Don't give in to any attempt to tear down what Christ is building

Not long ago, I was watching a news story about a vacant building in the city of Pittston, Pennsylvania. Apparently, the building had been empty for quite a while and was creating a safety concern for the city since it had fallen into disrepair. After multiple attempts to resolve the issues with the property owner, the city government finally resorted to tearing the structure down. They brought in heavy machinery and ripped the building apart. At present, all that's left is the rubble which will soon be hauled away.

Because the property was in such disrepair, many of the local residents were thrilled to see it demolished. If I lived in that community, I would have felt the same exact way. But as I watched the video of the structure being torn down, I couldn't help but think about how much effort and how many man hours went into building it many years ago. Now, because of a long season of neglect and conflict with the local government, all that work had been reduced to a pile of debris.

Jesus made it clear in His word that at present, He is building His church and the devil will not succeed in destroying what Christ is building. Christ is building us up as individuals, as a family, and as an eternal kingdom. But even though Christ will ultimately be victorious in His efforts, there are still those who seek to tear down what He is establishing. He also warned us about these attempts ahead of time so we can be on our guard against them.

So how can we avoid giving in to any attempt to tear down what Christ is building up?

I. Watch out for those who create division

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 
— Romans 16:17-18, ESV

Have you ever encountered a divisive person? What have you observed in their behaviors? How do they speak? What do they say about others when they aren't around? How do they speak of those in leadership?

As Paul was wrapping up this letter to the Romans, he wanted to leave them with some words of caution regarding those who would attempt to tear down the work of Christ by causing division within the church. Paul actually encouraged the church to avoid people like that. His words remind me of conversations I've had with my children from time to time, particularly when they were little, admonishing them to avoid certain people who had the propensity to cause trouble or lead them in a bad direction.

Paul was obviously concerned for the long-term health of the church in Rome. He didn't plant that church, but that didn't make him any less invested in their well-being. His words in this letter remind me of the advise of a good coach. At times, he encouraged them to play good offense. Now he was encouraging them to beef up their defense.

In the culture at the time, there were many people who aspired to be teachers and influencers, much like in our culture. The apostles and other Christians felt compelled to do mission work and spread the gospel, city to city. But false teachers and false apostles also sprung up with the goal of fleecing people. Paul describes them as people who were primarily motivated by satisfying their own sinful appetites, and they would use smooth talk, flattery, and the distortion of the gospel to gain a following, then rob those who trusted them of their money.

We see this destructive activity taking place in our day as well. There are hosts of false teachers with big national platforms, who distort the gospel in an attempt to acquire the cash of those who make the mistake of trusting them. And on a more local level, churches are hurt by those who try to draw people unto themselves by undermining church leaders or causing division. In my years of ministry, I have personally witnessed that multiple times, and on several occasions I have directly experienced it.

So, what was Paul's counsel to the church at Rome, and what counsel would he give us when it comes to deceitful or divisive people who actively attempt to tear down what Christ is seeking to build up? Paul's counsel is decisive, and may even sound harsh, but it's quite wise. Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, Paul advises us to avoid such people. Don't give them a foothold in your life, and certainly don't give them a foothold in your local church.

We're advised to have our eyes and ears open, play some spiritual defense, and watch out for those who foster division.

II. Don't allow wickedness to worm its way into your life

For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.  The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
— Romans 16:19-20, ESV

What are you known for? What would you suppose your church is known for?

Paul paid a compliment to the church in Rome when he stated that their obedience was known to all. Genuine faith in Christ results in an obedience to Christ's teaching that's prompted by genuine love for Him. The Roman Christians were living in the midst of a culture where their government was openly hostile toward them. Some believers in their context were being crucified, burned alive, and fed to wild animals. At the behest of the Roman government, Peter was eventually crucified, and Paul was beheaded, so living in obedience to Christ wasn't a small matter in that culture. Paul certainly didn't offer this compliment without reason.

But in this context where playing both offense and defense mattered, Paul stressed both in these verses. Offensively, he encouraged the believers to grow in wisdom. They were to put that which was good before their eyes, apply the teaching of the gospel to their lives, and live out the counsel of Scripture.

Defensively, they were to be innocent as to what is evil. We know they were certainly surrounded by all forms of vice and temptation. They would likewise be presented with plenty of opportunities to deny Christ and be absorbed into the greater culture, but that isn't the will of God for His family.

The will of God is to allow us to share in the victory over sin that Christ secured on our behalf. Satan is a defeated foe. He doesn't need to have sway over our thinking, or dominion in our lives now that we belong to Christ. In fact, we're told here that the grace of Christ is with us and that God is going to crush Satan under our feet. This comment is reminiscent of the promise we read in Genesis 3:15 that was given after Satan influenced Adam and Eve to rebel against God and invite wickedness into their lives.

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
— Genesis 3:15, NIV

Is it possible that we're allowing wickedness to worm its way into our lives? What do we put before our eyes? What do we invite into our minds? What do we feed our ears and our hearts? Does our diet of influences feed Christ-centered wisdom and goodness, or worldly wickedness?

III. Be God's agent wherever He places you

Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen.

I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.

Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.
— Romans 16:21-23, ESV

I'm grateful for the diversity of backgrounds, gifts, and abilities that exist in the church. We all have something unique we bring to the table, and the Lord sends us out into every corner of the culture as His representatives. Use your gifts to glorify Christ, serve His people, and represent Him in our culture.

Like he did earlier in this chapter, Paul mentions a few additional names in this passage. He speaks of Timothy who was a young man that Paul was mentoring to serve in pastoral ministry. He speaks as well of others like Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater whom he refers to as His brothers in Christ. He mentions Gaius who was generous in showing hospitality to Paul and the church. He mentions Quartus who sent his greetings, and Erastus who was the city treasurer, presumably in the city of Corinth where Paul was writing this letter from. Even Tertius who wrote this letter down as Paul dictated it, said hello.

This small sampling of people was quite diverse in their roles and abilities, but one thing they had in common was their willingness to be God's agent wherever He placed them. Is that our ambition as well?

IV. Walk in the strength of Christ

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.
— Romans 16:25-27, ESV

As Paul finished this letter, he shared several final admonitions to the church. He wanted them to remember that the Lord was able to strengthen them in the knowledge of, application of, and appreciation for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul spent a large percentage of this letter explaining the theological particulars of the gospel. Some of these details and how they would apply to humanity were once undisclosed by God, but now this truth was being made known to all nations so that we could come to faith in Christ, joyfully obey Him, and bring glory to His name.

Life is different when we learn to appreciate the strength of Christ. Life is different when we choose to utilize the strength of Christ. When we walk in Christ's strength, we experience His power over our weaknesses, our circumstances, and the limited scope of our knowledge. Christ is stronger than our anxieties. He is stronger than our pain. He is stronger than any natural or supernatural opposition that may come against us. He invites us to walk in the strength He graciously offers.

Jesus is building His church. He is building us collectively and individually as members of His body. For thousands of years, there have been many attempts made to tear down what Christ is building, but no attempt will find ultimate success. Christ's kingdom will continue to grow and be established as His gospel goes forth and finds root in the hearts of those who trust Him.

© John Stange, 2019