Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. ~Romans 15:7
Have you ever been the odd person out in a group? Most of us know what it feels like to be a stranger in a room full of friends, to be the third wheel, or worse, to receive the cold shoulder when reaching out to someone. It’s a feeling of shame, of aloneness, of hurt, even when those around you have no idea what they are unintentionally doing.
That unintentionality is at the heart of a lot of unwelcoming behavior; people usually aren’t cold and cruel on purpose (if you are, it’s a symptom of a far deeper problem). We’re just wrapped up in our own lives and our own friends, to the neglect and exclusion of others around us. Most unwelcoming behavior is a result of our default outlook of self-centeredness. It takes great intentionality to break the cycle.
Sadly, lazy, unwelcoming selfishness infects the church and the people of God. Have you ever visited a new church, only to have no one greet you except the usher at the door? Have you ever visited a small group and found it impossible to enter into relationship or conversation with anyone? Ever been the victim of a youth group clique? Have you ever sat alone at a church function surrounded by happy, chatting friends? Or turn it around on your own heart: do you seek out visitors to greet on Sunday morning, or do you just hang around your friends or family? I wonder how many visitors and seekers have been turned off to the claims of the gospel simply because no one bothered to welcome them.
In Romans 15, Paul lays out a radically different vision of what our churches and families and groups of friends should look like. In this passage, Paul takes what seems like a relatively trivial and simple issue– welcoming others– and imbues it with profound significance by connecting it to missions, to God’s glory, and to the cross. Paul doesn’t see our welcoming attitude as a light or insignificant thing. Instead, he tells us that massive realities are at stake in whether or not we will be welcoming people. The gospel is at stake in our welcoming. God’s glory is at stake in our welcoming. And God’s mission to reach your neighborhood and the nations is at stake in our welcoming.
In this study, we will be looking at four things: first, we’ll examine the command to be welcoming and consider the full implications of what that should look like. Then we’ll see how Paul connects this virtue, first to the cross, then to God’s glory, and finally to God’s mission to make Jesus Christ famous to the ends of the earth.
UNITY THAT EMBRACES OUTSIDERS
The context of our Cross Connections verse, Romans 15:7, is hugely important as we look to understand all the claims that this command lays on us. Let’s look at the surrounding verses:
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
In Romans 15, Paul is reaching the end of his glorious unpacking of the gospel and its implications for believers. What you might not realize, however, is that Paul had a specific purpose in mind for writing Romans. He had never visited the church in Rome, but he planned to, and wanted the church’s support for his intended mission to Spain. He wanted the Roman church to serve as a launching pad for his mission to preach Christ where he had never been named, to bring the gospel to unreached peoples past Italy, in Spain and Gaul and beyond. So he wrote Romans to lay out his gospel, so that the church would join him in helping him spread it to the unreached. Romans, in other words, is a missionary support letter.
And so, as he comes to the close of his letter and begins turning his attention to a final missionary appeal, he shares his heart for the Roman church, and for us: that we, grounded in this great gospel, would be so passionate about unity and outreach, that the natural bent of our hearts and lives would be directed towards God’s mission to our neighborhoods and the nations.
Paul’s prayer of blessing for the Romans, and for us, is found in Romans 15:5- “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
MELODY VS. HARMONY
This prayer for unity paints a beautiful picture of what true Christian unity looks like: not monolithic sameness or conformity, but rather common love and common purpose in the midst of diversity. The key to seeing this vision lies in the word “harmony.” “May God…grant you to live in such harmony with one another…” The picture here is of the church being one choir, with one song, made up of many different voices singing different parts.
Harmony, as you probably know, is a musical term. It refers to the orderly arrangement and blending of different notes and parts to create a fuller, more beautiful sound. A good choir doesn’t have everybody singing the same notes at the same time. Some people sing the melody, some people harmonize high notes based off the melody, some harmonize bass notes based off the melody, and together all the different notes blend together into one beautiful song.
That picture is exactly the vision Paul lays out for the church in Romans 15:5-6. Christian unity doesn’t mean looking the same or acting the same, or even, surprisingly, all believing the same things about everything. Christian unity doesn’t mean that everyone in your church dresses the same, or likes the same music, or come from the same racial or socio-economic or political or denominational backgrounds. In fact, Paul is praying for the opposite: that our churches would be filled with suit-wearers and flip-flop wearers, with people who like hymns and people who like rock n’ roll, with black and white and every other race, with rich and poor, with Democrat and Republican. The unity that Paul is after here in Romans 15, and the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17, is a unity of common love and common purpose in the midst of diversity.
Firstly, Biblical unity comes together around a common love– God’s saving love for us and our love for him. That’s what the little phrase, “in accord with Christ Jesus” means. This harmony lines up with Jesus’ heart of love, who came into the world on a mission of sacrificial, substitutionary love. He came on a mission of welcome: to welcome us, to throw open the doors of heaven to sinners, and to make sure the way of salvation. That saving message is the center of biblical unity.
This means that unity and harmony can, and should, exist across denominational, racial, economic, personality, and political lines. These differences are real, and important, and we may disagree on important points, but what unites believers transcends all other human categories. If you have eyes to see it, you have more in common with a believer who has a very different personality than you, or who is from a different denomination, race, and political group, than you do with an unbelieving family member: you share a Savior and a Spirit and a Father and a hope of unending joy and glory together. One day, all political parties will cease, all denominational walls will fall, and redeemed people with redeemed personalities from every tribe and language and nation will be united in worship around the throne, praising the Lamb who was slain. Biblical unity strives to make that future scene more and more a reality in the present.
Secondly, biblical unity comes together around a common purpose: “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God’s glory– his great worth, power, beauty, and value– is most clearly seen when diverse people come together in support of one great vision and one great cause: the fame and renown of Jesus in all our lives and in all the world. If one group of similar people had a singular purpose like that, the watching world could easily brush it off as yet another group with another agenda. But the reality of Jesus’ work in our hearts shines compellingly when vastly different people unite around this common purpose. When the world sees black and white and Republican and Democrat and rich and poor united in singing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” they have no explanation for that. And Jesus is greatly glorified.
I stress this point of unity in the midst of diversity because it is foundational to the conclusion that Paul draws in verse 7. What’s the necessary outcome of a unity built on the harmony of diversity and a common love and common purpose? “Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Our common love and common purpose will necessarily be bent outwards to include those on the outside.
True biblical unity embraces outsiders, because our common love says that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and our common purpose says that his glory shines brightest when different people unite in praising him. If those things are true, how could we continue to stay in our homogenous holy huddles and ignore those on the outside? That’s not gospel-centered biblical unity; that’s false unity built on human dividing lines.
Have you thought of your own tendency to only hang out with your friends and to neglect intentional welcoming in such stark terms? It’s not wrong to have friends who are similar to you, and to enjoy their company. But when you gravitate to those who are like you, whose company you enjoy, who share your interests, to the exclusion of others and to the neglect of intentionally reaching out to others, you have established false unity built on human, worldly dividing lines, and are living contrary to the gospel.
Instead, a life centered on the common love of the gospel and common purpose of glorifying God looks relentlessly outward and intentionally tries to connect with others to welcome them and bring them into community. Welcoming others and building gospel-centered unity in diversity is your mission. This means that when you’re in church on Sunday, you’re on mission; when you’re hanging out with friends, you’re on mission; when you’re at the office, you’re on mission. Life is mission work, an endless seeking and welcoming (more on that later).
AS CHRIST HAS WELCOMED YOU
After establishing this vision for harmony in diversity, Paul proceeds to connect our own welcoming spirit to three things: Jesus’ cross, Jesus’ glory, and Jesus’ mission.
We can clearly see the Cross Connection in the phrase, “as Christ has welcomed you.” “Welcome one another,” Paul says, “in the same way as Christ has welcomed you.” But what exactly does that mean?
MAKING ENEMIES FRIENDS
One way Christ has welcomed us is by turning enemies of God into friends of God. “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). Jesus went to the cross so that people like you and me, who by nature are opposed to God’s rule in our lives, could have our sins forgiven and our hearts changed, and be brought into never-ending relationship with our Creator. You were once an enemy of God; now, if you have trusted Christ, you are friends with the Creator of the universe. How that should take our breath away!
This means that if we’re going to welcome people in the same way that Christ welcomed us, our “welcoming” means extending our intentionality beyond our friends, beyond our acquaintances, even beyond people we don’t know, and it means looking for opportunities to reconcile with those who have wronged us. Does that sound hard to you? Of course it is; but the best way to cultivate a heart that is inclined toward enemies is by continually returning to this truth again and again: God’s heart is inclined towards enemies like you, and you owe everything to that.
SEEKING AND SAVING THE LOST
Jesus didn’t go after the “good people” (as if there were any), or the people who were like him (again, as if there were any). No, he said that he had come into the world “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He purposefully and intentionally went after the broken, the sinful, the worst. He hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes (would you be willing to be seen in such company?); he invited himself over to the house of Zaccheus, who was the most despised man in town. He was so intentional about this that it damaged his reputation; he was known as “the friend of sinners” (a name that, while precious to us, was intended to be an insult).
What do your relationships say about you? Certainly, we have to be careful and wise in how we pursue relationships with worldly people; we are much more liable to temptation in these areas than Jesus was. On the other hand, though, the solution is not to protect ourselves from the world and stay in our homogenous holy huddles. We should be intentional about building relationships with unbelievers, and look for ways that our love for Jesus can rub off on them.
BREAKING DOWN DIVIDING WALLS
Ephesians 2 says that another way Jesus has welcomed us was by dying in our place to break down the dividing walls of hostility that keep us from fellowship with God and fellowship with each other. “He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Colossians 2:14-15). One benefit of the death of Christ is that it brought an end to the Old Testament law’s purpose of separating God’s people from the nations; everything that excluded outsiders and kept God’s people insular and separated was fulfilled by Jesus and abolished in his death, which inaugurated a new covenant for all who trust in him. The new covenant, bought by Jesus’ blood, transformed holiness from an external dividing wall to an internal agent of transformation (see Ezekiel 36:25-27). Because of this new covenant, God’s people are no longer a people defined by exclusion, but by mission: “You will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), Jesus said.
One of the implications of Ephesians 2 is that the gospel breaks down our dividing walls as well. What separates you from others, and keeps you from embracing them with a spirit of gospel-centered, missions-driven welcome? Who are “those people” that you don’t associate with, or steer clear of– people with a certain appearance, a certain race, those from a certain school… or maybe just people you don’t know? Jesus died to break down all the walls that separate you from God, and you from others, and now his call for you is to live that out as you “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.”
We could go on and on with all the ways that Jesus has welcomed us: adopting rebels into his family, opening the doors of heaven to sinners, granting access to the throne of grace and more. Or we could look at all the ways Jesus displayed a welcoming spirit in his earthly ministry; he had compassion on those who interrupted his plans, he welcomed little children, and he never turned away those who needed him. His whole life was a life of welcome, and with his Spirit living through us, our lives should look the same.
FOR THE GLORY OF GOD
The second thing that Paul connects our welcoming to is the biggest possible reality in the universe: the glory of God. And he shows us how both Jesus’ welcome to us in the gospel, and our own gospel-driven welcome to others, have God’s glory as their ultimate goal.
Our own welcoming spirit, perhaps more than any other single trait, will commend Christ to outsiders. This is what Jesus prayed for us: “that they may all be one… so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The reality of Jesus Christ’s saving mission will be demonstrated in our unity– not our homogenous holy huddles, but our embracing, diverse, Christ-centered unity that reaches out and welcomes others. That’s why Paul said, “Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
On Sunday morning, as you are thinking about who to talk to– that newcomer in the pew in front of you, or your friends sitting behind you– God’s glory is at stake. Will Jesus be on display as you reach out to those on the outside, or will he be obscured behind the wall of separation that you put up as you turn to those who are already in your group?
This aim of glorifying God is the aim that Jesus had in welcoming us. You can see that again in the command from Romans 15:7:”Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” That doesn’t just mean that we welcome one another for God’s glory. It also means that Christ has welcomed us for God’s glory. What Paul is saying is, “Welcome one another in the same way and for the same reason that Christ has welcomed you; in other words, for the glory of God.” God’s glory is the central reason why you, an unworthy sinner, alienated from God, have been welcomed into his kingdom and his family. His fame, and the display of his worth, love, and power, is why you are a believer today.
This has profound implications for the command to welcome one another, because of the ultimate reason behind that command. The reason why God commands us to welcome one another is not so that we’ll all be happy and sing “Kumbaya” together, but ultimately so that his fame will reach from our lives to our neighborhood to the nations, until “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of LORD as waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). And as Paul brings his missionary support letter to a close in Romans 15, thats where he turns our attention.
SO THAT THE NATIONS MIGHT GLORIFY GOD
After saying that we should welcome one another for God’s glory, because Jesus welcomed us for God’s glory, Paul draws out a conclusion that has massive implications for missions and the way we live our lives.
Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For (because!) I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the nations might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the nations, and sing to your name.” And again it is said, “Rejoice, O nations, with his people.” And again, “Praise the Lord, all you nations, and let all the peoples extol him.” And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the nations; in him will the nations hope.” ~Romans 15:7-12
“Welcome one another for the glory of God,” Paul says, “because that’s exactly what Jesus came to do.” Verse 8 begins with “For” or “Because,” meaning that Paul is giving this as the foundational reason for obeying the command in verse 7 to welcome one another. Trace Paul’s logic from verse 7-9: we should welcome one another for the same reason Christ welcomed us– in other words, for the glory of God– because Jesus came for two primary reasons: to prove that God keeps his promises to his people (verse 8), and so that the nations would join his people in praising God forever (verses 9-12).
In verse 9, we’re given the first reason that the Son of God became incarnate as a man: he became a servant to the circumcised (in other words, to God’s covenant people, the Jews) to show God’s truthfulness and to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs. Jesus came in the fullness of time to prove that God keeps all his promises– “all the promises of God find their ‘yes’ in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). From the first promise of a Savior given to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15), to the promise of universal blessing given to Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3), to the promise that a descendant of David would rule forever (2 Samuel 7:16), to all of God’s promises to never leave or forsake his people, Jesus came to purchase, prove, and confirm all of them. God’s trustworthiness has been completely vindicated in the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. Jesus didn’t just come to make a happy, holy huddle out of people who believe his promises; he came to earth so that his grace to spill out of the banks of Israel and flood the world with praise. “Christ became a servant… in order that the nations might glorify God for his mercy.”
Hear the connection that Paul makes between our welcoming one another, and Jesus’ mission to the nations in Romans 15:7-9: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God, because Christ became a servant in order that the nations might glorify God for his mercy.” In other words, the ultimate aim of us welcoming others is the same aim Jesus has: that our open-hearted, open-armed servanthood would bend our attention and affection away from ourselves and toward outsiders and the ends of the earth. The call to welcome one another is the call to put our lives and relationships on mission and use every opportunity as a platform to extend the worship of Jesus to more and more people.
One of the best ways to begin to cultivate a heart for missions and the nations is by beginning to obey the command of Romans 15:7 to welcome one another. Intentionally bending your life towards welcoming outsiders and building bridges to those who are different from you is the first practical step towards being a Great Commission Christian. If you’re happy in your homogenous holy huddle and not involved in actively expanding your circle to include outsiders, then you’re certainly not involved in the radical, sacrificial sending and going that the Great Commission requires.
Paul’s connection between welcoming and missions shows us the seriousness, weight, and global implications for this command. The command, “welcome one another” extends far beyond coffee fellowship time on Sunday morning and includes God’s mission to make his Son famous to the ends of the earth. “Welcome one another” is way more significant than whether or not people are happy visiting our homes and churches; the glory of God, the salvation of the lost, the completion of the Great Commission, and the everlasting worship of a redeemed people are at stake. That’s not hyperbole; that’s Romans 15:7-12.
The ultimate goal of the command “welcome one another” is not fellowship, it’s missions; and the ultimate goal of missions is worship. We practice the art and discipline of welcome and open-armed fellowship both to train our hearts towards reaching the lost, and to invite the lost and outsider into our experience of praising the Lamb who was slain. “Praise the Lord, all you nations, and let all the peoples extol him” (Romans 15:11) is the heart cry that will sustain the hard work, open eyes, intentionality, and perseverance that the command “welcome one another” requires.
So let’s work diligently to make connections in our lives between these great realities: unity in diversity, the gospel welcoming us, the glory of God, and Jesus’ praise among the nations. God is calling for our open doors and open hearts to commend Christ to our neighbors and to the nations, and for us to put our lives and our relationships on mission. Where has God put you in positions where you can be a smiling face, a warm handshake, a new friend, an open ear, an open door, and open heart, and a clear gospel witness?
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for going to such extraordinary lengths to welcome an alienated sinner like me. Thank you for laying down your rights and laying down your rights by dying in my place, and then by your Spirit pursuing me with holy abandon until you made me yours. Give me a heart like yours, that beats to extend your grace to others and longs to see your praise extend to the ends of the earth. Help me to love your glory more than I love my comfort zone, and push me outside of myself to be your hands and feet to those on the outside.