Christian Strength Edifies, Welcomes, and Unifies
Scripture: Romans 15:1–15:7
In the course of human history, many leaders fought alongside their troops, showing both courage and humility. But other strongmen hid in the middle of their troops, sacrificing them for their own security; or hid far from the battlefield, and led their own men into destruction. Strength is attractive but it is also a temptation for boasting and pride. While people appreciate a good and righteous strength, there seems to be some misalignment in human hearts that seek after the kind of strength that only cares for itself. We’re surrounded by people attracted to the strong and separating from the weak. Nations flock to strongmen and populations elect dictators, while many abandon the weak and despise the marginalized. It is truly the survival of the fittest at the expense of the weak. Where is the dignity of being created in the image of God if humans act no better than animals that crave brute strength and abandon the weak? The countercultural gospel of the kingdom is the answer, beginning with the example of Christ’s humility and persevering in the paradigm of church unity. It is in this new community that we see the truest embodiment of strength and humility in Christ. A strong person who looks down on the weak is merely a bully, a person Paul has been admonishing in the previous chapter not to despise, hinder, grieve or destroy the one for whom Christ died (14:3,10,13,15,20). But the strong who builds the weak up, not only tolerates or endures, but also upholds and imparts strength and encouragement. Such is the character of a humble encourager who seeks the glory of God. In a day where the world idolizes power and uses it to impose uniformity on every conscience, the kingdom of our God is the place where we find unity in diversity, anchored by hope, upheld by humility, maintained by love, furthered by hospitality, pursuing harmony, and working for glory – the glory of our God.
Today’s passage continues the call to hope and encouragement in unity which Paul began in the prior chapter, and continues here through 3 main elements: exhortation, instruction, and intercession: the exhortation for the strong to edify the weak; the instruction for hope by Christ’s example and word; and the intercession for harmony of mind to the glory of God. Paul then ends his arguments with a call-back to v.1 from ch.14: a call to welcome i.e. to community and hospitality.
Exhortation (for the strong to edify the weak; v.1-2)
In this fallen world, a position of strength or a desire for strength sometimes turns into a skewed dream of a life of unhindered liberty: freedom from debt; freedom from dependence on others; freedom to do whatever one wants. Many who pursue such positions do it for their own benefit, and sometimes at the expense of others. But what God has placed in our hearts is a yearning for justice: to see people use strength for the sake of what is good, what is right, what is beneficial. There is something even more attractive about strength that humbles itself for the sake of others.
Paul has been arguing since the previous chapter for the sake of unity between the weak and the strong, a unity in which the weak find freedom and the strong practice restraint. For the strong who looks down on the week is merely a bully who uses liberty for himself, selfishly, insensitively, and for his own pleasure. But the strong who edifies the weak through encouragement has found a better way. It is not the way of tolerance or of mere endurance; it is the way of the humility of Christ that seeks to uphold others; it is the way of counting others more significant than oneself; it is the way of looking not only to one’s own interest, but also to the interest of others (Philippians 2:3-4); such is the knowledge that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). In Christ we have liberty - but not to disregard others and bring them down. For in taming our liberty and restraining it for the sake of our brothers and sisters we build them up. This is the charitable way of love and of welcome.
Paul here personally steps into the field by identifying himself with those who are strong, neither in a manner of boasting nor in a spirit of false humility. He speaks to fellow believers who may have had a conscience that allows them, among other things, to eat anything. After all he said in 14:14 & 20 that everything is clean. But he subjects his freedom of conscience to the obligation – not should but must! – of honoring the weaker brothers by lifting them up. The weak are not less faithful or less spiritual, but they may have had in their conscience desires to maintain certain practices, such as eating only Kosher food, or not eating meat from the marketplace. They may have felt more at ease maintaining some of the practices that came to them from their family, region, or culture. A contemporary example would be believers from other religious backgrounds who still feel bound not to drink alcohol or not to eat certain meats, who pray a certain number of times per day, or who dress a certain way. Or they might be closer to your culture than you think, but who do not sing certain songs or use certain instruments in their worship. Or they hold to different preferences or 2nd/3rd order beliefs, such as baptism, eschatology, or others. These are not to be taken as sinful acts, but rather as failings or weaknesses in regard to the freedom that Christ has called us to. We should not force them to go against their conscience, for in doing so we might force them to sin if they find themselves rebelling against God in their consciences. These are brothers and sisters in the universal church and even in the same body, adopted by the same Lord, worshiping the same God, inhabited by the same Spirit, going to the same heaven, and one day will eat the same supper and sing the same songs. These are people for whom Christ died to redeem for himself as part of his bride and present them in splendor to his Father.
This is where our obligation comes from. If Christ ransomed them, are we to despise, judge, hinder or destroy them? If a smoldering wick he did not quench, are we in our strength to douse it with water? If a person is sick, are we to smother because it is convenient to us? Or are we to help and treat in hope of restoration? That is why Paul qualifies that this obligation is both to build the weak up, and also not to please ourselves. The default mode of the human heart is to seek to please the self. If you question this, simply look at your toddlers.
Sometimes for us adults, pleasing ourselves takes the form of exercising our liberty with disregard to the consciences of others. This becomes particularly more tangible when we are around believers from other cultures. I am not speaking of sinful acts here, but of totally legitimate actions that the freedom of our consciences permits us to do, but in doing them without restraint we would cause our brothers and sisters to stumble. For some who have been through training on engaging people from Muslim or other religious backgrounds, we understand how easy it might be for us to offend others even as we seek to welcome them (pork, alcohol, pets, shoes, clothes, signs of modesty…). Unfortunately, in exercising liberty, many goers have caused a lot of damage to the name of our Lord and to his church in other parts of the world, especially when confusing Biblical directives with cultural preferences. For the sake of the gospel of unity, it is better to be patient and forbear; it is better to tame down our liberty and become some things to some people so that we may not cause them to stumble. Freedom is bound not to intentionally allow offensive behavior by disregarding the consciences of other church members. For our freedom in Christ is bound to the holiness and glory of God to whom we have been united through Christ. Such unity must not be jeopardized by us seeking to please ourselves.
Back in Romans 12, we were called to renew our mind in order to discern the will of God. Many believers today may have had more theological training, may have taken advantage of available resources, or may have been blessed with discernment of deeper and higher matters of faith and the will of God. Such people are also called through this text to humble themselves, forsake theological pride, and seek to use what they have gained to edify the community of Christ we all belong to, for unity and for the service of God (cf. 1 Cor 13:2).
Paul then qualifies the exhortation of pleasing our neighbor – for his good, to build him up. This is not a mere act of tolerance or blanket approval of anything the neighbor does: not all actions are good or edifying. But believers exhort one another toward love and good deeds. This pleasing is not the type of seeking the approval of men that Paul warns against in Galatians 1:10. It is not about allowing for sinful behavior, but it’s about enduring the weak brother’s powerlessness in his new life to be free from certain practices or beliefs, while at the same time seeking to help our brother grow into maturity – not by reshaping his practices, but by helping one another to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, pleasing to God, and renewing our minds to do what is good, acceptable and perfect.
Instruction (for hope by Christ’s example and word; v.3-4)
Every good teaching includes good examples, and what better example for Paul to use in his point of instruction here than the example of Christ! Jesus who is the strongest man that ever lived did not seek his own pleasure: not my will but your will be done! (Luke 22:42) Christ was not marked by asthenia, inability, or powerlessness, but by his own will he humbled himself, did not look to his own interests, and embraced the forbearance of the suffering of the cross as he sought to please his Father. In Paul’s quotation from Psalm 69:9, we see how our Lord who is strong endured the reproaches of the weak for the glory of God, and to build up the weak for the glory of God. Were Christ to please himself, he could have destroyed them - and us. He could have hit the reset button for all the earth. He could have called for thousands upon thousands of angels to fight the battle. Yet in seeking to please his Father, he endured their weaknesses which in this particular case manifested not merely as failings or powerlessness, but as sin, hatred, and enmity, so that through his humility and his obedience he would take on himself their weaknesses – namely their sin by becoming sin – so that he would welcome them and build them up in the strength of his righteousness. If Christ did this for his enemies, how much more are we to endure, build up, and please our brothers and sisters in the faith?
And how much more then are we to immerse ourselves in the word of God that has been written for our instruction? Paul’s apparent little digression here might seem a bit odd to modern ears, as if he were making a big deal out of a short quotation. But this should serve as a clear and present affirmation of the inerrancy of the Old Testament scriptures which are quoted by both Jesus and Paul. It was to the advantage of Roman believers from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds to lean on what has been written in order to live in the newness of the Christian life to which they now belonged. In the same manner, it is to our advantage to lean on both Old and New Testaments for our instruction. It is not only the red letters of Jesus or the New Testament writings, but all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). All scripture is profitable for endurance and for encouragement. As we endure, the word of God encourages us and the body of believers, and so we find hope, and hope does not put us to shame (Romans 5:1-5). Christ leaned on the Old Testament, and we would do well by knowing it thoroughly. I was reading Ezekiel 34 yesterday and in it there is another example of God calling his shepherds and the strong to guard and protect the weak, as he rebukes them for bullying the weaker sheep and for giving themselves up freely to gluttony and selfishness. He reminds them and us that the sheep are his and the flock belongs to him who will protect it with hope to the end. Christ endured to the end so that we may have hope. In our new life of union with him, even in suffering, we share in his hope with the promise of sharing in his glory (Romans 8:17). Here we are called to share the burdens of one another simply by not acting with insensitive selfishness but rather seeking to uphold and encourage those whose consciences are weaker than ours, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit, so that the whole body might be growing together in maturity into the head who is Christ (adapted from Ephesians 4:1-16).
All of this has been written for our instruction, for our hope. What happens when we lose hope? We fall into disarray, into darkness, into disunity. We give up; we quit; we stop pursuing our calling. We cannot legitimately give others hope when we ourselves do not have it. We lose our ability to identify with the weaknesses of others and of showing empathy and providing care. We fall into helplessness. But Scripture instructs us to approach his mercy seat with confidence where we can receive mercy and find grace (Hebrews 4:16); where we can cast our cares (Psalm 55:22); where we know that the Son and the Holy Spirit are advocating for us and interceding for us so that we may have joy, peace, faith, hope and love. Scripture is the fountain of hope. Christ in us is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). Does that not give you hope? To see this body built up in love, strengthened by unity, enduring with hope, and worshiping in harmony?
Intercession (for harmony of mind to the glory of God; v.5-6)
I can almost imagine sitting there in Corinth around the year 57 A.D. seeing Paul swelling with a desire to pray as he is thinking of the encouragement of Scripture, as he moves into this spoken intercession linking Scripture with its God and giver. The endurance and encouragement Scriptures give are all breathed out by the God of endurance and encouragement who gave it for our edification. It does not change and it is always effective because the God who gave it does not change and is always standing ready to see to it that his name is glorified, and his people praise him as they live together in unity and glorify him in harmony.
There is so much beauty in the world of music, in orchestras and in choirs. Each instrument has its own unique shape, beauty, keys, ranges and tone. You could find much delight in listening to a piano alone, or a cello, or a saxophone. But I find even more delight in listening to instruments playing together to produce a glorious melody. They don’t have to play the same notes, but in harmony they come together to produce rich and melodious rhythms. Imagine if one decides to do its own thing: it immediately disrupts the harmony. Or imagine if all played their strengths at the highest level the entire time: the result would be cacophony and disunity.
Let’s imagine this a bit more clearly within the setting of an ensemble of voices or a choir with different ranges and timbers: the tenors and the sopranos; the bass and the altos; the mezzo and the baritones. At times, maybe in the finale or when singing a few measures in unison, singers or musicians are given liberty to exercise their full strengths. But more often they bring their voices together and sing different parts, while still seeking to produce a beautiful harmony. Oftentimes that harmony means that the stronger voices have to tame it down so that the beauty that results is made up of one final voice under the guidance of a masterful conductor. And that takes effort and humility. In my love for music and for singing I have experienced this personally where at times I can sing with the strength of my voice, and at other times I have to be very careful and mindful to make sure I follow the choirmaster and not overpower other voices. This takes effort, humility, learning, and also submitting to others who are stronger or more experienced that can teach us how to endure, bear, not please ourselves, and build others up.
In the church of Christ Jesus, like a choir or an orchestra, we are all together in front of the great composer and conductor of the universe. And he desires for us all to live together in such harmony, in accord with him, that the product of our lives and of our worship would be one voice in a symphony of praise that sings glory to the ancient of days (cf. Steve Green – Symphony of Praise). Whether we are great or small, strong or weak, male or female, Jew or Greek, our prayer should be like Paul’s that the God of endurance and of encouragement would grant us to live in this harmony and to have one voice to glorify God. This can happen through unity and the bonds of love that is patient and kind, not arrogant nor rude, but bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things (from 1 Corinthians 13). We would do so for the joy of seeing our fellow worshipers built up in a harmony of voices, even when they differ, but blending together, promoting and elevating one another, as we all focus on the final voice that we lift up together to glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Hear this: seeking to please one another in this way, does not decrease our pleasure: it magnifies it and multiplies it within our community of faith. How great is that!
Conclusion (v.7): welcoming one another to the glory of God
If all were harmony and humility, Paul would likely not have reason to write chapter 14 and these 7 verses for both the Roman believers, and for our instruction. He has made his point very poignantly and he wrote with yearning, because the ways of the church should not be the ways of the world that often idolizes strength and worships power. Then the world turns and wonders at the fallouts from wrong behaviors in such instances, from boasting, from the lack of humility, thoughtfulness, and civility; from the destruction and ridicule of the weak; from the disregard of consciences and liberties. Examples abound all around us in the realms of business, sports, politics and even the church. But people are in awe of a strength that humbles itself for the sake of others, of a king that fights among his people, of a leader who serves. People are in awe of the love that unites Christians together.
Like Paul, in Christ we have many grounds to identify with the strong. There’s no reason to claim false weakness or robe ourselves in false humility. We have been set free and have been given great promises, as well as the exhortation to forsake selfishness and to edify others. And I believe this is why Paul reuses the word welcome in v.7 which he did back at the beginning of his argument in 14:1: welcome the weak in faith; and here: welcome one another. God has given every believer at least one talent and variable measures of faith, which means different strengths, but every talent and every measure that the Lord gives is filled to its rim. He does not give faulty faith: the glass might differ in size, but he pours into each believer the fullness of his love and of his same Holy Spirit. It is like the voices of a choir: none is better than the other though some are stronger, but all are needed for the success of the harmony. And the more they know one another, the better they know how to work together.
In the same way for us believers, to be in harmony with one another, endure one another’s failings, and build one another up: we need to know one another! This process does not happen for the choir at the time of the concert, but in the many meetings and trainings together. And for us it does not happen merely on Sunday, but in our bringing our lives together in the one community to which we have been saved, welcoming one another, caring for one another, eating together, communicating together, joining our lives together in the one body of Christ. This language of welcome means hospitality; it means life together. The more we know one another, the less suspicious we become of our brother or sister.
It is not hard to be welcoming in our homes. Let us not hide behind excuses: I’m tired; I need to take care of family; my house is too small; I don’t know how to cook; I don’t want to offend. Let us trust Christ to use us in welcoming one another. It does not have to be fancy: in fact, it would be good for us to see the lives of one another as they are day-to-day and imagine how much we can learn from another’s lives and relationships: marriage, parenting, neighboring, conflict resolution, sharing testimonies, encouraging one another, learning from another culture or way of life etc... All of us are weak at some level and have consciences that are powerless to do some things (or not do some things) that people in this same church have no problem doing.
Such is the way of Christ. The language of hospitality in throughout Scripture: a dwelling place; a tabernacle; preparing a place; eternal rest; Passover meal; the Lord’s supper; the supper of the lamb. The homes and foods he has given us are one way he equips us to welcome one another. This is the manner of life he has called us to, even as he humbled himself and endured our failings, leaving the glories of heaven for a time, to welcome us into his fold and prepare a meal and a place for us to dwell in eternally – all of us together. He is the King full of strength who did not hide behind his army but fought the battle on behalf of all! His work was for the glory of God, and his high priestly prayer in John 17 was for our unity, centered around God, his covenant, and his word, for his glory. We are not better than our Master who endured unimaginable suffering. Let us not then grow weary of enduring one another, building one another up, and welcoming one another so that our Lord would receive all the glory. Let us not forsake the worship of God together where we find hope, encouragement, and harmony. Like the Reformers used to say and like the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach used to sign every one of his compositions: Soli Deo Gloria – to the glory of God alone who has welcomed all of us into one kingdom, one hope, one light, one faith, one body, and one Lord.