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Bible openThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 15:1-3

The Example of Christ

15 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”

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Last week’s reading concluded Paul’s teaching about stronger and weaker brothers with regard to food and drink. Stronger brothers must refrain from discouraging weaker brothers in their faith. They must not cause their weaker church members to suffer pangs of conscience by forcing them to consume things that go against their personal beliefs. Instead, stronger brothers must find food that meets with the weaker brothers’ approval and avoid drink for this reason, if necessary.

Romans 15 builds on the care that stronger brothers must give to the weaker ones in more general terms. These are difficult to read and to hear because they require patience and understanding in practice. Yet, as the heading says, we must follow ‘the example of Christ’.

We must focus on the bigger picture of Christian unity by understanding our weaker brothers and helping them.

John MacArthur puts Paul’s concerns into perspective (emphases mine):

Paul realizes that one of the great dangers to unity in the church is the potential discord between strong and weak Christians. It is of grave concern to him because unity is of such grave concern to him. And we understand why now, don’t we? It is the passionate desire of the heart of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. And since this unity is so essential to God, Paul also finds it essential to teach the matter of unity as well. He knows that one of the great potential problems in the church is conflict between weak and strong Christians who can disrupt the unity of the church. So beginning in chapter 14, verse 1 and running all the way through chapter 15, verse 13, that entire section is all devoted to a discussion of the relationship between strong and weak Christians

A strong believer… It’s not talking so much about just spiritual growth, although that’s part of it. A strong believer is a believer who understands his liberty. He understands what he is free to do. For example, in that culture he understands he’s free to eat pork, even though the Mosaic law forbid it because in Christ that law is set aside. He’s free to do whatever he wants to do any day of the week. He isn’t bound by Sabbath law. He no longer has to be controlled and all of his life charted by the course of the tradition of the Jews, or by the Old Testament ritual and ceremonies. He no longer has to observe feasts and new moons and Sabbaths and dietary laws and clothing laws and all those external things. They’re all gone.

If he’s a Gentile, he knows that it doesn’t matter if he eats meat that was once offered to an idol because an idol is nothing anyway. He’s completely free to do that. Anything that is a thing, he is free to use, he is free to be blessed by. Things are not a problem. There’s nothing forbidden anymore in that sense.

So the strong believer, he can have a ham sandwich, he can eat a pork chop, he can eat meat offered to idols, he can take a long hike with his family on the Sabbath and it doesn’t bother his conscience at all. But a weak believer is one who, having come out of those kinds of backgrounds, doesn’t yet feel the liberty to do that. He may be a Jew who doesn’t feel the liberty to violate the Sabbath, he doesn’t feel the liberty to eat certain meats, he doesn’t feel the liberty to break some festival or feast day. Or maybe he’s a Gentile who doesn’t feel the liberty to eat meat that was once offered to an idol and is now sold in the marketplace. He can’t handle that because it conjures up all the past. And so he doesn’t understand that liberty and the problem in the church comes when the strong believers who understand their freedom flaunt that freedom to the abuse of a weak believer who does not yet understand that freedom. And consequently we devastate them, we grieve them, we make them stumble, we forfeit our witness, we pull down the work of God because they go backwards not forward in their spiritual growth when we flaunt our liberty.

So the injunction comes to the strong believer to set aside his liberty and bear with the weakness of the weak. And do so with love as a privilege. Now we know there are no religious taboos, we know that, we don’t have to fear that. We don’t have to pay any attention to old religious ceremonies. But some people are still bound by that. And we need to be patient until they can grow away from those taboos. And this is the attitude of consideration of others. And this is the first attitude that we must have if we are going to please someone else. We consider them before ourselves.

Therefore, Paul says we are obliged to ‘bear with’ the ‘failings of the weak’ rather than please ourselves (verse 1).

‘Bear with’ means more than ‘put up with’ or ‘tolerate’, as Matthew Henry’s commentary explains:

We must consider these; not trample upon them, but encourage them, and bear with their infirmities. If through weakness they judge and censure us, and speak evil of us, we must bear with them, pity them, and not have our affections alienated from them. Alas! it is their weakness, they cannot help it. Thus Christ bore with his weak disciples, and apologised for them. But there is more in it; we must also bear their infirmities by sympathizing with them, concerning ourselves for them, ministering strength to them, as there is occasion. This is bearing one another’s burdens.

It is hard to do. It also requires seemingly endless patience. I have failed on many occasions and will likely fail on many more.

Paul exhorts us to build our neighbour up for his good (verse 2). That means to encourage him in good purposes, not sinful ones. This also means putting aside our own desires, which would be a much easier path to follow.

Henry says:

Christians should study to be pleasing. As we must not please ourselves in the use of our Christian liberty (which was allowed us, not for our own pleasure, but for the glory of God and the profit and edification of others), so we must please our neighbour … Please his neighbour, not in every thing, it is not an unlimited rule; but for his good, especially for the good of his soul: not please him by serving his wicked wills, and humouring him in a sinful way, or consenting to his enticements, or suffering sin upon him; this is a base way of pleasing our neighbour to the ruin of his soul: if we thus please men, we are not the servants of Christ; but please him for his good; not for our own secular good, or to make a prey of him, but for his spiritual good.–To edification, that is, not only for his profit, but for the profit of others, to edify the body of Christ, by studying to oblige one another. The closer the stones lie, and the better they are squared to fit one another, the stronger is the building.

That allegorical last sentence puts it all together nicely: the strength of the Church as a body of people is based on unity, its members being like closely fitting stones.

Paul goes on to say that Christ did not please Himself but suffered reproaches, which He bore willingly (verse 3).

That verse paraphrases Psalm 69:9:

For zeal for your house has consumed me,
and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.

There David is speaking about reproaches against God which have fallen on him. David is seen as a type of Christ. John 2:17 paraphrases the same verse in reference to Christ.

However, that verse also prophesies Christ, as MacArthur explains:

this is a Messianic Psalm. Much of it touches on the Messiah and His agony. Back in verse 4, “They that hate Me without a cause,” no doubt speaks of the hatred of the Lord Jesus Christ. “A stranger to My brethren,” verse 8 and “an alien to My mother’s children.” “He came unto His own and His own received Him not,” and so forth. It speaks about even the betrayal of Christ in this particular passage. It talks about His agony. It talks about, I believe, His trial in the garden, verse 16 down through maybe verse 20 or so. It talks in verse 21, they gave Me vinegar for My food and in My thirst…gall for My food and in My thirst they gave Me vinegar to drink. Now there were… There are many aspects of the Messiah here.

But one of them in verse 9 is that the reproaches that were given to God are also fallen on Him. In other words, in pleasing the Father, Christ receives reproach. That is slander, that is false accusation. That is to suffer insults. And He suffered the same insults God suffered because He represented God. Because men hate God, they hated the one who revealed God. Because they hated the holiness of God, they hated the holiness of Jesus Christ.

Now this willingness to please God even though it meant reproach and suffering and insult and slander and death is the key to the Christian’s attitude. Christ was willing to endure all of this, even the reproaches that fell on God Himself. He bore those reproaches for the sake of doing the Father’s will. He was really indifferent to His own deprivation. He was indifferent to His own pain. He was indifferent to His own agony. And He who bears all of this pain for the sake of pleasing the Father is our example. Rather than running out to please ourselves, we should follow the pattern of Christ and be willing to suffer anything in pleasing another. He set aside all of His divine rights to be subject to the Father and to suffer for the sake of sinners to bring us to God. Can we do less for a fellow Christian? Back to 1 John 2:6, “If we say we abide in Him, we ought to walk as He walked.” If you say you’re a Christian, you ought to have the attitude Christ had.

So, the right motives then are consideration for others, disregard of self and conformity to Christ

There is a lot of theology in these three verses.

Furthermore, there is a difficult instruction to obey in setting aside our own desires, always thinking of the next person. It’s a tall order.

Matthew Henry says that Scripture study and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit can help us, however:

What David had said in his own person Paul had just now applied to Christ. Now lest this should look like a straining of the scripture, he gives us this excellent rule in general, that all the scriptures of the Old Testament (much more those of the New) were written for our learning, and are not to be looked upon as of private interpretation. What happened to the Old-Testament saint happened to them for ensample; and the scriptures of the Old Testament have many fulfillings. The scriptures are left for a standing rule to us: they are written, that they might remain for our use and benefit. First, For our learning. There are many things to be learned out of the scriptures; and that is the best learning which is drawn from these fountains. Those are the most learned that are most mighty in the scriptures. We must therefore labour, not only to understand the literal meaning of the scripture, but to learn out of it that which will do us good; and we have need of help therefore not only to roll away the stone, but to draw out the water, for in many places the well is deep. Practical observations are more necessary than critical expositions. Secondly, That we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. That hope which hath eternal life for its object is here proposed as the end of scripture-learning. The scripture was written that we might know what to hope for from God, and upon what grounds, and in what way. This should recommend the scripture to us that it is a special friend to Christian hope. Now the way of attaining this hope is through patience and comfort of the scripture. Patience and comfort suppose trouble and sorrow; such is the lot of the saints in this world; and, were it not so, we should have no occasion for patience and comfort. But both these befriend that hope which is the life of our souls. Patience works experience, and experience hope, which maketh not ashamed, Romans 5:3-5. The more patience we exercise under troubles the more hopefully we may look through our troubles; nothing more destructive to hope than impatience. And the comfort of the scriptures, that comfort which springs from the word of God (that is the surest and sweetest comfort) is likewise a great stay to hope, as it is an earnest in hand of the good hoped for. The Spirit, as a comforter, is the earnest of our inheritance.

MacArthur says the same thing:

In this brief justification for using the Old Testament Psalm, Paul gives the value of the Scripture, the value of the Scripture. Whatever things were written in earlier times is a reference to the Old Testament. “Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit,” and so forth. You know it in 2 Peter 1:21, the Old Testament. Whatever was written in the Old Testament was written for our learning. Now listen carefully. Old Testament scripture was written for New Testament people. It is not a dead book. It is a book that is written for our learning. First Corinthians 10 verses 6 and 11 say it is to provide examples for us, examples for us, patterns for us. Paul said to Timothy, “All Scripture,” and he referred to the Old Testament, “is given by inspiration of God and is profitable.” And he listed some of the things it profits for, “That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished to all good works.”

Listen, the Old Testament is profitable, it is for our learning. And what does it teach us? That we through endurance, hupomon, endurance and encouragement from the Scriptures might have what? Hope. Hope. I believe that man needs hope more than he needs anything else. The goal of the Scripture is to give hope, hope for the future, hope for life eternal, hope for forgiveness from sin, meaning to life. God is called in Jeremiah 14:8 “The hope of Israel.” God is the giver of hope. Psalm 119 says at least three times, “I have hope in Thy Word.” Psalm 130, verse 5, the same thing, “I have hope in Thy Word.” The reason we have hope is because of what the Bible reveals. Is that not so? Would you have hope in life to come if you’d never read the Scripture? Would you have hope? No, no hope at all. That’s why in Ephesians 4 it says the Gentiles who have not the Scripture are without hope in the world. They are without hope in the world. Hope comes from the Word of God. Without it we have no hope. We don’t know about heaven. We don’t know about Christ and His Kingdom. We don’t know about the glorious reward that lies ahead. We don’t know that without the Scripture. There’s no revelation of that apart from Scripture.

But Scripture gives us hope. And this comes to us through two great spiritual realities, endurance and encouragement. Scripture tells us that we can endure any trial, that we can make it through any difficulty, any vicissitude, any struggle, any anxiety. And James, you remember chapter 5 there, verses 7 to 11, “Be patient therefore, brethren,” or be enduring, brethren, “to the coming of the Lord.” And he goes on to talk about the farmer waiting for the precious fruit of the earth has long patience for it until he received the early, latter rain, be also enduring, establish your hearts, the coming of the Lord is near. Now that comes from the confidence of the Scripture. Scripture tells us that we have a hope and that we have the power to endure. The teaching of the Word of God allows us to patiently endure in this life, waiting for the hope that is set before us. We could not patiently endure the trials of life if we didn’t know…if we had no word from God about how to endure, about how to be secure. If we didn’t know that we were secure, every time a trouble came along we might think we were thrown out of God’s kingdom. But Scripture tells us we’re secure and Scripture tells us we have the power to endure and Scripture tells us why we are to endure, to be strengthened, to develop patience so that patience, James 1 says, can have a perfecting work so that we can be more useful to God and more effective in winning others. So Scripture gives us endurance to the hope.

He mentions the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete:

And then along the way also encouragement, he says, paraklsis which is paraclete, one who comes alongside to encourage. It is the Word of God that not only tells us how to endure, but encourages us in the process.

So, the Scripture teaches endurance and the Scripture teaches patience. And those two things lead us to hold fast the hope that is in God and in Christ. We have that hope and that hope is anchored in the Word of God.

And Paul’s point here is simply that we need to learn from the Scriptures. We need to learn from the Scriptures. I think this is one thing that we can draw right into our little outline here and say that a biblical mindset is the key to right behavior to the weaker brother. We need to know that everything written in the Scripture is written for our learning. It’s all part of teaching us endurance and encouragement. Let me tell you something. One part of learning patience and encouragement is learning to tolerate weaker brothers. Those words are chosen carefully. We learn through that to be patient. We learn through that the encouragement of one who has to wait. And that’s what the Word of God provides.

Paul packed a lot of theology into three verses of instruction. He gives us much upon which to reflect during the week ahead.

Next time — Romans 15:14-21

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