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.