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?