Grace For The Journey
We have been looking at the topic of how Christians who come from very diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds are supposed to get along with each other within the church. Some groups have concluded that it is either not possible for this to happen or just not wise to try to do it because there are too many conflicts over differences in personal preferences and practices. Instead they advocate churches that are made up of people that are culturally and ethnically the same. While there may be some merit to this idea and historically this has been the common practice by churches, there is a major problem.
The Bible presents the church as
An ethnically and culturally diverse
Body from the very beginning of its existence.
In Acts 2, when the church begins on the Day of Pentecost, the people present were mostly ethnic Jews, along with a few proselytes, Cretans and Arabs, but culturally they came from all over the known world. Acts 2:8-11 states that they were Parthians Medes and Elamites, those from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, and Rome. In Acts 8 Samaritans are included as part of the church and by Acts 15 is it settled that the Gentiles are also to be welcomed into the church. As we have seen in our study of the book for Romans, the church in Rome was made up of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. While the prevailing practice among most churches may be monocultural, the Biblical model is that the local church reflects the community it is in. It is ethnically and culturally diverse. The question then remains, how is such a diverse group of people supposed to be able to get along with each other when their personal preferences and practices will vary so much? How do they love each other and achieve unity when some of those practices may even be offensive to others in the body?
In our study of Romans 14 we saw . . .
The foundational principles by which
Christians of diverse cultural and ethnic
Backgrounds can be unified with each other.
This morning we will continue in this topic by studying Romans 15 and what Paul says about Jesus’ example.
Christians can get along with each other if both the “stronger” and the “weaker” believer will stop judging and condemning each other and instead learn to accept each other regardless of personal preferences and practices. Remember that the “weak” here refers those who are weak in their understanding of the full freedom that is granted in the Gospel message. They are immature in their understanding and faith. Their tendency to judge the “strong” as participating in “worldly” things. They considered the “strong” as being less holy and less concerned about holiness than themselves and therefore less useful to God.
The “strong” are those who have a greater understanding of the freedom we have in Jesus Christ. They are the more mature in their understanding and faith which allows them to do things that the “weak” believe they cannot do. The strong tend to judge the weak as being legalistic and lacking in mercy and grace and therefore being less useful to the Lord.
Neither the “weak” nor the “strong” are to judge one another in such condemning ways. In Romans 14 Paul gives us five reasons why Christians are to accept each other and not condemn other believers over personal preferences and practices. First, God accepts both – verse 3. Second, each is God’s servant and He sustains both – verse 4. Third, each is to live for the Lord – verses 5-9. Fourth, God is judge of both – verses 10-12. And fifth, there are in fact differing standards of righteous or sinful practice for different people – verses 13-23. In other words, the standards of good and evil do vary among different people. This is not a reflection of any changing standard in God’s character or His instructions to us, but rather a recognition of the varied backgrounds, understanding, and maturity among believes.
The ramifications of these truths places more responsibility on the strong. They are the more mature ones so they must be more careful to watch out for and care for the less mature. Out of love for their brothers and sisters in Christ, they take note of their weakness and voluntarily limit the practice of their own freedoms in order that what is good for them would not become an obstacle or stumbling block to the weaker Christian. Remember from our study yesterday that the cultural background and experiences of the weaker brother could cause them to identify a practice as being evil or associated with evil even though a more mature believer may correctly understand that there is nothing evil at all in the practice. Because the weaker brother has an immature faith in this area, for him to do that thing would be evil for him, for as 14:23 states, “whatever is not from faith is sin.”
Here in Romans 14 and in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 Paul uses the practice of eating meat that had been offered to idols as an example. The stronger brother would correctly understand that idols are nothing therefore there is nothing wrong eating such meat. However, the weaker brother would view the eating of such meat as part of the worship of that idol and the demon associated with that idol. With a correct motive of not wanting to participate in such idolatry, they would refuse to eat such meat. Doing so would be sin for them. The responsibility then rests on the stronger brother to be careful of his practice and neither offer such meat to a weaker brother, nor by his own example entice a weaker brother to eat such meat against his conscience. The stronger brother voluntarily restrains his freedom and refrains from eating such meat out of love for his weaker brother. Only after the weaker brother is more mature in his
understanding and faith would he have the freedom to also eat such meat.
The example explains a principle that is to be applied to all sorts of cultural practices including issues of diet, entertainment, dress, style, music, social practices, manner of celebrations, observation of days, hobbies, etc. If you are a stronger Christian, you may have freedom in these areas, but you must also be careful not to cause a weaker brother to stumble into sin through the manner in which you practice your freedom. A weaker brother must learn not to judge a stronger brother while at the same time making sure he does not follow his example until he has faith to do so, or it is sin to him.
The Next Level.
In Chapter 15, Paul continues his discussion of this topic and takes it to the next level.
It is not enough to just strive to
Avoid offending another brother.
Our love for one another is
To push us beyond that to also
Bearing our brother’s weaknesses
And seeking to please them
Because that is the example
That Jesus Christ gave us.
Verses 1 and 2 declare, “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.” The strong have an obligation to bear the weakness of their less mature Christian brothers and sisters. The idea of “bear” is from is used in a literal sense for “picking up something and carrying it, such as a pitcher of water (Luke 22:10), a man (Luke 7:14) or even a child in the womb (Luke 11:27).” In a figurative sense it is used of enduring hardship (Matthew 20:12) or trying to fulfill an obligation (Acts 15:10). In this passage it shows that the mature are not just to tolerate the immature, but being the stronger in faith they are to help carry the burden the weak have by showing respect for their sincere views and practices even though they disagree with them.
This does not mean that we cannot talk with them about their beliefs and seek to help them mature in their faith, but such a conversation must be done with all respect for them. Too often those who are practicing their liberty become more concerned about their freedom than their weaker brother. They become defensive and then attack the weaker brother by becoming critical or condescending of them. That is not loving. That is self-serving, which is exactly the opposite of what Paul says here that the strong are to be. We are not to be seeking to please ourselves, instead, we are to see how we can please our neighbor for their good, to their edification.
The correct manner of dealing with a weaker brother is to have a regard for them and a disregard for your own rights. This is the same principle Paul brings out in Philippians 2:1-4 in which he discusses the basis of unity within the Body of Christ, “If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
- It is with love that the stronger are to be sensitive to take in consideration the weakness of those around them and strive to not put an obstacle before them or be a stumbling block to them.
- It is with humility that the mature strive to help the weak become more mature in their faith.
- With gentleness they go to the Scriptures themselves to explain and show the greatness of our God and the extent of His mercy and grace to us sinners.
We magnify the holiness of our Lord while pointing out the manner in which Jesus actually lived. All the while we voluntarily limit the practice of our own freedom out of deference to our weaker brother. We are not to seek to persuade the weak to our viewpoint so that we can continue practicing our freedoms and doing what we want. That is self-serving. We do it because we sincerely desire the weaker brother to become more like Jesus Christ because that glorifies our Lord.
As Paul pointed out in Romans 14:17, the issue in these matters is not the particular practice itself, for the kingdom of God is not about eating, and drinking. The issues are what lie behind the actions. The right motive will result in the right action. The kingdom of God is about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
The Example of Christ.
Interesting enough, when Paul talks about the necessity of humility among Christians in Philippians 2, he points out Jesus Christ as the great example we are to follow in becoming humble. Our attitude is to be the same that Jesus exhibited. Though Jesus existed in the form of God and did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, he emptied Himself and took on the form of a bond-servant and was made into the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross (Philippians 2:5-8). Here in Romans 15, Paul also uses Christ as the example of how we are to deal with one another. Verse 3 states, “For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached You fell upon Me.’” Jesus did not seek to please Himself. He sought to please His Father.
- In John 4:34 Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work.”
- In John 5:30 Jesus said, “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”
- In John 8:29 Jesus said, “And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.”
- In John 12:27-28 we find that even when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane praying and pouring out the anguish of His soul as He considered the cross He would face the next day, the cry of His soul was, “Father, glorify Your name.”
What was true of Jesus is also to be true of us. Our lives are not about fulfilling our wills and building our kingdoms. God created us and saved us from our sins so that we might fulfill His will and build Christ’s kingdom. The Christian life on this earth is lived in the state of transitioning from the former to the latter. As we grow in Christ, we are being changed from selfish self-centered people seeking to please ourselves into being godly other-centered people seeking to please God. That is what Paul means in Romans 8:29 that we are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. None of us are there yet, but there will be a day that we will stand holy and blameless before God in both our position in Christ and in our practice.
At the end of verse 3 Paul quotes from Psalm 69:9 and applies it to Jesus. Jesus sought to please the Father even though it meant that all the hatred of those that opposed God would fall upon Him. This is also true for us and it is why that Jesus warned in John 15:19, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” Or as Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:12, “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” We must always keep the purpose of our lives in view if we are to fulfill that purpose and resist the pressure and persecution of the world as well as its enticements to remain sinful and self-centered.
Old Testament Examples.
There are times when we get discouraged in the Christian walk. There can be times when we might feel alone or even like our friends have abandoned us or persecution has isolated us from them. As Paul points out in verse 4, even in such hard times, we still have in the Scriptures the examples of so many that have preceded us, “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” God’s purpose in having their stories recorded and preserved was for our benefit. In the Bible we find instruction for life that we might have hope, confident assurance for the future. The examples of those who have gone before us encourage us and help us persevere in the present.
The tragedy is that so many professing Christians do not take the time to learn the Old Testament and its many truths and examples. The writer of Hebrews understood the importance of this and so mentions several of those in the “great cloud of witnesses” that make up the hall of faith. People such as . . .
- Abel, who offered a better sacrifice;
- Enoch who walked with God;
- Noah, who heeded God’s warning about things not yet seen;
- Abraham, Sarah, and their son Isaac, and grandson Jacob, who
believed God’s promises concerning a future inheritance;
- Joseph, who also believed God’s promises, so he gave orders concerning the burial of his bones to take place hundreds of years in the future;
- Moses, who believed God and lead the nation of Israel out of bondage in Egypt.
- The list goes on to include Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and the prophets.
We all would do well to take encouragement from their stories and heed the examples of their lives.
In Verses 5 and 6 Paul expresses his prayer for his readers based on these truths, “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
What God the Father did in the life of
Jesus and the Old Testament saints
He can also do for us.
He can encourage us and
Cause us to persevere in the
Midst of whatever our enemies
Can bring against us.
We must learn to be
Dependent upon Him.
But notice that Paul’s desire here is not for God to do this in some general sense, but for the specific purpose that we would be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, and that out of this unity would come a harmonious voice of praise to
Unity in the church does not come about
From finding the lowest common denominator
Upon which everyone can agree.
That is the fallacy that the ecumenical movement
And its related step-children continue to follow.
Unity in church comes about because of
Common doctrinal belief and subsequent practice.
We can only be in harmony when we all believe
What the Bible says and agree to keep
God’s commandments and live by its principles.
This is also true when it comes to the “gray” areas that the Bible does not directly address, but for which the Bible does give us clear command about how to deal with each other. Harmony in the church will only exist when both the strong and the weak humbly submit themselves to doing what Paul has explained here in Romans 14 & 15. Both must stop being selfish and condemning and instead seek how they might build each other up in Christ. Our common goal is to become more like Jesus Christ. Any other goal is both inadequate and unworthy for bringing about the unity that will cause us to join together and with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus
Paul gives further example of how this unity among believers is to be developed in verse 7-13 by again pointing to the example of Christ.
Jesus’ Example of Acceptance.
Verses 7-12 say, “Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises [given] to the fathers, and for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy; as it is written, ‘Therefore I will give praise to Thee among the Gentiles, And I will sing to Thy name.’ And again he says, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people.’ And again, ‘Praise the Lord all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise Him.’ And again Isaiah says, ‘There shall come the root of Jesse, and He who arises to rule over the Gentiles, in Him shall the Gentiles hope.” Jesus is our example. We are to accept or receive to ourselves other believers in the same way that Jesus has accepted us to Himself and thereby bring glory to God. Paul then points out how Jesus has received both the Jew and Gentile to Himself. Remember that Paul was writing to both the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome for both made up the church there. Jesus did what was needed to receive both groups to Himself though they are very diverse from each other culturally and ethnically.
To the Jew, Jesus satisfied all the requirements of the Old Testament law and in doing so fulfilled the promises God had made to the Jewish patriarchs. The scribes and Pharisees often accused Jesus of breaking the law, but the charge was false. The truth was that the Scribes and Pharisees had replaced the doctrines and commandments of God with the precepts and traditions of men (Mark 7:7,8). Jesus did not keep those and therefore He was a threat to their power and they hated Him for it. Jesus satisfied all the requirements of the Mosaic law. Jesus said to the Jews in Matthew 5:17, “”o not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” After His resurrection Jesus explained to the apostles how He did just that (Luke 24:44-48).
Jesus was also a servant to the Gentiles. Paul quotes from several Old Testament passages (Psalm 18:49; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 117:1; Isaiah 11) demonstrating that it had always been in God’s plan for the Messiah to be a blessing to the Gentiles too. The Gentiles were to rejoice, praise Him and sing to His name along with the Jews, and the Messiah would rule over the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
It is on this basis of a common Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, that both and Jew and Gentile are joined together in unity in one entity, the church, the body of Christ. Their mutual love for the Savior is to result in a mutual love for one another, and therefore a willingness to work through cultural differences in creating a harmonious body in which God is glorified.
Paul ends this section with a benediction for all the people of God, regardless of their ethnic background, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” It is the God of hope who is the source of joy and peace for all believers. Our trust in Him gives us confident assurance for the future because we know that His promises to us are true. We abound in that hope for the future because of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. It is Paul’s desire for all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, to live daily in this joy and peace that can only come from the God of hope.
As we conclude our study of Romans 14:1-15:13, let me summarize some of the key concepts along with some practical application of them so that each of us might make sure our practices are building up the body of Christ instead of tearing it down.
1) The “strong” must love the weaker. Those more mature in faith must love the “weaker” enough to self-limit the practice of their freedom so as not to cause them to do something against their conscience, and thus stumble into sin. The “stronger” are in sin if they flaunt their freedom or practice it without concern for others. Learn to be sensitive. Ask questions such as, “Do you mind if I . . . ?” “I am thinking about doing” . . . “would that bother you?”
2) The stronger must encourage the weaker. Those more mature in faith must not look down on the weaker as being less spiritual or as if they are missing all the joy of freedom in Christ. Rejoice in the faith that you have, but remember you have room to grow too. Seek to be used by the Lord according to your gifts to build one another up in Him. Keep people focused on the Word and let the Holy Spirit change the conscience of people.
3) The weak in faith are not to judge or condemn the stronger. That is sin. The weak may need to express their thoughts and feelings about an issue, but it is to be done as a request or even a plea, but not a demand. It must be left to that person to respond in love.
4) The “weak” are those who could stumble. Romans 14,15 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 define the weak as those who might be encouraged into a practice for which they do not have freedom of faith to participate. If the practice of someone with freedom of faith would not entice them to the same practice, then they are not weak in faith. They are already convinced for themselves in what they should and should not do.
5) Beware of Pharisees. Jesus’ greatest conflicts were with the Pharisees. They originally wanted to simply give themselves additional protections against breaking God word by imposing on themselves their own standards of conduct. Tragically, those standards replaced God’s Word. There are modern counterparts. Remember the “Rules and Discipline” I read a few weeks ago? Christians are not to allow their consciences to be enslaved by such men. The faith you have, you are to have as your own conviction before God. To refrain from a practice for fear that someone will condemn you for it shows the degree to which you have allowed yourself to be
enslaved, and to the degree that you are enslaved, you are no longer operating on faith, but on law – and whatever is not of faith, is sin.
Jesus had complete freedom, yet He limited that freedom according to the context of the situation. He fulfilled the Mosaic Law, but not that of the Pharisees. He was therefore accused by these religious leaders of being a glutton and drunkard, a friend of publicans and sinners (Matthew11:19). You may be accused of the same for not bending to the rules of such people. Do not be fearful of such, but rather follow in the
example of the Lord.
We are called to follow the Lord and love our brothers in Christ. Be ready and willing to restrict your freedom for the sake of helping them to keep from stumbling into sin. But do not let your conscience before God be enslaved to men. We are to be God-pleasers, not men-pleasers (Galatians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians2:4). It was for freedom that Christ set us free (Galatians 6:1) that we might walk by the Spirit, and on that basis we therefore do not carry out the deeds of the flesh (Galatians 6:16-17). The yoke of man-made rules cannot quench the desires of the flesh. At most, they only repress their free expression, but they will express themselves in some other manner either hidden or in a way accepted by society.
6) Finally, no one has reached full maturity. Everyone has areas of strong faith and have the freedom that comes with it. Each of us also have areas of weaker faith with corresponding restrictions. Be warned. Don’t do anything contrary to your conscience, for whatever is not of faith is sin. And don’t be a Pharisee. Each of us have areas in which we tend to judge those who do not meet our personal standards, and we do so
without ever talking with them to know their rational for practicing something we would refrain from.
When it comes to the cultural conflict, each of us need to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and deal with one another in love. Let us seek to find solutions to conflicting standards and practices and build each other up in Christ instead of tearing each other down.
I met a man from another nation,
I led him to Jesus for salvation,
The angels sang and we also rejoiced,
Until I found he made a diff”rent choice.
On a matter so extremely important to me,
He said, I don”t understand, I thought I was free.
Soon after he was bringing the same question to me,
How could I offend him so much with my liberty?
We sat there quite perplexed and wondering what we could do,
Until we were reminded, Jesus loves both me and you.
Humbly, we now work for the best interest of the other,
Setting aside our pref’rences for the love of a brother.
We now search the Scriptures to find God’s better way,
No longer condemning based on what other’s say.
The solutions to conflict are found in God’s Book,
So set aside your foolish pride, go there and look.
Scott L. Harris
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”