What are you experiencing as a Christian these days? What would you say is the dominant feeling that you know as a disciple of Jesus living in our present times?
I hasten to say that we can be far too feelings oriented. A variety of influences have converged which have made our generation overly subjective and ensnared in “selfolatry:” the worship and service of the Self. The evangelical church has, sadly, accommodated the demands of a generation which is now far more familiar with the vocabulary of therapy than the vocabulary of theology. So, before we consider the legitimate experience of feeling the love of Christ, let us acknowledge our susceptibility to be imbalanced in this matter of feelings and experiences.
Nevertheless, biblical religion is experiential religion and we are encouraged to experience being loved by Jesus Christ. We must not presume that we know what love is, so we must define “love” biblically. “Love” is a theological term [1 John 4:8, God is love], defined by the gospel [1 John 4:10, In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins]. The true and living God reveals Himself as love in the gospel of Jesus Christ and we are called to live a life of love. We are called to experience God’s love in Christ and to love God and our neighbor in Christ.
We face an array of opposition which threatens to dominate our experience of life. Paul surveys that opposition in Romans 8:35-39.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, “For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:35-39).
The specter of the enemies marshalled against us is thoroughly unnerving. Verses 35, 38 and 39 appear like an invading army poised on the horizon preparing to attack! Indeed, we are identified in the passage as sheep to be slaughtered! The scene is terrifying! We immediately feel ourselves unhinging and collapsing in a crumpled heap of fear. We are inclined to think that the dominant experience of being a Christian is fear. Doesn’t Paul tell us to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling [Philippians 2:12]? There are different kinds of “fear” in Scripture, and there is a healthy fear that should characterize true Christian experience, but we must not allow the experience of being afraid, to overwhelm and immobilize us. It is significant that the cowardly are listed among those who are cast into the lake of fire in Revelation 21:8.
Our faith must overcome our fear, even as fear threatens our faith. In the midst of the storm at sea, Jesus asks His disciples, Why are you so timid [fearful, cowardly]? How is it that you have no faith [Mk 4:40]? We are inclined to think that “reason,” and “science” are the big enemies of faith, but Scripture tells us that faith’s greatest enemy is fear. What was the bane of Abraham, the father of our faith? Fear. When he thought that his life was in danger, he allowed fear to dominate his experience, and his faith failed [see Genesis 12:10ff; 20:2ff]. What do you feel when you read Romans 8:35, 38 and 39? Fear? The list is pretty scary, eh?
Paul would have us face these scary enemies head on, while we experience something more profound and pervasive: the experience of being loved by Jesus. In fact, Paul emphasizes God’s love for us in Christ by the way he structures these verses. Paul could not use italics, or bold, or underlining to convey intentional emphasis. Instead, he uses literary formulas to alert us to his main point: we are loved by Jesus!
First, Paul book-ends this paragraph with references to the love of Christ [v.35], and the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord [v.39]. This book-ending technique is called an “inclusio.” This technique brackets verses 35-39, encouraging us to consider these verses as a single unit of thought. All that we experience in vss 35-39 is included, enveloped, within God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. There is no enemy that we can ever face which is strong enough to sever us from God’s love for us in Christ.
Second, Paul arranges these verses in a chiastic structure. He arranges his thoughts in an A-B-B-A pattern. A: the love of Christ [v35a]; B: the enemies we face [v35b]; B: the enemies we face [v38-39a]; and A: the love of God in Christ [v39b]. This A-B-B-A pattern is an inverted parallelism which forms the letter Chi, the Greek letter which looks like an “X.”
Chiasms help us to emphasize and make statements memorable. For example, consider John F. Kennedy’s famous line from his 1961 inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country [A] can do for you [B]. Ask what you [B] can do for your country [A].”
Chiasms also are a way of saying, “X marks the spot.” In other words, sometimes a chiasm serves to underscore the point at which the “X” crisscrosses. This is how the chiasms of Romans 8:35-39 works. The “X” points us once again to the experience of being loved by Jesus in v.37, But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.
Paul points us to the experience of being loved by Jesus at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of this wonderful paragraph. He wants us to know that beneath the trauma of spiritual conflict, there flows a subterranean current of abiding, ever-flowing divine love. The love of God for us in Christ Jesus our Lord is to resonate through our experience, like deep base notes that give form and shape to the grand symphony of the life of faith.
This life of faith is lived in union with Jesus, the Lamb who has overcome [Revelation 5:5-6]. We are called to overwhelmingly conquer [overcome] in verse 37. How? Like the slaughtered lambs of verse 36 where Paul cites Psalm 44:22. Kingdom conquest is a strange and scary thing. We are called to go the way of the Lamb. In our determination to love God and neighbor, our obedience to Christ will trigger attacks by the enemies of verses 35, 38 and 39. As expressed in Psalm 44, it can feel like we are losing the battle, like we are slaughtered sheep. But that is precisely the battle strategy of our victorious Lord! Self-denying cross-bearing which entails suffering for righteousness for Jesus’ sake, is how we conquer in all these things – not “instead of,” or “after” all these things, but going the way of the Lamb in all these things.
What will we experience as we learn to overcome our fear with faith? We will experience being loved by Jesus! Beneath the pain, the anguish, the disorientation of battle – beneath it all and in it all, we will experience the resonating, living, sustaining, determinative love of Jesus Christ our Lord. We will feel the pain, the disappointment, the sorrow, but such trauma is a superficial, temporary thing. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison [2 Cor 4:17]. Beneath, around, and through the feelings of pain is the experience of being embraced by Jesus in the arms of His love. The eternal God is a dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms. And He drove out the enemy from before you… so Israel dwells in security [Deut 33:27-28].
If you would experience being loved by Jesus, go the way of the Lamb. Yes, it is a way of suffering, but Jesus is there with you, in you, and He is transforming you into His likeness because He loves you [Rom 8:29]. I know, when you read Romans 8:35-39, you encounter some scary things, but I hope that you will experience being loved by Jesus in all these things.
Will you experience being loved by Jesus? You can. Not as a result of some psychological technique, but as a result of the effectual workings of the Spirit of the resurrected Christ who indwells you to communicate Christ to you. You can experience being loved by Jesus as you live by faith. Will this be your experience? I pray so. Paul prays so. Here is Paul’s prayer for you:
16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God [Eph 3:16-19].
Paul prays that you will experience the immeasurable love of Christ! That love is beyond all breadth and length and height and depth [Eph 3:18]. So, as you face the height and depth [Rom 8:39] of what appears to be huge opposition, remember, there is something bigger, stronger, more real and lasting: the love of God for you in Christ Jesus. Trust Jesus. Receive His words. Commune with Him in prayer. Believe His promises. Obey His commands. Go the way of the Lamb.
I pray that none of us will be overcome with fear, but that we all will overcome by faith, as we experience the death-conquering love of Jesus Christ our Lord.