St. Paul is one of my favourite Bible people. Like me, he was a recovering Pharisee; freed from the shackles of burdensome religion and released to fly in the huge, vast realm of the freedom of the Spirit.
While I was trying to find a decent portrait of Paul for the header image for this piece, I found that, without exception, he has been depicted as a serious, even miserable-looking, old gronk. Not a single smile anywhere! Well, I tell you what, I don’t believe he was like that at all, at least not once he had met Jesus. It seems then that for many centuries (given the age of some of those pictures I found!) that people have thought of Paul as being a stuffy fuddy-duddy theologian who sat alone in a dark room, scribing dull, dusty letters full of law and restrictions. But nothing could be further from the truth! Remember, Paul was freed from his former life of slavery to the Law, and in Philippians 3:8 he says that he has lost all the former things – all the ‘religious’ things he tried to do to please God – and indeed considers them as dung (the Greek word ‘Copros’ is correctly translated as such in the KJV). Indeed, Paul was the Apostle of Grace; so far removed from legalism that, to him, he considered himself dead to the old ‘Law of sin and death’, and also declared to other believers that this was the case for them too (Rom 6:2; Rom 6:11)
So, then, I think that Paul’s writings have been read from the wrong point of view for so long. If people are going to read this stuff with the mindset of dour, dry religion, then of course they are going to come out with the dull, miserable conclusion. But I think that actually Paul was writing from the angle of overwhelming joy and fizzing, bubbling, effervescent Life; indeed Life in all its fulness! Here’s why I think so.
Firstly, may I suggest you try reading the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians? Here’s a link to it if you need it (it opens in a new tab). Paul’s exuberance in that passage is immense; he throws around huge dollops of it in his proclamation – maybe even his shouting (if he’d written it on a computer it most likely would have been on CAPS LOCK!) of the Good News; his heart is simply bursting with it and it seems like he can’t contain himself. In fact, he can’t! His description of Christ’s blessings and God’s generosity flows unchecked, and you can almost hear him laughing with the sheer joy of it as he writes (or maybe dictates) the letter. What a breath of fresh air! He’s simply fizzing with it – hence my use of the term ‘effervescence’ in my title; the word simply means ‘fizzing’.
His letter to the Romans is a great example of a case in point. In the midst of his chain of logic in that letter, there is an underlying current of great joy and liberty as he tells his beloved brethren in Rome just how huge, how great and how wide is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think that Paul’s letters are best read with the assumption that there is huge joy just beneath the surface of his writing. Perhaps if you assume he’s nearly laughing with every stroke of his pen, you will get a flavour of what he is feeling and where he’s coming from as he writes!
His effervescent joy in his letter to the Romans peaks in chapter 8. Beginning with the incredible good news,
‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for in Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of Life has set us free from the Law of sin and death…’ (Rom 8:1,2, he goes on with some more incredible, glorious truth:
“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Rom 8:11);
“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children…” (Rom 8:16);
“For the creation was subjected to frustration…in hope [eager expectation] that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:20,21) [clarification mine];
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28);
“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Rom 8:31-34) [emphases mine]
Of course, many Christians look at phrases like, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:12,13) and try to make up Rules about things. In other words, to try to live up to their calling by ‘doing’; keeping Rules, in order to be acceptable to God. But a) in its context and b) in terms of Paul’s ex-Pharisee background, this is not what it means at all. I mean, Paul has already established that the Law and the flesh work together to produce death. In this context, living by the flesh means that people try to be righteous through their own efforts, in other words, by trying to keep the Law. As if, in the middle of an exuberant chapter on freedom and lack of condemnation, Paul, the archetypical ex-legalist, is going to suddenly drop in a bunch of Rules? By no means! He’s already dealt with the Rules earlier in his letter. We have already established that the Law leads only to frustration and death; death meaning a complete lack of the Life that Jesus calls us to; the Life in the Spirit. That Life automatically enables us to put away the things of the flesh precisely because we are living by the Spirit.
And, for me, the culmination of the whole chapter is in vv. 35-39:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35-39)
This is to me the ultimate in security. I have written before on the subject of ‘Once saved, always saved‘. But to me this is the icing on the cake, and I can’t emphasise this enough:
Nothing can separate us from the Love of Christ!
Nothing, nothing, nothing. Nothing you do or don’t do; nothing you say, nothing you believe, not death, not life, not arguments, not sin, not good nor evil, not anything in the past, present or future. Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ. You are eternally, completely saved, for ever, in life and in death and everything in between. The writer of the book of Hebrews puts it like this:
“Therefore he is also able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, seeing that he lives forever to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25 (KJV) )
‘Save to the uttermost’, I feel, expresses it somewhat more emphatically than the NIV’s ‘Save completely’. ‘To the uttermost’ means that there is no degree more to which we can be saved!
Saved from what? Saved from a pointless existence, saved from the fruitless toil of life, saved from a life of sin, saved from all judgement (Jn 5:24), saved for Heaven, saved and made whole (that is the meaning of the Greek word ‘sōzō’, the word we most commonly translate as ‘salvation’), saved for Jesus to live His life through us by His Spirit. I tell you, this is all good news! There is no bad news at all in the Gospel. Can God make something containing darkness? No! In Him there is no darkness at all! (1Jn1:5) No, the Gospel is 100% Good News. There’s so much more to this than what I can write here, but you can begin for yourself by reading, maybe again and again until it becomes a part of you, Romans Chapter 8.
Wow! You just need to take a deep breath after reading this, don’t you? No wonder Paul was so exuberant! This is Life, and Life in all its fulness! (Jn 10:10)
So, your take-home message is this:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35, 38-39)
Tell you what. In order better to help you to get that Scripture into your head, I’ll treat you to a lovely, but catchy, rendition of that Scripture. It’s ‘Who Shall Separate Us‘, from the Harvestime tape ‘Worthy is the Lamb‘
Who shall separate us from the Love of Christ?
Who shall separate us from the Love of Christ?
Shall tribulation, or distress,
Shall persecution, or famine or nakedness?
Or peril or sword
From the Love of our Lord?