In the last chapter, Paul helped us to understand how the church should work amidst differences in convictions such as whether it is OK to eat meat or be a vegetarian. For these ‘disputable’ matters the principle was for those who were strong in faith – and had no scruples about such things – not to condemn those of weaker faith. Likewise, those of weaker faith ought not to judge those with more freedom. The key thing was for everyone to get on and respect each others’ views. There is a recurring theme in Romans that relates to Jews and Gentiles and I suspect that some of the difficulties Paul was addressing in chapter 14 were related to these cultural and religious differences. In this 15th chapter, the Jewish/Gentile theme re-emerges. If we fail to understand the bible story about this theme we will fail to understand the bible – it really is that important, so here goes…
1. Don’t please yourself
The company I work for is undergoing a massive restructuring and as a result we have a new boss. He held his fist meeting of his direct reports this week. There were about 8 people calling into the telephone conference from all over the world, what struck me was that a few individuals would not shut up, they wanted their opinions and their voices to be heard. It’s all about ‘bigging’ oneself up, self promotion, making sure you ‘influence’ and ensuring that the new boss takes note of the ‘important’ people. This is not the sort of attitude that should characterise Christians and our interactions in the church. Paul says ‘we who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good.’ What a different attitude! This is the way Jesus behaved: ‘for even Christ did not please himself.’ Important principles come alive when we have concrete examples: the bible is full of good examples for us to follow and it is through these examples that we see the endurance and encouragement in action that give us hope: the principle is endurance and encouragement brings hope. I suppose everyone has their favourite examples of this endurance/encouragement/hope paradigm – I think mine is Daniel, he lived in exile in Babylon, he endured a lot, but emerged with great credit and is certainly an encouragement and example to us all. Daniel never gave up hope, and in a remarkable way God revealed his plans in the midst of what must have felt like a hopeless situation. Paul prays that the Romans would likewise have a God-given endurance and encouragement that would give them hope. The original Greek word used by Paul and translated as endurance is hypomones and has the idea of ‘remaining’ (that’s the ‘mones’ bit) and ‘under’ (that’s the ‘hypo’ bit, as we use in English words such as hypothermia and hypodermic which mean under temperature and under skin respectively). So endurance has the idea of putting up with difficulty and getting on with it. I like that idea. So often we find reasons to give up and throw in the towel, but working in the church is much too important for that attitude. Ultimately this sort of Christ-like attitude towards one another not only produces hope but it results in God’s glory: ‘accept one another then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.’
2. A place for Gentiles
In verse 8, Paul says the following: ‘Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.’ Paul has already established in chapters 9 to 11 that God sovereignly chose Israel to bring peace to the world, but as a result of their unbelief he has sovereignly set them aside and now works with a new entity which Paul likened to an olive tree with in-grafted Gentile branches, (but with broken off Jewish branches). Some of this information was new (as was ‘Paul’s gospel’ – more of that in the next section), but it had always been God’s plans to bring blessing to the Gentiles. Why does Paul raise this now? I suspect that the need to ‘bear with the failings of the weak’ and ‘not to please ourselves’ (verse 1) was advice given to counter the tensions that existed between the Jews and the Gentiles in the Roman church. The need was for ‘one mind and one voice’ (verse 6) – perhaps some of the Gentile Christians needed to offer a bit of understanding towards their Jewish brethren. Paul had previously stated, the demise and diminishing of Israel (Romans 11: 12) meant riches for the world and for Gentiles. Note in verse 8 that Jesus’ relationship to the Jews was only as a servant, (‘For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews’) they failed to accept him as a king: but even under these less than perfect conditions there are benefits for Gentiles. Paul uses several Old Testament passages to support this view. He quotes from the main sections of the Old Testament: the law, the psalms and the prophets. Three features amongst the Gentiles are highlighted, first praise of God (v.9 and 11), second rejoicing (v. 10) and finally hope (v. 12). The praise is for God’s mercy – the Gentiles are joyful beneficiaries of God’s remarkable mercy towards them, and the hope is that one day Jesus will rule over the nations (v. 12). I think it’s worth noting that Paul is very clear that the current and future benefits for the Gentiles have their roots in Israel – this is entirely consistent with the promises God indeed gave to the patriarchs (see verse 8), you will recall that God’s promise to Abraham stated that ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’
3. Paul’s ministry to Gentiles
Paul uses the phrase ‘my gospel’ twice in the book of Romans (2: 16 and 16:25), and he refers to the gospel three times in this section (describing it as the ‘gospel of God’ and the ‘gospel of Christ’ and simply as the gospel). John the Baptist, Jesus himself and indeed Peter all preached ‘the gospel’ too. This raises the question as to whether ‘Paul’s gospel’ was the same as the gospel preached by the others. One thing is crystal clear when we tackle this question: the audiences were not the same. Paul preached to Gentiles; ‘because of the grace of God given to me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. (v 15 & 16).’ John the Baptist, Jesus and Peter (and the apostles) however preached only to Jews. When confronted with a Canaanite woman Jesus said ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, ’ and when the disciples were sent out to preach they were expressly told not to go to Gentiles but rather to ‘the lost sheep of Israel.’ (Matthew 10: 5 and 6). Similarly, when Peter preached in Acts 2 it was to Jews attending a Jewish festival. There is only one record of Peter preaching to Gentiles; in Acts 10 when he visited Cornelius, but this seems to be the exception that proves the rule (it was this single incident that later helped Peter support Paul in the Jewish council recorded in Acts 15). So we have without doubt different audiences for Paul’s gospel in comparison to the gospel of John the Baptist/Jesus and the apostles. This begs the question, if the audiences were different, were the messages different too? And the answer must simply be yes – if Paul’s gospel was that all could be saved by believing that Jesus bore our sins on the cross how could John the Baptist have preached the same thing before Jesus’ death. There simply must be some difference. When we examine the content of the gospel message given to Jews it seems to be that it was all about 1). Repentance in view of the coming kingdom, 2). Recognition that Jesus was the Messiah and 3). Water baptism as a confirmatory response. Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection Peter’s message to Jews seems to have been that the death of the Lord was not good news at all but was a disaster for the Jews: they had crucified the Messiah! They needed to repent of what they had done, recognise that that had crucified the long-awaited Messiah and be baptised to confirm their response. With these observations in mind the progression of the gospel message in the book of Acts and its further development in Paul’s letters starts to make much more sense. I have to confess that I have rarely heard preachers put the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and Acts into this vital context – without doing so we risk applying to ourselves messages given specifically for Jews and Israel at a specific point in their history. My company run’s a bonus scheme and it’s nice to receive the letter from our HR department once a year giving details of the bonus. This year I opened the letter to discover that my bonus was more than twice what I expected! Time to book a nice holiday! But on closer inspection of the letter I discovered that it was not addressed to me! Now imagine if I had acted on the information in the letter and had booked that nice holiday! It is so easy to do the same thing with the word of God – all of God’s word is for us, but not all of God’s word is to us. I puzzle sometimes why a principle that a young child could grasp so often eludes us when we study God’s word.
So Paul had not only a special ministry to Gentiles, he had a new message to give too – a message that we recognise without difficulty as ‘the gospel’. Interestingly Paul did not build on someone else’s foundation he started something new – a ministry to Gentiles. If we’ve been paying attention to the story line of Romans we will realise that the Jews have been set aside in God’s plans (they were the branches broken off of their own olive tree – Romans 11), now the Gentiles are in view and Paul gives all of his strength to preaching to them. Paul did this with supernatural help from God: ‘by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God.’ And he made it his life’s work to take the gospel to places where it was not known. Paul was so busy in this enterprise that he had not thus far found the time to visit the recipients of this letter – but he now would make plans for a visit.
4. A visit to Rome
There seems to be a general antipathy towards Israel in the church these days. Perhaps this is in response to some over enthusiastic Christians who take the view that everything Israel does is by definition good and to be supported no matter how questionable. What should our attitude be? Paul has taught us that the demise of the Jews has brought benefit for Gentiles, but their salvation will bring much greater benefit – he has also taught that God will deliver on his promises to them (we shouldn’t expect anything less and neither should they!). Paul had great reasons for disliking the Jews – he was their public enemy number one! And they would not hesitate to take his life given half a chance. So what was Paul’s attitude? He spent a considerable effort to make a monetary collection for the Jews and was about to take a considerable risk to his life to deliver the gift in person. I think that gives you a good idea of his attitude – and I think it not unreasonable that bible-believing Christians ought to adopt a similar attitude. Paul justifies his attitude and actions thus ‘For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.’ That seems fair enough to me. Since Paul’s efforts to raise money and take it to Jerusalem would come at a significant personal risk he invites the Roman Christians to pray for him: ‘31 Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favourably received by the Lord’s people there.’
One final thought; we would all like a bit of refreshment and joy in our tired lives! Paul knew that if he had praying friends in Rome who would participate in his struggle and if he continued in his treacherous mission that he would know joy and refreshment. We rather think that joy and refreshment come from taking holidays or letting someone else do all the work – but this is not the case. As the old hymns says, ‘there is joy in serving Jesus.’ Indeed there is.