If we have a hard time applying these rules we have to remember that even Jesus had had to deal with it. Even he realized that there was no way to please everybody. One time Jesus said, “When John the Baptist came to you, he came neither eating nor drinking.” Oh, it didn’t mean that John didn’t eat any food; it meant that he carefully observed certain dietary restrictions. Some believe he had taken the vow of a Nazirite, to never touch any kind of alcoholic beverage. So Jesus said, “When John came neither eating nor drinking, you said of him, ‘He has a demon.’ But when I came both eating and drinking, you called me a glutton and a drunkard. So how can I please you?” (Matthew 11:18-19, Luke 7:33-34). He simply recognized that is was impossible to make everybody happy. So he went ahead and did what God had sent him to do and he let God take care of the difficulties.
That’s something all of us have to learn to do. As long as you are being faithful to what the Lord has called you to do, let Him work out the details. Don’t get all worked up about all the “small” stuff, allow the Lord to resolve those. I think that is what Paul has in mind here. He tells us that our Lord is the example and there are times when you cannot please anybody. There will also be times when you can please some, and, if you can, you should.
However, there will be still other times when if you do, you will hinder people in their spiritual growth, and then you should not seek to please them. Not only do we have our Lord’s life as our example, but the Old Testament also helps us here, especially in the matter of yielding up our rights.
Let me explain what I mean. Do you remember when Abraham and Lot, his nephew, stood looking over the valley of the Jordan River? It was evident that they would have to divide the land among them, and Abraham, who was the older of the two, and the one who, by all rights, should have had the first choice, gave that choice to Lot. Lot chose first, and he chose the lush, beautiful, green areas of the Jordan valley, leaving Abraham the barren hills. In my mind, that is an example of graciousness; he gave up his rights.
Do you remember when Moses, according to the record, gave up his place as a prince in the household of Pharaoh? As the letter to the Hebrew Christians tells us, he gave it up in order so he could “suffer reproach with the people of God for a season,” (Hebrews 11:25-26). This is a beautiful example. Then we have the beautiful story of David and Jonathan who were such close friends. Jonathan gracefully yielded his right to the throne to David, his friend, because he knew God had chosen him. Jonathan also supported him against the wrath of his own father! What a beautiful example of what our attitudes should be. Jonathan is willing to give up in order that David might gain.
When you come to the New Testament there is that scene when John the Baptist says of Jesus, “He must increase; I must decrease,” (John 3:30). Yet none of these men who gave up ever lost anything. That is the point Paul is making. These men gained by this. God was glorified, and they themselves ultimately gained, because, in giving up, they achieved the objective that God was after. So Paul gives us this picture of willingness to give up, refusing to do so only when it is going to be hurtful to somebody, leaving them ignorant of the principles of Scripture, bound to some narrow, rigid point of view.So we get help from the past. Not only that, Paul goes on to show us there is encouragement right in the present:
May the God who inspires men to endure, and gives them a Father’s care, give you a mind united towards one another because of your common loyalty to Jesus Christ. And then, as one man, you will sing from the heart the praises of God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:5-6)
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Letter to Christians at Rome