What Church Looks Like
By Mark E. Hardgrove, Ph.D.
Text: Romans 15:5-13
13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (NIV)
Here’s a simple, but a very important question for the church today. The question is this: What should the church look like? Some say the church should look like the world in order to be relevant to the world. Others act like the church should be so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good. Some view the church only through their own cultural lenses. They say the church should look American. While others say it should look Jamaican, or Romanian, or African. Some say it should look like we’re at a party, while others say it should look somber and quiet. So, this simple question becomes very complex, and yet remains very important for us to consider today, even as it was an important question during the first century as Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans.
As an apostle to the Gentiles, the apostle Paul was faced with the daunting task of attempting to lead non-Jewish people into faith in the Jewish Messiah, while at the same time trying to help the Jewish believers understand that God wants to bring into the family of God those who were considered as being outside the covenant relationship unless they were willing to embrace elements of the Law of Moses. This was no small task for Paul and at times the resistance he faced was so violent that he was beaten, stoned and left for dead. Yet in his endeavor to carry out the mission, Paul was willing to face rejection by his own countrymen, prison, shipwreck, and anything else that the enemy could dish out.
In writing to the Romans, Paul is writing to a community of believers comprised both of Jewish and Gentile believers, but it is evident from this epistle that there was some division and continued tension between Jewish and Gentile believers. So, Paul attempts to address the theological, spiritual, and relational issues that this diverse community of faith was facing.
For the Jewish believers there was a sense that a believer must look Jewish, after all Jesus was a Jew and was the Jewish Messiah. According to them the believer must adopt some of the Jewish laws such as the dietary laws as well as certain holy days, and for males the believer must be circumcised. As you can imagine, some of these requirements did not appeal to the Gentile believers, especially the adult males.
The Gentile believers came from a completely different culture and religious perspective. In their pagan religions and cultures they practiced things that were anathema to the Jews. There were issues of meat offered to idols, sexual practices such as temple prostitution, and many other issues of morality that were not viewed through the same cultural lenses that the Jewish Christians used.
So the Jewish Christians said that a believer should look like this, while the Gentile Christians said that a believer should look like that. So which is it—this or that? Paul says it’s neither this nor that, but a believer is a new creature in Christ Jesus. Paul says that whether you are a Jew or a Gentile it all boils down to faith in Jesus Christ. He said it comes down to “the gospel of Jesus Christ for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).
I) CHRISTIANS LOOK UNITED
So then, if “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), then what does a believer in Jesus Christ look like? In our text I see two verses where Paul begins with the words, “Now may the God of”—verse 5 and verse 13—and this represents Paul’s prayer for the church, his desire for this diverse community of believers. So I believe Paul is telling us in our text what the church should look like. Paul is telling us that the church should not be marked by division or hostility or pride or class-ism or racism, or any other ism or schism. Instead Paul says in verses 5 through 7 of Romans 15:
5 Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, 6 that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.
To begin, Paul says that the church should be marked by its unity. The church should not be marked by division and strife, but we should all with one mind and voice be glorifying God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot glorify God and still be divided. We may stand on the stage and sing songs, or play instruments, or preach sermons, but we cannot glorify God and be speaking against one another. We may work in an office, or teach a Sunday school or Wednesday night class, but we cannot be divided and still glorify God. We may be rich or we may be poor, we may be black or we may be white, we may be Hispanic or we may be European, we may be Korean, or we may be Jamaican, or we may be African-American, but we cannot be divided and also be glorifying God. We cannot be speaking against one another and at the same time be giving pure and undefiled praise and worship to God.
What does a Christian look like? He looks like someone who can love anyone and who will work in unity with other believers to promote the kingdom of God. Paul says that a Christian will bear with the weaknesses of others and will be willing to serve others, even if it means doing so sacrificially. The concept of personal sacrifice is a dirty word in a world that is obsessed with self. We live in a world where the underlying question for so many, whether the issue is church or marriage or death, is “What do I get out of it?”
The funeral director for my father’s funeral is an old friend, and he told me that he didn’t know how much longer he could continue to do that job and the reason for his statement, he said, is that he is observing that the new generation coming up and coming into his funeral home to bury their loved ones, are obsessed with themselves. The families are dysfunctional and fragmented and the death of a parent doesn’t bring them together, but they fight with one another trying to see who can get what from the insurance or property of their dead parent.
Some of you may have heard about the woman here in the area that had the body of her mother delivered to a funeral home for cremation. She basically left the body of her mother there and told the funeral director that it is his problem, because she doesn’t have the money to have her mother cremated. The funeral director got a hold of the other sister to find out what the deal was and she said that she gave her sister the insurance money to give to take care of the internment of their mother. Instead, her sister took the money, dropped off the body of their dead mother, and then disappeared with the money. This is the world we’re living in and this culture of selfishness has invaded the church as well.
Paul says that the church shouldn’t look like the world. The church shouldn’t be filled with a bunch of self-centered, backbiting, babies. We should be different. Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” God is glorified when His people learn to love another and serve one another, and learn to work in unity and harmony with one another as we reach out to the lost, the last, and the least among us.
II) CHRISTIANS LOOK JOYFUL, PEACEFUL, AND HOPEFUL
Paul goes further in verse 13 and outlines what he would like to see in the lives of the believers. In the New International Version it is stated like this: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” This is Paul’s prayer for the Jewish and Gentile believers in the great City of Rome. Let’s break this down a little, because I believe it is God’s will for the Conyers Church of God in the great City of Conyers, Georgia in the year 2010. Let’s look at it phrase by phrase:
Paul says, “May the God of hope . . .” Paul describes our God as a “God of hope.” This is the nature of the God we serve. He brings hope to the hopeless. What is hope? The Greek word is elpis and it refers to “a well-grounded expectation and a gladly and firmly held prospect of a future good.” This is the God we serve. He brings, by virtue of His very nature, a sense of good expectations for those who trust Him. I wake up almost every morning expecting something good. I anticipate the blessings of God on my life as I follow His will for my life. If you serve the God I serve, you are serving a God of hope. This is the God Paul is praying to here on behalf of the church.
What is Paul asking of the God of hope? Paul says, “May the God of hope fill you . . .” Paul didn’t pray that God would just touch them, or just dab a little of this on them, but Paul pictures them as empty vessels and Paul’s prayer is that the God of hope would fill them up. Fill them up with what: With money, with fame, with prestige or popularity? No, Paul had something much more valuable than fame or fortune in mind. Paul said, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace . . .”
In the Greek the words are charis and eirene. Charis refers to delight, joy, and gladness, and eirene refers to “peace or rest; in contrast with strife, and denoting the absence or end of strife, disagreements, or conflict.” But look at what Paul prays. He prays that God would fill them with all joy and peace. He is talking about a superabundance of joy and peace, about being filled up on the inside with God’s joy and peace. God is the source, and as such this isn’t the joy that the world gives, and because the world didn’t give it . . . the world can’t take it away.
Notice however, that there is a condition to this joy and peace. What is it? In the King James and New King James Version it says “in believing,” believing in the God of hope. In the New International Version it says “as you trust in him.” So the promise of this joy and peace is fulfilled when we learn to believe in God, when we put our trust in Him. If we are trusting in the government, then there isn’t much to joy or peace to be had. If we are trusting in our money, or trusting in our job, then we are likely to be disappointed. But if we can but believe, if we can trust in the God of hope, then all joy and peace are as sure to follow as day follows night.
But Paul takes it a little further. It’s not just about the joy and peace, but if we are trusting in the God of hope, then it stands to reason that hope will be ours as well. Not just a little hope, but Paul says “so that you may overflow with hope.” Paul is talking about a bounty of hope, about a people who exude confidence in the Lord to save them and keep them in the palm of His hand even when the world is falling apart around you. How does God do this? Paul said, “by the power (the dunamis) of the Holy Spirit.”
This is a supernatural empowering or enabling by the Holy Spirit. You don’t get this kind of joy and peace and hope by sitting on a mountain somewhere and chanting “Cum by yah.” This isn’t something you can muster up within you by the power of your own sheer will. This is a God thing, this is God’s gift to those who believe in Him, and who trust Him, regardless of the winds or the waves that are beating upon your ship. This type of joy and peace and hope come only to those who are trusting in Him and it only comes by the power of the Holy Spirit.
III) WE ARE THE CHURCH LET’S LOOK LIKE IT
In other words, Paul’s prayer is for the Holy Spirit to empower the church to walk around with hope oozing from the pores of our spiritual being, even while we live in a world on the brink of despair. We are the church. We aren’t like the world. We’re in the world, but we’re not of the world. The world may be on the precipice of disaster, but we are the church and we’re not going down, we’re going up and we’re going over. We’re not the like the world, we don’t look like the world, we are the church and we’ve read the back of the Book and we know that we win. In the meantime we are looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ.
Wall Street and Main Street may think there is no hope and may believe that we’re going under, but we’re the church, and we’ve been empowered by the Spirit to walk through this life with our head up and our hands high, because we have been filled with joy and peace and we’ve got hope, the future expectation of good, we’ve got hope overflowing from our being and pouring out to touch the lives of those around us who are living in despair.
We may not always have all the money we might want, but we’ve got hope. We may not always have the government on our side, but we’ve got hope. We may not always feel like dancing down the aisles of the church, or swinging from the chandeliers, but we’ve got hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is to look like people of joy, people of peace, and people filled with hope from the God of hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
If this is what the church looks like, then let’s look like it, let’s live it, let’s walk it and let’s talk it. If this is what the church looks like, then the world ought to be able to look at us as individuals and as a body of believers and say, “There goes a Christian, and I like what I see.” The world needs the church to look like the church.
Someone once said, “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck then . . . it’s a duck.” If we look like the world, talk like the world, and walk like the world, then . . . we’re not the church. Paul says the church should be a place of unity, of harmony, of cooperation and mutual concern. The church should be filled with joy and peace, and the church should be overflowing with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What does the world see when it looks at us? Does it see a duck, or does it see the Bride of Christ with our robes washed in the blood of the Lamb? Does it see believers who love one another? Does the world look at our life or my life and see someone who is filled with joy and peace and whose words and works exude hope by the power of the Holy Spirit? Because if it doesn’t then we’ve got a problem, because this is what the church looks like.
What about your life today? Can the people around you see the unity, the joy, the peace and the hope by the power of the Holy Spirit? If not, why not? If not, then why not let the God of hope do a work in your life today. Let him give you “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, [and] the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isa. 61:3). Do you walk like a duck or does your life truly reflect the unity, the joy, the peace, and the hope by the power of the Holy Spirit? This is what a Christian looks like. This is what a Christian looks like and if you have division, anger, or rancor in your life, if you lack joy and peace, and if your life if void of hope, then according to Paul, you don’t look like a Christian. Wouldn’t you like to look a Christian? Doesn’t that look good?
It will take some real courage for some of you admit today that you don’t look like the picture Paul painted for us here. We are looking into the mirror of God’s Word today and if we look in it and see that we don’t look like the picture Paul portrays, then we need to be brutally honest with ourselves and walk down the aisle today and pray that by the power of the Holy Spirit, our lives would be transformed into the witness that God looks for in us.