Committing to Christian Relationships (Part 3)

Romans 1:8-15

Tom Pennington  •  September 21, 2014
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Well, I invite you to take your Bible and turn with me to the book of Romans. We're continuing our journey through this magnificent letter of the apostle Paul. We're in the middle of a paragraph in which we're getting to see how Paul thought about his Christian relationships and we're learning, therefore, how we should think about them as well. And, you know, this is really important because if the day in which we live.

In today's world, people are increasingly becoming isolated. I mean, even the structure of our neighborhoods, in some ways, encourage this tendency. I mean, many of our homes are built on cul-de-sacs so that there's no through traffic, further enhancing our privacy and our isolation. We have drive-in closed garages so that it's possible to go for weeks or months at a time without actually seeing our neighbors.

Even our electronic gadgets encourage further isolation. I'm about to date myself here, but when I was growing up the newest sort of technological marvel was the television and families, I heard that laugh, and families began to gather around the television as earlier generations had around the radio. And the TV, for all of its problems, and it has some huge problems in terms of the content that's there, for all its problems it was at least usually a social medium, you gather around it, and you watch something with your family or friends. But today, thanks to the smart phone, our screens are getting smaller and smaller. They are now designed for just one person. We see it all the time; a person can be in a public place, completely surrounded by other people, and yet completely in isolation in front of his little small screen.

In addition to that, social media gives the illusion of connectedness, but it's only increasing the isolation. Now, I'm not saying, don't misunderstand me, that there's no value to electronic devices, there's no place for social media. These are useful tools. What I'm saying is there are inherent dangers that come along with them, and one of those dangers, if we're not careful, is to deepen our isolation from other people.

Take Facebook for example, sociologists have documented the fact that Facebook can actually breed a further sense of isolation. I mean after all, people present their best face, pardon the pun, on Facebook. They present everything in their life as though it were wonderful and everything as though were it exciting, and so you're looking at Facebook and you're watching the record of your friends lives, and it seems as though they're all doing something really interesting and really exciting. And, oh by the way, they're doing it without you. And so it can create that sense of isolation.

Sadly, it's not the world at large alone that's characterized by this growing sense of isolation. Sadly, it's even happening within the context of the church. One of the major contributors for isolation for Christians is the way, frankly, many churches are even structured. Churches today are purposefully built to attract homogeneous groups of people, groups of people that are exactly alike. For example, there are churches in our area, there's one large church that intentionally is structured in every detail to appeal primarily to 20 and 30 year olds. That's their target audience and if you visit there that's the demographic. It segments us from others who are different.

Even within a church often today there are individual services targeted at different segments, particular age groups, a traditional service built to appeal to older people and a contemporary service designed to attract a younger demographic. Sadly, these trends, both in the culture at large and within the context of the church, they break down, they segment, they isolate people, but such segmentation, such isolation is completely foreign to the pattern and the commands of the New Testament. We are supposed to look outside of ourselves and we're supposed to engage in the lives of others, even those who aren't like us. We're to engage with the entire family of God. According to Galatians 3:28, all of those external differences like man and woman, like slave and free, like ethnicity, race, socioeconomic group, all of those things have been abolished in Christ, and the barriers have been broken down and we're supposed to interconnect with one another as a family, across those divides.

Paul was such a wonderful example of what it looks like to truly love other Christians and to commit yourself wholeheartedly to those relationships, and so we are studying that example in Romans 1. In Romans 1:8-15 Paul just writes about his heart to the Roman Christians and as he writes we get to see how he thought about them. Let's read it together again. Romans 1:8-15,

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other's faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

Now, this paragraph describes for us the historical circumstances behind the writing of this letter, but as we're learning it also shows us how Paul thought and how we should think about the fellowship that believers enjoy. Paul here teaches us by his example, as we sort of look over his shoulder, the commitments that he made and the commitments that we too must make to our Christian relationships.

So far we have studied three of the commitments that Paul made and that we also must make. First of all, we discovered in verse 8 that we must thank God for all our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul had a habit of thanking God for every other Christian. He learned to look past their weaknesses, to look past those things that were irritating, those things that could invite his negative response, and instead to appreciate their strengths, to appreciate what God had done and would do in them, to exercise, as we learned, ambivalence, to be able to hold the strengths and weaknesses at the same time and thank God for that person. Paul had learned this and we must learn this as well.

Secondly, we learned that we must pray for them consistently. Verse 9, Paul says, I pray for you consistently; this is a pattern of my life. It should be a pattern of our lives as well. I challenged you, when's the last time you have prayed for the spiritual needs of someone beyond yourself and your own family? Paul consistently, just as a Christian not as an apostle, prayed for other believers and we are commanded to do so as well.

Thirdly, we noted last time, we are to enjoy being with other believers. Paul says, I long to see you. I long to be face-to-face with you. I long to enjoy your company. You and I should recognize that there is something to face-to-face fellowship. There is something that can't be satisfied in a long-distance relationship, in letter writing, in texting. We should enjoy being with other Christians.

Now today, I want us to consider a fourth commitment that we must make to our Christian relationships. Actually, we'll look at both the fourth and the fifth. But let's begin with the fourth commitment we need to make to our Christian relationships. We must commit to promote their spiritual growth. Look at verse 11, "For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established." For Paul this was the goal in all of his relationships. Of course, you know that Paul's ultimate goal in everything was God's glory. But here Paul drills down to the deepest motive he had in his human relationships. He wanted to be with the Romans in order to promote their spiritual growth.

Notice he says, "I long to see you." Now, as we noted last time, Paul longed to see them because he simply wanted to enjoy their company. Keep your finger here and turn back to chapter 15. Chapter 15 verse 24, he says, I'm going to head to Spain and I hope to come through Rome in passing and for you to help me in that ministry, but then he says, at the end of verse 24, that will only happen "when I have first enjoyed your company for a while." That's one of the reasons Paul was looking forward to being with them, simply to enjoy their company. Look down at verse 32, "I want to come to you in joy by the will of God and find refreshing rest in your company."

So, Paul longed to be with them just to enjoy them, but he also wanted to be with them for another reason. Go back to chapter 1 verse 11, "I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established." The word impart here means to give or to share. Paul wanted to be with them in order to benefit them, and specifically to benefit them through, notice, "some spiritual gift." This is the only place in the New Testament where Paul uses this Greek expression. The word for gift is a fairly familiar word. It's the Greek word charisma, sometimes charismata. Literally, the word means a grace gift or a gracious gift.

In the New Testament this word charisma is used in a number of senses. I'm not going to a take you to all of them, you can just jot them down, but it's used, for example, in Romans 11:29 of the gifts God had given to Israel. It's used in chapter 5 verse 15 and chapter 6 verse 23, of the gift of salvation, the gift of redemption in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 7:7 this same word is used of the gift of singleness; it is a grace gift to some. In 2 Corinthians 1:11 it's used of the physical rescue from danger, but most often this word in the New Testament is used of the spiritual gifting that God gives to each believer in order to serve in the church. Because of that it's tempting for many people to see that here. They read verse 11 and they say, well, Paul intended to go to Rome to equip them with spiritual gifts to serve in the church, but there are some arguments that make that unlikely.

Turn to chapter 12. Romans 12:3, as he begins the application of the gospel beginning in chapter 12, he starts with this issue of gifts. He says in verse 3, "For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think with sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith." He talks about there being one body but many members, and each member has its own function. Look at verse 6, "Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us." Here Paul says to the Romans you already have spiritual gifting. You were given this gifting when you came to Christ.

If you're a Christian, you have been given a spiritual giftedness to serve other believers in the context of the church. The Romans were no exception to that, so Paul wasn't saying, I'm coming to Rome to give you that. You already got that. In addition, Paul never uses these words spiritual and gift as the words, the Greek words, in chapter 1 to speak of the Christian's spiritual giftedness to serve. Go back to chapter 1 and notice the generic way he puts it. He says, "I want to impart some spiritual gift to you," a very general expression.

Here's what Paul is saying. He's saying, I'm not coming to give you a spiritual giftedness to serve in the church; you already have that. I'm coming instead, to confer on you a spiritual benefit, a spiritual blessing. And what he means becomes clear in the next phrase. "I long to see you, so I may impart some spiritual gift to you," and here's the point, "that you may be established."

The word established means to cause to be inwardly strong, to be inwardly firm, unmoved in your soul. Paul wanted God to use his visit to strengthen their souls and to further establish them in the faith. This same word, by the way, is used by our Lord in Luke 22:32, when He says to Peter, you're going to deny Me, but when you have turned, when you've repented, "strengthen your brothers," same word, make them strong, establish them. Paul wanted these believers in Rome to have their confidence in the gospel further established. He wanted their spiritual strength to increase; he wanted their commitment to obedience to grow.

Now, how does that happen? How did the Romans, how were they established, and how are you and I established? Well, ultimately it's a work of the Spirit of God. Only the Spirit can do this, but how does the Spirit do it? The Spirit strengthens or establishes us primarily through what means? Through a better understanding of the truth. Let me show this to you. Turn to 1 Thessalonians, 1 Thessalonians 3:1. Paul says,

Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, [here it is,] to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith.

How did Timothy strengthen the Thessalonian believers in their faith? What was the mechanism? Through teaching. Through instruction. Now what is implied here, Peter makes very clear. Turn to 2 Peter, 2 Peter 1:12, he says, "Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you," of the things I've just shared with you, the truths I've just mentioned in the previous verses, "even though you already know those truths, and you have been," here's our word, "established in the truth which is present with you."

We are strengthened, we are established by the work of the Spirit, but always, always through a deeper understanding of the truth. That's how the Spirit works, and so let's turn back to Romans and let's put it all together. Romans 1:11, here's what Paul is saying, he says, I want to come to Rome and I want to share a spiritual benefit, a spiritual blessing, with you by teaching you the truth, and my goal is that through my teaching God will further establish and strengthen you in your faith.

So what was it Paul was really pursuing in his Christian relationships? Paul was committed, at the bottom level, to promoting the spiritual growth of his brothers and sisters in Christ. And that's how we need to be as well. That's what needs to drive us in our Christian relationships.

Now, can we just admit that often we pursue Christian relationships for far lesser reasons than that? Let me give you a few of the reasons we pursue Christian relationships that are either completely wrong, in couple of cases I'll mention, or they are at best insufficient if they're the only reason we're pursuing Christian relationships. For example, sometimes we pursue Christian relationships for our own comfort and convenience. I mean, let's face it, it's often easier, it's less messy to hang around other Christians, there are just a lot fewer awkward moments, and there are a lot fewer difficult situations, and so it's just more comfortable. It's certainly more convenient to seek out other believers. That is an insufficient reason to pursue Christian relationships.

Another reason that we sometimes pursue Christian relationships is for our own pleasure and enjoyment. We just enjoy it. It's fun. We like being around other Christians. Now, there's nothing wrong with doing that if that's part of the reason we seek out Christian relationships, but if we seek out Christian relationships solely because it's for our enjoyment, it's for our fun, then we have missed the point of relationship altogether.

Here are a couple reasons that are inappropriate. Sometimes people pursue Christian relationships for their social advancement. Sadly, sometimes Christians are tempted to connect with other believers because it enhances their status and their reputation. I see that person has status, that person has reputation, if I get to know that person, connect to that person, it will improve mine. That's wholly wrong in terms of why we pursue relationship. Another wholly wrong reason is to pursue Christian relationships for business or financial reasons. Tragically, the primary motive for some in making connections with other Christians is to increase their business's bottom line, to add customers, to enlarge a home business, to improve their cottage industry sales.

Let me put it as bluntly as I can. Christian relationships are about loving God and loving other people. Truly loving others means we will want a relationship, not primarily for what we can get, but instead, like Paul, we will do so for their benefit, for their sake, to promote their spiritual growth. Now you're saying, okay, I understand that, I believe that, but how exactly do I go about doing that? Well, sometimes God has gifted you, gifted people here to be a teacher. When you teach, you are strengthening, or establishing, others, just as Paul was. It's my prayer this morning as I'm teaching God's word that He will establish you further in your faith through the teaching of His word. I know that's the prayer of every teacher on this campus this morning. But we're not all teachers. Moreover, even if we are teachers, we shouldn't always be teaching. I mean you would be a little disappointed if in personal conversation I put on what my girls call my "teacher voice." Okay? No, there's conversation, there's connection back and forth.

So how do we, how do we encourage or promote the spiritual growth of others in our day-to-day interaction with other Christians? Let me put it to you this way, we must intentionally bring our interaction and conversation to spiritual things. We must intentionally bring our interaction and conversation to spiritual things. Now, listen, it is not only okay, it is right, that you would enjoy other believers at every level, including just fun, temporal things of this life. It's okay to talk about the weather, if that really excites you. It's okay to talk about the Cowboys, although at times that can be depressing. It's okay to talk about other shared interests, whatever those interests may be, some hobby that you enjoy or your kids are in the same school. Whatever it is, those are all great, and that's part of life. That's part of sharing life as believers, but at some point, if we are going to promote the spiritual growth of others our conversation has to go beyond the temporal things of this life. Our conversation has to go deeper.

If you want to promote the spiritual growth of the people around you, eventually you have to take the conversation to spiritual things. Now, I suspect for some of you that's a new idea, having intentionality in a conversation; you just sort of flow along with what comes. No, you don't approach anything that way, certainly not our relationship with others. There needs to be intentionality. Now, for some of you, you're thinking, yeah, okay, I understand that too, but as you think about implementing that it just seems like, well, that's kind of awkward and that will seem forced. How do I get there?

Well, let me give you a few suggestions about how to turn any conversation with your brothers and sisters in Christ deeper. Here are just a few basic questions that can help take a conversation deeper. Let's assume for a moment that it's someone here in our church whom you've never met before. This happens to us all the time, right? We meet people who are new to our church; every week new folks are coming in. Some folks have been here a short time, you run into them, or maybe end up going to a different service and you meet people you've never met before and they've been going here for years. What do you do? Well, after the niceties and the who are you and nice to meet you, and, you know, where are you from, and all of those things, eventually, at some point, you want to turn the conversation deeper, how do you do that?

Well, here are a couple of questions you can ask to turn the conversation to spiritual things. Ask them, so what brought you to Countryside? Now you're moving the conversation in a different direction. Or, how did you come to Christ? Tell me your testimony. Or, what's your spiritual background? Maybe another way to say that would be, tell me about your spiritual journey, how the Lord has brought you to where you are today. Those are great ways to turn a conversation that's going to stay, if you don't do anything, it's going to stay at a very basic temporal level, to turn that conversation deeper.

But let's talk about people you know because sometimes this is the hardest. You've developed a certain relationship with fellow believers and all you've done for years is talk about temporal things, and that's okay, again, nothing wrong with that, we can enjoy each other and have fun with those things, but at some point you want to go deeper. How do you do that? Let me give you a few questions. How can I pray for you? There's a great question. It is amazing what you can learn by asking that simple question. It gives people permission to share with you some of what they're currently experiencing.

Now sometimes their response will stay at a temporal level. Well, you know, I twisted my ankle this last week. Would you pray for me? Well, that's great, you ought to pray for that physical need, but find a way to go deeper. So what else is going on? How else can I pray with you? What has the Lord been teaching you through your current circumstances? You know, they tell you what's going on in their life. Maybe they've had a change at work. Maybe they're having a challenge with their children. Maybe, you know, there's some health issue. You take the conversation deeper by, what has the Lord been teaching you through all of that?

Number three, what have you been learning in your time in the Word recently? What have you been learning? What have you read or heard recently that has encouraged or challenged you spiritually? Or here's a good one, so what's going on in your life right now? Those questions, or if you don't like those, rewrite them. That's rewrite them and craft them as fits you, or frankly, throw those out and write your own, but come up with some way to intentionally take the conversations deeper, and you need to be prepared. You need to plan ahead to do this because regardless of how you do it, you and I must be committed, as Paul was, to promoting the spiritual growth of others, and the only way to do that is by taking our conversations deeper and ultimately by talking about spiritual and eternal things.

There's a fifth commitment that Paul made to his fellow Christians, and that we too must make, it's to pursue the mutual benefits of fellowship. Now remember, Paul dictated this letter. According to chapter 16 verse 22 he didn't write it out with his own hand, he dictated this letter to a man named Tertius, and Paul is such a genuinely humble man that as soon as he dictated what we call verse 11 he realized that, you know, that might come across differently than I intend for it to come across, and so he changes it, because verse 11 left to itself might say, I'm coming to Rome solely for your benefit. I'm going to come and be a blessing to you. As John Stott puts it, "He has everything to give and nothing to receive." That's how it could come across. And so Paul quickly adds in verse 12, "that is," let me clarify, "that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other's faith both yours and mine." That's a pretty literal translation of the Greek text and you get this idea Paul's just adding expression after expression in order to emphasize that he anticipates mutual benefit as they are together.

The word "encouraged together" speaks of God's encouraging their hearts through mutual fellowship. Paul actually expected to find himself encouraged by the faith of the Roman Christians. That really shows us Paul's heart doesn't it? I mean here's a truly humble man. Although he was an apostle of Jesus Christ, hand-picked, Christ had appeared to him, and he'd been a Christian, by the time he wrote this letter, for over 30 years, he still knew that he would benefit personally from fellowship with the Roman Christians. John Calvin writes, "Note how modestly he expresses what he feels by not refusing to seek strength from inexperienced beginners. He means what he says too, for there is none so void of gifts in the church who cannot in some measure contribute to our spiritual progress." There isn't one believer you know who can't have some spiritual benefit in your life, however young, however immature, however young in Christ, they may be.

It's a crucial lesson for us because, like Paul, regardless of our spiritual maturity, regardless of how long we've been in Christ, we benefit from Christian fellowship, even with those who are younger, who are less mature, who are young in Christ. I've seen this. You know, I've traveled to many places to preach, and to teach preaching, all around the planet, and sometimes it's been to new first-generation places, first-generation Christians, and invariably I find myself encouraged and refreshed from the fellowship with them. I come home and I come with the distinct sense that they have been far greater blessing to me than I have been to them.

I enjoy that same kind of fellowship here with you every Sunday and I mean this from the bottom of my heart. My wife would tell you, I'm speaking the honest truth to you. There are believers here who are older and more mature than I am, there are believers here who are new in Christ, and there's everything in between, but I am encouraged and strengthened and built up through my fellowship with all of you. God uses you all in my life constantly, every Sunday I am enriched by interacting with you. Maybe you haven't come to realize it yet, but the same thing is true for you. A lot of Christians don't appreciate or understand what they get in the fellowship, but Paul got it. And even as a mature believer he says I'm going to be encouraged by my interaction with you.

God uses our fellowship with all believers to strengthen us. That's why the early church was so much into fellowship, so committed to fellowship. Acts 2:42, "They were continually devoting themselves," not only, "to the apostles' teaching" but "to fellowship." Now, what is fellowship? Well, we learned in our last Essentials Conference that fellowship is essentially sharing. It is the sharing of our lives, especially our spiritual lives, with one another and that fellowship, that spiritual fellowship, happens in two ways. As Mike Febarres so powerfully reminded us, there is the fellowship that happens side-by-side, we're sitting next to each other like we're doing this morning, doing the same thing together. That's one form of fellowship, we're sitting side-by-side singing and praying and studying God's Word, and as we do that we encourage each other. You glance over and the person next to you is singing with all of their heart to the Lord, that encourages you. You see the person next to you and they're into this study and they're making notes and they're listening intently, that encourages you that, boy, you know, I should be as well.

Fellowship happens side-by-side, but there's also another kind of fellowship and that is face-to-face. It's when, as Mike reminded us, we turn our chairs from being side-by-side and we face one another. We sit across from each other over a meal or in a home Bible study or in a conversation before or after a service like this one. So, you want to regularly put yourself in venues like this where you can enjoy side-by-side fellowship and in addition to that, you also want to pursue personal, face-to-face interaction with other believers. Get together with other believers over coffee, over a meal, invite them to your home, connect with them in a smaller group, get involved in a ministry, connect to a Sunday school class, attend a home fellowship, but get face-to-face with other believers.

You see, mature believers understand that fellowship with other believers of all kinds is a great spiritual benefit. It helps us to be encouraged and strengthened in our own faith. So I urge you to follow the apostle Paul's example, in your Christian relationships commit to promote their spiritual growth. Take your conversations deeper, plan some questions to take the conversation beyond the temporal and the shallow, and to go to things that matter, and pursue the mutual benefits of fellowship. One of the ways, one of the wonderful ways, that we enjoy side-by-side fellowship is not only in study of the Word of God, but it's in the Lord's Table. Side-by-side we remind ourselves of what our Lord has done for all of us individually and corporately. Take a moment and prepare your heart as the men come.

Our Father, You have commanded us to remember our Lord in His death for us in this way. Thank You that You have commanded us to do so, not privately and at home, separate from other believers, but rather to do it together in fellowship, side-by-side worshiping our Lord, who has redeemed us. Father, I pray that You would encourage our hearts, strengthen us through our mutual fellowship together, in rehearsing our Lord's perfect life and His substitutionary death for us.

Father, even as we come we're reminded to seek Your forgiveness. We celebrate what our Lord did in paying for our sins on the cross and so, Lord, we wouldn't want to hold onto any sin in our lives, and so we come confessing to You. Lord, each of us, individually, we know our own hearts; we know many of the sins with which we struggle and we come right now, enumerating those in our own hearts before You, individually seeking Your forgiveness, committing by Your grace to turn from those sins, and to make a fresh resolve to walk in the path of obedience.

Cleanse and forgive us, oh God, and yet even as we confess the sins we're aware of, we are also aware, as David was, of the fact that we may be sinning against You and be completely unaware of it. And so we pray, search our hearts. Search us, know us, oh God, and see if there's any way in us that causes You pain. May Your Spirit bring conviction and may You give us the strength to repent, to turn from that sin. Father, we don't want to harbor any sin in our hearts as we celebrate our Lord's victory over our sin at the cross, so now receive our worship as side-by-side we exalt our Savior together in the way He gave us, we pray in Jesus's name, amen.