Copyright © 2011, John W. (Jack) Carter. All
When Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans, a Christian congregation that he had not yet visited, he did so with the anticipation of traveling to Rome and settling there with much the same manner and purpose that he had settled in Antioch, using Rome as a base from which to extend his missionary efforts as far west as Spain. Unlike the other churches that Paul wrote to, the Roman congregation started without Paul's direct influence. It is evident from the letter that Paul had heard much about this church, it reputation, and the nature of the problems it was encountering. Because of this unique situation, Paul's letter is quite lengthy and addresses the full range of Christian doctrine.
In the first chapters Paul outlines man's need for salvation, the nature of God's grace, and His plan of salvation. In chapter nine Paul begins teaching on Christian living, expounding on the theme of "love without hypocrisy," a theme that touches almost every area of human experience. Chapter 15, verse 14 starts an extended closing of the letter.
Romans 15:14. And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.
If one reads Paul's letter up to this point, it is evident that Paul has been quite firm in his teaching. Aware of problems in the church doctrine and behavior, Paul addresses these issues without compromise. One could come away thinking that Paul saw little good in this congregation, and that his commentary illustrated a church that was not serving God. Did the church in Rome have some internal problems? It is quite evident that the answer to that question is an emphatic, "yes." The church was comprised of people from quite disparate cultures and world views, so those social conflicts that exist between different people groups tended to enter the church body and fragment it into subgroups who tended to treat each other with some measure of disdain. It is evident that individuals were struggling with the congregation for power and control. Paul exposed these issues and addressed them fully with the advice of a teacher or mentor. Many churches struggle with the same issues today, and Paul's teaching still finds great relevance.
As Paul closes the letter, he leaves behind that focus on the issues faced in the Roman church, and turns toward the positive and encouraging characteristics of the body. In doing so, he points out some of the characteristics of a church that is doing the right things, a church that is profitable to the work of God's kingdom on earth. These are characteristics that the modern church can emulate:
1. Full of goodness. Despite the issues that Paul had addressed, the church in Rome was actively engaged in many godly endeavors. A church that is "full of goodness" is one that has a genuine concern for those in need; a concern that is expressed in action. The lack of social programs that we take for granted today, left the poor in destitution. The church demonstrated goodness when it cared for those in need. The church showed goodness when it showed tolerance for seekers and those who are young in the faith, offering a place of peace and nurturing. The effectiveness of a church is dramatically weakened if it does not demonstrate goodness.
2. Filled with all knowledge. Though Paul presented his most intense written doctrinal thesis of any of his known letters to the church in Rome, he acknowledges that the church is by no means ignorant of correct Christian doctrine. Much of his teaching may have been to "remind" them of what they already know but are not practicing (v. 16). A church that lacks knowledge of the doctrines of the faith has no foundation from which to express it, and can be drawn away by every wind of doctrine that passes. Charismatic leaders seize opportunities to draw people to their own agenda or their own cultic beliefs, but can do so only when the truth of the gospel is not fully known. Knowledge comes from a deliberate and disciplined study of Godís Word that sincerely investigates the original meaning and context of the text without prejudice or presupposition. In the last hundred years we have come to understand the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages and cultures to a depth never before attained. Sufficient extra-biblical documents have been found to explain the meaning of many of the idioms and grammatical forms that are found in scripture that were heretofore misunderstood or misinterpreted. Consequently, most of our modern translations incorporate this knowledge, and provide a more reliable representation of the original texts. There are many excellent, peer-reviewed, conservative commentaries and Bible study helps available to the Bible student. Not everyone in the congregation needs to be a Bible scholar, but the presence of a few serious students of scripture can serve to maintain correct church doctrine and teaching as they are encouraged to share that knowledge and zeal for the scriptures with the members of the body. The effectiveness of a church is dramatically weakened if it does not have a deep knowledge of Biblical scripture.
3. Able to admonish one another. The Greek word that is translated "admonish" or "instruct" refers to instruction with a specific purpose of edification. That is, the church can instruct its members in the details of the faith, exposing wrong attitudes and behaviors, leading its members to a life that is more obedient to the Holy Spirit. Secular companies often try to accomplish this task through a program of "total quality improvement." The idea is that the instruction that is taking place will bring those who are instructed to a better place. Many churches teach one another through Sunday school or Bible study programs that supplement the teaching that takes place in corporate worship. Also, admonition necessitates that the one being taught is willing to submit to the one doing the teaching. It is in admonition that corporate faith is strengthened. The effectiveness of a church is dramatically weakened if it does not systematically lead its members to a more mature faith.
Romans 15:15-16. Nevertheless, brethren, I have written the more boldly unto you in some sort, as putting you in mind, because of the grace that is given to me of God, 16That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost.
In the next few verses, Paul acknowledges the firm nature of his letter. He may have looked it over and realized just how powerful this Spirit-led thesis had become, and he was humbled by its import. He may have had some concern that some in the Roman church would take offense that he, who had no appreciable relationship with them, would teach them with such firmness. People tend to embrace enough pride that they may resent instruction, particularly from a stranger. Paul almost apologetically admits the firmness and boldness of his letter, stating that his instruction is a product of the grace that He has received from God. Having experienced that grace, Paul has a deep desire that others would experience that same grace, and so he boldly approaches the task of evangelism.
There could also be resentment towards Paul because of his Jewish heritage and status as a Pharisee. Though the Christian churches around Jerusalem were originally populated almost exclusively of Jewish members, the church in Rome was predominantly Gentile. We are aware that there were some influential Jewish members in the Roman church, and some of these were creating conflict by their tendency to require other's adherence to the Jewish law that they still held in high regard. Paul clearly states that, though he is a Jew, he has been called by God to be a minister to the Gentiles. Paul's letter to the Romans is simply the product of his calling, and of his desire that the church in Rome would be "acceptable" to God.
Paul teaches that a Christian is to be a "living sacrifice." Likewise, the church is to be living sacrifice. A sacrifice is something that is fully given to God for His purpose. The one offering this true sacrifice keeps no part of it for himself. Likewise, the resource and life of the church is to be fully given to God, and by so doing becomes sanctified (set apart) for God's use alone. It is evident from the letter that there were areas in the Roman church, as is the case for any church, that were not entirely sanctified. Paul's letter is firm in its teaching so that the church can recognize and respond to those areas where sanctification is still needed. Because of this, the letter provides instruction for all of us.
Romans 15:17. I have therefore whereof I may glory through Jesus Christ in those things which pertain to God.
Paul's love for the Lord, combined with his appreciation for the grace he has received, shapes his entire world view. When he finds himself engaged in those things that pertain to God, he cannot help but get excited. When the opportunity to share the gospel presents itself, Paul jumps in with enthusiasm. When there is an opportunity to teach the truths of the Gospel, Paul cannot help but provide instruction. I am reminded by an event a few years ago where I found myself in a small circle of people having a discussion in a dark parking lot among marching band boosters after a high-school football game. Walking into an active discussion, I soon noted that the subject matter was turning to matters of the faith. Before long I found myself fully engaged with the group, answering questions, and teaching biblical truths to what was a mostly secular group in matters of faith. A few days later one of the participants in that lively discussion, in reference to my part in the experience, stated, "you lit up!" When we respond to something that we firmly believe and something in which we have confidence, we often respond with passion. Apparently some passion leaked out that night. When Paul engages in matters of the faith, "those things which pertain to God," we see a combination of excitement, passion, enthusiasm, and the uncompromised expression of God's love. Wrapped up together, this is Paul's word, "glory." The Greek word that is used for glory carries a connotation of the presence of light, such as that which is illustrated in the Shekinah Glory of God that was evident in the ancient pillar of fire, and that lit the hillside during the proclamation of Christís birth. In this same way, all Christians can "glory" through Jesus Christ in matters of the faith as they, indeed, are the light of the world.
Romans 15:18. For I will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ hath not wrought by me, to make the Gentiles obedient, by word and deed,
Some might think that Paul is bragging on himself, or at least representing himself. When Paul "glories" in matters of the faith, it is relevant and appropriate that Paul is glorying in Jesus Christ, not in himself. Paul would not "dare" to brag on himself. He would never think that any productive work of faith was his own doing, "wrought by me." Paul has no intention of using his own persona or his own worldly or secular "authority" to bring the Romans to obedience, but rather that their obedience come as a product of their own submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and Him alone.
Romans 15:19. Through mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God; so that from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.
Paul continues his deference to the Holy Spirit by pointing out that all of the work that he has done in spreading the gospel throughout the region has been accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit, and not his own. Much of his experience has included "mighty signs and wonders" that God had performed as people responded to the call to faith. We tend to like the definition of faith that states that faith is the substance of hope and the evidence of unseen things. However, when a person of faith experiences "signs and wonders," the sensed evidence of God's presence, great faith is not so difficult to muster. Those signs and wonders demonstrate God's presence and strengthen one's faith. Having experienced so many miracles in his own life, Paul is categorically doubtless concerning his own, personal, faith. Consequently, it is easier for him to boldly preach the gospel of Jesus Christ than it may be for one who has never had such dramatic and life-changing experiences.
The apostles had this type of mountaintop experience when they met the risen Christ. Though they had seen miracles, and had heard Jesus' promises, their need for faith in the resurrection became moot when they met Him. Their lives radically changed as they went from bungling, pride-filled disciples to the stalwarts of the faith. Each of them dedicated their lives and ministry to the gospel and each died under a persecutor's hand.
It is not unusual for a Christian to experience God's working directly in their lives, and such experiences do bring confidence, strength, and maturity to one's faith. However, it is also easy to forget some of those mountaintop experiences when the difficulties that are found in the valleys of life sometimes seem to overwhelm. Yet, remembering God's working in our own lives can give us a bold faith even in the tough times. How can one help but be bold when they have had such experiences?
Romans 15:20-21. Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another manís foundation: 21But as it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand.
When Paul started his God-inspired mission that would bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, the church had literally no evangelistic efforts outside of the Jewish community. In fact, most early Christians saw their faith as a fulfillment of their Jewish beliefs and heritage. The inclusion of Gentiles into the church was far more than controversial. This prejudice was so pervasive that even the original apostles had difficulty overcoming it, though Thomas may be an exception. This circumstance proffered the need for Paul's ministry to the Gentiles. Though Paul did provide tremendous support for others who were engaged in evangelizing the Gentiles as the years went by, Paul's predominant mission was always to take the gospel to places where it had not been preached. Paul had no interest in "stepping on other's toes." We never see an occasion of Paul's taking over the work that someone else was doing. Rather than do this, he would often instruct other leaders and give them guidance. Some examples of this include his relationships with Timothy and Titus. Paul could have taken over for Timothy when the young pastor was struggling, but this was not Paul's style, nor was it the ministry to which He was called. Paul's concept of spreading the gospel was to go to a new place and preach the gospel in the synagogue, offering the gospel first to the Jews. In every recorded instance he was rejected by the Jews. Soon after he started this pattern, he would remain near the synagogue and teach those who would listen, and these would be mostly Gentiles. Once a church is established, he would appoint leadership and move on to another place. Even in these circumstances, Paul often returned, but never trod on the existing leadership. Paul had a sensitivity to the personal investment that is made in the ministry by every Christian and respected that investment, choosing to serve as a mentor to others. Paul quotes Isaiah 52:15 as a defense for his desire to take the gospel to new places.
The spread of the gospel to new places is the fundamental mission of the Church. Many churches today do not share Paul's missionary zeal, but would rather keep the gospel within the walls of the church facility that serves as the home for their fellowship. Thankfully, there are many others who have a vision that reaches beyond themselves. These latter people of faith understand that Christians are to be fishers of men, not keepers of the aquarium. The church that is obedient to the Lordship of Christ is one that has a missionary zeal, utilizing its gifts and resources to extend the gospel of peace to those in their community, their region, and throughout the world. Many Christian churches associate with one another and combine their resources so that they can make an impact that no single church could possibly do. Churches can take part in these associations and assist in missionary efforts.
Every Christian is a missionary to those in their own circle of relationships. Yet God still calls some to set aside the secular enterprise in order to engage in full-time ministry. These often serve as missionaries and pastors. In this way they, like Paul, are striving to spread the gospel. One might say, "I am only a church secretary, how am I a missionary?," yet the ministry of the secretary supports the work of those who vocalize the message, and by so doing the mission is served. Like Paul, every Christian has an opportunity for personal missions, a personal investment in the work of the Kingdom, one that does not build upon the work of another, but is rather the extension of one's own interests and abilities. Some people find their mission by swinging a hammer and building homes for those who could otherwise not afford it. Some people find their mission by swinging a chain saw in the path of a passing hurricane. Some find their mission in praying for others. Some find their mission by simply sharing Godís love with those they meet. Paul respected the power of personal ministry, and recognized that when God is so served, "they that have not heard shall understand."
Romans 15:22. For which cause also I have been much hindered from coming to you.
Paul continued his apology, noting that his intense engagement in the ministry of evangelism has served to prevent his visit to Rome. It is clear that Paul had a very strong desire to go to Rome. However, until the point of the writing of this letter, he knew that his work in the region of biblical Palestine and Syria had not been completed. Paul could not leave until the work for which he had called had been accomplished. Even as an evangelist, Paul was not a "church hopper." He tended to establish a single church community as a ministry base and work out of that resource as he also trained and prepared their leadership. He did this both in Ephesus, and predominantly in Antioch where the church was first referred to by the name "Christian." Part of the work of evangelism and missions is to work until the task is accomplished. There is a difference between the creation of a new ministry and the maintenance of an existing one, with the former usually being far more exciting than the latter. So, one can understand the desire Paul had to come to Rome and establish a base that would reach a new region that could extend through what is now Italy, France, and Spain. Yet, Paul also had the wisdom to know that his work in Palestine and Asia still needed his presence.
Before jumping into a new ministry, one should always engage the wisdom that comes only from listening to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Though the task is to spread the gospel to new places, the task is not accomplished when an unfinished work is left behind.
Romans 15:23-29. But now having no more place in these parts, and having a great desire these many years to come unto you; 24Whensoever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you: for I trust to see you in my journey, and to be brought on my way thitherward by you, if first I be somewhat filled with your company. 25But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. 26For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. 27It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things. 28When therefore I have performed this, and have sealed to them this fruit, I will come by you into Spain. 29And I am sure that, when I come unto you, I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.
Paul now felt that his task of evangelism in the region of Palestine and Asia had come to a close, and he was now finally free to extend his efforts to the northern and northwestern Mediterranean region, so he would soon be able to come to Rome. However, he did have one task to perform that would take quite a bit of time. The Christian church in Jerusalem was suffering far more than those outside of the region of such heavy Jewish influence. Again, the church in Jerusalem was comprised of Jewish members. Considered a heretic cult by the Jewish community, those who joined "The Way" were spurned by their Jewish families and friends. Landless and jobless they were also persecuted in the marketplace, often prevented from taking part in normal commercial activities. Seeing their plight, the less persecuted churches of Asia minor gave generously to the church in Jerusalem in an attempt to help them in their suffering and to show their support for their continued perseverance. Paul collected this offering as he went from church to church on his way to deliver this gift to the Jerusalem church. Paul's plan was to then go to Spain, through Rome, once this task was accomplished.
Romans 15:30-33. Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christís sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me; 31That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judaea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints; 32That I may come unto you with joy by the will of God, and may with you be refreshed. 33Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.
Little did Paul know that he would indeed go directly to Rome after his visit to Jerusalem, but not in the manner which he had thought. While in Jerusalem he took Timothy with him into the synagogue, opening his critics to claim that Timothy was a Gentile, fueling their charge that Paul broke the temple law by bringing a Gentile into its inner court. Timothy was a circumcised Jewish Christian, so their accusations were false. However, it was these accusations that precipitated Paul's arrest, and his subsequent request to appeal his case to Caesar: in Rome. Though the historical account is incomplete, and scripture is silent on the details, Paul spent two years in house arrest in Rome, during which he was able to interact freely with the Christian church there. However, the close of Paul's second letter to Timothy implies that He was about to be executed. Non-biblical historical documents and early church tradition corroborate the incident of Paul's martyrdom in Rome, and indicate that his visit to Spain was never accomplished.
We do know that Paul continued to proclaim the gospel in Rome with boldness and many were brought to him who, upon accepting faith in Jesus Christ, went out to continue to proclaim Christianity in the region. Soon after Paul's death, his influence in the spread of the gospel in those latter years would result in Rome's establishment as the center of Christianity in the region.
Paul's is a tremendous example of one who had a faith in God that was strengthened by the experience of "signs and wonders" to the point that he was a bold witness for Christ wherever he went. Christians today may not experience those or similar signs and wonders, but the call to bold witness is still the same. There are many Christians throughout the world today who are making a tremendous impact for Christ and their testimonies extend to almost, if not, every nation of this world. Yet there is a vast majority of others who are satisfied to occasionally fill a pew, to receive some of the benefits of church membership, but make little or no contribution to the spread of the gospel. The call to share Christ is given to every Christian. The call to ministry is the foundation of the Christian experience and testimony. We may not have been given the same set of gifts that Paul had received, but we have each been gifted. Let us each use the gifts that God has given us to share God's love with others, for this is the foundation of missions. In doing so, each is being faithful to their call to ministry, and great things will be accomplished for the kingdom of God.