1I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
God’s people are to be one because every essential doctrine of Christianity is defined by oneness. One body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.
But Christianity is also defined by its one-another-ness. We are a body, an assembly, a family. And therein lies the big obstacle to oneness. How do we learn to get along with each other, to maintain the unity which God by His Spirit has created for us.
I have been thinking with you over the last few weeks about the qualities Paul set forth as the basic building blocks of unity. I hope that as we have looked at what the Bible says about humility, gentleness, and patience, that you have looked for ways to apply these virtues in a more determined way to your fellowship in this congregation and to your relationships at home.
Today we are going to study the final quality Paul lays out for those truly eager to be what God intends, the virtue of forbearance, “bearing with one another in love”.
The Meaning of Forbearance
“Bearing with one another” is a very literal translation of the word Paul uses here in Ephesians 4. I took a look at some other versions to see how they expressed the meaning of forbearance.
The New American Standard Bible puts it like this: “showing tolerance for each other.” Forbearance means that we tolerate each other. Normally I don’t think of tolerance in connection with people, but with things, like medicine, or weather, or pain. I can’t tolerate penicillin (I’m allergic to it and it makes me break out in hives). I can’t tolerate hot weather very well (and many of you by the excessive sweaters, coats, shawls, blankets and parkas you are wearing clearly show that you can’t tolerate cold weather). I can tolerate needles, but I can’t tolerate swallowing big pills very well.
So for Paul to say we must show tolerance to each other, means that sometimes people do things that irritate us, that make us want to break out in hives. That make us feel uncomfortable, even to the point of being painful.
And the fact that he says we must do this for each other means that not only will there be times where you get on my nerves, but – as unthinkable as this may be – I just might get on your nerves. Forbearance is one of those virtues that is truly “more blessed to give than to receive.” It is noble to be forbearing; to tolerate someone else. We don’t like to think of it in terms of receiving forbearance – that someone has to tolerate us!
This is why forbearance is possible only for those who are humble, who have the self-awareness to realize that they are the problem. A humble person recognizes that just because other people don’t have the same personality they do, or the same talents they do, or always see things the same way they do, that doesn’t necessarily make them right or wrong, just different. Rather than resent those differences and clash, a humble person rejoices in those differences and shows tolerance.
And by placing great value on the ways we are different and celebrating those differences, we can then achieve far more together than we would on our own. That is part of Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 12 when he illustrated the members of the church as the parts of the body of Christ.
1 Corinthians 12
17If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
That’s why we show tolerance toward each other – we are different because that is how God made us, and if we treat each other like we should there is a powerful synergy between us because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Here’s another way to translate this word, this time from the New Living Translation. “Making allowance for each other’s faults.” We are different from each other – that inherently creates potential conflict. But on top of that diversity, there is another layer of possible contention. We have faults. People make mistakes. We lose our cool and say things we shouldn’t. We jump to conclusions and make rash accusations. We are selfish and petty. Forbearance takes this into account, and doesn’t react with feigned moral outrage every time someone says or does something they shouldn’t. “Well, I just can’t believe you would ever do that!” Really? Knowing what you know about the sinfulness of humanity in Scripture, it is shocking that someone might actually do something that they shouldn’t? That isn’t realistic, and even more to the point, it isn’t forbearing. I must accept the fact that from time to time someone that knows better will blow it, possibly at my expense.
And a forbearing person, one who makes allowance for the fact that other people sin time to time, treats those mistakes with the gentleness we talked about two weeks ago. Instead of dismissing someone because they are flawed, we are to bear with one another, correcting them with kindness and consideration.
A third way to translate this word comes from the Contemporary English Version: “put up with each other.” Have you ever said, “I don’t have to put up with this!” Well, we do have to put up with each other if we are going to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Forbearance is the commitment to show tolerance for differences and make allowance for mistakes over the long haul.
In fact, you could easily translate this word as “endurance.” That’s how it is rendered in 2 Thessalonians 1:4-
4Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
The Thessalonians did not quit when they faced trials; they endured. They put up with affliction. And in order for our relationships to endure, to stand the test of time, we must endure each other! This aspect of forbearance requires the patience we talked about last week, the willingness to be long-suffering toward each other. Anyone can put up with an annoyance for a couple of minutes, or excuse a one-time offense. True forbearance is an enduring determination not to give in to the impulses of resentment or retaliation.
The Pharisees were the embodiment of the exact opposite of forbearance. They were arrogant, assumed the posture that everyone else was wrong and only they were right. They sneered at those they deemed unworthy, as Jesus illustrated with the parable in Luke 18 about the Pharisee and the publican.
11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.'
And rather than teach tax-gatherers and sinners with gentleness, the Pharisees shunned them, and blistered anyone who dared to eat with them. Jesus illustrated their harsh, unforgiving spirit with the character of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who angrily and resentfully refused to join the celebration when the prodigal returned.
It is a lot easier to be a Pharisee than it is to be forbearing. It is tough to be humble, gentle, and patient - and forbearance requires all three! This is the reason so many churches split. It is the reason so many marriages end in divorce. One of the definitions I found for this word was “to undergo something onerous or troublesome without giving in.” It is so much easier to give in, isn’t it. To throw in the towel and said, “I have had enough.”
So what I need from Scripture is some help in a practical way to understand how to bear with others. We can find just that sort of instruction over at the end of the book of Romans.
Bearing With Each Other (Romans 14-15)
In Romans 15:1a, Paul says, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak.” This is actually the continuation of the instructions he gave to the Christians in Rome starting in chapter 14. In 14:1 he says, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” Who is this person who is weak in the faith? Paul identifies him in verse 2. “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.” Who would have only eaten vegetables in the first century? A Jew. Many Jews did not eat meat at all. Some of it (like pork) was expressly forbidden under the Law. And since just about all meat purchased in the market came from a pagan temple, lots of Jews chose to forego meat totally.
Paul refers to this person as weak in faith, meaning that although they have put their faith in Christ, they have not grown deep enough in their new faith to understand that the Mosaic covenant and its restrictions are no longer binding. Paul was strong in the faith. He understood, as he says in verse 14, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”
Through the years brethren have tried to dump all sorts of disagreements with each other into this chapter. I am not convinced that there are many issues we disagree about today that are parallel to what was going on in Romans 14-15. This had to do with Jews and Gentiles learning how to get along with each other in spite of different levels of understanding about the ramifications of the New Covenant. But I do think that there are certain attitudes Paul addresses in these chapters that are always going to be applicable to how we deal with each other.
Paul says that the strong are to “bear with the failing of the weak” in 15:1. Gentiles were not to arrogantly dismiss their Jewish brethren who still had scruples about the kosher laws as spiritual juveniles. They were to bear with them. And in particular, Paul gives three instructions to the strong:
First, don’t be too quick to judge.
3Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
A judgmental spirit is the very antithesis of the tolerance called for in forbearance. We all understand that some issues are not simply “a matter of conscience,” but are a matter of congregational fellowship. But one lesson we can take from what Paul says here in Romans 14 is that when we disagree with each other we should not be too quick to dismiss a brother as a flaming liberal or a fossilized Pharisee. It may be that we just have a different conscience about something, but are both deeply concerned about pleasing the Lord.
There may come a time to withdraw fellowship from someone, but if our mentality is always going to be to shoot first and ask questions later, we will never be able to get along with each other.
Here is a second important attitude that Paul sets forth in Romans 14. Don’t put a stumbling block in front of someone.
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother… 15For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.
In this particular context, what Paul meant was, if you believe it is ok to eat meat, but a brother is uncertain, don’t feed him hamburgers, because he can’t give thanks for it in good conscience, and if he eats, he will be doing something he thinks is displeasing to the Lord rather than something stemming from faithful obedience. And as Paul says in verse 23, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
Again, we need to be careful about how we apply this text to our own day. I remember when I was in high school and doing a little preaching around central Kentucky that a dear lady came up to me after worship and asked me to preach a sermon on the rock music her kids listened to, because, as she put, “it offends me.” Well, most rock music offends me too – but as a musician, not as a Christian! To be “offended” in the sense of Romans 14 is not to be annoyed by something you don’t like – it is to be tripped up into sin by a stumbling block.
But I do think there is a wider application of the text that the Jew-Gentile issues of Paul’s time. Look at 15:1 again: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” We cannot just live for ourselves. Forbearance means that we are considerate of what is in the best spiritual interests of our brethren, taking into account their failings. That’s why I don’t serve them ribeye steaks if they have a scruple about meat. I love ribeye, but Christianity isn’t about what I want – it is about what is best for my brother or sister.
There is a third attitude Paul spells out here in this passage. Look in 14:19: “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Pursue the things that make for peace to build each other up. Intolerant people can’t do that. If they know there is a difference that exists, they have to pick at it and pick at it and constantly wrangle over it because they cannot be content that someone sees something differently than them. And usually this ends up in a contentious argument that makes for turmoil rather than peace.
The second congregation I preach at was up in Portage, IN. When I went up to try out, I went out for breakfast with one of the elders, and during our discussion the subject of Christmas came up (it was in the during the winter). He was of the conviction that Christians should not celebrate Christmas in any fashion, which is not my opinion. Anyway, after I tried out he told me that the elders would take a couple of weeks and then get back to me. Just a few days later, the phone rang, and it was Joel, and he said, “Shane, are you ready to become a Hoosier?” I was pretty excited, and I said, “Wow, Joel, this is great, I wasn’t expecting to hear from you so soon. This is like getting a Chri- um, a birthday present two weeks early!” And we both started to laugh. My point is that we both worked to be good natured about our differences. If we had decided to wrangle about this topic every time we went to breakfast, what would have happened to our relationship? Instead, we pursued the things that made for peace. That congregation had a preacher’s house right next to the building, so I decided not to decorate the outside of the house for the holidays, since Joel and anyone else who felt like him would have to deal with that every time they came to worship. I love Christmas, but I loved Joel a lot more.
Instead of tearing at each other, Paul says we are to build each other up. “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (15:2). This is the convergence of humility (my neighbor’s welfare is more important than mine); gentleness (I am going to be considerate of his needs); and patience (I am going to put in the time and energy to build him up). That is what it means to bear with the failings of the weak.
Not only does Paul explain on a practical level what forbearance demands, he also reminds us of the great forbearance all of us have been show in Christ. Look at Romans 15:3-4.
3For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me."
Just as Christ is the ultimate model of humility, gentleness and patience, He is the foremost example of forbearance. Talk about bearing with the failings of the weak! Christ came to bear our sins in His body on the cross! In the language of Ps. 69:9, our reproaches became His reproaches.
Then after quoting from the OT Scriptures Paul says:
4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
At the time Paul wrote Romans much of the NT was still to be written. So he turned to the Scriptures that were available, such as the Psalms, to draw encouragement. I have quoted Romans 15:4 a lot to make a general point about the value of the Old Testament. But specifically, the point Paul was making here is, you should be encouraged to have the endurance to bear each other’s failings, because according to the OT, that is what Christ has done for all of us!
It isn’t easy to endure other people. But I make mistakes, and I need patience and tolerance and forgiveness, and since I recognize that, it makes forbearance a little easier. How “easy” do you think it is for Christ to put up with you? The One who has no sin came to bear your sins and mine. That makes our lack of forbearance toward each other nothing less than shameful ingratitude for the forbearance of Christ.
But if we will look to Jesus in grateful imitation of His gracious forbearance, the result is amazing:
5May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
Our unity is not the end. It is a means to an end. “That together [we] may with one voice glorify God…for the glory of God.” Which by the way means that when we do not bear with each other, the result is disharmony, and God is not glorified. Does this church glorify God? Does your marriage glorify God? Only if you live in harmony, which happens only bear with each other.
Going back to Ephesians 4, there is one more little phrase that I haven’t touched on yet: “Bearing with one another in love.” I thought about doing a separate sermon on “love,” as a fifth quality of unity, but I really think in this context Paul is qualifying the forbearance we show each other. It is done “in love.”
It is certainly not prompted by justice. The people who struggle the most with forbearance are often the people who have a strong sense of fairness. It isn’t fair to be mistreated by a brother or sister. It isn’t fair for my husband or wife to be short with me. Why don’t I get to retaliate!?! But we don’t bear with one another in fairness or justice. We bear with each other in love, and love is not a matter of fairness. It is a matter of doing good for the undeserving. And the most unfair love of all is that of Christ’s love for us, bearing our sins so we could be His people.
If you think about the way the Book of Ephesians is laid out, for three chapters Paul explains just how much God loves us, and just how undeserving we were, and just how great the riches of His grace in Christ Jesus are. Then he says to walk worthy of this calling, in humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance. That’s the only way any of us will ever treat each other like we should – by thinking deeply about what God has done for us in Christ.
Paul asked his readers in Romans a question related to God’s forbearance.
4Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
I think there are two senses in which we can presume on God’s forbearance. The sense in this specific passage is to assume that God’s forbearance is without limit, that we can just go on living any way we want to and we will never have to answer for ourselves. That is presumptuous. God’s forbearance should lead us to embrace the gospel in repentance, amazed that He has put up with us for as long as He has. And that is our invitation to anyone who is not saved today. To turn to the cross in repentance, trusting in Christ’s payment for sin, and being baptized into Christ.
But another way we can presume upon God’s forbearance is to expect it for ourselves while refusing to give it to others. How presumptuous to think that God should have put up with us, but we don’t have to put up with anyone else. If you need to repent, we urge you to be driven to your knees by being reminded of what God has done for you.