For Mother’s Day this year at our church, Pastor Greg talked about the love a mother has for her children during the message. With this being a Father’s Day message, we get to discuss punishment and death. I am not sure how these weeks lined up like they did, but even though we talk about some darker things relating to the passage for today, there is still a very strong river of love that flows through; it just might look a bit different than a mother’s love.
History on the Body of Death
It is hard to speculate exactly how well versed Paul was in regards to Greek history and torture practices, but his lament at the end of Romans 7 uses language that calls a very specific act of execution to mind. Originally attributed to Mezentius, an Etruscan king who most likely lived about 1100 years before Christ, the execution called “body of death” involved the criminal to be bound to the person they murdered; hand to hand, face to face, etc… forcing them to walk around tied and trapped to this dead body. Under penalty of death, no one was allowed to remove the corpse from the body of the condemned person. The consequences of this death were obviously very public and led to a slow, excruciating death. As the dead body decayed, it would seep onto and into the living person attached to it, meaning that the criminal was literally carrying around their own body of death.
“It proves a very appropriate ending to such an intense section of Scripture as Paul makes the connection from a merciful person who would condemn themselves by removing the binds of the criminal to our very own Savior, Jesus. It is with this imagery that Paul leads us into chapter 8 and introduces, in a significant way, the third member of the trinity into the work of sanctification.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” Romans 8:1-11
Requirements of the Law
We have learned throughout the last few chapters that the law can do little else besides shine a light on our sin and show us our need for a redeemer. God, however, does much more by sending Jesus to condemn sin in the flesh, so that the law can be fulfilled. Just as Jesus says in Matthew 5, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The law, though insufficient to answer the problem of sin, still holds true as a requirement for God in terms of us humans. The crucifixion of Christ was the culmination of the punishment God required for our sins. God did not just “let it go”, but fully and completely condemned our sinfulness. He just took it out on Jesus; much like this story I heard a while ago.
There were two young boys, Ralph and Mario. Mario lived near some woods and brought Ralph over one day to play. Both of them aspiring handymen, they chose to spend their time in the garage, building things out of the available spare wood scraps. Mario was very careful to explain to Ralph that there was one major garage rule, a declaration not to touch his father’s hammer. It was daddy’s special hammer. Any other non-power tool that was within reach of the boys could be used for their creative aspirations, and there was even another hammer if they needed. Both boys were careful to avoid the special hammer and continued enjoying their afternoon. Later on, they decided to take their inventions out into the trees and see if they could find other scraps with which to build. Ralph packed up a bag of tools to take with them and thought it would be fun to bring along the special hammer. Mario had no idea.
Arriving home in time for dinner, Mario was mortified to learn that his dad’s special hammer was nowhere to be found in the garage. Ralph admitted to Mario that he brought the hammer and must have forgotten it in the haste to pack up and get back to the house in time. There was no way to go looking now and Mario could see his father’s car heading up the street towards their house. This would not be good.
When Mario’s father got home, Mario fessed up and admitted to losing the special hammer in the forest. His father, visibly upset, kept his composure but was very unhappy at Mario’s carelessness. He led Mario down to the basement and gave his son a stern lecture that ended in a particularly painful spanking. Ralph could do nothing but watch his friend take a whipping for a crime that both he and Mario knew was his fault. Yet Mario stayed quiet and took the punishment for his friend.
Jesus continues his statement in verse 20 by saying that, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). He fulfilled the requirements of the law through his death and resurrection. God punished sin and was satisfied in Christ’s sacrifice. Because Jesus unbound us from the body of death—our sin—through his death on the cross, we are no longer condemned to punishment. The Spirit’s work of regeneration (re-birth of our spiritual lives after being baptized into Jesus’ death) has set us free. Our death in Christ has ended our enslavement to sin and our new life in the Spirit has set us free to live for God.
A Deeper Look at What We Set Our Minds On
I find it worth noting that Romans 8:2 is the first mention of the Holy Spirit since 5:5, however he is mentioned numerous times throughout the rest of the chapter. This is because Paul is introducing us to the work of the Spirit in our lives as believers—as those who have been set free in Christ. To understand how this applies, we need to understand the context of Paul’s language. Paul uses the phrase “set their minds on” 5 times in verses 5-7. What does that mean? In our context, the connotation of that phrase means little more than studying a section out of a textbook. “If you set your mind on something, you can do anything.” We understand it to mean “focus”, which is strong, but how many of us can change our focus rather quickly? I have to be able to change my focus really quickly while at home, as each child, every 30 seconds, wants my focus on them individually. I wind up bouncing back and forth from one child to another and back again.
If we use that connotation to interpret this passage, our understanding of “setting your mind on” either the flesh or the Spirit can be something that changes rather often. In fact, if you take that thought process to its logical end, verses 5-8 can say that whatever your mind is set on when you die determines what happens to you. Or, if you sin and die before you can confess it, you are in trouble. All of a sudden our basis for reconciliation with God is based on the latest time we said “sorry” as opposed to Christ’s sacrifice being enough once for all. This is not what Paul is saying. He just spent the last few chapters laying out the argument for faith in Christ and his sacrifice being enough to rescue us from sin—our body of death. So what does Paul mean when he says “set your mind on” either the flesh or the Spirit?
In Colossians 3, we see a very similar discussion being laid out.
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Colossians 3:1-4
Verse 2 is the same Greek word used in this section of Romans 8. The context and language of that time explain that phrase as a much stronger use than we understand it today. It indicates the full preoccupation of thought and will with a chosen and engrossing object. In other words, a good example of this is today’s world would be “obsession”. It has pulled you in to the point that you really cannot focus on anything else. This is how it should be in a healthy marriage; two individuals so “set on” each other that no one else can break their focus, no one else can distract them from each other. It is not a passing fancy but a life-long driver.
By using this phrase, Paul is drawing a distinct line between Christian and non-Christian. If our minds are set on, or obsessed, with the Spirit (i.e. with God and following him in discipleship), then our lives are marked and bound up in Christ. If not, we are still enslaved and obsessed with our own sin and will reap the consequences of that obsession. We cannot please God if we are still trapped in sin; we cannot break that enslavement without death. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). It is the Spirit who gives us life.
The Spirit Gives Life
“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:9-10). Herein lies the reality of the situation, thankfully to be concluded with a big promise. Though we have been reborn in Christ/regenerated in the Spirit, our physical bodies are still marked for death. Obviously physical death is still in the world. Christians die on earth. We all in this room will die; that is, unless Christ comes back first.
I see it like this: Christ, as the merciful friend, gave up his life to unbind us from our bodies of death. He cut the bonds. Our physical bodies, however, still bear the disease and death we contracted while the bonds were still tied. This is why our physical bodies are decaying. They will all die, but we will not be stranded. Our souls are immortal, given new, eternal life through the Spirit during the act of regeneration. God promises that with the Spirit alive in you, he will give life to our mortal bodies. We know from this passage, 1 Corinthians 15 and others that our physical bodies will be resurrected, transformed and glorified into perfected, eternal physical bodies. Eternal life is eternal physical life.
I think this also speaks to the physical regeneration work that God does in regards to physical health and the sustaining power he gives us. Since we are alive to do his work on earth, he is not going to remove us from this earth until our job is complete. That means, if you are alive today then God still has more work for you to accomplish.
How Do We Respond to the Offer of Life?
What should we do with this passage? Rejoice! If the Spirit is in you, God has promised you life and is working it in you this very day! Follow his lead and remind yourself regularly that you are dead to sin. If, however, you have not been forgiven of your sins and not experienced the Gospel work in your life; if you do not have the Spirit of Christ, then you do not belong to God.
Thankfully, Paul lays out simple instructions for changing your eternal living destiny, both now and in the future. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Ralph accepted that Mario took his punishment for him in regards to the hammer; you need to accept that Christ took the punishment for your sins, and let him into your life.