|The Gospel of God’s Grace #14
All Dressed Up With Jesus
February 8, 1998 / Romans 13:8-14
The Old Testament book of Zechariah was written in the sixth century B.C. It is the longest and most challenging of all the Minor Prophets — the twelve books from Hosea through Malachi. Because of its apocalyptic symbols, it tends to be forbidding to students who start reading it. It is like the New Testament’s book of Revelation in that regard.
The prophet for whom the book is named was born and reared in Babylon during the period of Judah’s exile in that foreign land. When he returned to his homeland and to the holy city Jerusalem with Zerubbabel (cf. Heb. 12:1ff), he was consumed with zeal for the rebuilding of the temple of Yahweh. He and Haggai were contemporaries and co-laborers in prodding the people to build back what Nebuchadnezzar had demolished.
Beginning in 520 B.C., Haggai rebuked and admonished the people for a four-month span. Then, during the rebuilding task, his younger colleague Zechariah encouraged the process to completion by looking to brighter days ahead. The personalities and ministries of the two prophets were very different. Yet both were men of God, and their work was fully complementary and compatible. We still need fiery prophets to call wicked and lax people to repentance; we still need encouragers who will stand by weak and struggling people. The temple was completed and rededicated in 515 B.C.
In a series of night visions about the future of the people of God, Zechariah was allowed to witness a ceremony involving the high priest. An angel permitted him to witness a dramatic scene of cleansing and commissioning for the man Joshua. "Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The LORD said to Satan, ‘The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?’ " (Zech. 3:1-2).
In a scene symbolic of both the nation and every individual within it, Joshua was standing before one of God’s angel messengers, and Satan was standing right there with them to accuse the high priest — and the nation he represented — of being unworthy to minister in holy matters. Yahweh himself intervened at that point to rebuke the accuser. He had rescued the remnant from Judah from its captivity as "a burning stick snatched from the fire." Would he now cast them back to be destroyed?
Oh, the people were guilty of great sin. Joshua’s very appearance betrayed that fact. But in a drama of sheer grace, Israel’s God would demonstrate his power to remove the obstacle between every would-be worshiper or minister and himself. The Lord would take the initiative. He would be the active partner and Joshua the passive one. He would thwart Satan’s plan as the accuser whose intent was to claim Joshua, Judah, you, and me for himself.
Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, "Take off his filthy clothes."
Then he said to Joshua, "See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you."
Then I said, "Put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by.
The angel of the LORD gave this charge to Joshua: "This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here’ " (Zech. 3:3-7).
Do you see why I called this a "drama of sheer grace"? A man in dirty clothes that were symbolic of his sinfulness had all his defilement taken away, was dressed in new clothing provided by God himself, and was permitted to walk among the redeemed henceforth. Does it take a great deal of imagination to see this as a perpetually reenacted drama of God’s work with the unclean who stand accused and claimed by Satan? By his grace through Christ, he puts away our sin, clothes us with Christ’s own righteousness, and calls us to walk among the redeemed.
Putting on Christ
In the New Testament, to be a Christian is to be clothed with Christ. "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus," writes Paul, "for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Gal. 3:26-27). Daily life as a Christian is likened to clothing oneself in the divine nature. "You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:22-24).
In still another place, Paul identifies many of the specific virtues of Christian character under the same metaphor of putting on new clothes. "Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (Col. 3:12-14).
In an exhortation that summarizes Romans 13:8-13, Paul writes: "Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature" (13:14). In order to appreciate his use of this common biblical metaphor in the context of explaining the gospel of God’s grace, we will need to go back and work through the six verses that precede this call. First, however, let me tell you the story of a neglected little girl.
The police found the little girl in a filthy apartment from which drugs were being trafficked. Two men, a woman, and the woman’s malnourished and dirty five-year-old daughter had lived there for several months and conducted their unholy business from the site. When the authorities closed in and arrested the adults, they put the little girl in protective custody. Her first night in foster care may have been the best night of her life to that point.
The couple that took her home gave her a warm, soaking bath. They put her in clean clothes their own daughter had worn years before. And they fed her well, being careful not to give her anything her weakened body might not be able to handle. With all the newness and strangeness of that first day in a new place, they noticed that she kept going back to a full-length mirror on a bathroom door to look at herself. She had never been so clean and had never looked so good.
When it came time to put her to bed, the lady of that house took the dress off the little girl, put a pair of pajamas on her, and got ready to put her to bed. Because the woman was a Christian, she taught the little girl her first prayer. She told her just to repeat her words and began, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep . . ." Half-asleep already, the child said, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my clothes to keep . . ." The woman gently corrected her by repeating the line as she had learned it herself as a child. But she repeated her prayer just as before, and the woman had no heart for trying any more to modify it: "I pray the Lord my clothes to keep . . ."
Just as that rescued child in a clean and safe place wanted to keep her new clothes — that surely symbolized a safe place and the chance for a new beginning — so should believers pray the Lord to help us keep the new clothes of righteousness unsoiled in the midst of the world’s contaminating evils. Paul’s point at this juncture in Romans is to teach Christians how to live appropriately to the new wardrobe grace has provided.
Honoring an Abiding Debt
The principal and dominating element of Christian character is love. Paul has already said as much at 12:9-10, but here he comes back to the theme that can never be stressed too much in teaching believers about the Christ-imitating life. His transition back to the subject grows from the preceding paragraph. After urging Christians to take a responsible place in their larger culture by, among other things, paying what they owe in taxes, revenue, respect, and honor, he names the one debt we will always owe to all people.
"Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law" (13:8). I have read pieces and heard comments made from this verse as translated in the King James Version (i.e., "Owe no man anything . . .") to argue that credit cards, bank loans, and all other forms of personal debt are sinful for Christians. If that were the Christian ethic of loaning and borrowing, Jesus never would have said, "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (Matt. 5:43). Perpetual debt beyond one’s reasonable ability to pay and frivolous debt for things only wanted rather than really needed are certainly wrong, but Paul’s point is not to forbid all debt. So what is the point here?
Other debts over the course of a lifetime are contracted and paid, and it is both irresponsible and immoral to refuse to honor those obligations. Yet there is one debt a follower of Jesus Christ can never pay in full. It will "remain outstanding" so long as he or she lives. It is the debt to love one’s fellows. At 12:9-10, Paul pointed to the church’s obligation to model love within the community of faith as a witness to the watching world. And here are the words of Jesus on that point: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35).
Charles Colson had an experience that confirms how powerful and convincing a witness the love among Christians is to outsiders. It happened in connection with an interview he did with PBS.
The interviewer had an aggressive manner and a hard expression under layers of make-up and mascara. How can you be so sure about your faith? she challenged me. I answered by telling a story of my time behind bars after Watergate, when several Christian men stunned me with a quality of love I had never known before.
I’ll never forget the day one of them — Al Quie — called to say, "Chuck, because of your family problems, I’m going to ask the President if you can go home, while I serve the rest of your prison term." I gasped in disbelief. At the time, Al was the sixth-ranking Republican in the House, one of the most respected public figures in Washington. Yet he was willing to jeopardize it all out of love for me. It was a powerful witness that Jesus was real: that a believer would lay down his life for another.
As I retold the story for the cameras, the interviewer broke down and waved her hand, saying, "Stop, stop." Tears mixed with mascara were streaming down her cheeks. She excused herself, repaired her make-up, and — injecting confidence back into her voice — said, "Let’s film that sequence once more." But hearing the story again, she could not hold back her tears. Later, she confessed that Al’s willingness to sacrifice had touched her deeply, and she vowed to return to the church she had left years earlier.
A Christian community united in love attracts attention in the most jaded culture.1
Unlike the exhortation of chapter 12, however, the appeal here is universal. Being clothed with Christ means not only that we love one another but that we honor an abiding debt to love all our neighbors. And let’s not start splitting hairs about who a "neighbor" is, for that is the question which prompted Jesus to give The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff). A neighbor is anyone with a need one of us is in position to address.
Paul’s broadening of the Christian obligation to love beyond the immediate circle of the church here is consistent with similar statements he made elsewhere. "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Gal. 6:10). "May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you" (1 Thess. 3:12).
When the apostle adds the comment that the person "who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law," he is turning back to a theme already introduced in this epistle. Earlier he has written that God’s work in Christ has made it possible "that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit" (8:4). The person who lives by the power of the Holy Spirit and the one who loves his fellowmen are not two individuals, but one. He or she is the person clothed with Christ. He or she is walking in the path of righteousness that has been marked out for us by the Lord Jesus.
In fact, it is important to link these two statements because of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to love. How does one learn to love as Christ loved? Where does one find the power to be that unselfish? It does not come from human willpower and determination. And it certainly doesn’t happen just because we are commanded to do it by some legal requirement. Love is the "fruit of the Spirit" (cf. Gal. 5:22-23). The indwelling Holy Spirit produces in Christians a love against which there is no law, for love motivates the right behavior law requires — right behavior the law itself cannot produce among those subject to its demands.
The Relationship of Love to Law
A good case can be made that the reason why we have had to pass and enforce so many laws across time is that there is so little love in the world. Think about it.
Regardless of people’s views on the guilt or innocence of O.J. Simpson in the grisly murders of his ex-wife and Ronald Goldman, everyone who heard the comment he made in an interview for the February 1998 issue of Esquire magazine must have grimaced. "Let’s say I committed this crime," he told Celia Farber. "Even if I did do this it would have to have been because I loved her very much, right?"
No. Not right, O.J.! Not right at all! People determined to have power over and control of other people may batter, rape, or murder them. People who really love others do without bigger cars, sports equipment, or meals for their sake. They defend the people they love from batterers or rapists. They lay down their lives for them. But they don’t hurt them, steal from them, or murder them. What an utterly absurd thing for anyone to say. But that is the way fallen and depraved human minds think. Thus we have to have laws, courts, and prosecutions. Thus we build prisons for thieves, spouse-abusers, and child molesters. We even build death chambers for the worst of criminals.
Love is one’s willingness to sacrifice for another’s well-being and pleasure. The ultimate model of the meaning of love is what heaven did for us in the story of human redemption. What patience and longsuffering. What restraint of wrath by a holy God against human evil. What sacrifice for the Eternal Word to divest himself of status and privilege to live in human frailty. What sacrifice for him to receive not appreciation but rejection and abuse for coming among us. What a death to suffer for our sakes!
To obey the "first commandment" to love God with our whole hearts is for us to abandon selfishness and self-willed behavior to seek his pleasure and glory in our lives. To obey the "second commandment" about loving our neighbors as ourselves is to put the well-being of those neighbors on par with our own. In some instances, in fact, it is to put their well-being above our own and to sacrifice something we have a right to experience for their sakes. But love would never, never think of exploiting, taking from, or harming them.
To fulfill our abiding debt of love for others would be to treat them in the very ways law requires. "The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (13:9-10). Love fulfills everything the law was striving to put in place about the right treatment of one human being by another. Only because there is so little authentic love in the world do we have to emphasize law so much, teach seminars on ethics, and fight in the courts over what is or is not a violation of law and ethics.
Again, however, let me run to the defensive point Paul made earlier in dealing with law. None of this is to criticize law. Law is the codification of love amidst the complexities of a world ruled by sin. Law is a good thing to protect us from one another in our unloving behaviors. It is only that I would much prefer to live in a world so ruled by love that the need for law would be abolished. And I will someday.
A Daylight Lifestyle of Love
The "someday" for which I long will be realized when Jesus appears. He will take his redeemed people from the limitations of a world that must be ruled by law now and bring them into his own immediate presence. There, with the complete fulfillment of love a reality rather than a dream, there will be no more postings of regulations and no need for enforcers or punishers. What a confident and joyous hope believers carry in our hearts!
The power of this hope to make a difference even now is a theme that runs throughout Scripture. The Christian faith is not mere pie in the sky bye and bye. It is a hope so fixed and certain that it transforms the quality of life we embrace here and now. It was John, the apostle of love, who wrote: "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure" (1 John 3:3).
Paul’s point here is the same as John’s. Anyone who has been brought from the nighttime darkness of law, sin, and condemnation into the freedom of Spirit, faith, and right-standing with God embraces the daylight lifestyle of love. "The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy" (13:11-13).
For the sake of contrasting the two people, the two lifestyles, and the two outcomes, Paul chooses six sins that are "typical of the Christless life."2 It is intriguing to read his list and to realize what constants these behaviors are across human history into our own time. He lists them in three couplets that are clearly progressive. The first sets the stage for the second; the second generates the third.
Orgies and drunkenness. The term translated "orgy" (Gk, komos) refers to wild partying with alcohol, loud music, and dancing. It is the bar life of our own time and place. Enough alcohol or pot in such an environment, and the normal inhibitions — even of a self-respecting pagan — would be gone. A normally temperate person becomes intemperate once the drug and its environment take hold. Since Paul was writing Romans from Corinth, he knew this sort of thing only too well. These parties typically spilled onto the streets and made it unsafe for people who were merely innocent passersby.
Sexual immorality and debauchery. Christianity introduced chastity and sexual fidelity into the ancient world. The notion that any consenting heterosexual or homosexual behavior was wrong was practically unknown in antiquity, except among the Jews. The word translated "debauchery" (Gk, aselgeia) was a particularly hateful term in the Greek language in that it described a person who, so deeply captive to lust, not only partook freely of consensual sex but manipulated and coerced others to satisfy his lusts. More particularly still, it points to someone who is either so arrogant that he flaunts his immorality or so lost to shame that he can no longer care what people think of his irresponsible and evil behavior. This is the alcoholic, drug addict, or sex addict who has lost all control of her or his life.
Dissension and jealousy. What happens when someone lives the party life to its full end? What becomes of the chemically addicted woman or sexually predatory male? What becomes of anyone who loses all concern for what family and decent people think of his behavior? Those lives become contentious, quarrelsome, and conflict-filled. They jealously begrudge the honorable lives of others and set themselves to tear them down to their level of disgrace.
This nighttime lifestyle that is so devoid of law, honor, and decency is — even more fundamentally — devoid of love for God or man. A person who loves God, self, and others will not throw away something so precious as character and reputation. She will not sell her honor for a few minutes of pleasure or spotlight attention. He will not risk all that is holy for clandestine thrills. But the newspapers regularly carry stories of company presidents, school teachers, clergy, and politicians who "lose everything" for money , for cocaine, or for an affair.
The night is nearly over. This old world isn’t going to last, and its trinkets and titillations won’t mean anything in the ultimate scheme of things. The daylight is almost here. So we had best be wise enough to live in love and to adopt the lifestyle that can stand the scrutiny that will come with the noonday brilliance of perfect righteousness at Christ’s appearing and kingdom.
I like what Robert Mounce said on this point: "We sing, ‘Work for the night is coming’ — we should sing, ‘Love for the day is coming!’ "3
More than a century ago now, a shabbily dressed boy walked to the door of a London orphanage and rang the bell. Cold, hungry, and hurt from living on streets of a big city, the ragamuffin child asked to see the superintendent. "What are you doing here, young man?" asked the man in charge. "And what do you want of us?"
"Why, I’d like to live here, sir," he answered.
"But I don’t know you and have no records about a new admission today," came the reply. "What do you have as a recommendation that we should admit you to this home?"
The child held up his tattered coat — really nothing more than rags — and said, "If you please, sir, I thought this would be all I would need to be admitted here." The superintendent admitted him immediately. In exchange for his old rags, the boy received new garments and a warm home, food, and a place to belong.
What a picture of the Romans story of God’s grace. With nothing to recommend us to God but the stained garments of our sinfulness, we are given right-standing with God through faith in Jesus. Our rags have become our claim to the robe of Christ’s own righteousness. So how shall we live now? Let there be no more wrapping up in the world’s sorry rags of intemperance, immorality, and shame. "Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature" (13:14).
Having come into the dawning light and patiently waiting for the final noontime of Christ’s presence with us, it is time now to dress ourselves with Jesus and to live the Spirit-filled life of love for God and one another.
1 Charles Colson, "Wanted: Christians Who Love," Christianity Today (Oct. 2, 1995): 112.
2 William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), p. 193.
3 Robert Mounce, Themes from Romans (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1981), p. 143.
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