We are born with a knack for spotting the failures of others, and we’ve been conditioned to develop that skill. Identify specks from a distance? No problem (even as we somehow persistently struggle to see our own planks). And life gives us plenty of specks to spot. Life on earth, for now, means a life surrounded by failures.
Amazingly, the Christian gospel is not too grand and lofty for these regular disappointments, for the dark and painful nooks and crannies of real life. In fact, Paul’s grand epistle to the Romans — one of the greatest letters ever written — points us to the specks, uncovering such relational challenges as proof of the power of Christ’s person and work.
In Romans 14 and 15 in particular, Paul addresses emerging fault lines between Christians over adiaphora (literally “not differences” regarding the essence of our faith but various nonessential issues). Such matters are not clear instances of sin — plain violations of Christ’s law, like lying or stealing — but differences of opinion (sometimes even of conviction), like whether to observe certain holy days or not, or whether to eat meat or drink wine that had been sacrificed to idols. In the first century, these issues related to the epoch shift from the old covenant to the new. Some differences, as in Galatians, were of the essence of the faith; others were not.
Though Romans 14–15 speaks to controversies that are not differences of the essence of Christianity, Paul doesn’t overlook them, ignore them, or treat them flippantly. Rather, he sees in them an opportunity to bring the very heart of the faith to bear on Christ’s people, by focusing on how we treat one another despite such differences. Paul dignifies the pain and grief such differences of opinion can cause by bringing to them the greatest possible remedy and solace: Christ himself.
To the Strong (and the Weak)
Elsewhere we have instructions for what to do when a brother sins against us (Matthew 18:15–22). But what about when others aggravate us with errors and immaturities that are not plain instances of sin? And what if these are not simple differences of opinion but of conviction?
In Romans 14–15, Paul does believe that one group is right, so to speak, and the other wrong, in terms of the truth of the matter. One group he calls “the strong”; the other, “the weak.” He concedes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14). So, as he writes elsewhere, “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:27). However, if your host announces, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat — not for your own sake, but for the sake of your host, lest you confuse and confirm him in soul-destroying idolatry. In other words, consider his eternal good, not just your own momentary appetite and ability to exercise freedom.
In Romans 15:1–7, Paul specifically addresses “the strong,” who know in faith and conscience all food and drink to be clean. Sure, both groups are flawed. Paul’s strategy, however, is to begin by addressing the strong, and charge them to take the first step toward peace. Paul appeals to them to rise above “the failings of the weak,” even as he acknowledges that these are genuine failings. And as he does so, he clarifies the truth of the matter for “the weak” who are listening in.
Our tensions today may not be the ones that hampered the church in Rome in the first century, but we have plenty of fault lines and unnecessary divisions of our own. So what might we learn from these verses for not simply bearing with the blind spots of others, but, even more, as those who are “strong,” to literally carry the failures (Greek ta asthenēmata bastazein) of the “weak” (Romans 15:1)?
First is the calling to love. Appeal as he does, Paul does not see this as just an opportunity — take it or leave it — but as an obligation. As Christians we owe each other love, which, for the strong, means “to bear with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). In fact, it would be sin to violate Christ’s law by failing to love. Christians are not obligated to eat meat or not, or celebrate certain feasts or not, but we are obligated to love one another. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Pork, wine, and holidays are optional; Christian love is not.
Yet Paul doesn’t leave such love unqualified or unspecified. He gives terms, an example, and the source of power.
After the call to love neighbor comes the terms of this love: “for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:2). The obligation to love does not require the Christian to make others feel loved on human terms. Christ sets the terms. We love with others’ good in view, as God defines good, not the whims or momentary preferences (or demands!) of sinners. The Christian call to love is not to cater to immaturities or unbelief, or to coddle sin, but to view our neighbors with the mind and eyes of Christ and love them for their good, to build them up in Christ.
This call to higher pleasures for our neighbors than their whims is also a call for our higher pleasures in our loving them. To the strong: don’t just give in to the weak’s immediate wants — or to your own. Love seeks the eternal (rather than momentary) good both of neighbor and of ourselves. Which leads to Paul’s striking example in Romans 15:3: “Christ did not please himself.”
When it comes to inconvenient, uncomfortable love, Jesus provides the greatest example and model imaginable. “It is noteworthy,” writes John Murray, “how the apostle adduces the example of Christ in his most transcendent accomplishments in order to commend the most practical duties” (Romans, 516).
On his knees, with sweat pooling like drops of blood, Jesus did not give into his own immediate wants in Gethsemane. Rather, he came to embrace the divine will, and with it the timeless good and upbuilding of others. He did not choose momentary desires, whether his own or others’. Surely, in the moment, the disciples, if given the choice, would have been eager for Jesus to flee. Peter had said, “Never, Lord!” when first hearing of the cross; the disciples were not yet able to conceive of how Christ’s death could possibly lead to greater joy.
At a basic level, pleasing himself would have meant giving in to his own momentary (very natural and human) desires to avoid death, especially the utter torture of death on a cross, and worst of all, the sense of separation from his Father. Yet in the garden, Jesus abandons his human desires for self-preservation and wills the divine will. He chooses it. In saying to his Father, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42), he makes the divine will his own (as man). At one level, he very much does not want this, but at a deeper level he does, even as Isaiah 53:11 prophesied: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.” So too, Hebrews 12:2 confirms that in the anguish and horrific distress, it was, at bottom, the holy pursuit of joy that animated and sustained his obedience: “For the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross.”
This does not mean we counsel Christians, contrary to Paul’s letter and Christ’s life, to “please yourselves.” Rather, we say that God in Christ is so deeply and enduringly pleasing that we are freed from “pleasing ourselves” in relation to others. Pleased in God, and knowing that in Christ he is pleased with us, we are liberated to turn our eyes from ourselves to others and their genuine needs, and to love them for their good and upbuilding.
Finally, marvelous as Christ’s example is, Paul presses even deeper. He not only says that Christ succeeded in love but shows us how. What enabled Jesus, as man, to look past his initial human desires to the joy set before him on the other side of torture and death? He trusted in the word of his Father.
Paul represents Jesus living out and drawing strength from Psalm 69:9 in Romans 15:3: “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” Note the Godward orientation and God-centeredness this brings to Christ’s great act of love (and to our little ones). And the way the power to endure came to him was not simply through truth but through Scripture. With his uniquely holy, sinless human mind, Jesus might have theologized and philosophized in any number of ways to put his calling, and excruciating pain, into a larger perspective. Surely he could have preached to himself in many creative ways. But in his moment of greatest duress, he turns to the very words of God (in this case, captured in Psalm 69). Which prompts Paul to write, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the [comfort] of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Like Jesus did.
The God of endurance and comfort awakened persevering love in his own Son through the instrument of his written word. Jesus was comforted and given strength to endure by rehearsing Scripture. And so it will be for us. Just as the soul of Christ himself was fueled by what was written in former days, so we also fill our tank on God’s promises, to free us from selfishness and sinful self-regard, to both know what is truly for our neighbor’s good and building up, and to “not please ourselves” but gladly do it. The God of endurance and comfort himself does the miracle in and through us by his word.
As Christ Has Welcomed You
Such a “disinterested” pursuit of joy in the good of others (called love) leads, in time, to Christians strong and weak living in “harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5–6).
Our rising above our own whims and initial preferences, like Jesus did, glorifies him and his Father. After all, this is precisely how Christ welcomed us: by not pleasing himself in the garden but trusting God’s words to take the (much!) harder path for our good. So Murray asks, “Shall we, the strong, insist on pleasing ourselves in the matter of food and drink to the detriment of God’s saints and the edification of Christ’s body?” (517).
The joy of not pleasing ourselves comes not only when a neighbor is needy, but even when he’s in error or the need stems from his own defective faith and conscience. While dying to our rights, liberties, and selves cuts against almost every impulse of our age, we learn instead, in Christ, to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).