Relationships between “Strong” and “Weak” Believers Part 3 Don’t Merely Please Yourself! – Romans 15:1-6
Pastor Mark Hardy February 2, 2014
In a small community there were two struggling churches with the same beliefs located only a few blocks from each other. They thought it might be better if they merged together and became one united, larger, and more effective body. However, although it was a good idea they were not able to pull it off. The problem was that they could not agree on how they would recite “The Lord’s Prayer,” which was an important part of worship for both of them. One church preferred to say “forgive us our debts,” while the other church insisted on saying “forgive us our trespasses.” Even though essentially the meaning is the same, their differing opinions on one word was a “deal breaker” for their becoming one larger church. When the local newspaper heard about this they reported, “One church went back to its trespasses while the other returned to its debts.”
How sad! Throughout church history there has been much disunity and division in the church over such non-essentials as this, which has greatly damaged the testimony of Christ’s church and hindered the proclamation of the gospel. This was happening in the church at Rome. Believers in the church had differing opinions on matters of personal preference—things not directly commanded or forbidden in Scripture, such as diet, days, and drinking. And because of how they were wrongly relating to each other these things divided them. Paul addresses this problem in Romans 14:1-15:13. We now come to chapter 15, turn there in your Bible.
In Romans 15:1-6 we see three ways that God-given unity in the church can be maintained, especially in the midst of differing opinions over matters of personal preference.
The first way is to:
I. Obey the Prescriptions given to the Strong
A. Look at v. 1: Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.
1. In saying “we” (hemeis) here Paul includes himself among the “strong.” Although he has already aligned himself with the theology of the “strong” in chapter 14 (vv. 14, 20), this is the first time he actually uses the word “strong.”
2. Remember that the “strong” believers are mature in the Christian faith. They have a greater biblical knowledge of their liberty in Christ and their conscience is free to exercise this liberty in the partaking of certain non-moral things.
3. However, the “weak”—“those without strength” do not enjoy this same freedom in their conscience. They are “weak in faith” (v. 1), in that, they have an inadequate biblical understanding as to what their Christian faith permits them to do, and so, they still have legalistic beliefs concerning certain things and view them as wrong and sinful for them, which in reality, biblically, are not.
4. Now although both the “strong” and the “weak” are responsible to mutually accept one another, which we will see next time (v. 7), Paul puts the primary responsibility for maintaining unity in the church on the “strong.” This is why he says here in v. 1 that they “…ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength.”
5. The word “ought” (opheilomen) is a term of indebtedness and refers to a moral obligation. And being in the present tense, it indicates that this is an on-going, continuous obligation.
6. Therefore, the “strong” are morally obligated to constantly “…bear the weaknesses of those without strength.” The “weaknesses” (asthenemata) of the “weak” refer to their legalistic adherence to man-made rules and regulations and unbiblical opinions due to their lack of biblical understanding concerning their Christian freedom.
7. Now for the “strong” to “bear” these weaknesses does not mean to simply “put up with” or “tolerate” them with an attitude of superiority. Nor does it mean that they adopt the convictions of the “weak” and allow themselves to be controlled by their unbiblical views.
8. The word “bear” (bastazein) literally means “to carry or shoulder the burden of” these things. The same word is used in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ,” which is the law of love.
9. Douglas Moo defines this word well when he says, “…what it does mean is that they (i.e. the strong) are sympathetically to ‘enter into’ their (i.e. the weak’s) attitudes, refrain from criticizing and judging them, and do what love would require toward them.” (pg. 866)
10. Therefore, to “bear” their weaknesses means that the “strong” assume the responsibility to lovingly show care and consideration for the “weaker” brother’s conscience. This will mean that in his presence the “strong” will forego a course of action to which they are perfectly free to do.
11. In other words, the “strong” are not to say, “I’m free in Christ and the ‘weak’ just need to grow up! I’m going to exercise my freedom as I see fit and I don’t care what others may think about it.”
B. Paul addresses that selfish attitude when he tells the “strong” at the end of v. 1, “…and not just please ourselves.”
1. Now Paul is not saying that it is always wrong to do things that are enjoyable and pleasurable for you, for God is not against pleasure (Ps. 16:11). What Paul means by “not just please ourselves” is to selfishly exercise one’s liberty in Christ in the presence of a “weaker” brother with no regard for the impact your actions may have on him.
2. As I said last time, without the central qualification of “love” we have no right to call it “Christian” freedom. In reality it is merely license which violates love!
3. Simply living to “please ourselves” is nothing more than the selfishness of indwelling sin. It is an expression of our fallen human nature.
4. John MacArthur is right when he says, “Every believer has the same liberty in Christ as every other believer, but because believers vary greatly in spiritual knowledge and maturity, the careless exercise of a liberty by one member can do great harm to the conscience and spiritual well-being of another member and even to the well-being of an entire congregation.” (pg. 309)
5. Therefore, Paul in essence cries out, “Don’t merely please yourself!
C. Paul goes on to say the same thing in a more positive way in v. 2: Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.
1. Although Paul has been speaking primarily to the “strong,” the phrase “Each of us” also includes the “weak.” Therefore, everyone in the church is commanded “…to please his neighbor.”
2. Now obviously Paul is not referring to a “men-pleasing” whereby we put man’s favor and approval above God in our lives, and thus condone sin or false doctrine. This kind of “men-pleasing” is condemned repeatedly in Scripture (Gal. 1:10; Eph. 6:6; Col. 3:22; 1 Thess. 2:4).
3. However, when Paul says a believer is “to please his neighbor” he is talking about something entirely different. The word “neighbor” (plesion) echoes the “love command” of Leviticus 19:18 “love your neighbor,” and refers back to Romans 13:8-10, where “love is the fulfillment of the law.”
4. Therefore, for a believer to “please his neighbor” is just another way to say he is to “love his neighbor.” And in this context, “neighbor” refers only to fellow believers in the church not to unbelievers.
5. And the purpose of pleasing or loving another believer is “…for his good.” The word “good” (agathon) refers to the spiritual profit, benefit or welfare of that person.
6. That is what Christlike “agape” love is all about! Love is always other-centered and for the best interest of the other person.
7. This is clearly seen in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
8. Paul further defines “his good,” by saying “to his edification.” As we saw in 14:19, the word “edification” (oikodomen) here refers to the building up and strengthening of fellow believers in the faith and in godliness.
9. Therefore, Christ’s selfless and sacrificial love is to regulate the exercise of Christian freedom among believers in the church. And as love is lived out, believers assist one another to grow and develop spiritually instead of being a cause of spiritual stumbling and harm.
10. The second way that God-given unity in the church can be maintained is to:
II. Follow the Pattern lived out by Christ
A. To support this kind of selfless and sacrificial love that doesn’t seek to please itself but others, Paul gives the supreme example of Jesus Christ Himself in v. 3: for even Christ did not please Himself; (Stop there)
1. Jesus Christ is the ultimate and perfect example of One who did not please Himself. Although He was and is God Himself in human flesh with the greatest right to please Himself, yet He did the complete opposite and we are called to follow His example.
2. Philippians 2:5-8 says, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
3. We see a similar thing in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”
4. If Jesus had selfishly pleased Himself above pleasing His Father (Matt. 26:39; Jn. 4:34; 5:18, 30; 6:38; 8:25, 27-29; 14:31) and loving us for our spiritual benefit, He would not have emptied Himself of His glory and become a man and would never have gone to the cross. But He did not please Himself.
B. Paul proves this by appealing to the authority of Old Testament Scriptures at the end of v. 3: but as it is written, “THE REPROACHES OF THOSE WHO REPROACHED YOU FELL ON ME.”
1. Here Paul is quoting messianic Psalm 69:9, which is one of the most quoted psalms in the New Testament and widely used to interpret and explain the death of Jesus (Matt. 27:34, 48; Mk. 15:23, 36; Lk. 23:36; Jn. 2:17; 15:25; 19:29; Acts 1:20; Rom. 11:9).
2. Here Jesus is saying that the “reproaches” (oneidismoi) or insults that were directed at God fell on Him at the cross (Matt. 27:44; Mk. 15:32). Like Isaiah 53, Psalm 69 shows above all else the Suffering Servant’s love and obedience to the Father and His willingness to endure the tortures of men for both the glory of God and the benefit of believers.
3. Paul’s point is that he wants Christians to see the great lengths to which Christ went in “not pleasing Himself” for the benefit of others. In essence he is saying, “Since Jesus was willing to go to the infinite extent of lovingly suffering insults and giving up His life for our eternal benefit, is it too much for you to lovingly abstain from exercising a particular freedom when doing so will for the spiritual benefit of another believer?
4. Beloved, as believers we are called to follow the pattern lived out by Christ in not living to “just please ourselves” but to selflessly and sacrificially love others. And God will empower us to do what He commands us to do as we depend on Him.
C. Having just appealed to the Old Testament Scriptures to prove his point, Paul then gives the reason why this was appropriate to do in v. 4: For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
1. Even though believers are no longer “under law but under grace” (6:14-15), the Old Testament Scriptures continue to play a vital role in our lives as a guide for life. They are just as authoritative and binding today as when they were originally written, for Paul says they were “written for our instruction” (1 Cor. 9:10; 10:6, 11).
2. All of God’s Word is valuable in our lives, this is why we need to carefully read, study, and obey it! In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 we read, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
3. Now notice that the Scriptures promote “perseverance” and supply “encouragement.” The word “perseverance” (hupomones) means “to bear up under pressure” and has been translated endurance, patience, steadfastness, unswerving constancy, and stick-to-itiveness.
4. Perseverance is the ability to remain under a heavy weight without giving up and collapsing. It is continuing to move forward in a godly way in the face of great obstacles, opposition, and irritating circumstances.
5. The Scriptures promote perseverance in many ways: they give us many godly examples of those who endured under terrible circumstances; they show how these people did it by trusting the Lord and His sufficient grace; they also tell us how perseverance is part of God’s process of spiritually maturing His people and conforming them more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:3-4; Jam. 1:2-4).
6. The Scriptures also supply encouragement. The word “encouragement” (parakleseos) speaks of coming to one’s aid to receive strength, consolation and comfort. As believers, our souls we are deeply encouraged by and nourished with all of the precious truths and promises of God’s Word.
7. Jesus said in Matthew 4:4, “It is written, ‘MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.’”
8. Paul then states that the purpose of “…perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures” is that “…we might have hope.” The word “hope” (elpida) here doesn’t mean that we are uncertain about something and hope it will happen; it is the confident expectation that what God has promised will happen and so we wait patiently and trust Him for its certain fulfillment.
9. And the fact that it is in the present tense, indicates that our hope is an on-going, continuous reality. This is why as believers our hope cannot be in our talents and abilities, our financial security, our possessions, our relationships, or anything else that is temporal, because all of these things can be lost in an instant!
10. In 1 Timothy 1:1 we are told that Jesus Christ “is our hope.” And Colossians 1:27 says, “…Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
11. It is our hope in the Lord Jesus and the promises of His Word that is “…an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast” (Heb. 6:19). The Scriptures continue to point us to Christ and encourage us in Him.
12. The third way that God-given unity in the church can be maintained is to:
III. Focus on Essentials to bring God Glory
A. Paul concludes with a “prayer-wish” in vv. 5-6. First, Paul prays for unity between the “strong” and the “weak” in v. 5: Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus.
1. Concerning this prayer-wish John Murray observes, “These verses are not directly in the form of prayer addressed to God. They are in the form of a wish addressed to men that God would accomplish in them the implied exhortation, an eloquent way of doing two things at the same time, exhortation to men and prayer to God. Without the enabling grace of God exhortation will not bear fruit. Hence the combination. No form of exhortation is more effective in address to men than this.” (pg. 200)
2. Now notice that right after Paul says in v. 4 that perseverance and encouragement come from the Scriptures, here in v. 5 he says that it is “…God who gives perseverance and encouragement.” This isn’t a contradiction because God works through His Word. What comes from God’s Word also comes from the God of the Word because He is not only the Author of His Word, but also the Source of perseverance and encouragement. (2 Cor. 1:3)
3. Now with this prayer-wish, Paul returns to his central concern of restoring the unity of the Roman church, which has been damaged by the sinful attitudes and actions of both the “strong” and “weak” in response to each other over non-moral issues of personal preferences.
4. Paul prays for both groups that God may “…grant you to be of the same mind with one another.” Now to be of the “same mind” doesn’t mean that we all will have the same views on everything! No way, for unity is not uniformity.
5. To be of the “same mind” here refers to having the same Christlike attitude of love toward one another, even in the midst of our diversity and differences. This same heart attitude is the key to unity in the church.
6. In Ephesians 4:3 believers are told to “…be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, but this God-given unity that must be maintained is ultimately a gift of God not a human attainment. True unity takes place only when our thinking or attitude is controlled by the Spirit of God and the Word of God, whereby we then have the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).
7. Notice that this unity is “according to Christ Jesus.” This means that unity is according to both the example of Christ and the will of Christ, for what is after Christ’s example must always be in accordance with His will.
8. Therefore, in having this “same mind” of loving unity centered on Christ as the perfect pattern for our lives, differing opinions on things not directly commanded or forbidden in Scripture are handled in a loving way.
B. Paul then reveals in his prayer-wish the ultimate purpose of our unity in v. 6: so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. Here we see that it is only when our unity as believers is both inward (“with one accord,” referring to unity of mind) and outward (“with one voice,” referring to unity of mouth) that we most fully “glorify” God.
2. The word “glorify” (doxazete) means to magnify, extol, and praise God. And being in the present tense indicates that bringing glory to God is to be an on-going reality.
3. God is not honored when His body is fractured by disunity and division. But He is glorified in His church when we as His children stand shoulder to shoulder in unity, despite our diversity and differences in non-essential areas, and lovingly lift our voices in one accord to praise God.
4. Notice that God is called both “…the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The title “God . . . . of our Lord Jesus Christ” emphasizes Christ’s human nature (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34; Jn. 20:17; Eph. 1:17).
5. And the title “Father . . . . of our Lord Jesus Christ” calls attention to the Son’s divine nature. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and our Lord, who is completely equal to God the Father in deity.
6. Beloved, our unity as believers is not some superficial ecumenical union at the expense of doctrinal truth. It is unity on the essential fundamentals of the faith and on the non-essentials it is unity of Christlike love toward one another, both are absolutely required if we are going to truly glorify God, which is the ultimate reason why we exist.
7. This unity that Paul prays for here, our Lord already prayed for in John 17. Jesus prayed in v. 11, “I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. (Verses 20-23) “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”
In closing, when the “strong” have the same heart for unity as God does they will have no problem at times lovingly refraining from their Christian liberty for the sake of a “weaker” brother. And when Christ’s “agape” love prevails among all believers in the church, it presents to the world the indisputable mark that we are true disciples of Jesus Christ (Jn. 13:35). And this loving unity greatly “glorifies the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” May this be the desire of all our hearts!