Romans 15:1-4 “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 but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
There was a division in the Roman congregation, a tearing apart of the body of Christ, both painful and a worry to everyone. Division diverts people’s attention from the Lord and the dying world in which we live. It is like a disease that takes up all the attention of the person who has it. The Christian life is so much greater than divisions between Christians. So when he deals with this problem in this section Paul turns his readers’ attention again and again to all that is glorious and great in Christianity, to the death and resurrection of Christ, to the day of judgment, and to the Christian life of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. “Don’t lose sight of this,” he is saying to them, “and see their relevance to how you treat one another.” So it is that here once again in our text Paul is appealing to another great reality of the faith and that is to divine revelation, in other words, to the Bible. “Never lose your focus on the Bible,” he is inferring. “Don’t let these differences detract from the rich living Word.” So let us start with that theme, first of all, with the abiding relevance of the Bible.
I. THE BIBLE IS UNFAILINGLY HELPFUL TO ALL CHRISTIANS.
“Let me remind you again about the Bible,” says Paul, but you don’t immediately pick that up because this appears quite incidentally. What Paul does is to quote a verse from Psalm 69, in a reference to Christ’s submission to his Father’s will. He is talking about the Messiah as the suffering servant of God, but then perhaps Paul feels the need to justify why he should appeal to a fairly obscure text from the Old Testament. Paul is going to build a great edifice upon these words and so he interjects something at this juncture in the letter (which is full of quotations from and references to the Old Testament) about the nature of the Bible itself. What is this Old Testament, and why should he appeal to these old words, and why should we respond, “Oh! It’s in the Bible is it? Wow!”? How relevant to the people living in the great bustling city of Rome can these words be? They were written in what was even then a dead language (Biblical Hebrew hadn’t been spoken for hundreds of years before Christ). These particular words from the book of psalms had been penned by King David a thousand years before Paul. This is Paul’s answer, “Whatever was written in the Bible in the past was written for our instruction, that through the endurance they generate, and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might become people of hope.” There’d be no endurance in living loving, godly lives, and no encouragement in this dark age, and no hope without the Bible. So Paul says three or four great truths about the Bible.
i] First of all, that the Bible was written with us in mind, in other words, they were designed to teach us everything we will need to know. Whatever it contains was written for our instruction. When God helped Moses to write the book of Genesis the Lord had Aberystwyth in 2007 in mind. He had a rice farmer 100 miles north of Singapore in mind. He had people in Papua and New York and Siberia and Patagonia in our day in mind. The Bible has the answers to our contemporary questions. What is man? Who is God? Why did he create the heavens and the earth? Why is the world in the mess it’s in? Who is Jesus Christ? What must I do to be saved? How then should I live? What is the good life? What is death? What lies behind it? The answers to the questions which the people of our generation ask are here in the Bible. That is why God breathed out the Scriptures, and it is in the Scriptures that we will be instructed. We need to be edified. We need to be sanctified. We need the Bible to do this, to elevate and reshape our minds. There is no godliness apart from right thinking. Now, godliness is more that right thinking, but you can’t have godliness unless you first of all have right thoughts. The way to the heart, the way to the affections, is first of all, invariably, by addressing the mind and God has shaped the Scriptures with the human brain and intelligence in mind. That’s why Paul spent a great deal of time writing his letters to instruct, to edify, and to inform our understanding. This is the epistle to the Romans, the magisterial letter of the New Testament, a very logically ordered document in which Paul has been setting forth the whole sweep of God’s redemptive programme, the application of redemption in the hearts and lives of his people. The Bible is the light illuminating the paths of all 21st century Christians. Calvin says it would be an insult to the Holy Spirit to imagine that he would breathe out anything that’s of no advantage to know. Whatever God has written is for the instruction of a little Christian girl in Canada or Fiji or Japan today. The Bible is for the edification of the whole church today. Paul wants the Christians in proud and mighty Rome to know it. He wants us to be confident of this. He wants us to thrilled by it. He wants us to be captivated by it. God commissioned the congregation to get to grips with Rome, and he gave them the Bible to do it.
ii] Secondly, whatever Scripture contains was written in order that we might endure. It gives us stickability. We can keep going because of the Bible. We can plod on through life because of Scripture. That is how I’ve kept going. It is no secret. I have avoided every gimmick. I have deplored stunts. The few I have half-heartedly taken up have subsequently filled me with regret. Know the Bible; learn the Bible; explain the Bible; preach the Bible; teach the Bible, every part of it from Genesis to Revelation. Keep opening it up and applying it to the people whom God brings to Alfred Place. That is how I endure and that is my encouragement. Endurance and encouragement are both linked by Paul to Scripture. You will never keep smiling when your job suddenly comes to an end without the Bible. You will never endure when they tell you the lump is malignant without the Bible. How will you cope when your wife leaves you without the Bible? How else can you nurture children, care for a mentally ill husband, raise a girl with learning difficulties, carry on in your job under that boss who has no morals and dislikes you without Holy Scripture? How can you look at the reality that our lives are going to end in the grave – that we are all going to die – without the encouragement that we get from Scripture? Paul is saying that when we read the Bible, we learn about endurance, and we are taught it from Joseph and Job and himself. We are given the right attitude to tough providences from the Bible; “Life is hard; God is good.” We are given sufficient grace to deal with them as we listen to the Bible being preached and as we develop a Bible mentality. The grace of perseverance is given to us by the means of the Bible. No Bible, no endurance. We learn something about patience in the passive sense and perseverance in the active sense.
It is a surprise to discover that endurance is one of Paul’s favourite words. If you do a word study of Paul’s writings, this is one that pops up. He loves the word ‘endurance.’ He loves the word ‘perseverance.’ He commends Christians in the opening words of his letters for the way they are labouring on and hanging in there. Why? Because every real Christian faces obstacles, difficulties, trials and opposition designed by the enemies of his soul to prevent him going forward. One of the things the Bible does is put steel in our backbones. It makes us good soldiers. It enables us to stand in an evil day and having done all to stand. It teaches us to go forward, to endure, not to stop. There is a phrase of Frodo’s in The Lord of The Rings; “I now know what I must do,” he says, “I now know what I must do.” He realises the opposition facing him, how difficult it is; he glimpses something of the horror ahead and he steels himself so that he might persevere. The Bible teaches us that. We learn that by its precepts; we give our obedience to what it tells us. It teaches us that by the examples of its men and women – people of like passions as ourselves, Abraham beginning his lonely pilgrimage, Moses waiting forty years as a shepherd at the far side of a wilderness, David being hunted through the desert like a wild beast, and Daniel standing alone in Babylon. Over and over again the Bible encourages us to endure. All those men endured, and so can you. Supremely the Bible teaches that by giving us glimpses of Christ, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame. He did what? He persevered. We look unto him, and where can we find him? In the Scriptures, and nowhere else.
iii] Thirdly whatever the Bible contains is there to teach us encouragement. Not only is it relevant for us, not only teaching us endurance, but we are encouraged by the Scriptures. Paul is using this wonderful Greek word paraclete. I use the Greek word because it has come over into English, even into our hymns. It is one of the names that Jesus attaches to the Holy Spirit. It’s what the Holy Spirit does in our lives. He’s an encourager, an advocate for us; he is our defender. He is the one who steps beside us to uphold us when we are afraid and overwhelmed and he defends out case.
This is a word that is taken out of the legal system of the first century. If you found yourself in trouble in the first century, you couldn’t go down the high street to a firm of lawyers with a brass plate outside the front door, ‘Abraham, Isaac & Jacob.’ No. If you found yourself in trouble during that time you’d want a paraclete, that is, somebody who actually knew you and had a measure of intelligence and eloquence and compassion and understanding and sympathy for your predicament. You would ask this paraclete to speak in your defense. He would be someone who knows you intimately and loves you. Now here is a Book that loves you. The Scriptures are Spirit and are life; the Word of God is alive and powerful, but not in the way that an electric cable is full of power but rather like your dear father or mother is powerfully loving towards you. Here is a Book that knows you intimately, that cares about you, that engages with you at this moment in the midst of this providence. The Bible is the divinely appointed tool which is wonderfully efficacious in the ministry of encouragement. It motivates us; it challenges us; it equips us; it summons us to endure even the cross. It is absolutely certain of God’s covenantal promises and their relevance to our lives. It attends our every step.
iv] Fourthly, whatever the Scriptures teach their purpose is to give us hope. They make us the most optimistic people in the world; “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” We are tonight the most blessed people in all the world. We are amongst that small group of people who have hope. Out there in the world, there is little optimism about the future. One ominous sign of that is the crippling dependence on mood-changing chemicals that characterizes millions in our nation today, especially of young people. They also have fleeting hopes that they will win the National Lottery and those hopes evaporate each Saturday night. Then this week-end there will be thousands of relationships begun, but with little hope that they will last any longer than the other relationships men and women have known. Disappearing hopes characterize our day like the sea mists that drift in from the Irish Sea and then vanish as the sun shines on them, but the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, the solid joys, the lasting treasures, none but Zion’s children know.
That’s what the Bible gives us, hope, not that vague comment, “Well, I hope so,” but the hope of absolute certainty. The hope of God’s great promises, confirmed by Christ himself, and unforfeitable. The knowledge that God will work all things together for our good. The certainty that all sufficient grace will keep us in the darkest of days. The confidence that God will supply all our needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. The certainty of the Spirit leading us day by day. Such promises give birth to such hope, and such hope makes us cry, “Hallelujah! What a Saviour! I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day.” We thus affirm, “Nothing shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord. Not life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor things present, nor things to come, nor anything in all of creation.” These Bible words are guaranteed to give hope to everyone who knows and believes them.
Do you remember the conversation on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection, when the Lord Jesus Christ opened up his Old Testament? He said, “Let me tell you something. This whole Book, this entire Old Testament, is about me.” He preached to them the truth of the Messiah, the Saviour, from the Old Testament. Now, if that’s true of the Old Testament, it’s even more true of the New Testament. This whole book is about Jesus Christ, and so if you believe in this book, if you continue in this book, if you persist in this book, if you abide in this book, you are going to be trusting in Jesus Christ.
It ought to be the aspiration of every Christian to live according to the word of God. Every Christian ought to be saying, in all the fullness of its meaning, with the psalmist, “How I love your word, O Lord. I love every word of your instruction. That word of instruction shows me my sin, my need. It shows me the Saviour, and his grace. It shows me the way of faith and trust in Jesus Christ, and it shows me the way of life. This Book tells me everything I need to know to live in this world glorifying and enjoying you for ever.” So every Christian ought to aspire to live according to God’s word, and ought to delight in that word of God. God’s word is truth, and we are to live by the Book.
So Paul tells them about the abiding usefulness of the Word of God. Come away from these petty things about which you are arguing and dividing. Think of the infallible word of God and the benefit that comes from it. There is an illustration of this truth in the life of Wang MingDao, a Chinese evangelist. Wang Ming-Dao was arrested by the communist regime in the 1950’s for refusing to compromise with the state-organized church. After being interrogated in prison by the worst kinds of cruelty, Wang Ming recanted, and cooperated with the state. Soon after his release, he was heard muttering as he walked through the streets, “I am Peter…,” and even “I am Judas….I am Judas…” After some months of such torment, Wang Ming turned himself in to the authorities and reported that he had made a false statement when he confessed to them that he had recanted his faith. He was immediately put back in prison. For days, perhaps weeks – he couldn’t tell how long – Wang lay in his cell in a state of abject despair. He had sinned, he had betrayed Christ. Bereft of all comfort there now seemed little purpose in living.
It was at this point of deep dejection that God in mercy shone a ray of light into his gloom. A verse of Scripture, memorised long before, filtered into his mind. It was Micah chapter seven, verses eight and nine, “Do not rejoice over me, my enemy; when I fall, I will arise; when I sit in darkness the LORD will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the LORD because I have sinned against Him, until he plead my cause”
Year succeeded year, but never again did Wang Ming-Dao deny his Saviour. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-79, which aimed to crush the spirit of the Chinese people and to extinguish the Christian church altogether intensified his sufferings. Sometimes he was seriously ill, often mistreated, always denied access to any means of grace, but Wang did not waver. To what did he attribute his ability to overcome? It was the sustaining power of the Word of God memorized in early years. In his own words, “It was the Word of God that gave me the very best moment of my life when I overcame my lies . . . If it were not for God’s protection, I would be dead by now, but it was the Word of God that rescued me” (Faith Cook, Singing in the Rain, p.32)
2. JESUS CHRIST IS THE CONSTANT MODEL TO ALL CHRISTIANS.
Let us consider what the apostle says about Jesus Christ, in verse three, “even Christ did not please himself.” There were the diet’n’days group in the congregation, so earnest and uncompromising in promoting their agenda. There were the group who were particularly antagonised by them, who found them the most infuriating people in the world and constantly grumbled about them. Both groups were energetically using the church to promote their beliefs, talking constantly to people in the congregation about their convictions, while the world around was dying without Christ and without hope. They argued, “Well, we have every right to do this. This is our Christian liberty. This is important. The church will never be blessed until it takes our position and sees things our way.”
Paul is absolutely devastating. He says, “Even Christ did not please himself.” Christ’s views were one hundred per cent true, but he didn’t please himself. He was balanced and pastorally responsible for what he said, but he didn’t please himself. He knew all the possible consequences for his words and deeds, but he didn’t please himself. He loved God with all his heart and loved his neighbour as himself, and he didn’t please himself. You see the implication? “But you are pleasing yourselves in your decisions and actions, whom you are speaking to and those whom you ignore, what meetings you come to and which ones you shun, what issues you want to see the church raise and deal with. You please yourself. You are number one, but even the Lord of Glory, the eternal sinless Son of God didn’t please himself.”
Then to support that humbling observation he quotes to them from Psalm 69 these words of the ninth verse of that psalm, “The insults of those who insulted you have fallen on me.” Psalm 69 is comprehensive, 36 verses in length, one of the great messianic psalms. In fact seven of its thirty-six verses are cited in the New Testament. When you read the psalm and have an understanding of the Lord Jesus Christ in your heart and mind as you read its words of it, it will become clear to you what the psalm is about. It’s a psalm about the sufferings of our Saviour. It’s a psalm about the self-denial of our Lord. It’s a psalm about Jesus becoming our sin bearer and substitute. It’s a psalm that recalls how the Son of God was insulted, ridiculed, spat upon, humiliated and slandered by his enemies, estranged by his brothers, criticized by the rulers and drunkards who sang obscene songs about him. That’s what this psalm is saying. It’s a psalm that was frequently fulfilled during the life of Jesus of Nazareth, whenever they accused our blessed Lord of being an illegitimate child of Mary and Joseph, when Phillip tells Nathaniel, “We have found the one that Moses and the law and the prophets wrote about, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Do you remember what they said? “Nazareth? Nazareth? Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Later when Jesus cast out demons, you remember what they said about him? “It is by the power of Beelzebub that he casts out demons. Even on the cross itself, as he was impaled in utter agony there, even during his crucifixion they ridiculed him. “If you are the Son of God, come down and save yourself,” they said to him. Those insults they relentlessly focused upon him.
This passage is telling the Roman congregation and ourselves that God the Son did not please himself, that he did not lead his life as ‘me first; I have to have my own way; I know best; number one comes first.’ No, he laid down his life for those who rubbished him; he prayed for those who were despitefully abused him; he spent himself for them until he felt the virtue run out of him. He humbled himself for those who hated him. We ask God to make us more humble, and when he chooses a certain tough way of doing this we get angry. “Why are you letting people treat me in this way?” God replies, “Didn’t you pray to become more humble?” Christ thought it not robbery to be equal with God, and yet he made himself of no reputation. There was no group in the world who would speak up for him on the first Good Friday. His family said he was a good boy who had gone too far. His disciples said that he wouldn’t listen to them. His fellow countrymen said, “Crucify him.” The chief priests and Pilate said he had done things worthy of death. He made himself like that – somebody who had no reputation. So why are we sinners concerned about our precious reputation? That’s our Saviour. Our blessed Lord did not please himself and so neither should we.
iii] WE OUGHT TO BEAR WITH OTHER CHRISTIANS AND BUILD THEM UP.
That is what the opening words of this fifteenth chapter say; “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.” The focus now turns to our lives and what we need to do. What is it that Paul wants us to do? You remember in the context there is the whole issue of weak Christians and strong Christians and handling their differences in the church, and Paul’s counsel to them all is not to live for themselves, but to live for others. Don’t please yourselves – even though you are absolutely right. There are time when you please your neighbours who are dead wrong. Paul is concerned about unity in truth and unity in godly living, unity in loving one another, unity between brothers and sisters, unity when some people in the church are constantly raising issues in the congregation or trampling upon the consciences of other church members. Now whether the issue is about meat that’s been offered to idols, or keeping certain days, or drinking wine, or being a vegetarian or some such issue in the context of the early church Paul’s response is utterly and relevantly contemporary.
The principle that Paul is enumerating is focused on a situation that had emerged in one particularly significant congregation, a strong, large gospel church in the throbbing heart of Rome and its empire. One section of the church thinks they are free to act as they please while another section of the church is offended by their conduct. Their consciences would convict them if they should do the things the strong believers insist they should be doing. There is retaliation, tension, suspicion, private debates, misunderstanding, and as it is said, “when the elephants fight then the little creatures of the jungle are hurt.” Paul is saying, “Hasn’t selfishness played too big a part in this difference of opinion?” Then consider the selflessness of Jesus. So, he pleads in verse 1 of chapter 15, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.”
That principle is the foundation of living a godly, upright, holy life in a congregation of fellow sinners and fellow believers. In the church we are not to live to please ourselves; always we live with the others in mind. We are not to be full of our own importance. We are not to pride ourselves in what we imagine is our own superior insight and discernment. We are not to think that our lives are so significant and singular that we are free to ignore the things that the rest of the congregation does because we are superior and wiser; we are the super Christians. That is your own foolish attitude; you have no divine appointment to behave as you do. We may have a right to do certain things, and Paul isn’t denying that such rights exist, but the Christian life is not about our rights. The Christian life is certainly about denying rights. “I won’t have the weaker brother tell me that I have no right to do this.” That’s a wrong attitude. You may have the right to do what you do, but there are times when you’ll deny yourself your rights for other Christians whom you may not like. There are plenty of cranks in the church of Jesus Christ, but for the sake of harmony, for the sake of the blessing of the community, we are to bear with others in the congregation and their weaknesses. We are not to please ourselves. We should seek to build up, to edify, and to strengthen our brothers. That’s what Paul is saying.
We are over concerned about ourselves. “Oh, what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day, I’ve got a beautiful feeling, everything’s going my way.” It’s ‘my way; “I did it my way.” Things revolve around me; we are concerned about ourselves, and our own rights, and here is Paul’s prayer, that the God who gives that endurance and encouragement which come from Scripture, that he grant us to live in such harmony with one another in accord with Christ Jesus that we bear with the failings of the weak, and please our neighbours and build them up not tear them down. You see what is on Paul’s mind all the time? We are self-serving, we are inward looking, we are absorbed with ourselves, we are too sensitive concerning our rights. We get hurt and offended, and so the church ends up in squabbles and cliques. Paul is saying, “Stop doing that. Bear with one another’s failings and build them up.”
This passage is reminding us that there is a diversity of emotional, spiritual and doctrinal maturity in every congregation. There will always be a range of understanding in the church. One size does not fit all. That’s why one-to-one ministry is absolutely essential in the church. I’m not just referring to all my pastoring and evangelism but to yours. Someone new to our congregation isn’t going to get everything at once. He will take a time to tune in and understand what I’m saying. The Holy Spirit will help him and I will consciously speak in a way that there will be times in almost every sermon in which the gospel itself will be very simple and lucid. I will spell it out . . . A.B.C. But the whole sermon will not always, week after week, morning and evening, be . . . A.B.C. because Jesus was not like that, and the Bible is not like that. We honour the Scripture and cry to the Holy Spirit to assist us. So you must be the one to speak to people who are not mature and try to explain to them what is the truth, and what the Bible teaches. That is essential in a church. There is not just one single programme, a simple introduction to Christianity, that is guaranteed to help everybody. It does not exist and never will, because we are all at different levels of maturity. As we enter the kingdom of God we bring with us a lot of baggage. We have different life stories. We all have various experiences. We all have our own gaps, our own passions, our own dreams, and our own abilities. So, in our discipleship, one size does not fit all. We must be ready to be patient in the Christian nurture of converts and patient in dealing with a whole congregation of individuals. Even churches are different. There is a corporate personality that characterizes a church, let’s say that each church has an ‘angel.’ I don’t mean by that guardian cherubim but its own distinctive ethos. There are the personalities of the individual members, and there is a corporate personality, an ‘angel.’ Churches are different and Paul is reminding us here that we must be ready to be patient in our Christian nurture of disciples and churches.
If God has made you strong and given you maturity, do you know why he’s given you that strength? He’s given you that maturity for your brethren who are weaker. Not so that you can lord it over them, but so that you can bear with their failings. What strengths God has given to me also belong to you. What God has given to you also belongs to me. We are here to please his neighbour for his good, to build him up. So Paul says we need to live like that. If we simply learned and did that then most of the problems that arise relating to issues like these which Paul has to deal with in these chapters in Romans would be taken care of. If we could only be patient with the failings of the weak, and if we just pleased our neighbours for their good then what blessing there would be in a congregation.
Let’s discourage doubtful disputations. In other words we shouldn’t stir up strife about matters of personal judgment. Thomas Chalmers, the great Scottish minister said this, “Instead of contentious argumentation and vexatious controversies, at once endless and unfruitful, Paul inculcates here a discrete silence.” All will come right at the last won’t it? So there is a time simply not to open our mouths, not to encourage a dispute to develop, and thus to be edifying to the body of Christ. This isn’t just a counsel to pick your fights carefully, it’s a counsel to forbear from time to time for the sake of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We should discourage doubtful disputations.
Every member of the body of Christ, weak or strong, should labour not to despise or misrepresent other brethren. In these chapters there are two ways of despising the brethren. There are those Christians who are strong looking down on the weak, condemning them. Then there are those who are weak who are looking at the strong and thinking, “They aren’t as spiritual as we are because they’re not doing the things that we are doing.” Despising one another is a two way street and we need to labour in the body of Christ, whether weak or strong, not to despise the brethren. It is a very dangerous sin to set at naught one of those little ones that had believed in Jesus.” Do you remember what Jesus said? “Woe unto you who make one of these little ones stumble [he is talking about fellow disciples not infants]. It would be better for you if you had a millstone tied around you neck and you were thrown into the sea.” You couldn’t get a more graphic warning about being a stumbling block to a weaker brother than that. Contempt and disdain are never virtues – never! “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.”
7th January 2007 GEOFF THOMAS