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(Romans 3:21-22) Bridging Niagara

(Romans 3:21-22) Bridging Niagara

Ref: Romans 3:19–20

The bridge built by that Jewish carpenter over 2,000 years ago has never needed reconstruction. It's still transporting people to Heaven every day.


Bridging Niagara

Romans 3:19-20

In 1848, Charles Ellet, an American engineer was considered out of his mind.  He believed that a suspension bridge could be built across the raging rapids formed by the Niagara Falls.  Charles Ellet planned to build a bridge just upstream from the great Niagara Falls where 37 million gallons of water plunged over the edge every sixty seconds. Over time, the water that roared over the edge of The Niagara Falls, had cut a deep abyss into the rock basin below and then flowed onward in turbulent whitewater rapids in that upstream area known as, The Niagara Gorge.  Charles Ellet planned to bridge that Gorge.

Disaster was nearly universally predicted, considering the fact that the Gorge was 825 feet across and dropped 200 feet straight down. 

Since there was no way that bridge supports would survive the raging current, Ellet was convinced that the only kind of bridge to build was a suspension bridge. But, this was a fairly tenuous idea.  The suspension bridges that had been built in different parts of the world didn’t last very long.  In fact, the great suspension bridge built over the Ohio River had collapsed after only a few years.

Besides, how in the world could an engineer even get the cable from American side of the Gorge all the way over to the Canadian side and to begin construction?  Ellet solved that problem ingeniously, by offering to award the first person who could fly a kite across the chasm with a five dollar bill.  The competitions was so intense on the first day that the skies were filled with kites.  No one succeeded.  But then, and on the second day, young Mr. Walsh won the prize.  The string of his kite was fastened to a tree on the far side of the Gorge, a light cord attached to it, and pulled slowly back over.  Next came a heavier cord, then a rope, then a heavier rope and finally . . . a steel cable made it’s way across the Niagara Gorge.

When the cable was securely fastened on either side of the Gorge, Ellet decided  to demonstrate his faith in an unforgettable fashion.  He built an iron basket, attaching it to the cable with a series of pulleys.  Then he got inside and pulled himself across, becoming the first man in history to ever cross the great chasm from above.  He wrote, “The wind was high and the weather cold, but the trip was a very interesting one to me, perched up as I was 240 feet above the rapids, viewing from the very center of the river, the great Niagara falls.”

A few weeks later he had completed the catwalk with wooden slats.  He announced another demonstration, gathered a huge crowd, leaped into a small horse-drawn carriage and rumbled fearlessly onto the tiny bridge which, as yet, did not have any guardrails.  Standing straight up like a charioteer, Ellet drove the carriage across the bridge which swayed fearfully.  Women fainted, the crowd was dumbstruck and, in the end, the applause could be heard above the roar of the surging water below.

The unthinkable had happened.   From a kite string, to a steel cabled suspension marvel of engineering.  Niagara had been bridged.  A gateway between America and Canada was formed. 

Adapted from, The Church of Irresistible Influence by Robert Lewis (Zondervan Publishing House, 2001) p. 33

If you wanted to, you could easily take your pencil or pen and summarize everything we’ve learned from the middle of Romans chapter 1 through the middle of Romans chapter 3 with one phrase – The Great Chasm.

In Romans chapter 1 we learned that man refuses to believe the testimony of creation as a universal finger pointing to a Creator.

In chapter 2 we learned that man also stubbornly resists the testimony of his conscience that whispers to him that he is a sinner and that he will one day be judged not only for his public sin but his secret sins.

In chapter three we learned that man doesn’t run toward God, he runs away from God; mankind doesn’t respect God, he reviles God; mankind doesn’t understand spiritual things, he doesn’t really want spiritual truth.  Mankind will say some nice things about God and maybe even show up at some church where organ music softly plays and people go through prayers and spiritual motions, just so long as God doesn’t get pushy . . . so long as God doesn’t demand anything . . . or claim the right of ownership.

But man must worship something – and so in chapter one he worships nature; in chapter two he worships his moral effort, and in chapter 3 he worships himself.

For nearly the entirety of these 3 chapters which forms the first major section in the Book of Romans, Paul has merely described the abyss of human depravity; he has shown us the chasm between man and God.

And he simply holds up the mirror of divine revelation and says to sinful mankind – “Here, take a good long look – this is who you are.”

And it doesn’t do any good to get mad at mirrors – they never lie.

A couple of days ago my 8 year old daughter had a friend over for a sleepover.  Sleepover is a compound word which contradicts itself . . . sleep has nothing to do with coming over.  It finally go quiet and they settled in around 3 a.m.  Charity had asked me if I’d make pancakes in the morning and I had promised I would – only now I was sure it would never happen because they would sleep in . . . they were up at 6 . . . as frisky as those little puppies we used to have.  Only I couldn’t put them out in the backyard and tie them to a tree . . . which had crossed my mind.  I made them pancakes . . . the doorbell rang and the other girl’s father was there to pick her up . . . I noticed he sort of gave me a double take . . . after he left I went back to the bathroom, looked in the mirror; I was wearing my old brown terry cloth robe and my hair was literally sticking straight out – it was all down in my eyes . . . okay, so it wasn’t in my eyes.  I looked at myself in the mirror and laughed and thought, now there’s a lovely sight.

The truth is, we all spent time this morning getting ready simply because we didn’t want the world to panic when they saw us. Never for a minute this morning did you argue with the mirror and say, “Listen, I know I really don’t look that bad!”  No, you believed the mirror’s reflection and took drastic steps to improve that reflection of the truth. 

Argue all you want, but in each of these three chapters Paul holds up the divine mirror and reveals to mankind his true reflection:

In chapter 1:29 he describes mankind, “being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips,  30.  slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,  31.  without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful;  32.  and although they know the ordinance of God, (in other words, although they intuitively know right from wrong) and that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”

In chapter 2: 4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?  5.  But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,  6.  who will render to each person according to his deeds.”

Then in chapter 3: 10.  As it is written,

            “There is none righteous, not even one;

 11            There is none who understands,

            There is none who seeks for God;

 12            All have turned aside, together they have become useless;

            There is none who does good,

            There is not even one.

 13            “Their throat is an open grave,

            With their tongues they keep deceiving,

            “The poison of asps is under their lips”;

 14            “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;

 15            “Their feet are swift to shed blood,

 16            Destruction and misery are in their paths,

 17            And the path of peace they have not known.

  1. There is no fear of God before their eyes.

That’s the inspired revelation of humanity.  That is the divine description of the Great chasm that ultimately separates sinful man from a holy God.

This is the raging whitewater of sinfulness . . . this is the Niagara Gorge that no man will ever be able to leap across.  No matter how fast he runs, no matter how sincere his heart, no matter how far he jumps . . . he cannot make it across this Great Chasm . . . he must have a bridge.

He now summarizes all that he has said with one sentence . . . notice verse 19 of chapter 3. 19.  Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God;

Did you hear that?  The very thing the world resists – the very thing the world hates to consider will one day happen – all the world will become before God, accountable.  “Hupodikos” – the only time in the Greek N.T. this word appears; it’s a compound word; hupo – under; dike – the sentence of  justice.  “Under the sentence of Divine justice.”  Cremer writes, “It speaks of one who is bound to suffer what is imposed for the sake of justice, because he has neglected to do what is right.”  Abbott-Smith define it as “someone who is brought to trial.”  In other words, Paul is saying that all the world will be brought to trial before God and is even now under the judgment of God, guilty before God . . . it is a sweeping statement that takes in all of humanity outside of Jesus Christ.

Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament (Baker Book House, 1974) p. 151.

And did you notice in this future scene how everyone has their chance to articulate their defense??  No – “19b.  . . .every mouth will be closed.”

This is he exact opposite of a court of human law.  There is expert defense.  It is a trial by our peers.  And our peers are also sinful . . . they can excuse sinful behavior . . . they can be bribed and influenced toward the wrong verdict.  Even the judges aren’t always upright in their decisions – they can also make mistakes.  There are innocent people in prison even today . . .human law and the exercising and interpreting of it correctly is the goal of our courts, but it is not automatically guaranteed.  It is inexact and imperfect.  Human law has loopholes.  We can plead extenuating circumstances.  And even if we lose our case, we can appeal to a higher court and then again to an even higher court.  Even if we exhaust our legal options, Kent Hughes writes, we can write letters, we can even write a book . . . we can argue . . . we can refuse to be silenced!

Adapted from R. Kent Hughes, Romans (Crossway Books, 1991), p. 324

But not in that courtroom scene.

This is a reference to that coming judgment of all humanity without Jesus Christ as their defense, stand before God at that Great White Throne.

John records what that scene will be like in Revelation 20:11  Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them.  12.  And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.  13.  And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.  14.  Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15.  And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

No defense . . . no series of alibi’s . . . no excuses.  Silence!

God can’t be bribed – it is not a trial by peers, but a trial by Providence; there are no extenuating circumstances for sin; God was an eyewitness to everything we ever did or said or even thought.

Before that God there is silence.  For all the world will brought to a final understanding that there is a chasm between God and man.  And man had no other hope but to cross the bridge that God provided through Jesus Christ.  But they denied Him . . . mocked Him . . . or added Him to their lives with their other hobbies . . . they did not confess to Him their sinfulness or enthrone Him on their hearts.

Now . . .standing before Him, Paul writes, there is silence.  And it’s too late to pray.

Paul declares that man is indefensible – he is silent before God; man is indefensible because man is inexcusable . . . why is that.

Notice verse 20.  because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

In other words, no one will ever get into heaven by keeping the law – because no one can.  In fact, one of the reasons God gave the law was to simply prove to mankind that he couldn’t keep it. . .Paul says, “for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.”  Now that doesn’t excuse our sin, it just reveals to us that we’re sinners.

J. B. Phillips was a British scholar who paraphrased the New Testament. I have a copy in my library.  Because he was English, he occasionally used British terms for concepts that threw new light on the passage.  Like Romans 3:20.  In England what we call a ruler is called, or at least it was in his generation, a straightedge.  So when Phillips came to this verse and wanted to paraphrase “for through the law comes the knowledge of sin,” he wrote it this way, “Indeed it is the straightedge of the Law that shows us how crooked we are.”

You ever try to hang wallpaper . . . you ever try to hang wallpaper with stripes in it.  That’ll destroy your marriage. Stay away from stripes.  I’m not speaking from experience of course.  You ever hung wallpaper with stripes and you thought you were doing a pretty good job until you came to a corner . . . or to a window.   Suddenly you realized you were hanging it crooked.  You probably fussed and fumed that it was the wall that was crooked, right?  Might have been, but more than likely, you were hanging it straight.

That straightedge window frame can’t straighten the wallpaper.  It can only reveal that your wallpaper is crooked.

To return to the analogy of the mirror – that also acts as the law.  While that mirror can with absolute precision reveal your dirty face, it cannot wash your face.

It can show you that you need to shave your stubble, and comb your hair and brush your teeth . . . but it cannot shave or comb or brush anything.

The function of the mirror is to compel you – to silently challenge you and encourage you to pick up the comb and the razor and the brush and the washcloth, but it cannot clean you up – it is powerless to wash any dirt away.

Adapted from R. Kent Hughes, Romans (Crossway Books, 1991), p. 335

So also, the law is God’s gift to us – not to make us guilty but to show us why we are.

And for those who say, “Well, I’m going to get into heaven because I am really trying to keep the law . . . I’m moral and upstanding and clean living . . .”  That person is asking the mirror to wash his face.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the law can challenge your life, but it can not change your life.  It can even condemn you, but it cannot convert you.

Ralph Lauren, Romans: Where Life Begins (Kregel Publications, 1988)  p. 118

It can show you how crooked and dirty you are, but it is powerless to wash any sin away.

You need to understand that Paul is about to introduce the Savior to the sinner . . . but first he is introducing the sinner to his need for a Savior.

He has described in living color the Great Chasm between God and man; the terrible abyss created by the sinfulness and depravity of mankind.. 

Oh, but now Paul will begin to describe the Divine Connection Between God and Man in the person of Jesus Christ, the sinless man, the sum and substance of almighty God.

The little kite string that spanned the abyss of human sin and despair was Christ’s virgin birth . . . He came as a little tiny baby . . . the incarnation of God in he flesh.

Then that kite string pulled across the hopelessness of mankind the heavier string of Christ’s blameless and sinless life . . . the unblemished lamb of God.

Then a rope was pulled across the abyss – it was Christ’s miraculous authentication of his deity and the validity of His message

An even heavier rope came next – it was Christ’s death on the cross, perfectly fulfilling the prophecies, paying the penalty for mankind’s sin;

And finally, the steel cable was then pulled across the impassable chasm that anchored the bridge forever – it was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

This bridge of life could be and would be constructed upon and through the person of Jesus Christ who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by Me . . .”  In other words, no one can cross the Niagara of human despair and depravity unless they walk over as it were on the One who bridged that Niagara . . . the Lord Jesus Christ.

In chapter 3 verses 19 and 20, Paul finishes the first section of his letter to the Romans – and he has accomplished his goal.  In this first section, the whole world has been brought before the judgment of God with the realization that they have no hope or excuse or defense before the jury of God’s holiness.  And in that awful realization, the whole world stands before God, silent . . . there is no higher court of appeal.  They do not have a prayer.

But that’s still future . . . today my friend, you do have a prayer.  If you will pray it.

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