The Example of Jesus Christ
1 We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification. 3 For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me.
We cannot confess with Peter and the apostles that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God,” unless God quickens us to new life (Mat. 16:17; 1 Cor. 12:3; 1 John 4:2). When Jesus says to us, “If any man will follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24), we cannot heed his call until the Holy Spirit gives us the new birth. He gives us new eyes to see the truth of his word and write his law upon our new hearts. Made alive in him, we no longer want to live to please ourselves. We loathe our wretchedness, the selfishness of our hearts, and the pride lurking there. At the same time, we cry with the apostle, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). We give thanks to God for the victory he gives us through Jesus Christ (Rom. 7:25). Still, God’s supernatural work of redemption unfolds progressively in us, and we often try to serve Jesus Christ and ourselves. Sadly, we can do this under the guise of religious zeal, as when we defend a true doctrine of God’s word but forget the duties of love and meekness. Or, when a weaker brother, as in the Roman congregation, is struggling with some aspect of his discipleship, but we belittle or argue with him. This undermines his already weak conscience and does not give him the support he needs to grow in grace and knowledge.
It may seem preferable for the strong to be in one camp and the weak in another. This is pride talking. Our Lord distributes his gifts and graces throughout the body. If a brother is strong in one area, he is certainly weak in another. The weak are not likely weak at all points but have grace and beauty to contribute to the body, for “Christ in us” is true of all disciples. Therefore, we need one another and are bound to love one another as Christ has loved us. Those farther down the path of discipleship must support the weaker. The weaker brother should learn from the stronger, without judging him for his greater liberty of conscience. The whole body grows toward maturity and joy in Christ as each member does its part (Eph. 4:15-16). The worst thing we can do is to demand that everyone think like us on every secondary detail of ritual or practice. At the same time, as we are teachable before the Lord and humble before one another, we shall grow together to be the Lord’s holy dwelling place. We shall learn from one another and move toward greater oneness in understanding and heart (1 Cor. 1:10).
The Obligation to Support the Weak (v. 1)
The apostle speaks of himself as one of the stronger, which judgment is objectively tied to clear understanding of sound doctrine and to the practice of godliness. The specific “strength” is in the area of the ceremonies and restrictions required in the old ceremonial economy. It would also include freedom from esoteric rituals that were holdovers from paganism, such as not drinking wine. The coming of Christ does away with all such “rudiments of the world” and “commandments and doctrines of men” (Col. 1:20-23). Yet, the Lord had not yet brought the weaker members of his body to see this. What are the strong to do? They may be tempted to rush ahead, to run roughshod over the feelings of others, and to set themselves up as the supreme court of truth and righteousness. Instead, Paul lays this obligation upon them. God has made them strong. His grace has taught them that observing these rituals is no longer necessary. Since they have nothing that they did not receive from God (1 Cor. 4:7), they must feel themselves bound by love to assist the weaker in their infirmities. To “bear the infirmities of the weak” does not mean that their scruples must dominate body life, for this would offend love in the other direction and make a tyrant of the consciences of the weak. “Bear” means “support;” the stronger are to support, care for, nurture love and peace with the weaker. Then, all may come to rejoice in the love and patience of Jesus Christ toward even the weakest lambs in his flock.
Behind this obligation of support lies the beautiful meekness of grace that the Holy Spirit works in each disciple of Jesus Christ. If we are maturing in him, we must give all the credit to God. If we love his word and are growing in grace and knowledge, we must praise the Lord. If we are at the beginning of our pilgrim journey to heaven, or nearing the finish line, we must glorify God for his mercy. Strong or weak, we must confess that we owe everything to God’s sovereign grace and goodness. Grace and gratitude thus bind the strong and the weak together. We are bound with the blood of the cross, the sealing work of the Holy Spirit, and the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. The strong are given more grace so that they can share grace. If we have tasted the Lord’s kindness, we shall be meek. Does a brother need better, more biblical convictions? Help with his family? We must ask the Lord to help him as he has helped us. We must offer what assistance we can and encourage him toward greater godliness. What the stronger must understand is that God has made them strong to support the weak, so that there may be mutual love and sharing within the body. The Lord tests us here. Will we be humbled by his goodness to us, or shall pride tempt us to act as lords over one another rather than as fellow-servants unto godliness? The more grace and understanding, wisdom and strength Jesus Christ gives to one of his disciples, the more he should feel himself bound to help and encourage his weaker brother.
Please our Neighbor, Not Ourselves (vv. 1-2)
He adds that we are not to please ourselves, which means that we are not to seek our own good at the expense of the well-being of others. This is a general prohibition, which reflects the reality of true discipleship: that in coming to Jesus Christ, pleasing him is our chief aim (14:18; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 4:1). In this context, pleasing oneself is arguing with a weaker brother or judging a stronger one. It is insisting that others come under the dominating orbit of our opinions and scruples. Not pleasing ourselves is “to esteem others better than ourselves” (Phil. 2:3). This is never to be done at the expense of God’s truth, but even when defending its clear doctrines and practices, love for others must animate us. We must have a sincere love for our brothers and sisters, even if they take a different view, so that if we happen to be stronger, our main desire must be to support them in their weakness. Did our Savior not take all our weakness, sin, and sorrow upon himself? Has not God been compassionate and tender toward us in our weakness? The more we are struck by God’s condescension and our Savior’s humiliation, the more we shall leave off seeking to please ourselves and instead be dedicated to living for the good of others.
Pleasing, helping, and supporting our weaker brothers and sisters, is thus a duty. It is not, however, a man-pleasing duty, as if we should give way to every silly whim that someone has or allow God’s truth to suffer so that no one is ever made uncomfortable by his word. This is made clear by the addition of “for good.” The “good” must always be defined by God. Thus, we are not doing good to our neighbor if we do not lovingly confront him for sins against God or departures from sound doctrine. We are doing evil, not good, when we do not resist the evils of our age and the way they sometimes infect Christ’s church. If we capitulate to sodomy, or fornication, or immodesty, we shall please men but displease God. This is the reason that the Holy Spirit adds “to edification,” for our pleasing of men must be to build them up in God’s truth and love. If we keep this goal in mind, we shall speak God’s word with greater gentleness. We shall not expect for everyone to be where we are on our pilgrim journey. Some are behind us; some are ahead of us. Thus, the stronger must uphold the weak by building them up in faith, trust in God, and commitment to his word. Never must we tear down God’s work in them by using his word as a battering ram against weaker consciences, belittling those who are seeking to understand God’s will more clearly, or whose consciences sing a slightly different tune on secondary points.
Our Savior’s Self-Disinterestedness (v. 3)
Nothing more empowers love and tenderness among us than our Savior’s example. We should never wish to be greater than him but to be like him (Matt. 10:25) and to “walk as he walked” (1 John 2:6). It is our duty to be like him, but it is more than a duty. Each one of us should feel that the disciple’s call is a privilege, an indescribable joy, an unquenchable draw. It is one of God’s great works “to conform us to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Thus, when the apostle says, “Even as Christ pleased not himself,” our hearts should be gripped by awe and love. What! He, the Son of God and Savior of sinners,” did not live to please himself? He emptied himself for us? Rich in majesty beyond comprehension, lovely beyond comparison, he became poor for us? The Incarnate Word humbled himself to die for those who had broken his word, who were dead in sins and enemies of God by wicked works? Hearing this, we must pray to be freed from our insatiable selfishness and seek his grace so that it is “enough for us to be like our Master.”
To say that he did not please himself means that two motivations controlled his inner life, his saving mission upon earth: to please his Father (John 8:29) and to save his sheep (John 12:27). Thus, he did not spare himself any pain, trouble, or sorrow that was necessary to these ends. When faced with the cup of our judgment, he struggled – how could he, the Holy One, not struggle with this fatal plunge, to bear our curse and judgment upon the cross, to be forsaken by the Father, and to suffer the sorrows of hell and the pains of judicial death – but he overcame all self-consideration and yielded to his Father’s will. Hungry, he lived upon his Father’s word. Despised and rejected, he loved his enemies. Denied and betrayed, he love his own to the end and offered himself as the propitiation for our sins. If we would learn what it is not to please ourselves – whether in this specific context of supporting the weaker, or in our families, or in a thousand small decisions each day that make up the tapestry of our lives – we must look to Jesus Christ. Looking to him, we must ask him to make us self-disinterested. Be careful in praying this. To be made like him means that we must be prepared to deny ourselves and to learn contentment in pleasing others. This is not a lesson for one day or a thousand. It is to embrace the cross, to practice self-emptying, and to find joy in loving as Christ’s loved: by laying down his life in love and service, to rejoice in doing good to others when our own hearts are breaking over private grief or struggling against sin. It is to feel something of what he felt as the Man of Sorrows, who came not to be served but to serve.
It also means death to our vanity and pride. Imagine how much more satisfying our relationships in home and church would be, how much greater our testimony to God’s amazing grace would be to a lost and self-serving world, if we would but make pleasing and supporting others the main goal of life. Yes, we must also love God’s truth, but would not our words be more effectual if we spoke with compassion rather than arrogance? With a sincere and humble desire to help men rather than impress them with our learning or gain some ascendancy over them? We should never try to make disciples of ourselves but to make disciples for Jesus Christ. In our defending of sound doctrine, or discussions about Christian practice, it would be far more winsome and effectual if behind our arguments and entreaties men saw the glory of Jesus Christ in our love. Truth must be unto love, for truth is unto Jesus Christ. We do good to our brothers and build them not by wounding them with harsh words or making them feel small because they are not as advanced as we think ourselves to be or share our convictions about lesser things. The disciples heard all of Jesus’ teaching. They watched him serve, even wash their feet. It was his death on the cross, his ultimate act of displeasing himself that arrested them. And when he rose from the dead, what changed them into loving, zealous, and humble servants of the living God was the gripping reality that the now-glorified Savior had humbled himself unto death, even the death of the cross (Acts 2:30-36; Phil. 2:1-11; 1 Pet. 1:21-25). They never “got over it.” We must never get over it. What we must get over is our silly pride, our desire for preeminence, to be thought right, and to have everyone follow us. Only one is worthy to be followed, adored, and pleased: Jesus Christ our Lord.
How Far He Went to Please the Father (v. 3)
From Psalm 69:9; we have an example of how far our Savior went in pleasing his Father, though it meant great pain to him. He was always consumed with zeal for his Father’s house, dedicated to his Father’s business, and obedient to his Father’s will. Loving his Father, he served him. Loving his Father, he felt personally all the reproaches that men directed to God, as if they were heaped exclusively upon him. This may seem a strange proof that the strong should support the weak, but the Holy Spirit introduces it to make this one point. If in the most important reality of all, the glory of his Father, Jesus Christ took all man’s reproaches, curses, and blasphemies upon himself, should we not support one another in far lesser things, such as food and drink, days and rituals? See how far the Son of God and Savior of sinners went to humble himself and, in a sense, to displease himself. He never thought of his own comfort or ease. The dreadful cost of the cross he willingly paid. Can we not pay love’s small cost in things of relative insignificance? Can we not love one another, be like Jesus in pleasing one another rather than pleasing ourselves? May the Lord strengthen and have mercy upon us! How selfish we often are, arrogant and vain, petty and loveless. But our Savior’s name is Jesus, and he will save us from our sins!
Jesus Christ our Example
Since he saved us by “seeking not his own, but the will of the Father who sent him,” the way we enjoy his salvation is by living as he did – to please one another. This is not the church becoming a mutual admiration society, in which no one is ever confronted or God’s truth is sacrificed on the altar of public opinion and fear of anyone getting his feelings hurt. Sometimes, loving Jesus and pleasing one another means confrontation, even hard confrontation that produces momentary rupture for the greater good of God’s honor and the peace and purity of the church. Yet, our loving, reigning Savior will give us strength both to receive and to give confrontation with meekness and gentleness. Even in such circumstances, his example looms before us. We must support the weaker. We must not divide and argue over rituals and those secondary aspects of Christian practice about which godly men disagree. Pleasing our Savior and one another must be more important to us than being right. He is pleased with us when we do not live to please ourselves but to serve one another. This is his new commandment. This is the way he saved us. This is the way we enjoy our common salvation in him. The more we love him, the more we shall love one another. This is the secret of love in the church: for each disciple to be more in fellowship with Jesus Christ; for each disciple to become a more ardent lover of Jesus Christ. Then, we shall pray for one another, seek to do eternal good to one another, and live not for ourselves but for the building up of the body. This is Christ loving in us. It is a taste of heaven on earth. It is a witness to the world that God is among us and is transforming us into lovers of men. By this shall all men know (John 13:35).