Even a small local church contains all kinds of people. Different people. That makes unity—real, Christ-like welcoming love—difficult. In Romans 14:1 through 15:13, Paul addresses the differences in the church over Christian liberty versus personal abstinence. Paul points out in 14:1-23 that . . .
The strong Christian believes all things are clean (on matters where Scripture is silent). So, our friend Jonathan is free to drink an occasional beer. The “weak in faith” Christian believes certain things are unclean. (Our Mark feels that way about beer-drinking.) The strong Christian must not cause the weak to stumble in his walk with the Lord. If necessary, he must limit his freedom. Paul continues that thought in 15:1,2 . . .
“We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor” (15:1,2).
John Piper (desiringgod.org) comments: “[Paul means . . .] that we should let this joy [of edifying others] free us from bondage to private pleasures that make us indifferent to the good of others. Love does not seek its own private, limited joy but instead seeks its own joy in the good—the salvation and edification—of others.”
“ . . . building up the neighbor” means not only limiting one’s freedom to keep a brother from stumbling, but gently, patiently helping him understand his abstinence doesn’t commend him to God. He’s justified by faith in Christ, not faith plus no beer-drinking. Nevertheless, writes Paul, we “must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building [him] up.”
“For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (14:3,4).
The reason we strong should not please ourselves indifferent to the good of others is Christ. He is our example. Paul’s quotes Psalm 69:9 to tell the church that all the insults and abuse and hatred that men hurled at God fell on Christ.
Christ is our primary example. But we also have all the Scriptures that instruct us to love our brother and sister. But Paul is thinking bigger. He’s thinking of the sanctification process that ends in glorification. And how we treat our weaker brother is part of that process. So, writes Paul, let the Scriptures make you steadfast in doing what Christ would do. Then you may hold onto the hope of one day being conformed to his likeness.
“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:5,6).
Paul prays, then, not that the Roman Christians agree on everything, but that they “live in harmony with one another”. Then “with one voice” they will “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Harmony—like the song of a many-voice choir, some singing soprano, others alto and tenor and bass, all blend together to glorify God in song—is what the church should aim at.
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, ‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your 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, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope’” (15:7-12).
Paul shifts from the weak versus the strong to Jew versus Gentile, probably because it was the Christian Jews who had the scruples about not eating certain foods and the Christian Gentiles who understood their freedom in Christ.
Since Christ has welcomed us, Paul reasons, we should welcome one another, differences included.
Paul cites these Old Testament passages to prove that God is saving Gentiles (with all their non-scruples) as well as Jews . . .
“Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Paul cites four Old Testament texts that support his contention that Christ included Gentiles in his saving work . . .
- “Therefore, I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name” (from 2 Samuel 22:50; Psalm 18:49).
- “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people” (from Deuteronomy 32:43).
- Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him” (from Isaiah 11:10).
- “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope” (from Isaiah 11:10,1).
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (15:13).
Picking up on “hope” in his last citation Paul calls God “the God of hope” and prays that the Romans “may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”. His prayer focuses on four realities—that the God of hope . . .
- Might fill them with joy and peace
- As they continue to trust in Christ, so that, as they do, the God of hope
- Might cause them to overflow with hope
- As they are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
They already live in Spirit-empowered joy and peace. But they can have absolute confidence (hope) that the fullness of the “not yet” is coming, as they “welcome one another”.
* * *
Several years ago “church (numerical) growth” proponents held that a church will grow larger if leaders aim to attract the same kind of people. A certain discomfort arises when the church contains the kind of people one doesn’t like. And, the fewer differences the fewer divisions.
But, of course, unity based on sameness isn’t Christian unity. A church composed of Jonathans and Marks might explode. So might a church of African-Americans and white Anglo-Saxens. Or a church of non-charismatics and charismatics.
But a church with differences like that also has the potential of Christ-like unity–unity that goes deeper than sameness and reaches to the heart.
This is why Paul ends 36 verses of instruction with a prayer. Only the Holy Spirit can fill us with such joy and peace that we abound in hope. Hope, not only of being one-day glorified, but of becoming a church where Christ’s welcoming love spreads so deeply in us that it embraces all our differences over secondary issues.