Romans Lesson 33 - The Heart of the Matter
It is possible to be sincere in your beliefs and practices and still be sincerely wrong.
“The Heart of the Matter”
For nearly 30 years, a man by the name of Reuben Mattus had been selling ice cream in New York. It was his families own recipe and he made a modest living selling it. Then Reuben had an inspiration. He had lived in this new country during the boom times of the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s. He’d lived long enough to understand that most Americans were convinced that the best foods were exotic foods, originating from somewhere else in the world. So, in 1959 Mr. Reuben Mattus invented Haagen-Dazs ice cream. It was the same family recipe, with a few minor changes and a few new flavors. Only this time it was marketed under an exotic, difficult to pronounce, made up name. He also had a map of Scandinavia printed on the ice cream cartons . . . with that, sales took off. The rest is ice cream history.
What Reuben Mattus had discovered was not just a better way to sell ice cream, but a better understanding of the human nature.
In every culture, at any time, image means everything!
This morning as we conclude our series of studies on Religion and the Road to Hell, we come to the end of chapter 2 in the Book of Romans.
In this latter part of chapter 2, Paul has identified the most religious person of his day and revealed that it was a facade – and image, without true substance.
Paul has delivered the stunning news to his generation and to ours: it is possible to be religious without being redeemed. Paul’s illustration in verses 17-29 has been the life of the Jew.
The Jew had the right name printed on the carton – they had the mark of the covenant as the company label, printed on each package. As far as marketing religion went – they were the best sellers. If anybody wanted religion, they could get it from the faithful Jew.
Paul reveals that the faithful Jew is relying on the wrong things – the external image and the physical mark of circumcision.
Much like people today rely on the physical things they do.
As someone if they think they’ll go to heaven when they die and they will likely say, “Of course, I’ve been baptized,” or, “Yes, I’m a member of so and so church,” or, “Yes, I’ve always been a pretty good person.”
Hidden in their answer is the deception of “religiosity.”
Religion has to do with the name on the ice cream carton and whether or not it will sell, regardless of whether or not its even true.
Religion will always focus on what we create with our hands; God is interested in the condition of our heart.
In this last verse or two in Romans chapter 2, Paul uses contrasting vocabulary to subtly, yet forcefully reveal the difference between religious image and a relationship with God.
Romans 2:28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
You could underline the contrasts beginning with verse 28. The faithful Jew relied on that which was outwardly, where true spirituality was inwardly.
The contrast in verse 29 between circumcision which concentrates on the flesh, where true spirituality concentrates on the heart.
Notice further in verse 29 the contrast between the Spirit and the letter (a reference to the law); finally, in the last phrase of verse 29 we are shown the contrast between man’s praise and the praise of God.
So you have the outwardly contrasted with the inwardly ;
The flesh contrasted with the heart;
The letter of the law with the Spirit, and man’s praise contrasted with God’s praise
Such is the contrast between religion and a true relationship with God.
The Jew would have been stunned by this paragraph. It was shocking for them to hear that having descended from Abraham; having the responsibility of guarding the Torah; having past history of blessing did not make them automatically right with God.
Circumcision of the flesh, Paul said, is not as important as having a circumcised heart.
In fact, Paul’s point is that an uncircumcised heart makes null and void circumcised flesh.
That wasn’t something new to Paul by the way. Several times in the Old Testament, the prophets warned Israel of that their rebellious hearts nullified the mark of the covenant.
Jeremiah spoke for God and said, “Behold the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised . . . for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart.” (Jeremiah 9:25-26)
In Leviticus 26:38 But you will perish among the nations, and your enemies’ land will consume you. 39. So those of you who may be left will rot away because of their iniquity in the lands of your enemies; and also because of the iniquities of their forefathers they will rot away with them. 40. If they confess their iniquity . . . or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, 42. then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land.
The Lord spoke to Samuel long ago and said, “God sees, not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
(I Samuel 16:7)
In other words, being right with God is a matter of the heart!
By the way, what does the word “heart” refer to?
In the Hebrew Bible, the word most common word for “heart” is the word “leb”. It refers not only to the motives, feelings, affections and desires of a person, but also their will, their goals, their thoughts and their intellect.
In the New testament, the word basically refers to the same thing. The Greek word is kardia (kardia) and from it we created our words like cardiologist, or cardiology.
Gerhard Kittel in his massive, nine volume work on the Greek New Testament, which anchors one shelf of my library, described the kardia as:
The center of the inner life of man and the source of all the forces and functions of soul and spirit. It stands for the whole of the inner being of man.”
Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley quoted in Coming To Terms With Sin, Charles R. Swindoll (Word Publishing, Waco, Texas, 1985, p. 26)
Basically, the word heart refers to the true person. Regardless of a person’s name on the carton, regardless of the map and the marketing terminology printed on the package, the “heart” refers to what truly resides on the inside.
The faithful Jew thought God’s work was done on the outside – the man who had been born a Jew; the woman who had conceived by a circumcised Jew – they were externally adhering to God – safely within the covenant of Abraham, in fact, direct descendants of Abraham . . . what more could be needed to be accepted by God?
The Jew believed that Abraham sat by the gate of hell and no faithful Jew would ever enter its gates.
It struck me as I studied this passage in Romans chapter 2 that Paul uses the same exact vocabulary as Jesus Christ did about 30 years earlier in a conversation with a faithful Jew.
You remember in Romans 2 verse 20 how Paul challenged the Jew that just because they considered themselves teachers of the law, that wasn’t good enough?
Well, one of those teachers had a private conversation with Jesus that would eventually revolutionize his life.
Turn to John 3, where that private conversation took place, and where, Jesus Christ defined salvation as a new birth and heartfelt belief.
While you’re turning, perhaps the most famous Bible verse is in this passage - many of us have memorized John 3:16 – say it with me, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
While many of us know that verse, not many perhaps know to whom Jesus said those words.
We’re told who in verse 1 of chapter 3. Let’s start there. Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
If the faithful Jews Paul refers to in Romans chapter 2 believed that he was going to get into heaven, out of all of them, there wasn’t any Jew among them who would have had as much assurance that he was going to heaven than Nicodemus.
First of all, because he was a Pharisee.
Now most of the time you think of a Pharisee, you think of a hypocrite – a proud, legalistic man who played a religious game, but lived a life of secret immorality. And you would be right, for many of them were just that.
There were however, others who were committed and faithful to their decision in life to join the Pharisees. The Apostle Paul was once a Pharisee himself.
These were Jewish men who, because of their passion for the God of Abraham joined the chaburah – the brotherhood. They entered into this brotherhood by taking a pledge in front of three witnesses that they would spend all their lives observing every detail of the Mosaic and scribal law.
The scribes had created the Mishna – the writings that codified scribal law. Then there was the Talmud. This was the commentary on the Mishna that the Pharisees studied, taught and followed to the letter. It was their passion to know the Mishna and live it. I read of one Rabbi who spend nearly 3 years studying just one chapter from the Mishna. I received my inspiration from him!
The codifying of the law brought about much of the problems to Judaism and the Pharisee became obsessed with rule upon rule, until their relationship with God was lost in their religion.
A perfect illustration is seen in the simple Sabbath law of Moses. The Bible told the Israelite to rest on the Sabbath – don’t bear burdens, don’t work, but rest and keep it a holy day.
Trouble is, what does the word, “work” mean? The scribe and the Pharisee debated and developed and codified it and developed commentary on it as well.
Here’s some of what they came up with:
they could only drink enough milk for one swallow at a time – more than one swallow at a time would be work for their mouths
they could not lift a spoon to their lips weighing more than one fig – more than that would be lifting a burden
The Pharisees and Scribes were embroiled over the whether or not a woman could wear a broach on the Sabbath; if a mother could pick up her baby or even, if a man could wear his wooden dentures on the Sabbath.
It was work to tie a knot on the Sabbath or to untie a knot. However, if was permissible for a woman who was getting dressed on the Sabbath it was permissible to tie a knot in her girdle. Thank heaven for that.
It was permissible to draw water from the well on the Sabbath, but if the rope broke you could not tie another rope to the broken one because you would be tying a knot. However, you could take your wife’s girdle, tie one side to another rope, tie another side of the girdle to the bucket and draw water from your well . . . I’m not kidding.
On the one hand you think, how ridiculous – yet on the other hand, here is a people who are committed to the incredible inconvenience of keeping thousands of regulations in order to please God. How many of us will allow even a dozen inconveniences to our walk with God.
It is my observation that one inconvenience is enough to discourage most of us.
It as the scribe who expounded and developed all the written regulations. It was the Pharisee who dedicated their lives to keeping them.
Our text says, Nicodemus was one of those men.
The latter part of verse 1 informs us that Nicodemus was “a ruler of the Jews.” The Greek word for ruler is “archon” (arcwn)which indicated that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin. This was Israel’s Supreme court – made up of 71 men. It’s interesting to consider that one of the chief responsibilities of the Sanhedrin was to examine and deal with anyone suspected of being a false prophet.
So Nicodemus has come to Jesus during the night to examine him further and determine whether or not He was a false teacher.
Now notice verse 2. This man came to Him by night, and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him."
You need to understand the significance of this statement. By now, the debate was already raging as to the source of Jesus' power. Some religious leaders had said it came from Beelzebub. . .Satan. Nicodemus is letting the Lord know that he isn’t one of them. He's in effect saying, “Jesus, I really think you have pure motives and you have come from God as an inspired teacher.”
But it was also a polite way of also saying this; “Teacher, I know you've come from God and have the power of God. . .I saw you clean out the temple this morning and declare it to be your Father’s house . . . but what are you really trying to communicate - what's your primary message?"
Jesus responds by giving Nicodemus his primary message, vs. 3. Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This is a shocking statement. Why? Because Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, Nicodemus, unless you are born again you can’t go to heaven.” What Jesus just told one of the leading Jewish candidates for heaven was, he wasn’t going!
In other words, Nicodemus has done a lot of things right but he hasn't done the right thing!
And Nicodemus, being a faithful Jew has always assumed that he's already part of the Kingdom of God. . .he's a son of Abraham - he has a right to heaven! Just as Paul delivered the shocking news in Romans chapter 2 to his Jewish audience, Jesus Christ delivers the shocking news to this faithful Jewish leader.
This is not only a shocking statement but a difficult statement.
4. Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born can he?"
In other words, “What do you mean I have to be "born again?"
He was confused. And so would we be were it not for a passage like John 3.
Jesus will explain Himself be deliver to Nicodemus 2 startling propositions that will change his thinking forever on the matter of true salvation and what it means to be born again.
1) The first proposition is this: The physical birth into Abraham’s family wasn’t isn’t for redemption.
That’s the same thing Paul has been saying in Romans chapter 2.
Notice verse 5 here in John chapter 3. Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
Now just what does, “of water” refer to?
- a reference to the cleansing aspect of the New Covenant
- a reference to the cleansing of the Word
- another reference to the Holy Spirit
- a reference to John the Baptist and his baptism of repentance
- a reference to the necessity of water baptism.
Jesus was not teaching that the new birth comes through water baptism. In fact, in the New Testament, baptism is connected with death, not birth. And while water baptism is necessary for spiritual obedience, it is not necessary for spiritual birth.
My friend, I was baptized by water many years ago, not so I could go to be with the Lord, but so that I could show publicly that I am going to be with the Lord.
In verse 5, Jesus is not talking about being baptized the first time, but about being born a second time.
Verse 6 explains verse 5. That which is born of the flesh is flesh (that's the natural, first birth) and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (that's the supernatural, second birth)
So in Jesus’ analogy here, being born of water is a reference to physical birth. It’s interesting to know that the Greek words are “ex hudatos” and can be literally translated, “born out of water.” It's also insightful that in the Hebrew language, the word “to give birth” is a word that literally refers to the rupturing of the membranes.
I have literally seen the results of that very thing. I won’t gore you with all the details, but I can remember being in that delivery room with Marsha – we were about to have our fourth child. I say “we” rather generously.
We were in the labor and delivery room and some medical personnel came in and broke her water. . .up until then, our baby has been floating in a sack filled with amniotic fluid; we refer to that as the water. The doctor, by breaking the sack, basically let the water out of the swimming pool. And just like you would be, nobody wants to swim in a pool without any water - this was the incentive for the baby to get out of the pool. I'm using layman's terms here but I can tell you’re getting it!
Our children, and your children, in fact all of us were literally born “ex hudatos” - out of water.
That's what verse 5 is referring to – ex hudatos - the physical birth.
But Jesus will go on to say there has to be a second, different birth. Why make mention of the first birth to Nicodemus – isn’t that a moot point?
You see, that’s what every Jew was counting on. Like Nicodemus, they thought that physical birth sealed it for them – they were born into Abraham's family. . . that was it! Case closed – they’re Jews – they’re in the kingdom!
Jesus is delivering the startling news that the first birth of Nicodemus was not good enough!
The physical birth is not enough for redemption.
John 3:7. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8. The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9. Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10. Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? 11. Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. 12. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13. No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.
2) The second startling proposition to this faithful Jew was this: Not only was he told that his physical birth was not good enough for redemption, Jesus now tells him that the second birth can’t occur unless the Messiah experiences death.
John 3:14. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15. that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.
The verse refers us back to one of the most unique stories in the Old Testament. In the Book of Numbers, chapter 21, you discover the Israelites are in rebellion against God.
In judging Israel, God set poisonous snakes upon them. The Bible called them fiery serpents simply because of the hot fever that ultimately led to death was the predominate result of the serpents venom.
The people cried out for mercy and God instructed Moses to make a brass serpent, put it on a long wooden pole and hold it up in the midst of the camp. Tell the people of Israel that anyone who simply looks up at the brass serpent will be healed and live.
Why not develop medicine. . .why not require them to work for a cure?! It would have given them all something to do and would have satisfied every natural instinct of the heart to work on behalf of its own cure.
The fact that they were not told to make a human remedy is indicative of the greater fact that there is no human remedy for sin. Nothing but death awaiting them unless God provides the remedy.
Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote, “In the religious fashion of our day, there would have been a rush to incorporate the "Society for the Extermination of the Fiery Serpents. There would have been badges for the coat lapel, cards for district workers, secretaries for organization branches, pledge cards and mass rallies. There would have been a publication office and a weekly journal to tell of the progress of the work. There would have been photographs of heaps of serpents that had been killed by the faithful workers. All of them feverishly trying, by human effort to overcome the serpent's bite of sin! Let us accompany one of the zealous workers as he might take a pledge card into the tent of a stricken victim. The man had been bitten and the poison had already affected his limbs. He lies in feverish agony, the glaze of death already coming to his eyes. The zealous member of the Society for the Extermination of Fiery Serpents tells him of all that has been done to combat the serpents, and urges the man to join - the dying victim fumbles in his pocketbook for money and then takes a pen in hand. His fingers are held by the worker who helps him form his signature on the pledge and membership card, and the man signs in full and dies!”
That incident in Israel's history became a pre-figuring of Jesus Christ on a cross, lifted up, who became wicked sin for us. Salvation, spiritual healing, re-birth comes from simply looking at Him - in that look, believing that hope comes only from trust in Him.
Just as Jesus Christ told this religious leader that he was in desperate trouble, even though he had all the trappings of religion. My friend, you also can join a society, a church, sign a pledge card, go through Bible lessons and catechisms, give money, get baptized; and die . . . without God.
You have been bitten by sin - and it's a mortal wound. Your only hope is to look to that wooden cross, upon which is in Lamb, made to be wicked sin for us, the One who descended from heaven experienced death so He could provide to those who trust in Him a second birth.
Verse 15 says, "That whoever believes may in Him have eternal life."
And what do it mean to believe?!
What did Phillip mean when he asked the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:37, “Do you believe with all of your heart?” What do we mean when we say a person needs to ask Jesus Christ into their heart?
What did the Apostle Paul mean when he said in Romans 10:9, “That if you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that God raised Christ from the dead you will be saved.”
What’s this connection between believing and “the heart”.
Remember, the heart refers to more than that pump inside your chest…in Biblical terms, the heart refers to the inner person – the inner forces and functions of soul and spirit, mind and intellect – in other words, the heart refers to who you really are.
When Paul said, “To believe in your heart that God raised Christ from the dead” meant much more than someone simply saying, “Yea, I believe all that stuff.” It actually means that all the forces and functions of soul and spirit, mind, will and intellect are driven by the truth of Christ’s resurrection – Paul says in effect, “if you are gripped by the truth that Christ is the living, resurrected Lord and He controls and dominates your inner being, you shall be saved.”
When you ask Jesus Christ to come in to your heart, if you are using the word “heart” biblically, then you are asking Jesus Christ to take up residency in the whole of your being, not just inhabit that red muscle that pumps away.
You are saying that Christ is now the Landlord of your building. He owns the house – He calls the shots – he determines how life is to be lived.
You say, but I know people that don’t believe in Christ, and they look good and sound good; they’re committed to their family, they’re ethical in business, how do you know they don’t have the truth?
Remember, religion is passionate about appearances – it focuses on the work of the hands, while ignoring the mortal wound of sin in their heart.
So what has religion done?
I want you to imagine stumbling into an old run down farmyard. It's windswept and nothing more than hard baked ground there is a well - over top the well is a wooden platform and an old rusty pump. You're dying of thirst. You go over, step up onto the platform and begin to pump on that handle. . . it squeaks and complains with every push and pull. After 5 minutes, nothing but air. After 15 minutes of sweating and coaxing and pleading, still nothing. The well is dry.
What do you do for water?
Let me tell you what religion has done. He has scraped all the rust off that pump handle and he’s painted it bright red. No, better yet, he’s replaced the old handle with a shiny brass handle, there is shines in the farmyard with class and dignity.
People from all around have come to look at that pump – they decide to build more of them. They did a hole in the ground – never striking water, but they’re not into water – they’re into pumps. They build wooden platforms over the hole, and attach shiny pumps with beautiful handles. Some are elaborate, some larger than others, some inlaid with gold and silver. Songs have been composed about it; painters have come and painted the landscape with its beautiful pumps.
But nothing can be done about the fact that those beautiful, impressive pumps will never bring one drop of water to your thirsty lips.
Jesus Christ delivered the verdict to Nicodemus; “Nicodemus - you look good. You're the best that society and religion and culture can produce - but you're sitting on an empty well. You need to come in contact with living water.”
And you come by way of a look - looking at the Son of man, who came to earth and died for sinners and if you’ll look to Him and admit you are hopelessly bitten by sin and believe in your heart that He is the crucified and ascended Lord – you can go to heaven too, one day.
The Apostle Paul delivered the same verdict to the impressive, faithful Jew of his day.
- The faithful Jew will not be saved by his law.
- The faithful Jew will not be saved by his liturgy.
- The faithful Jew will not be saved by his lineage.
In other words, don’t put so much stock in the name on the outside of that carton – don’t depend on the markings stamped on the package – what matters is what’s on the inside.
Religion is the road to hell simply because it cares only about the outside of the package. And it looks good . . . and it sells.
Christianity is the road to heaven and it focuses on the condition of the heart. True Christianity isn’t into appearances. And it doesn’t sell anything. But it transforms everything.
Beginning with the heart. Because at its very core, Christianity is a matter of the heart.
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