Setting the Tone of Gospel Culture
Romans 15:1-13 shows us what gospel culture looks like.
1 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. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
8 For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” 10 And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” 11 And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” 12 And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” 13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
Paul puts the burden of building and maintaining gospel culture on the shoulders of the strong. He is not excusing the weak. He’s simply telling the strong that they set the tone. They should bear the failings of the weak. In this instance, he’s referring to the “strong” Gentiles who enjoy the freedom in Christ to eat all foods and ignore Jewish festival days, and to the “weak” Jews who still follow the Torah laws. Paul is not calling the strong merely to tolerate the weak. He’s telling them to indulge them at the expense of themselves. They should bend over backward for them precisely because they understand freedom in Christ.
And what are the grounds for such a command? Jesus Christ himself. His work of humility is the foundation and power from which the strong can draw from. Paul uses Psalm 69:9 as proof of Jesus bearing the failings of the weak, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” As the strong bend down to help the weak, they replay the humility of Christ bending down to help us all. Their death to preference leads to new life for those for whom they die. That’s the power of the gospel. It frees us from our personal likings and comforts to serve others with love beyond this earth. To do this is to fulfill the command of Paul in verse 2, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” A gospel culture knows nothing of pithy putdowns and mindless insults. It knows much of humble service and gospel encouragement.
We can only go so far in our own power. A car cannot run without fuel, but the car cannot create the fuel. Likewise, we cannot run without the fuel of the Holy Spirit, but we cannot create the fuel. God must give himself. And the good news of the gospel is that he has, and he does, and he will continue to do so. He does this in a variety of ways. One way is through the reading of the scriptures. Paul gives us insight into how he read the Bible and how he expects us to read as well in verse 4. “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The Bible is not just a historical record. It is a historical record leading us to the living God. We can look to it to find instruction on how to live as holy people. Furthermore, we can find in it encouragement and hope. How is this so?
The Bible is our primary source for the workings of God throughout history. And we know that living the Christian life is a high calling. Jesus did not rise from the grave to give us a mediocre existence. He rose from the grave to give us his best. But his best is hard for us to hold in our two hands. We lose our way. We get sidetracked and confused. So, God in his grace gave us the Bible to help in times of need. We have before us all the information the God of the universe deemed good for us to know. We would be foolish to ignore it. We would be wise to search it. Scripture endures. Scripture encourages. Scripture gives us hope. When it gets hard to live the Christian life, we can turn to the Scriptures to find the supreme example of humility in the person of Jesus Christ. We can see what he did and what he gives to find the strength we need to build a gospel culture that radiates Christ’s beauty.
In all this, Paul has one goal he’s striving toward. It’s the same goal the entire Bible is striving toward: the glory of God. Paul prays the first prayer since Romans 1:9-12. He prays that God would give them the endurance and encouragement to live in harmony with one another so that with one voice they may glorify God. He’s not praying that they would all learn to think alike but that they would all learn to love alike with the aim of glorifying God. Despite all our differences in ethnicity, race, culture, age, etc. God is uniting his people so that the sound coming from the church building throughout the world is the song of praise of the glory of his grace. It is one voice singing to one God who has made his varied people one people in his Son.
The glorious reality we have walked into when we came into Christ is the reality that in him we are welcomed completely. Jesus has welcomed us, and he calls us to welcome all his people. “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The word Paul chose to use for “welcome” is the image of pressing into the heart. When another Christian walks into our church, our response should be to press that person into our heart. We accept them wholly, as Christ has accepted us. Can you imagine the beauty that would radiate from the community if that was the default reaction? How can the world ignore that?
After all, the work of Jesus benefited the whole word. It is fitting, therefore, that the whole world would see his glory. Paul uses several Old Testament scriptures to prove this point. The gospel was preached throughout the scriptures—the plan was always to bring the Gentiles in. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome filled with Gentiles. As Paul looks back over the Old Testament, he sees the fulfillment of God’s promises and this church is proof. Think of the joy that must have filled his heart? That’s why he prays in verse 13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” The Christian life leads to abounding hope. We serve and follow a God of hope that gives out joy and peace to his children. The path all in Christ are walking down is one that leads to an abundance of happiness. And the more people included, the happier it is.
Community is hard. A joyful and peaceful community is even harder. But God can create it through the gospel. And that’s why Paul is writing this letter. He aims to join Jew and Gentile. Michael Bird gives us a vivid illustration of how this may have looked.
Imagine a group of Gentile Christians in Rome, perhaps a mixture of slaves and artisans, sitting at the back of a leather-worker’s shop one night, huddled around a candle, singing a hymn, recounting their day, and sharing what little food they had. One of the slaves is a scribe and is able to read from a notebook a few verses from Psalm 69. Then in walks Herodion, a Jewish freedman, who had returned to Rome from Alexandria some weeks ago. Herodian turns to Rufus, the leader of the house church, and says, “greetings and peace.” Rufus has not seen Herodion for six years and when they had last met there had been a ferocious debate about drinking wine. Herodion had visited Rufus’s shop to explain why drinking pagan wine was wrong; it was defiled by its use in libations, so God-worshipers must avoid it or risk God’s judgment. Rufus wasn’t convinced and Herodion stormed off cursing Rufus and his pagan drink.
Now, however, Rufus looks at Herodion; he looks weak and malnourished. Perhaps his master has cast him out for his Christian faith. Everyone in the group looks at Rufus to see what he will do. Rufus rises, kisses Herodion on the cheek, sits him down, and gives him some bread and a few turnips and pour him a cup of water. He looks at Herodion and says, “Eat! For we all belong to the same Lord.” That is why Paul wrote Romans.