Romans 12:15 “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
You see that this is a command and so is to be obeyed as totally as any of the Ten Commandments are to be obeyed. It is a Christian duty to rejoice with those who rejoice and also to mourn with those who mourn. The Christian is always under the law of God, and that law does not deal with outward conduct alone; it does not merely focus on the words we say; it also addresses out hearts and our feelings, the whole inward life of our emotions and affections. There is inward sin – bitterness, envy, jealousy, self-pity, greed, covetousness, anger and plaintiveness. There is also inward righteousness. The greatest battles we fight as Christians are battles in our own hearts with our own inward demons. Here we discover the greatest test of the progress we are making as believers – how are things within our souls? We are being asked today whether we know increasing obedience to the great commandment of our text, in actually rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn, not in thinking about doing this, or admiring it, or vowing to live more like this, but actually growing in a supernatural and God-given sympathy with the men and women who are around us, rejoicing with their joys and mourning with them in their griefs?
- THE ORDER OF REJOICING AND WEEPING IS INSIGNIFICANT.
Are the commandments put in this order deliberately, giving a priority to rejoicing, and if so, why? It has been suggested that Paul does this because it is more difficult to rejoice with those who rejoice than mourning with them that mourn. You can understand the argument. Here are people who might have had high academic success, or they’ve been left a substantial legacy, or they’ve got engaged to a beautiful person, or their children have done very well for themselves. There is not a person here whose happiness for such people is not tinged with some envy and jealousy and even some bitterness. We are so dominated by self, and we want greatness and achievement to be ours. We feel resentment when others gain the glittering prizes and not ourselves. Rejoicing with them is the greater challenge and so Paul puts it in first place. Now that is what is being claimed. “You see your friends rejoicing at some good fortune, and you remember that you are supposed to rejoice with them.” That’s the challenge. They’ve received something that you yearn to have. It makes far greater demands on unselfishness.
Then, how comparatively easy it is, so it is claimed, to mourn with those who mourn. It is almost natural. As Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “It is a most exceptional person who is not touched by the sight of someone else weeping. By nature, by constitution, the natural man or women, however bad, feels some kind of response when someone is weeping . . . there is something in us all that tends to respond to weeping and we are ready, as it were, to weep as well” (D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans, Exposition of Chapter 12, Christian Conduct, Banner of Truth, 2000, p. 440). We are up and they are down, and so, noblesse oblige, we can express our sorrow for them and with them. We would be hard men and women indeed if we didn’t. That is why it’s more or less natural to mourn with grieving people, but it is tough to rejoice with those who are upwardly mobile. So Paul puts the obligation to rejoice in first place.
Now that observation that rejoicing is tougher than mourning goes right back to the early centuries of the Christian church. It was the famous preacher Chrysostom (born in 347) who was one of the first to suggest that it was harder to rejoice, and Lloyd-Jones and many other modern writers agree with him. I am not so sure if that ever entered the apostle’s mind. Is this Paul’s thinking here? Isn’t that so naturalistic an explanation, while this is such a supernatural chapter full of an overwhelmingly heavenly ethic? If that is what Paul is referring to in our text then it’s no big deal. You could turn to Jewish commentaries in the Targum and they say this sort of same. You can go to the ethics sections of the Greek philosophers, and they say that. You can read a hundred columnists in the daily papers and magazines today and they urge sympathy and compassion. There is nothing to distinguish such a position from the ideas of the man in the street.
How different is Romans chapter twelve. For example, here is a Christian who has been persecuted in a horrible way; her husband has been tortured to death and yet she will not curse the men that did it; she blesses them. “God forgive them and save them,” she cries. That cry comes from a new heart; it comes from heaven. It comes from the Spirit of the Christ who cried as they crucified him, “Father forgive them for they know now what they do.” We are dealing here with a divine ethic. Maybe it is easier to feel sorry for others’ pain rather than to rejoice at their successes, but that has very little to do with the conduct required of Christians in the exhortation before us. Notice the great climax of this chapter in its last verses; “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 20&21). That is not how the natural man thinks. He says, “They dare to have spoken words of criticism of my religion have they? They have hurt my people have they? I’ll hit him in the teeth. I will strap sticks of dynamite to my body and kill as many of these infidels as I can, and kill myself too.” That is how the natural man thinks. He is obsessed with revenge.
The sympathy that our culture has appreciated owe
s its origin ultimately to the Bible and its revelation of who God is. Men and women are made in God’s image and so there is a latent sense of sympathy in their hearts – even though they are not Christians. There has been an earlier grace in our land, and so there is this spirit of sympathy in people who never darken the doors of a church. They will give their time to charities. They will respond to the BBC’s “The Week’s Good Cause.’ They will send them a cheque. Thank God that this spirit exists. Through our live we have been thankful recipients of sympathy from people who have no understanding of Jesus Christ. There was a man who put up a sign outside his cottage that said, “Puppies for Sale” and a boy saw the sign and thought about it. Then that week he saw the man working in his garden and said to him, “Please, Mister, I’d like to buy one of the puppies. How much do they cost?” “Well, son, they’re ten pounds,” the man told him. The boy looked disappointed; “I’ve only got two pounds.” Then he asked, “Could I see them anyway?” “Of course,” said the man, adding, “Maybe we can work something out.” The boy looked at them as they wagged their tails at him. “I heard that one has a bad leg,” he said. “Yes, I’m afraid she’ll be crippled for life.” ‘Well, that’s the puppy I want. Could I pay for her a little at a time?” The man said to the boy, “But she’ll always have a limp.” The boy smiled at him and pulled up a leg of his jeans to reveal a caliper; “I had polio,” he said, “and I don’t walk good.” Then, he looked down at the puppy and continued, “I guess she’ll need a lot of love and help. I certainly did. It’s not so easy being crippled.” We can’t take any more of this can we? That boy would certainly grow up to be a good salesman! “Hey take her, kid!” said the man. “I know you’ll give her a good home. Forget about any money.” That story has a ring of reality, of what you and I know about many decent people around us. My point is that there is sympathy in the hearts of all men and women made in the likeness of God.
So whereas it may be true that the natural man finds it harder to rejoice with the success of others and easier to show sympathy with them, feelings like that are not what govern Paul’s writing. That is not the reason why they are put in this order, in fact, I find nothing significant about the order. If it were the other way about then men would be arguing that Paul puts the easier first to build up to the climax of rejoicing with those who rejoice. We are to do bothm rejoice with them that rejoice and mourn with them that mourn.
- THIS JOY AND SORROW HAS TO BE SHOWN TO BELIEVERS.
Certainly Paul is talking about relationships within the church, that evangelical Christians should be moved by the rejoicing or the weeping of fellow evangelicals. When Paul writes elsewhere about our obligations to other members of the body of Christ he does so in terms of mutual interdependence. For example, in I Corinthians 12 Paul reminds church members that they are all members of the body of Christ. Every Christian partakes of the life of our one God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. That life, the hymn says, is flowing like a mighty ocean in its fulness over every single Christian. That means (Paul writes), “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it” (I Cor. 12:26). We can’t make a decision about this; it happens, because we are all members of the same body. Your appendix alone might be inflamed, but every part of your body feels unwell. “I don’t feel well,” you say; “I am in pain,” not just one localized part of your anatomy. The temperature of your whole body is dangerously high. That is the picture in the New Testament of Christian relations, and we can readily sympathize with it. A family in a church might have a child who is dangerously ill. They are nursing their son through leukemia. The whole congregation grieves over what is happening. We all ask how the treatment is going, and we pray for them. We have their other children to stay with us and have sleep-overs in our house when the parents have to take their little boy to a London hospital for special treatment. We have a circle of sympathy that shares the news of the illness. We imagine how devastated we would be if that was happening to a child in our family. Our life is sadder because of the pain that our fellow Christians are going through.
You see that in the book of Acts. Herod has James the older brother of John killed, and then emboldened Herod arrested the apostle Peter. It was bad enough to lose James in such a brutal manner. He was one of the inner circle of three men who had been particularly close to Christ, but now to lose Peter . . . So all the congregation mourned and prayed for Peter in prison; we read that “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (Acts 12:5). That is exactly how it should be. Paul tells these Romans in chapter fourteen and verse seven “For none of us lives to himself alone,” For the rest of my life I am bound by the most sacred, unbreakable and eternal ties with these people in this congregation. I have an obligation to all of them; they belong to me and I belong to them. I cannot be selective and mourn and rejoice with my buddies and my clique in the church. God has installed chains that lock me into the whole congregation. When I consider moving from a church and leaving the area to live in a more suitable place I must ask first what will be the effects of my going on the life of this body of people to whom I belong, “For none of us lives to himself alone.”
A Christian student was in the habit of coming to me and telling me when he would be going home, or if he were attending a conference for a week-end: “I won’t be here next Sunday pastor; I shall be visiting my parents.” He explained that his father, who was a pastor, always exhorted his members to tell him when they were going to be away from a Sunday service so that he would know where they were, and that they weren’t sick. Most of you are diligent in doing this, telling me that you will be away on holiday or visiting your children or whatever it is over the next Sundays. You are conscious that your duty is to be here with the body of Christ worshipping God. Now I am developing that thought to the possibility of your leaving this area permanently and moving somewhere else. You do not suddenly announce it as a fait accompli, the house has been sold and Pickfords are coming to load your possessions into your van next month and we knew nothing. First you talk about going; you mention where you are thinking of going, the family ties there, you are getting older, or it’s a promotion. For whatever reason you are moving away and you tell us, and then we think about the implications of this for ourselves and for you too. Are you the church treasurer? Is there someone to take your place? Have you inquired whether there’s a gospel church in that area? We are members one of another, and we treat one another with thoughtfulness and affection. We pray for you to sell the house. We do not living independent, isolated lives. God has put us into one body. We may be the most boring and tiresome and uninteresting fellow Christians in the whole world. You may find your links with us to be very heavy chains, but they are chains that have been made by God. They were forged in the furnace of Golgotha. He joined us to you and joined you to us and we are all going to heaven together.
r how the brilliant apostle Paul felt about the Christians he had to deal with. What a frustrating and disappointing group of men and women many of them were. Think of the Christians in the Galatian congregation. What pastoral care, in teaching, visiting and praying Paul had heaped upon them, travailing again in birth until Christ had been formed in them. He had not moved away to new fields of evangelism and church-planting for very long before Judaizing heretics moved in saying that it was not enough to have Christ alone by faith alone for a free justification. They said intensely and utterly mistakenly, “You must be circumcised and keep the food laws and the seventh day Sabbath if you want to be saved.” In spite of all that the apostle Paul had told them – Paul, filled with the Spirit . . . Paul, the witness of the risen Christ . . . Paul, who had wept and prayed over them – these Galatians chose to swallow those damnable errors. His own brothers and sisters, fellow members of the body of Christ let him down, and let down the one great Saviour.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians and described to them the pressures he was living under. He was not exempt from weariness and painfulness any more than his Master or any other Christian. He told them that he identified with the cause of Christ and the life of Christians everywhere. He wrote this; “I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cors. 11:28&29). He faced up to that reality as par for the course of following Christ. There would never be an escape from that throughout his entire life. That was it – this great and mighty man! ‘I burn in righteous indignation; I burn in sympathy.’ Though he bore the cares of all the churches yet nothing could happen to any individual without his feeling it. This was how closely he lived in fellowship with every other Christian. This was the intensity of his big and glorious nature.”
There are all these concentric circles under the heading of the Christian life. There is the body of revealed truth that God has given to us to believe; then there is the law of God telling us how we should live; then there is the church we are a part of. Then there is the strengthening of all these areas, not neglecting one of them; first of all, growing in our grasp of the truth, and then second, growing in holy obedience to God, and then, growing in our love for the people of God. There must not be weakness in any area, doctrine, practice and fellowship.
You say that you can’t show sympathy to other people. Then I am terribly sad. I don’t want you to stay like that. Why? Are you too wrapped up in yourself to rejoice or weep with others? Are you so self-centred that what’s happening in the hearts of others has no effect on you? Do you feel that you are above the emotional life of ordinary people? Do you think that it’s children who laugh, and women who cry, but you’re a man? But it doesn’t have to be male arrogance. It may be merely high-brow arrogance. To laugh with others or to cry with them would put you down on their level and you have a certain refined, aristocratic, high-culture status to preserve.
Maybe you are hypercritical and your main reaction when you see emotion is to analyze it, to point out its distortions or its excesses or bad tendencies or shallow roots. “That is not so good.” So our hypercritical heart are keeping us emotionally at a distance from others and preventing us showing empathy with others. But we are not unemotional. No! We have the emotions of resentment, and of envy that they have joy and we don’t. We feel gypped, passed over, given a raw deal. So the sinful emotion of envy makes it impossible for us to show the good and holy emotion of rejoicing in their joy. I am asking how much of our emotional deadness is sin? Are we struggling with our personalities and depressions? How much at bottom is pride. The root cause of not being the kind of people who feel genuine empathy with those grieving and rejoicing is pride. I am saying that we have a duty to show sympathy towards our fellow Christians.
- THIS JOY AND GRIEF HAS TO BE SHOWN ALSO TOWARDS NON-CHRISTIANS.
It is not enough to say that these attitudes must be evident here in the congregation. That is easy because we see each other twice a week and share with one another our lives. Those who are unhappy with us have long left us. We are a happy united church at the moment. The challenge of this verse is how we display love and grief towards those in the world who operate in terms of another gospel. The cults all share in the lives of fellow cult members. Those spiky little denominations, utterly orthodox and prickly about any deviation from their own distinctives – they show exemplary care for their own. That is not the challenge of these words. The challenge lies in their enfleshment in the Lord Jesus Christ.
When our Saviour came into this world he pitched his tent in our midst, where a king had sent his soldiers to kill every little boy in the community, where religious men dragged a woman who had been caught in adultery into the presence of our Lord and asked him to confirm their right to stone her to death, where men will nail other men to crosses and then gamble as he takes a long time to die. That is the society where the Son of God came, and here he went along, for example, to share in the joys of a wedding day. He did not dress as if he were going to a funeral, refusing to smile at anyone throughout the service and reception, a real kill-joy. In fact he saved the day by making more wine when the supply they’d bought ran out. Jesus rejoiced with those that rejoiced.
He also wept with them that wept. He did so absolutely literally – real salty tears ran down his cheeks. The favourite family that he loved to visit in Bethany was composed of two sisters and a brother, and none of them had ever got married. It was this beloved trio that suffered awful bereavement. Lazarus, their brother died, and it was not until three days later that Jesus arrived in Bethany. We read this; “When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb” (Jn. 11:32-38). Jesus went to the house of mourning. Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and he was troubled when he saw the grief of these people. Jesus wept and visited the grave. Many of these people were not his disciples, but he wept with them.
The church is called the body of Christ and in the preacher the voice of God is to be heard. The preacher must not strive but be gentle to all men. He sympathizes with his hearers. He does not shout at them, though he lifts up his voice. He does not snarl at them; he loves them. He longs for their salvation as does his lord. It is not his desire that those who have so despitefully abused him should go to hell. He doesn’t want them to perish but that they turn from their sin and embrace his free salvation. When Jesus saw the city of Jerusalem in all its resistance to him then he wept over the population; “O Jerusalem, Jerualem.” We must weep – “O Aberystwyth, Aberystwyth, how we would have d
rawn you to a place of protection under the wings of the Lord, but you would not. You said no we don’t need a Saviour to protect us. O Aberystwyth, Aberystwyth . . .” and we mourn for them who reject our Jesus, while rejoicing with those who receive him.
The Lord Jesus is God’s great definition of a man. He showed us how a man should behave in this groaning world. He was the most sympathetic and tender person. We are to live like him. You will find Christians living and working in Soho, and in the heart of Mexico City, in Bangkok and in Tokyo. When they get converted they don’t become survivalists living half way up Snowdon in a remote farm trying to be self-sufficient, home schooling in a place unreached by a paved road. Christians are involved people (let me say that home-schoolers can be involved people too). My point is that we may not escape from our calling to be the salt of the earth. Let me remind you of one of the most dramatic demonstrations of a man of God living amongst the people. It took place during the pandemic, the bubonic plague in London, England in 1665. Late in that year the disease reached the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, the virus of this terrible plague had been concealed in a box of old clothing sent to the village’s tailor from London, which was then in the last throws of the Great Plague. The earliest deaths in the village were sporadic and the death rate declined in the winter. But hopes that Eyam might escape the plague were dashed when the spring came and people began to die like flies. Every household was affected.
By June 1666, the village’s minister, William Mompesson, realised that the villagers must act to prevent the plague spreading through the north of England. At his suggestion, the villagers quarantined their own village. No-one would leave until the disease had burnt itself out. The Earl of Devonshire, whose estate at Chatsworth was a few miles away, supported the plan. He arranged for supplies to be left at the boundary of the quarantine, and the villagers left payment for this food in pools of vinegar to prevent the coins carrying the contagion. William Mompesson was the leader, comforter and exhorter to the villagers during those months as one by one every family lost members. He was helped by the man who had brought the gospel to Eyam, Thomas Stanley, who had been rector of Eyam until his ejection in 1662 for non-conformity. Religious services were held outdoors, in a glen and that became known as the ‘Cucklet Church’. Bodies were interred near the place of their death, rather than in the churchyard. Mompesson survived the epidemic, but his wife Catherine died in late August. Their children had been sent away to Yorkshire where they were safe from the plague. Of the population of 350 in the village of 260 people died. Mompesson and Stanley stayed there in the midst of the people comforting, reading the Word, praying, burying them.
Here were two Christian men who took this verse terribly seriously and mourned with those who mourn. They did so because they were followers of Christ, and filled with the Spirit of the Christ who mixed with men and women and both rejoiced and wept with them. When Jesus left heaven for earth there was no going back. There was no back door he could get out of if he had a hard time from his neighbours in Galilee. Nevertheless not my will but thine be done. Without doubt Jesus’ earthly experience as a weak, limited, suffering man was necessary to qualify him for his office as our great High Priest. Without it the Lord Jesus couldn’t have gained that experimental knowledge of our temptations and developed his sympathy for us. Now we know that we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. Rather, as 21 year-old Michael Bruce wrote;
Our fellow-sufferer yet retains
And still remembers, in the skies
His tears, and agonies and cries.
The section of our hymnbook on the Priesthood of the Son of God is one of my favourite sections. What a loss for a church not to have a well-used hymn book! Now our assurance that Jesus sympathizes with us is precious and consoling to all Christians in our times of affliction. But let’s not forget, men and women, that it was far from the teaching of the writer to the Hebrews to infer that Christ can do nothing more than express to us his fellow-feeling for our infirmities. No. The sympathy of Christ brings all the endless resources of his divine nature and his glorious humanity to bear upon us in our joys and sorrows, purifying and elevating our joys and strengthening us in our grief. This sympathy is the empathy the one who is the same yesterday and today and forever; of the one who remembers – as only an absolutely perfect human nature can remember – what he himself passed through while on earth, when he prayed mightily with strong crying and tears. His feelings for us and what he does in us are one and the same thing. His is the sympathy of one who has access at every moment to every part of any joy or distress or perplexity in which any believer may find himself. Jesus has access to every recess of our hearts, to the most secret fears and the most silent griefs which we can share with nobody else. His is the sympathy of one who can never grow weary of our complaints because in him there is an exhaustless store of pity. It is superabundant for the consolation of every single believer. It flows as freely at this present hour for you and me as it flowed in the day of the Hebrew Christians, for the simple reason that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, unchangeable in his sympathy and delight in us as in everything else. This has been the wonderful way God has shown his love to us, by uniting in one person all that is divine and all that is human – save for our sin. This mighty Christ is for us and we can draw from him such consolation.
Stir up your faith in this great Saviour. Appropriate your great high priest every single day. That is the Christian alternative to empathy-killing pride. Faith is humbly resting in Christ – that is saving faith, and it is also sanctifying growing faith. It is being self-satisfied with the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith is turning from self to Christ as our all in all. So empathy with the joyful and sorrowful is not something merely added to faith, it is the fruit that grows from trusting day by day in your great High Priest.
Let me say this even more radically and more universally. Without faith in Christ, there is no fellow feeling among men, but only pride. There are some people who naturally are oriented towards people. They are not interested in books or business but in other people, talking to them and sympathizing with them. They have long ceased to be self-preoccupied and self-infatuated and self-exalting; they have become other-person-occupied and other-person-infatuated and other-person-exalting. Yet they will not bring Christ into the picture, they are still locked in the prison of pride. Why? Because they are looking to other creatures, beings like themselves, for their joy, and not looking to Christ, this great High Priest, the one through whom were all things made, and for whom all things exist. There is only one word for creatures who attempt to act humbly with no dependence upon their Creator and Redeemer and no desire that he get the glory, and that word is pride. They are proud of their interest in other people and that too is a sin – no matter how other-oriented they appear.
So trusting in Jesus Christ is not just the Christian, biblical alternative to pride. It is the
only alternative to pride. Because Jesus Christ is the one and only Lord and Saviour of the universe. If you were to ask Paul, “Why didn’t you say all this in our text, if faith in Christ is so central to humility?” I think he’d say, “I spent 11 chapters of this letter laying a foundation of God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, cross-commending, blood-soaked, Spirit-empowered faith as the root of all your righteousness. I cannot say it again every time I spell out another implication of how believers live. Let the preacher do that; that’s his duty.”
3rd May 2009 GEOFF THOMAS