The Gospel Applied: “Service with a Smile” – Romans 14, Part two

waitressI walked into the café and read the sign. It said: “Seat yourself!” I walked over to a booth and sat down. “You can’t sit there!” a waitress barked. I turned to look, and she said, “I just cleared that booth and I have some men coming in to take it.” I smiled and got up. I wasn’t in a particular hurry because my flight was running behind a bit. I said: “That’s fine. Do you have another seat I could have?” She looked at me and saw my smile and said. “I am sorry. A lady just yelled at me and another guy took me apart this morning at breakfast, and I have just had it with today. I shouldn’t have taken in out on you!” I looked at her and could tell by her uniform, her face and her hair that she had seen better days. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll stand here for a bit and you check for a place when you can. I have a few minutes.” About two minutes later, I got the nicest spot in the place by the window, looking down on the runway. “There is a plug below this seat in case your laptop is running low,” she said. She was looking out for me, and I could see it in her service. A smile and a little patience makes the difference.

Am I always that way? No, not at all. I keep busy, and I don’t always see people right in front of me. Yet, I know that isn’t the right way to treat people. I could have acted as badly as that waitress any day of the week. Is that true of you? Do you get so busy, or so self-focused sometimes that you don’t see others clearly? We might all need the refresher from the middle of Romans 14, where we left off in our study. We might need the reminder that…

Key Principle: Real Christians are those who “serve Jesus by serving people”.

Without being mind-numbingly repetitive, let’s set the discussion of the text in context.

First, we can split the letter to the Romans in two parts:

Romans 1-11 was about what God did for people – His saving work that would made our yielding of heart a reasonable demand on His part. If God stood up to my rebellion with love and drew me in, why wouldn’t I want to follow Him?

Romans 12-16 was designed to describe what a yielded life of a follower of Jesus should look like.

Second, in the second part of the letter, the discussion on a “re-shaped life” had a specific progression – it made sense:

• In Romans 12, the life of the Christ follower is an inspected life (12:1), resistant to the world’s molding (12:2), a servant of God’s people (12:3-8) and one who walks in practical ways to show we are growing to be like Jesus (12:9-21).

• In Romans 13, the life of a follower of Jesus made them a more responsible citizen.

• In Romans 14:1-3, following Jesus meant that each of us learned to be Biblical in our walk, but gracious is relation to preferences.

Paul left an overriding principle that clarified how we choose life actions in public places as he summarized the problem of the weaker brother that could stumble due to our preferences:

Romans 14:13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.

How do we learn to live together in a “team first” mentality and a “me first” culture? How do we become servants in an age where we are taught to demand others to serve us?

The place to begin is the church – where instruction on servant-hood can be taken into the home and into the world. In order to make a grace environment that will help people grow and be grounded we must do this: Watch one another for cues as to what help is needed, not for the purpose of becoming another’s judge. There are two important implications of Romans 14:13.

We must hold the Word of God as the highest standard in each of our lives: When an action is Biblically defined as incorrect, you are not judging a fellow believer, the Bible is doing that. The issue isn’t what is LEGAL, but what God says in His Word. The issue isn’t what our CHURCH says, but whether or not we can see the principles taught clearly in the Word in proper context.

An old professor used to begin class with a question like: “Do you honestly believe what Colossians 2:4 teaches?” Invariably one student would ask: “What does it say?” The teacher would reply, “Is that what matters as to whether or not you believe it?” He made his point. If you are Bible-believing Christian, the Word in its proper context is the standard.

When the Word allows individual judgment, let circumspect love be the rule. It simply isn’t Christian to be of the “what’s in it for me” mentality – since that isn’t how Jesus taught us, and that isn’t what He modeled.

Continue following Paul’s discussion as he offers four principles to set the stage for “Serving Jesus by serving people” thinking:

1: Things are not “all relative” – even when they are not Biblically prescribed. Even something allowed for others can be absolutely forbidden to you.

We will call this the “Guilt” Principle: Though something can be amoral on its own, the context of its use can determine its sinfulness in the life of a participant.

First, we must be sure that we all understand the terminology of the problem. The Bible poses God’s mandates, or His instructed and encouraged behaviors as “MORAL” – which means “that which conforms to God’s desired behavior for us”. When the world uses the term “moral” it is normally used in a flexible sense; they mean that which is currently considered “acceptable” by the majority. When the believer uses it, the term should be framed by Scripture, and can be called “RIGHT” behavior only if it is deemed so by God’s revealed Word set in the context to the people to whom it was delivered. Behavior that violates God’s Word or even His stated principle intent is what we call “IMMORAL” behavior. Such behaviors hurt the participants, and if tolerated by society can even harm the very fabric of the community. A third type of behavior is termed “AMORAL” behavior – actions that are not intrinsically right or wrong.

There is no Biblical way to comb your hair, to sweep your front walk or to eat a sandwich within those actions themselves. At the same time, if your parent told you to sweep the walk and you did so with a heart of complaint, the WAY you did it moved it from AMORAL to IMMORAL – because you did it with a wrong heart for a wrong reason. You and I eat sandwiches all the time, but when the Earl of Sandwich first “constructed” the sandwich, it was for the purpose to allow him to eat while gambling away his fortune. His was an immoral sandwich, mine was just a peanut butter and jelly. The bottom line is this: context can change something AMORAL into IMMORAL. Doing something that is not intrinsically wrong can be a violation of moral boundary if the context warrants it. Here is an important truth from God: it is easier to violate morality by taking an action than by abstaining from it. It is called by the world: “If in doubt – don’t” precept. That doesn’t explain everything, but we should hear it and ponder its meaning.

Follow further as Paul makes the note:

Romans 14:14 I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean…Later he wrote: Romans 14:22 The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves 23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because [his eating is] not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.

It is a WRONG behavior…If it violates God’s conviction in my heart.

In this case, it is wrong because it violated the simple context: “Did the Spirit give instruction to me about this?”

You may ask: “Why don’t we all agree on how the Biblical principles fit together and apply to each case?” Often the problem isn’t intrinsic to the practice or abstention of it – it is in the perception of a brother who doesn’t see what God has shown you. God may allow you to do something because you have no negative history with it, or because it has demonstrated no particular power over you, though someone else associates their past with that practice or behavior. Consider the verses:

If we are honest, we will admit that some of us have been guilty of “closet judgment of another’s liberty”. Did you ever look on a social media site and see a brother or sister doing something you “didn’t think” they would (or should) do? Maybe they went to a play or movie you wouldn’t have seen. Maybe they were with people you wouldn’t have felt comfortable around. Maybe they had on their plate or in their glass something and you thought: “Hey, I didn’t think they would do something like that!” You weren’t going to slide backward in your walk – you just wouldn’t have done what they appeared to be doing, and don’t know why they would be involved in such a thing….

Consider this: You don’t know the whole story. The drink in the picture may have been poured for them, but they weren’t going to touch it. Someone else posted the picture, so they had no choice about it being public. The person they were with is ungodly, but they are building a specific and prayerful relationship with them to serve them in the name of Jesus. The play they saw was about being supportive to a lost friend, not about their entertainment. It is easy to think you know WHY someone is doing something you wouldn’t do – but I am going to ask you to deliberately set aside the time you would like to spend discussing other’s choices unless you have some forced reason to weigh in on their behavior. It is very possible you don’t have all the facts – since we seldom do.

Let’s say it this way: If your observation of a brother or sister in Jesus leads you to fixate on some behavior that could cause you to stumble, you are a weaker brother. If that behavior raises concern that you care to privately discuss with the person, you are probably a mentor and “discipler”. If you just want to share your observation about someone else’s behavior with another unrelated party, with no attempt to fully understand it or even perhaps privately correct it, you are a gossip and may be a budding legalist. The problem isn’t “the play” they went to see that bothered you as much as what the enemy is “playing out” through your lips.

Two other facts must be noted before we move on.

The first fact is this: when Paul wrote in 14:14 that “nothing is unclean in itself” it was in the strict context of the behaviors he was addressing in the passage. He wasn’t saying “everything is amoral – all neither good nor bad”. He was saying that practices which are not specified in Scripture cannot be judged as inherently evil to everyone in all circumstances.

The second fact is this: A critical standard for transgression of “clean” or “right” behavior (not specified in Scripture) is the violation of the participant’s conscience. The Spirit of God inhabits our mind, transforms us over time, and works within the frame of our conscience. That is not static – our mind grows and changes with different experiences and the introduction of new facts.

We need to grow in our walk, and that means we will change as the Spirit leads us to drop once acceptable behaviors, or opens the door to once unacceptable ones. Can we not simply admit that some things change as we age? My parents taught me many dangers in the use of credit cards, and are now avid accumulators of “cash back” rewards on their card. They don’t buy with money they haven’t yet made, and neither do I (at least not for many years now). I grew up in a home where fixing the old car was better than payments on a new one – until I found out that often the fixes were wildly expensive and caused much “down time”. Now I don’t mind payments as long as I own more of the car than the instant turn in value of the vehicle. I grew up hearing that I should live in a “cash only” payment scheme, but now I pay my mortgage without feeling the need to repent of sin because I borrowed to get into the system. I understand the down side of each of these practices, and I have carefully considered each as I believe God would have me do.

If you don’t change your mind when confronted with new information or experience, it normally means either you were right about what you thought in the first place, or you are simply a stubborn person that refuses to grow in that area. I plead with you to take special care as a follower of Jesus not to equate a stubborn character with true holiness prompted by the Spirit of God. Holiness is a personal and sharp conviction of heart, formed from the Spirit of God at work within us; Stubbornness is a judgmental spirit that comes from enshrined prejudices. The first constantly beckons us from deep within to walk in ways that please our Father; the second cries out at the very least to seize the attention of others, and at most to gain control over their God-given choices. While It is true that holiness requires stiff resolve, it is led by God. True stubbornness is borne merely of the desire to have both God and man bow to our understandings and requirements. Servants of God must be holy, but cannot be stubborn.

It is WRONG…If it exercises liberty without proper care for the weak.

Romans 14:20b “…All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.”

The Bible makes a clear point to all of us – as believers we called to think “team first”. Before I choose a liberty in a public place, I must consider who will watch and what they will see. Before I say something out loud, I need to consider who will hear it and what will they hear. Before I post it online, I must ask, who will read this and what will they think I said. It IS critical that I think of others in my deportment – so critical that I am deliberately repeating the principle multiple times in different ways.

In the guilt principle, we have highlighted the negative side of the argument. At the same time, there is more to it. Yes, we need to follow the Spirit in things unspecified by Scripture. Yes, we need to keep an eye on what could cause another believer to go backwards in their walk. We also need a third practice: we must grow past looking at others for the directions of God’s Spirit in our lives. The guilt principle addresses the one considering the DOING of something – not the one watching. A little later in our lesson, we will address the “other side” of this argument, that is, how to grow past being so easily affected by another’s practice.

2: Our life choices are not about liberty but more about real love.

To emphasize the point, let me call this the “He Ain’t Heavy” Principle: All true love places demands, as all real relationships do.

Romans 14:15 For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.

The Bible teaches that true love for my brother places demands on my life:

If you keep reading the passage, you will note that Paul makes clear when the behavior is optional and choice oriented, our desire should be to choose with our brother or sister in mind – because that shows real and mature love.

Love demands that I not allow any liberty to divert my brother’s growth:

Remember Romans 14:15? “…Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.

The question behind this statement is clear: “Is my brother more important to me than my liberty?” This is a critical question for Americans, as they tend to LOVE CHOICE. In fact, if we have any one national value that we all share, it is the value of having our own personal choice. It is the reason public transportation doesn’t work as well in our country as in Europe – we love our cars because they offer personal choices that are more difficult by metro or bus. It is the reason our supermarkets are larger than in many places – we need so many kinds of the same thing. The problem with an Americanized version of Christianity is this: we can hold as Americans the right to choose, but that right is trumped by a demand to love a brother more as a Christian. I don’t think it is an exaggeration for us to admit that many believers in our country are better at being a “rights-oriented” American that a “brother-oriented” Christian.

Love demands that I build a positive testimony as much as possible:

Romans 14:16 “Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil…”

Self-reliance, when it means living in a way that doesn’t depend on others to care for your God-mandated responsibility is a good thing. Yet, often we can re-shape that idea and come to believe: “It is no one else’s business what I choose to do.” In a sense, that is a natural thought to those who aren’t asking you to pay for their choices. At the same time, it isn’t a Christian view at its core. God calls a believer to CARE what another person sees in their personal behavior and attitudes. God placed His Spirit within you, not simply to transform your life, but so that He may be on display through the store window of your behavior. Don’t forget! You are a display of God’s creative and transformational workmanship as Paul reminded:

Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and [h]that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”

The believer is the “poem” (Gr: poema) being crafted by God as He works through our life. The idea of a poem is to pain a picture in words, and draw the reader into the scene. Part of God’s work in you is to become a display of life changed when touched by the Master’s hand.

Love demands that I recognize the value of the Kingdom is greater than the value of any individual freedom:

Romans 14:17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.

Despite the number of hours church people spend in dinners, luncheons and banquets – the Kingdom isn’t primarily about FOOD – but that wasn’t what Paul was getting at! What he was making clear was that the Kingdom is not about CHOICES OF LIBERTY which leads to self-focus, but RELATIONAL CHARACTERISTICS which draw people together – like righteousness, peace and joy – all executed at the direction of the Holy Spirit. Look at these traits:

Righteousness is the word dikaiosýnē, a Greek law term that meant “a judicial verdict, the verdict of approval” or in the NT, “God’s approval”. The idea is simple; it is a practice that is approved in His eyes.

Peace is the term eirḗnē which comes from the verb eirō, or “to join or tie together to make a whole, to bring God’s gift of wholeness to”. Peace binds and completes the package; it brings a wholeness to the group.

Joy (in the Holy Spirit) is a term used in a number of senses. The most common is the “resolute assurance of God’s care”. Here, the sense is a bit different. The term “xará” is a form of the root which means to “extend favor, lean into a proper awareness (of God’s) grace. One lexicon suggested it is “grace recognized”. This is a relational idea about the common Christian experience with one another, as opposed to our individual confidence in God. It isn’t as much about understanding that God “will be there for me” as it is a marveling about “How God has done so much for all of us”.

The point of the verse is that my focus CANNOT rightly be on myself. I must care about living in a way that demonstrates God’s approval, brings wholeness to the community of faith and reminds us all of how good God has been to each of us!

Two other principles are corollary and do not require much depth of study to make additional sense:

3: Believers must always keep their eyes on their testimony.

The “Testimony” Principle is this: Acceptable service to Jesus includes recognizing I am always on display. It isn’t only if we are doing something allowed that matters, but if we are doing it with a view toward the weaker among us who may be watching.

Paul reminded:

Romans 14:16 Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; 17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For he who in this [way] serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.

4: Believers must watch everyone on the team for opportunities to build the team – because the issue is about pursuit of a stronger body.

The “Brother” Principle is this: Your brother’s well-being is always more important than satiating your desire. That is the true meaning of “other person centered”.

Paul noted:

Romans 14:19 So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. 20 Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food… 21 It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or [to do anything] by which your brother stumbles…

As believers, we have many priorities. We don’t always think through whether we are intentionally building a safe haven for our new and weak brothers – but we should!

Here is an important question: “Are there ways to avoid conflicts and wounds among brothers?”

Yes, there are. Paul continued to offer principles that help us stay together as one today! In Romans 15 he wrote:

To the Strong he wrote:

Learn to think in circumspect ways and keep your eye on the brother that can “buckle” under the load or be diverted by a challenging example. Romans 15:1 Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.”

In addition, we who are strong need to learn to defend the weaker brother above any personal liberty, and learn to do it almost as a “muscle reflex”. Let the weakness and frailty of another easily offended believer become your opportunity to grow to be more like our selfless Savior today. Romans 15:2 Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. 3 For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.”

To the Weak he wrote:

Learn to follow God’s Word, not other brothers – so you can quickly outgrow the offense stage. That is why he told us in Romans 15:4: For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Learn to probe the Spirit about your direction and application of Scripture, and take your daily encouragement and marching orders directly from your personal engagement with God. That is part of the point of Romans 15:5 Now may the God [b]who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, 6 so that with one accord you may with one [c]voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… 13 Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Please, know that you won’t get it right all the time, and will need to adjust your thinking along the way. Hopefully, that will keep you humble. Followers of God for generations didn’t see Jesus coming to save Gentiles – they had no clue. 15: 7 Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. 8 For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, 9 and for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy; as it is written, “Therefore I will give praise to You among the Gentiles, And I will sing to Your name.” 10 Again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people.” 11 And again, “Praise the Lord all you Gentiles, And let all the peoples praise Him.” 12 Again Isaiah says, “There shall come the root of Jesse, And He who arises to rule over the Gentiles, In Him shall the Gentiles hope.”

Don’t become a professional “weaker brother”, because that is usually a veiled excuse for being a legalist. Remember, a legalist often complains to gain control, and weaker brother doesn’t complain, they fall from a walk with God in obedience.

Finally, let me ask you to honestly consider; “Are there only certain things that your faith allows you to eat?

Many believers can’t find anything wrong with anything. They don’t follow the Word or the Spirit, they follow an unregenerate conscience and a cobbled together morality. That won’t reach anyone, and it won’t please God.

Someone wrote: “According to a recent article I just read on nutrition, they said eating right doesn’t have to be complicated. Nutritionists say there is a simple way to tell if you’re eating right. Colors. Fill your plates with bright colors. Greens, reds, yellows. In fact, I did that this morning. I had an entire bowl of M&M’s. It was delicious! I never knew eating right could be so easy.”

When you make up the rules – it IS easy…but it is also wrong.

We spend a tremendous amount of time and energy on our preferences and hide them in theological concepts that SEEM important. Most of the things we spend time on don’t matter to the lost world, and don’t make an appreciable difference in the saved one.

In my own fellowship of churches, I watched as America was walking into naturalism and destruction of the family, while we were continually finding a new time and place to study in committee and discuss our history and traditions. We are all good men and women, but I think we may not understand the lateness of the hour sometimes…Among the towering discussions was how often someone should be dunked in a tank to declare their allegiance to Jesus and whether our corporate celebration and worship songs should come from a book or be projected on a screen. While we did that – America marched by and redefined critical parts of the culture.

Don’t misunderstand me. How we worship matters. How we baptize communicates a specific set of truths. At the same time, they don’t warrant the amount of time we spent, or the strong defensiveness with which we argued about such things. The dark night approaches in which our work will become impossible. We all know it. Why waste our time re-defining and re-stating things that won’t get us very far.

I am ready to publicly admit that I like where I have come from, and don’t want to change it. I am also ready to admit that we do what we do, largely based on our best understanding of Scripture. Our leaders search the Scriptures daily and seek the Lord’s face in prayer continually. If you want to follow God, I am confident they provide an atmosphere that allows you to do that. If, however, you want to argue incessantly about details that are speculative at best, you aren’t going to be comfortable in the coming days of the church in America. The time for picky Christian squabbles is over. The monks need to forget how many angels can dance on the head of the pin because the front door of the monastery is on fire. Let me be clear: If you are a believer, you’re soon going to need your Christian friends – all of them. The country is morally tottering on the brink, and this is the time for heroes of the faith.

I want to call out heroes in our public schools that will live for Christ without gaining an attitude against the authorities of their school who are in the middle of a changing climate and can barely breathe with all the things beings tossed on top of educational objectives. I want to call out heroes who will take cookies to their neighbors who move in, regardless of whether they are properly married or living in immorality. We aren’t going to slip into some sinful redefinition because we show love to people who need love. We will cling to the text, even as we face a broken world bravely.

This is a time for quiet champions of the Word and calm “embracers” of the Spirit to drop to our knees and ask God for more time to reach our neighborhood. It is a time for stiff personal discipline but public love and winsomeness. If we waste our opportunity tossing insults at the lost world, they will face an eternity without the knowledge of God’s love and never reach out for the door of forgiveness – and we will bear some of the responsibility for it all.

Real Christians are those who “serve Jesus by serving people”.