I want you to picture a time that you did something to someone that caused them some bit of harm. By harm, I don’t necessarily mean physical, it could simply be creating more work for someone or causing someone to worry or wait longer than needed.
Whatever the scenario (and we have all done something like this many times), we tend to try to make up for it. In fact, words such as, “Let me make this up to you” or something similar are often used. And the greater the offense, the more we feel like we need to do to make amends.
In our passage today, we are going to talk about people who cause divisions in the church. I am going to give you three steps that Scripture teaches us (and has been clarified to me by Rodney Harrison). But I want to share a little today about why some people were such a challenge for Paul (and why Paul was a challenge prior to conversion). This next bit is normally similar to what I share in the Daily Discipleship Videos, but as we get to these last verses in Romans, I think it is important to connect some dots.
So, remember how we began – “Let me make this up to you.” Well, what if the person you offended was God? We don’t really have to wonder much about what God would do or what we would do. We can look at the Israelites for our queue. God redeemed the Israelites from Egypt and then 41 years later made a covenant with a new generation before they entered the Promised Land. Basically, the covenant was this – you will be blessed if you are obedient, you will be cursed if you don’t.
The Israelites did not follow in obedience. And so, they were conquered continually during the time of the Judges. Then they turned to God for awhile (think King David’s time period). Then they turn away again, and the Assyrians, and then Babylonians, and later Greeks and Romans conquered them. So, they turned back to God. And this is where the Pharisees come into play.
During the end of the Greek domination in the middle of the 2nd Century BC, the Pharisee party stepped in to help people stay on track. Israel had been conquered and reconquered for 600 years. If they wanted God’s blessings, they needed to be obedient to God (covenantal blessings). So, the Pharisees were to help the people not slide away from God. But over time, the help became a burden. Their intent was initially good, but it became overbearing. And, instead of helping the people, the Pharisees became more focused on taking care of themselves. This was the situation by the time that Jesus, and later Paul, become known to us in Scripture (and history).
So, if you put yourself in the mind of a Jew at that time who wanted to avoid being isolated from their homeland (which meant not being near the temple, which meant not being near God), then you would want someone, or some group (i.e., the Pharisees) to help you stay true to the teachings of God. Thus, when Jesus, Paul, and others came and said that God had a new way to live (i.e., not following the Law of Moses, it was our heroes of the faith that were considered heretics, not the Pharisees). If we keep this idea in mind, we can see why it was so challenging for Paul and others to convince the people that faith was of primary importance. The people believed if they followed Paul’s teachings, and if they were wrong to do so as their ancestors had been in following others, then a new generation (and the generations to follow) would face the same situation as had occurred over the past six centuries. (1)
So, with that in mind, let us consider Paul’s final set of instructions for the church at Rome.
After this week, we still have two more passages to review in Romans, but the words in this week’s verses are the last instructions for the church there. And those instructions are basically boiled down to remain faithful in obedience to God, particularly when others come to challenge that obedience. This call to obedience is the last of Paul’s calls to the church at Rome to function as a true church. Beginning in Romans 15.22, Paul has called for the church to give (15.22-29), to pray (15.30-33), to serve (16.1-2), to be in fellowship (16.3-16), and now to be obedient (to be disciples, 16.17-20). And although he does not command to worship (implicitly or explicitly), Paul concludes this letter with a doxology, which is certainly a reminder for the church to worship the one true God (16.25-27).
Thus, Paul has explicitly mentioned most of the functions that should be true of any church. He does not explicitly mention evangelism, but it is there as he wrote of travelling to Spain and hinting that he wants others to join him when he is able to go.
However, Paul knows that any good work a church may (or will) do will be met with resistance. Paul has commended the church in Rome for their faith being known throughout the world (1.8) and in stating that he was satisfied with their efforts to that point (15.14). And in today’s passage, he repeated the same idea saying that their obedience is known to all (16.19). So, now, he gives a warning to be on the watch for others who will come to spoil their work. The words Paul used here are similar to what Jesus said to His disciples about being like sheep among the wolves, so to be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10.16).
Read Romans 16.17-20.
So, what are we to do? Let me break down the process into three steps. I am borrowing these steps from Rodney Harrison (2), and I think we can see them included in Paul’s words. The steps are to identify, confront, and avoid. Each step can be difficult in its own right, but each step is necessary. Let’s quickly break down each step.
Sometimes it is easy to identify an antagonist, but that is not always the case. Remember, what I wrote above – the Pharisees were trying to guard the people from another catastrophic situation due to betraying God. The Judaizers were a group that basically carried that same idea into Christianity. It is easy to determine when someone is directly opposed to you, but it is quite different when their thoughts, beliefs, and actions are only slightly different.
Think about Eve. She had never sinned. For her, and Adam, to sin would have taken a lot. Satan didn’t attack her thoughts of God directly at first, he basically asked, “Are you sure you understood what God really said?” Then, with Jesus in the wilderness (not garden, because it was lost), Satan did the same thing using what God said (Scripture), but twisting its meaning, if not the words.
In Romans 16.17, Paul says to watch out. Be on your guard. People will come and they will put obstacles in the way of those who are trying to do good. In other words, they are adversaries. That is what satan means in Hebrew – adversary. Satan is the true adversary, but he gets people to do his work for him. And because of that, Paul (and Jesus, for that matter) say to be on the lookout for such people.
If we identify, such people, we are to confront them. This step is easier in one sense (we know they are causing problems), but too many people avoid conflict, oftentimes hoping the problem will go away.
The problem with engaging in conflict is that the conflict could turn towards you. Therefore, people will avoid conflict in an effort to maintain peace or hope that the situation will resolve itself. But, as I have said for years, Jesus’ words were not to be peace keepers; He said that those who are blessed are those who are peace makers (Matthew 5.9).
Paul wrote about such antagonists quite a bit. In 2 Corinthians, he criticized what he termed the super-apostles for taking advantage of the Christians in Corinth. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 10, he states that some think Paul criticizes others only in his letters; that is, he is not bold enough to do so in person. But in Acts 13.9-10, Paul directly confronts Elymas (a magician) and called him a “son of the devil.”
Elsewhere, we do see antagonists mentioned by name (Paul does so in 1 Timothy 1.20; John does in 3 John 9). We do not need to contend everything, but our charge now, like the generations of saints before us is to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). When someone is coming to distort the gospel, in any way, we need to stand up and confront that person (or even angel, see Galatians 1.6-9).
The final step then is to avoid them. Notice the order here. We do not avoid them before we confront them. The confrontation may help correct the issue. A few weeks ago, we saw the names Priscilla and Aquila. They confronted Apollos about his teaching and helped him to understand the fullness of Jesus so he could teach others properly.
However, if someone does not turn and continues to be an antagonist, we are to turn and go the other way. Remember, it was Jesus who said to His disciples that if a town did not receive them, they should leave that town and kick the dust off of their feet (which was a very significant symbol of rejection).
Notice in Romans 16.17, Paul explicitly says to avoid this group of people. Paul does not mention the confront step, but in this one verse, he does specifically say to watch out and then avoid this type of person. If that was true for the Romans, it is true for us as well.
Now, we must balance that thought with the words of Jesus that we can still treat them as someone who needs to hear and know the truth. So, our avoiding them, does not mean that we would not give them an opportunity to hear the (true) gospel. And even if we are not around them much (or at all), we can – and should – still pray for them. But, we are not to allow their words and deeds to influence us in a way that deters us from the work we are to do.
So, that is the three-step plan to be, and remain, obedient to God. Of course, that implies we are obedient – we have to get to that step first. But once we are there – individually, or as a church – the adversary will try to create dissension, distrust, and divisions. Thus, we must keep watch for those individuals, we must confront them when necessary, and we must avoid them when sharing the love and hope of Christ is not helping us.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this message, we have all made a mistake and tried to make amends for it in some way. That is natural. Thus, we need to be careful not to judge someone too quickly if they say or do something wrong. Yes, we are to be on the lookout for antagonists. But just because someone does not agree with someone else does not necessarily make them an antagonist. But as we watch, and then confront, we can learn their true intentions. See, a very fine line exists between motivation and manipulation. The only real difference is a person’s motives. If someone is pushing you to do something for your benefit, it may simply be a form of motivation. If someone is pushing you to get something from you, well, that is likely manipulation.
Again, we are to keep watch and be ready to confront and avoid as necessary. However, Romans 16.20, says that God has it under control. This verse is reminiscent of Romans 12.19-21. We do not need to get even; we simply need to love. God loves as well (and far better than we do), but God is also just and will execute His justice perfectly – in the right time and in the right way. Yes, it is difficult to not want to step in and get retribution sometimes, but letting God take care of it is far better – in the short and long run (I will have more to say about this issue and the God of Peace in the Discipleship Videos on Tuesday and Wednesday.)
What’s Next?: Paul provided a list of items for the church to do as they waited for him to come to them. They were to give, to pray, to serve, to fellowship, and now he encouraged them to be obedient to what they knew was right.
Any and all of those items are good for us as well. But as a part of our obedience, we need to be on our guard, not again change, but against heresy. We need to be creative. We need to think differently. We need to do different things. But we need to hold firm to the teaching from Scripture. That is our charge. That is largely why I stand here each week – to equip each of us to better understand what God is saying to us through His Word. I know I do not get it perfect, none of us does, but we strive to be better, to be obedient, each day, each week, and each year, until He takes us home.
So, what’s next? This week, write down an area that you wish to be more obedient in your walk with God. Write it down, keep it with you, and then simply take a step towards that obedience – whatever it may be. And then, pray the prayer in the bulletin (or something similar) as a reminder to keep growing in your obedience to God.
1) Although, this information is well understood by me, and I have taught the principle of the Pharisees trying to protect the people (and God) often, I acknowledge Marvin Pate’s work for presenting this in a clear and concise manner as I did my research this week. See Pate, C. Marvin, Romans, Teach the Text Commentary Series, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, p. 343
2) I have heard Dr. Rodney Harrison mention these steps specifically. They can also be found in a book co-written by him about church administration. The book’s information is as follows. Harrison, Rodney, Jeffery Klick and Glenn Miller, Pastoral Helmsmanship: A Pastor’s Guide to Church Administration, ICM Publishing, 2014, p 67. (ISBN 9781500581152)