Roman Road Less Traveled: Life

Jesus was radical. Jesus was a revolutionary. Jesus was unlike any other teacher that had been, or ever will be. Those who encountered Jesus face to face, who walked with him, lived with him, learned from him, mourned his death, first doubted–then celebrated his resurrection, watched him ascend and received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit after his ascension, knew this.

Paul knew of Jesus, but saw Jesus’ ministry and mission as a threat to all he had built his life on–namely the Jewish law. Jesus, in Paul’s view, was a threat to his scripture-based life. If you know Paul’s story, you know that he was present, and gave his approval to the stoning of Stephen. Acts 9:1 tells us Saul (Paul) “was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers, so he went to the high priest…” and gained permission to head out on a mission of arresting and persecuting followers of Jesus. If you are familiar with the story, you know that while he was on his way to fulfill his self-appointed mission of violence, Jesus knocked him off his high-horse, blinded him, and introduced himself to Saul (Paul) as the one whom Saul was persecuting. That encounter with Jesus forever changed the trajectory of Paul’s life. Paul had been an agent of death–now he would be teaching what God’s radical love and grace look like, and what abundant life truly is.

Last week we looked at Romans 5:1-11 where Paul highlights the good news about hope and life and reconciliation. This week we move to Chapter 6. Paul, a trained attorney, is continuing to make his case for life. As a quick reminder, the “book” of Romans is actually a letter to a group of believers in Rome. It wasn’t divided into chapters and verses when Paul wrote it, so even though we are highlighting verses each week, we are taking into account the whole of the letter. With that said, I am going to back up to the part of chapter 5 that we didn’t cover last week. In 5:12-21 we learn that sin and death entered the world through one man’s poor choice. Paul writes: death followed this sin, casting its shadow over all humanity, because all have sinned…(however) there is no comparison between Adam’s transgression and the gracious gift that we experience. For the magnitude of the gift far outweighs the crimehow much greater will God’s grace and his gracious gift of acceptance overflowthis free-flowing gift imparts to us much more than what was given to us through the one who sinnedthis gracious gift leaves us free from our many failures and brings us into the perfect righteousness of God—acquitted with the words “Not guilty!...condemnation came upon all people through one transgression, so through one righteous act of Jesus’ sacrifice, the perfect righteousness that makes us right with God and leads us to a victorious life is now available to all! (5: 15-16; 18 TPT).

Note that the emphasis of the passage is not Adam’s or our sin–it’s mentioned, but Paul’s emphasis is God’s gift of grace, of acceptance, of exoneration and he continues this theme in chapter 6 which begins with a question: Now what is our response to be? Shall we sin to our heart’s content and see how far we can exploit the grace of God? 

Paul’s answer to his own question: What a ghastly thought! We, who have died to sin—how could we live in sin a moment longer?  (J. B. Phillips)

How would you answer Paul’s question? What does it mean that we have died to sin? What does it look like to not live in sin?

Paul continues to drive home the point that we must resist the temptation to revert to our own strength and live as moralists, legalists or “cheap grace” proponents. Moralists divide the world into good and bad behavior and try to be “good for goodness sake”. Legalists believe following all the rules and measuring their success by comparison to others makes them good–(and when they can’t meet their own standard they feel guilt and shame). Those who choose “cheap grace” believe Jesus’ full forgiveness means they can live any way they want to. All of these methods leave out a relationship with Jesus. Each one is focused on self and human effort (or lack thereof)–I can be good enough to be accepted, I can be better than everyone else and be accepted, or I am accepted and therefore can live however I want.

What does Paul, based on his own radical experience with Jesus, teach? Verses 6:3-4 say…don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were…buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life....

…or as the NLT translates it: …we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

What does that mean? What does “baptism” mean? The actual definition of the word is:

  1. to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk)
  2. to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one’s self, bathe
  3. to overwhelm

That may not be new information to anyone, but what I love is the history of the word that can be seen in the pickle recipe written in 200 B.C. by a Greek poet and physician named Nicander. The recipe contains two Greek words, the first being “bapto” which means to dip, and “baptizo” which in a moment will become more clear. To make pickles, first you “bapto” the vegetable in boiling water. Then it is removed and is “baptizo” into a vinegar solution where it stays and becomes something new–it is transformed–permanently changed. (blueletterbible.org)

The word Paul is using in Chapter 6 is “baptizo”–the type of immersion where one resides and that leads to permanent change. I’m reminded of Naaman in the Old Testament. He was a Syrian commander who contracted leprosy. His Jewish servant told him there was a prophet (Elisha) that could heal him. When Naaman sought Elisha, Elisha sent someone to tell Naaman to go immerse himself 7 times (the number signifying wholeness) in the Jordan river. Naaman was mad, he wanted Elisha to wave his hand and heal him instantly, so he decided he wasn’t going to do it–he was choosing sickness over immersion. His servants asked him, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” (2 Kings 5:13). So Naaman swallowed his pride and did as Elisha suggested, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. Total transformation.

Paul is telling us, in Romans 6, that the death of Christ is our gateway to total transformation. We are baptized into his death and then raised to live new lives as transformed people. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians tells us in 5:17 that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! (NLT)

Christianity is about life–it’s not about our sin or how wretched we are; it’s about our forgiveness, our healing, our transformation into Christlikeness…

Jesus tells us in John 17:3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent

…and in John 10:10  I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John wrote of Jesus: In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4)

Paul goes on to tell us: our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin…When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God.  So…consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus. (6:6; 10-11)

And lest you be concerned that the work of transformation comes from human effort, remember that Abraham believed God, and God credited it to Abraham as righteousness.

Our part, in the journey of transformation is to believe God–not in God, but God. Part of believing is to renew our minds. Jumping ahead in this letter, Paul reminds us: Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. (Romans 12:2)

And Jesus’ brother James tells us in James 4:8 to draw near to God and he will draw near to you.

I don’t know how it works–but I know in my own life, when I began to embrace the truth that God wasn’t disappointed in me, wasn’t mad at me, but loved me, accepted me, forgave me, saw me as right because of what God in Christ has done–not because of my own effort to be good enough– I began to really fall in love with God and to immerse myself in God. As that happened, I spent more and more time with God–and I am absolutely not who I used to be. I have been changed. I am still changing. God, who began a good work in (me) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:6)

This God, who already sees us fully acceptable, breathes Jesus’ life into us through the Holy Spirit and gifts us with a beautiful, holy, inviting life-light, as he makes us whole, healing us along the way, and using us to invite others in.

God’s free gift of overflowing abundant Spirit-filled life begins as we get to know God the Father and Jesus whom he has sent. Immersion in God’s gift of life through death leads to transformation.

–Luanne

I had never heard about the pickle recipe until Luanne shared it above. I love it so much. She shared with us that when the vegetable (for the purposes of my next point, I’m going to call it a cucumber) “is “baptizo” into a vinegar solution…” it, “…becomes something new–it is permanently changed.” Permanent change. The pickle cannot be un-pickled. It cannot go back to its cucumber form. That’s the nature of transformation. Luanne used versions of this word at least seven times in her writing, according to my unofficial count. It is also the word I couldn’t stop thinking about as I listened to the message on Sunday morning.

When Pastor John talked about baptism signifying that we have a new life to live, transformation was all I could think about. That led to me thinking about metamorphosis–and, more specifically, about how metamorphosis turns a caterpillar into a butterfly. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know that Luanne and I like to write about butterflies. And you might also know that we have written about metamorphosis before–but not in the context of baptism. To refresh our memories, here is what I wrote two summers ago regarding this miraculous process:

“A caterpillar is hidden within the cloak of its cocoon. And while it’s in there, it literally dies. Its organs disintegrate, and from that soup of cells, a butterfly is born. When the time is right, the cloak of the cocoon falls away, and the beautiful butterfly is free to fly. Death and resurrection.” 

Death and resurrection…

Luanne wrote, “We are baptized into his death and then raised to live new lives as transformed people.”

The origin of our English word metamorphosis is in the Greek word metamorphoō. It means transfigure, transform, change. It is found four times in scripture. The second half of the compound word, morphoō, is found only once. Luanne already included one of the verses our word is found in, Romans 12:2. Here it is again in the Amplified Bible translation:

And do not be conformed to this world [any longer with its superficial values and customs], but be transformed (metamorphoō) and progressively changed [as you mature spiritually] by the renewing of your mind…  

Here another occurrence of the word in a verse that has been on my mind since Sunday:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed (metamorphoō) into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV)

These two verses use the word metamorphoō in relation to Jesus’ followers. The other two times it is used, it describes Jesus’ transfiguration in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2:

And His appearance changed dramatically (metamorphoō) in their presence; and His face shone [with heavenly glory, clear and bright] like the sun, and His clothing became as white as light. (Matthew 17:2, AMP)

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured (metamorphoō) before them. (Mark 9:2)

The one time the word morphoō shows up is in Galatians 4:19. Paul writes,

Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed (morphoō) in your lives. (NLT)

Before we put all of this together, I want to show you two other translations of 2 Corinthians 3:18:

And we all, with unveiled face, continually seeing as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are progressively being transformed (metamorphoō) into His image from [one degree of] glory to [even more] glory, which comes from the Lord, [who is] the Spirit. (AMP)

Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured (metamorphoō) much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. (MSG)

Metamorphosis is not instantaneous. It is a process. This is true for the caterpillar as well as for us. For the caterpillar, it is literally transfigured, which means “change the shape of” in its original Latin form (Oxford Languages). The caterpillar, hidden inside the cocoon, falls apart–all the way down to the cellular level. There, in that place of death where it is not what it was nor is it what it will become, its cells are restructured and its components are reconfigured. When the process is complete, the cocoon falls away and the brand new creation–the butterfly–is revealed.

What about us?

I want to go back to one of the definitions Luanne gave us for baptism earlier. She told us it can mean overwhelmed. Anyone other than me feel overwhelmed lately? Do we know what the word overwhelm actually means? “Whelm” by itself means: engulf, submerge, or bury (someone or something). That sounds pretty bad, right? Who decided we needed to add “over”? The definition for “overwhelm” is: to bury or drown beneath a huge mass, to inundate, to defeat completely. (Definitions from Oxford Languages) Yikes. Bury… drown… defeat completely. Sounds like death to me. Which is unlovely in every way I can think of except one. The way it explains what happens in baptism…

Our submersion in baptism–when we are engulfed, inundated with water all around us–it symbolizes the in-between, the “caterpillar soup” stage of metamorphosis. It symbolizes how, when we submit to the transformation process, who and what we used to be completely falls apart–down to the soupy, cellular level. It would appear that all is lost in that moment of defeat. But it is not. Instead, it is liminal space–the initial stage of what will be an ongoing process, where we occupy a position on both sides of a threshold, however impossible that seems. In that place, the energy of the life of Jesus infuses every cell, every broken piece, all the components of us–the good and the bad. When we are raised out of the water, it symbolizes the bursting free from the cocoon, as brand new creations. Death to resurrection.

Notice I said that Jesus’ energy, his life, infuses ALL of the components of who we are. We emerge with our stories intact–we are still who we are–and we are also brand new creations. The cells of the old us are the cells of the new us–same as the caterpillar/butterfly. But they have been altered, infused, transformed. We emerge the same person, but we are not the same.

This is what baptism symbolizes. Does all of that really happen in the short moment we are submerged in water? Yes… and no. I can’t explain it because it is beyond what we can know or understand. The act of baptism is an outward expression of inner change. I won’t pretend to know the order of things, nor do I believe one has to be immersed in water to experience the baptism of the Spirit that ignites the changes I described above. What I know is that baptism as we understand it is symbolic of the lifelong metamorphosis we experience as followers of Jesus. The caterpillar to butterfly change is not instantaneous. It is a process.

The verses I listed above tell us what our metamorphosis will look like over time:

We are transformed and progressively changed [as we mature spiritually] by the renewing of our minds. We are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. Our appearance is changed dramatically, and our lives are gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. This process will continue until Christ is fully developed in our lives.

This is the transformation process that baptism symbolizes. The Spirit is the cocoon that holds all the parts of us as the life-energy of Jesus continually transfigures us into the image of his love. Once we say yes to being immersed in him, once the process of transformation begins to infuse every cell with his life, we cannot go back to the before. We are in the pickling process, and there is no going back. Once our components are altered, they cannot be unaltered.

This is the love of God.

A Love that sees us as both complete and in process simultaneously. A Love that would rather keep us intact and transforming than replace our identities entirely, because God values each story and every stroke of the pen that writes it. A Love that even allows us to resist the transformation process because it is patient and kind. This Love that is the guarantor of seeing us through to completion, because Love is the one doing the good work, not us…

Luanne wrote this:

Christianity is about life–it’s not about our sin or how wretched we are, it’s about our forgiveness, our healing, our transformation into Christlikeness…

Our journey with Jesus is one of continual metamorphosis. We don’t get to fly out as a fully-formed butterfly in the middle of the story, yet we do experience the beauty of soaring under other wings from time to time. There is a both/and to our experience of death-to-life. But the moment we say yes to Jesus, the moment we are brave enough to fall apart, trusting that transformation is on its way, is the moment we begin to know–intimately, at the core of who we are–that, “Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we’re going in our new grace-sovereign country.” (Romans 6:5b, MSG)

–Laura

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