Romans 14:13-16 “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in your brother’s way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.”
Paul has this Christian estimation of a church that it is a united and loving people. As it is the body of Jesus Christ it must be as united and loving as its Lord. To achieve this in the divided congregation in Rome what Paul does is first to appeal to the highest theological truths in the Christian religion. He reminds them of their great end in life, we are living to the Lord (v.7); “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee.” Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. You don’t live for vegetarianism and Old Testament food laws; you live for the Lord. Then Paul appeals to the resurrection of our Saviour Christ; the living and reigning Jesus is Lord of the dead and the living (v.9). Let every one of you have that priority and first serve your living Lord. Then Paul appeals to the great Day of Judgment when “each of us will give an account of himself to God” (v.12). How piddling are our judgments about one another compared to that Great Assize to which we are heading. God himself is going to pass his verdict upon us. That is what we’ve been considering in the past few sermons.
Then in verse 13 you notice that a new paragraph begins where we find a slightly different approach to this troubling little problem in Rome of church members who were passing judgment on other church members. Remember what is Paul’s vision of a congregation? A group of united and loving people. So Paul proceeds to give some wise guidelines about how we show our love to our brothers and sisters. There are those who say that all that is needed under the new covenant is love. “Love your neighbour as yourself! That is enough,” they say. No it is not. We also need apostolic guidelines.
Let me use this illustration; you are travelling through a certain vast wilderness for the first time. You haven’t got a map but you do possess a compass. Because of the compass you’ll certainly know which Direction you’re to take. That is enormously important, but what a compass cannot tell you is what is the Distance that still lies before you. Neither can it show you where the Dangers are, nor what the Destination is like. The compass can’t tell you any of those things, but it is invaluable in Directing you on the right way. The needle on the Christian compass always points to love. The greatest gift is love. By loving you show that you are Christ’s disciple. If you don’t love you’re nothing. The fruit of the Spirit is love. So our direction is love; we mix everything we do and say with the love of Jesus Christ. There is no hope for unity in the church without love, but we need more than the directive “Love!” We need the information that the three D’s supply, the Distance we’ve still got to travel; the Dangers that lie before us; the nature of the Destination to which we are going. Where do you get that knowledge? Here in this letter to the Romans, especially these great ethical sections, and also in all the other letters of Paul, and of Peter too, and John and James and Jude. Also you find it in the four gospels, and throughout the Old Testament. In other words, the whole Bible supplies us with knowledge of the three ‘D’s of Distance still before us, the Dangers that surround us on our way, and the Destination to which we are heading. It is not enough to give a congregation week after week the Direction of “Love! All you need is love!” You need everything God has said. Love will perish if it doesn’t know the Distance to be travelled. Love will be perplexed without us being prepared for the Dangers we’re going to meet each day. Love will be strengthened in savouring the glorious Destination ahead of us. These fully equip our love and educate our love.
1. FIVE GUIDELINES TO SHOW OUR LOVE FOR OUR BROTHERS.
i] Do nothing to make your brother fall into sin. As Paul says, “make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way” (v.13). Do not deliberately set a trip wire in front of your brother. We all can blurt things out without thinking; we’re cross with ourselves for offending people. It wasn’t our intention to make them angry. Paul is speaking here of actually putting a stumbling block or obstacle in someone’s way. The intention is to bring people down. Paul is talking about an unkind and unwise Christian who is fervent in his right to eat meat tricking the weak into eating meat or breaking one of his sacred days. For example, he has asked them around on one of their special sacred days and when they get there they discover that it’s a fully fledged party with games and a soccer tournament. He has put a stumbling block in their way. Paul is also addressing the weak and urging them not to express their unhappiness with frowns and scowls at seeing a Christian eating pork. Do not put a stumbling block in front of any brother’s way. Many Christians don’t drink alcohol; they won’t play cards. Don’t trick them into doing so. “do not put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” Do nothing to make your brother fall into sin.
ii] Realise that “if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean” (v.14). For you it is natural to eat and drink everything, but if you have been raised as a Mormon then tea, coffee, alcohol, Pepsi Cola or Coco Cola are all unclean. Some Christian converts from that ‘Church of the Latter Day Saints’ might have bid good-bye to the follies of Mormonism for some years but they still finding those beverages undrinkable. As is said, it is easier to come out of Mormonism than to get Mormonism out of you. If anyone regards something as unclean then for him it is unclean, and so you don’t mock him or compel him to drink it. Consider the religious scruples of others. We are fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself, but it doesn’t follow that everything is clean for everybody. Not every Christian shares the same mature convictions. Please be tender to Christians from other traditions.
iii] Don’t bring distress into another Christian’s life (v.15). If a weak Christian falls over the stumbling block or obstacle which you have deliberately put down before him then he’ll surely be distressed. “Woe is me! I have gone against my conscience. I have done something that I shouldn’t have done. O wretched man that I am,” he will say.
iv] Don’t destroy your brother for whom Christ died v.15). The previous Sunday to hearing an elder reading this letter of Paul for the first time to the congregation a certain weak Christian in Rome was singing the hymns with assured delight; she was sitting down at the Lord’s Supper breaking bread and drinking the cup with the whole fellowship. Then you had invited her around to your place on Wednesday evening and you cajoled her into eating pork chops and quaffing a bottle of wine; “Come on! It’s great. God tells us we can eat this.” The following Sunday she can’t sing; she has lost her assurance; she won’t come to the Lord’s Supper. “I don’t know if I’m a Christian or not,” she says through her sobs. Your actions have destroyed her peace and joy and assurance. Christ died that she might have blessed life but you have killed that happiness by your folly. How little the blood of Christ means to you. Can’t you forego your meat and wine one single evening when she comes to your home? How alien to the demands of love is such an attitude.
v] Don’t let your precious liberty which you enjoy in Christ become something men speak of as a destructive and harmful entity. That is what Paul says here; “Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil” (v.16). Christians in the congregation are shocked at you and your wife’s conduct. They say to one another, “Do you know what they did? They asked old Mrs. Benjamin across for a meal last Wednesday. You know how she still keeps her kitchen kosher. She has been a Christian for about five years; she was converted when she was sixty, and those daft people invited her to their home and insisted that she ate some pork chops with them, and she’s been dreadfully upset ever since. Christian liberty . . . Christian liberty . . . that’s all they talk about. Silly people! What about Christian graciousness? What about them showing some respect for her conscience and her godly life?” That is how the mature members of the church are speaking about you. Your conduct has caused something that is truly good – Christian liberty – to be evil spoken of.
Those are the five guidelines Paul gives us. You can see that the apostle won’t say simply to the whole congregation, “Get along by loving one another!” Oh yes, he will say that, but he’ll also point out the Distance of the Christian race set before all of us – maybe this marathon you’ve set out on has to last another seventy years – and also the unexpected Dangers that we’ll meet with on the way. So he is giving us apostolic counsels, but behind them there lies another great Christian principle that I want to examine now, and it is that a follower of Jesus Christ is a person who pleases other people.
2. FIVE GUIDELINES IN PLEASING OTHER PEOPLE.
[I had this outline and material from an article by Lou Priolo in The Journal of Modern Ministry, Volume 1 Issue 2 Fall 2004 entitled “Is it Ever Right to Please Man?”]
Perhaps evangelical Christians aren’t good at pleasing others. Maybe this is a conspicuous failing with many of us. We love the truth, and we know what is right, but we don’t love pleasing other people. Yet we are specifically told of the young Lord Jesus that he grew in favour with man. People of Nazareth liked the son of the local carpenter. He was cheerful and sweet-natured. He was never angry or rude or selfish. He never bullied smaller children; he never whined; he was gracious to girls. He treated older women like his own mother; he helped people, and so they were pleased with him, and that is put before us in the gospels as a fine achievement that we should copy. “For he is our childhood’s pattern; day by day like us he grew.” In any congregation there are going to be strong as well as the weak, and one distinctive mark of a church is a congregational determination to please other Christians. Each one deems other church members better than himself. Let me clarify this;
i] You must make sure that pleasing men is not the primary motive of your actions.
It is very sweet when the congregation approves of the minister and the officers. Don’t we all want that? Shouldn’t we all desire that? I can’t understand someone who welcomes being the odd man out. A martyr complex is sinful, isn’t it? Every preacher loves to be pleasing to his congregation. To see sour downcast faces, and people deliberately absenting themselves from meetings is discouraging to us all. But we have to be sober-minded in our desire for popularity. Our priority is to please God. That is our chief consideration, but that must go hand in hand with pleasing people.
Let me refer you to a parable of our Lord in Luke 14:7-11, “When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this man your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honoured in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”
So here was a man who took literally these words of Jesus and took an inconspicuous place at every function, but in one the host saw him in that distant corner and invited him to a more prominent place. Everyone noticed how he was esteemed by the host, and Jesus didn’t dismiss public praise and respect as sinful flattery. In fact the Lord used our innate desire for honour as a motivation to humble ourselves. “You clothe yourself in humility and you will be honoured,” says our Lord. There is a place for honouring men. I know a pastor who ministered for forty-five years in a church in the north of England. When he came to announce his resignation he gave them the date of his last Sunday with them and categorically rejected any farewell service. “I will not attend,” he said, and he refused to change his mind. On that last Sunday at the close of the service he walked away from the church and never returned. They wanted to express their thanks and prayers for him and his future. They wanted the pleasure of giving his wife a bunch of flowers. He took that pleasure from them. They wanted to show their love to him and honour him for this ministry, but he repulsed all of that. Such an occasion need not be an ego trip. It is not embarrassing when a humble man receives honour from men. The book of Proverbs says these words twice, “Humility comes before honour.” The Lord Jesus humbled himself to death, therefore God said “well done my beloved Son.” He highly exalted the Lord and gave him a name above every name. Jesus endured the humbling on the cross confident that such joys were prepared for him by God.
Dr Ian Paisley was a European Member of Parliament for Northern Ireland, and a few years ago the Queen was the guest of honour at a function for the British MEPs. I was told by his secretary recently that she looked around and she asked, “Is everyone here?” “Yes they’re all here,” she was told. “I don’t see the Rev Ian Paisley,” she said. So quickly they sent for the one they’d kept out in the cold, and he came along. Her Majesty went onto him immediately and spoke to him for a long time. She honoured him for his loyalty to her. He had humbly accepted his unpopularity amongst the British MEPs, but today his wife is a member of the House of Lords. Before honour comes humility. So seek to please men, yes, but that is not what makes us tick. You can’t explain the life of a Christian by the fact that he’s been a man-pleaser. We serve God first; we love him with all our being, and then we also seek without compromise to please men.
ii] You must make sure that your main motive in pleasing men is to establish a good name for the cause of Christ.
I trust you value a good name as the Scripture does: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold” (Provs. 22:1). Think of some of the leading Christian men in the past twenty years who have attained a good name for Christ by their lives. I am thinking of a man like Verna Wright who returned to Leeds from Baltimore in 1964 as a consultant physician, senior lecturer and finally professor. He was instrumental in establishing a specialist rheumatology unit. His key research interests were the lubrication of the joints and arthritic disease progression. He accurately predicted genetic links between different forms of arthritis before laboratory tests were available to prove him right. While at Leeds, Verna wrote or co-authored over 1000 scientific papers and 21 books, including two about his faith, ‘The Relevance of Christianity in a Scientific Age’ and ‘Personal Peace in a Nuclear Age’. Upon his death, a Leeds hospital hung its flag at half mast, indicating the respect with which he was regarded. Verna Wright did not live in order to achieve the flags at half mast; he lived to promote his Saviour in all he did, but a consequence was that he pleased the people he worked with day by day.
Think of a man like Professor Jack Scarisbrick tirelessly speaking up for the rights of the unborn child and yet his main work was done at Warwick University as professor of history where he specialised in Henry VIII and the Tudors. Dr Scarisbrick retired about eight years ago. His department was one of the top in the U.K. and his BBC2 programme is fascinating. He could not have had his influence in maintaining a Christian testimony to the rights of the unborn child if he had neglected pleasing his employers and students at Warwick. I think again of the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, and his influence in parliament and how untouchable ethically he was in that post. His first call in life was to serve his Saviour Jesus Christ. He sought to establish and maintain a good name for the cause of Christ. Our reputation can greatly help or hinder the cause of Christ. Imagine you are listening to two men, one, because of his lifestyle and ungodliness, you don’t honour. You find it hard to listen to him. The other you respect; you know his life, and so you will listen to his message.
If you hear a man saying that he is totally indifferent to how people think of him, whether they praise him or censure him, that it doesn’t matter two hoots either way to him, then that is not a wise man. That is a man with a real deficit in his character. The Bible speaks of the importance of possessing a good name. If a man is going to be chosen by a congregation to be an elder in the church he must have a good reputation with those outside the church. He must be above reproach (I Tim. 3:2&7). If his name is not highly regarded in his workplace, his family and on his street then the possibility of his bringing reproach on the cause of Christ is far greater if he becomes a leader in the church. So one reason we please men is not to embarrass God, and that is commendable.
iii] We have to please certain men in particular because the Bible commands us to please our parents, and our rulers and our superiors.
God has put certain people in authority and they are to be honoured and up to a certain point obeyed. Romans chapter 13 and verse one says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Of course God does not give anyone absolute authority. A father cannot ask his children to steal; a ruler cannot demand his subjects help him to wipe out a certain race of men; a preacher cannot require his congregation to swallow cyanide and fruit juice. A husband cannot pressurize his wife to sell her body. Whenever an authority crosses the line and instructs his subordinate to sin then his instructions must be defied. The Lord Jesus referred to King Herod as a ‘fox’, so cruel and ruthless was that ruler. So respect is not absolute but as much as lies within us let us honour our prime ministers and our parents and pastors and professors and police. Your life is to please them.
Parents first of all; Ephesians chapter 6 begins thus; “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’” (Ephs. 6:1-3). So if your parents are a pain to you then you are under obligation to give them pleasure. Overcome evil with good. “A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father,” (Provs. 29:3). Now what does the Bible say about pleasing rulers? “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” ( I Pet. 2:13&14). What does it say of pleasing earthly masters? “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive” (Titus 2:9&10). Our task is to make the gospel attractive to those who are over us by the quality of our lives. I ask, “How can I please the people over me?” You consider how successful Joseph in Egypt and also Daniel in Babylon were in their great work.
However, let me go one step further to the calling of husbands to please their wives, and wives to please their husbands. For every married person pleasing your spouse comes second only to pleasing the Lord. There are some fascinating verses on this in I Corinthians chapter 7 and verses 32 through 34: “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world – how she can please her husband.” Marriage is unlike any other human relationship. When a husband and wife marry they become one flesh. There were once emotional umbilical cords connecting them to their respective parents but now they are attached to their spouse. There was once a lifestyle they knew so well, the relationship of their parents, their tastes, and attitudes, and values and traditions. Now they are united to someone else and their concern after marriage is to please their spouse. The Greek word there in I Corinthians 7 translated ‘please’ means to fit in with, to conform, to adapt, to satisfy, to soften one’s heart to, to meet with one’s approval, to accommodate. That is how you please your husband or wife. So the Christian husband or wife is always under some tension, to please the Lord and to please the spouse.
v] We have to please all men to the extent that we become all things to all men to save them for Christ.
In other words there are times when we are called to get outside our comfort zones and inconvenience ourselves and become whatever is biblically legitimate in accommodating others for the end of their salvation. Let us look at the classic passage on this; “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (I Cor. 9:19-23).
Paul urges slaves to please their masters and now he tells us that he became a slave to all kinds of men that they might be saved. Paul didn’t think for a moment, “Well, if they’re predestinated to be saved they will be saved no matter what I do or don’t do.” God forbid. Look how seriously he took the Bible’s teaching of the responsibility of man – his own personal responsibility to win these different people for Christ. He would make himself as Jewish as possible to accommodate Jews. He would go up to Jerusalem for a feast; he would have Timothy circumcised; he would dress and eat like a Jew; he would keep the law of God; he would attend synagogues. He would do everything in his power to win Jews for Christ. Maybe he actually loved doing all of that; this was something he was most familiar with.
Then when he was in Greece he became as a Gentile without the law of God. He would still keep the moral law, but he did not keep a kosher house. He dressed like the local people; he associated with pagan friends; he showed them he knew their poets. As far as he could, without compromise, he sought to win Gentiles to trusting in Christ.
The next phrase is particularly challenging. He tells us, “To the weak I became weak” (I Cor. 9:22). In other words he veiled his intellectual prowess. He learned to give children’s talks. When he went to Corinth, though he could have competed with the Greek rhetoricians in oratory competitions he “did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to them the testimony of God” (I Cor. 2:1). He tells us that he came to them in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. The ordinary people in the crowd could identify with him. His was not a message for other philosophers. Paul said three things simply; God created me; sin ruined me; grace restored me.
Paul never changed his message but he sought to please the people he was speaking to. He did not put any stumbling block in front of any particular group; he condescended to all sorts of people in order to preach the gospel to them in all sorts of situations. He had biblical flexibity. When Jesus spoke to the woman of Samaria at the well in Sychar he spoke very differently from the way he addressed a Jewish religious leader, Nicodemus, who came to him by night, or from the way he spoke to the Pharisees. There was no ‘one size fits all’ approach by our Lord nor by his servants.
Finally we have come full circle in this tour of how the New Testament insists we are always to think of others and consider how we can best please others.
vi] We deny ourselves the exercise of our freedom in order to please others who’ve got certain scruples.
This is so clearly stated in the opening verses of chapter fifteen; “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself” (Roms 15:1-3). The key question is this, whom do you want to please? The Christian life is one in which we’re called upon to please others, put up with their scruples more often than we’d choose, bear with the weak, deem others better than you. I cannot see there developing any deep love and harmony in the church unless every single one of you takes this very seriously. How can I please my fellow believers?
Consider your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; he didn’t please himself. He didn’t lead his life on the ‘me first’ principle. No, he lived for others. He lived for you and me, and we are far too selfish. He lived for people like us. Imagine his being a member of this congregation and he is washing our feet, bearing our burdens, showing such patience towards us, forgiving us our follies seventy times seven. We are running to him with every difficulty and getting his advice on every issue. How he pleases us, and yet we ourselves are not behaving like him! We use him but we don’t imitate him! What inconsistency. He lived for those for whom he’d come to give his life. He thought it not robbery to be equal with God, and he made himself of no reputation, and he took the form of a servant, but you are so concerned about your own reputation. He humbled himself, and he became obedient unto death, even death on the cross. That’s our Saviour. That is our blessed Lord who denied himself again and again, and he pleases us again and again.
Don’t you need his spirit as you deal with the strong and weak all around you? Let’s think of your influence in your neighbourhood; there are things you do which can either help or hurt you in getting closer to the people who live around you. Perhaps your neighbours all take care of their gardens but you have weeds a yard high in front of your house. The years go by and you don’t do anything about the undergrowth, the dandelion seeds blowing like snow in the wind. All the rest of the street keeps pretty neat gardens. Are they going to listen to anything you say about the gospel? You have to please them. “I’m not interested in gardening,” you say. Get a book from the library and learn about gardens. Find out what are the weeds and pull them out.
Or imagine you have a dispute with the person next door over the party wall that you share in common, will it help your relationship if you push through his letter box a letter you have had your solicitor to draft? You’re not talking with your neighbour and trying to work it out. You’ve simply gone straight to the law. Is he going to listen to you talk with him about the Jesus Christ? Or maybe you’ve invited some children in the neighbourhood to your home. Good, but also you’ve told other children that they’re not welcome. “Clear off!” What sort of harmony results between yourself and the families and children you’ve shunned? So, in the same way in the congregation, love and mutual edification must be thoughtfully cultivated in the whole Body of Christ.
And that’s what the apostle is talking about, pleasing the others in the church, not living to please ourselves; it’s living with others in mind. We’re not to be full of our own importance. We may have a right to do something, and Paul isn’t denying that. We do have that right, but the Christian life is not about our rights. The Christian life is so often about denying our rights. I won’t have the weaker brother tell me that I have no right to do such a thing. That’s unacceptable. I do have a right to eat meat, but I will deny myself my rights when you visit our house in order to give you pleasure. For the sake of peace, for the sake of harmony, for the sake of the blessing of the community, we are to bear with our neighbours’ weaknesses. We are not to please ourselves. We should seek to build up, or to edify, or to strengthen our brothers. That’s what Paul is saying.
When Scott Fitzgerald, the American writer, died they discovered among his papers a list of plots for future stories. This was one of them. “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live forever.” Now that’s the plot of the Christian church isn’t it? A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together. You do realize we are going to live forever, for eternity. This is where we prepare for that, here below.
Every newspaper, even the Times now has an agony aunt, and the mother of them all is an American called Ann Landers. A reader writes to her and she says to her, “My two grown boys, who are thirty, fight so much it is impossible to have them at family parties. They don’t get along with their sister, she barely speaks to them. It’s barely worth all the hate that’s been generated. Any suggestions?” You know what Ann Landers says in reply (she gets paid a lot for saying this)? She tells the woman, “Those stubborn fools will probably stay mad until there is a death in the family. Wait until somebody dies.” That’s the advice that the world gives. Maybe there will be a reconciliation and maybe not. Just wait for the next funeral. You know in the household of God someone has already died. Our Saviour has not pleased himself but given his life for us. It’s as though Paul is saying, won’t you come together now because someone has died?
Two New York firemen’s wives never could get along together. Then after September 11, when both of their husbands died, they became the best of friends. That’s a part of what Paul is saying here in the life and context of the church. Because Jesus denied himself, now, will you not for Jesus’ sake deny yourself, that through the unity and bond and fellowship that generates, God will be glorified?
22 October 2006 GEOFF THOMAS