Verse divisions and chapter divisions in the New Testament were added centuries after the Bible was written. (The present chapter divisions were added in 1205 by Stephen Langton and the verse divisions were added to the New Testament in 1551 by Robert Stephanus.) So be careful that you don’t assume they divide the books in the best places. The chapter break at the beginning of chapter 15 was not put in the best place, most commentators agree. It would go much more naturally after Romans 15:13. The issue of weak and strong Christians — those free to eat and drink without qualms of conscience — continues from chapter 14 right on into chapter 15.
Verses 1–2 make a familiar point: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” This is not new. We have seen it before. Romans 14:15: “If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” Romans 14:19: “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Romans 14:21: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” So the point throughout has been: be willing to forego your freedom in matters of meat and drink and days if you can avoid destroying a weak brother and instead build his faith.
Pleasing Our Neighbor, Not Ourselves
Paul simply says it a little differently in Romans 15:1–2. He talks about not pleasing ourselves but pleasing our neighbor for his good to build his faith. We should make two clarifications about this issue of not pleasing ourselves but pleasing others. One is that pleasing others functions as a guideline for our behavior only when non-essential things are at stake and only when the other person would really be built up in his faith.
“When the gospel is changed people are destroyed.”
We know these limits apply because, for example, in Galatians 1:10, Paul says, “Am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” In other words, in Galatians, crucial issues about the content of the gospel are at stake and Paul will not change the gospel to “please man.” Why? Because when the gospel is changed people are destroyed. If we can please people for their upbuilding, we do it, but if what pleases destroys, we don’t.
The other clarification is that “not pleasing ourselves,” to use the words at the end of verse 1, does not mean that we can’t enjoy pleasing others. To be sure there is such a thing as “self-denial” — that’s what Paul is talking about here. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). So there will be many things in the Christian life that are not pleasant but painful in themselves. Paul always taught his new churches, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). But we must always add that Paul also says, “We rejoice in our afflictions” (Romans 5:3). Even when the service of God is hard, the command stands: “Serve the Lord with gladness!” (Psalm 100:2).
So be careful when you read, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” — be careful not to think it’s a sin to take joy in pleasing others for their good and upbuilding. In fact, something would be deeply wrong if you did not take pleasure in building up other people’s faith.
So there are at least those two clarifications of verses 1 and 2: (1) Aim to please others rather than yourselves if it will do them good and build up their faith, but not if it will distort the gospel and hurt people even while pleasing them. And (2) never lose sight of what we call Christian Hedonism — it is a virtue not a vice to be glad when you can build another person’s faith even if it costs you some immediate pleasure. God loves a cheerful giver, not a begrudging one — whether we are talking about money, or time, or not eating meat, or any other sacrifice (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Now where is all this going and how does Paul help us get there? Where it’s going is crystal clear from verses 6 and 7. Paul says it twice — it is all going toward the glory of God. “That together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Paul’s Goal: Display the Glory of God
Paul’s goal is never merely good human relations — unless, of course, we define “good human relations” as God-glorifying, Christ-exalting human relationships, which we should do. But the ultimate aim of Christ and his apostle is to display the glory of God — the beauty of God, the greatness of God, the many-sided perfections of God. All of creation, all of redemption, all of church, all of society and culture exist to display God. Nothing and no one is an end itself, but only God.
All things are “from him and through him and to him” (Romans 11:36). Church worship services, church Sunday School classes, church nurseries, church committee meetings, church small groups, church evangelism, church missions — all of them exist for this one ultimate thing — to make much of the greatness of God. That is why we say we exist to “spread a passion for the supremacy of God.”
Would you join me and pray with me that God make this the atmosphere at Bethlehem? We will not have succeeded if we are known as a friendly place. And we will not have succeeded if we are known as an unfriendly place. We will be on our way to true success if we are known as a people besotted with the glory of God. If our children speak of the glory of God. If our young people love the glory of God more than the glory of sport or music or fashion. If our career people pursue the glory of God more than the glory of financial success. If our older people rejoice in the hope of the glory of God just over the horizon.
“God loves a cheerful giver, not a begrudging one.”
Almost everything in American culture threatens this radically serious, God-centered passion to see and savor and show the glory — the greatness and beauty and worth of the full range of his perfections, his eternal being and unchanging character, his independence and self-sufficiency and holiness, his infinite power and wisdom and goodness and justice and wrath and mercy and patience and grace and love. Almost everything in American culture threatens to make our devotion and our services and our mind and our heart shallow and casual and chatty and — our most favorite blessing of choice — fun.
I plead with you to pray with me that God stagger us with a proper sense of his greatness, and to that end that he would give us what Paul calls a “spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Ephesians 1:17). Oh, how we need to know God and to feel something of the wonder of his glory. Pray with Moses in Exodus 33:18: “Show me your glory.”
So we know where Paul is going in this text — the same place he is always going: “That together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 6).
Now how does he help us get there? This is not a question of church programs or relational mechanics or external technique. Paul’s question is: How do we become the kind of people who are of one mind in denying ourselves, sacrificing legitimate freedoms to please others, and being able with one voice (in spite of all the differences between weak and strong) to glorify God together? The root issue is how we become that kind of people.
Five Things Paul Does to Help Us Become That Kind of People
There are at least five things Paul does here to help us become the kind of people who can joyfully not please ourselves for the sake of building up others and making God look glorious. I’ll just mention them briefly and then close by focusing on the last one. Any of them could be a whole book. So take them and go deeper.
First, Paul draws our attention to Christ. He mentions his example, but the very example he chooses to mention is more than an example: it is the act by which he saves us from the wrath of God. Verse 3: “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’” In other words, to become the kind of person who joyfully serves others rather than using them, consider Christ. Look at Christ. Especially look at his sin-bearing, substitutionary work on the cross. This is how we change: “Beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Look to Christ.
Second, Paul reminds us how essential the Scriptures are in becoming self-denying servants of love. Verse 3 quoted Psalm 69:9, and so Paul says in verse 4: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” The picture of Christ that he just gave us came from the Scriptures. Now the gospels and the portraits of Christ we have available are powerful to change us — if we would only give ourselves to the Scriptures.
Third, Paul pinpoints what it is about the Scriptures that is so helpful in making us into self-denying servants of other people’s upbuilding. It’s their power to produce endurance and encouragement. Verse 4: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures . . .” God has designed the Bible so that when you follow the meaning from story to story and book to book the effect is “endurance and encouragement” — if that’s not happening, you’re not reading it right. This is what it will take if are going to be the kind of self-denying people who give glory to God with one unified voice in spite of all our differences.
Fourth, Paul reminds us that we will never survive in the path of self-denying, sacrificial love if we don’t have hope. Verse 4 again: “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” — hope that all will work together for our good and we will inherit eternal life with God. How did Jesus endure through Gethsemane and Golgotha? Hebrews 12:2 says it was the power of hope: “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” That is the only way we will endure in love. Paul said it plainly in Colossians 1:4–5, “We heard . . . the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” Christ-exalting hope is the great power to endure in self-denying, sacrificial love that pleases others for their good.
“To become the kind of person who joyfully serves others rather than using them, consider Christ.”
There is one final way that Paul shows us how to become this kind of persons. Fifth he shows by example that we must pray for all this to happen, because it is all God’s work in us. Verses 5–6 Paul shifts from teaching and exhorting to praying, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such 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.” He is still speaking to them. But not mainly to them. Paul has reached the end of his ability to persuade. His longings for this church are beyond the reach of man. God must do it, or it won’t be done.
If we are going to look to Christ, God must incline our hearts to look to Christ and open our eyes to see his glory (2 Thessalonians 3:5). If we are going to meditate on his word, God must incline our hearts to his word (Psalm 119:36). If we are going to endure and be encouraged, God must give us the endurance and encouragement through his word (2 Thessalonians 2:16). If we are going to have hope that sustains our love, God must make it abound through the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
And if we are so dependent on God for Romans 14 and 15 to come true, then, Bethlehem, let us give ourselves to the precious privilege of prayer. If Paul had to pray to see his teaching change people, so must we.