Licking Your Elbow (And Other Spiritual Practices)


I’ve had a lot of conversations I’m not proud of. Most of them happened in my middle school cafeteria between the fall of 1995 and the summer of 1998. Yesterday, I didn’t get far in my reading of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome before I recalled one such conversation my friends and I had over our lunches. It was one of those Christmas Story-ish exchanges young boys have that rarely results in anything good, let alone dignified. I can’t remember who, but somebody brought up the notion that it is impossible to lick one’s own elbow. Before long, arguments ensued, and most of us were trying ardently to be the first one to achieve the elusive self-elbow-lick. Some of us really believed it could be done. I probably would have achieved it if I hadn’t looked up and saw a table full of girls looking at us like we had hot dogs shooting out of our ears. Those who knew me in middle school know that I could not afford much social embarrassment such as this, so I prudently put my elbow down, holstered my tongue, and ate my peanut butter and banana sandwich. Long story short, nobody managed the feat that day.

I usually skim over things like lengthy greetings in biblical epistles (something my Bible college professors taught me not to do). But today, something caught my attention in the very first verse. In Romans 1:1, Paul introduces himself (which was customary) as someone who is set apart for the gospel of God. The Greek word for “set apart” is aphorizō, which, in a good sense, means “to appoint” or ” to set apart for some purpose.” The meaning of this seems typical and obvious enough – as Christians, we’re led to believe that we are set aside because of our faith, and that somehow our faith ought to result in things like good behavior, passing on traditions, keeping kids good, hiding from the world, and carelessly judging other people. But for Paul, a man whose experiences were much more vast and intense than most Bible readers’ experiences today, the use of aphorizō meant something much deeper.

In the summer of 2012, my wife and I went on a trip to Hawaii, where I took her to fulfill one of her lifelong dreams: cage diving. An avid shark lover, she has never stopped talking about how she dreamt of diving with sharks. So we booked an excursion and jumped on a boat with a couple of hippie teenagers and headed out to sea. While we were waiting in the open water, I looked around. It was one of those things I noticed, but didn’t give much theological thought to until now. We were far out into the water to see that the horizon could form a perfect circle. It occurred to me while I waited for my turn to swim with the sharks, that no matter how far out to sea we went, I would never stop being in the center of that circle. Just like the elusive self-elbow-lick, one can never reach or pass over the horizon.

When Paul uses the term aphorizō to describe being set apart to teach and preach the gospel, he is describing it as though he has been taken out of that horizon circle and placed in an entirely new dimension of purpose – one that the average unbeliever wouldn’t believe could be reached. For Paul, aphorizō means “off horizon.”

It’s interesting that Paul chose aphorizō as the means to introduce himself in this letter, which was addressed to a group of people who no doubt had already heard of him and had great respect for him. He could have identified himself as a Roman citizen (a unique and prestigious title for religious leaders), his religious pedigree, his personal experience with the risen Christ (Acts 22:6-11), or a scholar, having been trained by the renowned Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Instead, he identifies himself as a bond-servant of Christ Jesus (doulos Christos Iēsous), and that he is aphorizō (set apart, “off horizon”) to teach the gospel of Jesus. In other words, Paul didn’t write his letter with his nose in the air, nor did he write it from a lowly, humble place. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans from a place where it is possible for one to escape the boundaries of the horizon. A place where it is possible to lick your own elbow.

So how do you relate to this? Personally, I find it convicting. Think about it. How often do you find yourself in a position where it is necessary to “offer a defense, humbly and respectfully, when someone asks why you live in hope” (1 Peter 3:15)? Do you live your life and live out your faith in such a way that people notice and are intrigued to the point of asking questions? Do you ever even bother share your faith? When (or if) you share your faith with others, does it come from a place that is aphorizō, a place where the seemingly impossible becomes possible?

This is the place where lepers are healed. Where blind people receive sight. Where prostitutes are forgiven and thieving tax collectors are invited to dinner. It’s the place where lame people can walk, and those who were previously deemed unclean for temple worship are made able to waltz right through the front gate and worship alongside the healthy and wealthy. It’s a place where mere fishermen and carpenters can challenge an entire philosophical way of life. It’s the place where the entire human race has the opportunity to be forgiven and saved from an eternity apart from God, through the gospel of Jesus.

Maybe we need to allow ourselves to be amazed by the gospel again. Maybe it’s time you took a vacation and allowed yourself to get immersed in the scriptures, without the distractions of the world. Maybe, if you have lately been finding the gospel to be stagnant and unimpressive, it is time to allow yourself to be taken to a place where faith leads the way, and you are taken off horizon.

ROMANS 1:1 – Paul, a servant of Jesus the Anointed called by God to be His emissary[a] and appointed to tell the good news of the things promised long ago by God, spoken by prophets, and recorded in the Holy Scriptures. All of this good news is about His Son: who was (from a human perspective) born of David’s royal line and ultimately designated to be the true Son of God with power upon His resurrection from the dead by the Spirit of holiness. I am speaking of Jesus, the Anointed One, our Lord.

The prophets express God’s mind and will in the world. Sometimes their messages are a word-on-target to the people and powers of their day; at other times, they see and speak about the future. Their words not only predict the future—they speak the word of the Lord, which creates reality and shapes the future.

Paul describes the gospel of Jesus by bringing in the good news on two levels: On a human level, the good news is about God’s Son, David’s descendant, entering the world to begin the task of restoring it from the damage sin and death have left behind. But the resurrection of Jesus from the dead takes Jesus’ sonship to a new level. Now He is the Son-of-God-in-Power, the One called Lord and Master.

And here’s what He’s done: He has graced us and sanctioned us as His emissaries[b] whose mission is to spread the one true and obedient faith to all people in the name of Jesus. This includes you: you have been called by Jesus, God’s Anointed.

To all those who are God’s beloved saints in Rome:

May grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, surround you.

(ROMANS 1:1-7, The Voice Translationemphasis belongs to the publication)


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