Romans 12: 12&13 “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.”
Every Christian has a sense of anticipation when a sermon like this is announced, one exhorting us concerning our duties to please and glorify God and show our love to our neighbour. My sister-in-law once said to me that she enjoys leaving church on a Sunday with her mind addressing the matters that have been raised by the preacher and thinking, “Now I must do these things . . . or those things . . .” You can see that I am not imposing the number five on this passage of Scripture, or selecting these topics in some arbitrary way. They are all here in this order before us. If I sought some corny alliteration, and then worked away looking through a dictionary and engineered five ‘P’s (or another such letter) then I would be gilding the beautiful lily of these apostolic exhortations. The passage of Scripture does not need it. The commands are memorable enough
I will introduce what I have to say with three disclaimers;
i] There is no salvation in doing these five things. There is no refuge whatsoever in these good works. There is not a single hope of deliverance from the wrath to come in attempting to do these five things. If our salvation depends on our achieving these five commands then we are lost men and women, because sin is mixed with the best things we attempt. I am not preaching these exhortations to you that you may find life, mercy and redemption in them. There is none! That is found in the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, do you know it? What a journey he made from such an immense height, the midst of the throne in heaven, from the joy of all the angels, from the song of the redeemed and yet down and down he came to the virgin’s womb, our God contracted to a span. From the blessed bosom of the Father to the stable in Bethlehem, and then on to the cross he went where hands of clay took a hammer and drove nails through the hands of God the Son! Only thus could we be redeemed. The Lamb of God bore our sins in his own body on the tree. By his precious blood we are saved. Run from every other refuge and find relief in him. Flee from these five good works as the ground of your redemption to Christ alone crying, “God forgive me for Jesus sake!” Pray that prayer until you know he has heard you. His is the only name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved. It’s his good works that save us not our good works. Yet know this, that our good works are essential as evidence and proof that we’ve indeed been washed from the guilt of our sins by the great Redeemer. These good works are listed here as the divine requirement for all those who have benefited from the new covenant which is in Jesus’ blood. These five are listed here as marks of the ‘newness of life’ in all who’ve been really born again. We are saved in order to do these good works not because of these good works.
ii] The second thing I want to say is this, that I am failing to do these five things myself. I preach to you not as one who has climbed this Everest and come into this pulpit reporting to you what it’s like to have climbed it, exhorting you to get up there too. I preach these five exhortations as one who sees the great distance we all have to travel, often thinking I’ve not even started, and wondering whether I will ever finish. I know that I would obey every one of these five commands from my heart. I admire them and love them and would fulfil them to the letter. I think there is no happiness if you fail to do these things. Christian living in its fulness is being described here, and when in the previous verse we are urged to be fervent in spirit then it is in order that we “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.” My life is to consist of driving on and on to attain all these all my days and never, never stopping.
iii] The third thing I want to point out is the interdependence and progression of these five points. In other words, they are not like five lottery balls in a black velvet bag with no concern what order they fall out. These five are like a chain. John Murray explains their link thus, “How dismal would affliction be without hope, and how defeatist would we be in affliction without the resources of hope and patience conveyed to us through faithful prayer.” In other words it’s essential to have these first three graces of joy, patience and prayerfulness to equip us to fulfil in a happy godly spirit the final two good works, that is, sharing with God’s people in need and practising hospitality. Christians have to help one another in a spirit of joyful hope, and patience, and prayer, or we would be doing our duty in some mere perfunctory manner. You can feed some machines with coins and obtain coffee and also Scottish shortbread. That is one way of getting sustenance, or you can be brought a tray of coffee and cookies by a joyous, patient, prayerful Christian. Paul sets the obligation of sharing with God’s people in need and practicing hospitality in the context of Christian joy, patience and prayer.
- BE JOYFUL IN HOPE.
One thing that strikes us about this text is that being joyful is laid upon us as a command; it is a duty. What Paul says is an imperative – “Be joyful!” But how can this be a duty to be obeyed when being joyful involves feelings? How is it possible to speak to our affections commanding them to rejoice when we don’t feel at all like being joyful? How is it possible to control our feelings? We’re aware that as Christians we mustn’t let our feel
ings dominate us. Remember our Lord Jesus often telling his disciples not to be afraid. “Control your fears . . . let not your hearts be troubled . . .” Then he gives them reasons for that. We are not to be prisoners of our feelings day by day. The weakest and must unreliable Christians I have known in my life, those who ate up pastoral care like a donkey eating strawberries, were those who made their feelings the touchstone for their life with God. Some days they were very happy in Jesus, and the next day utterly miserable. They were Christians too much at the mercy of their emotions. What are we saying?
i] Firstly, that our feelings should normally be governed by our hope. You see what he says, “Be joyful in hope.” He is not saying to rejoice at hope. No. We are to be joyful by means of our hope. The Christian’s great hope is the reason for our joy. The Lord Jesus, my loving Saviour, is working all things after the counsel of his own will. God is in control of my life; nothing can ever happen to me by chance; any present sadnesses that may have entered my life have not done so because God was looking the other way and the devil jumped in and messed everything up. The Lord omnipotent still reigns and all things are working together for our good. What lies before us is a morning without clouds. There’s going to be no mixture of good and evil, joy and sorrow in heaven. At the Lord’s right hand will be pleasures for evermore. There is the great Christian hope.
ii] Secondly, our affections should be shaped by what we believe and know. Think of the simple three ‘F’s; one, Facts; two, Faith; and three, Feelings. Faith sits between facts and feelings and faith’s eyes are always fixed on the facts, the life of Christ, his peerless teaching, his great claims, his death for sinners, his resurrection. Faith is made strong as it turns its eyes on those unchangeable realities, Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today and for ever. If faith looks in the other direction and fixes its eyes on feelings, our own exhilarations and our disappointments, then our faith is going to wax and wane with our feelings. No. You set your faith on the great achievements and the teachings of Christ and the hope that he gives, and then your feelings will be daily strengthened.
There are times when we are confronted by an immense problem, and if we gazed only at the problem then our feelings of perplexity are bound to take over and we’d despair. We’d feel, “What’s the point?” We’d give up doing our Christian duties or trying to be Christ-like. Wasn’t there a battle in the garden of Gethsemane? Wasn’t even he weighed down and longing for another cup? He prayed, ‘Father, if you’re willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.’ He refused to be trapped by his feelings. Because of the joy that was set before him he endured the cross.
God will say, “Have you come to me for help? Have you asked me for the Holy Spirit?” You will find that this duty of rejoicing is what Spurgeon called a ‘delightful duty.’ We are called upon to be those people who are obviously enjoying life in Christ. We must not be murmurers, complainers or constant grumblers. We are supposed to be joyful in the Lord; we cannot rejoice too much. As we seek to obey his other commands, let’s apply this one to ourselves as well. To be joyful is not only a blessed privilege that God wants us to enjoy, but it’s also an example to others. This is a part of our witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Its absence could be one of the reasons why we don’t have nearly as much influence in this world as we ought to have. The Bible tells us, ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength.’ When a Christian person is full of joy and hope, then there is a zest for God and the things of God. Being joyful in hope is an integral part of the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
- BE PATIENT IN AFFLICTION.
Now Paul moves on to the afflictions that come into our lives as they came into the life of Christ. We don’t scorn an afflicted man as Job’s friends did – as if Job were a man refusing to acknowledge that he was being punished for secret sins. We don’t pity an afflicted man, “Ah, if only he’d known the secret of the victorious Christian life he wouldn’t have had these troubles.” No, blessed are you when you are afflicted. If we live like the Saviour, and he’s abiding in us, then we’ll know affliction. There will be the hostility of the sin-loving and unbelieving world, the darts of the god of this world will come hissing at us, and there are always the pains of man’s mortality.
“Be patient!” we are told. Don’t we need to hear that again and again? I heard of a teacher of a reception class on a wet Monday afternoon as the bell rang for the end of the day. She was helping the children put on their rain-cats and Wellington boots. She had many to help, and she finally struggled with one little boy whose feet seemed too big for the boots, but she persisted and finally she got them on the little chap. When at last the task was done she straightened up with a smile of relief. He looked up at her and said, “Mrs. Jones, you know what? These are not my boots.” She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but she was an old pro and so she got down again and struggled to get them off his feet, looking around for his boots. Then when she failed to see any he looked up at her again and he said, “They’re not my wellies; they’re my sister’s, and Mam said I could wear them today.”
Teachers have to be very patient. Drivers have to be patient. People waiting in line at the check out till have to be patient. Fathers standing on the touch-line watching their sons playing minor league football need to be patient. Youth workers on a Friday night have to be very, very patient. Parents have to be patient, and wives have to be patient with their husbands. Rugby players need to be patient. We all need a long fuse. Don’t retaliate. Clothe yourself with patience, says the apostle Paul, especially in all the different trials of life. When Paul describes life outside of Christ, then he chooses these strong abstract nouns that summarize what you meet in this world; “anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language” (Cols. 3:7&8). That is the ethos of the non-Christian world in which we are to live our entire lives. Won’t we need patience?
What does patience achieve? Let’s visualize patience by comparing it to the best quality motor oil. You get an oil change; you flush out the engine and you pour in pints of clean oil. Now what does that oil do? Primarily it stops all the metal surfaces in your engine from grinding together and tearing themselves apart from friction. It transfers heat away from the combustion cycle. Engine oil holds in suspension all the nasty by-products of combustion, such as silica (silicon oxide) and acids. It cleans the engine of those chemicals and build-ups, and keeps the moving parts coated in oil. It does all of these things under tremendous heat and pressure.
That is the image I have of the Christian into whom God has poured the oil of patience. There are nasty by-products of living in a fallen world, and patience puts those irritants into suspension. I am thinking of the passenger who coughs all the journey on the train to Shrewsbury, or when you discover that your son failed to fill the tank with petrol after borrowing the car though he said he would and now you are miles from anywhere selling petrol with the &lsqu
o;Empty’ light flashing. A patient person is one who has the capacity to absorb irritants when he is under pressure. When your appointment in the doctor’s was at 3 and you got there in good time, but you don’t get to see him until 3.40 then the oil of patience absorbs that irritant without it eating you up. I shouldn’t be the one preaching this sermon; I’m an irritable old man. I say it to my shame. God save me from hypocrisy by hinting that I am wonderfully patient.
You must be especially patient with the big wrongs you endure. Paul talks here about affliction. Have you suffered affliction this past winter? Have you been ill, and part of it is due to bad medical advice and negligence? Then you must exercise great patience, more than all of us. We are not going to be sympathetic with people who snap and get irritated for nothing at all, but we will be sympathetic with all you have had to endure. If I am asking questions from counter staff in a Post Office about recorded delivery and so on then I don’t appreciate it if they get impatient with me. But I do appreciate it if I know you’re on medication and in pain and feel a teeny-weeny bit impatient with what the doctors have done or are not doing. I’m saying that when we have been seriously wronged, when our reputation is under attack, when people have let us down in a big way then we need massive patience, and we need massive wisdom in knowing how we should respond as Christians. So how can we be patient in affliction?
i] Be imaginative in your love. That boy giving his teacher such a tough time at school is perhaps being abused at home, or his mother shows very little love to him. Imagine that. Or that driver creeping along on that twisting Welsh country road with a line of traffic after her might actually be your dear grandmother. You protect her from angry motorists. You don’t tailgate her glaring into her rear-view mirror. That’s what I mean by thoughtful love making you patient.
ii] Learn from all the patient people you know. Look at the way your daughter handles all her children so lovingly and sweetly when you as a grandparent are getting irritated and thinking, “Those children need a good slap on the bottom.” It’s a good thing she is the one looking after them and not you. Be patient as you see how other Christians are handling their spouses with dementia so patiently.
iii] Think of how incredibly patient God has been with you. You’ve got on your heavenly Father’s nerves (figuratively speaking) but he has never once lost his temper with you. You have disappointed him so often and yet he has always been there for you. When you remember how longsuffering God has been with you then you too can be patient in your tribulation.
iv] Turn your eyes upon Jesus. There on the cross he is suffering under the load of your impatience and anger and hatred of others. He took all that without passing it on, without inflicting it on others. He knew that that sin stopped there with him. He has broken the cycle of retaliation and so you can break it too by his indwelling loving power. When I see Jesus in his affliction being patient with my misbehaviour and my short temper then other people’s irritations and anger don’t seem too outrageous. He went to the cross for the big sins, some of which I had caused him. Jesus’ passion for justice is much bigger than mine and so I can be patient when they affect me: I too can say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” I think it’s rarely good to give someone a piece of your mind
- BE FAITHFUL IN PRAYER.
Paul is urging us to continue steadfastly in prayer. Don’t stop. We can’t hear enough sweet exhortations about praying can we? How we need to be encouraged to go on praying. It is the most difficult thing in the world to do. It is more difficult than rocket science, and yet a Christian should pray about everything. The Bible says, “Cast all your anxieties on him” (I Pet. 5:7). If anything is big enough to be a worry to you, whether it’s large or small in the eyes of other people, it’s big enough for you to take to God in prayer. The devil has been very subtle in this respect; he suggests to us that God doesn’t care about the details of our lives – as he’s such a great God. “How can you bring your petty troubles into his presence? You’re such an immature Christian to be bringing these trifles to God in prayer. God is a crutch to you.” How do we answer him?
i] We are all little people and our lives are made up of little things, trials and tribulations of all sorts and sizes, and to cut God out of them is to cut God out of the greater part of our lives. Many of us are doing that. Paul says, “Be faithful and steadfast in praying.” Life consists of many little things – far more than it does of the occasional big things.
ii] Again, we usually face a bunch of small worries, and added together they can be overwhelming. Each individual one has significance; just one of them can disrupt our peace and fellowship with God. It’s fine to bring each one to God.
iii] Again, God tells us explicitly that he is very concerned with small things. It was God the Son who said that not a sparrow falls to the ground without his Father knowing; that the very hairs of our head are all numbered. He’s the one who told us to pray for our ‘daily bread.’ He is concerned about small matters because they are vital to us, they are part of our lives. How much hangs on a small decision. Your life has changed because of a number of small things that happened. Jesus noticed emotions, the sorrow in the heart of the widow of Nain as she watched her only son carried to his burial. Our Lord was moved with compassion. Even on the cross there came into his heart a concern for his mother, that she’d be neglected after his days; he called to John to look after her. Is God concerned with little things like loneliness? I never thought that that was a small thing. To say that God isn’t interested in little things is to reject God’s word and example. To think that he isn’t interested in the details of our lives is false spirituality. He said, “I do nothing without my Father.” Don’t try to be more spiritual than the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul says that God knows about the details of your lives – go back to him about them.
iv] Whether they are big or small worries which are left in our lives, when they are unrelated to God then they all take on big proportions. The mistake of Saul and the whole army of Israel, including all his great men, was that they measured Goliath in comparison to themselves, but David measured Goliath in comparison to God. “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (I Sam. 17:26). Little wonder the devil doesn’t want us to bring our problems, great or small, to God He doesn’t want us to see them in their proper perspective, but that’s the way to see them as they affect the children of God. David immediately brought God into the situation and this altered everything. When he went forward he went with God in his mind.
v] Prayer is the way to turn our anxieties into the means of grace. The very worries themselves carry us back to God; they become the words of our prayers. We are to be faithful to the Lord who died for us and lives for us, aren’t we? Then we show we are by being faithful in speaking to him, worshipping him, thanking him for all his goodness to us and bringing every need to him.
- BE GENEROUS TO GOD’S PEOPLE.
“Share with God’s people who are in need.” There are three vivid terms here though you wouldn’t know it. All three have been translated by flat words that lack pathos. Firstly ‘share’, the word the teacher calls out to the class, “Children, don’t be greedy. You share with one another!” The religious person wants to ‘share’ a few thoughts with his hearers. It is a diluted word, but in the original Paul is saying, “You have to identify yourself with Christians in need . . .” In other words, we make the needs of other Christians our own needs. We put ourselves in their position. “How are they coping? What would I need if I were like that, and what would I do?” A Christian sends you a gift on your birthday and you take it into your life. A Christian tells you of a need she has and you take that too and make her need part of your life. There is an accountability of giving gifts and sharing concerns. Her burden becomes your burden. You are in the hardship alongside her. You have entered a kind of partnership with her in her predicament. You identify with her need. You can do it. If you have to do it . . . and you have to . . . then you can do it by the energy of God’s grace. If God in his providence has given to you in particular another Christian’s need then it won’t crush you.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” you ask, and the answer generally is, “Just pray for us at this time.” You don’t have to send them anything; you don’t have to call them every day; they don’t want you to visit their home, but they are glad that you do remember them and intercede. You are there for them. Then there come other degrees of involvement; weekly visiting if that is the agreement you’ve come to, or weekly shopping. Or they live in Kenya and they are in financial need and you can help them a little bit with the school fees of their children. How does providence guide you? What needs of a Christian you know have been brought into your life quite unmistakably by the Lord? The Philippian church took Paul’s needs to their hearts, and he wrote to them; “It was good of you to share in my troubles . . . when I was in Thessalonica you sent me aid again and again when I was in need . . . now . . . I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (Phils 4:14, 16, 18). Paul saw their practical kindness to him as glorifying God. It was an offering that was fragrant to the Lord.
The second vivid word is ‘saints’ and it is translated here quite accurately ‘God’s people’ but that does not sparkle as the fact that these are the saints of God, the holy ones, the ones set apart by God, the ones sanctified by God the Holy Spirit and being made ready for God’s holy heaven with all of us for ever. The world doesn’t know them, in fact they are persecuted in many parts of the world; their families and they themselves are suffering. Identify with the saints of God. Of course be a good Samaritan to all men, believers and unbelievers, but we have a special obligation to gospel Christians in need. “Do good to all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gals 6:10). Yes, we give to charities but what of the saints we know with whom we are in fellowship? What can we do for them?
The third word is ‘need’ and the vivid word there is ‘necessity.’ They lack essentials, and by yourself there is no way you can supply all their needs, but you can minister to them during this time of necessity. You can’t give them health, or pay all their bills, or sit with them in their loneliness day after day, but you can do some things for their necessities – as much as in you lies. In the second century a pagan actor was converted. He soon realized he would have to leave the profession because it was foul. Young boys were frequently seduced into homosexuality, but all he knew was acting, and so he began to teach drama, but he didn’t find that very easy. His church leaders told him how inconsistent that was and he finally quit having anything to do with the stage. Now he had no money to support himself and his family, and the elders told this to the preacher, Cyprian of Carthage. He approved of what they’d done but he told them that it was their duty to meet his necessities and if they couldn’t do so then the man and his family should come to Carthage where his food and clothing and lodging would be provided by the church until he got a job. Little wonder that the early church turned the world upside down. I sometimes think I need to preach a series of sermons to myself on neglected teachings of the New Testament, and one of the verses I would have to preach on is Luke 14:12-14; “Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”
- PRACTICE HOSPITALITY.
There were itinerant missionaries and church planters taking the gospel everywhere and passing through Rome on their way to north Africa, or Europe or Spain. “Look after them actively and energetically, not grudgingly” Paul is exhorting. Pursue hospitality. You are competing with one another for the privilege of giving hospitality to the saints. There would be women and children who had been thrown out of their homes when they became Christians. They were vulnerable and Christians were to be aware and given to hospitality. The city of Rome was an inhospitable place and the need for this grace was urgent. Remember how the thirteenth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews begins; “Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebs. 13:1-3). Again there is this emphasis on the solidarity of the people of God. There is an even more challenging couple of verses in the tenth chapter of Hebrews; “Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathised with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Hebs 10:33&34).
“We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear
And often for each other flows the sympathizing tear” (John Fawcett 1740-1817)
5th April 2009 GEOFF THOMAS