I love digging deeper into things. I love figuring out how and why things work. Some people are just as happy to say “it works and that’s all you need to know.” For me, digging in is how new ideas come about. If I can figure out the reason behind something and begin to think along the same parallel lines as the person or persons who created that something, I am often blessed with a new thought. This comes under the heading of that age old saying “you can’t think of everything.” And so it is with most ideas written or manufactured.
My digging in is what has me stuck on the first sentence of a letter written thousands of years ago. The letter was addressed to the church in Rome and was written by a man named Paul. Paul was many things that have come to be historically significant. Most of all, Paul was a purposeful writer. If he were alive today some marketer might call it “Purpose Driven Writing.”
Whether you believe in Jesus Christ as Savior of the world or not, you must have some admiration and respect for the significance and depth of Paul’s writings. The first sentence of the letter to the Romans is 132 words in length as translated in the English Standard Version of the Bible. In that sentence is a dynamic summary of God’s master plan concerning you, me, Jesus, and the whole world.
In my previous entries on this sentence I encouraged you to find a new perspective through a gift God has given you. Many times that gift is something you just do and may not even recognize it as a gift from God and therefore you may not be using it for His purpose. I camped on how God calls you and me to a life of Kingdom work and what that might look like. I explored the idea of the unique qualities God provides in you and me and how you might use those qualities for work in His kingdom. In this entry, I have been moved to discuss promises.
In case you don’t have a Bible close, here is the first sentence of the letter written by Paul.
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”(Romans 1:1-7)
That’s the entire sentence! People who put numbers on things so that we can easily reference something of meaning in the Bible have found seven different general meanings in this opening salvo. Those meanings are called verses and thus, his one sentence is referenced in seven different ways. Those seven wide meanings only multiply once time is spent contemplating the depth of this writing.
I submit to you that we have watered down the word promise. Thousands of songs are written about break ups which are broken promises. Politicians have made a career out of not doing what they promised. So much so we have a new adjective to proceed the word as we call those “empty promises.” Recently a farmer friend of mine was promised, through a government contract, a food-for-the-needy distribution program only to have it cancelled after five weeks. The reason given was “government convenience”. That means the government is above the idea of a promise. People in business make promises all the time and don’t deliver. The response oftentimes is “oh, sorry bout that” as they extend their hand for payment. How about when friends or children borrow money and promise to pay it back, but don’t. Unless there is forgiveness of debt it is another promise broken. How about those wedding vows? Many promises in the traditional vows: to love, cherish, through thick and thin, good times and bad times, through health and sickness… If you’re married, are you keeping all the promises or just the one about death do us part (50% break the last one). The word promise has become like the word “and”. It is used without thought to bind two entities together–nothing deeper.
It is a thing and not just an idea I came up with so that I could write something for you to read. We now have a group called “promise keepers.” In fact, it is an international group of men doing a simple thing…making promises and keeping them. Wait, shouldn’t that be a given?
So Paul is delivering a fact that amplifies the enormity of the definition of your word. Your word. The things you say. They have meaning. The Bible says your words have tremendous power. The power of life and death (Prov. 18:21). While physical death from words are possible, it is the emotional toll of ill thought out or intentionally hurtful words that executes the spirit in others and yes, sometimes in ourselves (Prov. 11:9). The same power that kills the spirit is the word not kept. The promise broken.
God wrote a whole book about his son Jesus. He used everyday people like you and me to put the pen to papyrus. In the first part of that book (The Old Testament) His words promised not only the coming of Jesus but that He would be born to a virgin woman in Bethlehem. (Gen. 4:4, Isa. 7:14, Mic. 5:2) Jesus would come from the line of Abraham, a descendant of Isaac, Jacob, and the tribe of Judah. (Gen. 12:3, 22:18, Gen. 17:19, 21:12, Num. 27:17, Gen. 49:10) He would be heir to the throne of King David, his throne would be eternal. (2 Sam. 7:12-13, Ps. 45:6-7, Dan. 2:44) Jesus would be called Immanuel, spend time in Egypt, and there would be a messenger to prepare the way. (Isa 7:14, Hos. 11:1, Isa 40:3-5) This is just a partial list of the promises made by God that have been fulfilled in Jesus.
When Paul wrote these words in his letter to the Roman church, I believe God was using him to intentionally define what a promise looks like. Paul knew very clearly the number of promises that had been fulfilled in Jesus. He was noting the proof of Jesus’ relationship to God. On the other hand, God uses the words in this sentence to give us an example of what promise looks like. The act of promising should be intentional (Ecc. 5:4-5). The process should be steeped in signs and effort (Num. 30:2). A promise is something that can be kept and not some lofty aspiration that has no chance of being fulfilled. This responsibility is on the promise maker (Matt. 5:27).
The promise receiver also has a responsibility. Yes, that is correct. I said the promise receiver has a responsibility. Not a responsibility to reject the promise but to help the promise maker keep the word. For example, when someone proposes marriage there are promises that will go along with that marriage. Is the promise maker ready to keep that promise? Is the promise maker equipped and mature enough for the lifelong responsibility that comes with fulfilling that promise? Is the promise being made for the right reasons? The promise receiver is not a victim but a participant.
Promise receivers also have the responsibility of not adding to the promise. For example; if I promise a car to my child the promise does not include the name Maserati. The promise of marriage does not include a mansion and a pool (in most cases). The promise receiver has the responsibility of managing their own expectations in the reality of the actual promise and not the add-ons of their own desires. This was true when Jesus came to be on this earth. God promised a Savior. Many words were written about who, what, where, when, why, and how of that promise. But the people added to the promise and were expecting their definition of what a king might be in their world at that time.
Promises often come with an if/then exchange and churches and Christians are not immune from breaking those exchanges. Over the last three years I’ve been promised a number of things that would have been life changing for my wife, me, and my family. If I developed a mission for a church then they promised to turn it over to me at the appropriate time. Amnesia set in and the mission was not awarded to me. During the time when it was evident that this promise might be broken, others came around me to say hang in there. The promise was that I would not have to worry about being out of work. The promise was they would have my back. That promise has not been broken and, in fact (and gratefully), has been repeated by some who made it. However, there are others who have been very quiet since my hypothetical became factual. Trust me, I’m not a victim as I am in the world but not of the world (John 17:16). The point here is what happened to me is happening to millions. Promises are liquid to us but God says they are to be solid mass.
Now, I’m not pointing one finger without three coming back at me. I have also fallen into the habit of using the word promise lightly. I know for a fact that there are promises I’ve made in my life that I did not keep. For my part, I do not feel any of my unkept promises were the root of ill-gotten gain. In other words, I did not lie at the moment of the promise. What I did do was not think.
Paul’s writings are so deep and provide an opportunity to reflect, repent, and adjust. For my part, I have owned up and asked for forgiveness of my promises unkept. As God tells me to do, I’ve also forgiven the promise receivers for their part in the promise unfulfilled. And yes, I have forgiven those who broke their promise to me and repented of any part I may have had in that failed promise.
My encouragement to you today is to simply think. Think about how you use the word promise. Think about the power of your words and the reasons why you are using this word promise. There is nothing better than a promise fulfilled for both the promise receiver and the promise keeper. We only need to look to God and his son Jesus to see the miracle of this deeply rooted but simple concept. God makes a promise and he delivers. He has given you the chance to experience the same joy of a promise fulfilled. I pray you will take Him up on the opportunity today. Look at his son Jesus and the promise fulfilled for you and then model the principles of that promise.