Romans 14:19&20 “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.”
When you become a minister of a congregation there are three aims you must have. When you become an officer in a church there are also certain standards you must set for your life in the church – three standards at least. When you join in membership with the people of God there are three goals which you share with every Christian. They are the same three graces.
1 MAKE EVERY EFFORT TO DO WHAT LEADS TO PEACE.
Paul is not speaking about our propitiating the wrath of God towards us so that for us he has become a God of peace. That has been accomplished by Christ and we receive the divine peace by faith. Being justified by faith we have here, now and for ever peace with God through our Lord Jesus. Nor is Paul speaking about our personal sense of peace, that feeling that passes understanding gripping our hearts and minds. What blessedness that reality is, but that is not Paul’s concern here. Paul is speaking about corporate peace, in other words, congregational unity; the loving fellowship of the body of Christ. Make every effort to do what leads to the peace of the church.
It is a desire of which I must confess to be a little wary, maybe to my shame. Maybe this is a word especially for me. I notice how the young Christian is very keen on the peace of the church. I occasionally attend student prayer meetings before I am to address a university meeting. There is inevitably one student, or even a couple of them, who will pray something like this, ‘Lord make us united . . . keep us one . . . bring us together Lord.’ I am thinking, ‘But some pulpits preach heresy; there are preachers who despise evangelicalism. They deny the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. They don’t preach the gospel, they preach against the gospel. We don’t want peace where error reigns. Jesus didn’t pray for peace with the Pharisees. Paul didn’t work for peace with the Galatian Judaizers; they were perverting the gospel. He said, ‘If anyone preaches any other gospel to you than the one I’ve preached let him be accursed.’” I wish those students would pray, “Lord may your truth spread throughout the congregation. May every pulpit preach the gospel of Jesus Christ so that we can really be one, and closer to one another.”
You could not sat, “Paul, why are you so concerned about heresy? Just have joint prayer meetings for unity with the heretics.” Impossible! Here are people undermining the way of salvation and promoting error. They have shattered the peace that God gives. So I am a little cautious about breaking down the walls which God has erected between true Christianity and a cult, between truth and error, orthodoxy and heresy. Making every effort to keep the peace in a church is not to be undertaken at the cost of ignoring error. That is too big a price to pay, to drive from the church the Spirit of truth.
True Christian unity isn’t shallow, nor is it superficial. Christian unity is extraordinary; it shows itself in a congregation of people of all ages, backgrounds and personalities becoming of one mind, one love, united in one spirit and sharing a common purpose. Here are people who are conscious that they belong to one another; they do things together; they love one another so much that they would lay down their lives for another Christian. Each one of them considers the others better than himself. Paul speaks about it in Ephesians chapter four, verses two and three. Again it is a very striking statement, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” We start our Christian lives in the unity of the Spirit. We have a love for every one of our brothers and sisters, the new family we have discovered. We are to keep that unity, indeed we are to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. How do we do it? Paul says, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” So this is a demanding moral issue. It has nothing to do with those warm’n’fuzzy feelings of closeness to other people which we get when we have been singing with them for 45 minutes. It has everything to do with truth we share in common, complete humility and gentleness and patience and bearing with other people.
In Philippians chapter two there is another example of Paul pleading for peace in a congregation. He urges them in verses two though five, to be “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than you. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” Are we taking these warnings seriously? Maybe we take theft, and adultery, and murder seriously, but what about this? Isn’t it just as sinful to destroy the peace of the body of Christ? There are three snakes Paul mentions in Philippians chapter two that you have to kill in order to preserve the peace of the congregation: church unity always comes at a price.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition.” Paul is talking about an internal greed to promote the best interests of number one – of ‘me.’ The ancient Greeks used the phrase to describe their politicians conniving to promote their own interests and advance their own status. Here in the Roman congregation there was one group who wanted to promote days and diets. There was another group who wanted to promote anti-days and diets. Neither group was too concerned about how they did it, or who was hurt in the process. They were all about one thing and that was promoting their standing and status in the congregation.
That is how the world around us functions. It watches for any opportunity for personal advantage. How can I get my views accepted by others? What can this course of action do for me? It is really an obsession with self – self-absorption and self-interest and self-love and self-worship. All that matters is my own personal happiness. All my thoughts revolve around me and my agenda. All my motives begin and end with me. All actions are ultimately done for me. My attendance at the church’s meetings, my giving to the church, my attitude to the ministry and the officers all revolves around me. Me, me, me – it’s all about me. We have picked it up from the world because that is how the world operates, and we are tempted in the same direction and it is fatal for the cause of the church’s peace. We have to deny self if we are following Christ. We don’t give in to it. We have to suppress and subdue this spirit; “Do nothing out of selfish ambition.” Put selfishness to death.
Remind yourself regularly that you are not number one, that after Jesus Christ, ‘she’ is number one, and ‘she’ is number one, and ‘he’ is number one and ‘he’ is number one. They are much better than you. You come a poor third. There comes from hell a devilish desire to destroy every Christian congregation, and the way Satan works is to invert the true order of things, to put self-love first. Jesus Christ is first; he must be always, ever and only number one in my life. I have to take the alabaster jar of precious perfume and pour it over him and weep at his feet. There was once a young French soldier who had been hit in the chest by a bullet and was enduring the agony of the surgeon without an anaesthetic probing deeper and deeper to extract the bullet. He was extraordinarily brave; he quipped to the surgeon, “Go a little deeper and you’ll find the Emperor.” He loved his Emperor; he would lay down his life for him. The Christian says, “For me to live is Christ.” There is another snake to kill;
ii] Vain conceit.
Here again is the destroyer of the church’s peace. Do nothing from vain conceit. You see how similar it is to selfishness, but the difference is this, that while selfishness pursues personal goals vain conceit seeks personal glory. We start to think we are something – even when we’re not. Everything we’ve got has been given to us by God. There was once a barber who was talkative and full of himself. He could turn everything into a quip. He would never get serious about his soul and the claims of Christ. He went fishing with some friends but fell out of the boat and was lost. The lifeboat and coastguards searched for his body for a few days and they finally found it washed ashore on a beach. A crowd of people turned up for the funeral, and all men spoke well of him, but the pastor said to his wife, “If those people had cared as much for his soul as they now care for his memory he wouldn’t be in hell at this moment.” Jesus cared for the souls of the Pharisees and the chief priests. We know that because he spoke the truth to them. He arraigned before them the cause of their woe – “Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” – but they wouldn’t pay any attention because of their vain conceit. Their price was the barrier preventing them from coming to Christ.
When Professor John Murray retired to Badbea the home in which he was born in Ross-shire in the far north of Scotland I persuaded him twice to come to Aberystwyth to preach. He also spoke in the Christian Union at the University on both occasions. On the second visit I presumed that he knew he was preaching here on the Sunday through our conversations, but the only letter he had received was from the Christian Union. So he made the journey by bus to Dingwall, and then by train to Inverness, and on to Edinburgh, and then with some changes to Shrewsbury and finally to Aberystwyth – a whole day’s journey if not more – simply to speak to the students. It was there during the Saturday night student announcements that he heard the fact that I was of course expecting him to preach here on Sunday. He came back on Saturday night to Iola (for I was preaching somewhere just that Saturday) and confirmed with Iola that I was expecting him to preach, and he added, “Now don’t tell Geoff when he returns that I didn’t know that I was to preach here, and when you do tell him do it after I have gone, and you laugh together about it.” What humility he displayed. He was the greatest theologian of the twentieth century and yet he had no delusions of grandeur, and no thirst for applause. He came from Sutherland to Cardiganshire to speak to a group of students. He did nothing through selfishness and vain conceit. But there is one other way to maintain peace in the congregation, and that is through killing the snake of looking only to your own interests.
iii] Looking only to your own interests.
Paul warns the Philippians of the sin of being preoccupied with their own personal interests. Have we seen how subtle this is? There are folk who are constantly downgrading themselves. They never seem to have anything good to say about themselves, but only bad . . . that no one loves them or cares about them. They are too short . . . too fat . . . too old. They can’t do anything right. They say with a laugh, “I’m a terrible husband . . . I don’t have a high I.Q. . . I’m lazy and undisciplined . . . I’m hopeless managing my time . . . I’m such a slow learner . . . I’m tone deaf, I can’t put two notes together . . . I was no good in any sports . . I have a quick temper . . . I’m hopeless with my personal devotions . . . I have such a poor memory I’d forget my own name . . . I lose things, I’d lose my head if it wasn’t fast . . . I have a terrible temper . . .” I think of the preacher who tells the mid week meeting where he has been and that he preached badly. What’s all this? It is doing what Paul tells us the Philippians not to do, to be looking only to our own interests. You are interested only in yourself. Yes, it is always criticizing yourself, but the conversation always comes back round to ‘me’, and how pathetic I am.
That is not humility. Real humility isn’t thinking poorly about oneself. True humility doesn’t think about oneself at all. Real humility means we become quite indifferent to ourselves; we are interested in God and interested in our neighbour. Men and women, let me say again we are not particularly fascinating people; we are not a very interesting church. There is very little we can say about ourselves that is remotely gripping to the people of Aberystwyth, but Jesus Christ . . . well that is a very different matter. He is absolutely fascinating, the most interesting man that the world has ever seen. He could say, “But I tell you . . . I am the way . . . verily verily I say unto you . . .” and none of it is an ego trip at all. Growing in humility is getting to the point where you are quite indifferent and unconcerned about yourself but increasingly gripped by Christ, that I might know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings.
You see what Paul is telling this Roman church? He is telling the diet and days boys that the non-diet and days boy are really far more important and interesting than they are, and he is telling the non-diet and days boys the same thing about the others. And once you see that you start seeking their good, their welfare, their peace and comfort. You are freed from looking after your own little party and you are devoting yourself to those on the other side of the valley.
Does this work? Am I talking about something hopelessly idealistic? No. Christ wants his church to be as unified on earth as it will be in heaven. Names and sects and parties will all fall to the dust in heaven; Christ is all in all in heaven, and he must be all in all on earth. So you see the biblical pattern, don’t you? We realize that the Lord wants something from us. It is beyond our strength or any capability to perform, and so we go to him for the energy and vision to do this and live like this and never stop. Then our unity will flow; then the Spirit will not be grieved, and the will be church revived and our witness will prevail. This is not a fool’s errand. We must diligently seek peace and pursue it and pray that the Lord will do a good thing among us. I cannot believe that God says these things in his word to taunt us, or to set us up to play a cruel joke on us. I believe that everything I have said to you so far is true, and God has brought us here to heed it and to do it. It is not out of reach. The church of Christ on earth can manifest such glorious and thoroughgoing peace. Jesus Christ can do it in people like ourselves. Ask him to energize you. Ask him to help you to look to other people through new eyes, through his eyes. Plead for his grace to aid you. This is something we must all do together. That is the real genius of this exhortation. All of us are to seek peace and pursue it. Not one person can be left out. Everyone is to humble himself; everyone is to regard all the others as so much better than ourselves. This is the way of peace in a congregation.
2 MAKE EVERY EFFORT TO DO WHAT LEADS TO MUTUAL EDIFICATION.
That is what Paul tells us in verse nineteen. The peace of a congregation has to be an edified peace, an educated peace, a discerning peace, a growing peace, a maturing peace. There is peace in a graveyard, in a refrigerator and in a chapel at midnight. We don’t want that; this peace comes from a united people who are mutually being discipled together.
Let me approach it like this; a Christian is a learner. He’s been instructed in the truth and he wants to know more. He is beginning to grasp the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, especially those relating to Christ himself, his deity – not man made God but God made man, his resurrection – his body rose on the third day and he ate and drank with his disciples, his death for sin as our substitute, and his glorious return. But more important than actually attaining this knowledge is the Christian’s desire for it. He comes to hunger and thirst for it. He wants to be taught; he will sit under the best ministry he can find, the one most full of the Bible and Christ. He will seek it in other meetings, in discussion, and in the books he reads, in informal conversation, in the CDs he listens to as he drives, and in the summer or winter conferences he tries to attend each year.
So a congregation is a fellowship of edified, taught believers, and the climax of their worship each Sunday service will be in the preacher opening the book, and finding the place and edifying them from the Bible. However, there are many truths you can’t pick up from the preacher on a Sunday. You learn them – and perhaps the most important truths – in all the influence that one Christian has over another. You see them in the behaviour of your parents; you meet them in the conduct of your new Christian friends; you learn them from talking with other Christians after the service, on the phone, or as you meet one another during the week.
Without this mutual edification the body of Christ is seriously impoverished because the church is like an engine that depends on what every part does to work properly. Let me make this as practical as I can; there are those well known verses in the New Testament with the phrase ‘one another’ in them. Let me quote you fourteen such verses spoken by the Holy Ghost as a little test of how you are doing corporately in your Christian life: “be devoted to one another,” “honour one another,” “love one another,” “accept one another,” “instruct one another,” “greet one another,” “serve one another,” “bear with one another,” “be kind and compassionate to one another,” “admonish one another,” “encourage one another and build each other up,” “spur one another on,” “live in harmony with one another,” “greet one another with a kiss of love.”
If we are failing to obey those exhortations we are all weaker. All of us need your help, your generosity, your compassion, your encouragement, your intercession, your private counsels, your prayers or whatever else God has conferred on you for the sake of the rest of us. The most brilliantly gifted church members cannot dismiss the weakest church members with, “I have no need of you” (I Corinthians 12:21). God has locked us into a body, in living contact with the Head, sustained by its one blood stream. Preachers in particular need the countless little services which every Christian has to offer. We need the encouragement, the rebuke, the company, and the down-to-earth word that demolishes humbug and pretentiousness. To pretend to self-sufficiency, emotionally and otherwise, is to risk warping our own personalities and ending up in foul spiritual deformity. Make every effort to do what leads to mutual edification, in other words as you give to others you are edified in the giving, and they are edified in the receiving. There are gifts to edify and there are gifts to receive edification.
You cannot plead your shyness or stammering tongue or lack of educational qualification as the reason for your failure to edify your fellow Christians. You are not facing these ‘one another’ verses with your own limited resources. We are all united to Christ. We are filled with his Spirit. We are irrigated and refreshed by the floods of his grace. Our potential to obey this apostolic exhortation is not to be measured in terms of our personal character and heredity, our self-discipline, education and upbringing. Joined to Christ you are a person of unlimited potential. Maybe your disposition is weak, and your temperament is inadequate but as you wait upon the Lord your strength will be renewed and you will mount up with wings as eagles, running and not getting weary, walking and not fainting. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. You can be more than a conqueror. You can endure any pain, bear any burden, overcome any enemy. You belong to the world to come. You have already tasted its gifts and experienced its power. Your lives are hid with Christ in God. You are capable of rising as high as your source, to a level of excellence and nobility undreamed of. Yes you! So by the grace of God you are able to relate to your fellow Christians by mutual edification, and you are to make every effort to do so.
Let me give you some examples from the New Testament of mutual edification. The letter to the Philippians is addressed to all the saints in Christ Jesus, and Paul says of them “whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me” (Phils. 1:7). All of them were the ones shining as lights in a perverse world and holding forth the word of life. In Acts chapter four and verse thirty one we read of a large company of believers in Jerusalem, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” These were the people who were soon to be scattered and wherever they went they evangelized.
This is the standard for the church of every age. I was reading J.C.Ryle this week in his book The Upper Room, and he is beautifully outspoken on this theme, “A mischievous habit of leaving all religion to the parson of the parish has overspread the country, and the bulk of lay churchmen seem to think that they have nothing to do with the church but to receive the benefit of her means of grace, while they contribute nothing in the way of personal active exertion to promote her efficiency. The vast majority of church-goers appear to suppose that when they have gone to church on Sunday, and have been at the Lord’s Supper, they have done their duty, and are not under the slightest obligation to warn, to teach, to rebuke, to edify others, to promote works of charity, to assist evangelization, or to raise a finger in checking sin, and advancing Christ’s cause in the world. Their only idea is to be perpetually receiving, but never doing anything at all. They have taken their seats in the right train, and are only to sit quiet, while the clerical engine draws them to heaven, perhaps half asleep.
“If an Ephesian or Philippian or Thessalonian lay Churchman were to rise from the dead and see how little work lay Churchmen do for the English Church, he would not believe his eyes. The difference between the primitive type of a lay Churchman and the English type is the difference between light and darkness, black and white. The one used to be awake and alive, and always about his Master’s business. The other is too often asleep practically, and torpid, and idle, and content to leave the religion of the parish in the hands of the parson. Each is baptized. Each uses means of grace. Each hears sermons, amid professes himself a Christian. But the churchmanship of the one is utterly unlike that of the other. When this is the case—and who will deny it?—there must be something painfully wrong in our organization. If the Philippian lay Churchman was right, the English lay Churchman cannot be right. We are weighed in the balances and found wanting” (J.C.Ryle, The Upper Room, Banner of Truth, p.329)
Let me remind you of the adult Sunday Schools on Sunday afternoon in Wales and the large classes of men and women who met and discussed the Bible. Think of the slate quarrymen gathering in their cabins at lunch who at first edified one another in the Christian faith until modernism set in and then it was in socialism. We have known gifted and godly women who had large views of truth and a deep experience of its power. I remember a widow who kept a corner shop and she was reading the Banner of Truth magazine and Dr Lloyd-Jones’ Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. What an inspiration it was for me to know her. People like that could express the truth in a very pleasing and convicting way. They knew their Bibles as few others know it. They were not asked to teach and evangelize by any denomination. No committee planned it. It sprang from burning Christian experience. They had to mutually edify other believers. I say to you that the situation in our land today is such that the burden of the evangelism of mid and north Wales must be undertaken by laymen, but they have to be taught and wise laymen. You see how important this exhortation is, to make every effort to do what leads to mutual edification.
3 THERE IS A REAL WORK OF GOD: DO NO DAMAGE TO IT.
You see this in verse twenty, “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.” God once worked and made the heavens and the earth. Now that the work of creation is completed the work of redemption is being done. Today all the world over God is at work. What is he doing? He is calling out from the world all those from our generation whom he once gave to his Son before the foundation of the world. They are an alternative community to the sin-obsessed societies where they’ve been living, the body of Christ, the fellowship of the Spirit in this world. The Lord is at work; he is looking for his bride and he is bringing her to her bridegroom. He is changing her from one degree of glory to another. He is preparing her for heaven. He is building a glorious temple in the world. He is establishing a vast living mountain in the world and drawing the nations to it. He is planting a great vineyard and joining his people to the one vast vine. He is bringing other sheep to his great fold. He must bring them. He is establishing a household and family and kingdom here on earth. This is the work of God and in all these pictures different aspects of this mighty work are set before us.
God is at work, then who will interfere? A brain surgeon is at work on the brain, who dares distract him by saying, “Let’s watch some TV.”? Michelangelo is at work carving David out of a block of marble, hammer and chisel in his hand – who dares to push him as he brings the hammer down? Shakespeare in his last illness is writing the final words of a masterpiece and who will break in on him and suggest a game of cards? William Tell has his crossbow and is taking aim at the apple perched on his son’s head and who will shout at him? The fevered Mozart is scribbling away the last bars of the 41st symphony. Who will jerk at his elbow? When men are doing a great work they cannot be interrupted.
When Nehemiah was back in Jerusalem buiding the walls his enemies, Sanballat and Geshem sent him this message: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.’ But they were scheming to harm Nehemiah and he knew it. So we are told, “I sent messengers to them with this reply: ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’ Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer.” (Neh. 6:3&4).
Why should the work of God be brought to a halt by endless discussions about peripheral matters like diet and days? Will you destroy the work of God in the most important city of the whole world, Rome, for food? Make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification.
3rd December 2006 GEOFF THOMAS