Living for the Glory of God

Romans 11:33-36

November 16, 2008 | Brian Bill

A generation ago J.B. Phillips wrote a book with this title: Your God Is Too Small.  This captures the struggle many of us have because our God is much smaller than the God of the Bible.  This morning one of my goals is to help each of us grow in our grasp of how great God really is because it’s so easy to fall into an inadequate view of the Almighty.  

Years ago I listened to a podcast interview with a pastor from the Chicago suburbs. One of the suggestions he made to help us magnify our understanding of God is to go through the alphabet each day, thinking of a different attribute or characteristic of God for each letter.  I’ve been doing this for the last week and it has super-sized my view of God while down-sizing myself, which is a good thing.  At our joint elder/deacon meeting this past Tuesday we opened our time with this exercise and I’d like to try it again this morning.  This will get us in good practice for next Sunday’s services as we will give you opportunity to express your thankfulness to God publicly.  Our title next week is “Thanks-living.” 

I’ve put the letters of the alphabet up here on the whiteboard.  Just shout out whatever attribute, characteristic or name of God that comes to your mind.  I’ll pick one that I hear and write it down so we can all see it.  

[For those reading this sermon, I’ve included an example of how to do this.  This is what I came up with one morning this week].  

A – Almighty
B – Beautiful
C – Compassionate
D – Designer
E – Everlasting
F – Faithful
G – Great
H – Holy
I – Indescribable
J – Jehovah Shalom
K – Kind
L – Living
M – Magnificent
N – No equal
O – Omnipotent
P – Personal
Q – Quiet
R – Resplendent
S – Savior
T – Total
U – Universe maker
V – Victor
W – Worthy
X – Extravagant (I cheated on this one)
Y – Yahweh
Z – Zealous 

Let’s savor the Scripture this morning from Romans 11:33-36: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?’  ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’  For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be the glory forever!  Amen.”  

One of the best ways to study a passage of Scripture is to read it several times and then meditate on it.  After reading and meditating, work at memorizing some of it so it gets in your head and down into your heart.  I like to then make observations about what I’ve read.  This is important to do before rushing into application.  The best order for studying the Bible is this: Observation, Interpretation and then Application.  Or to say it another way: 

  • What Do I See?
  • What Does It Say?
  • What Can I Seize?

Observation – What Do I See?

Here are some observations that I see.

  • The passage begins with the word, “Oh…”  This is an emotional and explosive expression.  Something about what Paul has just written and what he is about to say causes a spontaneous emotional outburst.
  • These four verses contain 11 references to “God,” “Lord,” His” or “Him.”
  • There are two exclamation marks in verse 33: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out! and one at the end of verse 36: “To him be the glory forever!
  • In verses 34-35, there are three question marks: “‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?’  ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’”
  • These three questions are rhetorical in nature with the answer of no one expected.
  • These questions are actually Old Testament quotes from Isaiah 40:13 and Job 41:11.
  • The word “Amen” at the end of this passage expresses agreement or approval.
  • The placement of this passage comes at the end of a long section of orthodoxy (correct thoughts) in Romans 9-11 and serves as a bridge to Romans 12-16 that focuses on orthopraxy (correct actions).  The inseparable nexus between position and practice is praise. 
  • These four verses have been called a “doxology,” or an expression of praise to God.  

Interpretation – What Does it Say?

After studying this passage, three simple words jumped out at me that will help us understand what God is saying – Wow, Wonder and Worship.

1. Wow! 

Let’s look more carefully at verse 33: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” Paul seems to be struggling to find the right words to describe the depths of God’s riches.  The word “depth” describes an enormous distance below a surface.  Figuratively it speaks of God’s inexhaustible profundity.  God is so deep that we can only go down a few feet and peer into eternity.  

  • God understands everythingPsalm 92:5: “How great are your works, O Lord, how profound [deep] your thoughts!”  The deepest part of all the oceans in the world is believed to be over 36,000 feet, which is about 7 miles!  Psalm 36:6 compares God’s justice to the “great deep.”  To contemplate the depth of God’s riches should lead us to say, “Wow!”  Paul knew that we would need some help to understand even a little of this so he prays in Ephesians 3:17-18: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”

One Southern Gospel song goes like this: “Has it ever occurred to you that nothing has ever occurred to God?”  God knows everything and He is totally wise as well.  I like how Arthur Pink describes this: “God is omniscient.  He knows everything: everything possible, everything actual, all events, all creatures, of the past, the present and the future.”  God’s wisdom refers to the skill with which God weaves His ways and His will into that which gives Him the most glory.  The Biblical Illustrator explains the difference between divine knowledge and wisdom: “He foreknew these things from the beginning, and having foreknown them, He arranged them wisely.”

We can know God in some measure because He has revealed Himself but we will never fathom everything about the Almighty
  • We can’t understand everything.  His judgments are often difficult for us to figure out because we are finite.  Eugene Peterson paraphrases it like this: “Its way over our heads.  We’ll never figure it out.”  Job said it this way in Job 5:9: “He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.”  We can know God in some measure because He has revealed Himself but we will never fathom everything about the Almighty.  I love Job 26:14: “And these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!  Who then can understand the thunder of his power?”  We need to be careful when we demand to understand everything that is happening to us.
  • God’s ways are sometimes hard to figure out.  We can’t understand everything and “his paths are beyond tracing out!”  Did you hear the story this week about how Google is now able to track flu trends in our country?  Apparently they are able to analyze aggregated search data to estimate flu activity up to two weeks faster than traditional flu surveillance systems from the CDC.  What Paul is saying is that God doesn’t always leave footprints for us to follow.  God can’t always be traced.  Check out Job 11:7-9.  Even though Zophar was wrong about Job, he was right about his theology: “Can you fathom the mysteries of God?  Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?  They are higher than the heavens — what can you do?  They are deeper than the depths of the grave–what can you know?  Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.” 

It’s important for us to come to the point of realizing that we can’t figure God out completely and that He delights to astonish us by the wonder of His ways.  I like how someone phrased it: God may conceal the purpose of His ways, but His ways are not without purpose.

Our response to the depth of God should cause us to say, “Wow!”  Let me read this verse again and you respond by saying, “Wow!”

2. Wonder. 

The next two verses (34-35) should cause wonder to rise up in us as we contemplate three questions.

  • “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” The obvious answer to this question is “no one.”  We can know only what He has chosen to reveal in His word.  Deuteronomy 29:29 says that there are some things we will never know: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God…”  Isaiah 55:9 puts us in our place: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  That reminds me of the ill-prepared college student who was struggling through his final exam in economics.  He happened to be taking the test right before Christmas and in desperation, he scrawled these words across the bottom of his paper: “Only God knows the answers to these questions!  Merry Christmas!”  When he got the paper back, the teacher included this note: “God gets a 100.  You get a zero.  Happy New Year!”
  • “Or who has been his counselor?”  No one.  The word “counselor” refers to one who gives information about a situation and/or recommends a course of action.  Have you ever thought that if you were God you would do things differently?  Do you wish that the Lord would consult with you?  I like the way Peterson puts it: “Is there anyone smart enough to tell him what to do?”  Our presidents have a lot of advisors around them to help them make good decisions but God consults no one and needs no one.  Job 15:8: “Do you listen in on God’s council?”

We need to pause here and ponder this because many of us presume to offer God counsel.  Have you ever told God, “I don’t like the way you’re running the world or the way things are happening in my life? I think you should do it like this…”  The world is filled with God advisers.  

  • “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”  Answer: No one.  Sometimes we get ourselves in a bad spot when we think that God somehow owes us something.  Elihu, one of Job’s supposed friends, was also wrong in his assessment of Job but right in his understanding of God in Job 41:11, which is where this quote in Romans comes from: “Who has a claim against me that I must pay?  Everything under heaven belongs to me.”  No one has ever made God obligated to him.  We can’t give to God anything that is not already His.  Actually, He doesn’t owe us, we owe Him.  Ray Pritchard writes: “No one can say, ‘I’ve earned your favor,’ because this side of hell is mercy, and everything this side of heaven is grace.”  Friends, if there’s one summary statement of the Book of Romans here it is: God saves those He is under no obligation to save.

What gift of ours would ever put God in a position where He had to repay us?  There is nothing we could give to God that He doesn’t already own or have in abundance.  I love what David said in response to the money He gave to God in 1 Chronicles 29:14: “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this?  Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” 

3. Worship. 

After describing all of this, it’s as if Paul can’t help but praise God in a way that summarizes it all: “For from Him and through Him, and to Him are all things.  To Him be the glory forever!  Amen.”

  • He is the source of all things.  Everything flows from God: “For from Him…”  He is the beginning of all things.  He is the Alpha (the first letter of the Greek alphabet – point to white board).  I love reading A.W. Tozer.  Check this out: “An elementary but correct way to think of God is as the One Who contains all, Who gives all that is given, but Who Himself can receive nothing that He has not first given” (The Knowledge of the Holy).  Abraham Kuyper writes: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”
  • He is the sustainer of all things.  He keeps everything in balance: “…and through Him…” He is totally involved in everything and nothing falls outside His plans and purposes.  Proverbs 16:4: “The Lord works out everything for his own ends – even the wicked for a day of disaster.” Therefore, let’s praise Him for His power over all predicaments, problems and people.  I love what Tony Evans says: “Everything is either caused by God or allowed by God, and there is no third category.”
  • He is the supreme purpose of all things.  Nothing is excluded: “…and to Him are all things.”  He is the goal of all things, not only the Alpha, but He is the Omega (the last letter of the Greek alphabet – point to whiteboard).  He’s the beginning and the end.  Hebrews 12:2: “Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in…”

Everything comes from Him, everything continues by Him and everything finds its ultimate purpose in Him.  That’s really the first law of the Christian faith: He’s God and we’re not.  Many of us get this turned around.  When you do, remember this: It’s not about you.

Application – What Can I Seize?

1. When faced with a decision or when evaluating a behavior, ask yourself this question: “Can I do this for the glory of God?” 

Every prayer we pray, every thought we think, every action we take, every attitude we express, every word that we say should have this statement stamped on it: To Him be the glory forever!  Keeping the supremacy of God central should be the single desire of every Christian.  1 Corinthians 10:31: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”  I love John Piper’s statement: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”  Are you satisfied in Him today?

2. The greater our view of God the greater strength we’ll have to face the trials of life. 

Instead of accusing God; adore Him

The bigness of God should put our problems in perspective.  Instead of accusing God; adore Him.  Trust His mercy in the midst of the mystery and don’t demand to have complete understanding of all that is happening to you.

3. This song of praise is in the context of the salvation story. 

Have you received Christ yet?  John Piper says that the story of God is all about the glory of God.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks the question, “What is the chief end of man?”  Here’s the answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  I love how the principle at the local Christian school teaches the kids about the glory of God.  Using the Child’s Catechism, he asks them this question: “Who made you?”  To which they answer: “God.”  “What else did God make?”  Answer: “He made everything.”  “Why did God make you and everything else?”  Answer: “For His own glory.”

Our position in Christ should lead to praise which expresses itself in proper practice.  The study of theology must always lead to an explosive praise of doxology, where we say, Wow!  That then leads us to wonder, which will lead us to a lifestyle of worship.  If we want to figure out how best to respond to God, how to put our position into practice, we must start with praise.  Let’s look at the last phrase of verse 36: “To Him be the glory forever!  Amen.”  We exist to make God look glorious!  We want to give him the glory right now as our praise team comes back up to lead us.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?