Commentary on Romans 15:4-13
There are many striking features of Romans 15:4–13 that might stimulate a preacher’s imagination. It begins and ends with God-given hope (verse 4, 12–13). It is filled with exhortations to glorify God because of God’s work through Jesus Christ (verses 6–7, 9). And at its center, this passage implores believers to welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed them (verse 7).
The word “welcome” can have various connotations. It serves as the standard polite response to being thanked and as an indicator of hospitality on doormats. But if a stranger were to knock on the door of a house bearing a “welcome” plaque, what kind of response would they receive from the homeowner? Would they actually be invited into the home? If so, would they be asked to stay for a meal and conversation? Might an ongoing friendship develop from such an encounter?
The “welcome” Paul describes in Romans 15:7 (NRSV) connotes something deeper than exchanging pleasantries or a general appearance of hospitality. The Greek verb behind it, proslambanō, can also be translated as “accept” (NIV) or “receive” (NKJV). Such translations convey the relational implications of Paul’s exhortations in Romans 15:4–13 and the rest of the letter.
The Roman Christian communities that Paul addresses were likely composed of both Jewish and gentile believers. Indeed, a core part of the gospel that Paul articulates in Romans is that God, through Jesus Christ, has included gentiles along with Jews in the divine blessings and promises given to the people of Israel. This is reflected in Romans 15:8, where Paul declares that Jesus Christ—himself a Jew—became a servant of the Jewish people (or “the circumcised”; NRSV) precisely to show that God has been faithful to fulfill promises made to the patriarchs of Israel.
To support this point, Paul interprets the Scriptures christologically. We see this in Romans 15:3, where Paul has Christ speaking the words of Psalm 69:9b. This portrays Christ as the one who has taken humanity’s insults that were directed toward God upon himself. Christ’s service (see also Romans 15:8), therefore, was not about pleasing himself but rather involved giving his life to bring humanity, which was alienated from God, into relationship with God.
This humanity also includes gentiles. In Romans 15:9–12, Paul again draws on Scripture to now show that God’s gift of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is also for gentiles so that they too might glorify God (see also Romans 3).
The Scriptures, therefore, and the Christ they witness to, provide both the theological grounding and model for how the Roman (and all) Christians are to live united in a community that accepts its members’ differing backgrounds and convictions (Romans 15:4–6). Presenting Christ’s own “welcome” as the standard for how Christians are to welcome one another sets the bar high—far above simply greeting one another as we take our seats in the sanctuary or the pastor issuing a general welcome to visitors from the pulpit without anyone taking time to speak with them after the service. Christ’s acceptance of all people came at the cost of his own life. His service to God and people turned away from God meant laying down his own life (see also Romans 5:6–11). It is this gift of ultimate love that empowers Christians by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13) to also serve each other in ways that build up all members of the community, even when it is difficult or costly to oneself (for example, 15:1–3).
In Romans, Paul speaks of this specifically in terms of the “strong” putting up “with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). In 14:1–4, he uses the same verb for “welcome” (proslambanō) to command believers to “welcome” or “accept” (verse 1) without judgment those who are weak in faith because God has already “welcomed” or accepted them (verse 3). There is debate about whether, or to what extent, Paul’s directives about conflicting understandings of acceptable foods and religious practices in this chapter are addressing specific issues within the Roman Christian communities or are more generally speaking to the dynamics of any diverse Christian community.1 In any case, they demonstrate the principle that is binding on all Christian communities: do no harm to one’s neighbors but instead build them up, even if it means suspending one’s own rights and privileges (Romans 14:13–23; 15:2).
This is how Christians of diverse backgrounds and convictions can glorify God by living in harmony with one another (15:5–6). Seen in context, Romans 15:4–13 thus presents both a challenge and a word of hope to Christians today. It is much easier for many Christians to truly accept people who vote like them or hold the same views on controversial social issues than it is to intentionally develop mutually edifying relationships with believers who disagree on such matters. It can be difficult to suspend one’s preference for a “traditional” or “contemporary” style of worship in order to praise God in harmony with others who have different preferences. And it may feel awkward to invite people over for dinner who do not share one’s socio-economic or citizenship status. But this is precisely the type of other-oriented love and acceptance that the gospel not only calls people into, but also empowers.
It is important, therefore, to meditate on Paul’s blessing in 15:13. He prays that the God of hope will fill believers with joy, peace, and yes, abundant hope! Such hope involves trusting that God, by the power of the Spirit, is working in the church to bring about the kind of Christ-like community that humans cannot create on their own, or perhaps even envision in the present.
- See, for example, Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 196–199.
December 4, 2022