Dr. Richard L. Strauss
November 10, 1991
Purpose: To help us discover the strengths of the church at Rome, and then challenge us to follow their example.
The life of a local church often runs in a cycle. Churches are established, some of them grow and flourish, and have a fine ministry. But, unfortunately, they often peak out and begin to decline. Their time of effective ministry may vary, and some last much longer than others, but during those peak years, they are usually known for something distinctive, and that's the thing for which they are remembered.
Some churches are remembered primarily for their beautiful architecture, and if that's all, I would say that's pretty sad. Some are remembered for their departure from Biblical truth, and that's even sadder! But others are remembered for more commendable things, like a strong commitment to prayer, or the faithful exposition of God's word, or an aggressive world missionary outreach. Those are good things to be remembered for.
Most of you who are here today because you have chosen to be part of Emmanuel Faith Community Church. I'm sure there are many visitors as well, but for most of you, this is your church. We're pleased about that. And I hope you feel that way--that it is your church. Not Pastor Strauss' church or Pastor Welch's church. You're church. I mean, I hope you have that claim to it. Oh, we know it's Christ's church and I understand that fully. But I mean humanly speaking, this is the church to which you belong and you have an ownership in it. It's your church. And since you are a vital part of this church, I would like to ask you a question: What do you want your church to be remembered for?
We've been studying Paul's letter to the Roman church. Many theologians feel it is the greatest book in the whole Bible. I'm inclined to agree with them. But as we think back on the truth we've learned in this great book, I thought it might be helpful for us to reflect a little on the church to which it was originally written: the church at Rome. It was a church to remember.
How was it founded? What challenges did it face? What was it known for? What happened to it? The answers to those questions might help us maintain the right priorities--Biblical priorities--for our ministry here, and make us a church to remember. So let's begin at the beginning.
The Founding of the Church
While we know how some New Testament churches got started, we really don't know how the church at Rome began. We know that Paul didn't start it since it was already flourishing when he wrote this letter, and he had never been there. There have been some interesting suggestions, however.
Turn in your Bible back to Acts chapter 2: the great story of Pentecost. Acts 2:10, in the last part of the verse. Among the Jews from foreign countries assembled in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost were "visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes." Ah-ha! There were people from Rome present when Peter preached that great sermon when 3000 people put their faith in Jesus as their Messiah. We don't know that those people from Rome were among those who put their faith in Christ, but it is quite likely that some were--maybe two people we met in that honor roll of saints back in Romans 16:7: Andronicus and Junia. They would have returned to Rome and begun meeting together to worship their Lord, and they would have begun sharing their new-found faith with their friends and neighbors. And the church at Rome was born.
There is another possibility, however, and that is that some of the people who came to Christ through Paul's ministry in other places returned to Rome to found the church. He seems to have known many of them rather well. He greeted twenty-six individuals and five groups by name in chapter 16, and some of them were evidently converted through his ministry.
In Romans 16:5b, we read: "Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ." He was the first person who trusted Christ through Paul's ministry in Greece. Epaenetus was one who came to know Christ through Paul's ministry, and maybe he and others like him returned to Rome and started the church at Rome.
When Paul finally arrived on the Italian peninsula as a prisoner of the Roman government, in Acts 28, the believers from Rome walked along the Appian Way to a point nearly 40 miles south in order to meet him and escort him triumphantly back into the city.
Read Acts 28:15: "And from there, when the brethren heard about us, they came to meet us as far as Appii Forum and Three Inns." That happens to be nearly 40 miles from the city of Rome. That degree of familiarity and loyalty would indicated a prior relationship. Maybe Paul had led them to Christ.
Churches get started in a variety of ways. Ours came out of another church in town which is no longer in existence. But how they get started is not as important as how they rise to the challenge before them. So let's look at the challenge to the church at Rome.
The Challenge to the Church
The World in Which They Lived
The challenge to that church comes primarily through the world in which they lived. Rome was the greatest city in the world. And it was the capital of the greatest empire the world has ever known (Barclay, xxi). The population of Rome in Paul's day probably exceeded a million people. Among them were upper class landholders who held all the political power and lived in luxury in well-protected compounds. And there were rich merchants who bought, sold, and traded goods from all over the world in the streets and in the huge marketplace called the Forum. Materialism reigned supreme among them. They lived to acquire more and more. But most of the people were poor and the great masses were without work. They lived in the squalor of overcrowded slums, and were given free food every day by the government, and free entertainment to keep them occupied.
As a result, music and drama degenerated to satisfy the tastes of the masses. The stage featured course shows that filled the masses with obscenity and lust, and contributed to their further moral degradation. Violent contests in the arena between men and beasts and between men and men whet their appetite for bloodshed. These gladiatorial games glorified brutality (Tenney, The New Testament: A Survey, p. 84). Obscenity, lust, violence, brutality. It was not a very wholesome environment in which to live.
And then there was religion of the day. Religions of every description. Animism was the most primitive form, where people worshipped the gods of the fields, the trees, the mountains, the sun, the sky, the streams and the harvest. God was in everything so they worshipped these things. To them were added the Roman version of the Greek pantheon of gods. In Greece it was Zeus; in Rome, it was Jupiter and his cohorts--Juno, Neptune, Pluto and their friends. In addition, secret mystery religions captured the hearts of others. The worship of the occult also flourished, with people seeking to get spirits and demons to do their bidding by using certain rites or formulas. Many of the educated people believed that all religions were superstitions, and they didn't believe in any god. They opted for philosophy rather than religion. And on top of all of that, every citizen in the empire was required to worship the Roman emperor as a patriotic duty. Religion abounded, but most of it was inspired by Satan himself.
The Challenge They Faced
The challenge to believers in the church at Rome was to live in the world productively even though they were not of the world. The challenge was to live in the flesh--because they were all in the flesh, alive in a human body--without walking according to the flesh. That is, without patterning their lives in accordance to their fleshly nature. That's the way Paul put it in chapter 8.
Romans 8:12-13: "Therefore, brethren, we are debtors--not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live."
That's the same challenge we face today. Things haven't changed appreciably in 2000 years. As you listened to me going through the economic, social, and religious climate of Rome, you were probably saying to yourself, "Wow, that's exactly the same climate in which we live!" We are surrounded by luxury in our culture, just as they were, and many today--maybe some in this room--are living to acquire material things. Materialism reigns supreme in our own lives, sometimes in Christians' lives.
We are bombarded by an entertainment industry that glorifies obscenity and contributes to moral degradation, and a sports industry that often promotes brutality. Religions of every description abound and vie for our loyalty, not the least of which are occultism, spiritism and demonism, popularized by the New Age Movement. And then there are the secularists and atheists who reject all gods in favor of their own man-made philosophies. We are seeing an increasing secularization of our society.
Things haven't changed much in the last 2000 years, folks. The world situation is essentially the same. And the challenge to us is identical: to live in the world productively even though we are not of the world. It's to live in these fleshly bodies without patterning our lives after the flesh. That's the challenge we face, just as the Roman Christians faced.
The Key to Meeting the Challenge
How can we meet that challenge? The key is in Romans 8:5. "For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit." It all starts in the mind. It is largely dependent upon what we feed into our minds.
Paul repeats the idea in Romans 12:2a. "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God."
It depends on what we feed into our minds. And that's our choice. Nobody makes us read trash, or watch sexually explicit movies and TV programs. Nobody makes us do that; it's our choice. Nobody makes us listen to music that feeds the flesh. Nobody insists that we pour over catalogs that are filled with expensive trinkets, or walk the malls and shop til we drop. You see, it's not necessarily easy to live in the world without being affective by the world's values, but it is possible. It is possible in direct proportion to what we feed into our minds. Feed God's Word into it.
That was the challenge to the church in Rome, and it is God's challenge to us today. So, how did the church of Rome handle the challenge? What are they remembered for?
The Reputation of the Church
I would like to suggest that the church of Rome was known primarily for three things. Two of them are found in the text of Paul's letter to the Romans; we learn the third one from church history. Now keep in mind that the church of Rome drifted away from these things in later centuries. By the fourth century, they were no longer standing for these things. I'm talking primarily about the first century church at Rome. That's what this message is about this morning.
First, they were known for their faith. This was one of the first things we discovered in our study of this book.
Romans 1:8. "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world."
All over the known world their faith in Christ was being talked about. Little groups of Christians in isolated places were encouraged to hear that people in the imperial capital of the Roman empire had put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Savior from sin, and by that means had been declared right with God. Acceptable to God because they trusted His Son as their Savior.
Faith in Christ is what makes a person a Christian, and makes a church a Christian church. Faith in Jesus Christ--that is the major theme of the entire book.
Romans 1:16-17. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'The just shall live by faith.'"
It starts with faith and finishes with faith. That's the emphasis and theme of the book. To be righteous, or "justified" as it is sometimes translated, is to be declared "right" with God. That's all. Very simply. It means to be declared right with God. That happens when we place our faith in Christ.
The quotation from Habakkuk 2:4 says literally, "But the one who is righteous by faith shall live." Righteousness comes from faith. When we trust Jesus Christ as our Savior, God clothes us with righteousness for heaven.
These Roman Christians were truly living. They knew what life was all about right here on earth. They knew why they were here and they knew where they were going. And they would go on living in God's heaven for eternity because they put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Not in themselves or in anything they could do, but in Christ.
By Jesus' finished work on Calvary's cross, they were declared right with God. They were alive in Jesus Christ. They hadn't fallen for any of the Satanic lies that were floating around Rome: like real living consists of having more things or having more fun; or real satisfaction is to be found in the temple of some pagan god, or in some secret mystery religion, or in something occultic like spirit guides or horoscopes. They were truly alive because they were right with God by faith in His Son. And that reputation had spread all over the known world. What a reputation!
That's one of the primary things we want to be remembered for at Emmanuel Faith Community Church. We want to be remembered for our firm stand on the great Biblical doctrine that was rediscovered during the Protestant Reformation: justification by faith alone. Not faith plus anything we can do, but faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross, culminated by a triumphant resurrection from that garden tomb.
There is a second things mentioned in the book for which they will be remembered, and this one is found in the last chapter. Romans 16:19. "For your obedience has become known to all." Ah-ha! They were known for their obedience.
Justification by faith alone didn't mean they were free from the responsibility to obey God. Some people seem to think that. They think that because Emmanuel Faith Community Church emphasizes the Biblical emphasis on God's grace and salvation through faith alone, we believe you don't have to obey God. That's the furthest thing from the truth. Salvation through faith alone does not relieve us from our responsibility to obey.
The Roman Christians took obedience seriously. If God's Word said it, they simply obeyed it. They didn't try to explain it away, or find some clever way to get around it. They just did what God said to do. They didn't reinterpret the command to make it more palatable. They just obeyed it. They were famous for their obedience to God's Word.
And it wasn't a burden to them. They obeyed out of a heart of love for the Lord. And their love for Him was the natural response of His great love for them. The better they got to know God, the more they loved Him and responded in obedience. It wasn't tedious obedience; it was joyous obedience. If you know that somebody truly loves you, it isn't difficult to do what he wants you to do.
I read a story about a husband who was extremely demanding. He even wrote out a list of rules and regulations for his wife to follow, including what time she had to get up in the morning, when his breakfast should be served, and how the housework should be done, and all kinds of things like that. He insisted that she read them over every day and obey them to the letter. Needless to say, they had a miserable marriage. You knew that, didn't you?! You wives knew it!
After several long years, the husband died. As time passed, the woman fell in love with another man, one who dearly loved her. They were married, and her new husband did everything he could to make her happy, continually showering her with tokens of his appreciation. One day as she was cleaning house, she found tucked away in a drawer the list of demands her first husband had drawn up for her. As she looked it over, it dawned on her that even though her present husband had never mentioned any of those things, she was doing every one of them. She realized that she was so devoted to this man who loved her that her deepest desire was to please him, not out of obligation, but out of love. Pleasing him was her greatest joy (Daily Bread, March 24, 1985.)
Now bring that over to our situation. We as a church are being richly blessed of God, richly blessed. Sometimes I think about how God has blessed this church and I can't believe it. I can't believe that He's allowed me to be a part of it. It's been an amazing thing. It may get even better, but at least for the present we can say we are at our peak. What are we known for?
If you were to go out and ask someone who knows a little about the churches in San Diego County, what would they say about Emmanuel Faith Community Church? What are we known for? Our size? Pretty big. Our lovely buildings? They're as nice as I've seen anywhere. Our budget? It'd be nice if the offerings matched the budget a little better, but… [Audience laughter.] It's a pretty good-sized budget, approaching four million dollars per year. Our fine programs? We've got wonderful programs in almost every area I can think of. You know what would be good, folks? It would be good if Emmanuel Faith Community Church were known above EVERYTHING ELSE for our unquestioning obedience to the Word of God. That would be a great glory to God, a great joy to His heart.
For example, since God says we're to accept one another in spite of our differences, and to forgive others who wrong us, as difficult as that may be, we do it, simply because we love Him. God said it. We obey it. He says rejoice all the time. We just do that. We can't always rejoice for everything but we can always rejoice in the Lord in every circumstance. He says do all things without grumbling or complaining, so that's what we do. We do our ministries and serve our families and do our jobs without grumbling or complaining, because that's what He said to do. We just obey the Word of God.
He says be kind to one another, so we treat one another kindly. He says keep yourself pure and abstain from fornication, so we do that. Even what we look at and what we do in our minds. We don't rationalize it and delay it, we just obey. What a wonderful thing to be known for obedience.
How are we going to do that? We're going to do it the same way the Romans did: We're going to have to get to know Christ better. Let's get to know Him better in His unconditional love and inexhaustible grace. That's what will cause us to love Him more. And that's what will motivate us to obey Him more fully. It will be the greatest joy of our lives just to obey Him.
Faith and obedience are wonderful things to be remembered for. They would be great things for us as a church to be remembered for.
Steadfastness through Persecution
There is one more thing which the church at Rome is remembered, and this one we learn from church history. It is steadfastness through persecution.
As time went on, the Christians in Rome became more and more the object of hatred. There were several reasons for that--accusations that were being whispered about them. For one thing, it was said that they were cannibals. Can you believe that? That was a misrepresentation of the Lord's supper where they repeated the Lord's words: "This is My body" and "This is My blood."
For another thing, it was said that they were immoral. That was a misrepresentation of the weekly meal they shared together called "The Love Feast." It was that name that got the secular citizens in Rome all up in arms and they accused them of engaging in sexual orgies when what they were doing was sharing their food with one another.
Thirdly, it was said that they divided families. That one was partially true, as when one spouse became and Christian and the other did not, or when children became Christians and the parents did not. Yes, once in a while that did happen.
But the most serious accusation made against them was they were disloyal citizens, even guilty of treason. You see, once a year everybody in the Empire was required to burn a pinch of incense on an altar to the emperor, which most people considered to be more an act of patriotism than worship. After you did it, you could go and practice any religion you desired. So most people thought it was no big deal because after they burned the incense, they could worship as they pleased. But as people offered their incense they were required to say, "Caesar is Lord." And that the Christians could not do. They would call no man Lord. Jesus Christ alone was Lord.
Jews were exempted from that requirement, interestingly enough, since it was long known they were monotheists, and their religion was part of their national culture as a subject nation. So the nation of Jews was excluded from this requirement. So as long as Christianity was considered a sect within Judaism, Christians were exempted from the requirement. But as the church became more Gentile in character and crossed national boundaries, it was no longer exempted, and Christianity was viewed less and less favorably.
Nero, for example, took advantage of the antagonistic feelings against Christians when he blamed he fire in Rome on them, and that set off full-scale persecution. Eventually, it became a capital offence to be a Christian. If a person was suspected of being Christian, he was given an opportunity to renounce his faith, and if he refused he was executed. The catacombs in Rome, which were the burial places of martyred Christians, reveal that thousands were put to death for their faith in the first century of the church.
But they remained true to the Savior through that period of persecution, and as an early church father named Tertullian put it, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church.
Persecution and martyrdom did not extinguish their flame, but caused it to burn brighter. Another church father named Ignatius wrote a letter to the church at Rome in AD 115, and he referred to them as a church "...worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of congratulation, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy in purity, pre-eminent in love, walking in the law of Christ and bearing the Father's name" (Bruce, p. 18).
One of the leaders of the church named Polycarp (69-155) was put on trial for his faith in Christ. When the Roman proconsul told him to deny his faith, Polycarp answered, "For 86 years I have served Him, and He has never wronged me. How can I blaspheme my King, who has saved me?"
The proconsul then threatened to cast him in with the wild beasts, but Polycarp answered, "Call them!" He was then warned that he might be burned at the stake. Even that failed to move him. He responded, "You threaten me with fire which burns only for a moment, but you are ignorant of the fire of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly."
These were his final words before he was burned alive in front of spectators in the arena: "O Father of your beloved and blessed Son, Jesus Christ! I bless you that you have counted me worthy of this day, and of this hour, to receive my portion in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of Christ" (Daily Bread, December 4, 1989).
What a reputation! What an example! We very well may be called on to suffer persecution for our faith. I tore out of the October  issue of Moody Monthly, an article called "Occupational Hazards." It's a very interesting article. It tells the story of a college professor, of a newspaper editor, and some other people who have lost their jobs because they let their faith in Christ be known. They let people know they were Christians and they took a stand for Biblical morality and Biblical values, and they lost their jobs. This kind of thing is going to proliferate. You can count on it. We are facing an increased secularization in our society.
Do you know what the most banned book in this country is today? The Bible. That's right. It's the most banned book. Are we willing to stand up for Jesus Christ and be counted for Him and speak out for Him even when it costs us something? That's the challenge we face. That's the example of the Roman church.
Are we letting our faith be known to our neighbors and our fellow workers? People in the service organizations with whom we are affiliated? It would be good to be known as a people who share their faith--a congregation of people who stands steadfast in Jesus Christ, come what may.
We don't need to force our beliefs on anyone. But the Lord would be pleased if we stood boldly for Him and the truth of His Word, whatever the cost. That would be something worth being remembered for.
Will you commit yourself to making your faith in Christ known without shame, in the world in which God has placed you? Be like the apostle Paul who said, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek" (Romans 1:16). Are you willing to make that commitment today? It may cost you something before your life is over, but it will be worth remembering.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
By the way, there is no other way of eternal salvation, in this gospel, found in the person of Jesus Christ and His work on Calvary's cross. "Neither is there salvation in any other," Peter said, "for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). No other name.
Have you put your faith in Him? Have you turned from your sin in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for forgiveness and eternal salvation? Let's bow our heads prayerfully and reverently in His presence right now.
With our heads bowed to express our reverence to God, can I ask you if you have put your faith in Christ alone for your eternal salvation. Not in any church or religious organization or in any good deed, but in what Jesus accomplished for you when He died for your sins and rose again for your justification. If you're not certain you've made that decision, would you be willing to do it today? Just in the quiet of your own heart right where you sit, would you talk to Him and express your faith? That's the issue. Say something like this:
"Lord, I'm a sinner. But You died for my sins. You told me that in Your Word and I believe it. I'm asking You to come into my heart and save me from sin."
Father, I pray that of those who have never made this decision, some would today, and receive from Your gracious hand this wonderful gift of eternal life, which is found in Your Son. I pray that we who know Him will be known for our faith, and our obedience, and our steadfastness--whatever it costs us--that the Lord Jesus Christ, whom we love and serve, would be honored and magnified in our lives and in our church. For it's in His name we pray. Amen.