Romans 1:14-15 says:
I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (Romans 1:14-15)
The world is divided between us and them.
Divisions run deep. Liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, labels usually suffice to define the lines of division.
Historically, us-and-them divisions have cost millions upon millions of lives. World War II is my first example. In Europe, the Aryan race sought its rightful place over the rest of the world. In Asia, the superior Japanese race claimed its right of sovereignty. The us-and-them identity was strong on both sides of the conflict.
These divisions are necessary and even crucial at times. For the Christian confronted with all the divisions, conflicts and loud boasting of the world, it can be a challenge to know what the “Christian” thing to do is. Without going into the subject any further, I would like to give a brief answer. Micah 6:8 says:
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 ESV)
The way governments and individuals behave is different. We are not to take vengeance into our own hands, but Romans 13:1-4 clearly teaches that the governing authorities exist to punish the wrongdoer.
It is not my purpose to get involved in the morality of the divisions. The Aryan supremacists and the Japanese had to be stopped. Oppressive regimes and unspeakable evils continue in our world, and governments and nations are God’s instruments to deal with these things.
What I want to speak about today is a different aspect and responsibility and how it interacts with us and the divisions among us. My point in bringing up the horrible examples is that the divisions run deep, they are real and they are significant. The divisions are not trivial. The divisions we are talking about are between Muslim and Jew, or black and white, and liberal and conservative.
In opening his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul brings up the divisions that exist among us, and his attitude toward these divisions.
In verse 14, he points out two different divisions. First, he brings up the division between Greek and Barbarian. Second, he brings up the division between wise and foolish.
The first division he brings up is between Greek and Barbarian. The Greeks called everyone who was non-Greek “Barbarian.” The word “Barbarian” comes from a word meaning “unintelligible speech.” It actually mimicked the “bar-bar” sound of unknown words.
As a division, this is sometimes one of the most difficult to overcome. Nations can be divided by natural obstacles such as mountains and oceans. In addition, the division of language is no small thing. It can be very difficult to make oneself understood without the benefit of a common language.
Unified humanity was divided by the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel, and it remains divided by the same to this day. This division can be very costly to overcome. Traveling across oceans or through mountain ranges used to be a matter of months with great risks and costs involved. Today, it is trivial in comparison, but it is still costly. And this says nothing about the cost in time and effort to learn a new language. The accepted standard is that it takes 10,000 hours of study to become fluent in a second language. Given this number, let’s say you decide to study a second language every single day for an hour. It should take you just over 27 years to become expert or fluent, if you don’t miss any days. This is why total immersion programs where a person uses the language 16 hours a day by living among people using the language still require about two years to achieve true fluency.
Paul’s point in saying he is obligated to both to Greeks and Barbarians is to say that no matter the obstacle, he is obligated, duty bound to preach the gospel. His obligation is universal in scope. These national, physical and practical barriers do not lessen or limit his obligation.
He then brings further emphasis and refinement to the lack of limits of his obligation by stating the second division between the wise and the foolish. National and language barriers are physical, imposed from outside. However, education, social standing and societally imposed barriers are self-imposed and internal in nature. Paul points out that these barriers also do not lessen or limit his obligation.
Peter provides an example of this kind of barrier. In Acts 10, a centurion named Cornelius was introduced to Jesus Christ, and Peter was God’s chosen instrument to make the introduction. However, Peter was a Jew and Cornelius was a Gentile. Jews did not go into Gentile homes. Therefore, the Holy Spirit had to overcome the objections of Peter’s upbringing and background. Peter had to overcome years of training and conditioning. God used a vision to accomplish this. In the vision, Peter was told to eat from a selection of all the things that he was not allowed to eat as a Jew.
Food conditioning is hard to overcome. The thought of putting something gross in our mouths can cause many of us to gag. Quite literally the thought of eating the things presented to him could have made Peter feel like throwing up. Our social conditioning and background provide just this kind of obstacle to interacting with people different from ourselves. Fear and mistrust can be obstacles to open communication and dialogue.
This is the second type of obstacle that Paul points out. It is internal and conditioned.
Paul says he is obligated or indebted to everyone. He points out the obstacles that divide us both externally and internally and sweeps them away by saying his obligation is not lessened due to these things.
He had started out telling them how much he longed to travel to Rome, and then finishes by telling them how eager he is to preach the gospel to them in Rome. Behind all the longing and eagerness is his obligation. It is his obligation that explains his eagerness.
The first thing that we have learned then about all of the “us and them” in the world is that these divisions do not lessen or diminish our obligation.
However, this brings us to the questions: 1) What is the obligation Paul is under? And, 2) Why is he under this obligation?
As a result of his obligation, he is eager to preach the gospel. Therefore, we can assume that his obligation is related to the gospel.
In order to understand his obligation, we must first understand the gospel. The entire book of Romans was written to explain the gospel. For this reason, we can only give a summary here of the most basic truths of the gospel.
The first truth of the gospel is God. The gospel starts with God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is creator of all things. Romans 1:18 states that the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth. Men (and women) deny the truth about God. We will look at this more in-depth when we look at Romans 1:18 and following. However, the truth about God has much to do with Paul’s, and consequentially our, indebtedness.
First, because He is our creator, sustainer, provider and protector, we are commanded to love Him. Every human being ever born has a moral obligation to love his or her maker. Why? Simply because He requires it of us and since He made us, He has that right and authority. Second, and similar, He also requires that we love our neighbor as ourselves. Basically then, because God has set these two rules in place, we owe a debt of love to our fellow human beings no matter who or what they are.
An inadequate understanding of who God is and the importance of loving our neighbor are shown in a lack of evangelistic commitment. 1 John 4:20 tells us:
If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20 ESV)
Having a duty to love my neighbor as myself may move me, but not impassion my heart. However, the gospel moves our hearts. In summarizing the gospel Jesus said:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 ESV)
The Bible makes it clear, we understand what love is because while we were sinners and enemies of God, He gave His only begotten Son to die for us. Jesus taught that the one who is forgiven much loves much. When we understand the extent of our sin and the price God was willing to pay to redeem us, then our hearts are moved. Then, the passions are moved so that the obligation to preach the gospel translates into an eagerness and a longing to share Jesus with people. Paul said:
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; (2 Corinthians 5:14 ESV)
The love of Christ is the obligating factor. It is what caused Paul to be eager to preach the gospel to those who were in Rome, and it is what creates in us the same eagerness to share the gospel no matter what the cost.
It is this love that moves us to reach across the us-and-them barriers that divide us. This love is what moved Paul to share Christ with the soldiers that guarded him, the Jews that persecuted him and the governors who imprisoned him.
Along with the love that compels us, Jesus left us with a mission. He gave us a job to do. We all know His words, but I am going to give them to us as a reminder. He said:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)
How have we let us-and-them divisions distract us from our obligation?