You may know the story from the USA about a man who was walking through the city when he came across another man about to jump off a bridge. The walker said: "Wait a minute, don't you believe in God?" He said: "Yes, I do believe in God." "Really?” the walker replied, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said: "A Christian." The walker said: "Me too. Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?" He said: "I'm a Protestant." "Really? What denomination?" the walker asked. He said: "Baptist." "Me too. Southern or Northern?" the walker inquired. He said: "Northern." The walker said: "Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?" He said: "Northern Conservative Baptist." "Wow!” exclaimed the walker, “Me too. Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist?" He said: "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist." "Me too. This is a coincidence! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?" He said: "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region." The walker said, "Me too, this is incredible! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said: "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." "What?” the walker replied, “You evil heretic!" and pushed him off the bridge.
One thing that seems to be a persistent thorn in the flesh in the side of the church and its witness, is Christians arguing amongst themselves over matters of minor or secondary importance. Now I thank God for the unity we have in Christ here at JPC but we must be aware. These arguments can be bitter and fierce leading to pain, divisions and disillusionment. Churches are split, people are hurt and most sad of all, God's name is dishonoured.
Well the Apostle Paul faced exactly this situation in his ministry. It was happening in the church in Rome. The church was being divided into factions over small matters of secondary importance. And in chapters 14 and 15 of Romans Paul is teaching on how to handle such matters.
So our passage this morning follows directly on from what Paul’s been saying in Romans 14, which many of us looked at two weeks ago. So by way of reminder, introduction and context we need to understand who the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ are here in v1 of Romans 15:
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.
The weak and the strong
Well to go back to v1 of Romans 14 it’s clear with regard to the weak that Paul is NOT referring to a weakness of will or character but rather of ‘faith’. Paul writes:
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.
It’s a weakness in assurance that one’s faith permits one to do certain things. So if we’re trying to envisage a weaker brother or sister in Christ we must not picture a vulnerable Christian easily overcome by temptation, but a sensitive Christian full of indecision and scruples. What the weak lack is not strength or self control but liberty of conscience.
So who were the weak and the strong in Rome to whom Paul was writing?
It seems from chapters 14 & 15 that for the most part the weak were Jewish Christians, whose weakness consisted in their continuing conscientious commitment to Jewish regulations regarding diet and days. In terms of diet they kept the Old Testament food laws, eating only clean items, kosher meat or no meat if kosher couldn’t be guaranteed. As for special days they observed the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals. Paul’s instruction in v1 of Romans 15 that the strong ought to bear with the weak is also in line with the Jerusalem Council’s decree (Acts 15) which stated categorically that circumcision was not necessary for salvation yet also allowed Jewish Christians the freedom to continue their distinctive cultural-ceremonial practices and asked the Gentile Christians in certain circumstances to abstain from practices which would offend sensitive Jewish Christian consciences. The purpose was to enable the weak and the strong to co-exist in the Christian fellowship. And all this is backed up by Paul’s conclusion in v5 and following, where the weak and the strong disappear from view and the Jewish and Gentile believers take their place, and this reconciled multi-ethnic community is heard with one heart and mouth, in glorious gospel harmony, worshipping the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (v6).
But not all Jewish Christians were or are ‘weak’ and not all Gentile Christians were or are ‘strong’. Paul was a Jew and he puts himself with the ‘strong’ in v1 of chapter 15. And he makes it very clear in v14 of chapter 14 that he’s convinced that the position of the ‘strong’ is correct. V14:
As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.
And, of course, Jesus Christ himself declared all foods “clean” - Mark 7:19.
But [Paul says to the strong in v14&20 of chapter 14] if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean…Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.
You see from a gospel perspective questions of diet and days are precisely non-essentials. And today we mustn’t elevate non-essentials, especially issues of custom and ceremony, such as the mode of baptism, the use of cosmetics, jewellery and alcohol etc, to the level of the essential and make them tests of orthodoxy and conditions of fellowship. But, and this needs to be made very clear, nor must we marginalize fundamental theological or moral questions as if they were only cultural and of no great importance. Paul distinguished between these things and so should we.
So how are we to handle conscientious differences in matters on which Scripture is either silent or seemingly equivocal in such a way as to prevent them from disrupting the church fellowship?
Well so far Paul has argued for accepting those whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable or non essential or secondary matters. He then tells his readers and so also you and me that we must neither despise nor condemn the weak (14:2-13); that we must neither offend nor destroy the weak (14:13-23); and, as we now come to chapter 15, that we must not please ourselves but rather follow Christ’s unselfish example, which is my next point:
1. FOLLOW CHRIST’S EXAMPLE: DO NOT PLEASE YOURSELVES V1-3:
1We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up. 3For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: "The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me."
So what ought the strong to do? What is their Christian responsibility towards the weak? Well three things from v1&2:
First, the strong ought to bear with the failings [or literally weaknesses] of the weak (v1).
Strong people can be tempted to crush the weak. But Paul urges those who are strong instead to bear with the weak. But what does that mean? Well ‘bearing with’ suggests that the strong are to do more than simply tolerate the weak – rather they should help them in an attitude of love. This is confirmed by v2&3 which develop Paul’s warning ‘not to please ourselves’ at the end of v1.
So secondly, we who are strong ought not to please ourselves (v1).
To be self-centred and self-seeking comes naturally to our fallen human nature. But we ought not to use our strength to serve our own advantage. As Paul has been arguing, Christians with a strong conscience must not trample on the consciences of the weak.
Rather thirdly, Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up (v2).
Now please note that neighbour-pleasing, which Scripture commands, must not be confused with ‘men-pleasing’ which Scripture condemns. No each of us should please his neighbour, not to flatter them to win their approval, not for their pleasure, but for their good, to build them up. Instead of causing them to stumble or to tear them down or damage them, we are to build them up. So this is more than a call to be harmless – it’s a call to be actively involved in spurring one another on in faith and love – for his good, to build him up. And this building up of the weak will include teaching and educating them in their understanding and so a strengthening of their consciences. The weak don’t have to remain weak. But that education must be part of a greater desire to build them up and not to tear them down. Now, of course, such action might be particularly necessary if a weaker believer were holding the church to ransom over one particular issue which offended them, such as insisting on following certain church practices which are unnecessarily alienating unbelievers. In cases like these, the priorities of God’s kingdom (and his greater plan of salvation for many) must come first.
However like Paul we should (Colossians 1:28)
proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone [the weak and the strong] perfect in Christ.
Pleasing our neighbour will involve sacrificial giving of time and effort in the power of the Spirit. Paul says so in Colossians 1:29:
To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.
Are you pleasing your neighbour for their good, to build them up? Are you willing to? You see those who are mature enough to enjoy their freedom in the gospel need to work at being sufficiently godly to bear with the struggles of others in secondary matters and even more so, to seek their good. This will mean watching the way our behaviour affects others. It’s not wrong for us to appreciate the freedom we have in the gospel but the welfare of our Christian brothers and sisters matters much more, ultimately, than our freedom. Therefore we should be aware of the disputable matters that may be significant to others in our fellowship. In these matters, if our practice will cause other Christians to be confused or distressed then it’s wrong to go ahead. In response to God’s mercy towards us (Romans 12:1) we’re to be devoted to one another and instead of causing ruin and division we’re to consider how we may strengthen one another in our faith.
So why should we please our neighbour and not ourselves?
Because Christ did not please himself v3
And we’re to follow Christ’s example. Look at v3:
For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: "The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me."
You see instead of pleasing himself, Jesus gave himself in the service of his Father and of us. Although he, ‘being in very nature God’, had the greatest right of anyone to please himself, yet he didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped’ for his own advantage, but first emptied himself of his glory and then humbled himself to serve, even to death on a cross, to give his life as a ransom for many. And that is to be our attitude too – to our brother or sister in Christ who is weaker in faith. We’re not to look down on them and think we’re greater – no we’re to help them be built up in the faith. Do we really love our neighbour? Or do we really just please ourselves?
Paul then quotes from Psalm 69 and applies to Jesus the words of a righteous man who endures insult and scorn for the sake of God’s glory. You see by comparison with the scale of Jesus’ personal sacrifice, the restriction of our liberty for the sake of our weaker brothers and sisters in Christ is absolutely trifling. And so we’re also to be encouraged by scripture. V4:
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
Paul reminds us that the OT is not a dry, dusty part of the Bible just for keenies but was written to teach us and encourage us, all of us, the strong and the weak – Christ is on every page and it is of practical benefit, yes God continues to speak through what he has spoken so that we will keep going until we receive all that God has promised when Jesus returns. And if you’ve not read the OT as well as the NT recently why not join a Home Group for the new series on Ruth which starts in 10 days time. Prayer for true unity is also vital, so
Paul prays for the unity that will glorify God v5-6
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, 6so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What Paul is calling the Christians to he asks God to supply. We can’t do all this on our own. Prayer is vital as is the power of the Holy Spirit (v13). It is God who gives the endurance and encouragement through his word by his Spirit. And Paul asks God to give his readers a spirit of unity - a mutual acceptance and respect in the midst of diverse viewpoints - among themselves as they follow Christ which is vital because it’s Christ who is the way to united worship. So the purpose of this unity is clear – that all Christians in the church at Rome then and now at JPC might be able to join their hearts and voices in fervent worship of God. Disunity among Christians not only damages our own walk with God and our reputation with outsiders: it also damages our ability to give God the glory he deserves. As Rupert Meldenius (perhaps a pseudonym of Richard Baxter) said:
In essentials unity; In non-essentials liberty; In all things charity.
2. ACCEPT ONE ANOTHER SO AS TO BRING PRAISE TO GOD AND BE IN ACCORD WITH THE GOAL OF HIS PLAN OF SALVATION v7-13
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
Back in v1 of chapter 14 Paul cries, “Accept him” as he urges the church to welcome the weaker brother and sister in Christ. Now in v7 he cries, “Accept one another” as he urges all church members in Christ to welcome each other. Why? The weak brother is to be accepted ‘for God has accepted him’ (14:3) and the members are to welcome each other ‘just as Christ accepted you’. How could we possibly destroy those whom Christ died to save? And Christ’s acceptance of us was also ‘in order to bring praise to God’. The entire credit for the welcome we’ve received goes to him who took the initiative through Christ to reconcile us to himself and to each other.
Paul then adds a further reason for this mutual acceptance – Christ’s ministry as one that incorporates both Jews & Gentiles. Christ became a servant for the benefit of both, so that they may glorify God together (v6) and now v8&9:
For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written [in the following OT quotations: v9-12]
You see for Paul, acceptance of one another on the part of Christians lay at the heart of God’s plan for the world. So far from being an incidental piece of Christian teaching on keeping the peace, this whole section on mutual acceptance flows from the mission of Jesus. The letter to the Romans is an explanation of how God’s gift of righteousness (ie his declaration of acceptance) has come to the Jew first and also to the Gentile through faith in Christ. So it’s fitting that the letter should climax with a plea for Christians to accept one another and rejoice in each other’s membership of God’s people, just as Paul did.
And as we look at those OT quotations it shouldn’t be overlooked that joy and praise are the very things which overflow from a Christian community in which there is genuine acceptance and love. And the joy and praise of Jew and Gentile before the throne of God is the goal towards which all creation strains and to this end we are privileged to continue to strive today in the power of the spirit. You see the goal is not just that people of all nations should be united under the name Christian but that they should also be able to enjoy each other’s company at table in the peace of agreeable and joyful fellowship.
And Paul again reminds us that this unity in Christ, the joy, peace and hope we have through faith in Christ is not by our power but from God by the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives in those who trust in Christ. So Paul prays (v13):
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.