In the beginning – God, the creative genius

The purpose of our journey through Genesis is to acquaint ourselves with the roots of our faith, giving us a solid base on which interact with God. Perhaps it has been awhile since you frequented the pages of the first book of the Bible. Here is a simple test to see if you need to familiarize yourself with the truths of Genesis. I want to share with you the “Top Ten Ways to Know You Need to Study Genesis”:
1. Your pastor announces a new sermon series from Genesis and you check the Table of Contents to see if it’s in your Bible.
2. You think Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had a few hits during the sixties.
3. You open to Genesis and a WWII War Bond falls out.
4. Your favorite Old Testament patriarch is Hercules.
5. A small family of woodchucks has taken up residence in the Book.
6. You become frustrated because Charlton Heston isn’t listed in your Bible’s concordance.
7. You catch your kids looking at pictures in their Bibles of the garden of Eden and you demand, “Who gave you this trash?”
8. You think the Tower of Babel is in Paris, France.
9. You keep falling for it every time your pastor says, “Please turn to the book of Melchizedek, ch. 14.”
10. The kids are asking you too many questions about your unusual bedtime Bible story: “Noah the Shepherd Boy and His Ark of Many Colors.”
I want to begin our much-needed study of the book of Genesis by summarizing the book and noting some unique and interesting facts about the book itself. Moses wrote the book of Genesis. Chronologically speaking, it is interesting to note that the first three chapters of Genesis cover over a third of the Bible’s history! God has packed a lot of time into three chapters of the Bible. Genesis can be easily divided into two main sections. The first section, chapters 1-11, has to do with the physical universe and with creation, but in the last part, chapters 12-50, God begins to personally deal with man and with His chosen people. God was more interested in Abraham than He was in the entire created universe. What that tells me is that God is more interested in you and attaches more value to you than He does to the entire physical universe. God emphasizes the value of His human creation over the physical universe throughout the book of Genesis.
Let me illustrate this further by way of the four Gospels in the New Testament. Of the 89 chapters that are in the four Gospel accounts, only four chapters cover the first 30 years of Jesus’ life while 85 chapters cover the last three years of His life. (Twenty-seven of those chapters cover the final eight days of His life.) Where does that indicate that the Spirit of God is placing the emphasis? I am sure you will agree that the emphasis is on the last part, the last eight days covered by the 27 chapters. And what is that last part all about? It’s about the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:1-19). That is the most important part of the Gospel record. God has given the Gospels that you might believe that Christ died for your sins and that He was raised from the dead to give you eternal life (John 20:30-31). That is essential. That is the all-important truth that God wants to emphasize. In the same way, the all-important truth of Genesis is that the God of the universe loves and values you more than anything else.

On Christmas Day 1968, the three astronauts of Apollo 8 circled the dark side of the moon and headed for home. Suddenly, over the horizon of the moon rose the blue and white earth, garlanded by the glistening light of the sun against the black void of space. Those sophisticated men, trained in science and technology, did not utter Einstein’s name. They did not even go to the poets, the lyricists, or the dramatists. Only one thing could capture the awe-inspiring thrill of this magnificent observation. Billions heard the voice from outer space as the astronaut read it: “In the beginning God”—the only concept worthy enough to describe that unspeakable awe, unutterable in any other way. “In the beginning God created”—the invasive, the inescapable sense of the infinite and the eternal.

There is no other way to approach the book of Genesis but to recognize that our God is awesome. Carefully read these words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1). There are two purposes in this opening statement: (1) to identify God as the Creator and (2) to explain the origin of the world. The origin does not imply that absolutely nothing existed or had happened before this. The separate creation of angels and other heavenly beings is already assumed (see 1:26).

The first three words in our English Bible (“In the beginning”) translate a single Hebrew word bereshit. This word does not necessarily connote a brief period of time. This means the Bible never intended for us to pinpoint the age of the universe. We cannot say for certain when God created the universe or how long He took to create it. He may have taken billions of years or He may have taken six 24-hour days. The biblical text does not satisfy our raging curiosity. It simply says, “In the beginning God…”

This is an important acknowledgement. The debate of the age of the earth has brought disunity into the Christian community. Those that hold to a young earth criticize old earth Christians. Those that hold to an old earth criticize young earth Christians as having little upstairs. Yet, when all of the crossfire concludes, we must humble ourselves and acknowledge that this is a non-essential issue. When we state or imply otherwise, we are grieving the Lord.
My friend believed that God created the universe but he believed the scientific evidence clearly points to an old earth. I agree with this assessment. So I began to explain to him that there are several views proposed by conservative, biblical scholars. Unfortunately, in his college and graduate training, he had been told that to be a Christian you had to subscribe to a literal 24-hour view of creation. I told him that nothing could be further from the truth.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that this is what typically happens. It is not. My point is this: The Christian community has been guilty of making the age of the universe a stickler issue. As a result, we turn many people off and we turn many people with a scientific background away from faith in Christ. We really have to pick and choose our battles as Christians. To be fair to the Bible, we have a responsibility to teach the clear tenets of Scripture (e.g., sin, hell, Christ as the only way to God). These are difficult enough; let’s not further complicate matters. The issue is not when the universe was created; the issue is who created the universe.
Fortunately, the Bible tells us. The next keyword is the word “God,” a rendering from the Hebrew word Elohim, which shows that the Creator is the beginning of all things. The word Elohim occurs 32 times in Genesis 1. The point that is being made is that God existed before all things. There is no attempt in Genesis to prove His existence, because His existence is assumed to be true. From a biblical perspective, only a fool says that there is no God (Ps 14:1). So, the Bible just begins talking about God.

It is worth noting that the word Elohim is a plural word. Even in the first sentence of the Bible, God lets us know that He is plural even as He is singular. Later, in 1:26, He shows this in the creation of man because He says, “Let us make man in Our own image” (emphasis added). But then in the very next verse He says, “God created man in His own image” (emphasis added). The text moves freely from singular to plural. Why? Because our God is made up of three Persons.

The Bible says that God “created.” The Bible only uses the word “create” with God as the subject. It never has any man or woman as a subject. It never says any person “created” anything. Nowadays we often speak of people being “creative.” It is all right to speak that way but we ought to notice that the Bible specially reserves the word “create” for things only God can do. This verse and many others clearly teach that God made all things out of nothing. An artist creates a picture, but he uses acrylics or oils. An engineer constructs a building, but it is made of glass, steel, or concrete. Just think of what that tells us about the power, wisdom, and glory of God. What an awesome creator God!

One day a scientist approached God and said, “God, we don’t need You anymore. Science has finally figured out a way to create life out of nothing. We can now do what You did in the beginning.” “Oh, is that so?” replies God. “Yes,” says the scientist, “We can take dirt and form it into a human likeness, and breathe life into it, thus, creating man.” “Well, that’s very interesting,” God said. “Show Me.” So the scientist reaches down, grabs a handful of dirt, and starts to mold the soil into the shape of a man. “No, no,” interrupts God, “get your own dirt!”
God created the earth, the universe, and everything that exists. This fact is certain. Several years ago a scientist wrote an article entitled, Seven Reasons Why I Believe in God. He argued his case as follows:
1. Consider the rotation of the earth. Our globe spins on its axis at the rate of one thousand miles an hour. If it were just a hundred miles an hour, our days and nights would be ten times as long. The vegetation would freeze in the long night or it would burn in the long day; and there could be no life.
2. Consider the heat of the sun. Twelve thousand degrees at surface temperature, and we’re just far enough away to be blessed by that terrific heat. If the sun gave off half its radiation, we would freeze to death. If it gave off one half more, we would all be crispy critters.
3. Consider the twenty-three degree slant of the earth. If it were different than that, the vapors from the oceans would ice over the continents. There could be no life.
4. Consider the moon. If the moon were fifty thousand miles away rather than its present distance, twice each day giant tides would inundate every bit of land mass on this earth.
5. Consider the crust of the earth. Just a little bit thicker and there could be no life because there would be no oxygen.
6. Consider the thinness of the atmosphere. If our atmosphere was just a little thinner, the millions of meteors now burning themselves out in space would plummet this earth into oblivion.
7. Finally, the fact that man is capable of grasping the idea of the existence of God is in itself sufficient evidence.
He concluded by saying, “These are reasons why I believe in God.”

The last four words in this verse, “the heavens and the earth” describe the entire universe. The Hebrew language has no word for “universe,” so instead the author used the phrase “heavens and earth.” This figure of speech, called a merism, refers to EVERYTHING (the sun, moon, stars, plants, rocks, rivers, mountains, and everything else). God created absolutely everything!

Genesis 1:1 offers several repudiations of views opposing biblical faith. For example, it repudiates atheism, because Genesis assumes the existence of God. Furthermore, Genesis sets forth a personal God, as well as a universe that was created by God.
Second, Genesis repudiates agnosticism, because in reality God does reveal Himself, as well as what He has done.
Third, Genesis refutes pantheism, because God is transcendent to what He creates.
Fourth, Genesis repudiates polytheism, as the Scriptures make clear that only one God created all things.
Fifth, Genesis repudiates materialism, because there was a clear distinction between God and His material creation. Matter did have a beginning; matter is not eternal.
Sixth, Genesis repudiates naturalism. We know that nature, itself, has its own origins.
Seventh, Genesis repudiates dualism, as God was certainly alone when He created. Eighth, Genesis rejects humanism. It is God, and not man, who is the ultimate reality.
Ninth, Genesis repudiates evolutionism, because God did create all things.

Now back to our text. In 1:2, Moses writes, “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” First, we must note that the word “earth” (eretz) can be translated either “earth” or “land.” In this context, the translation “land” is preferred. When we hear the word “earth” in our scientific age, we generally think of the big jewel we are on which orbits around the sun. But the term did not generally suggest such a meaning to those in the pre-space-age time when Genesis was written, for they did not generally know of the “global” dimensions of the planet. Thus, the term “earth,” (eretz) in Genesis, does not usually refer to the entire planet, but to a specific section of land.

Second, the phrase “formless and void” is a Hebrew figure of speech that uses two independent words connected by “and” to express a single concept. For example, “nice and warm” means “nicely warm.” The word “formless” means undeveloped, like a blank chalkboard. The word “void” means that the land had no people on it (cf. Isa 45:18). Thus, the phrase means the land was yet unfashioned and uninhabited. To summarize: 1:1 explains the origin of the universe and 1:2 pictures the land before God prepared it for human beings. Light is needful for man. Ground is needed instead of seas. There has to be a provision of rain. The sky has to come into being. Vegetation has to be created for people. The sun and the moon are for people to tell time. The animals are for humankind.

How did this shaping of creation for the human race take place? “The Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” God used the Holy Spirit to prepare the world for the human race. Since this is the first reference to the Holy Spirit in the Bible, it gives us an idea what He will always do. The Holy Spirit is the One that gives life, the One who gives form and direction to our lives.
It is interesting that salvation also follows a similar pattern to what we find here. When God first comes to us He finds our lives empty and without shape or purpose. Then He speaks into our lives. His Spirit moves upon us. This is what Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” God’s ways of working in creation and salvation are similar. Salvation is His restoration of creation, using a similar pattern. God comes to us in our emptiness. He finds our darkness, emptiness, and hopelessness. His creative Word brings life to us. Again, Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17, ESV).

The implications of this are great. First, if God is the Creator of all things out of nothing, then He owns all things and all people absolutely (Ps 24:1; 89:11; 95:5). God owns all things absolutely. We may think of ourselves as owners only in relation to other people. That is, they have no right to take certain things from us without compensation. But in relation to God we own nothing, absolutely nothing, and He has every right to dispose of all our so-called possessions and us exactly as He pleases. This means that with regard to our possessions we are stewards or trustees of God’s estate, and with regard to ourselves we are slaves of the Almighty. It is very wrong to think that a tithe of our income belongs to God and 90% belongs to us. It is all God’s, absolutely, and we have no right to dispense it in any way but what pleases its Owner. The doctrine of creation implies that we should ask of every expenditure: Am I, by this purchase, achieving the purposes of my Creator?

Not only does God own our possessions, He also owns us absolutely. We are the clay and He is the potter, and He may do with us exactly as He pleases (Ps 29:16; 45:9). As Paul states in Romans 9:20-21: “The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay…?” The answer is, yes, the potter has absolute right over the clay. Take your spiritual temperature here. If this is sweet to you and you readily submit to God’s ownership, it is the mark of grace and maturity in your life. But if this is offensive to you and you resent the thought of God having an absolute right to do with you as He pleases, it is a mark of the flesh and of need for repentance.

A second implication of the doctrine of creation is that everything that exists has a purpose, a goal, and a reason for being. If God did not create the world then any man’s goal is as good as another. There are no absolutes and everything is aimless and absurd. The only meaning in life is what you arbitrarily create by doing your own thing. But if God did create the world then it has an absolute purpose and goal, for God is not whimsical or frivolous. Nor is His purpose ever in jeopardy for He says in Isaiah 46:10, “My counsel shall stand and I will accomplish all my purpose.”

The ultimate purpose of God in creation was and is to display His glory in all its fullness. According to Numbers 14:21, God’s intention to fill the earth with the glory of the Lord is as certain as His very existence. He says in Isaiah 43:7, “I created Israel for my glory.” And, in Ephesians 1:12, rebellious creatures are brought back to God for this purpose: “to live for the praise of His glory.” Since God created everything, He owns everything; everything we have and are belongs to God. Therefore we must ask of every expenditure and every act, “Does this achieve the purpose of my Owner?” And now we know what this purpose is and so we must ask, “Does this purchase or this act or this attitude display God’s glory?” Thus, the second implication of the doctrine of creation is that God has a purpose in creation, to display His glory, and therefore the purpose of all His creatures is to join Him in that aim. That’s why we exist.

A third implication of this doctrine that I want to mention is simply this: If we are creatures, we are totally and utterly dependent on our Creator for everything. We are weaker than the weakest baby apart from Him, because apart from Him we fly into nothingness. Every breath we take, every calorie of energy we expend, and every good intention we fulfill is a gift from our merciful Creator who owes us nothing. So the lesson is clear: You can’t glorify God as the all-sufficient Creator and Sustainer unless you turn and become like little children who gladly depend upon their Father for everything.

The final implication is that everything that exists must be under God’s control. The creation must be in subjection to the Creator. Forces of nature, enemies, creatures, and objects that became pagan deities—none of these would pose a threat to the servants of the living God. So what are you currently worried about? Are you worried you will become a financial burden to your children? Are you worried about pending surgery or poor health? Are you worried about the future of your children—their physical safety, financial security, and spiritual wellbeing? Are you worried about your career and if it will take you where you want to go? Are you worried that you may not be able to adapt to all the technological changes in our world today and thus be unable to cope in your business?

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Having a mission ambition

On March 11, 1965, Gary Duschl of Virginia Beach, Virginia began making a chain of gum wrappers. Today, over 53 years later, it contains over 2.4 million gum wrappers and is 101,440 feet long as of April 11, 2018 and growing. This length is 19.14 miles and would require the average human being about seven hours to walk! It is the equivalent to 337 football fields or 69 Empire State Buildings. Guinness’s World Records declared Gary’s chain of gum wrappers to be the longest in the world. The chain took over 38,000 hours to create. Regardless of what you think about this endeavor, it is quite an astounding accomplishment! I am impressed with Gary Duschl. Can you fathom the time, energy, and skill he put into this endeavor? What astounding ambition! http://www.gumwrapper.com/

What is your ambition? What do you hope to achieve with the rest of your life? Many people are consumed with work, family, money, and pleasure (not necessarily in that order). How much of what you do could be seen as a chain of gum wrappers? As a believer in Jesus Christ, you ought to be driven by an even greater ambition—one that can change world history and extend beyond the grave.

Paul gives you a holy ambition to shoot for in Romans 15:14-33. In this passage he prepares to conclude his letter. When biblical writers begin to wrap up their letters, people tend to tune out. However, these twenty verses answer the question: “How do I develop a mission ambition?” He says: God calls you to mission possible.

Perhaps you are thinking of “Mission Impossible” and are looking for Tom Cruise to appear. But this is not a movie, this is your life—your personal mission. Paul is going to ask you to do some impossible things in this text, but the underlying implication is that with God all things are possible if you humble yourself and depend upon Him to live His supernatural life in and through you. Paul imparts three characteristics of mission ambition.

1. Ambitious servants proclaim Christ (15:14-21)
If you are saved, you are called to proclaim Christ with your lips and your life! In 15:14 Paul writes, “And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.” According to Paul, the Roman Christians excelled in three spiritual attitudes and aptitudes:

(1) They were “full of goodness.” These believers were good spouses, parents, employees, neighbors, and Christians. They were rightly motivated and were characterized by moral excellence in their lifestyles. Do you exude this kind of “goodness?”

(2) The Roman Christians were “filled with all knowledge.” Paul uses a word that often signifies knowledge gained by learning, effort, or experience. Doctrinally, these believers were well taught with no grave deficiencies in their biblical and theological knowledge. They also applied what they learned. Does your biblical IQ far surpass your AQ (application quotient)? If so, you are far better obeying what you know than continuing to add to your head knowledge.

(3) They were “able also to admonish one another.” There seems to be a sequence to these three commendations. The Roman Christians’ “goodness” and “knowledge” qualified them to “admonish one another.” The word “admonish” (noutheteo) has to do with counseling and guiding another Christian. The Roman Christians challenged and instructed one another in God’s Word. They also cared so deeply about one another that they took the time and the risk to lovingly confront those veering off the path. This is a critical need in every church.

Many of us fail to handle conflict the way we should. We either go into denial and avoid the confrontation altogether, face it head-on with a prideful attitude, or acknowledge the problem but shrug it off for the sake of maintaining a friendship. All three of these reactions are inappropriate. God expects you to lovingly admonish those believers who He has placed in your life. This is not a job for your pastor; it is a job for you. Often, you will be able to have a greater impact on individuals in the body than your pastor. You have unique gifts, experiences, and passions that God will use in your church. But you must step out in faith and do your part. Don’t wait for someone else. Don’t count on someone else! God calls you to mission possible. He will give you the strength to fulfill what He calls you to perform.
In 15:15a Paul writes, “But I have written very boldly to you on some points so as to remind you again.” The apostle has written “very boldly” on numerous points:
(1) the Gentiles that have not heard the gospel are condemned;
(2) just being moral will not get a person to heaven;
(3) a person is justified by faith without any good works;
(4) through one single person sin came into the world;
(5) where sin increased, grace increased even more;
(6) we died to the law and are no longer under the law;
(7) nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; and
(8) God will keep His promises to Israel despite their faithlessness.

Paul does not pull the punch—he makes it plain. His purpose is to “remind” his readers of what they know. He uses a word that literally means “to over remind” (epanamimnesko).

Why do we need to be reminded of basic truth?

(1) We are forgetful. As we age it is amazing how our memory can fade. Now that I am over 50 I am becoming a bit of an authority on this subject. Hence, we all need to be reminded of the truth we have known.

(2) We are easily distracted. Marriage, family, work, church, and our own personal pursuits can often crowd out our learning. Thus, we need to regularly return to our theological moorings and regain our focus.

(3) We think we know more than we do. One of the grave dangers of being involved in a Bible church is that it is easy to get puffed up like a spiritual blowfish and assume that we have a grasp on various theological concepts, when in reality, we don’t. Every believer can benefit from going over the fundamentals. After all, the vast majority of biblical interpretation is not profound; it is straightforward.

As Mark Twain said, “Most people are bothered by those Scripture passages which they cannot understand. But for me, the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.” Our great need is to be regularly reminded of what we know; then, we must be challenged to obey! Are you grounded in the fundamentals of the faith? Are you prepared to go back to the basics? Are you willing to obey what you know? God calls you to mission possible.

Paul now explains why he can speak such forceful and repetitious words to the Roman believers. He declares: “. . . because of the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (15:15b-16). God gave Paul “grace” (charis) to minister. Grace is simply God giving to us what we don’t deserve. Paul’s calling and ministry as an apostle are founded upon grace. If you underline in your Bible, underline the words “minister” (leitourgos), “ministering as a priest” (hierourgeo), and “offering” (prosphora) in 15:16.

These are all technical Greek words that are used to describe the Jewish priests who offered animal sacrifices in the Jewish temple. Paul uses these terms drawn from temple worship in Judaism to describe his own apostolic ministry. Instead of being a temple priest, Paul is a minister of Jesus; and, instead of being in the Jerusalem temple, Paul serves on the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Instead of having a priestly duty to bring animal sacrifices as an offering, Paul’s priestly duty is to share the good news about Jesus with Gentiles.

Two significant principles stem from this verse:
(1) Ministry is a gracious privilege.Admittedly, it is daunting at times. It is easy to feel taken for granted and unappreciated. This can lead to the fleshly response, “My church is lucky to have me!” Yet, the reality is, “I am fortunate to serve my church.” Ministering to others is a privilege! Do you see your opportunity to minister as a privilege or a burden? When you have served in a ministry for an extended period of time, it is easy to grow weary and disillusioned. Pray this week for a greater awareness of the privilege of ministry.

(2) The gospel is a precious responsibility. A priest handled an offering very carefully in order to keep it holy; we must handle the gospel just as carefully. You must see yourself as a spiritual heart surgeon who is dealing with matters of eternal life and death. How well do you know the gospel of Jesus Christ? Have you mastered its contents? God calls you to mission possible.
Verses 17-21 describe the priorities and principles that shaped Paul’s ministry up to the time of his writing and explain his absence in the past. In 15:17-18a he writes, “Therefore in Christ Jesus I have found reason for boasting in things pertaining to God. For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.” Paul states that he boasts (lit. “glories”) in “things pertaining to God.” Now keep in mind: no one hated boasting more than Paul. But when it came to boasting in what Christ had done through him, Paul could brag with the best of them! He does not say, “I boast about what I have done through Christ,” as if he were the subject and Christ merely the instrument. Rather, he says, “I boast about what Christ has done through me!” Paul is merely a tool, an instrument, a vessel for the work of Christ.

It is so easy to take credit for our own ministry accomplishments. Sometimes we are not even cognizant that we are doing it. We must deliberately choose not to rob God of any of His glory. This means we must consciously seek to be out of step with our culture. Today heroes in sports, entertainment, and politics promote themselves and their own agendas, yet as believers we are to be absolutely dependent upon Christ. God calls you to mission possible.

There are many reasons why Paul depended upon Christ so much. One reason was the sheer immensity of the task that God called him to. God-sized tasks typically bring about great humility. Paul explains that his ministry resulted in “. . . the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit; so that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation; but as it is written, ‘THEY WHO HAD NO NEWS OF HIM SHALL SEE, AND THEY WHO HAVE NOT HEARD SHALL UNDERSTAND’”(15:18b-21).

God did great things in and through Paul whose specific burden was to preach to those who had never heard. He pictured the region from the city of Jerusalem to the city of Illyricum as being like a big circle. (Presently, Jerusalem is in modern-day Israel, and Illyricum is in what used to be Yugoslavia, modern-day Croatia, Bosnia, and Albania.) Within this circle Paul planted about a dozen Christian churches in key cities. His strategy was to plant a church in a prominent city, and then empower church leaders to fan out into the smaller towns and villages. In this passage Paul was not saying that there were no longer any non-Christians in this circle, but he felts he was laying the foundation for the churches as he proclaimed God’s good news in this entire area.

Paul’s heart would be for us to follow in his sandals and focus on those who have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ. This means that churches should be forming churches where there are no churches. We must be committed to praying for world evangelization, particularly in the 10/40 window. We must seek to plant churches throughout the world including our own county. We may even be called to offer our lives in the service of world missions. History has told us that the lieutenants in Napoleon’s army carried in their jackets, close to their hearts, a map of the world. What Napoleon was trying to communicate to his men was world conquest! Wherever they went, they had that map close to their heart. Their vision was world domination. The same is true for the disciple of Jesus Christ. Our cry must be, “God give us a passion for souls.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said it well: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
[Not only do ambitious servants proclaim Christ, but . . .]
2. Ambitious servants make plans (15:22-29)
It is good to make plans and then hold them loosely. God has ways of redirecting our paths. Paul writes: “For this reason I have often been prevented from coming to you; but now, with no further place for me in these regions, and since I have had for many years a longing to come to you whenever I go to Spain—for I hope to see you in passing, and to be helped on my way there by you, when I have first enjoyed your company for a while—but now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things. Therefore, when I have finished this, and have put my seal on this fruit of theirs, I will go on by way of you to Spain. I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ” (15:22-29). Opposition and closed doors are not a sign of God’s disapproval. Rather, God can powerfully work through such circumstances. When Harold MacMillan was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he was asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman. Famously, he replied, “Events, my dear boy, events.” Life has a way of catching us by surprise. We make our plans—and we ought to plan carefully for the future—but our plans do not equal God’s will. Events will intervene.

Perhaps you had plans for your life, which you thought were God’s will that did not come to fruition. You may have been engaged to the person you had waited your entire life for only to see the relationship break up. Maybe you are a married woman who has longed for a child of your own, but now you and your husband have been unable to conceive. You may have asked, “God why are you depriving me of being a mom? Do you think I am unfit for the task?” Perhaps you have prepared yourself for ministry and find yourself unable to get a job. It seems like every time you apply you are rejected. You may be wrestling with resentment, “God, I have spent thousands of dollars on college. I’ve tried to honor you with my life, and I feel like the well has run dry. What am I supposed to do?” Often, what has appeared as setbacks, God can use to promote us to the next level of Christian growth and character.
The apostle is also concerned that the Roman Christians give to the church at Jerusalem. The word “helped” refers to a generous financial gift. The phrase “serving” (diakoneo) is often used in connection with raising money. Apparently, many of the people who had turned from Judaism to Christ had lost their jobs and been ostracized from their families. Paul reminded the Gentile believers that salvation came through Israel, and told them that they had a moral obligation to help these Jewish believers who were enduring hardship because of their faith in Christ. Hence, the rich should help the poor; the strong should help the weak. Paul also emphasized two other terms: “pleased” (15:26, 27) and “indebted” (15:27).

His point is that sacrificial giving is a debt and a pleasure. How can these both be true at the same time? If you are a parent, you are under obligation to care for your children. If you do not care for your children, the State will remove them from your care. Yet, you likely also find pleasure in parenting (at least most of the time). If you are a parent, this great responsibility is both an obligation and a pleasure. Of course, the more you grow in Christ and spend time with your children the more pleasure you will discover in your parenting. Likewise, you are under obligation to give, but the more you grow in Christ and the more you get to know those in need the more pleasure arises in giving. Will you give sacrificially to those who need your financial assistance? Remember, you don’t own your wealth—you owe it. But there is great pleasure in giving generously to those in need. Perhaps in addition to giving cheerfully and generously to your local church, God is calling you to give to our persecuted brothers and sisters throughout the world. If so, do it today.
[Ambitious servants proclaim Christ and make plans. The third and final characteristic of ambitious servants is . . .]
3. Ambitious servants solicit prayer (15:30-33)
The quickest way to get on mission and recognize “Mission Possible” is to pray and to ask others to pray for you. In 15:30 Paul writes: “Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me.” In Romans 1 Paul assured the Christians at Rome of his prayer suppo;t, now he turns to them and asks them to return the favor. In praying, they are actually participating with Paul in his ministry; they are, in Paul’s words, “striving together with him” (sunagonizomai).

The word-group agonizomai is often associated with the strenuous discipline of the athlete who struggles to prevail, such as contestants wrestling in the Greek games. It is a Greek word from which our English word “agonize” comes from. Clearly, Paul saw prayer as part of the Christian struggle. That is why Samuel Zwemer, ground-breaking missionary to Muslim lands, could utter his famous saying, “Prayer is the gymnasium of the school.” Paul expects you to pray diligently for your leaders. If you are in leadership, there is also wisdom in recruiting a prayer shield. A prayer shield is a team of people who will pray for you in the course of your ministry. Oh, how we need prayer to fulfill our ministries and finish well!

Paul makes two specific requests in 15:31-32:
(1) “that I may be rescued from those who are disobedient in Judea” (15:31). He does not ask that they pray for the salvation of these unbelieving Jews. They have had their opportunity. Judgment now awaits them. Paul does not see this journey as an evangelistic campaign among the unbelieving Jews but as a ministry to the saints in Jerusalem (15:26).
(2) Paul also prayed “that my service for Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints” (15:31). The Gentiles gladly gave to minister to the Jewish saints, but would the Jews gladly receive these gifts? Paul asked for prayer that they would. The goal of Paul’s prayer requests is: “so that I may come to you in joy by the will of God and find refreshing rest in your company” (15:32). Thus, the “refreshing rest” (sunanapausomai) envisioned is not the relaxation of a hammock and a tropical drink. The refreshment stems from the fellowship and joy that exist when members of the church mutually minister to one another. God calls you to mission possible.

We must keep our main focus in prayer on the main task of the gospel. We must go for Satan’s jugular in our prayers and not get distracted into majoring on minor skirmishes. I imagine Satan briefing his demons: “I am afraid we can’t stop them praying altogether. Some of them have gotten in the habit. But, let’s divert them from the jugular and get them aiming for the little toe. See if you can get them to spend all their prayer time praying about physical illness. When their circumstances are difficult, get them to focus their praying on asking that things will get easier. Don’t, whatever you do, let them pray for courage and faithfulness to Christ in their difficult circumstances. I don’t mind too much if their health returns or for their circumstances get easier; but, I mind very much if they are loyal witnesses to Christ and servants of the gospel.”

In our final verse of this chapter, Paul writes, “Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen” (15:33). Paul uses the familiar term “peace” (Gk. eirene/Heb. shalom) to emphasize that his mind is preoccupied to the end with Jewish and Gentile unity. Similarly, God wants us to experience true peace and harmony with other believers by tearing down any ethnic, social, and preferential barriers in the local church. God calls you to mission possible.

Agreeable disagreeing

Back in 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church gathered together for its annual denominational meeting. During the course of these meetings the bishops were involved in a heated dispute full of fussing and feuding. A few doors down the street another meeting was going on. The Bulshavics had assembled together to plot the overthrow of the Czar. This marked the beginning of what we now know as communism. So what was the church arguing about while the empire was crumbling around them? Candles—were they to be 18” or 22” long?
Fortunately, this happened in Russia over one hundred years ago. I’m relieved to say that similar occurrences have not happened since. I’m also proud to say that this would never happen in America today. I confess, I am being a bit sarcastic. I wish that I could say it was optimism, but it’s really sarcasm. The sad truth is that the church has been filled with division and disunity since its inception. This has led to church splits, pastoral resignations, and great disgrace brought upon the name of Christ. The popular pastor and radio preacher, Chuck Swindoll, says that he has looked at many churches and he has yet to find a church that split over what he would call an essential issue. How tragic! Stop for just a moment and think about what churches disagree over. We disagree over whether we should have pews or chairs, whether flags should be present or absent, whether we should sing hymns or choruses, whether we should use the organ or the keyboard, and whether we should have drums or no drums. Other issues of disunity surround the timing of Christ’s return, the mode of baptism, the charismatic gifts, women in ministry, and church government. Yet, to all of these, I can only exclaim, “How trivial!” Now I realize that in making my point I may have stepped on your toes. But please stay with me as we look into God’s Word. In Romans 15:1-13 Paul testifies that true unity demands sensitivity. He then unfolds two aims that are necessary to ensure and preserve biblical unity.

1. Aim To Please One Another (15:1-6)
Paul calls us to imitate Christ in pleasing other people rather than ourselves. In 15:1 Paul writes: “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.” It is important to understand the distinction between the “strong” and the “weak.” They aren’t strong or weak physically, mentally, emotionally, or even necessarily spiritually; their strength or weakness is specifically related to their attitude toward “non-essentials.” God has said clearly that some things are always right for everyone. He has also said that some things are always wrong for everyone. But regarding many things, God hasn’t said. The “strong” Christian is one who has lots of freedom of conscience respecting these matters not nailed down in the Bible. The “weak” Christian has very little freedom of conscience about these matters. This person tends to have quite a long list of “don’ts.”

Here, Paul includes himself with the “strong” and states that those who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of the weak. The word translated “ought” (opheilo) doesn’t mean “should,” it means “to be a debtor under obligation.” Paul is not making a recommendation; he is imposing a rule. He is saying that the strong need to limit their Christian liberty so they can reduce the problems of their brethren. He expects those with greater freedom to make sacrifices. “To bear” (bastazo) is not just enduring or tolerating someone; it means to personally shoulder a burden as if it was your own. It means to do something hard and costly for the sake of another. The verb is used in the Gospels of Jesus bearing His cross (Luke 14:27 and John 19:17).

So how do we “bear the weaknesses” of the weak and not please ourselves? Paul tells us in 15:2: “Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.” Paul’s use of “each of us” leaves no room for any exceptions. We are to please our “neighbor.” What is this Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood? No! The unexpected use of the word “neighbor” (plesion) reveals that Paul has the “love command” of Lev 19:18 in mind: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He expects us to be sensitive to our Christian brother or sister who is close by. In other words, we are to seek to please those whom we have frequent contact with in our church or community. True unity demands sensitivity.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that “your freedom ends where my nose begins.” In a sense that is what Paul is saying, only it’s not noses he’s interested in—it’s spiritual growth. Paul indicates that our goal is to please other believers for the purpose of their “edification” (oikodome, 15:2b). This is a term that means “to build others up spiritually.” Hence, we must follow the preferences of other believers with respect to our liberties. If your mother-in-law lives in the same town as you do and her conscience is violated by dancing don’t flaunt your freedom to dance in her face. If a brother’s conscience in your small group is bothered by gambling, don’t ask him to participate in a fantasy football league that requires a buy-in. If your spouse’s conscience is bothered by drinking alcohol, don’t drink.

Maybe you are uncomfortable with the command to please people. Paul says that we are to please others, yet elsewhere he warns us of pleasing people. How do we resolve this tension? Paul is not saying that we should be “people pleasers” and do whatever anyone wants us to do simply because it will please them. We must differentiate between pleasing God and pleasing people. Boiled down, in its simplest form, we should not please others rather than God, but we should please others rather than ourselves. After all, “pleasing ourselves” is what causes people to fracture on every scale. From the marriage or family arguing about what TV program to watch or what to do on a vacation, right up to nations fighting to preserve their own interests: Pleasing ourselves destroys peace and harmony.

In 15:3 Paul uses a doctrinal sledgehammer to crack a behavioral nut. He quotes Psalm 69:9 to support this claim that we must please other believers above ourselves. He writes: “For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, ‘THE REPROACHES OF THOSE WHO REPROACHED YOU FELL ON ME.’” In this Psalm King David is pictured as taking the abuse of the people because he stood up for God. Paul applies that to Christ in an apt analogy; our insults to God, our sins, were placed on Christ on the cross.

The “Me” in the quotation is Christ; the “You” is God. Paul’s point is: Christ didn’t think of His rights when He went to the cross. Christ thought only of our needs when He died for us. He endured every manner of taunting and suffering. Now, if the Son of God didn’t please Himself but when He went to the cross for us, how much more so ought we to seek to please our brothers and sisters in Christ? If Jesus could endure the insults of others, we should certainly be willing to put up with the minor irritations from Christians with different viewpoints.

If you are a believer, you are likely a stronger brother or sister in some area. Take a moment and run through the various roles and relationships in your life (e.g., spouse, parent, sibling, relative, neighbor, employee, church member). As you consider these relationships, stop and ask yourself this question: with whom and in what area am I willing to forgo my personal preferences for the sake of someone else? True unity demands sensitivity.

Verse 4 is seen by many as a parenthesis or a digression by Paul, but if we are careful as we look at it we can see that what Paul is doing is explaining why the Psalm he just quoted should speak to us. Paul puts it like this: “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” In this important verse, Paul shares four valuable Bible benefits:

(1) The Bible provides instruction. Although these benefits are applicable to both the Old and New Testaments, Paul is specifically referring here to the Old Testament. It’s been well said that the greatest commentary for understanding the New Testament is a thorough grasp of the Old Testament. This means that if we want to really understand God’s Word, we must not neglect the Old Testament. It will feed us and give us wisdom for life.

(2) The Bible provides perseverance. Reading the stories of godly men and women who have persevered through various trials and tests motivates us to seek to do the same. Perseverance is a “holy hanging in there.” We all need this attribute when we are seeking to please other believers.

(3)The Bible provides encouragement. The great Old Testament characters were sinful beings just like us, and yet in spite of themselves, God used them powerfully. This encourages us to seek to accomplish great feats for God.

(4) The Bible provides hope. In the Old Testament we are reminded of God’s faithfulness to His people and His program. His character reminds us that we have an unshakable future. “Hope” (elpis) is especially needed by Christians when facing suffering in the midst of Christian relationships.

The “hope” of 15:4 causes Paul to break into prayer and praise in 15:5-6: “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice [lit. mouth] glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” These verses declare that unity is all about Christ! In 15:5 Paul informs us that “perseverance and encouragement” (15:4) not only come through the Scriptures, but they are ultimately gifts from God. “Perseverance and encouragement” are necessary to keep giving up what we enjoy and are free to partake of.

Paul wishes that all his readers, both the strong and the weak, would appropriate these gifts and apply them in their interpersonal relationships. The result would be unity in the church—we would be “of the same mind.” Bear in mind that this does not mean we have to be of the same opinion. I don’t agree with any one person on every single point of theology or practice. Neither do you. The command is not for uniformity but for unity. To be “of the same mind” means that our attitudes and actions exude harmony and unity. It means that we share a common perspective and purpose. We don’t let the minor issues overtake the major issues.

The last phrase of 15:5 says that we are to do this “according to Christ Jesus.” This phrase refers us back to Christ’s example (15:3) and reminds us that unity is only possible through Christ. A simple question to ask yourself is this: On a particular non-essential issue, is it better to get my way and please myself or is it better to give in and please a brother or sister? Billy Holiday, U.S. jazz singer (1915-1959), once said, “Sometimes it is worse to win a fight than to lose.” True unity demands sensitivity.

There is a purpose clause (“so that”) in 15:6 that ties the concept of pleasing God and people together. Paul states that the purpose of unity is united, vocal praise to God. When this occurs in the church it is an evidence of unity among the strong and the weak. With “one accord” and with “one voice” we are to glorify Christ! This is why we were created. If you’re sold out to Christ and His church you are going to be chomping at the bit to sing praise to God.

Sadly, division in the church over non-essential issues diverts precious time and energy from its basic mission: the proclamation of the gospel and the glorifying of God. This is a shame! God wants us to come together, to unify as one body, and to lift up praise to God. We should be able to do that, shouldn’t we? The church at Rome was challenged to do this while it was made up of Jews and Gentiles—people with racial, cultural, and religious differences as well as a history of hatred for one another. Your church home may be a diverse body, but you probably aren’t too terribly different from one another. We’re certainly not diverse like the Roman church. God wants us to forsake our preferences and to worship Him.
You may not like our worship style. That’s okay; just don’t let it affect your worship to God or your fellowship with people. God isn’t going to ask you, “Did you attend a church where your musical preferences were met?” He’s going to ask you, “Were you able to support the direction of the church and her leadership in spite of not having your preferences met?” God has called us to unity, even in diversity. He’s called us to please one another. Imagine with me a church that thrives on maintaining unity. Imagine saints that are willing to sacrifice some of their preferences to reach out to a new generation of young people. Imagine young people building relationships and actively caring for those saints who willingly yielded their preferences. What could God do with such a church?
[In order to preserve biblical unity, Paul has said we are to aim to please one another. Now he will state that we are to . . .]
2. Aim To Accept One Another (15:7-13)
We must accept one another because Christ has accepted us along with every other believer. In 15:7 Paul writes, “Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.” The word “Therefore” (dio) looks back to the discussion Paul began in 14:1.The verb “accept” also repeats Paul’s opening exhortation in 14:1. The word translated “accept” (proslambano) is more accurately translated “welcome” or “receive.” This word means that we are to receive into full fellowship our brothers and sisters in Christ. It means to value an individual so much that he or she experiences warmth and belonging. It means to open your heart and your home to another person. True unity demands sensitivity.

People desire acceptance at every level of life: in the family, in marriage, in the classroom, in the workplace. God wired us to seek acceptance, but He wants us to find acceptance in Himself. When we place our faith in Christ, God accepts us. However, Paul is also stating that it is inconsistent for a Christian to reject someone whom God has accepted. We are to receive one another as Jesus Christ has received us. We are fellow members of the family of God. This results in glory for God. To put it simply, God’s goal in everything He does is to bring glory to Himself. The word “glory” (doxa) means to be well spoken of. When we are unified, the God whom we represent receives the glory. He is well spoken of. On the other hand, when we are divisive, rejecting, and lacking in unity, our actions reflect badly upon our heavenly Father. Let not this be the case with us. Rather, let us discover life’s ultimate pursuit: the glory of God.

In 15:8-12 Paul illustrates how Christ accepts us to the glory of God. He begins with a general statement: “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” (15:8-9a). Paul explains that Christ became a servant for two important reasons: (1) “to confirm the promises given to the fathers” (15:8b). The word “promises” is plural and looks at the unconditional covenants given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This reminds us of the unconditional faithfulness of God. (2) Christ became a servant to the Gentiles so that the Gentiles might “glorify God for His mercy.” We who are Gentiles should stand in awe of God’s mercy for saving us. God had made no promises to us, and we had no covenants with Him, yet we are heirs with Christ.

In 15:9b-12 Paul quotes four different Old Testament texts in rapid succession to show how the Old Testament promised that the Gentiles would become part of God’s chosen people. In these four verses Paul quotes from the books of the Law, the books of poetry, and the prophets. Please notice the progression in these four Old Testament quotations.
The first quotation (from 2 Sam 22:50) says that Christ will be praised among the Gentiles.
The second (from Deut 32:43) says that the Gentiles and Jews will praise God together.
The third quotation (from Ps 117:1) calls on all the Gentiles to praise the Lord.
The fourth quotation (from Isa 11:10) looks forward to the day when Christ will return and reign over the nations of the earth. Paul writes: “As it is written, ‘THEREFORE I WILL GIVE PRAISE TO YOU AMONG THE GENTILES, AND I WILL SING TO YOUR NAME.’ Again he says, ‘REJOICE, O GENTILES, WITH HIS PEOPLE.’ And again, ‘PRAISE THE LORD ALL YOU GENTILES, AND LET ALL THE PEOPLES PRAISE HIM.’ 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.’” Don’t miss the key point: God always planned to include the Gentiles in His kingdom. He wanted His family to include many different kinds of people from many different backgrounds. These verses prove that our God is a multicultural God with a heart as big as the entire world.

Paul’s point is: God has included all people! We are welcomed by Him! Three times in three verses God calls the Gentiles and the Jews to rejoice together (15:9-11). Furthermore, no less than five different Greek words for praise are used in these brief Old Testament quotes, reminding us how significant praise is in God’s sight.53 The church of Jesus Christ must throw off all racial, social, cultural, and philosophical preferences for the purpose of praise and unity. True unity demands sensitivity.

Here’s how the apostle closes this passage in 15:13: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Don’t you love that verse? It calls God the “God of hope” whose great desire is to fill us with joy and peace. He wants His people to be filled with hope! What a wonderful picture this is. We are to be filled with joy and peace and so full of hope that it overflows (perisseuo) out of our lives and spills over to the people around us. This verse concludes the section on service dealing with the practice of God’s righteousness (12:1-15:13). What will be the fruit of an individual or a church that is marked by unity? Paul shares three wonderful fruits: joy, peace, and hope. Notice though, he states that God will have to be the One who will fill us with these fruits. Biblical unity is impossible on a human level. Only the power of the Holy Spirit is capable of bringing it about. The following application points will enable us to fulfill our responsibility to maintaining unity in our local church.

Pray for unity. Pray for unity in your local church. Ask God to reveal and remove any wrong attitudes that hinder the work of His Spirit in your midst? Pray for the Holy Spirit to bring unity in the larger body of Christ (e.g., throughout your city church, the national church, and the worldwide church).

Praise God for biblical diversity. When you meet Christians of different persuasions in matters of opinion, do not feel obligated to change their opinion. As long as it is not a matter of personal holiness or foundational biblical truth accept them for who they are in Christ. Allow them to reach different people, serve in different ministries, and enjoy different activities than you do.

What is it that everyone in the Miss United State pageant wants? World Peace! Everyone in the world wants peace . . . everyone wants harmony . . . everyone wants unity. However, true unity is only possible through Christ. As believers in Jesus Christ, God has hardwired us to yearn for unity. But this can only happen when we make it our aim to please and accept one another. True unity demands sensitivity. Today, will you make it your aim to demonstrate sacrificial sensitivity to your brothers and sisters in Christ?

Rights and responsibilites

Have you ever used the right thing in the wrong way? Think of perfume or cologne. If you use it in the right way, a small amount actually makes you somewhat appealing to most people, but use it in the wrong way—use too much—and you will be appalling to people. This is also true of salt. If you use the right amount in your food, it is a delicious seasoning, but use too much and it can ruin your meal. The same principle is true with most medicines as well. Aspirin, for example, is a good blood thinner, but use too much of it and it will thin your blood to the point that it could kill you.
The apostle Paul, likewise, argues that it’s possible to use the right thing in the wrong way. He applies this adage to Christian liberty. Previously, in Rom 14:1-12 Paul stated that we are absolutely free to decide for ourselves on non-essential issues like eating, drinking, dancing, music, and movies. We learned to “be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself.” Now in 14:13-23 Paul presents the “other side of the coin” in our Christian liberty. Those who are free to enjoy their liberty are responsible for not having an adverse effect on other believers. Someone has recommended to Americans that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. Such a balance would be a helpful reminder. We need to recognize the same balance in our Christian life. Rights bring responsibility. How do you handle liberty? The answer is: you handle it with care. Liberty must be limited by love. Paul provides three warnings against abusing your Christian liberty.

1. Don’t Harm Your Fellow Believers (14:13-15)
Paul commands you to limit your Christian liberty because not all believers have the same freedoms in non-essential issues. In 14:13 he writes, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.” There is a classic wordplay in this verse. The verb translated “determine” (krino, 14:13b) is the same Greek word translated “judge” (14:13a). This verse can be literally rendered: “Let us not judge one another anymore, but rather judge this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.” Paul says: Stop judging other believers on “opinions” (cf. 14:1)! What are you more concerned about: what your brother or sister is doing or what you are doing? If we were as preoccupied with our own conduct as we are other believers’ behavior we would really be spiritual! Here, however, Paul is concerned that those who have liberty protect those who don’t. The word translated “obstacle” (proskomma) referred to something in the road that causes one to stumble. In this context, a strong believer who puts an obstacle in the path of a weak believer might set him back temporarily or even do permanent damage to his sensitive conscience. The term “stumbling block” is the Greek term skandalon, from which we get the English word “scandal.” It literally refers to the triggering mechanism on a baited animal trap. The activity looks enticing until those jaws snap shut.

We must not tempt a weaker Christian to sin by partaking of our liberty and thereby violating his or her conscience. We must remember that we are either stepping stones or stumbling blocks.Which one are you? Liberty must be limited by love.

Paul builds his argument in 14:14a: “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.” Paul is not saying here that anything goes because everything is good. However, he is absolutely confident that nothing is unclean in and of itself (cf. 14:5). In other words, a marijuana leaf is not sinful. A cocoa plant is not an evil thing. A gun or a knife is not wicked. Sex is not impure. These things in and of themselves are not unclean. Rather, it is how these things are used that leads to sin.

Paul confirms this notion in 14:14b when he writes: “but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” If a believer thinks anything is unclean it becomes unclean for that person. This verse leads to a shocking truth: Some things are wrong for you that are right for others, and some things are right for you that are wrong for others. This statement means that you can’t always know in advance what will be “right” or “wrong” for another Christian brother. It is a matter of one’s conscience.

A man consulted a doctor. “I’ve been misbehaving, Doc, and my conscience is troubling me,” he complained. The doctor replied, “And you want something that will strengthen your willpower?” “Well, no,” said the fellow. “I was thinking of something that would weaken my conscience.”

While this may be amusing, it is especially true in the church. Many of us are caught between traditions and preferences and what the Bible really prohibits or doesn’t prohibit. This reality should drive us to study the Scriptures to determine how our traditions and preferences affect what we believe. Like Paul, we must get to the place where we can honestly say, “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (14:14a). However, it still may be that you can’t stomach a particular activity or object. If so, it is “unclean” to you and would be sinful for you to participate in. Listen to your conscience! The conscience isn’t always right, but it’s always wrong to violate it (cf. 14:22-23).

In 14:15 Paul switches to the second-person singular “your” for greater clarity and conviction: “For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.” Paul explains that it is possible to “hurt” and “destroy” a fellow believer. When another Christian sees you doing what his own conscience condemns, it grieves him or causes him pain. When he then proceeds to do himself what his conscience condemns, he commits sin and is destroyed. Some scholars argue that the Greek word “destroy” (apollumi) refers to eternal destruction. Yet, the word here does not mean “made to go to hell” or “made to lose his salvation.”

Paul is talking about the loss of peace, assurance, and effective ministry. He lays out two motivations for our conduct:
(1) love for other believers and
(2) Christ’s death on the cross (cf. 5:8).

If we are believers we ought to love one another. Furthermore, Christ’s sacrifice should compel us to demonstrate sensitivity. If Jesus was willing to die for believers certainly we should be willing to make the smallest of sacrifices. Remember, liberty must be limited by love.

Some believers just can’t see themselves walking freely in a certain area that they have been brought up to think is wrong; they have difficulty doing so. Thus, we are responsible to be sensitive and thoughtful toward such believers. Liberty must be limited by love.

If your spouse firmly believes that a purchase is wise stewardship but your spouse is worried that the Lord will not approve, you should restrain your liberty for the sake of your spouse. If you are out to dinner with a friend from your small group who has struggled with alcoholism you should not consume alcohol in their presence or even discuss it. You shouldn’t check the Lotto numbers when a friend who disagrees with gambling is nearby. You should never encourage a friend to dress up for Halloween who thinks it is idolatrous. Liberty must be limited by love.
Paul’s first warning is: Don’t harm your fellow believers. His second warning is …
2. Don’t Harm Your Testimony (14:16-18)
Since the world is always observing Christians, we ought to be wise in our use of freedom. Paul writes in 14:16: “Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil.” The phrase translated “spoken of as evil” (blasphemeo) is translated from a word that literally speaks of being “blasphemed,” which is usually used of unbelievers. The “good thing” refers to the liberty to eat meat or to do anything amoral. Paul is saying that unbelievers can legitimately speak of our freedom in Christ as “evil” if it results in the fall of another Christian or the compromise of our testimony. However much we wish it is not so, the world watches what we do.

When we use our liberty indiscriminately the world watches and shakes its head. Many unbelievers’ biggest reason for ignoring God is what they have seen a Christian do. Now certainly, sometimes they have a wrong perspective on what it means to be a Christian, but many times our liberty can harm our ability to tell the world about the Lord. What we intended for good, and what really is good in our lives, can be spoken of as evil when we do not restrain ourselves when it is appropriate. Many non-Christians say, “Why should I be a Christian? You don’t get along with each other, so why should I think becoming a Christian will bring peace or happiness?”

Let’s say you have the liberty to check your personal e-mail at work, but the unbelievers in your workplace do not share this same freedom. Or perhaps you sense the freedom to talk freely with your coworkers during work hours, but those you work with do not feel free to do so. Consequently, in both of these cases they look down on you. Your coworkers assume that you are lazy and are always trying to proselytize others. In your neighborhood, you may have “freedom in Christ” to let your yard go. Grass, weeds, and sticker bushes consume your yard while you are serving the church or taxiing your kids all over the place. Or, maybe God has given you a beautiful view, but you have allowed trees and shrubbery to block your neighbors’ view. In both of these cases your unbelieving neighbors may be rather indignant because in our crashing housing market, you are further hurting the value of their house. While you may argue that you have Christian liberty to do such things, I would caution you to think twice because your testimony could be on the line. Liberty must be limited by love.

In 14:17 Paul explains where true life is for the Christian: “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The “kingdom of God” here refers to the sphere over which God rules and in which all believers live and operate. Yet, we are prone to think that God’s kingdom primarily involves what a person does or does not do. This is how the Pharisees lived, making a big deal of externals. But the kingdom of God is not mainly a matter of externals but of eternals. In God’s kingdom, freedom comes from what He tells you on the inside, not what people tell you on the outside. But we spend so much time worrying about what people think that we never get around to finding out what God thinks.

However, Paul is asking: How can you fight about such little things and miss the big things. You are fighting over a gnat and not noticing a camel! You are concentrating on a pimple and not noticing Mount Everest! Paul says the eternals are “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Righteousness refers to “ethical righteousness,” that is, behavior pleasing to God (e.g., 6:16, 18, 19). Peace refers to the horizontal harmony that believers should manifest. The result of these blessings is “joy.”

In 14:18 Paul sums up 14:13-17 and brings the reader back to the main point here: We must decide not to put obstacles or traps in other Christians’ paths. He writes, “For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” If we have a healthy balance in enjoying our liberty and limiting it when it is appropriate we will not only be acceptable to God, we will also win the approval of other people since they realize what is more and less important. When we live out our conscience before God we are accepted by God (14:3), and if we do not abuse our liberty around others we are also approved by people. In other words, they respect us for our restraint and concern for others. When we embrace kingdom priorities, our service to Jesus is pleasing to God and vindicated in the sight of people, even people who disagree with us. Our self-control may also open the door of ministry and witness to the unbelieving community (cf. 14:16).
[Paul has issued two warnings: Don’t harm your fellow believers or your testimony. Now he provides a third and final warning . . .]
3. Don’t Harm Your Church (14:19-23)
Your highest priority is the building up of the church. Paul shifts gears in these transitional verses and moves from a negative to a positive emphasis. He moves from what we should stop doing to what we should pursue. In 14:19 Paul states: “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” The verb “pursue” (dioko) pictures a hunter chasing after his prey or a runner sprinting for the prize. Paul says that we must pursue peace and the building up of one another over our own use of personal liberty. The Greek term “building up” (oikodome) is a construction term that was used to describe the process of making a building stronger.

Our goal, then, is to strengthen and solidify the church by protecting other believers from violating their conscience. It is worth noting that sometimes the authority you may be under will restrict your choices. Female teaching and discussion leaders in Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) are required to wear dresses. Some women may see this as a violation of their Christian freedom; however, the women who serve in this capacity whom I have spoken with are more concerned with the joy of serving in this great ministry.

Bible Colleges, Christian organizations, and churches also have certain rules and expectations that may not be explicit in Scripture. Nonetheless, if you choose to be a part of such an entity, you need to pursue peace and honor the guidelines that have been established. Liberty must be limited by love.
Paul makes another strong statement in 14:20: “Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.” There is a play between “build up” (14:19) and “tear down” (14:20). Both are construction metaphors. Paul uses the verb “tear down” (kataluo), which functions as a synonym with the verb “destroy” (apollumi) in 14:15. In 14:15 the danger was destroying the weak Christians, and here it is expanded to encompass the destruction of “the work of God”—the church as a whole. Paul reminds us again—it’s just not worth indulging yourself. Yes, “all things are indeed clean” (cf. 14:14a) but to a fellow Christian who is a weaker brother or sister they may be “evil.” The “weaker brother,” then, is not the one who simply disagrees with what I do, or who gets upset by my freedom; the “weaker brother” is the one who is likely to imitate me in what I do, violating his own conscience and convictions. The “weaker brother” is the one more likely to sin because he gives in to another’s convictions rather than living by his own.
So what are some steps we can take that will help keep other believers from stumbling over us? Paul gives three practical applications.

Be considerate. In 14:21 Paul writes, “It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.” Paul urges the “strong” to abstain, not because their example might lead the “weak” to drink to excess, but because their example might lead the “weak” to drink, and thus to violate their consciences (14:22-23). Paul himself is willing to forego any particular food or drink to avoid causing spiritual growth problems for a brother. Certainly we should be willing to do the same. We willingly alter our pace of walking while leading a small child by the hand so he or she will not stumble. How much more should we be willing to alter our Christian walk for the benefit of a weaker brother or sister in Christ whom we are leading? We must learn the sensitivities of other believers and we must respect differing convictions. Liberty must be limited by love.

However, I do think it is a healthy thing for a Christian who has liberty in some of these areas to indulge it on occasion. I do not think the cause of Christ is ever advanced by having every strong Christian in a congregation completely forsake their right to indulge in some of the things God has given them the freedom to enjoy. What happens, then, is that the whole question is settled on the basis of the most narrow and most prejudiced person in the congregation. Soon, the gospel itself becomes identified with that kind of view. That is why the outside world often considers Christians to be narrow-minded people who have no concern except to prevent the enjoyment of the good gifts of life that God has given us. Because we tend to major on the minors, we’re known for what we’re against, not what we’re for. Ultimately, exercising Christian liberty is very much like walking a tightrope. As you walk the rope with balancing pole in hand, at one end of the pole is love for others and at the other is Christian liberty. When these are in balance, your walk is as it should be.

Be convinced. In 14:22a Paul states, “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God.” If we are engaged in certain activities that are not clearly prohibited by the teaching of Scripture, then we should be confident in our thinking that they are right. If we entertain any doubts about the goodness of these activities, then we should give them up. Unfortunately, the NIV provides a rather misleading translation. It suggests that you are to keep quiet about your liberties. However, that is not quite accurate. What Paul is saying is: If you have faith, have it between yourself and God. That is, let God and His Word be the basis for your faith, and nothing else. Be sure that what you are doing is not because of pride on your part because you want to show off how free you are; you are doing this because God has freed you by His Word.

Be consistent. In 14:22b-23 Paul writes, “Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.” You are a happy (blessed) person if, in exercising your liberty, you do not condemn yourself by harming another. You are blessed if your exercise of freedom is free from doubt. When we arrive at the conclusion that something is right, unless we receive solid confirmation to the contrary, we should not waver in our conviction. For doubts concerning our beliefs will yield condemnation, but consistency in belief will bring us happiness.

In this context, “faith” (pistis) does not refer to the teachings of Christianity but to what a person believes to be the will of God for him. If a person does what he believes to be wrong, even though it is not wrong in itself, it becomes sin for him. He has violated what he believes to be God’s will. His action has become an act of rebellion against God for him. Whatever is done without the conviction that God has approved it is by definition sin. God has called us to a life of faith. Trust is the willingness to put all of life before God for His approval. Any doubt concerning an action automatically removes that action from the category of that which is acceptable. For a Christian, not a single decision and action can be good which he does not think he can justify on the ground, of his Christian conviction and his liberty before God in Christ.

Many tales are told about the greatest preacher of the nineteenth century, England’s Charles Haddon Spurgeon. He ruffled the feathers of not a few Christians in his day by his lifestyle choices—particularly his fondness for fine cigars. Compared to today, there was relatively little public awareness of the ill effects of tobacco on the human body, but smoking was shunned nonetheless by many Christians, but not Spurgeon. On one occasion, a young man approached Spurgeon and asked what he should do with a box of cigars he had been given. “Give them to me,” Spurgeon replied, “and I will smoke them to the glory of God.” Some time later, at the height of his fame, Spurgeon was walking down the street and saw a sign which read, “We sell the cigar that Charles Spurgeon smokes.” After reading this sign Spurgeon gave up the habit. He came to see that what was for him a freedom might cause others to stumble.

What Christian liberty is God calling you to give up either indefinitely or at appropriate occasions? Whatever it is, would you respond today? God wants you to prioritize other believers and follow Christ’s sacrificial example. Liberty must be limited by love.

Be slow to judge others

I can split nearly any church in less than two minutes. How can I do that? By asking which of the following items are sinful (or at best unspiritual):
o Drinking alcohol Working on Sunday
o Smoking cigarettes or cigars Gambling
o Dancing Watching R-rated movies
o Listening to secular music Watching MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)
o Using birth control Sporting tattoos or piercings
o Sending your kids to public school Observing Halloween
o Owning a luxury car or other extravagant possessions

The above practices are not explicitly discussed in Scripture. Yet, many Christians have practically come to blows over these issues! This should not be! The church must stop fixating on non-essential issues. We cannot continue to major on the minors and minor on the majors. Perhaps you’ve seen or heard the slogan, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” This is fantastic advice. But I would also add this, “The second thing is to keep second things second.” Indeed, it isn’t possible to keep the main thing main if we aren’t careful to keep second things second.” When Christians trivialize significant issues and hyper-focus on insignificant issues we must own the label “judgmental.”

In his book UnChristian, David Kinnaman highlights a number of troubling statistics of those born between 1965-2002. from an extensive study by the Barna Research Group Included are two statistics that show how those outside the church view those within: Nearly nine out of ten young outsiders—eighty-seven percent—said that the term “judgmental” accurately describes present-day Christianity. Of those non-Christians surveyed, eighty-four percent said they personally know at least one committed Christian. Yet just fifteen percent thought the lifestyles of those Christ-followers were significantly different from the norm. It would seem that you and I have some business to attend to.

Of course, we should have convictions on non-essential practices. Our convictions draw the line between what we will do and what we will not do as an exercise of Christian liberty. Personal convictions are important to the apostle Paul. In the vitally important application chapters of Romans 12-15, no subject is dealt with in greater detail than our convictions concerning Christian liberties. Paul devotes nearly two chapters to this subject (14:1-15:13). In his discussion, he addresses various controversies between “weak” and “strong” Christians in the church at Rome. Most likely the “weak” were primarily Jewish Christians and the “strong” Gentile Christians.

Both groups were dividing over inconsequential issues: avoiding meat (14:2), observing sacred days (14:5), and abstaining from wine (14:21). The weak believed that if the Bible hadn’t specifically approved something, then it was probably wrong. Those that were strong, on the other hand, believed if the Bible hadn’t specifically forbidden something, then it was probably within the realm of freedom. In 14:1-12 Paul argues that both groups need to exercise humility and grace with one another. His bottom line is: Be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself. He lays out three keys to experiencing harmony with God and others.
1. Stop Judging Other Believers (14:1-3)
Paul argues that God’s family is big enough to encompass believers who have different perspectives on non-essential issues. In 14:1 Paul writes, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” The word “Now” (de) marks a new section in Paul’s argument as he moves into a discussion regarding neutral practices of faith between believers (14:1-15:13). He insists that we are to “accept the one who is weak in faith.” The word “accept” (proslambano) may not be the best translation. Modern Americans often equate “accept” with the term “tolerate” or “put up with.” The conclusion is that to accept one who is weak in faith is to agree to disagree. The Greek term, though, means “to extend a welcome, receive into one’s home or circle of acquaintances.” Hence, various English versions opt for the translation “receive” (NET, NKJV) or “welcome” (ESV, NRSV).

The strong believer is to welcome the weak believer even when a particular issue of Christian freedom is off limits to him or her. If you are a strong brother or sister, you need to receive with warmth your weak brother or sister. Don’t reject your brother. Don’t call your sister a compromiser. Simply show them the love of Christ.

Now bear in mind Paul is discussing “opinions” (dialogismos) or “disputable matters” (NIV). He is not talking about tolerating blatant sin. On some matters Scripture is rather pointed: Christians are forbidden from getting divorced on unbiblical grounds. Sexual immorality will be judged by God. Gossip, slander, lying, and envy are on par with the most heinous sins. Believers who choose not to attend church, serve, or give are disobedient. There are also some doctrinal issues that are not optional. The authority and inspiration of the Bible are non-negotiable. Jesus Christ (fully God and fully man) as the only way to God is non-negotiable. Salvation by faith alone in Christ alone is non-negotiable. A literal return of Christ is non-negotiable. These are all fundamental, foundational truths. They are clear essentials upon which we all ought to agree. But apart from these (and possibly a few more), there are many other things that are not as clear, not as apparent, and not as easily understood in Scripture. In these matters, we must allow for differing opinions (e.g., the gifts of the Spirit, the age of the universe, the timing of Christ’s return, predestination/free will, etc.).

The first non-essential issue of debate between the Roman Christians comes up in 14:2: the issue of diet. Paul writes, “One person has faith [lit. “believes”] that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.” The strong were convinced that as New Covenant Christians they were not obligated to the Old Testament laws and were free to eat anything. In this case, I’m definitely a stronger brother. My favorite verse is found in 14:2b “he who is weak eats vegetables.” I’ve chosen to forgo my veggies, not because I don’t like the taste of them, but because I’m concerned about being weak. I’m kidding! Children must continue to eat vegetables. This is an essential.

Seriously, this description of a vegetarian is not one on account of principle or health reasons, but because their conscience is bothered in some way by eating meat. This could be on account of kosher laws, or more likely, is looking toward meat sacrificed to idols in pagan temples. Either way this person avoids all meat in the fear that some of the meat may be tainted in one way or another.
Paul continues in 14:3 and states, “The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.” In the case of food, God has not forbidden Christians to eat any food (1 Tim 4:3-4). Eating food is an amoral matter. It is neither morally good nor morally bad. The person who eats should not view himself as superior or look down on his extremely sensitive brother with a condescending attitude. The weaker brother should not judge the more liberal Christian as unacceptable to God either, because God has accepted him (cf. Romans 14:1). All people have a right to their own convictions. The key is that God can accept both the weak and the strong. Therefore, if God can receive people who have different opinions on non-essential issues, how much more so should you and I? May we be slow to judge others; be quick to judge ourselves.
There are several principles that may prove helpful in the issue of judging fellow believers:
Recognize that believers agree on far more than we disagree on. We see eye-to-eye on those doctrines, philosophies, and practices that are most essential to Christendom. Thus, we must focus on those things that unite us, not on things that divide us. Be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself.

Acknowledge that disagreement over non-essentials can be healthy. If the body of Christ never disagreed, we could never express true agape love. In any relationship (e.g., marriage, family, friendship), you can only enjoy true unconditional love when conflict has occurred. At that point forgiveness and grace can be extended. Furthermore, cookie-cutter Christians would be terribly boring. Variety is the spice of the church.

Distinguish between primary and secondary issues. There is no point in warring over secondary issues. Remember: “The second thing is to keep second things second.” We must not spend precious time constantly debating non-essential issues. If Christ could return today, let’s make sure we’re not spinning our spiritual wheels fighting over things that really don’t matter.

Exercise humility on non-essentials. No one knows everything there is to know about non-essential issues. That’s why they are non-essential issues! You must always be willing to change your mind or modify your perspective. Over the years, I have changed my mind on issues such as the charismatic gifts, the age of the universe, and women in ministry. It is wise to remain humble.

Refuse to criticize those who see things differently. When I am working through a study on non-essential issues, I love to read those who hold different opinions. Often I learn the most from those who see things differently. Such men and women poke holes in my arguments and beliefs and help me to be a clearer thinker. These individuals are a service to the body of Christ and to my ministry and learning.

Allow people to come to their own conclusions. Someone once defined a legalist as: “A Christian who lives in mortal fear that someone, someplace, is enjoying himself.” In the same vein, the “weak” (i.e., abstainers) had concluded that what was wrong for them was wrong for everyone! Our culture and our background influence us more than we think. Christians have differing levels of spiritual maturity. We must realize what is best for us may not be best for everyone. We need to warmly and respectfully give one another freedom in non-essential areas. Doing so would revolutionize our life within the church as well as our testimony outside. For the sake of Christian love and community, we must leave room for people to grow and be different. Be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself.
[The first key to a harmonious life is to stop judging other believers. Paul second key is to . . .]
2. Submit Your Convictions To The Lord (14:4-9)
The decisions that you make regarding non-essentials should be made with the Lord in mind. In 14:4 Paul writes: “Who are you[weak believer] to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able [or “is powerful”] to make him stand.” Imagine that I am visiting the president of a major corporation and during our conversation I began to criticize his executive secretary. He might listen for a few minutes, but eventually he would probably say something like, “Who do you think you are?!”

Paul is saying: “Back off. Cut others some slack. They are serving Christ; and He can take care of them.” We must always recognize that the Lord can take care of changing others where they need changing. He cares about the maturity of His kids more than we do. Moreover, God is able to keep the strong believer from falling into sin while participating in an amoral activity. God’s grace provides both the possibility and the power for standing favorably at the judgment seat of Christ.

In 14:5-6 Paul brings up another illustration: days. He writes: “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.” The Christians in Rome disagreed on the significance of days (e.g., Sabbath, holy days). Today Christians disagree on whether or not churches have the freedom to add Saturday night services (or for that matter, Friday night or Monday night services).

There is also disagreement as to whether or not it is permissible to celebrate Halloween and Easter because of their pagan backgrounds. There is also a question as to whether or not a believer can work on Sundays. In these issues pertaining to worship, we are to develop personal convictions before the Lord. God no longer regulates the issue of what day we worship. Regular worship is an issue (Hebrews 10:25), but the day of worship is not.

The principle that is found in 14:5 is critical: We must determine what we believe to be appropriate even with the non-essentials. However, we must recognize that our responsibility is to do this for ourselves not our brother. “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” This means that every believer has the freedom in areas of non-essentials to make up his or her own mind. Of course, this should not be done haphazardly, but with great care. The word that is translated “fully convinced” (plerophoreo) means “to accomplish, carry out fully.” This requires careful personal study and corporate discussion. But in the end, know for sure that at the judgment seat of Christ, there’s one thing our Lord will never ask you: “What did your pastor or teacher believe?” We must all come to our own convictions and opinions of what Scripture is teaching from our own study of the text.

The beautiful thing about 14:6 is: “Two believers can disagree and both be right (that is accepted by God). Given that we disagree, it is not necessary that you be wrong in order that I should be right.” The key is giving thanks to God, which is repeated twice. Whether your conscience allows you great freedom or no freedom, God’s goal is for you to be able to give thanks to Him. If you can’t give God thanks, you need to reexamine whether or not you are “fully convinced” in your own mind. If there is any doubt ask the Lord to reveal this to you. But please remember: Be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself.

Now having said all this, the fact of the matter is that very few of us fit neatly into the category of a strong brother or a weak brother. All of us like to think of ourselves as strong and we like to think that we have no legalism in us. I know I like to think that of myself. But the fact of the matter is that if we’re really honest with ourselves we will admit that we’re generally quite inconsistent in this area.

The one who has a conscience against going to the movies will often watch them at home. The one who has freedom to enjoy an occasional glass of wine with supper wouldn’t be caught dead with a can of beer in his hand. The one who believes that chewing tobacco is the devil’s bubble gum doesn’t hesitate filling himself with coffee, refined sugar, sodium, and all sorts of other alleged poisons. The one who wouldn’t think of sitting at a blackjack table in Las Vegas will, nevertheless, gamble on a football pool at the office, or go to a bingo parlor, or even gamble on speculative stocks. If we will recognize and admit these inconsistencies it will probably be a lot easier for us to accept our brothers and sisters in Christ when their lifestyles don’t happen to coincide with ours.

When I am thinking through various issues and trying to determine if a doctrine, philosophy, or practice is an essential or non-essential matter I like to ask myself these three questions:
(1) Would I be willing to lose lunch over this issue?
(2) Would I be willing to lose my house over this issue?
(3) Would I be willing to lose my life over this issue?

With regards to the latter, I would only lose my life for an essential doctrine (e.g., the Bible is the God’s Word, Christ is the Son of God, salvation is by faith alone). Surprisingly, there are very few things I would lose my house or even a lunch over. Hence, I need to major on the major, not the minors. I need to be slow to judge others; be quick to judge myself.
In 14:7-9 Paul provides the theological rationale for why we should submit our convictions to the Lord. In doing so Paul pens one of the strongest passages on the lordship of Christ. He writes: “For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” Please note that the word “Lord” (kurios) occurs seven times in 14:6-9. All that we do, we are to do “for the Lord.” No Christian, however, is an island. Our actions affect others. Therefore, we must limit our personal freedom in love (cf. 14:13-23). But why is there such an emphasis on life and death, living and dying? Because this makes Paul’s teaching all-encompassing. Life and death circumscribe the whole of life—nothing lies outside these boundaries.

Paul meant that we should not live to please ourselves alone but we should live to please the Lord. This desire to please the Lord will continue beyond the grave, so Paul could also say that we do not die for ourselves. Our whole existence this side of the grave and the other, in life and in death, should express our commitment to please the Lord.
[Paul now issues a third and final key to Christian harmony . . .]
3. Remember That Judgment Belongs To God (14:10-12)
Instead of being concerned with the neutral decisions of other Christians, you need to prepare for how God will judge you. As you read 14:10-12, pay careful attention to Paul’s use of pronouns, particularly “you” (four times). Paul writes, “But you [weaker brother], why do you judge your brother? Or you [stronger brother] again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written [Isaiah 45:23], ‘AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME, AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD.’ So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” In 14:10 both the weaker brother and the stronger brother are guilty of the same offense, namely, judging prematurely and unwarrantedly.

This leads Paul to explain that every believer will stand before “the judgment seat of God.” The Greek word for “judgment seat” is bema, meaning the place where the judges stood at the athletic games. If during the games they saw an athlete break the rules, they immediately disqualified him. At the end of the contests the judges gave out the rewards. Here, Paul suggests that criticizing other believers will be called into account at the bema. So don’t judge your brother or sister because God is going to do it. Be careful how you think about your brother because God is going to judge you too. When you stand before the Lord, He won’t quiz you about what Mr. Jones did or how Mrs. Smith lived. You’ll answer for yourself and for no one else. I don’t know about you, but I have more than enough to answer for myself! I should be more concerned about me than anyone else.

God will judge your friends, why should you get involved? He knows them better than you do, He loves them more than you do, and He reads the thoughts and intents of the heart, which you can’t read at all. Furthermore, if we all spent more time worrying about ourselves, we’d have very little time left to worry about other people. Be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself.

If you have multiple children you know that kids don’t always get along. In our home we have two “big brothers” and one “mother hen.” My three children are all guilty of telling me when one of their siblings sins or commits an inadvertent transgression. Of course, they want their brother or sister to be judged. I inevitably ask the question: “Do you know who I am? My title is ‘Dad.’ I am the one who judges and brings discipline, not you. Your brother or sister does not answer to you; they answer to me. You are the house servant (cf. 14:4)—the child. Let me do my job.” Likewise, God says: “I am God; you’re not. Let Me judge My children. They answer to Me, not you. Give Me my job back!” Make a commitment today to be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself.
God?

 

The Laws of the Land

What is dual citizenship? Dual citizenship means that an individual is a citizen of two countries at the same time. In America, dual citizenship is not something that can be applied for. It occurs automatically for some individuals. For example, if a child is born in the U.S. to foreign parents, the child automatically has U.S. citizenship as well as citizenship of the parents’ home country. Similarly, the Bible calls you to dual citizenship. If you were born in the U.S. you are an American citizen, but when you were born again you became heaven’s citizen. You are responsible to live out both citizenships. The problem is some Christians are prone to extremes: either focusing on their earthly citizenship or their heavenly citizenship. Yet, Paul argues that both citizenships are essential since you have dual citizenship. In Romans 13:1-14 Paul instructs you in your obligations as an earthly and heavenly citizen.

1. Submit To Government (13:1-7)
God is glorified and His will is fulfilled when you submit to His governing authorities. In 13:1a Paul writes: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.” The command begins with the words, “Every person” (pasa psuche lit. “Every soul”). This includes believers and unbelievers, rich and poor, great and small, without exception. But Paul’s primary concern is that believers “submit” to governing authorities. The verb “submit” (hupotasso) means “to place oneself under.” After reading this blanket command, some look for exceptions. However, here Paul provides the general rule, not the exceptions. Of course, there are at least three areas in which a Christian should resist authority:
(1) If he or she is asked to violate a command of God.
(2) If he or she is asked to commit an immoral or unethical act.
(3) If he or she is asked to go against his/her conscience.

But when a believer resists authority he/she must be willing to accept the consequences (see 13:2). Submission is never easy and frequently there are grave ethical dilemmas.

Fortunately, in 13:1b Paul gives the first reason you must submit to government. He writes, “For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” This is the first of four uses of the word “authority” (exousia), which means “delegated authority.” Paul’s entire argument is based upon a fundamental premise: God is sovereign and He possesses ultimate authority. However, no one has authority independent of God. (Underline the word “no” in 13:1b). He alone delegates human authority to people. This means that every government is to be acknowledged and obeyed by virtue of its existence, not because it meets your preferences. The term that is translated “established” or “ordained” (tetagmenai from tasso) is in the perfect tense, referring to a past action with continuous results. Paul means that all governments (past, present, and future) that exist are ordained by God, whether good or bad.

Now perhaps you are asking the question, “What about Hitler, Stalin, and Hussein? Did God ‘ordain’ these authorities?” The Scriptures teach an interesting paradox: on one hand, Satan is actively involved in the political process (Luke 4:6-7). The book of Daniel teaches that there are wicked spirits who are assigned to various leaders. Yet at the same time, the Bible clearly teaches that God rules in the affairs of men. In Psalm 75:6-7 Asaph says: “For not from the east, nor from the west, nor from the desert comes exaltation; but God is the Judge; He puts down one and exalts another.” Proverbs 21:1 says: “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.” In other words, God is sovereign over whoever is in authority.

Remember, Nero was in power when Paul wrote Romans 13. Nero hated Christians, had them rounded up, dipped in tar, and lit as torches for his parties. He covered Christians in animal skins and threw them to wild dogs. He ordered Rome set on fire and then blamed the Christians, setting off the first wave of official persecution. We’ve largely forgotten how wicked pagan ancient Rome really was. Sorcery and black magic abounded, abortion flourished, homosexuality was accepted as normal, and the masses worshipped Caesar as Lord. No government in America has ever been as pagan as the government of ancient Rome.

In 13:2 Paul shares the first consequence if you fail to submit to government. He writes, “Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” Paul is saying that when you resist government you are resisting God! To put it positively, submission to government is an expression of your submission to God. Therefore, whether you think a law is fair or not, you have no right to disobey simply because of your preferences. If you choose to disobey Paul states that you will receive condemnation upon yourself. “Condemnation” (krima) or “judgment” refers to both God’s judgment and government’s judgment. Government penalizes people for their wrongdoings. What government fails to judge properly in this life, God will make right in the final judgment.

In 13:3 Paul gives a second reason why you should generally be submissive to governing authorities. He explains, “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same.” Rulers uphold the law. Hence, if you are honoring the law, you have nothing to fear under a good government. But when you do evil, you have much to fear. Have you ever experienced the surge of fear that shoots through you when you speed through a speed trap and then look down at your speedometer? It’s a frightening thing. (I know from first-foot experience!) Now if you never speed, you have nothing to worry about, right? Right! But if you drive I-20 like the German autobahn, be worried . . . be very worried! The consequences of judgment or “praise” are true of every scale of crime. Choose your consequences. It’s up to you.

Paul gives a second, surprising consequence if you fail to submit to government. He writes in 13:4: “for it [rulers] is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” Two times in 13:4, Paul calls rulers a “minister” (diakonos), which is also the word for deacon. So you are to look upon governing authorities as part of God’s ministerial staff. They are a part of the team He assembles to work in the world today. The task of this minister is to serve God by dealing appropriately with those who do good and also with those who do evil. In case there is any doubt in your mind, Paul puts the word “God” (theou) in the emphatic slot in both phrases of 13:4. Governing authorities are God’s ministers, so you are commanded to submit to them. You have dual citizenship.

In 13:4 Paul also alludes to “the sword” that government bears. Notice he doesn’t refer to “the whip” or “the jail sentence”—he says “the sword.” In New Testament times the sword was an instrument of capital punishment to behead criminals. Roman officials had sabers carried in front of them as a constant reminder that they held the power of life and death. Now, it may be true that Paul’s words carry a much broader meaning, but it’s also true that capital punishment is certainly included in this concept. He seems to be saying that the state or the government, not the individual, has the authority to take another person’s life. Hence, there is no conflict here between Paul’s words in 12:19-20 about not taking vengeance, and his use of the sword to restrain evil.

Romans 12 is personal; Rom 13 is constitutional.
In Romans 12 vengeance is at work; in Romans 13 justice is at work.
Thus, I understand 13:4 to teach that government has the right to execute capital punishment. God established the death penalty before the Law back in Gen 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” It has nothing to do with our opinions about it—whether we find it distasteful or arrogant to assume that society has the right to take a person’s life. All of that is an irrelevant discussion.

God has addressed the matter. The Bible says that anyone who deliberately and premeditatively takes a life, his or her life shall be taken. In fact, not only is capital punishment biblical, but public capital punishment is biblical so that those watching will say, “I don’t want that to happen to me” (Numbers 16:30-34; Josh 7:24-26). The principle here is: God highly values human life. Murder is a unique crime, a crime against the “image of God” in man. The natural deterrent to upholding this intrinsic value is to practice the death penalty. It is a necessary function of society to harness the evil of people.

Admittedly, capital punishment isn’t always administered justly and we must fight to correct the injustices. But the institute of capital punishment is necessary to punish evil and help instill fear of authority. This truth is further confirmed in Romans 13:4, when Paul calls governing authorities “an avenger” (ekdikos). If a person killed another person, in the Old Testament, even accidently, that person’s family had the right to exercise the “eye-for-an-eye” vengeance (the blood avenger). Paul seems to be relating the Old Testament custom to the authority of civil government.

In case you are confused, Paul summarizes his command (13:1a) and his reasons to submit to government (13:1b, 3). In 13:5 he writes, “Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience sake.” In light of all that Paul has said (13:1-4) he hopes that you will be “in subjection.” Paul repeats the two reasons to submit to government in reverse order. The external motivation that promotes submission is the fear of punishment. The internal motivation that promotes submission is a desire to maintain a pure and undefiled conscience. You have dual citizenship.

Paul closes this section in 13:6-7 with specific applications: “For because of this [God’s ordaining of governing authorities] you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing” (13:6). How can you demonstrate your submission to the government? By paying taxes! One reason for paying taxes is that rulers are “servants of God.” This is the third time that governing rulers are referred to as God’s “servants” or “ministers” (cf. 13:4). Yet, here Paul uses a different word for “servant” (leitourgos). This term is used for temple servants in the Old Testament. Paul also uses this word of himself a “minister [leitourgos] of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles” (15:16).

Many governing officials may not realize it, but God has put them where they are to serve Him. Civil servants, then, are performing God-ordained functions full-time, and you should pay your taxes to support their ministry. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take deductions or pay more than needed, but it does mean that you should pay your share willingly. How honest are you in paying your taxes? How online purchases have you made to purchase items to avoid sales tax? Did you report sales tax on items you bought out-of-state (e.g., Internet site purchases)? Did you report all the tips you made? If you are willing to pay your taxes, it is likely that you will be submissive in other areas as well.

But what about when my taxes are being used for things I disagree with? What if I don’t believe in spending money on foreign aid? What if I feel it is wrong to support the military? What if I believe it is criminal that state or federal funds are used to pay for abortions? Stop and ask yourself what Roman taxes were going toward in Paul’s day? The answer is the luxurious lifestyle of the Caesars, abortion, and the construction and maintenance of temples devoted to the worship of the Roman Emperor. You may not like the taxes you are asked to pay, you may not deem them fair, you might not agree with every way that our tax dollars are being spent, but you have no right to decide which taxes you want to pay and which ones not to pay. God has not given you the authority to make that decision.
In 13:7 Paul writes, “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” Paul states that you are to pay direct taxes and indirect taxes (customs). But he also says that you are to fear and honor your governing authorities. “Respect” (lit. “fear”) refers to your awareness that they have God’s authority to punish the evil-doer (13:4). “Honor” refers to your realization that God places value and significance upon such people. Notice, Paul does not qualify the word “all” (pas). This means all civil servants, at every level, are to receive honor and respect. This respect is not just for the office but to the person as well. This respect is “due them,” regardless of their party affiliation, regardless of how they live their private life, and regardless of the sly way they catch you speeding. Perhaps you’re thinking you can’t honor your president or governor. Can you pray for this person? As you pray for this person, you’ll find it easier to honor the governing authority. Remember, you have dual citizenship.

There are many other relevant applications in this section:
(1) Don’t ignore your responsibility to vote.
This is one of the greatest sins in the Christian church. We whine and fret over the direction of our country, but we refuse to vote. What insanity! Christians who don’t vote are abdicating their responsibility and must answer to God. The Bible says that Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, was honored “because he sought the good of his people” (Esther 10:3). Shouldn’t we also work for the good of our nation? Don’t look at voting only as a responsibility; however, look at it as an opportunity—an opportunity hundreds of millions of people in our world wish they had.

(2) Encourage your governing authorities. Instead of being critical every time they do something you don’t like, contact various civil servants and let them know that you are praying for them (1 Tim 2:1-2). When they do something right, drop them an e-mail, a handwritten note, or even pick up the phone and call directly. Let them know how pleased you are and that you are grateful for them.

(3) Consider public service if you have been given abilities appropriate to the task. If you are a young person, God may want to use you as a “minister” on His full-time staff. If your child or grandchild expresses an interest in politics, don’t discourage him or her. Rather, challenge such a one to serve the Lord on the frontlines. How wonderful it would be if one of your children was instrumental in helping to turn around our country!
[Not only are you to “submit” to your governing authorities, you must also . . .]
2. Live To Love (13:8-10)
Paul calls you to live out a lifestyle of love with everyone God brings you in contact with. In 13:8-10 he writes: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” There are several observations worth noting in these three verses.

First, the NASB’s translation “owe nothing to anyone” can be misleading because it seems to prohibit any form of debt or borrowing. However, this verse does not mean that you may never incur financial obligations or that you may not borrow from others in case of need. The New Testament does not forbid borrowing, only the practice of charging inflated interest on loans and failing to pay debts. A strong argument can be made for the view that one is not really in debt unless his liabilities exceed his assets, unless he has borrowed beyond the means to repay, or unless he has fallen behind on payments. The NIV’s translation, “Let no debt remain outstanding” avoids the literal interpretation but gives the correct interpretation of Paul’s thoughts.

Second, you should strive to love, but you should never consider the debt “paid in full.” Unlike house payments, car payments, credit card debt, and even college debt, love is a debt that continues forever. Therefore, when faced with a difficult situation, you can never say, “I’ve loved that person enough. I’m going to stop now. I have nothing else to give.” You must always remember Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” God’s love for you has been, and always will be, absolutely unconditional. Regardless of how you treat God, He showers you with mercy, grace, compassion, and patience. He lavishes love upon you.

How can you not love your fellow believers? But you may say, “You don’t know my wife. She disrespects me in front of the kids. She deprives me sexually. She doesn’t keep the house clean. She has let herself go physically.” I hurt for you . . . I really do. However, you have a debt of love to your wife that will never be paid.

Perhaps your children are rebellious and they have caused you nothing but grief. They have publicly humiliated you. Every day of your life is an all-out war. You feel like you are losing your mind. My heart truly grieves for you. Nonetheless, you owe your children a debt of love. This clarion call to love applies to an unruly boss, a cantankerous coworker, an annoying neighbor, and a gossiping church member. Despite how you are treated, God is calling you to a supernatural love for others.

Third, love fulfills the law. When you love your neighbor as yourself, the purpose of the law is brought to completion. However, Paul doesn’t want you to focus on the law; he wants you to focus on love since love should be the mark that distinguishes you as a Christian (John 13:34-35). Since the world believes Christianity is responsible for racism, sexism, homophobia, the Crusades, and religious wars, we must break the stereotype of intolerance and narrow hate that seems to mark us. Naturally, we can only accomplish this as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. He is the one who works in and through us and grants supernatural love. Today, don’t think vaguely about loving everybody; think about loving one or two particular people, the difficult ones whom God has set before you. As you do so, you will fulfill the law and demonstrate your dual citizenship.
[You are obligated to submit to government and to live to love. Your third and final obligation is to . . .]
3. Refuse To Sin (13:11-14)
Paul uses the issue of the urgency of Christ’s return as a chief motivation to live the Christian life. In 13:11 he writes, “Do this, knowing the time, it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.” The word “Do” is not part of the original text. The first phrase in 13:11 literally reads, “And this knowing the time.” “This” (touto) refers to the duties prescribed in 12:1-13:10.

These duties can be categorized under two headings—love and service. We are to love and serve knowing our time is short. Have you ever noticed that we are obsessed with time! The first cognitive thought in our mind every morning is, “What time is it?” Have you ever counted the number of clocks you have in your house? (I counted over thirty last night in mine.) Think of your kitchen: coffee makers, oven, and microwave. What about your cell phones, laptops, DVD players, watches, and alarm clocks. We are fixated with time. But, are we measuring time correctly? We seem to be most concerned with what time it is now. God seems to be more concerned with what time is drawing near!

Paul often uses the word “sleep” (egeiro) as a picture of believers who have been lulled into worldliness. He sounds a spiritual alarm because many of us are asleep. We might say many believers are “sleep-walking.” They are alive, but they are caught up in the ways of the world. Paul says, “Wake up, Christian!” The term “salvation” (soteria) refers to Jesus’ coming and our glorification and reward. Paul wants you to live with your eyes set on the prize because Christ’s return could come at any moment. We need to be ready all the time because at any time Jesus may return.

In light of the urgency of Christ’s return, Paul writes in 13:12, “The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” “The night” refers to the time of Jesus’ absence; “the day” refers to His return. Again, Paul’s point is that Jesus’ return is imminent (i.e., it could happen at any time). Therefore, Paul commands us to “lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” In other words, we are to take off our soiled clothes and put on spiritual armor. This life should be viewed in light of the next.

Have you had an article clothing that you had too long? Have you heard: “Either you lose that shirt or I will!”?
Do you have a something that is unsuitable for the light of day? Sadly, you may be married to Christ, but still committing “deeds of darkness” that need to be done away with. Paul says, “Get rid of your old pajamas and put on the armor of light.” You’re in a war! That’s why you need armor. Putting on this armor will permit you to plan as if Christ’s return is years away, but live as if He’s coming today.
In 13:13 Paul warns about the deeds of darkness: “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy.” Paul lists three couplets of the old uniform:

(1) Party sins (“carousing and drunkenness”). Drinking to excess has become rather popular among believers today. My question is: If you knew that Jesus Christ was going to return today would you abuse alcohol? Would you allow yourself to become intoxicated to the point that you may unintentionally do something foolish?

(2) Bedroom sins (“sexual promiscuity and sensuality”). If you knew that Jesus Christ was going to return today would you be sexually immoral by sleeping with your boyfriend or girlfriend or someone who is not your spouse? Would you look at porn or open up a questionable website? Would you carry on an emotional affair or flirt with someone of the opposite sex? Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “I’m not a party animal, nor am I sexually immoral. I can check both of those sins off. I’m not guilty.” However, Paul is not done.

(3) Social sins (“strife and jealousy”). There are many who would be shocked at the thought of drunkenness, immorality or sexual looseness, but seem not to be shocked at all by strife and jealousy. Paul probably adds these sins to humble us all and prepare us for Christ’s return by living a life that is above reproach.
Paul cannot end on a negative note. So he concludes in 13:14 by saying: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” The righteous life is putting on Jesus like a suit of clothes. It is abiding in Him and living out His life. Paul instructs us to “make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” The term that is rendered “provision” (pronoia) implies forethought, planning, and activity. In Greek literature outside the New Testament, the term is used of a premeditated crime. Sin seldom just happens; most of the time it is premeditated. Sin is a link in a chain of events. When we surrender to the lusts of our flesh, it is often not a sudden collapse, but rather the culmination of a process. The sins of our flesh are those sins about which we have given much thought and for which we have made provision. If we are to be victorious over sin and the flesh, we must cease to make provision for it.

If you are a student of church history, you will not want to forget Romans 13:14. This verse led to the conversion of Augustine. Discouraged by his inability to overcome sexual sin (cf. 13:13), he one day heard a child at play call out, “Take up and read.” Picking up a copy of Romans, his eye fell on this verse. God convicted him of the reality both of his sin and of salvation, and he was converted.

If you are a student of Scripture and want to make your mark on history, you will not want to forget this verse. Romans 13:14 has the power to set you free from a life of sin. Today, put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Ask Him to help you overcome your sin. Make no provision for whatever sin is plaguing your flesh. Stop gratifying your flesh; instead, gratify your inner man with Jesus. You have dual citizenship. You are a citizen of earth, but you are a pilgrim, a sojourner who is just traveling through. You are on your way to your heavenly home because you are first and foremost a citizen of heaven. So act like it! Jesus has given you all the power you need.

Love without action is not love

How do you want to be remembered? Reflect on that question for just a moment. Imagine that you have passed away and are able to be a heavenly spectator at your own funeral. What would your pastor be able to say about your life? More importantly, what would people from church, work, and your neighborhood say about you? What would your family and friends say? What would you want them to say? When your life is all said and done, I believe that you will want to be remembered as a loving person. You won’t wish that you had spent more time at work. You won’t wish you would have made more money. You won’t wish that you would have had a nicer home. You won’t wish you could have played more golf or purchased nicer clothes. You will wish that you had loved people with God’s love.

Romans 12:9-21 is a practical “how-to” guide on God-like love. In this passage Paul demonstrates that love is an action not an emotion. Consequently, you can love those who are unlovely and unlovable. You can even love your enemy or persecutor. Paul’s thesis is simple: Love without action is not love. This text calls for two radical, yet biblical displays of love.

1. Display sacrificial love (12:9-16)
In 12:9a Paul writes, “Let love be without hypocrisy.” These are unusual opening words because they are not linked to anything in the previous context, and there is no verb in the Greek. If you notice in the NASB the words “Let” and “be” are in italics. This means that these words are not a part of the original Greek; rather, the translators, for clarity, supplied them. Paul literally says, “Love without hypocrisy” or “Sincere love!” These words serve as the title or heading for the entire passage. Paul assumes that you will manifest “love” (agape); however, he wants to ensure that your love is free from hypocrisy.

The word “hypocrisy” was used in the Greek world of the actor who wore masks to portray the emotion of his character. The facial expression could change with the move of a mask. Paul’s point is: Sincere Christians wear no masks. Instead, we should exemplify true love.
So how can we live out true love? In 12:9b Paul defines true love with two participles that function like commands: “Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.” Although this verse is a broad Christian principle, Paul seems to apply it to all that follows in 12:10-21. The word translated “abhor” (apostugeo) is only used here in the entire NT. It means “to have a vehement dislike for something, hate strongly.” True love does not tolerate evil. In the same breath, Paul says you are to also “cling [or cleave] to what is good.” The verb “cling” (kollao) is used elsewhere by Paul only with reference to sexual relations. In extrabiblical Greek, the word can mean “to glue.” Paul wants you to be intimately glued to that which is good.

I challenge you to spend some time this week meditating on 12:10-21. Ask yourself repeatedly, “Do I ‘abhor what is evil?’” Am I enraged over pride, selfishness, favoritism, revenge, and other ungodly behaviors? Then ask yourself, “Do I ‘cling to what is good?’” Am I enthralled with humility, selflessness, generosity, and servanthood? Love without action is not love.

In 12:10 Paul shares two exhortations concerning your attitude towards fellow believers (see the twofold use of “one another”). He writes, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (12:10a). The word translated “be devoted” (philostorgos) refers to a special kind of love. It’s used only here in the whole New Testament. The term was a common word in wills to denote “tender affection” within a family. Paul is saying that you should have a tender affection and concern for your fellow believers like you would have for your family members. He then compounds this thought with the term “brotherly love.” This phrase is the Greek word philadelphia. Paul expects you to exercise warm affection, family love, and brotherly love toward believers. After all, the Spirit is thicker than blood. Do you have family-like relationships in your local church? Do you miss your brothers and sisters when you are out of town or separated from them? Are you able to express your love for other members of your church family verbally, physically, emotionally, and even financially? Would those in your small group, Sunday school class, or ministry team say that you are “devoted” to them? Love without action is not love.

You may be thinking, “Paul is asking too much. I just can’t love so-and-so; the only feelings I have for him or her are disgust.” While that may be true, you can’t excuse yourself from 12:10b: “give preference to one another in honor.” For lexical reasons, I prefer the NASB alternate translation: “outdo one another in showing honor” (see also ESV, HCSB, NRSV). Paul issues a friendly competition to treat one another well. He wants you to lead the way in showing honor for other believers.
In every sphere of your life, you ought to seek to “outdo” other believers.
Look for ways to honor other believers before they honor you.
Recognize other believers’ accomplishments before they honor yours.
Defer to other believers before they defer to you.
Look for what you can provide in a relationship rather than what you can receive. Be aggressive in giving yourself away.

You’ll be surprised how quickly you can start liking someone when you begin to treat him or her with honor and respect. Love without action is not love.
In 12:11 Paul goes on to deal with your attitude towards God’s work. Paul writes, “not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit [the Holy Spirit], serving the Lord.”

You’ve heard, perhaps, about the guy who was asked if he thought ignorance and apathy were the two greatest problems of human nature. He responded, “I don’t know and I don’t care!” Well, Paul doesn’t want to see that kind of attitude in the church; rather he urges us to be diligent and fervent in our love and service for others. The word that is translated “fervent” (zeo) means “to boil or seethe.” To be “fervent in Spirit” is to allow the Holy Spirit to set you on fire. He is the one who will give you strength to love and to serve.

Why not pray this verse for yourself and your loved ones? God loves to set His people on fire for Him.

In 12:12-13 Paul offers five exhortations dealing with your attitude towards difficult circumstances. In 12:12 he states that we display true love when we are “rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer.” There is a logical progression of thought here. Rejoicing in the certain hope of God’s promises that leads to persevering through tribulation, and one advantage in tribulation is that tribulation makes it easier to pray! Nothing will make you love a person so much as praying for him or her. A simple adage is: The person who prays best is the person who loves best. Are you having a struggle loving another brother or sister in Christ? Today, will you begin praying for him or her? The Lord can often resolve the issues as you turn to Him in prayer. When V. Raymond Edman was president of Wheaton College, he often exhorted the students, “Chin up and knees down.” That’s good advice.

There is a connection between 12:12 and 12:13: “contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.” Times of tribulation demand a spirit of generosity and hospitality when others are in need. The word translated “contributing” (koinonia) means “to have in common or to share.” You are to share your material resources to help meet “the needs” of other saints.

In addition to generosity, troublesome times require hospitality. Some would say hospitality is “making people feel at home when you wish they were. The word “hospitality” (philoxenia) is more expressive than the English, for it means “love for strangers.” The word translated “practicing” (dioko) is also not strong enough. The Greek word means “pursue” or “persecute.” Paul wants you to pursue hospitality. Yet, the average American views his home as his castle, reserved exclusively for his own pleasure, but God says our homes are all leased from Him and are to be used as places of support and strength for others. While it is often easier to meet the material needs of someone by writing a check or giving a possession, God expects you to open up your home.

There is something special about being invited into someone’s home. It is one of the greatest expressions of love and acceptance. Yet, very few of us do this on a regular basis. Why? Many of us would complain that it’s too much work. Yet, what’s really required? Surprisingly, very little. Just kick the toys into a corner and make sure you have some microwave popcorn, paper plates, and water. Or just invite people over for dessert instead of an elaborate six-course meal. Don’t get fancy. There’s no need to try to impress anybody. You don’t have to be Martha Stewart or Betty Crocker; you just have to be full of love. Why not pick an evening that works well for you and make a goal to have others over weekly or monthly. You might just change someone’s life with an evening of Christian fellowship.

In 12:14-16 Paul returns to your attitude towards fellow believers. He writes in 12:14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” I believe this commandment relates primarily to persecution you might receive from other believers. Taking shots from someone we consider a friend is perhaps the toughest kind of persecution to handle. The Greek word for “bless” (eulogeo) means “to speak well of a person.” Our English word “eulogize” is taken from this Greek word. Here, to bless your persecutors is to eulogize them, to speak well of them. This requires incredible self-control and grace.

Paul continues his motif of gracious living in 12:15 when he states: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” An old Swedish proverb reads: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” The Swedes had it right! Here, Paul wants you to show fellow believers sympathy and understanding. Which is more difficult? For most of us, rejoicing with those who rejoice. We can show sympathy when believers (and unbelievers) are hurting, but it is often another thing when we are called to rejoice in the blessings of others. We are to look for opportunities to love.

If we were to share in the lives of others by experiencing their joy and feeling their grief, all kinds of walls would come crashing down. By the way, one of the practical ways we can fulfill this command is to attend weddings and funerals. That might seem like an odd exhortation, but I have noticed over the past twenty years that attending weddings and funerals is becoming less and less of a priority to many Christian people.

Paul concludes this first section with a power-packed verse. In 12:16 he writes, “Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.” Paul is calling all believers to a common mindset. He is not suggesting that we must all think in just the same way or that we must think exactly the same thing about every issue. Instead, we are to agree to disagree agreeably over non-essentials. In doing so we demonstrate the love, unity, and sacrifice that can only be found in Christ. Paul commands us not to be haughty in mind. Rather, to associate with the lowly. The word translated “lowly” (tapeinos) refers to those first-century Christians who could boast of little in the way of worldly goods or social position.

The command, “Do not be wise in your own estimation” implies that we need to recognize that often the socially “lower” Christian has much more to give than the rich Christian. Indeed, all Christians have something to share with other Christians; and all Christians have things to learn from other Christians. The problem is that we can often think like Archie Bunker who said, “I’m not prejudiced, I love all those inferior people.” We need to get over ourselves! We need to see our fellow believers accurately and biblically. We need to exercise humility (cf. 12:3, 10b). If we’re humble, we’ll never look down on anyone. We can only look up to them. May we begin to regard others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). May we ensure that our Christian relationships are healthy and whole. Love without action is not love.
[Paul has called you to display sacrificial love. In 12:17-21 he kicks it up another notch. He now tells you to …]
2. Display supernatural love (12:17-21)

We’re going to embark on what is likely the most challenging teaching in the entire Bible. This concept is not hard; it’s flat out impossible! But that’s good because supernatural behavior forces us to go back to Jesus Christ on a moment-by-moment basis. In this section, Paul has one theme: “Don’t fight fire with fire.”

In 12:17a he writes, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.” This statement is a general summary statement for the next five verses. Notice Paul uses the word “Never” (meden). This provides you with no loopholes. “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.” Anyone here a Charles Bronson fan? Bronson is an actor who has been in ninety different movies. He is especially well-known for his roles in the Death Wish series where he plays Paul Kersey, an unimpressive, mild-mannered, middle-aged vigilante. Each of these movies begins with Kersey being the victim of a tragic crime. The storyline is then filled with his escapades to avenge his family and friends. In my flesh—I enjoy these movies. Yet, Paul says this is unbiblical. This is not how God’s kingdom operates.

Instead, in 12:17b the apostle exhorts us to “Respect what is right in the sight of all men.” The word translated “respect” (pronoeo) literally means “take thought beforehand.” If you are to respond biblically to your enemy, you must thoughtfully prepare before a crisis arises. In other words, carefully and deliberately think through how you will respond if someone does something to you or one of your family members. If you fail to do so, you will respond according to your fleshly impulses. Conflict, however, ought to be in spite of you not because of you. Hence, it is critical to think carefully of how you should respond in every situation so that even unbelievers observe your life and glorify God.

Paul goes a step further in 12:18 when he says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Notice the conditional nature of this verse. The phrases “if possible” and “so far as it depends on you” reveal that you can’t force others to do what is right. Once you have done everything within your power to resolve a conflict, you have fulfilled your responsibility to God. Now, if circumstances change and there seems to be a new opportunity for peace with an enemy, you should pursue it. In the meantime, you should not waste time, energy, and resources with a person who refuses to be reconciled.

Therefore, (1) don’t blame yourself. Some people are just antagonistic.
(2) Trust God to change the other person. He prepares and softens hearts. Often it takes a great deal of prayer and many months or years before a person is willing to reconcile. We must be patient and wait on God.
(3) Get the help of a third party. Some conflicts require mediation from a mature Christian.

In 12:19 Paul returns to his forceful use of the word “Never.” He writes, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,’ says the Lord.” It was John Kennedy who said, “Don’t get mad, get even.” However, Paul again slams the door shut for revenge. Rather, he states that you must “leave room for the wrath of God.” The verb translated “leave room” (didomi) literally means “give place.” In other words, “get out of the way and leave room for something else.”

Paul wants you to give God His job description back. By refusing to take revenge, you are leaving room for God to exercise His wrath. The wrath of God is likely both temporal and eternal in this context. Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35 to serve as a reminder that no one can avenge you quite like God. Therefore, if you want Him to avenge you, step out of His way. If you want to avenge yourself, God will remove His hand from your situation. I don’t know about you, but I would rather have God avenge me and act on my behalf.
Paul now wraps up this chapter with a series of commands. In 12:20 he writes, “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.’ These verses are a quote from Proverbs 25:21-22, which show that Paul understood the classic military principle that the best defense is an effective offense. He does not encourage a passive response to evil. Instead, he commands you to go on the offensive—not to beat down or destroy your opponents, but to lavish your enemy with love.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend.” Augustine said, “If you are suffering from a bad man’s injustice, forgive him lest there be two bad men.” Does this mean that you are called to be a doormat? No, you are not called to be a doormat; you are called to be an elevator. You are to lift people up into the presence of God by graciously giving your enemy food and drink in his or her time of need. Paul says, in so doing “you will heap burning coals on his head.” This phrase is offered as the motivation for the kindness shown to an enemy, so I think it is very important that we understand the meaning of this statement.

Some have traditionally seen it as simply meaning “you will burn him.” If you’ve got an enemy and you really want to see him burn, be extra nice to him or her—he or she won’t be able to stand it! Now that’s hardly in the spirit of this passage. A better interpretation, I think, takes the burning coals as a figure of God’s judgment that will come on your enemy if he or she persists in antagonism. The figure of “coals of fire” in the Old Testament consistently refers to God’s anger and judgment (cf. 2 Sam 22:9, 13; Ps 11:6; 18:13; 140:9-10; Prov 25:21-22). Thus the meaning appears to be that you can return good for evil with the assurance that God will eventually punish your enemy, if you don’t want him or her by your lovingkindness.

Paul concludes with a summary in 12:21: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Unlike 12:20b, 12:21 is straightforward and very easy to interpret. However, in our flesh, this is not a verse we want to obey. We would rather overcome evil with evil. To return evil for evil is natural; to return good for evil is supernatural. But this is how God’s economy operates. Evil cannot overcome the Christian by doing us harm or even by killing us. Evil will only overcome us if it makes us use evil ourselves. Evil cannot be overcome by a stronger force of the same kind. May you and I refuse to be overcome by evil, but may we overcome evil with good.

How do you want to be remembered? My hope is that you now want to be remembered as a believer who loved other believers. When you stand before Jesus Christ, I believe that one of the first questions Jesus may ask is: “Did you love my children?” Remember Jesus’ words, “all people will know that we are His disciples if we have love for one another” (John 13:35). Love was VERY important to Jesus; it compelled Him to give up His life for us! He wants us to imitate Him in how we love others. Before you stop reading this sermon, identify those relationships where you need to grow in love—it may be a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor, or a person at church. Target specific people, not just everyone in general. Then commit to begin loving those people as Christ has commanded.