The Gospel As The Power Of God
Re-Translated In October 1999
1. In the New Interconfessional Version which we are using, a caption is added to verses sixteen and seventeen that says, "The Power Of The Gospel," which signifies that [our translation] understands these two verses as one group. It has not been translated here [in Japanese], but since the [first] word in the original text in verse sixteen could be translated "therefore" or "because," this verse is not totally detached from verse fifteen. The contents of verse fifteen and sixteen are tied to each other. But, actually, there are quite a few people who see the foundation to the entire epistle being presented by this text. Thus, we too will respond to this section in the same fashion and even though it is a short passage I would like to read it with you over the span of two sessions.
Not Ashamed Of The Gospel
2. First, at the opening line of verse sixteen, Paul says, "[Therefore,] I am not ashamed of the gospel." I think it's curious why this kind of language appears in the text here, especially because we wouldn't even think in the first place of Paul the missionary as being ashamed of the gospel. Immediately preceding this section, hadn't Paul himself just said that "Without fail, I want to make known the gospel to you in Rome as well?" Why did Paul dare to say, "I'm not ashamed of the gospel?" It's something curious to think about.
3. However, on the other hand when we consider our own selves, this phrase doesn't seem to be unrelated to us. Can we say we have never ever been ashamed at all of the gospel? Can we say and think that we will never from here on be ashamed of the gospel? Isn't it rather that we face the potential to be ashamed regularly of the gospel and haven't there frequently been times that we were actually ashamed? [There have been times when] we have been unable to show ourselves as persons who live in the gospel, haven't there? These words from Paul make us think about that. Therefore, I think we need to continue our reflections here on why Paul is saying, "I am not ashamed of the gospel."
4. When we hear this word "to be ashamed," what I am immediately reminded of is the following words of Christ which are recorded in the gospels. "In this sinful generation which has rebelled against God, [if there is] a person ashamed of me and my words, the son of man will be ashamed of that person when he comes with the holy angels shining in the glory of the Father," (Mark 8:38). The Gospel According To Mark was written nearly forty years after the death of Christ. This means that the church had been verbally transmitting the messages of Christ all that time till then. The fact that the church had been verbally transmitting these words for a long time and had been preserving them means that these words have always been related to the every day realities of the church. The church was in used to hearing these words directly addressed to it. The church had experienced directly that question of "Are you ashamed of me and my words?" In other words, this tells us that the church regularly faced the potential to be ashamed of Christ and his words.
5. What does it mean that [the church] asked the question, "Are you ashamed or not ashamed?" This has to do with how they understood the gospel of Christ. If they could put the gospel of Christ on the same level as the numerous types of philosophical ideals and different religions of this world and compare them on the same scale and they could explain the superiority of the gospel of Christ logically, if the gospel was supposed to be like that and they became Christians for that reason, nobody would have asked them the question, "Are you ashamed or not ashamed?" But the gospel, as far as both the world and the church go, was not supposed to be like that from the start. The church knew from the beginning that the gospel was "to the Jews a thing to stumble over and to the Gentiles a thing of foolishness," (First Corinthians 1:23). Therefore, they had experienced from the very beginning that to believe and speak the gospel was to appear foolish by others and to give [grounds for] stumbling to others and even a possibility to invite persecution upon oneself.
6. And since we too have eventually experienced this, I suppose that's where we're probably at. That is, for example, don't we all know that the type of evangelism of "Please become a Christian because as we line up the many religions of Japan and compare them the way of Christianity is clearly better" won't do? We certainly know that in lining up the numerous ideals of this world and the gospel and viewing it from that perspective the type of evangelism saying "This way is best... Please choose this..." won't hold water. So, in this world on a regular basis we are exposed to being asked the question, "Are you ashamed or not ashamed?"
7. When we reflect upon this, we start to know clearly at least what was NOT the reason Paul had said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel." In other words, Paul was not saying, "I am not ashamed" in the sense that the gospel which he was communicating was qualified enough [to be told even] in Rome. [He wasn't saying that.] Rome was the main metropolis of culture and refinement of that time. Paul was wanting to go there. Though hoping to go there even up to that moment, he was not able to go there at all yet. Certain persons may have criticized him with malicious gossip. "Paul does not have anything important to say to the refined people of the Greco-Roman world of culture. It all amounts to the fact Paul won't have currency at the level of ideals. So, because of his lack of self-confidence, he will decide not to go to Rome." When Paul says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel," it should not be heard as him saying, "The message of the gospel which I am speaking is not inferior to the messages which the culturally refined persons of Rome have." As it is clear from what I already stated, Paul was not making this statement with that intent.
The Power Of God Brings Salvation
8. Now, what are the reasons Paul is speaking like this? Paul makes them clear through the following words, "Therefore, the gospel is the power of God that brings salvation to all who believe, beginning with the Jews and then the Greeks." In what sense is the gospel the power of God? And how does the power of God bring salvation to a person? A detailed discussion on this topic is forthcoming later on in this letter. At this time we will not particularly go deeper into this subject. However, I would like to zero in on the reference to the power of God and its connection to the words of Paul saying, "I am not ashamed of the gospel." Why must the term "power of God" appear here in the text?
9. As we reflect on these words of Paul, we notice right away the Old Testament is at the background behind them. [We notice this] because truly in the Old Testament God is often praised as One mighty in power, and the work of his salvation is said to come from that power of God.
10. For example, even if we look at just the Psalms the following words can be found all over it.
- "I praise your power and offer up a song, in the morning I happily sing of your love. You are my towering fortress and my refuge on the day of difficulty," (Psalm 59:17 [KJV verse 16]).
- "Now I seek you reverently from a holy place and I see your power and glory," (Psalm 63:3 [KJV verse 2]).
- "Without hiding them from my descendants I will hand down to the next generations by mouth, even praises to the Lord, the power of the Lord, and the awesome deeds that the Lord has accomplished," (Psalm 78:4).
12. Even in the events in Exodus which we could call the starting point of salvation among the Israelites, the powerlessness of humanity as it lies before God's power is revealed in contrast to His power as revealed in salvation. For example, it will be clear from looking at the story of "The Miracle Of The Red Sea (or Sea Of Reeds)" in Exodus fourteen. In that story, we see the Egyptian troops at the rear and there are the Israelites unable to do anything any more. They are in despair now. But then Moses says, "Don't be afraid. Be calm. Today, just watch the salvation of the Lord that will be carried out on your behalf. Today you see the Egyptians but never will you ever see them again. The Lord will fight your battles for you. Stay still," (Exodus 14:14). So, Israel is saved and later in chapter fifteen the following song is sung by Moses and the people. "To the Lord I will sing. The Lord has shown his great authoritative power and has thrown the horse and the rider into the sea. The Lord [is] my strength [i.e. power], my song, and the Lord has become my savior," (Exodus 15:1-2). In other words, Almighty God had been there with them and his power became the power of salvation for the powerless people who took refuge [in him]. And at the same time the power of God became a power that brought judgment for the proud who rebelled against God, even for the Egyptians whose true place before God was only as a powerless people, no matter how much military might they had possessed.
13. Well, as we read [this] with this particular OT1 account at the background, when Paul speaks on "the power of God that brings salvation," we understand that "the powerlessness of humanity" inevitably is a major premise to it. When it says, "The gospel is the power of God that brings salvation," it is saying between the lines that the object of that salvation is us powerless human beings who look with hope for that power of God and are no more than flesh.
14. So, I believe that is certainly our real situation and it is the truth. As mere flesh in this transitory world, we cannot do anything about this reality [of spiritual impotence]. I mentioned when we first started reading this book that the true nature of the suffering of that which is flesh is sin and death. We can't do a thing about the reality of the fact we have sin, the fact we are going to die in sin, and the fact our very being is heading straight for destruction under these current conditions. In regard to that, it does not matter whether we are persons with cultural refinement in Rome or persons without the basics of Greek culture. Therefore, Paul never really makes an issue of that view point. No matter what kind of person you are, there are things you cannot do anything with. Things are truly desperate. As you thoroughly check it out, you will only end up hopeless [because without the gospel, the reason to live is obscure; as people search for the meaning of life and contemplate why they should bear the hardships of existence and then just die at the end, many people lose hope and find suicide a way out], but [existential despair] is a fact of the basic life of any human being. In order not to be hopeless, you have got to deceive yourself in some way. And you surely do. The time is coming when you cannot deceive yourself any more. It is coming for sure. The time is coming when you will not be able to avoid realizing your bankruptcy and powerlessness.
15. When a person notices what kind of person he or she truly is, he or she begins to know the meaning of what is recorded here as "the power of God." Because the phrase "power of God" has no meaning for the person living in pride and not knowing his or her true shape. As long as a person thinks he or she has power within himself or herself, he or she will not feel a yearning for the "power of God." But, a person who knows of his or her own powerlessness in this matter of sin and death knows also that he or she can only call out to God from the bottom of that deep abyss. People who have found themselves at the bottom of an inescapably deep abyss would know that they can only trust in the saving power of God and in the promise of his salvation, and can only call upon the name of the Lord. Thus, they will no longer look with their noses up and regard themselves as the movers and shakers, putting themselves in the center of things and seek the so-called "best life possible" in this world [i.e. they would not think which religion or philosophy gives me the best life or will make my life easier]. Because we would realize the arrogance, the pride and the greatest sin that leads to hell, that we, who are no more than flesh, had acted as Judge of the Universe in front of God.
16. A person can only seek the mercy of God and turn himself or herself over to the message of God's grace. When the gospel is preached as the power of God that saves a person from sin and death, then the only issue that matters is whether a person will trust and commit himself or herself to it. It has nothing to do with whether one is a Jew, a Greek, or a Japanese because everybody is equally flesh and because everyone is similarly at the bottom of the abyss. For that reason, it says the gospel is the power of God which brings salvation to "the Jew first, as well as to the Greek, even to all who believe."
17. "I am not ashamed of the gospel." Paul does not have the least bit mentality of trying to prove the superiority of the gospel while arguing up against the messages of the Greco-Roman world. Paul is going to Rome to proclaim the gospel. He is going to tell the message of God's grace. Because the gospel is a message from God that brings salvation to the person who believes, he is going to tell that message. The gospel never needs to be defended or propped up by the words of any person. It doesn't even rank the same as the numerous messages of this world. Since the gospel is truly the power of God, the power of God will prove out the very gospel itself. Without being ashamed or embarrassed we should proclaim this gospel and nothing less.
1 OT = Old Testament