We are at the close of Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome.
In writing to believers he had never met, Paul was also writing to us. The Holy Spirit used Paul to record God’s word for all believers. We are the spiritual descendants of the Roman Christians and can count the book of Romans as written to us.
As we come to Romans 16:17, Paul has just expressed how precious these believers are to him. Out of the abundance of his affection for them, he makes an appeal. As an Apostle, he could command them. As their leader, he could make demands upon their loyalty. However, he chooses to appeal to them.
Appealing to us in a humble, affectionate way, is Paul’s way. Consider Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God...” Even his manner of addressing them is in keeping with his humility and gentleness. He calls us brothers. In our American culture, he would, of course, say “brothers and sisters,” because he means to address all believers in an inclusive and affectionate manner. This is an example for us. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul says:
Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. ()
We should not be harsh and demanding with each other.
In a gentle, affectionate way, Paul appeals to us and says, “Watch out for those who cause divisions...”
This is a warning. The New Testament gives a few warnings like it. Here are a few of them:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. ()
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? ()
If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. ()
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. ()
Like wolves attacking sheep and lions devouring prey, those who cause divisions are to be watched.
Have you ever watched a prairie dog village? They are hard to sneak up on. They always keep watch and at the slightest disturbance disappear into their holes. They are vigilant because those who are not vigilant are dead. Hawks, coyotes and bobcats are just a few of the creatures who think prairie dogs are fine eat’n. Those who cause divisions and raise obstacles are a couple of the critters that think souls make fine eat’n.
Paul’s warning is to keep an eye on those who cause divisions and create obstacles. We all know what division looks like. Another word for this is strife. Look out for those who cause strife. Obstacles in Romans 16:17 is another word for stumbling blocks. A stumbling block for the Gentiles of Paul’s day would have been a requirement to be circumcised to be a Christian. It would be a stumbling block today.
Teachings abound that are stumbling blocks. Some teach that one cannot be a Christian and listen to the wrong music, wear the wrong clothes, breathe the wrong smoke, or drink the wrong drinks.
How are we to know which side of a division to be on? How are we to know which teachings are legitimate and which ones are divisive?
The line is drawn for us by Paul in verse 17. He says, “...contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught.”
This is very important.
Paul assumes that the average believer is able to discern from what has been taught, i.e., the Bible, what is true and consistent with Scripture. What has been taught is recorded in the pages of Scripture, and Paul lays on us the responsibility of weighing the words of teachers against the text.
In Galatians Paul says,
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. ()
The word of God is essential for us as believers! In his history, Luke took special note of the Berean, because they measured the teachings of Paul against the text of Scripture. Please notice, Paul does not leave himself out of the curse when he says, “...even if we.”
Paul had experience with wolves. Galatians was written because some people came teaching that believers had to be circumcised and keep the law that was given by Moses. They said Christians should eat kosher, observe the Sabbath and observe Jewish religious practices. These stumbling blocks started almost as soon as Gentiles started coming to Christ. Acts tells us:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. ()
These events took place in Antioch, the church that sent Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries, and these events took place after the completion of Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey. By the time he wrote Romans, Paul understood wolves, thus, his warning, “Watch out!”
Notice, what Paul says about wolves in Romans 16:18. “For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ.” Of course, we understand that this is exactly what wolves claim for themselves. This is why Jesus described them as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Look at what Paul said about his opponents when he was imprisoned in Rome.
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. ()
Wolves are motivated by selfish ambition. In Romans 16:18, Paul says that they do not serve Jesus, but rather they serve their own appetites. Service to appetites is behind their mode of operation. Wolves use “smooth talk and flattery” to deceive the hearts of the naive.
In Colossians, Paul says:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. ()
Empty words and flattery are a ready trap for the foolishly naive and unsuspecting.
In Romans 16:19, Paul points out the attractiveness of us as believers. Our obedience is known to all. This makes us targets for those who wish to gather a following. Just as Paul expresses his joy at the Romans’ fruitfulness and obedience, so too, the wolf would like to gain easy fruit. Therefore, Paul says, “I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.” He does not say “ignorant of what is evil.” He says “innocent.”
This takes us back to what we said about teaching contrary to “the doctrine you have been taught.” Doctrine is contained in the word of God, the Bible. Do not be intimidated by the word “doctrine.” Doctrine is just another word for teaching. A school child can grasp the truth of the gospel as taught in the word of God. However, we are not to remain school children in our understanding. Paul encourages us to be wise. Wisdom implies growth in both knowledge and understanding.
When God set up the rules for the kings of the nation of Israel to follow, He laid out the following rule:
And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. ()
Do you notice what is used to keep the heart of the king?
He was to read the word of God every day of his life.
The word of God is sufficient to make a king, or the naive, wise.
In Paul’s warning, we see the danger is real, and it is great. However, we do not need to live in fear. Romans 16:20 says:
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. ()
In this verse, we see the opposite of divisions and obstacles. We see the God of peace. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness... (Galatians 5:22) We also see the real enemy, the one driving the wolves. Hallelujah! Satan will soon be crushed under our feet. We will not crush him; the God of peace will do that.
The Scriptures tell us that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. The Scriptures tell us:
Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. ()
We are to be alert. We are not to fall asleep or be lulled into complacency. And, we are not to live in fear. We are to put on the whole armor of God: the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the belt of truth, and we are to have our one offensive weapon, the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. It is sharper than any double-edged sword and can split between bones and marrow and even divide between the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.
I want to close with words the Apostle Paul first addressed to the believers in Colossae.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. ()
Watch out for anything that would draw you away from the purity of your devotion to Jesus Christ.