

Our hurried lives are often punctuated by setbacks, frustrations, and, to use the apostle James’ word, trials. While you’re in the middle of one of these setbacks, you feel powerless to get out of it. No matter how hard you push or how fast you run, you just can’t get out. As they say online, “The struggle is real.” What’s worse, it’s not always apparent what we did to deserve the trial we’re facing, and it can sometimes feel like God has abandoned us to go it alone. Thankfully, God knew that we would fall into this “Hamster Wheel Perspective,” and in James 1:1–18 we’re told two things that get us out of the hamster wheel and on with our lives. First, there is a purpose to our trials (Jas. 1:2–4), and second, we’ll be rewarded for our perseverance through them (Jas. 1:12).

There seems to be little purpose to the hamster’s ceaseless running. Clearly, he’s going nowhere and fast. Not so for the believer! God has begun a work in us and He promises to complete it (Phil. 1:6). He has stretched a path in front of us, and though it may prove difficult at times, His purpose is for us to reach our goal and to finish our race. Life is not a hamster wheel. Each trial has a purpose as God shapes us and molds us into the image of His Son, Jesus (Rom. 8:29).

In addition to never actually going anywhere, the hamster doesn’t win anything for running in his wheel. It’s a mindless exercise in futility. But, Christian, we are promised a wonderful reward for our perseverance. James refers to it as “the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (Jas. 1:12), and Paul calls it a competitor’s “prize” (2 Tim. 2:5). Both argue that it is a motivation for our perseverance.

So when you find yourself facing an obstacle, give up the hamster wheel perspective that keeps you from seeing its point. Remember that God is at work to change you and make you more like Jesus, and that He promises a great reward for your faithfulness to Him through it.

Give Yourself Away

“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom 1:11–12, ESV).

Impart a Spiritual Gift

Writing to believers in a church he did not establish, in a city he had never visited, Paul communicates that he longs to see them, so that he might impart “some spiritual gift.” This phrase is curious. I cannot find an approximate match anywhere else in Scripture. Some have argued that the spiritual gift is the message of the gospel, charismatic gifts (e.g. tongues, prophecy), or perhaps, the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 19:6). The problem, of course, is Paul does not say this. He says some spiritual gift, and as Jewett rightly comments “the particle τι (‘some, some kind of’) leaves open the question of precisely what Paul seeks to contribute within the parameters of a charismatic gift.”1 One thing we can conclude, however, is that the giving of the gift is tied to Paul’s visit: he is the conveyer of the gift, and it cannot, therefore, be given by letter or via proxy.

Using The Clear To Interpret The Unclear

One passage that may help shine a light on this esoteric gift is 1 Thessalonians 2:1–16. There, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his ministry among them. In v. 8 Paul tells the church that they were “affectionately desirous of you,“ translated differently: they longed for them. He goes on to say, ”we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thess 2:8, emphasis added). Additionally, in v. 17 Paul laments being “torn away” from the Thessalonians (“in person not in heart”), and tells them that he “endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thess 2:17, emphasis added). This, I think, is the key to understanding what Paul means by “some spiritual gift” in Romans 1:11.

Perhaps the reason Paul does not specify the nature of the gift, and why it cannot be received apart from his visiting in the flesh, is because he, himself is the gift. Stott elucidates, “there is ‘an intentional indefiniteness’ about his statement, perhaps because at this stage he does not know what their main spiritual needs will be.”2 Paul’s ambiguity as to the form of the spiritual gift is due to the fact that he does not at present know what they need. Willing to become all things to all people (1 Cor 9:22), he will wait until he arrives in order to determine how best to serve the believers in Rome.

No Substitute For Physical Presence

We have to ask, why does embodied presence even matter? What’s the difference between a text message and a face to face conversation? In our burgeoning digital age, this is a terribly relevant question. I believe Paul knew the answer to this question, for he understood the importance of face to face interaction. Allow me to explain.

As the saying goes, it’s not the quantity but the quality that really matters. Frank Bruni, however, disagrees. In an op-Ed piece entitled “The Myth of Quality Time”3, Bruni praises the integrity in acknowledging the havoc our rat-raced busyness has caused, but admonishes our attempts to remedy this with dedicated pockets of quality time. He argues that quantity (of time) is the key to enhancing quality (not the other way around). And nothing works better to bridge the gaps in intimacy than extended time in each other’s presence.

Bruni describes his family’s (extended family) ritual of blocking out an entire week every year to rent a house where they can all stay together. He confesses that for years he purposely showed up a day late, or ducked out two days early, because he “appreciated his private time.” But in recent years, he was determined to stay the entirety of the week. He recounts what he has learned:

With a more expansive stretch, there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter.

There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence. We delude ourselves when we say otherwise, when we invoke and venerate “quality time,” a shopworn phrase with a debatable promise: that we can plan instances of extraordinary candor, plot episodes of exquisite tenderness, engineer intimacy in an appointed hour.

Those who believe that they do not have time to do something like this attempt to substitute quantity time with carefully planned opportunities to spend quality time. To this line of thinking Bruni retorts:

But people tend not to operate on cue. At least our moods and emotions don’t. We reach out for help at odd points; we bloom at unpredictable ones. The surest way to see the brightest colors, or the darkest ones, is to be watching and waiting and ready for them.

Some of our most treasured memories took place almost serendipitously on some seemingly mundane day. As Bruni succinctly puts it, there’s simply no real substitute for physical presence. Deep down, I think we all know this—and so does Paul.

Bruni goes on to write:

Sustained proximity is the best route to the soul of someone; that unscripted gestures at unexpected junctures yield sweeter rewards than scripted ones on date night; that the “I love you” that counts most isn’t whispered with great ceremony on a hilltop in Tuscany. No, it slips out casually, spontaneously, in the produce section or over the dishes, amid the drudgery and detritus of their routines. That’s also when the truest confessions are made, when hurt is at its rawest and tenderness at its purest.

I know how my 80-year-old father feels about dying, religion and God not because I scheduled a discrete encounter to discuss all of that with him. I know because I happened to be in the passenger seat of his car when such thoughts were on his mind and when, for whatever unforeseeable reason, he felt comfortable articulating them.

And I know what he appreciates and regrets most about his past because I was not only punctual for this summer’s vacation, but also traveled there with him, to fatten our visit, and he was uncharacteristically ruminative on that flight.

It was on a run the next morning that my oldest niece described, as she’d never done for me before, the joys, frustrations and contours of her relationships with her parents, her two sisters and her brother. Why this information tumbled out of her then, with pelicans overhead and sweat slicking our foreheads, I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that I’m even more tightly bonded with her now, and that’s not because of some orchestrated, contrived effort to plumb her emotions. It’s because I was present. It’s because I was there.

Conclusion

The author and book escape me at present, but I remember recently reading a line that said, “It is God’s job to get people through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. As Christians, it is our job to sit with them in it.” We serve an incarnational God (cf. Jn 1:14), who has charged us with an incarnational mission. Paul textures the Christian life in anatomical terms by referring to the church as members of Christ’s body (cf. 1 Cor 12; Eph 5:30). Therefore, we are charged with being the physical manifestation of his invisible attributes.

If I was in the hospital, it would mean more to me if you took the time to come and pray with me over sending a get-well-soon email. I would prefer a hug, an encouraging word, and a prayer of blessing on my birthday, over an “HBD” on my Facebook wall.

Make yourself available. Be present. As Jim Elliot was fond of saying, “Wherever you are be all there.” Inconvenience yourself for the sake of others, and in so doing you will, like Paul, be mutually comforted (cf. Rom 1:12).

  1. Robert Jewett and Roy David Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006),, 124. ↩︎
  2. John Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 57. ↩︎
  3. Frank Bruni, “The Myth of Quality Time,” The New York Time, September 5, 2015. ↩︎
Grace and Peace. So What?

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:7, ESV)

This phrase has been recognized as the standard Pauline greeting—and rightly so, for he uses it in each of his thirteen canonical letters (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; Col 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2; 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philem 3). Unfortunately, as in most things, ubiquity dilutes gravitas. Because it is so familiar to us we often pass over it in our sermons and devotional reading, in the same way we would a salutation at the end of an email (e.g., Sincerely, Best Regards, In Christ). By so doing, however, we take a massive theological sentiment and make it a throwaway line.

In Romans 1:7 Paul closes his lengthy prescript (in Greek Romans 1:1–7 is one sentence) with a benediction—the bestowal of a blessing, a good word. I will draw out three things I think Paul is doing in his standard greeting.[1] Before so doing, however, I would like to highlight what I believe is an oft-missed fact: this is not Paul’s greeting.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7, emphasis added).

This is not Paul’s greeting, per se. That is to say, this is not from Paul to the recipients of his letter. He is the mere medium of this greeting that is extended from God (“from God…”) to his beloved on earth . We must not neglect the fact that this blessing resounds from the throne room of God and echoes into his world through his apostle (messenger/sent one), Paul, to God’s people (which includes us!). Jewett elucidates:

The power to grant the content of the blessing, “grace and peace,” derives not from the person uttering the words as they are read aloud in the Roman house and tenement churches, but from the source of all blessing: “from God our Father and [the] Lord Jesus Christ.”[2]

With that, we can move on to the three things Paul is doing with “his standard greeting.”

  • 1) First, as some commentators have suggested, Paul’s use of “grace and peace” echoes elements of the Aaronic benediction, originally spoken over Israel, recited at our church every week at the conclusion of our gatherings—May the LORD be "gracious to you…and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24–26, emphasis added).[3]
  • 2) Second, as is his habit, Paul transforms this exclusively Hebrew blessing and applies it to a mixed group of believers (Jew and Gentile) through layered meaning. Paul not only extends the Aaronic blessing but he also co-opts the standard Greek expressions of greeting and injects it with theological meaning. He combines the standard Greek (“grace/joy” charis) and Hebrew (“peace” šālôm/eirēnē) expressions of greeting to address “all those in Rome who are loved by God.”
  • 3) Third, I believe that “grace to you” is the action whereby God extends his covenantal favor revealed in the Son to all who believe in him (Rom 5:2), and this “peace,” which is flourishing-joy and right relationship with God, is the result of God’s action in us (Rom 5:1). Dunn paraphrases this passage thusly: “May you know the generous power of God undergirding and coming to expression in your daily life.” This, he says, “is a prayer for the unbounded and wholly generous outreaching power of God which makes for humankind’s best well-being.”[4]

In one phrase Paul acknowledges the ethnic diversity of his original recipients, addresses them with the Aaronic-blessing, thereby recognizing her as a continuation of the people of God, or as R.T. France has convincingly argued, “the resurrected Israel”[5], and closes his introduction with a concise presentation of God’s gracious gift in salvation and the peace that results from a relationship with him. Paul expects that this grace of God poured out on all people indiscriminately will result in peace among God’s beloved saints in Rome (and in our churches as well!).


  1. These three points serve as a surface gleaning of the text, and do not in any way represent a concretized, exhaustive list of Paul’s intended meaning. Since the Bible is God’s Word it cannot be exhausted. Therefore, our reading can (and should) be enriched by a variety of approaches.  ↩

  2. Robert Jewett and Roy David Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 116.  ↩

  3. For example, see Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 33, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 228.  ↩

  4. James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, vol. 38A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 20.  ↩

  5. R. T. France, Matthew:Evangelist and Teacher (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004), 229–30.  ↩