“Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, ‘These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’ He replied to the one speaking for the rest, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:9-15 MSG)
The 1st century church in Rome has an interesting history. Unlike most of the churches addressed in Paul’s letters, Paul did not found the church in Rome; in fact, at the time he wrote Romans, he had not yet even visited Rome. Instead, believers from the large Jewish population in Rome started the church. However, around 49 AD Claudius Caesar banished the Jews from Rome, blaming them for a riot; as such, church leadership abruptly shifted to Gentile believers. Several years later, when Jews began to trickle back into Rome, many of them returned to the church, but were met with resistance and pride from the Gentiles who thought they could carry the faith on their own. It is during this period that Paul writes to the church.
The Gentiles’ claim was not without substance. Paul lovingly praises them in his salutation, citing the good report he’s heard about their faith (Rom. 1:9). But immediately Paul hints at his true purpose by including the Jews in his customary reiteration of the Gospel message (1:16-17), followed by a stern description of what happens to those who reject God’s order (1:18-32). He then makes a full circle by accusing the believers of condemning others as a way of diverting attention from their own judgment (2:1-13).
Modern interpretation often assumes that Jewish believers are the subject of Chapter 2 and the following passages, since Paul then goes on to remind the Jews how the Gentiles’ belief confirms the truth of the Gospel (2:14-16), rebuke their sense of elite entitlement (2:17-29), and reiterate how salvation is the gift of God, not the wages of our labor (ch.3-4). In so doing readers restrict the application of this passage to a narrow demographic (Jewish believers resistant to Gentile Christianity) and exclude the modern church from judgment. In fact, most people extend this interpretation to cover the bulk of Romans, assuming that Paul’s admonition deals strictly with Jewish-Christian relations. However, if we are willing to open our heart to the Spirit, I believe this epistle not only has a much broader application, but also has some severe words of warning for our church.
Revivalists often find themselves in a similar position as the Roman church. Most of us came from evangelical backgrounds; our churches were started by others, but then the torch of authority was passed to us when we received the revelation. Therefore, we often imagine ourselves to be in the position of the Gentiles, needing to welcome believing Jews and reformed evangelicals back into the fold. However, I would propose that more often we are actually in the position of the Jews, needing to be convicted of the prideful assumption that we hold the key to God’s Spirit.
Since we have all experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit, it is easy for those of us in revival to assume that we have unlocked a deep secret. Because we exhibit apostolic authority in healing and miracles, we imagine ourselves to be the Apostles, with the unique ability to interpret the true mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Our methods become a magic formula to release revival; like Jewish exorcists of old, we are believed to be the only ones who can correctly pronounce the name of the LORD and expel the demons of religion. And suddenly church is no longer about discovering God’s will, but instead about imposing our order of service on others. Churches must do things our way, or they cannot expect to receive or maintain revival. Our manifestations become our circumcision.
And suddenly we realize that Paul’s exposition on the faith of Abraham (ch.4) wasn’t written just to convince the Jews that Gentiles could receive the promise; it was also written to remind us that our salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, not the wages of our efforts in revival.
“Now think: Was that declaration made before or after he was marked by the covenant rite of circumcision? That’s right, before he was marked. That means that he underwent circumcision as evidence and confirmation of what God had done long before to bring him into this acceptable standing with himself, an act of God he had embraced with his whole life.” (Romans 4:10-11 MSG)
Just as the Jews are not sanctified by the Law, we are not sanctified by revival. For a Jew, following the Law is an outpouring of their belief to God; their belief justified them, and following the Law is a demonstration of gratitude. When they make the Law the reason for their justification, they neither love God nor are justified. In the same way, we were saved by grace before we were in revival. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the mark of our adoption, and our continued efforts to serve Him, understand the Scriptures, and live according to His original intent are an outpouring of our faith in Him. But when we make revival the system that saves us, it becomes just that—a system of pride, devoid of life.
Furthermore, the more we reduce revival to a system of cause-and-effect—“Do this, and God will respond this way”—the more we begin to believe that we deserve revival and the outpourings of the Spirit. Suddenly the manifestations are no longer a gift, but the wages for our self-effort.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:16 NIV)
In Mediterranean culture, a worker’s earned wages were not considered a gift; they were a right. When we make revival a “foolproof” system of activating God’s power, we begin to assume that God owes us revival in exchange for the long hours we put in worshipping, prophesying, and studying. But when we treat revival like wages, not only will we be the last in the Kingdom (Matthew 20), but wages are all we will receive. If we think we have earned revival, then our mere manifestations, which only scrape the surface of God’s gift, are the only reward we will receive. And, like the unbelieving Jews, we will be left with an empty system of righteousness devoid of power, joy, and lasting fruit, in danger of being cut from the olive tree for our unbelief.
“If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust him to do it—you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked—well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift.” (Romans 4:4-5 MSG)