Romans 16:17-23 - Wisdom from Above vs. Below (Rev. Erik Veerman)
This morning, we’re continuing our brief study of Romans 16. Last week, we focused on the apostle Paul’s greetings to the church in Rome. And he ended that section with an encouragement that they should greet one another in the church. Underlying his greeting is the phrase “in Christ” or “in the Lord.” The reason they can greet one another and is that they are united in Christ. They are connected to one another. All the churches and believers in Christ are.
And that leads right in to these few verses, which provide a contrast. In order to keep the fellowship and love for each other, they are to watch out for division. In these verses, Paul explains what to be on guard against and what to be pursuing.
Romans 16:17-23 (page 1130)
A very popular podcast this last year documented the recent rise and fall of a megachurch and its megachurch pastor. The podcast’s purpose was not for the enjoyment of failure, but rather as a warning to the church. Of course, the podcast itself wasn’t without controversy in that regard.
It highlighted several patterns of behavior that eventually led to the downfall of this pastor and his church. There were also certain aspects of this pastor’s teaching that were very inappropriate. But the scary thing is, by and large, his main teaching was orthodox. Meaning it was in-line with what we and other Gospel focused churches would consider faithful to the Scriptures. To be sure, not all of it was.
One big problem was the disconnect between his content and his style and life. It was more about him and how large his church was than the Gospel and the Kingdom. And he was a bully. He steam-rolled people, meaning you’d better not get in his way, or you would get rolled over. Many people did.
Eventually his behavior and the church’s enablement of it led to a disastrous situation. Causing pain and anger, causing people to question their faith. It’s been 8 years and some of the church’s former members have yet to step in a church again.
These words that Paul wrote to the church in Rome are painfully relevant today. Not just in this one example situation, but in different ways in the church. The human heart is full of sinful pride when it comes to wanting recognition and a following even at the expense of divisions in the church.
When Paul was writing this letter to the church in Rome, he knew the risks of division. He was experiencing them in Corinth even as he wrote. Teachers spreading twisted messages. Factions created due to leaders trying to build up their own reputation. Some of them in Corinth were so-called “super apostles” and were dividing the church.
So the apostle Paul knew what disunity looked like. He knew the devastation that could result. To be sure, the church in Rome was not at that point. No, but he didn’t want them to get to that point, either. He knew that the same temptations and threats that the church in Corinth experienced were the same temptations and threats that the church in Rome would experience. And if I could add… the same temptations and threats that we face today. And Paul, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit didn’t want them or us to suffer the same consequences.
We have a couple of similarities to the church in Rome.
•We are a newer church just like they were.
•Even though we’re in a smaller town, we’re in a big influential metro area. Rome was the hub of Roman power and one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean.
•And beyond our church in particular, we are like any church. We’re led by sinful people. I’m a sinful person, saved by God’s grace. None of our teachers, leaders… really none of us… are immune to the temptations highlighted here.
•And the devil – Satan, referenced in verse 20 also wants to cause division today as he did back then. That’s also that’s the same for any church.
So as we go through this, let’s not just see this as a warning and encouragement for them, let’s take it to heart ourselves. We also need to be on guard and seek as it says, “to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.” We’ll explore that phrase as well.
To give us some structure as we go through this, 4 points – really 4 parts to this exhortation: a warning, a reason, an encouragement, and a promise.
•A Warning – what to watch out for.
•A Reason – answering the why
•An Encouragement – a positive word about their current state
•A Promise – what the future holds
So first, a warning. And remember, Paul had just encouraged them to greet each other with a holy kiss. Meaning love one another. And he also passed along a greeting from all the churches. That would have been encouraging as well.
And out of his expressed love for them and out of the love that they should have for each other… Paul says, “I appeal to you.” in other words, “Hear me out. This is important.”
And then he says, verse 17, “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught.”
Be aware. Be on guard.
There are two possible understandings of who Paul is referring to.
•First, some read this as a warning to watch out for people outside the church - like false teachers and false beliefs. People who say things contrary to the doctrine that we have been taught. I think that’s a reasonable interpretation. We should watch out for false teachers and teaching.
•Second, others read this to mean watch out for people in the church, leaders in the church who are causing divisions or creating factions or trying to turn people’s attention away from the doctrines that have been taught. Also, a reasonable interpretation. Something we should be on guard against it.
So which is it? I’ve gone back and forth.
But I’ve settled on the second interpretation. That the warning here is to watch out for people in the church who are doing or saying things that cause divisions. Let me argue my case and then apply it.
Notice what it doesn’t say. It does not say, “watch out for those who are teaching things contrary to the doctrine you have been taught.” No, the word “contrary” is referencing the “divisions” and “obstacles.” In other words, the divisions and obstacles are the things that are contrary to the doctrine they’ve been taught.
And to put this paragraph in context. Paul has just spent several chapters writing to them about how they are to live out the Gospel with one another. We didn’t study these chapters, but here’s a quick summary:
•In chapter 12, he gave them the marks of a true Christian – do what is good, hate evil, love one another, and minister together.
•In chapter 13, Paul explained the importance of submission, but also seeking to love our neighbor and not to quarrel or be jealous.
•Chapter 14 focuses on not judging each other on matters of Christian liberty and not causing brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble.
•Chapter 15 directs them to Christ’s life as an example of humility and love.
•And the greetings we looked at last week emphasize our unity in Christ.
You see, much of Paul’s teaching is about living out our faith in community. Being united with others in the church. So it seems to follow well that verse 17 is about those in the church. People that are causing division or creating obstacles.
And let’s step back for a minute and think about that word “doctrine.” The literal translation is this: “contrary to the teaching you have received.” Doctrine is the contents of what’s being taught. But here’s the misperception about doctrine. We tend to only think about one side of doctrine. The knowledge side, meaning what do we believe about God, about Salvation, and sin, etc. We tend to leave out the other side – how we are called to live. How to honor God. But doctrine is both. That’s why divisions and obstacles can be contrary to the doctrine.
Notice also that this warning is sandwiched between the greetings. The greetings to the church… and verses 21 to 23, greetings from the church. It would be a little disjointed if in the middle of the greetings, he starts talking about people outside the church. No, it makes more sense that in the middle of his calling for unity and fellowship in the greetings, to warn them about people who are destroying the unity.
Just because someone’s teaching about God and salvation is faithful to the Scriptures, doesn’t mean they can’t cause divisions or create obstacles. And this is not just about teachers. Anyone in the church can create division contrary to what we believe and how we are live. It’s devastating to the church. It’s why Paul says here, “Avoid them.” They are not striving for the peace and purity of the church.
God is passionate about division. He’s both adamantly for it and he’s adamantly against it. He wants things to be divided that need to be divided and he hates things to be divided that need to be united.
Let me explain. Jesus himself came to divide – he said “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Dividing what? He divides what is right from what is wrong. The wheat from the tares. Dividing truth from error. Good from evil. These things should be separated.
But on the other hand, God hates things to be divided that should be united. He hates sexual immorality. The one flesh union of husband and wife is not to be divided. And he hates it when his church is divided.
This is the reason Paul tells the church to avoid these people. And let me be very clear: People who create division through things contrary to faithful doctrine. Words and deeds that generate obstacles contrary to what has been taught about believing and living. Those who fail the test should be admonished and avoided. The avoidance is like church discipline, here. So that they can prayerfully realize the obstacles and repent.
Watch out for them. Avoid them. That’s the warning.
The second part here gives the reason. This is point number 2 – A reason. Why should they avoid them? That little word “for” at the beginning of verse 18 indicates a transition to explanation.
“For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ.” They may say they do! But instead, they serve their “own appetites.” They may talk about Jesus, but there’s an underlying self-promotion at play. The glory is directed to them, not to God above. And they have a way with words. Notice how their language is described: “smooth talk and flattery.” And with that, they deceive.
A while ago, I worked with a guy who sold vacuums as a side gig. One day, he gave me the spiel. And let me tell you, this thing was amazing. Besides doing what vacuums do, you know, vacuum up dirt, I could literally, he said, leave this thing on in my house. And it would pull all the dust out of the air. My allergies would go away. And if I didn’t have this vacuum, I was behind the times. But I was just the right kind of person who needed this vacuum. Smart. Innovative. Fashionable. I’m not going to tell you if I bought one.
We’ve all heard smooth talk and flattery before. It’s easy to get pulled in.
Going back to the fall of that megachurch. There was both a self-promotion and smooth talk going on. It was about numbers and being the biggest and coolest church in the world. And it centered around his personality. His language was crass, but that was his smooth talk. His raw use of words and outbursts and his bully nature is what interestingly drew people in. Sadly, over time, it created obstacles to faithful doctrine, and it self-promoted this church and leader over and against the Lord and his church. And it all came crashing down.
And that is not the only example of personal agendas that cause division. Others include:
•The desire of some to make the priorities of the culture the priorities in the church. Part of what we are working through in our Sunday school class deals with that, tries to prevent that.
•Or those who seek to add rules over and above what the Scriptures direct us toward or allows, sort of like the pharisees did with Judaism.
•Or politics, one way or another.
•Or some other way to try and be relevant to the world or how to change the world.
And you know, our culture today is so divided over seemingly everything. And we all know, the church is not immune to division. Whatever the cause, it’s the church and the Gospel, that suffers. Disunity in the church hinders ministry, distracts people from worship, and limits discipleship and care. This is why Paul warned the church about divisions contrary to faithful doctrine and why he directed them to avoid those who cause them.
Ok, next, an Encouragement
Notice that Paul doesn’t leave them without encouragement. And really, Paul was just trying to get ahead of a possible situation. Because in actuality, the church in Rome was known for its unity, for its ministry, and for its obedience. That word “obedience” is used to describe them. Verse 19, “your obedience is known to all.” It’s a word used in several times in Romans. Right at the beginning of the letter, chapter 1 verse 5, three times in the middle of the letter, and twice here at the end. Besides verse 19, you’ll see it down in verse 26.
And Paul has a very specific meaning for it. “Obedience of faith.” It’s a trust and faith in God for what he has done for us in Christ, and it includes the desire to live it out. To honor God. And that’s what marked the church in Rome – an obedience to the Gospel. Paul rejoiced over their obedience, it says.
And he wants the church in Rome to continue in their obedience. And then he uses the phrase “wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil”. He wants them to have the wisdom of God, not the wisdom of the world. Wisdom that is good and right that leads to peace and unity in the church.
I think the book of James helps us understand this wisdom the church should pursue. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
That is wisdom from above. From God. Very different from those who cause division. It’s the wisdom that verse 19 describes: “wise to what is good, and innocent to what is evil.” Innocent there meaning not getting pulled into what is evil. Being innocent of it. Because that evil creates that disunity, the obstacles mentions, the self-promotion, and the deceit. Thankfully the church in Rome was so far “wise to good and innocent to evil”
Some of you may be asking, “is that disunity really evil? Certainly, it’s sinful, but does it cross the threshold to evil?”
Well, that is a good question and it’s answered for us next. And this is the fourth and final part. A Promise.
Right after he writes, “be innocent as to what is evil,” He writes this amazing statement, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” He’s absolutely connecting the work of Satan, the devil, as the instigator here. Deceiving the sinful heart man. Satan’s desire is to destroy the church. In that way, the disunity, the obstacles, the self-promotion, and the deceit in the church are evil. They flow from both sin and the devil.
Verse 20 is amazing for a couple of reasons:
•First, the promise, God will crush Satan. This brings us all the way back to the first book of the Bible, Genesis chapter 3. When sin entered the world, God pronounced consequences on Adam and Eve, on humanity, and he pronounced a curse on Satan. Satan is the one who deceived Adam and Eve into sin. And in that curse are these words: God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall [crush] your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” In other words, in the curse on Satan, God promises that the offspring of Eve will crush Satan. That is a direct reference to the work of Christ, who will crush Satan. In the end, destroy him. At the point in time when this letter was written. Jesus had already died on the cross, already risen, and already ascended to heaven. Victory is at hand. And the final blow will be when Christ returns. That’s why Paul can say that “soon” God will crush Satan.
•And the second amazing thing mentioned, God will crush Satan “under your feet.” That phrase “under your feet” is about conquering and controlling. In almost all the cases in the New Testament, it’s Jesus whose will conquer and subject everything to him. But here, it’s the church. The very thing that Satan is trying to destroy will be the very thing through which God will destroy him. That will happen through Christ. Jesus is the head, the bridegroom of the church. We will be more than conquerors through him. Does that remind you of what Jesus said to Peter and the apostles? “on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” Picture hell having these huge thick iron gates. And the church is like a battering ram, one that will overwhelm and destroy the gates of hell.
And there will be an amazing peace. Because the “God of peace” as he’s called here will prevail. No more divisions, no more sin and temptation, no more obstacles, or deceit, or smooth talk, or self-promotion. God promises, the church will prevail with Christ. Satan will be crushed and sin will be no more.
Now that is hope. And even if in the past you’ve been through the difficulty of division – a torn apart church due to the schemes of the devil preying upon the sinful heart of man, yet redemption is coming and has come. Even in the midst of it all, God is at work.
One of the clear messages in the podcast I mentioned earlier is that despite the failure and obstacles, God has been doing a work of renewal. Forgiveness and reconciliation is happening there. Several of the satellite campuses of this megachurch survived and are refocused on God and the Gospel. Ministry is happening. And they are now on the watch out for those things contrary to the doctrines found in God’s Word.
May we strive to be a church that maintains unity, faithful to the doctrines found in God’s word… in what we believe and how we live. May we be on the lookout for those who would seek to divide or distract from our Gospel focus and ministry. All for his glory, and not ours. And as the end of verse 20 says, may “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us.”