The Final Countdown

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How do you end your letters?  Or maybe you only write emails!

I tend to run out of steam pretty quickly and say something like, well, anyway, that's all my news, look forward to hearing from you… And that's about where we're up to in Romans, there's not much left to do but wrap up.

But we'd expect this letter to finish a bit more helpfully than 'anyway…' 'Romans' is so profound and full of rich theological truth that we'd expect something a little better than that.

And so it is.  Paul end's this letter with a profound song of praise to God.  But first we get a warning of danger, and there are a few more G'day's to squeeze in.

The passage naturally falls into three sections so we're going to look at them in turn. But we'll spend most of our time on the two ends. First comes a warning to avoid false teachers.  Paul says Watch out, Theives About, or at least, Watch Out, False Teachers About.

This is the section from verse 17 to 20.   Have a look at that with me:

NIB Rom 16:17 I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. 18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.

This appears to be a sudden change in topic after 16 verses of greetings.  Paul's been doing shout out's to the Christians he knows in Rome. But now he launches into this impassioned warning.  Why?

Well in some ways this isn't so much a change of topic as the opposite side of the same coin.  Remember Paul's greetings were a bit like a list of approved leaders in the church.  Paul was saying 'these are the people I trust, you should follow them'.  That was necessary because there was some confusion in Rome over issues that could divide the Gentile and Jewish Christians – so that there was a danger of gentiles being forced to live like Jews, or of Jews separating themselves off from the gentiles.

But the issues that the letter addresses weren't the only issues that the first century church faced.  There were also false teachers going around teaching subtly different versions of Christianity – slippery types who appeared to be Christian teachers and leaders and claimed to be Christian teachers and leaders, but who actually taught a different gospel all together.

So Paul warns the Roman's that they need to watch out because false teachers will certainly arrive in Rome before too long.

In Matthew 7 we heard Jesus tell his disciples that they would be threatened by false teachers – he called them wolves in sheep's clothing because they would look innocent, but they come in to tear the church to pieces.  Paul takes a similar track here – false teachers will be deceptive, so he gives us two concrete commands – watch out so that you can pick them, and having identified false teachers, keep away from them.

But how to identify them?  Paul gives us some identifying clues – they are people who cause divisions in the church and they put obstacles in the way of belief.  The church should be united by a common faith and a common head, Jesus.  But these false teachers aren't interested in unity, they divide to conquer.

And worse than that, they don't teach the truth.  By teaching falsely they put obstacles in the way of belief - literally 'stumbling blocks'.  They introduce things designed to cut us off from Jesus, things that are contrary to the gospel.

But still they may not be easy to spot, because they're deceptive – look at verse 18 – 'by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people'.

You might be developing a mental of a door to door salesman who bamboozles with gobbledygook, or tricks us into complex contracts to rip us off – and there have certainly been plenty of false teachers like that; but Paul could equally be talking about statesman like leaders, the sort you find yourself drawn to because of their personal charisma.  They look solid and respectable, they seem to talk sense.  But what they teach is different to the teaching we learn from the apostles, different to the gospel.

And that's because underlying this false gospel is another deception - they only appear to be following God, in actual fact they serve themselves, they're slaves to their own passions and appetites, they're in it for what they can get.

That's a damning picture isn't it?  False teachers appear respectable and sound plausible. But they divide the church, they cut people off from Christ by teaching a false gospel and they are themselves enslaved by their passions.  But the most damning thing of all is the association that Paul makes in verse 19 and 20 – did you notice what he does there?

Read it with me:

19 Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

So if they avoid these false teachers they will remain innocent and soon God will crush Satan under their feet.  It shouldn't surprise us, but these deceivers are working for the great deceiver himself.  Jesus called Satan the Father of all lies, when he lies he speaks his native language.  So Paul is warning of Satan's classic strategy – to lead us astray with subtle, flattering lies, just as he did to Adam and Eve in the garden.

So we need to watch out because Satan is working through these deceitful teachers to lead us astray.  But don't let that throw you into a panic.  See what Paul says about Satan – God will soon throw him under our feet.  Since Jesus has overthrown Satan we don't need to be obsessed with him, and we don't need to be afraid of him.  His only power is the power to deceive.  We don't live in fear of Satan, God is about to throw him under our feet to get trampled. We simply need to be vigilant so he won't lead us astray.

When I was little someone taught me a song that went 'never smile at a crocodile, don't be taken in by his welcome grin, he's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin' – do you know that one?  I don't imagine any of us would be fooled into thinking a crocodile was friendly.  But false teachers are no less deadly, and the danger is that we'll be taken in by their friendly exterior and they'll win us over, and so we won't even notice when they take us away from the gospel.

So upshot's pretty clear isn't it?  Remember Paul's two concrete commands – Watch out so that you won't be taken in.  And keep away from them, don't allow them to join your churches, don't subscribe to their blogs or join their clubs lest you be taken in.  That warning is just as important for us today as it was when Paul wrote it.  False teachers have certainly come into the church, and sadly, false teachers continue to spring up like weeds – like the infamous televangelists of the 1980's.  Deceptive men who raised vast fortunes for 'ministry', money which they spent on mansions, clothes, cars and travel; or the smooth talking politicians who rise through the ecclesiastical ranks to sit as Bishops – outwardly impressive men who enjoy the perks of rank – sitting in the house of Lords, living in castles, running cathedrals – but who fail to teach and defend the gospel; or the cult leaders known for their great charisma and charm who exercise a terrible control over the members of their cult.

And modern technology means these other gospels are ever more accessible – the internet makes any kooky teaching only a few clicks away, and televangelists continue to be a mixed bag of the good and the dodgy.  So we need to be on our guard.

But do remember to get the balance right – we don't need a crew of church guard dogs, slavering and growling, always ready to take someone's hand off.  We just need to be diligent in avoiding false teachers.  Remember why we're on guard - the goal is unity, unity in the truth, not ever increasing splinter groups.  So work for gospel unity by promoting and teaching the gospel, the truth that leads to salvation; and the truth that exposes false teachers who teach a different gospel.  Watch out, False Teachers About – keep your distance because they're deceptive.

Having encouraged vigilance Paul moves back into greetings mode, as he sends the greetings of the Christians in Corinth over to Rome in verse 21-23.

We won't spend long on this, because this section functions in a similar way to the first 16 verses, which we looked at two weeks ago.  Still, have a quick look at it with me:

NIB Rom 16:22 I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord. 23 Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings. Erastus, who is the city's director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.

There are a number of Christian leaders in Corinth who want to add their greetings to Paul's.  Just like Paul's greetings there is genuine love and unity and concern expressed.  And there's also a sense that the heavy hitters of the church in Corinth, are getting behind Paul, lending their support to this letter.  Their greetings add to the sense of connection between the churches, and to the sense that Paul doesn't speak on his own; he represents the gentile churches all over.

We could spend a lot longer on these verses, but I want to spend our remaining time in the last section – verses 25-27, a great hymn of praise to our God who is wise, eternal, powerful and above all, worthy of all glory and honour.

Have a look at those with me now:

NIB Rom 16:25 Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him-- 27 to the only wise God be glory for ever through Jesus Christ! Amen.

This is the only fitting way to end a letter like this one – by praising God.  Above all else Romans has established that God is worthy of praise.

So let's take a moment to notice how these verses encapsulate and complete the teaching of the letter as a whole.

This isn't a random reflection on God's glory, these verses rework the opening of the letter, and summarise Paul's argument and theme!

You might remember that Romans began like this:

NIB Rom 1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God-- 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. 6 And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. 7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Do you see how many of the same ideas turn up at the end?

Paul calls the gospel 'my gospel' because as he said in chapter 1 verse 1 he's a servant, called to be an apostle set apart for the gospel of God.

Paul's gospel is the proclamation of Jesus Christ – as he said in Chapter 1 verse 3 it's about God's son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David.

The gospel is about the revelation of the mystery kept hidden for long ages – that is 'eternally' hidden – but now made known; made known when Jesus was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead, as per chapter 1 verse 4.

The mystery is now revealed by the command of eternal God, just as in chapter one verse 1 Paul was called (by God) to be an apostle and set apart for the Gospel of God.

The mystery is that the gentiles can be called into God's family and share in Christ's eternal blessings 'so that all nations might believe and obey him' which is the same phrase as in chapter 1 verse 5 where Paul says he received grace and apostleship to call people from among the gentiles to 'the obedience that comes from faith' – the gospel leads to obedience that flows from faith in Jesus Christ.

This mystery, this gospel, is made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, or as he said in One verse 2 the gospel was promised before hand through God's prophets in the holy scriptures.

And all this is for the glory of the only God who is wise and powerful – or as Paul said in chapter one verse five – God has done all this through the Lord Jesus Christ and for his name's sake.

God's power is such that he is able to establish the Roman Christians by the gospel itself, just as in chapter one God's power is seen in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and in his calling the Romans to belong to him.

In a remarkable way the great themes of Romans are all summed up in this hymn of praise.  The Gospel calls all people everywhere to repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ, because he died to set them free and rose to demonstrate his victory.  The gospel was God's plan from before history, announced in advance in the Old Testament, and now preached by God's appointed messengers the Apostles, a special group that includes Paul, the apostle to the gentiles.  Now all people, Jew and Gentile, come to God on the same basis, through faith in Jesus.  But faith in Jesus doesn't leave people unchanged; it leads to obedience as living sacrifices because He gave his life as a sacrifice for his people.

And because of all that Paul has incredible confidence in God – God has been pursing this agenda from eternity.  So God is well able to establish us by the gospel.  We need to keep watch and avoid false teachers, but we need not live in fear of them, because they work for Satan, who's been defeated, but we work for God who reigns in endless victory.  That God now protects and establishes us through the gospel.

And more than that, our protection, our faith and our obedience are part of God's great goal of winning glory for himself.  And that means that we can have even greater confidence in God.  We don't need to worry that God will forget about us, because God makes us strong in faith and obedience for his own sake.  He wins glory and honour and power, not just because glory and honour and power belong to him as the eternal God, but because he is the saviour who gave himself for his people.  Saving us brings him glory.  So our strength, our faith, our obedience are for his glory and honour.

This great hymn of praise is crudely echoed in the football chants we hear so much during a world cup.  Yes the Vuvuzella's more or less drown them out, but every now and then the strains of 'rule Britania' or 'God Save the Queen' can be heard.  Why do we sing at the football – because we believe our footballers are worthy of glory, honour and praise.  And by praising them we hope our singing will spur them on to greater and greater feats, knowing that their glory reflect glory back to us.  So we revel in their glory, and we want to elevate them to ever greater heights of glory.

But we're talking about football.  What a foolish god Wayne Rooney is, or John Terry or Steven Gerard, Frank Lampard and all the rest of them.

But what a great and wise God we meet in the person of Jesus Christ.  What a glorious and powerful God.  What a wonderful God.  His praise is all but drowned out by the Vuvzella's of our ungodly desires.  But here for a moment we catch the strains of this song of Glory and we realise this is the song we should be singing, this is one who's worthy of glory and honour and power.  If only our hearts could always echo with this song of praise to our wise and powerful and glorious God.

Will you pray with me?

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