In Romans chapters 12 to 16 Paul explains to us how we ought to live in light of the gospel of the grace of God to sinners like us. And really, he’s explaining to us how to live the heavenly life. You see, back at the beginning of chapter 12, he instructed us to offer our bodies — offer our whole being — to God as a living sacrifice. Not a dead sacrifice, which is what the Jews used to offer him on the altar in the temple, but a living sacrifice. In other words, we’re to dedicate ourselves and our whole lives to him and to his glory. And we’re not to be conformed any longer to this present, evil age which is passing away. Instead, we’re to be transformed more and more by the renewing of our minds. And, of course, it’s the Holy Spirit who renews our minds and the way we think and who enables us to live a life which is not conformed to this present evil age, but which instead reflects the glory of heaven which is where we really belong now that we are united through faith to the Risen and Exalted Saviour.
So, what does this heavenly life look like? Well, Paul has been describing it for us in chapters 12 and 13 and 14. In chapter 12 he outlined how we’re to use whatever gifts God has given us and we’re to love one another. And then, in chapter 13, Paul explained that living the heavenly life also means that we will submit ourselves to the governing authorities, because whatever authority there is in the world has been established by God so that whoever rebels against the governing authority is rebelling against what God has instituted. And just as we’re to be careful to pay whatever taxes we owe, so we’re to be careful to pay off the outstanding debt of love we owe to one another.
And then in chapter 14, Paul turned to address the very important subject of how the strong and the weak in the church ought to treat one another when it comes to disputable matters. Now who are the weak and who are the strong? Well, when Paul refers to those whose faith is weak he doesn’t mean their faith was weak or fragile and they barely believed. He means these believers had a weak understanding of the implications of the gospel for what we can and can’t do. Or perhaps he means as well that they had a weak and tender conscience so that they felt guilty about things that don’t really matter.
You see, those whose faith was weak were insisting on certain things about which we have no command from the Lord. They insisted that you mustn’t eat meat. They insisted that you must observe special days as holy. They insisted that you mustn’t drink wine. But those whose faith was strong believed that they didn’t need to observe such rules because since God hasn’t commanded us to abstain from meat and drink or to observe special days, then we won’t. We won’t, because the Lord hasn’t commanded it.
So, there were these two groups in the church who disagreed about these disputable matters. How were they to treat one another? And in the first part of chapter 14, Paul instructs us that, instead of looking down on one another, instead of condemning one another, instead of tut-tutting one another, we’re to accept one another, since God has accepted us in Christ Jesus. And in the second half of chapter 14, Paul focused his attention on the strong believers. And he said to them that, if they’re not careful about how they use their freedom, they may harm the weak believers. So, the strong believers need to be careful not to misuse or abuse the freedom they have in Christ.
Verses 1 to 3
And so we come to chapter 15. And Paul is dealing with the same subject of the weak and the strong in the first 13 verses of this chapter. And from verse 1 it’s clear that Paul identifies himself with the strong, because he says:
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.
Now, the NIV refers to ‘the failings of the weak’; but Paul is really referring here to the ‘weaknesses’ of the weak, or to their scruples over what we should and shouldn’t eat and what we should and shouldn’t drink and what days we should observe as holy. The strong may disagree with them over these things; however, the strong are to bear with them; they’re to put up with their views; they’re to tolerate them. And so, the strong are not to please themselves, says Paul at the end of verse 1. And we can imagine someone in the church saying:
I can eat what I want. I can drink what I want. I can do what I want. You’re not going to stop me.
But Paul is saying:
Instead of pleasing yourself and doing whatever you want, remember the scruples of your fellow believer. Bear that in mind.
And Paul goes on to say in verse 2 that instead of living to please ourselves, we’re to live to please our neighbour. That is, we’re to seek to please our fellow believer. So, instead of seeking what’s good for me, I’m to think about what’s good for my neighbour. And instead of destroying my neighbour by abusing my freedom, I’m to do only what builds up my fellow believer in their faith. That’s what we’re to do; that’s how we’re to treat one another.
And then in verse 3 Paul gives us a model to emulate. He’s saying to us:
Do you want me to give you an example to follow? Perhaps you’re not convinced that what I’m saying is right. Perhaps you still think that you can do whatever you like. Well, in that case, let me tell you about someone who acted like this and whose example you’re to follow.
And the example we’re to follow — and who would possibly argue against following this example — the example we’re to follow is the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul wrote in verse 3:
For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’
Paul quotes from Psalm 69 where the Psalmist was addressing God and was telling him about all the ways he had suffered because of his zeal for God’s glory. And Paul puts the words of the Psalmist into the mouth of the Lord Jesus to convey to us how the Lord Jesus suffered all kinds of insults and persecution for our sake and for our benefit.
You see, if he had lived to please himself, his life here on earth would have been very different, wouldn’t it? Imagine if he had used his great power for his own benefit; he could have had it all; and his life here on earth would have been a life of ease and comfort. But the Lord Jesus didn’t live to please himself; instead he gave up his life for our salvation. And so, if we’re tempted to disregard the scruples of other believers, and if we’re tempted to do whatever we please and to forget what my actions might do to my fellow believer, we ought to remember the example of the Lord Jesus who did not live to please himself.
Verses 4 to 6
Having quoted from Psalm 69 in verse 3, Paul reminds us in verse 4 that everything that was written in the past was written to teach us. So, in case we’re ever tempted to disregard the Old Testament and to treat it as irrelevant, we should remember that no, it was written for our instruction. And furthermore: Paul says that the Scriptures are able to give us endurance or perseverance: they give us the ability to put up with all kinds of discomfort and sufferings and trials. And the Scriptures are able to give us encouragement and comfort: in every page they re-assure us of God’s love and faithfulness and commitment to his people.
So, the word of God helps us to endure all things; and the word of God continually encourages us. And therefore the word of God gives us hope. And that’s so important. Maybe our life now is not everything we would want it to be. Maybe our life now is hard and difficult. Maybe we have to suffer in many ways now and are continually disappointed and frustrated. And even in church, we have to put up with one another and with the scruples and weaknesses of our fellow believers. There are perhaps things we’d like to do, but we can’t for fear that we’ll upset our fellow believer; and from time to time we find it hard and frustrating. And so, for various reasons, our life here on earth is not everything we want it to be. But whenever we read the Bible, and are reminded of all of God’s promises to us, then we’re able to look forward with hope to all the good things that God has in store for us.
And so, in verses 5 and 6, we have a kind of prayer-wish. Paul is wishing for his readers that God — and of course God is the one who gives us endurance and encouragement; and he gives it to us through his word — Paul is wishing for his readers that God will give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow the example of Christ. So, instead of condemning one another, instead of looking down on one another, instead of arguing with one another over disputable matters, may God give you a spirit of unity so that with one heart and voice you may do what? So that you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. You see, that’s always the goal. That’s always what we should be aiming for. Paul wants God’s people everywhere to join together to worship the Lord and to give him all the praise and honour and glory he deserves.
And you see, this is all part of living the heavenly life. In heaven, God’s people won’t be divided. In heaven, we’ll be united together in perfect harmony. In heaven, all the saints will gather around God’s throne and we’ll worship him for ever. And since that’s where we really belong, in heaven, and since we no longer belong to this present evil age, but to the age to come, then we ought to live like that now. We’re to set our minds on things above, and on things to come; and we’re to look forward in hope to the glory of heaven. And as we look forward in hope to the things to come, we’re to live in harmony with one another here on earth.
Verses 7 to 13
In verse 7, Paul commands us to accept one another just as Christ accepted us. Once again the Lord Jesus is held up as an example for us to follow. So, think of all that is objectionable in us; think of all our sins and shortcomings; think of all the things about us which offend the Lord. And yet, he was prepared to accept us and to welcome us into his people. And so, in the same way, the weak and the strong ought to welcome one another. And by doing so, it will bring praise to God, because with one voice we’ll unite together to worship the Lord our God.
Well now, in verses 8 to 13, Paul moves from discussing the relationship of the weak and the strong to discussing the relationship of Jews and Gentiles. And once again, he refers to the example of Christ, because the Lord Jesus became a servant to the Jews. Do you see that in verse 8? Instead of living to please himself, he came into the world to serve the Jews and to bring them salvation in accordance with God’s promises to the patriarchs. But his coming into the world also meant mercy for the Gentiles. Do you see that in verse 9?
So, there’s God’s faithfulness to the Jews; and there’s God’s mercy to the Gentiles; and the result is that God’s name is praised among the Jews and the Gentiles throughout the world. And all of this was foretold in the pages of the Old Testament. That’s what the four Old Testament quotations which follow demonstrate. So, there’s verse 9 where the Psalmist declares that he will praise God among the Gentiles. In verse 10, the Gentiles are commanded to praise God with his people, the Jews. In verse 11, all the Gentiles are summoned to praise the Lord. And in verse 12, Isaiah spoke of Jesus Christ, the Root of Jesse, ruling over the Gentile nations, who are trusting in him. All four quotations together show how the Lord foretold that the Jews and the Gentiles would come together in order to worship the Lord. And how did this come about? By the Lord Jesus’s willingness to become a servant to the Jews.
Now what’s Paul’s point here? What’s he getting at? Well, in Rome the church was divided between the weak and the strong. They were at odds with one another. So, how can we bring these two sides together? What needs to happen so that the weak and the strong will be united in heart and voice to praise the Lord? Well, says Paul, each of you needs to follow the example of the Lord Jesus; each of you must become a servant who will not live to please himself or herself, but who will live to please your neighbour for their good. And when we learn to do that, then the different sides will come together to praise the Lord with one voice.
And so, Paul finishes with another prayer-wish where he prays that God will fill them with joy, not strife, and with peace, not division, so that they might overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And isn’t that what we want for all our churches? Not strife, but joy. Not division, but peace. Not hopelessness, but hope, as we look forward to the coming of the Lord. And in the meantime, we praise his name together.