June 10, 2018
IMITATING CHRIST AND LOVING OUR BROTHERS
(42 of 44 in a series through Romans)
I think there is one challenge someone could make to the exhortation we focused on last week. But before I bring it up, let me give us a brief review. Romans 14:13-23 reminded us that it is actually sinful to do something you think is sinful even if it isn’t objectively sinful. In the case of the church in Rome, certain believers (most likely Jewish believers) didn’t have the faith to walk in the freedom Christ had given them to eat meat and drink wine, so it seems. Consequently, Paul tells them that if they think it’s sin, then they don’t need to eat or drink those items, even though he knows that it’s not sinful—in and of itself—to eat meat and drink wine. But, more importantly, Paul spends most of his time exhorting those brothers and sisters in the church who know that they’re free to eat and drink to make sure they don’t cause their weak brothers to stumble. That is, he wants to make sure that they don’t tempt their brothers to imitate their behavior—eating meat or drinking wine—when those brothers’ consciences tell them that would be sinful. So he says, for example, in verse 21, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” Therefore, though Paul gives permission in verse 22 to eat meat and drink wine in private or with other strong brothers, he asks the stronger brother to show restraint before his weaker brothers and not flaunt his freedom in front of them, lest those weaker brothers be tempted to do what their consciences tell them is sinful. And, again, this restraint should be shown because of our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
That’s the gist of 14:13-23, which we looked at last week. But I mentioned that there is one challenge someone could still make. And that challenge could come from a strong brother and go like this: If the problem lies with the weaker brother in that he simply lacks the faith to believe that he is free to do what the Bible says he has freedom to do, then why do I need to be the one to adjust my life and show restraint for his sake? Isn’t this putting a burden on me that is created because of another brother’s failings, and, as such, isn’t that a lot to ask of me?”
I think you can see how this challenge might creep into someone’s mind. And I can imagine the enemy quickly wanting to suggest that you or I shouldn’t be burdened by a weakness in someone else and that the burden should be borne by the weak brother himself. Why us when he’s the one with the problem, right? And in case that thought has come into your mind, there is some good news, and that good news is that Paul equips us to answer that challenge in our text this morning (15:1-13), in addition to what he’s already argued in 14:13-23. And he answers this challenge by reminding us of some things that we need to remember when we are called to make sacrifices for the good of our brothers and sisters. The first of these is:
Remember Christ’s command to love and our need for our brothers and sisters
In other words, when the enemy says to you, “You shouldn’t have to sacrifice; it’s his problem,” I want us to think first of these two things: the command from Christ to love one another and the fact that we need our brothers and sisters. Let me show you both of these things in the first two verses. Paul writes in verses 1-2, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failing of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
Now, I think that these two verses are littered with the command of love and the reminder that we need one another. But notice the first thing that Paul does to disarm the strong in their defensiveness. He says, “We who are strong.” He’s including himself. He’s not asking us to do anything that he’s not asking of himself as well. And he mentions that we ought to bear with the failings of the weak instead of merely pleasing ourselves, which is very similar to the kind of language he used to start this section of Romans, as he wrote in 12:3 that each of us ought not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought but to serve one another in love. Now, he’s bringing us right back to that theme.
Also, notice his use of the word “neighbor.” He could have said, “Brother,” as he did at the start of 14:13. And in one sense it’d even be more fitting, since he’s clearly talking about dealing with our weaker brothers and sisters. But I think the reason he used the word “neighbor” is because he knew that it would bring to our minds another command. After all, what comes to your mind when you think of the term “neighbor” in Scripture? Don’t you think of Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself? I think Paul knows that is what comes to mind, and so by using the term, he’s subtly reminding us of the command that Christ has given us to love our neighbors (and especially our brothers and sisters) as ourselves.
But there are also reminders in these two verses about our need for one another. Again, by harkening back to the language of pleasing and building up others instead of seeking our own good, he reminds us once more of the whole context in which he started, by reminding us that we are “one body” and are “members one of another” (12:4-5). Now, he’s going to give us a deeper reason for grounding our obligation to bear with the failing of the weak, seek their good, and build them up in verse 3, but already he’s reminding us that we have been commanded to love one another and build each other up, as members of the same body.
In other words, you could take the attitude, “Listen, their weakness is their problem. I’m not sacrificing for them,” but that would be like saying to your arm, “You’re the one that went and got broken. Don’t expect my other arm to hold you up, my legs to walk carefully so that I don’t fall and land on you, etc.” Of course you wouldn’t say that to a member of your body. It’s part of your body. So it is with your brother. You are members one of another. And because you’re members of the same body, which only is built up when each part of the body is working properly, you need your brother. So, resist the temptation to destroy him, in part, simply by reminding yourself that you need him.
Additionally, in order to take that calloused stance toward your weak brother violates Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. So, first, remember your need for one another and the call to love one another. Second:
Remember what Christ has done for us
This is the key and foundational basis for Paul’s exhortation in this text. When Paul says that we have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, he means that we are obligated to others because there was one who bore with us and our failings. He writes in verses 3-4, “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’”
This is a quote from Psalm 69 that Paul understands as being fulfilled in and by Jesus. The sins, the disgrace, the reproach that were ours were borne by Jesus. He took our sins on himself. He died for us. And Paul says in verse 4 that this was written down for our instruction. In other words, we’re to remember what Christ has done for us and let that guide our actions and thoughts in how we relate to others.
If we think, “But it’s their problem, not mine,” how does that stand up with how you think of yourself with Christ? What if Jesus had that approach to us? When we say, “But that’s asking a lot of sacrifice from me not to be able to eat and drink whatever I want whenever I want,” don’t we feel foolish saying those words, while thinking of Christ’s sacrifice of himself for us? In other words, let us make sure that we’re not the man in the parable who is shown extraordinary grace and forgiveness of debt only to threaten one indebted to us far less, refusing to show the grace and forgiveness we’ve been shown.
Now I know that some voices of professing believers may reduce Jesus’ work on the cross to an example of love that we should follow. And the reality is that Jesus’ death was much more than that. Jesus did not merely die to provide us an example of love, he died in order to pay for our sins, bearing on the cross the wrath of God as the penalty for our sins so that we might no longer bear condemnation, and he rose so that we might be justified. But as true as that is and by saying that Christ did much more than provide us an example on the cross, we need to acknowledge that he certainly did not do less than provide us an example of love. And the biblical writers pick up this theme, even as Paul is doing here.
So, it is completely appropriate and not some over-the-top manipulative measure to say to yourself, “If Christ sacrificed himself for me, then I should be willing to give up some freedoms before my weaker brothers and sisters. That is not too much to ask.” Remember what Christ has done. Third:
Remember the purpose of your life—to glorify your God, united with Christ’s people
In each new members’ class I do, I begin the first part of the class talking about reasons why you should join a church. I make five or six arguments, and over the years I’ve used different arguments. But one argument I consistently make is that you should join a local church in order to glorify God. I usually provide a list of good things that aren’t the church, saying something like, “God has not promised that he’ll be glorified through Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or Union University, or the International Mission Board,” and then I add, “But he has promised that he will be glorified in his church.” And then I quote Ephesians 3:20-21 where Paul says, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Throughout every generation the Scripture teaches us that God will be glorified in Christ Jesus and in the church. Therefore, I say that one reason you should join a church is in order to bring glory to God, which is the purpose for which we were created.
The Westminster Catechism rightly answers the question, “What is the chief end of man?” by answering, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” And I say that it is the right answer because of texts like Isaiah 43:7 where the Lord speaks of bringing his sons and daughters to himself and describes them as “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory.”
Now, with that purpose for which you were created in mind, listen to Paul’s prayer and exhortation in verses 5-7. He writes, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Knowing that Christ is glorified by his children walking in unity, Paul prays that we would walk in unity in praise to God. And obviously he lets the Roman believers hear his prayer so that they might be reminded of the importance of walking in unity with our brothers in relation to our purpose of glorifying God. Then, just for good measure, he adds the exhortation to welcome one another, reminding us once more that Christ welcomed us. And he notes that all of this is done “for the glory of God,” meaning that if we fail to welcome one another, bearing with one another’s failings and sacrificing for one another, we are failing to do the very thing for which we were created—glorify God.
Therefore, at this point, if the enemy says, “C’mon, too much is being asked of you to sacrifice for the failings of another,” Paul has reminded us of the command from Christ to love our neighbor, of the fact that we need one another (so that it’d be like cursing your own arm not to bear with the failings of the weak), that Christ has sacrificed for us and welcomed us, and that only by walking in unity with our brothers and sisters as a church can we rightly glorify God, which is our purpose. That’s already a lot, but let me add one more thing:
Remember that our unity is a display of God’s truthfulness and abounds to his praise
In other words, not only does our unity glorify God but it specifically displays that God is truthful in what he declares. After building this exhortation to bear with others on the example of Christ, Paul reminds us that Christ came as a servant in order to fulfill the promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He writes, “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (vv. 8-9).
There were two goals, Paul mentions, in Christ coming. For one, he was showing God truthful. God had made promises to save a people for himself from among the Jews, and Christ was coming to confirm that promise and bring salvation. That’s why Jesus could say that he came to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But, second, God also promised in the OT that he would save Gentiles so that they might praise him for his mercy (which is why Jesus also says that he has other sheep who are not of the fold of Israel). And then Paul shows OT text after text where God foretold that he would save Gentiles so that they might have hope and praise God.
Paul writes, “As it is written, ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name’ [foretelling of Gentile salvation from Psalm 18:49]. And again it is said, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’ (again, showing the same from Deut. 32:43]. And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him’ [foretelling that it would result in Gentiles praising God, from Ps. 117:1]. And again Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope’ [Is. 11:10].”
Therefore, what Paul is showing is that Christ came for both groups—Jews and Gentiles—even as it was foretold and promised in the OT. But why does this matter? It matters because the division in the Roman church (or at least potential division) was most likely between Jewish and Gentile believers. It was most likely the Jewish believers who were the weak, not grasping by faith that they were free to eat meat, drink wine, and treat each day alike. It was most likely the Gentile believers who were strong in faith and no struggles over eating and drinking whatever and treating each day alike. And this potential division was risking the watching world not recognizing them as God’s people (since they’ll know we’re Christians by our love for one another), leading to the Christians taking their eyes off the work of Christ and his example, forgetting their ultimate purpose of glorifying God, and missing that their unity was a crucial part of the very plan and promises of God over hundreds of years.
Now, when you put all of that together, doesn’t it feel a bit odd, if you’re a strong brother, to say, “You know, sacrificing a bit for my weak brother just feels like a little too much to ask”? I hope it does.
I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the most helpful things to ask myself periodically, especially if I’m feeling like obedience is difficult, is, “What do I think my life is for?” And how you answer that question makes a big deal. If you answer that question by saying that your life is about trying to enjoy this world as much as you can in relative peace, then you’re probably not going to make decisions that cost you very much. Why would you? That will get in the way of your enjoyment of this world and being able to live in relative peace. But if you answer that question by saying, “My life is about glorifying, obeying, loving, and enjoying my God,” then all of the sudden making sacrificial decisions (even giving your life) makes complete sense. So my hope is that as a church we’re completely on board with all these lofty ideas that Paul lays out in our text concerning the command to love, example of Christ, call to glorify God, and importance of walking in unity. And I pray that if the enemy in any way suggests that sacrificing for our brothers and sisters in Christ is a bit too much to ask that we would use these truths as tools and weapons to slay that argument and remember what our lives are for.
And we can trust that God will give us power and joy and peace to obey him in hope, even as Paul prays for us in verse 13. If we doubt that he will, let’s remember what he’s already done for us in Christ as we come to the table. Amen.