This week, we move into the 15th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The chapter division shouldn’t lead us to think that Paul has changed his subject. He is still addressing a specific problem that had arisen in the church at Rome. As we saw in chapter 14, there was in the Roman church a division that had arisen between those whom Paul calls the “weaker” and “stronger” brothers. The weaker brothers we believe were the Jewish believers who were not yet strong enough in their faith to drop from their lives all the Old Testament food law restrictions. Although Jesus and Paul clearly taught these food laws were no longer in place, these Jewish believers just didn’t have the faith to enjoy their freedom in Christ in that area. When they ate non kosher foods, they could not eat in faith with a clear conscience and Paul has said that “whatever is not from faith is sin.” The stronger brothers were Gentile believers who obviously had no problem cutting themselves free from the Jewish food laws because they had not been held to those laws. They enjoyed their freedom in Christ in this area.
From the text we saw two weeks ago, it seems clear these stronger brothers were not only enjoying their freedom, they were in fact, abusing it. From the last section of chapter 14 we saw that the Gentiles were in some way flaunting their freedom to eat whatever they wanted and influencing their Jewish brothers to eat foods that, though perfectly acceptable, violated their consciences. By influencing the weaker believers to go against their consciences, the Gentiles were sinning against their Jewish brothers. Paul tells the stronger, Gentile brothers that by influencing their weaker brothers to eat foods they could not eat with a clear conscience, they were actually working for their spiritual destruction by causing them to sin. He therefore ordered the Gentiles to stop eating in public “anything that causes someone else to stumble.” Paul makes clear that loving one another is far more important than enjoying spiritual liberties like freedom from ceremonial food laws. He says, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
We must remember the larger context of this section begins back in Romans 12:1. There Paul begins to apply the teaching of the gospel and says in light of the gospel, we are to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices.” This issue he addresses here in chapters 14-15 is just another expression of what it means to be a Christian, one who is totally committed to Christ, a living sacrifice. Paul continues to address the stronger, Gentile brothers in verse one of chapter 15. Let’s read verses 1-6 of chapter 15. Paul says, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2Each of us should please his neighbor 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." 4For 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. 5May 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.”
This church in Rome, with its obvious vulnerabilities for division, Paul continues to point in the direction of unity. This is a powerful text for us as a church because every grouping of believers is in some ways vulnerable to disunity and division. We may not be struggling over the question of whether Jewish food laws are still in force, but there are other differences among us that, if we allow them to, can ignite into brushfires. And Satan loves to fan those brushfires into blazing infernos of dissention. This text has many lessons to teach us about how we can work against the dividing forces of darkness and move more and more into real, biblical unity as the body of Christ here. One over arching truth this text points to is simply this: We are called to live in unity for the glory of God. Within this text, let’s look at four essential truths about living together in unity.
The first truth and the one we’ll spend the most time on this morning is this: Unity is enabled when we live to please others, bearing their weaknesses. In verse one, Paul is still speaking to the stronger brothers about not eating anything that would cause the weaker ones to stumble and he says, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself…” When Paul says, “we ought to bear with the failings of the weak” he is not saying, “it would be a good idea if we did this.” That word translated “ought” more literally means, “we are obligated to.” We have an obligation before God to do this. Bearing the “failings” of others is simply part of the ongoing debt of love we owe each other which we saw in chapter 13. Part of loving one another biblically is bearing or carrying the failings or, more accurately, the “weaknesses” of the weak.
For the stronger brothers in Rome, bearing the weaknesses of the weaker brothers meant refusing to eat perfectly good food when they were eating in front of their Jewish brothers. It meant that instead of eating what they wanted, they would eat what love for their brothers dictated. It meant self-deprivation. It meant living to please OTHERS and Paul is intensely practical about what we must do to please each other. Notice in verse one he says that bearing the failings of the weak is opposed to pleasing ourselves. We are to live in such a way as to bear other people’s weaknesses “and NOT to please ourselves.” Do you hear how those are mutually exclusive? If you are bearing the weaknesses of others, you will NOT be living to please yourself. And conversely, to the degree you live to please yourself, you will be of no use when it comes to bearing other people’s weaknesses. If we are to bear the weaknesses of others, which is an essential part of living in unity with one another, then we must continually renounce our desire to please ourselves. We see this again in verse three speaking of the life of Christ. Notice how Paul words this. He doesn’t word it positively by saying, “Christ lived to please others.” That is true, but Paul states the truth negatively, “Christ did not live to please himself.” What made it possible for Christ to please others was that he did NOT live to please himself.
Before we go any further, we must understand what Paul means when he says we are to “bear with the failings of the weak” and to “please [our neighbors]” which are parallel to each other. He is NOT saying that we are to tolerate sin in our brothers and sisters. We saw back in 12:9 that part of loving each other is to “hate what is evil” in each other. When we see a brother or sister in sin, a biblical love for that person will lead us to gently and humbly correct them. We are not called to be “people pleasers” in the sense that we compromise the truth. Paul qualifies what “pleasing others” means in verse two where he says this pleasing others is “for his good, to build him up.” We are to bear with the weaknesses of others and please others in ways that build them up in Christ. The Gentiles were to please their believing Jewish brothers and sisters by not eating food in their presence that was unacceptable to them. That was how they were to build their Jewish believers up. Where someone is violating a genuine, biblical moral absolute, we must love them enough to confront. But on issues that are not genuine, biblical absolutes, we are to bear and carry the weaknesses of one another. In THAT way, we are to please each other.
This means, as we said last time, if we know someone who would be led to violate their conscience by joining us in an activity which, though not a moral absolute, was wrong for THEM, then we should abstain from that activity when we are in their presence. If someone would have a guilty conscience if they had a glass of wine with dinner and you are out to dinner with them, you should not drink any wine if you felt your drinking the wine would influence them to drink wine. The same could be said for other areas that are not “black and white” morally wrong, but are in a “gray” or disputed area of conduct. In those situations, love dictates that we sacrifice our spiritual freedom to spare the conscience of our brother or sister. One challenge to applying this text today is the church is now calling “gray” what is really black and white, morally wrong. If you are watching a movie that is blasphemous or is sexually explicit, that is not a gray area. The same is true for television, books, the internet or any other media outlet. Those are not weaker brother issues and this text has nothing to say to those areas.
There are other areas of weakness where this text also, at least indirectly applies—areas where people are “weak” in some other way and we are called to bear their weaknesses. People have personality and emotional weaknesses. Some people are, for whatever reason not all that socially skilled. They may be very devout people, but for some reason, they are weak in this non-moral way. These are not moral issues—they are personality or emotional weaknesses that require those around them to bear their weaknesses. This weakness-bearing is a radical departure from what we often do with people who are weak in these areas. We are not to RIDICULE their weaknesses. It is utterly unChrist-like to poke fun or joke behind the back of people who have a personality or emotional weakness or are in some way are a bit different. That is gossip, it is sin and it is nothing less than a scandal when it happens in the body of Christ. We tell our children not to treat people like this, but it is surprising how much of this goes on in the church among so called Christian adults. Paul says we are to BEAR each other’s weaknesses. We are also not to JUDGE others who are different from us. We have no right to look down on people who may, because of these weaknesses process their faith differently than we do. Finally, we are not to AVOID/ISOLATE people who have these non-moral weaknesses. This is the standard pattern for the church. People with personality or emotional weaknesses are often simply left alone. This is the godless, “Minnesota Nice” way of handling these types of folks.
We know better than to openly confront them about non-moral issues. We may even be strong enough to not gossip about them behind their backs. But in the church today, there is often nothing seen to be wrong with just isolating these people. We simply withhold love from them because they are different. We just leave them alone and sooner or later they just disappear. In every church there are a few people who have mercy gifts and we leave the people with these weaknesses to those people. We see these folks and we just steer clear of them. We don’t even have to make a concrete decision to do that—its something we do quite naturally. They seem a bit different to us, they might take up our time and it just won’t be much fun for us to get to know them. They probably won’t do anything for us except possibly drain away valuable time and energy we would just as soon spend with someone who was more fitted to us.
Paul’s words here scream into that context, “Its not about what is pleasing to YOU!! It’s about what is good for them. How are you loving them? What can you do to build them up?” And avoiding someone is no way to build them up. We are called to BEAR, to carry their weaknesses, not to insulate ourselves from them. Someone may respond, “But you don’t understand—I’ve tried to reach out to people like that before and I got hurt.” To that Paul would respond, “And your point would be?…” Of course people with weaknesses will take our time and our energy. Of course people with failings will require more of us. The weakness of the Jewish believers dictated what was on the menu for the Gentile believers at public meals. Loving people with weaknesses can be costly, but God has equipped us to BEAR those weaknesses. If people with weaknesses can’t get built up in the church of Jesus Christ, where else are they going to go? We are called to live NOT to please ourselves, but to please others.
Someone says, “That’s hard.” It’s not hard, that’s impossible. That’s why God gives us the Holy Spirit. That’s part of why Christ died on the cross, so that when God calls us to do the impossible things that go against everything in our self-centered, self-pleasing flesh, we can go to the cross, confess our sins, die to self, repent of our selfishness and be filled with His Spirit to love people who are in some ways different. This unity Paul calls us to is an entirely GOD-DEPENDENT, supernatural way of living. This is the way of Christ—this is the church of Jesus Christ, that supernatural entity God placed on earth to show the world what Jesus is like. This is not the Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club or any other club where it may be perfectly acceptable to ridicule or judge or avoid people with weaknesses.
God doesn’t give us the luxury of being unified with only those people who are like us. He calls ALL of us to love each other—to bear one another’s weaknesses. The first truth about unity is; unity is enabled when we live to please OTHERS, bearing their weaknesses. A second truth relating to unity from this text is unity is a gift of God. We see this in verse five when Paul prays to God, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus.” Unity is like every other good and perfect gift, it comes from God. There are no formulas that will bring us to unity—God gives it. Unity is not simply an absence of strife. That is a superficial understanding of unity. We can easily think that if a church is not biting and devouring one another, they are unified. That is not true. All that is necessary to live without strife is to be superficial with one another and apathetic toward each other or the issues the church confronts. Unity, as we have seen is in a body where the people live to please others, not themselves. The glue of unity is biblical, supernatural agape love. That is a gift of God—we can’t do that—love people with His kind of love. Unity is more than the absence of strife, its is the presence of agape love and that always requires a miracle in our hearts and only God works miracles.
This means at least two things and both involve prayer. If unity is a gift of God He wants us to possess, the first and last thing we do to get it is to ask Him for it. We must pray for this kind of love for one another that begets unity. We must ask Him to take us from this superficial, fleshly, selfish regard we have for one another to a Spirit-filled level of love for each other. And the only bridge that will carry us from the self and flesh to the Spirit is the bridge of repentance and brokenness expressed in prayer. We must ask God to show us how ugly our lovelessness is to Him and then respond in prayer through repentance. We must pray about the specific relationships in our life He puts His finger on and ask Him to change us and give us the gift of repentance. Second, we must pray not only on an individual basis, but also on a corporate level. We need to ask God to repeatedly, persistently make us a body who will genuinely show agape love to one another. We must ask God to bring our body into repentance in areas of disunity and lovelessness. We are simply not doing this. We are not relating to each other in a manner consistent with those whose bodies are living sacrifices.
A third truth about unity from this text is: Unity does not mean uniformity on all issues. There is a satanically perpetuated myth that says that in order for people to have genuine unity, they have to agree on all the issues. That is a lie. The Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome had not been in agreement about the proper place of food laws. Some felt one way on the issue and some felt another way. As is almost always the case, one position was right and one was wrong. The Gentiles were doctrinally correct, but they were beating up the weaker brothers with their freedom. On issues of minor importance like this one and so many that make up the life of the church—(so many issues people fight about in church are NOT central to the gospel) we are called to love each other enough to not be rattled by minor disagreements. If we wait for unity until we all agree on everything, we will wait until we are all dead. Paul calls for unity here in the MIDST of different feelings about something like food laws and we must see that agape love for one another is more than strong enough to bind us together when we don’t agree on certain matters.
A final truth about unity is: Unity is to be motivate by a desire for God’s glory. Look at verse six. Paul prays for this spirit of unity for the church (verse 6), “so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The reason for unity is the glory of God. That should be our underlying motive when we pray for unity, when we act for unity—God’s glory, His name. This is the motive for unity God will respond to. Let’s be honest, when individuals or groups in the church or even separate churches are divided, why, fundamentally, does that bother us? Why does that make us feel uncomfortable inside? Most of us, if we are honest would say the reason is because we don’t like confrontation and conflict—it makes us feel personally uncomfortable. We hate to see people angry or mad at each other. It just makes us peace loving, compromise-seeking northern Minnesotans feel “icky” inside. We don’t like the way the tension filled environment makes us feel. It is personally repulsive to us and we do whatever we can in our own life to avoid it like the plague. So often we want unity to reduce our sense of inner tension. That is not the goal of unity in the Bible.
Paul says the motivation for unity is the glory of God. It glorifies God when His people walk in love together. Unity is ultimately for GOD’S benefit, not ours. We are not to seek after unity fundamentally because it makes us uncomfortable when we see division. Unity is not for our sake, but for God’s. When Christ’s body is divided or so superficially united that true unity is not in place, God’s name is dishonored. If the church is on earth to show the world what Jesus Christ is like and the church has division and dissension, what does that say to the world and the heavenlies about Jesus Christ? If you knew of a man who was engaged to be married to a woman who you knew was contentious and disagreeable, what would you think of the man? You would assume that he was either dull and undiscerning or he could was of such low quality himself that he couldn’t attract the sort of woman who could live in peace with others. Do you see how it reflects on Christ, when the church, His bride is not showing biblical unity toward one another?
When the church is in any way divided, we should be deeply pained NOT because it is uncomfortable for us, but because Christ is not being glorified in his church as He should. How can Christ be glorified in his church in any significant way, if the church is unwilling even to love each other in the midst of differences? How can we be significantly used to unite sinners to God if we can’t even show unity among ourselves? How can we preach about the love of God to sinners if we are not showing God’s love to each other? That’s hypocrisy--a sham. The question is, does our lack of unity bother us? Are we guilty of being satisfied with a superficial agreement with each other? Are we satisfied with allowing those among us with weaknesses to be isolated instead of enfolded in the love of Christ? When we see this lack of real, genuine, love-based unity in our body are we grieved because God is being glorified among us? Are we praying for this kind of supernatural level of love for one another? Are we praying for a unified body that is mature enough to love the stuffing out of each other even though we may have areas where we strongly disagree? May God give us the grace to help us see just how ugly our lovelessness is to Him and give us the gift of repentance and unity for Christ’s sake.
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