Romans 15

Chapter fifteen actually finishes the teaching on strong and weak believers from the previous chapter. Rather than causing weaker Christians to stumble in their faith, stronger Christians “ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not just to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1-6). This is essentially further teaching on the proper outworking of love from the Christian perspective on ourselves and others that Paul introduced in chapter twelve.

Romans 15:7-13 helps clarify the previous section on strong and weak Christians. While those tensions are certainly true within the mass of Gentile believers, they were especially strong between believing Gentiles and Jews. The Acts and Paul’s earlier letters show that the early Jewish Christians had a difficult time breaking away from the Mosaic Law, even after their salvation. In fact, an entire doctrinal council was held addressing this issue and, more narrowly, specific requirements within the Law (Acts 15). In this short paragraph, Paul urged the Jews and Gentiles to love and build up each other, even though they held many differences when it came to which practices were acceptable for Christians. Paul quoted from Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah to remind the Jews again that believing Gentiles had always been a part of God’s plan, and that they were not “messing things up” by not embracing the Mosaic Law.

The rest of the chapter is much more personal, showing that Paul was drawing to a close. His first comment was to the Jews in his audience (Romans 15:14-21). Admitting that he was specifically sent to the Gentiles, Paul noted that he wrote a little more boldly to the Jews than he normally would have, because of the great overlap between them in his particular themes in this letter. He mentioned again his desire to finally visit them, but that he ultimately wanted to go all the way to Spain, where he believed the gospel had not yet reached, and he expected that the Roman believers would help him on that journey (Romans 15:22-24). In the meantime, he was headed back to Jerusalem, carrying the money he had collected for the famished saints there (Romans 15:25-29). Little did he know that he would certainly find himself in Rome, but as a prisoner rather than a free traveler (Acts 21-28). He did, however, know that trouble was awaiting him in Jerusalem, so he asked that the Romans would pray for his safety, so that he could come to them (Romans 15:30-32). As Acts records, their prayers were answered but not in the way they asked or could have imagined.

Romans 14

Chapter fourteen deals with another issue in Christianity, namely, the practice of one believer forcing his convictions and preferences on another believer and condemning him if he does not agree and submit. Paul introduced a new categorization of believers at this point: strong and weak. 1 Using illustrations like what we are permitted to eat and which day or days we should set aside as sacred, Paul concluded that the believer who places himself under restrictions that God did not specifically prohibit is “weak,” because engaging in such activities would violate his personal conscience, causing him to sin. A “strong brother,” on the other hand, is not burdened by these extra-biblical prohibitions and, thus, can freely participate without sinning, because they are not God’s prohibitions at all (Romans 14:14). Paul did not give an exhaustive list of activities, because it can include any restriction that a believer places on himself that God did not command. Not surprisingly, even modern believers still wrestle with the broad categories mentioned like entertainment (TV, movies, playing cards, music), substances (certain foods, alcohol, some drugs), and special days (when the church gathers).

However, Paul did not leave the question with just a definition of terms. There are two principles that we are to learn and live in light of this truth. First, “weak” is not the desired state for a Christian. Because these are extra-biblical prohibitions, God wants us to grow from “weak” to “strong” in our faith, so we are not weighed down. The second principle is equally important, though. Just because a “strong” brother can participate in these activities, it does not mean that he always should. In fact, Paul commanded “strong” Christians to specifically withhold from participation if they know that engaging in them could cause a “weak” Christian to fall into sin by participating as well. In this scenario, rather than helping our weaker brothers, the stronger brothers actually become an obstacle to our fellow Christians’ growth, potentially destroying God’s work in them, which is the opposite of love. A decade earlier Paul acknowledged that it was “for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Yet we must “not use [our] freedom as an opportunity to indulge [our] flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:1, 13). Continuing his theme from chapter twelve, Paul implored, “So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another” (Romans 14:19).

Notes:

  1. These are slightly different from his categories in 1 Corinthians 3:1-5. There “carnal” refers to a believer who is driven by his sin nature, and “spiritual” is a believer driven by the Holy Spirit.

Romans 13

Chapter thirteen continues with our Christian lifestyle in this world, beginning with our interaction with human government (Romans 13:1-7). Government has always been a favorite “whipping boy” for the masses and for good reason: Corrupt people with power use that power to do corrupt things. Or as Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Since we are all corrupt by nature, as Paul thoroughly taught in the early chapters, only believers have the ability to govern out of a godly nature, but even that is not guaranteed. However, human government was established by God in order to maintain peace and justice among the people. Therefore, we are subject, even to corrupt governments, to obey whatever is within their jurisdiction, including taxes, which Paul had to mention specifically, because they have never been desirable. 1

Romans 13:8 has often been used to “prove” that financial debt is a sin in Christianity, but the context is relational, not financial. We can find other passages showing the negative side of financial debt (Proverbs 6:1-5 and 22:7, for instance), but Paul was referring to fulfilling our relational obligations in loving one another (specifically our fellow believers, Romans 13:9-10). The reason this is so important is because we cannot know the timing of Jesus’ return, and we are to be working faithfully as we anticipate him (Romans 13:11-14). This includes living “decently,” which Paul means to “make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires” (see Romans 8:5-11; Galatians 5:16-26).

Notes:

  1. Obviously, God’s law still transcends man’s law, so when the two conflict, “We must obey God rather than people” (Acts 5:29).

Romans 12

Chapter twelve begins the final section of Paul’s letter, in which he took the immense doctrine taught in the first eleven chapters and provided several principles and commands that should drive the Christian lifestyle. The first step of true discipleship after initial saving faith is for a Christian to make the declaration that he is “all-in” (Romans 12:1-2) In chapter six Paul taught that the believer has been freed from the power of sin, so he should live as if this were true. Before getting to the rest of his application, Paul stated how this is done. It is a willful decision to submit one’s entire body to God like a sacrifice (“present…your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness,” Romans 6:13). This will keep us from being shaped by the world system, and instead we will be able to discern and understand God’s good will, so we can live wisely.

As we begin to know and obey God and his Word better, we will begin to think like him, which will result in thinking of ourselves and others properly, which displays itself in three ways. The first has to do with spiritual giftedness (Romans 12:3-8). Outside of 1 Corinthians 12, this chapter contains the most compact teaching on the Church as the Body of Christ. Paul emphasized the truth that the members belong to each other and that we are to serve each other in the unique ways God has enabled us. The list of gifts mentioned here focuses primarily on the task or serving gifts (as opposed to the fuller list in 1 Corinthians). The gifts are manifestations of God’s grace given to us, and ten years later Peter would write that God considers us managers of that grace (1 Peter 4:10).

Second, we are to focus on the growth of our fellow believers in our general interactions (Romans 12:9-16). This is essentially a series of “proverbs,” short principles that stand on their own. They can be memorized as “sound bites” that we can take with us into every situation. Although our English translations do not always reflect it, verses 9-13 comprise one long sentence describing what sincere love (“without hypocrisy”) looks like (similar to 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). It looks for opportunities to bless others, empathize with them, and “live in harmony” with them.

The third change in our thinking about ourselves and others is displayed in our interaction with unbelievers in the world around us (Romans 12:16-21). In these final verses Paul changed his language from “one another” to “anyone” and “all people,” not just fellow believers. Whereas Christians are commanded to “live in harmony with one another,” Paul understood that was not always possible with unbelievers, so he added the caveat, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.” It is impossible to completely “live in harmony” with those who have opposing worldviews (this would be a kind of partnership, 2 Corinthians 6:14-18), but we can strive to live in peace with them, a theme common in the apostles’ letters (see 1 Thessalonians 4:12; Colossians 4:12; Galatians 6:10; Titus 3:1-2; 1 Peter 2:11-12). This kind of living peaceably involves not taking personal vengeance and not letting the world’s evil overcome us so that we stop living out our new godly nature.

Romans 11

Chapter eleven concludes this section of the letter by focusing on Israel’s future as a nation. Based on the truths of chapters nine and ten, Paul asked, “God has not rejected his people, has he?” (Romans 11:1-4) The answer is an emphatic, “No!”, and Paul used himself as proof. If God were really through with Israel, how could Paul have come to faith in the Messiah? In reality, there has always been a believing remnant, as in Elijah’s day, even though it seems as if no one else believes. So then, even today there is a remnant of Jews who have come to Jesus by grace through faith rather than the law, even though the nation at large is prohibited from turning to him quite yet (Romans 11:5-10).

Yet their falling away was not “irrevocable” (Romans 11:11-16). Even though more Gentiles than Jews are believing, God’s purpose is that the Jewish people would become “jealous” that their Messiah is being accepted by Gentiles. And if Gentiles are being saved by the Jewish Messiah through faith, how much more will Jews be saved if they would respond in faith?

Romans 11:17-24 contains the famous olive tree analogy, which is often misunderstood and misapplied. A common interpretation is that the olive tree is Israel, so believing Gentiles become part of the “true Israel.” Not only does this contradict many other portions of Scripture, it is indefensible from this passage. Romans 11:24 shows that the tree in the analogy belongs to Israel; it is “their own olive tree.” It is a different matter to say that the tree is “Israel” instead of “Israel’s.” The olive tree represents something that was given to Israel, which Paul had already enumerated at the beginning of chapter nine – the prophets, covenants, patriarchs, etc. Most importantly, though, the Messiah is Israel’s (Romans 9:1-5). Salvation is “to the Jew first” (Romans 1:16) because “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), because the Savior is a Jew. However, many Jews do not believe, so they are removed from the tree. Gentiles who believe are “grafted in,” not to become Jews, but in order to participate “in the richness of the olive root,” which is Christ himself. Thus, there is no Scriptural basis to teach that Gentiles have taken Israel’s place as the people of God or that the promises made to Israel have been transferred to the Church. Rather, Gentiles who believe get to participate in the blessings of Christ, while the promises made to Israel stand firm (Romans 11:1).

The chapter concludes with a final promise that, even though Israel is under a partial hardening by God himself, one day the blinders will be removed and “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-32). As a nod back to the first section (chapters 1-8), as he prepared to move into the final section of the letters (chapters 12-16), Paul responded to those who cannot understand why all people are imputed with Adam’s guilt (Romans 5:12). It is actually a gracious act of God who has “consigned all people to disobedience so that he may show mercy to them all.” If not everyone were equally guilty, there would have to be many ways and plans of salvation. By considering us all the same, each one is equally able to come to Jesus through faith – equally sinful, equally savable. This thought caused Paul to break out in joyful praise to God’s transcending “wisdom and knowledge…unsearchable…[and] fathomless. … To him be glory forever!”