When I look around on a Sunday, I’m often surprised by how different we are. Within some churches, people look pretty similar. That’s not the case here. We come from different socio-economic levels. We come from different cultures and ethnic groups. We are all different ages.
What are some of the problems that we may encounter because we are all so different? (take notes)
This isn’t a new problem. I’d like to tell you about the church in Rome around 57 A.D. The church in Rome had a major issue, and they weren’t alone. The church had two main people groups.
Jews – The Jews could look at their history and rejoice that they were God’s chosen people. Generations of Jews could read the Old Testament promises of the Messiah and the salvation he would bring. Now these Jews could rejoice that the Messiah had come, and that his promises had been fulfilled. God had kept his promises to Israel. Evidence suggests that the church in Rome had been founded by Jews and was dominated by Jews for the first two decades.
Gentiles – But some Gentiles had come to believe in Jesus Christ as well. In Rome, something unexpected happened. Comparatively few Jews had responded to the gospel, while many Gentiles did respond and become part of the church.
In 49 A.D., the Roman emperor expelled all Jews from Rome. All at once, every Jewish Christian had to leave the Roman church, and only the Gentiles were left. By the time Paul wrote this letter, many of the Jewish people had probably returned. But they came back to a church that had become a Gentile institution.
You could feel the tensions. Jews saw themselves as God’s holy and chosen people, but now Gentiles had taken over. The Jewish believers had beliefs that came from their Scriptures and from their culture about food and holy days; the way the Gentiles acted violated many of these beliefs. The tension between these two groups simmered and sometimes boiled over.
We read in chapter 14 that both groups were criticizing each other. One group – the Jewish believers – said that the Gentiles were living in a way that made people question if they were really Christians. The other group – the Gentiles – accused the Jewish believers of holding on to silly prejudices. The controversy really came down to three issues:
- whether or not you could eat anything or whether certain foods are prohibited
- whether some days are holy or whether every day is alike (like the Sabbath)
- possibly, over whether or not it is right to drink wine
Bottom line: there was real tension between the Jewish believers, who were trying to keep themselves pure from idolatry, and the Gentile believers, who think that such requirements are ridiculous and a holdover from Judaism.
And so you have:
- pride – a condescending attitude toward the other group
- lack of love
- bad testimony
The easiest thing in the world would have been to split.
These are the same problems that we have today when churches divide over issues.
What Paul Says
Paul never actually deals with who was right and who was wrong, because the real issue wasn’t the issue. The issue wasn’t one of sin or false teaching, which he would have condemned. The issue was more one of pride and lack of love.
First, stop condemning each other (14:1-12). In the first part of chapter 14, Paul does two things. First, he gets the issue out on the table. Then he says: stop judging each other! He gives two reasons. The Romans are all fellow slaves of Christ, and God alone has the right to judge his people.
This is more subtle in our day, but we still have a tendency to do this – to look down on people who are different from us. They like this music; they dress this certain way; they are too in touch and they are too out of touch. Paul says to stop all the judging. If it’s not an issue of blatant sin or false teaching, then stop pointing the finger.
The principle: we must sometimes agree to disagree over some matters. If the matter is not prohibited by Scripture, and is not against sound theological reasoning, then we should not criticize other believers or break fellowship just because we don’t like it.
Second, be loving instead of selfish (14:13-23). Here Paul addresses the group that thought that there was nothing wrong with eating meat. Paul really agrees with them, but he says there is a bigger issue: one of love.
If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother or sister for whom Christ died…Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.(Romans 14:15, 19)
“Have it your way” – but what about when having it your way really irritates others? Then be loving instead of selfish.
Finally, receive each other to the glory of God (15:1-13). Paul says in Romans 15:7:
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
What does this mean? It means that we recognize each other as true brothers and sisters in Christ; to welcome them into our worship services and to give them full place along with other worshipers. It means that we welcome them with our hearts, not grudgingly. It means that we recognize that God has worked in history to create a people composed of both Jews and Gentiles – that God has broken down every division that separates us. As long as we belong to Jesus, we belong together.
This is one of the things that showed people the power of the gospel – that Jews and Gentiles could receive each other. Just like today. The fact that we receive each other despite all these things testifies to the power of the gospel. When we split because of these things, we may as well say that the gospel has no power.
But notice what Paul says: accept one another, just as Christ accepted us. How did Christ accept us? Verse 3 tells us:
For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”
Jesus didn’t please himself; he lived a life of love and sacrifice. When we were sinners, he accepted us by sheer grace. How can we withhold that grace from others when we have experienced it?
Here’s the bottom line in verses 5-6:
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is why we want to be a church in which young and old worship together, where all the divisions that bug us are overcome: so that we can testify to the power of the gospel, and so that “with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”