Big Idea: The Christian Church should be United for God’s Glory
Intro: Well morning friends. My name is Matt Johnson and today we’re looking at a section of Romans where the apostle Paul, is urging the church – to work hard at church unity, but not at the expense of biblical truth. In other words, uphold biblical TRUTH, but do so gently and graciously and giving people time to mature as Christians…
PRAYER: Well in the first century Jews and Gentiles weren’t exactly friends. The Jews viewed the Gentiles as a bunch of spiritual lepers. Meanwhile, the Gentiles tended to view the Jews – as a bunch of self-righteous, bigoted, idiots. The Bible calls this Jew-Gentile divide – a wall of hostility (Eph.2:14) and this Jew-Gentile WALL OF HOSTILITY is present in Romans 15.
So I want us to think for a moment about the Berlin Wall in Germany (Slide 2) – and the divide that used to exist between EAST & WEST. In the aftermath of World War 2 – Germany was divided into four sections controlled by the UK, US, France and USSR. The western allies started a rebuilding project that gradually became west Berlin. This side of Germany became associated with NATO, capitalism and democracy. But the USSR section stayed separate and was decisively controlled by the Soviets. Then, gradually everything east of East Berlin, including Poland, Hungary, Czecholslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania – were consolidated under the Warsaw Pact and the ideals of communism.
First they built in 1949 – a 1393km military fence separating West from East; Capitalism from Communism. Then in 1961 – the actual Berlin Wall was built (a solid concrete wall) separating the East from West. Philosophically this divide became known as the Iron Curtain and soon afterwards – the proliferation of nuclear weapons began. Each side terrified the other side – would nuke them off the face of the planet.
Sadly, sin, self-preservation and arrogance often leads human beings to build walls in order to keep the bad people out. The bad people are those over the wall. The bad people are those who are different to us. And so, the West & East were completely divided from 1949-1989. I think it is only by the grace of God – that we got through the Cold War without nuking the planet into oblivion.
But eventually in 1989 – the Berlin Wall was torn down to great fanfare,. I was only 16 when it happened and I remember seeing people on the news coming out with sledge-hammers to destroy the wall (Slide 3). There was great excitement. Then as West Germans and East Germans came back together they made an incredible discovery – they were all actually Germans – who could live, work and prosper together.
And this is kind of what today’s passage in Romans 15 is about. Paul is telling us to tear down the walls – that often divide us (even in the church) – so that in unity we may glorify God together. So let me show you the context and structure of today passage (Slide 4)… As you can see Paul makes a point, then prays; he makes another point and then prays. So that’s what we are going to do too.
Point 1: Bear with the Failing of the Weak in hope
Show: Rom.15:1-4 (READ)
Explain: Well friends, todays passage is continuing to focus on our unity in the church. But there is a shift from the HOW of Christian unity, to the WHY of Christian unity. Why is unity important?
Well, the why of Church unity is God wants us to be united because together (in our differences) our very existence as a church glorifies God. People should look at our church and say “Wow. What brought that hodge-podge group of people all together?” Then, we respond Jesus. Our unity glorifies God. But the church is also the greenhouse where God grows us. As we persevere together united as a church (warts and all) God actually changes us into people who look more and more like Jesus. And this is the why of church unity. Its for God’s glory and our Christian growth…
So let me show you a few things. In verse 1 – you’ll see Paul talks about the STRONG and the WEAK. There are some people in the church who are strong mature Christians and there are some people in the church who are still baby Christians. Paul is saying we are all on the SPECTRUM. The spectrum between strong and weak. Now remember this is not about biblical knowledge, or physical age or even length of time you’ve been a Christian. This strong-weak spectrum is actually about how much you look, think, act and speak – like Jesus. It’s about godliness, grace, wisdom, humility and righteousness.
So are you a STRONG or WEAK Christian? Well incredibly this is actually a play on words making a theological point. The words strong and weak – actually come from the word POWER. A literal translation would be let the powerful bear with those lacking power. But this automatically raises the question – does any born-again Christian actually LACK POWER in the Christian life? Well that is where Paul begins…
But if you look down to Romans 15:13 you’ll see that the final prayer gives us an answer (READ; Rom.15:13). Paul’s point is that no true Christian is really powerless or lacking power because we all have the Holy Spirit. If you are a sincere Christian who has accepted Jesus as Saviour and Lord – then the Holy Spirit’s power is at work in you. In Jesus (and through the Holy Spirit) you already have everything you need to beat addiction; beat pride and laziness and anger and foolishness. If you are a born-again Christian the power of the living God is within you. Of course, if you are just a cultural Christian – who has never truly accepted Jesus as Saviour and Lord – you will lack this power and probably struggle to even tread water…
But today’s passage begins and ends playing with this idea of power. The stronger Christians bear with the weaker Christians (in a genuine, confident hope) that given a bit of time the power of the Holy Spirit will make the worst of sinners just like Jesus. We bear with one another’s immaturity and foibles and lack of self-control, in hope – that the Holy Spirit can and will change all of us – from glory to glory.
Now against this VERY OPTIMISTIC background Paul encourages those who are a bit more mature to bear with the failings of the weak – and NOT TO PLEASE OURSELVES. Pleasing ourselves is a major problem in life. It’s an expression of our selfishness. The problem is – when there is a more comfortable church down the road – where everyone has been a Christian for like ever, everyone is dignified enough never to poop their pants (at least not in public) AND everything is just nice (all the time) – we are attracted to that. We like things that please our fleshly desires and make us comfortable. But Paul tells us to bear with the failings of the weak…
If the church is doing its job (engaging with the world and telling people about Jesus) – there should be a constant stream of new Christians – who need to be bottle-fed, have their noses wiped and their nappy changed from time to time.
And Paul says – suck it up and stop being all about pleasing yourself.
Yes, it is sometimes messy. Yes, sometimes young Christians will push you’re buttons. But the Christian life is not about pleasing yourself. It’s about loving your neighbour – even when that hurts.
Paul talks about Jesus NOT PLEASING himself (in verse 3) and quotes Psalm 69:9. Now you’d expect Psalm 69 to somehow be about pleasing our neighbour. But it’s a Messianic Psalm about King David putting God first and suffering as a result. I THINK THE POINT IS – King David and King Jesus, both put 1) God first, 2) others second and 3)themselves last AND in both cases this involved a measure of suffering. But that’s the point. Mature Christians should know that following Jesus – putting God first, others second and ourselves last is going to mean some suffering. So bear with the failing of the weak.
Apply: Now pleasing God first, others second and yourself last is actually the key to TEARING DOWN THE WALLS in your marriage, with your children, and everywhere in life. When we inverse the order putting ourself first, others second and God last – we start building walls. When we’re all selfish – we have to build walls to shield ourselves from other selfish people. This is a toxic person. I must build a wall. This person expects too much from me – I’ll create a boundary. (Now I’m not saying all boundaries are bad. In our humanity there is some wisdom in self-care and healthy relationships). But modern psychology and counselling is also profoundly self-centered. MATURE CHRISTIANS KNOW – the right order in life is God first, neighbour second and yourself last – because this is following Jesus. This is how God knocks down the spiritual walls and brings people back together. And time and time again the OT Scriptures encourage us to endure through the difficulties because those who put God first, others second and themselves last are ultimately vindicated. Yes. It may hurt for a while. But ultimately those who follow Jesus are glorified, the walls come down and God’s good purposes prevail.
PRAYER: Rom.15:5-6 (READ) Now the only thing I’ve done is turn this prayer from Paul’s prayer for the church, to our prayer for our church.
Apply: Now let me make a few comments. First, you’ll see in verse 4 we were told the Scriptures give us endurance and encouragement and now in verse 5 – we are praying that God gives us this same endurance and encouragement. I’d say, its ONLY through prayer (sincere real prayer) that we APPROPRIATE and TAKE HOLD of the good things in Scripture. Or to put it another way. Its only in a real living relationship with God – where you humbly rely on Him in prayer – that you will endure in hardship (and find encouragement) in the sacrifice…
SECOND, given the TWO POINTS in Romans 15:1-13, both end in prayers referring to SPIRIT – so I think it is right to see that the Holy Spirit is being referred to in both cases. It is the Holy Spirit who unites us (Ephesians 5) and it is the Holy Spirit who gives us power (Acts 2). And it is through humble dependent prayer to God – that the Holy Spirit truly unites us in Jesus. Church unity does not come by trying harder. Unity is the Spirits gift to those who humbly and prayerfully rely upon Him. Relationship with God is paramount to unity.
Third, we see our UNITY is not an end in itself. Yes, its good to be united. Yes, our unity as a church bears testimony to the power of the gospel to tear down walls. BUT ULTIMATELY, our unity (and the blessing of unity) is that we may GLORIFY GOD with one heart and one voice. God unites us for His glory. And this too is part of the Holy Spirit’s work – working in us – A DESIRE TO GLORIFY GOD with every ounce of our being and every buck in our wallet. As a church family we are united and working together for one purpose – Gods glory. But again – I’d say this unity does not come through teaching, but through prayer. So in 2023 – I want to resume our regular prayer meetings, each term in the church. Some things in our Christian life are only realised in prayer.
Point 2: Accept One Another as Christ Accepted you – in Hope
Show: Rom.15:7-13 (READ)
Explain: Well so far – we’ve pretty much interpreted THE STRONG as – Gentile Christians who know that in Jesus all foods are clean. THE WEAK are Jewish Christians who are still focussing on certain foods and observing certain sacred days. So throughout Romans 14 us Gentile Christians have been viewing OURSELVES as the strong. The strong Gentile Christians are to ACCEPT the weaker Jewish Christians. But Paul is now trying to get Jewish Christians to accept the Gentile Christians. Paul explains that while Jesus A) fulfilled the promises to the Jewish patriarchs, it was always B) with a view to Gentile Christians being included in the church. So the strong Jewish Christians should accept their weaker Gentile brethren.
Four times Paul quotes Old Testament passages trying to convince the Jewish Christians to accept their weaker, late arrival Gentile brothers and sisters. So who are the strong and who are the weak? Why do Gentile Christians automatically assume they are the stronger, more mature Christians? Is that actually pride?
Ever since Romans 11 (and perhaps earlier) – Paul has been challenging the Gentile Christians – with the serious problem of pride. In Romans 11 Paul rebukes the Gentile Christians for BOASTING (and thinking themselves better) than the Jewish branches that were broken off. Paul said to the Gentile Christians, if God did this to the Jews – stop being arrogant (stop being proud), rather be afraid (11:20) THE PROBLEM WAS the Gentile Christians were starting to think themselves better than the Jews – they were the receptive ones; the enlightened ones; the mature ones. But Paul made it very clear – salvation has nothing to do with Gentiles being better. Paul said to us “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, so that you will not be conceited, (proud, arrogant) – understand that Israel has experienced a hardening in part – until the full number of Gentiles has been saved.” (Rom.11:25).
So what makes Gentile Christians think they are more mature ones who MUST bear with their naïve, confused Jewish brethren? I mean it kind of read that way, but is something bigger going on. In Romans 12 Paul told us – (Slide 11; Rom.12:3). In the context of Romans we know it was the Gentiles who had the problem with pride. They’ve just been rebuked 3 times. Then a couple of verses later Paul added; (Slide 12 – Rom.12:16). Again, we have a PRIDE ISSUE at hand. Now who do you think had the lower position in Roman society – Gentiles or Jews? Who has recently been kicked out of Rome by the Emperor Claudius as the scum of the earth? (Acts 18:2) That’s right the Jews. So in context Paul is telling Gentile Christians not to be proud, not to be conceited – but be willing to associate with those who have low position in Roman society – ie Jews and Jewish Christians.
So if we want to be fair to the wider context of Romans – we easily see the group that has the bigger problem with pride, arrogance and conceit is actually the Gentile Christians. The Gentile Christians seem to be all puffed up by their recent exaltation amongst God’s people. Whereas the Jewish people – (including Jewish Christians) have just been through and are going through an incredibly humbling process.
Now one of the surest litmus tests of whether a person is a strong Christian or a weak Christian is to ask where they sit on the PRIDE-HUMILITY spectrum. As 1 Corinthians tells us even knowledge can puff us up. So the Gentiles may be right about all food being clean – but if their knowledge is making them proud, judgmental and inconsiderate of the Jewish brethren, they are actually being weak and immature. The Jews may be sincerely wrong about – (let’s say kosher foods or Sabbath observance) – but if they are humbly depending upon Jesus – being gracious and patient with the self-righteous Gentiles taking over the church – they may actually be the stronger ones. You see what is Christian strength? The original apostolic Jewish church graciously let the Gentiles in, whereas over the next 100 years the Gentile church became experts at keeping anything and everything Jewish out.
So who really are the weak and who are the strong? Pride is perhaps the biggest killer of everything Christian. Yet Christians are prone to pride – every time we make a step forwards. The truth is – the best of Sydney Anglicanism still has things to learn from our sincere, Jesus loving brother – Bob Mendehlsohn.
Throughout the first half of Romans – Paul made it clear that both Jews and Gentiles are wretched sinners. So too are white fellas and aboriginals. So too are Americans and Chinese. We are all as bad as each other – on the sin scale. We lie, we steal we cheat, we engage in idolatry and sexual immorality – and we deserve God’s punishment. (GOSPEL) But thankfully God the Father, sent God the Son into this world to die on the cross for our sins. Jesus loved us so much – that he died on the cross to take the punishment for everything you’ve done wrong. He did the time for your crime. And God now says, whether you are Jew or Gentile; white fella or black fella; African or Asian – if you believe in your heart Jesus is Lord and confess with your mouth God raised him from dead – you will be saved (Rom.10:9). If you are here today – as a non-Christian – this is what we want you to know. God can forgive you and save you (and tear down walls in your life and give you hope) if you come to Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
But who then is BETTER and more MATURE? Gentiles or Jews? White fellas or aboriginals? Americans or Chinese. You see, we all have our prejudices. Sin has meant we have all built walls – to keep the bad guys out. But who are the bad guys? We’re all bad guys saved by Jesus and being transformed by the Holy Spirit. So if we are humble – not thinking too highly of ourself – but remembering we are all sinners being changed by the Holy Spirit – it actually opens us to learning from one another. Our different cultures and backgrounds – mean we all have blind spots, but we also have strong points. If the Gentile Christians think they’ve got nothing to learn from Jewish Christians, and white Christians think they’ve got nothing to learn from Aboriginal Christians – then many blind spots will remain.
But if we put God first in our church, others second and ourself last (not thinking too highly of ourselves) we discover there are things we can learn from every genuine Christian. Then, as iron sharpens iron – we edify one another (our humility promotes peace) – and our hope becomes a realised hope. We do become more like Jesus and we glorify God.
In a moment – we’re going to pray the final prayer in verse 13. But before I do – I want you to consider – WHAT IS OVERFLOWING HOPE? (PAUSE) Hope is usually a thing of our heart. So what is overflowing hope? I’d say overflowing hope is a hope that is becoming evident in our lives. OUR HOPE is that we all become mature Christians who glorify God with our lives and are ready when Jesus returns. And as we 1) bear with one another and 2) accept one another – putting God first, others second and ourself last – taking a sledgehammer to the prejudices that so easily divide – that HOPE is becoming a REALITY in our church. We are a motley and crazy bunch of people – here is South Sydney Anglican Church – but that is part of our glory (and God is using it to change us all for the better). Praise the Lord.
Let us pray (Slide Rom.15:13)