Paul the Photographer

Devotional, The Gospel

This morning my wife was blasting a sermon in the main area of our house while I worked on  the computer in another room (She was actually doing this while engaged in intensive potty training of our youngest.  Now thats a Proverbs 31 woman).  Every so often the preacher would be gripped by some sort of special unction and a word of phrase would penetrate the muffling effect of the wall between us.  I’m not sure what he was talking about, but he was using a photography illustration which got my mind running to some thoughts about the way Paul lays out the devastating case of God against human sin in Romans 1:18-3:20.

To be clear, in using this illustration I am not trying to suggest a way to exegetically organize this section of Scripture.  Opinions vary about the various divisions of humanity within this text, and while I am partial to the “concentric circles” outline suggested by Greg Nichols via Sam Waldron in some seminary materials I worked through, I offer these thoughts as more of a devotional reflection than an exegetical framework.

Romans 1:18-23: My Sin Caught By Satellite

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Romans 1:18 sweeps broadly across all humanity, making the universal statement that God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.  Man’s fundamental problem is not that he lacks truth, it is that he actively suppresses the truth that he has been given.  We are without excuse.

It is amazing to think that the sort of satellite images of the earth we can now bring up in an instant on our cell phones would have been unfathomable throughout most of human history.  It took us until 1903 for the Wright brothers to fly an over sized kite with a motor on it for a few hundred feet.  Within sixty years we were launching cameras into outer space to take pictures.

Romans 1:18-23 is like a satellite image of our sin.  It’s universal, so I know that it includes me.  However, the situation is somewhat similar to knowing that my house is caught in that satellite image of North America.  I know it’s there, but my eyes aren’t quite sharp enough to pick it out from that altitude.

But Paul the photographer isn’t finished.

Romans 2:1-5: My Sin Caught in the Group Photo

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

While I don’t agree with those who would read a sharp thematic transition in the first verses of chapter two, it is undeniable that Paul gets a little more personal.  This is evident in the shift in his language.  They and them gives way to you and yours.  We’ve lost the option of hiding in the anonymity of images captured from orbit, now there is no denying the presence of our own face in the crowd.

Paul is now shooting a group photo.  His subject matter hasn’t changed, he’s just zoomed in a bit and is picking up more specific and individual detail.  It’s still a crowd, but there is not denying that my smiling face has been caught in the class picture, with a caption that reads because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s judgment will be revealed.

But Paul the photographer isn’t finished.

Romans 2:17-24: My Sin Caught in a Portrait

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

Paul now begins to address the Jews in particular, and shows that external marks of religiosity are of no value if they are not accompanied by internal spiritual reality.  It will not do to plead national privilege or covenant birthright when the inner man is full of decay.

Notice the directly personal language Paul uses- you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?  While it is always important to not take Scripture out of context. it is appropriate to apply the spirit of these questions to ourselves.  We may not be first century Jews struggling with issues of religious formalism and entitlement, but these penetrating questions meant to expose hypocrisy certainly apply.

Paul has now set us down on a stool and he is taking our portrait.  There is no crowd to get lost in this time.  My answers to these questions are incriminating to only one person- myself.  It is my hypocrisy which is pointed out, my sins which are exposed, and my failures which are captured in the uncompromising photographic image.

But Paul the photographer isn’t finished.

Romans 3:9-20: My Sin Caught in X-Ray

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

We might like to think that a portrait taken in full light with no makeup allowed would reveal all of our faults and scars for the world to see.  Yet Paul goes deeper.  He lays aside his camera and pulls out the x-ray.  The results aren’t good.  An x-ray of my head reveals that there is no understanding.  A shot of my heart shows that it doesn’t seek God.  In fact, it appears that it’s rather worthless.  The x-ray taken of my throat looks like an open grave.  My tongue is infected with deceit.  There is even some venom in my lips.  The shot of my whole mouth shows curses and bitterness.  The images captured of my feet indicate that they are swift to shed blood.  And when Paul points his x-ray at my eyes, he won’t even tell me what he sees.  All he’ll say is what isn’t there- there is no fear of God.

My sin was captured in the first satellite images of Romans 1:18.  It was there is in the group photo.  I couldn’t deny it in the portrait.  And these x-rays show me that sin in in my heart, my mind, and burning in my eyes.

If this is where the photography stopped, our situation would be bleak indeed.

But Paul the photographer isn’t finished.

Romans 3:21-26: My Sin Crushed on Negative Film

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Everybody loved school picture day.  You got to dress up and there were free combs.  However, the four photographs Paul has snapped in this section make it one of the most devastating  parts of the Bible.  Each click of the zoom lens is like another stone added to the suffocating weight of truly gazing upon our sin.  An honest reading may make this weight seem as heavy as the world itself.  Yet Romans 3:21 comes and turns the world upside down.

A minor sorrow of the advent of the digital age is that our kids will probably never hold negative film up to the light to see the family pictures in eerie shades of yellow and brown.  A negative image shows us reality with one major change- all of the colors are inverted.  Light is dark and dark is light.  It takes everything we see and turns it inside out.  That’s exactly what Paul does in Romans 3:21-26.  We see our unrighteousness- but Paul points us to the righteousness of God.  We see our condemnation- Paul shows us our justification by grace.  We see our guilt- Paul shows us the propitiating blood of Jesus Christ.

When we read the first chapters of Romans we don’t particularly care for Paul’s photography.  It is too accurate for our comfort.  However, when we keep reading we see that the honesty of his lens was necessary to bring us to the greatest picture ever taken- the picture of the love of God for sinners manifested on the cross of Christ.  And rather than being a moment in time captured on film, the gospel is the ever present reality of all who trust in Christ to be their salvation.

Paul lays before me various photographs of my sins.  It is seen from 30,000 feet, and it is documented on x-ray.  It is caught in the group, it is captured in an intimate portrait.  But the final picture he lays before me changes everything.  Jesus has turned my world upside down.  He has inverted my reality by means of the greatest exchange the world has ever known: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21).

(By: Nicolas Alford)

One thought on “Paul the Photographer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s