Romans 11:33-36 (ESV)
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
Have you ever been out on a hike where, when you get to the top of whatever hill or mountain, or whatever it is that you are climbing, you are rewarded with a pretty neat view?
So think back to one of these hikes, where maybe the journey was a long one, and along the way you saw and got to experience some beautiful scenes in nature? Maybe a flowery meadow, a rock formation, a mountain stream…
You get the point. Along the journey to where you were going, you saw various scenes of beauty in nature. Then, finally, after a long and maybe very exhausting journey, you reach the apex. You are at the top. What do you do; just give a quick high five to your buddies and then immediately head back down?
No, when you reach the summit (the high point of your journey – hopefully both literally and figuratively), you pause, turn around, look back behind you at where you’ve come from, and you reflect. You take in everything that surrounds you.
As you look out over creation, you might notice how wonderfully everything is joined together and marvel at how God has done it; how it all just seems to fit together so well; so well, in fact, that in your mind you begin to see that it is so much more complex than you can even really understand. You can’t describe it but you can definitely sense it.
And at the same time you also notice, in addition to the things that you saw before, there were so many other things that you failed to notice along the way. You see them now; and how all of it comes together to form just this beautiful scene before you.
And you just feel thankful for it; and you are excited and you’re awestruck but you want to say something about it. You want to tell someone about it. So you take a selfie and post it to instagram or something.
That’s sort of where we find Paul in this particular part of his letter to the Romans (minus the social media reference).
For 11 chapters, Paul has been giving his detailed, comprehensive account of the gospel.
Step by step, he has explained how God has revealed his way of putting sinners right with himself, how Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification, how we are united with Christ in death and resurrection, how the Christian life is lived not under the law but in the spirit, and how God plans to incorporate the fullness of Israel and of the Gentiles into his new community (tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians) In any case, though, Paul had just covered a WHOLE lot of ground in a Whole lot of detail.
His horizons have been vast. He’s been talking about time, eternity, history and eschatology, justification, sanctification, and glorification… Just a whole lot of deep, weighty theological discussion.
Finally, he pauses, out of breath. All of the work that has gone into this; all of the analysis and the argument gives way to something else. Theology(belief about God) gives way to doxology (worship of God). And he bows down in adoration before the Almighty God.
The depths of God are beneath him but waves of light have now begun to illuminate the depths. All that he has been contemplating, working through, articulating, comes together in his mind and heart to reveal the beautiful scene before him, the beauty of God’s salvation plan, from the beginning of God’s revelation to us through the death and resurrection of his Son. He begins to see more clearly a little piece of the bigger picture of God’s nature, his work, his revelation.
Now in the big scheme of things in the book of Romans, Paul is about to transition from explaining who God is and what He has done for humanity to telling the Romans how they should respond to God’s amazing grace in the way of practical Christian living.
But before he does that, he just has to stop for a moment and consider all that he has just talked about, because it is really moving him almost beyond words.
He doesn’t even know what to say, but he bursts out in praise. The verses that we read above are Paul’s way of describing how he feels about God in light of what has just been revealed to him through this exercise of working through God’s wonderful plan to save us.
Now, in these words that Paul shares are some important truths about God, things that merit a closer look.
So what I’d like to do is look at these verses, point out how they tie into the story of Romans, the Gospel story, and get an idea of why Paul has been moved to such a state of praise and worship here. Then, I’d like to offer some suggestions on how we, too, might respond to these truths.
God’s Excellence is Unfathomable
So let’s look at the first verse. Paul talks about the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. He speaks of how, along with his judgments and his ways, these are so far beyond our understanding.
So let’s look at this a little more closely and get some context here. Now previously in Romans, he has been talking about all of this at length. And the whole thrust of his argument (and kind of the whole reason he bursts forth in praise here) has been how God has so wonderfully revealed his love and justice in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now, he is summing it up in the form of worship. So concerning riches, He had written about God’s riches in 2:4 (riches of God’s kindness, tolerance, patience), 9:23 (riches of his glory), and 10:12 (riches which Jesus indiscriminately bestows on all who call on him).
Throughout Romans, Paul has conveyed this message: Salvation is a free gift that comes from God’s riches and that salvation greatly ENriches those to whom it is given.
Next is God’s wisdom and knowledge. We know from Colossians 2:2 that God’s wisdom is hidden in Christ, that He is called the mystery of God. We know from 1 Cor. 1:18 that his wisdom was displayed on the cross, and we know that it is foolishness to those who are perishing, yet the power of God to those of us being saved. Meaning that, God’s wisdom is beyond human comprehension.
We alone cannot know God. Apart from revelation, which comes to us from the Holy Spirit who dwells within us once we’ve been reconciled with God through Jesus, apart from that, we can know next to nothing of God’s wisdom. With that saving faith, though, we begin to understand, not necessarily the entire scope, but certainly the beauty of God’s plan and what it means for us.
So how do God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge tie together?
It is God’s knowledge and wisdom that planned salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection.
And it is his riches that provides it to us as a free gift.
So riches, knowledge, and wisdom. Paul says “Oh the depths!” Oh the depths of these and of his judgment and his ways!
So how deep are they? Just how deep are we talking about? The Greek word used here to describe the depths means unfathomable.
On submarines, we have this device called a fathometer, which we use to measure the depths beneath us. We put on some headphones, get our stopwatch, and press a button which sends a signal to a transducer on the bottom of the sub. The transducer sends a pulse through the water and that pulse bounces off of the ocean floor and returns to us. Knowing the speed of sound through water, which is a constant, we can then take the elapsed time, do some quick math, and determine how far the ocean floor is below us and then we can compare that to the charted depths where we think we are and hope that it matches! We like to know where the bottom is. We wanted to know those fathoms.
Paul is saying that the depth of God’s judgment (what he thinks and decides) and his ways (what he does and where he goes), which flow from his riches, his wisdom and knowledge, are simply unfathomable; they cannot be measured. We cannot get to the bottom of them. And in our human understanding, that’s where we stand.
But with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we CAN begin to appreciate the beauty of those depths, we CAN begin to illuminate those depths, and be amazed by what God has done for us in them!
God is infinitely above His creation and totally independent of the direction or supervision of those He created
Paul moves from here to a series of rhetorical questions. He says “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
The answer, of course, to all of these questions, is no one. That should be obvious, right? Yet, Paul asks these questions here and it is interesting, in the first two questions, that he is pretty much borrowing this quote from the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 40:13. What is happening in Isaiah 40 is that God is promising deliverance for his people from Babylon, but his people are full of doubts, fears, questions, etc. So it’s highly likely that Paul is responding in kind to the doubts in the Roman churches (especially among the Jewish Christians) about God’s wisdom in his plan to save both Jews and Gentiles, and how they have their own opinion of how God should save the Gentiles. And so he is using a passage from the OT with which they should be familiar.
Do you ever think you know best when relating to God? I do. Sometimes, I find myself in prayer, basically suggesting to God that if He would just do this, that would take care of what I need and I’d be good to go. You know, just if you could do this a certain way, God, let me achieve this goal, reach this target, whatever, that’d be great.
In doing this, I’m essentially giving God advice on how to deal with my situations. I’m counseling God. So I have to watch that because what are we ultimately to ask for?
We should seek God’s will, just as Jesus did.
You may remember in Exodus 17 the story of God taking his people into the wilderness of Sin, and eventually leading them to a place where there was no water. Now, God had provided for all of their needs up to this point, but as soon as they saw there was no water there, they started complaining and questioning God’s wisdom.
Why would you bring us here? We’re gonna die! Give us water! And so on…
They were presuming to know better than God. He had always provided for them up to this point and promised that He would continue to provide for them. But they questioned him because things weren’t working out the way they thought they should.
I think that sometimes that happens to us as well. We are going along, God is good, then something happens that is out of line with what we expect from God, and we question him. We go to the next step and suggest to God how to fix the situation. Maybe we think, I’ve done my part, I’ve come to church, sang the hymns, been a good person, now make sure I am rewarded and taken care of in the manner which I think I should be.
That’s about right with us sometimes, wouldn’t you say? We don’t necessarily do it on purpose but it does happen and it’s something that we have been warned against a number of times in Scripture.
So let’s look at the last question: Paul asks if anyone has given God a gift such that he or she expects repayment.
Think about that. Have we given God any gift that places him in our debt? Maybe something like “hey, God should be happy to have me and all of my gifts!” Or something like that?
Let’s see how God answers that question: In Job 41:11 (ESV), God says “Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.”
You know, father’s day is coming up. Do you remember the advertisements that would come out and say “What do you give the man who has everything? Well, you give him a Rolex watch or a Brooks Brothers tie or a really nice grill utensils set, because the one he has is really starting to show its age and its just not getting it done like it used to…but anyway…
I mean, in these ads, we know that it’s not a serious question. These guys don’t really have everything. But it is a real question when it comes to God. What do you give the One who has everything?
It’s all his. There is nothing for us to give that we didn’t receive from Him first. So what do you give him? Well, the answer to that question actually comes early on in Romans 12 when Paul says we should present our entire selves to him as a living sacrifice. So the short answer is, in light of all that God is and has done for us, we should give everything to him. But that’s another sermon.
So above, we’ve seen some reasons why the answer to all of these questions is no. All belongs to God and He accomplishes his purposes of his own initiative.
We are not God’s counselor, he is ours. We are not God’s creditor; he is ours. And we are fully reliant upon him and his grace, without which we’re lost.
The initiative in both revelation and redemption lies in the grace of God. And thankfully, He took the initiative and gracefully revealed himself to us and provided us the means of redemption.
God is Sovereign
Now in verse 36, Paul makes a sweeping statement that sort of sums up a lot about who God is: For from him and through him and to him are all things.
What he is saying is: God is the source of all things, He is the way by which all things are accomplished, and He is the goal of all things.
Where do we come from? From God
How did we come into being and how are we sustained? Through God
Why are we here? To be For and to God
He is the Alpha and Omega, and everything in between.
It was by his design, his initiative, and his grace that we (who were dead in our sins) received, by faith (which is also from God), the free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So we see Paul saying that, apart from God, we are nothing.
Oh but through him…Through him we find our origin, our purpose, and our destiny.
Paul concludes by saying “To him be the glory for ever! Amen.
In other words, because ALL things are from, through, and to God, the glory belongs to God alone. To God alone. The glory that belongs to us (nada), the glory that belongs to God (all). Any time we start feeling like WE are doing pretty good and that WE have things under control, and if you just let US handle things, everything will be okay, and human pride rears its head… that’s when we need to remember that we can do nothing without God; we are here only because of him, we have a purpose only through him. Any gifts that we have been given are from him. To him belongs ALL the glory.
Okay, now what do we do with this? What applications can we make? Let me make the following suggestions:
Communicate with God
This whole outburst of praise and worship from Paul was the result of what? It was from the truths about God and the perfection of his salvation plan that he had just studied vigorously, thought through intently, and had written down in the previous 11 chapters of Romans, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, his communication with God in this whole thing led him to a greater understanding of God’s Word, a more comprehensive grasp of God’s plan, a better ability to appreciate the beauty of what God has done and is doing in his creation to fulfill his promises and to offer salvation to his people.
So I don’t think we can overemphasize the importance of our regular communication with God. Communication consists both of regular prayer and of reading and studying his Word. As we do this, we come into a closer relationship with God because that’s how He relates to us. He reveals himself to us, through his word, through prayer, and we begin to see more clearly how He is working in our lives, in the lives of those around us, and in the world.
This will naturally lead to our desire to praise and worship Him more. This is where our theology (our belief about God) meets our doxology (worship of God). And the two should be intertwined. The more we know about God as He reveals himself to us, the more we want to worship him for who He is and what He has done for us. So Bible Study and prayer, not to complete our daily checklist but out of a desire to grow closer to our Creator, to live obediently to his commandments, to be more conformed to his image.
Motivated by our love for him and accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit working inside us.
Seek to Participate in God’s Work
2) Secondly, we are all on our own Christian journey. Although we seek the same goal and have the same hope in and through Christ, our paths to that goal are unique and are at least somewhat defined by our choices along the way. You have probably all heard the phrase, the idea, that goes something like:
God is always at work. It is just a matter of whether you are choosing to look for it and are asking him to participate in it.
If we believe that God is always at work in his creation to carry out his sovereign will, if we believe that He chooses to work through us in carrying out that will, and then if we are watching, praying, and listening for God, He will, along the way in our journey, give us glimpses of the beauty of his work, and our place in it. These are like the scenes that we see going up the mountain on our hike.
And then there will be times when we get to a place in our journey where we can pause and look back and see how these different scenes that we experienced (along with others that we didn’t recognize at the time), how these events in our lives, were connected in a way that was undoubtedly a part of God’s perfect plan. And how God has used and continues to use us to carry out his will.
Think about Paul. At this point when he was writing to the Romans, he’d already experienced so much in his service to God. He had seen God do amazing things. Yet, even he saw something more of the big picture when he looked back on how God had moved in complex, yet perfectly crafted ways throughout history. And he got excited! We too have, in our past, a view of God’s greatness. We just need to pause sometimes and reflect on what He has done FOR us, IN us, and THROUGH us. And how He managed to do it.
Speaking now then, of how he managed to do it; this whole section of Romans has been pointing us to Jesus and all that God has accomplished in sending Jesus to us.
Be Thankful for Jesus
Try to think for a moment about where you were without Jesus.
Remember what life was like without him.
Imagine life without him today. Where would you be?
Now think about what He did for us. While we were in absolute rebellion against him, when we hated him, He still loved us. He came to earth. He came down to us because we could never come up to him. The God of the Universe, creator of all things, humbled himself, gave himself so that we would no longer be buried in our sins, burdened with a weight that we could never release on your own.
This is Jesus. This is God’s salvation plan. This is who Paul is pointing to and in awe of in Romans. This is what leads to his outburst of thankful praise and worship. And this, beloved, is why we, too, should be absolutely overflowing with praise and worship at the One who saved us from ourselves! The One who gave us new life in him.
How can our response be anything less than thankful obedience?
To echo Paul, “To him be glory forever.”
If you do not know Jesus, I invite you to learn more about him. I invite you to learn how much He loves you and wants a relationship with you. He offers freedom from enslavement to our sin. He offers you his love and salvation. He offers you a life-changing transformation as you are reconciled with the One who created you and you learn the true purpose of your life.
Augustine of Hippo, an early philosopher and theologian, once wrote to God about humanity’s search for meaning. He wrote “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
Come into a relationship with your Father through faith in Jesus and He will give you rest.
Please take a look at my “Free Gift” tab on my blog page to learn more about our need for the Savior. He is waiting for you.