SERMON ON ROMANS 1:8-15 FOR FEBRUARY 22, 1998
This week we hope to conclude our study of Paul’s introduction to the book of Romans. Last week, we looked at the first half of the introduction and noted that Paul stresses at the outset of this letter that the gospel is God centered. That is, it is something which has been given primarily for the glory of God and secondarily for the desperate need of humanity. Paul brings out this God-centeredness in three ways. First we saw that the essence of the gospel--its subject matter is God-centered. Its all about Jesus Christ who came to redeem humanity.
We saw the God-centeredness of the gospel in that it is God who calls, equips and rightly motivates His children to proclaim the gospel. The text told us Paul preached the gospel NOT because he was overwhelmed with the plight of the lost but because as the Lord’s bond servant, that’s what God called Him to do. God equipped Paul with the grace of apostleship. A final element of the God-centeredness of the gospel seen in the first seven verses of this letter is, God is central to the purpose of the gospel. We saw the purpose of the Gospel is first and foremost not about the forgiveness of humanity’s sin, (as crucial as that is) but about bringing people into obedience to God. That’s what Paul says here in verse five and in several other places we examined. The Gospel is God centered--its all about His Son, its empowered and motivated by Him and given for His purpose. That’s the lesson of the first seven verses of Romans.
Now let’s read the second half of the introduction and see Paul continue this theme as He applies it to his own life and ministry. Beginning in verse eight,
“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in prayer at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong --that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.”
In this second half of the introduction, we see the same emphasis on God centeredness, but this time it is applied to Paul himself--his life and ministry. This section is autobiographical. In one translation of the this text, I counted 15 direct references to himself in these eight verses. As Paul reveals himself to us in these verses he provides an example for us in how to comprehensively live for God. The main truth this text teaches us from Paul’s life is this: God calls us to God centered lives and ministries. When I say “ministries” I understand that few of us are vocational ministers of the gospel as Paul was, but nonetheless we all have many ministries. The question is not, whether we have ministries, but are we being faithful--that is, God-centered in those ministries.
Let’s see what we can learn about living this kind of life by studying Paul’s life as he reveals it here in this text. The first lesson on living a God centered life is: Paul was God-centered in his praying and planning. Notice Paul’s praying. First he thanks God for the faith of the Roman Christians which was known throughout the world. Why was the Roman believer’s faith so well known? First, because they lived in Rome and Rome was the capital of the empire. The fact that there was an established and relatively healthy church in the capital was something which would have encouraged other believers in the empire. Second, the spiritual climate of Rome would not have been a friendly one in many ways. That would have made the existence of a relatively healthy church here noteworthy. Although the Romans were proud of their comparative tolerance of other religious, Rome was in many ways Satan’s headquarters during this era of history. This was a center of pagan worship--polytheism, temple shrines and temple prostitutes, the emperor who lived in Rome was himself was considered a god.
On a spiritual front, Satan had established a huge stronghold in this area. We see this in the history of the time. In AD 49, eight years before this letter was written, many Christians were expelled from Rome. When Emperor Claudius died, many came back, but Claudius’ successor was a 16 year old boy named Nero. In AD 64, seven years after this letter was written he burned Rome and blamed the Christians for it. Thus began the reign of persecution which historians believe claimed the lives of Peter and Paul. One scholar indicates that Christianity was viewed by most people as another strange Oriental superstition. The point is, this was not the easiest place in the world to dynamically live out your faith. The spiritual climate was hostile and sometimes even erupted into persecution. Paul sees a relatively healthy church in this context and prays, “I thank God for your faith...” He doesn’t mention the church’s great courage, or their tremendous loyalty to Christ--He gives God the credit. He knew that when a person or church is spiritually prospering, (especially in an unfriendly environment) the One who gets the credit is God.
In verse 10-11 Paul labors to communicate how badly he wanted to come to visit this church. In verse 10 he says he prays “constantly” and “at all times” that he could come to Rome. In verse 11, he says he “longs” to see them. In verse 13 he says he is “eager” to preach there. We can feel his impatience in verse 10 when he says he can perhaps “at last” come to Rome. This is a man with a strong desire to come to Rome. We do not know all the reasons. One reason that is fairly safe to assume is that here is Paul--the uncontested leader of the Gentile church--the apostle to the Gentiles who has been ministering for 25 years to the Gentile--yet he has never ministered to this highest concentration of Gentiles--he has never ministered to the capital of the Gentile world. It is not too far fetched to assume that the Christians in Rome were wondering why this leader of the Gentile church had never come to them. Paul’s visit to Rome in the eyes of the Roman Christians was probably well past due. That would explain Paul’s laboring to communicate his anxiousness to make a visit.
Paul however, was not one to allow the expectations of others to shape his agenda. Paul ministers where God tells him to--not where people expect him to. He was an undershepherd who ministered NOT where the sheep told him to, but where the chief shepherd told Him to--it was vertical, not horizontal. We see this in verse 10. “I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.” Paul is taking his direction for ministry from the will of the Lord and the doors He opens. He is not self-directed--pushing open the doors as He sees fit. In verse 13 he says he has been “prevented” from visiting them. We are not sure what specifically he means by that, but verse 10 indicates he believed it was God’s will.
I wonder, is that the way we live? Are we living our lives and ministries from a God directed perspective or are we or someone else doing the directing? One of the greatest enemies of the church in North America is doing truck loads of ministry, but doing it in the flesh out of the will of God. God won’t bless it with supernatural fruit. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the respected Chinese church leader who came to visit North American churches. After visiting some of the so called “shining stars” of evangelicalism, he was asked to offer his opinion. He said, “Its amazing how much you people can do without the Holy Spirit.” That’s quite a statement, but his point was he saw much religious activity going on without any mark of supernatural empowerment. It may have been on one level good, but it wasn’t God. Satan loves to keep us buried in the busy-ness of ministry that is planned and motivated by man, not God.
In last Tuesday’s Concert of Prayer, one of the prayers of confession we prayed went something like this, “Lord, forgive us because we have simply assumed that our very busy schedules have your blessing even though we did not first sit down and present our many activities, past times, social outlets, jobs, kid’s extra curriculars, etc..to You for your approval. As a result, we find ourselves ridiculously busy and “don’t have time” to consider committing to ministries you may be wanting us to do. Forgive us for building lifestyles around activities which, although perhaps good on a human level, are not your will for us. We have become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent. We have often taken the “good” which Satan anxiously offers us and rejected the “best” which often comes to us only when we wait on you and seek your face for direction.”
Does that describe your life? Is your life a treadmill--lots of energy consumed, much activity generated, but not much real, God-anointed fruit to show for it--and in place of joy, you have exhaustion and emptiness? The difference between a life which counts for God and a life which is simply lived out in busy ness is whether we are like Paul. Are we waiting on God’s will or are we forging ahead without him--directed by ourselves or other people’s dreams? Paul was willing to risk the complaints of impatient people because He knew the only One he had to please was God. He says Galatians 1:10, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? ...If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. The whole idea of being God-centered is to do what He wants and that will often not fit into the plans of others or our own flesh- driven burdens.
Paul’s prayers and plans were God-centered, are ours?
The second lesson we can learn in this regard is this: Paul was God centered in His fellowship with other believers. In verse 11 Paul says, “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong--that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged be each other’s faith.” Paul doesn’t specifically use the word “koinonia” or fellowship here, but its about as good an example of New testament fellowship as anything you’ll find. That is, mutually encouraging each other’s faith through spiritual ministry to one another. That’s at the heart of fellowship. We could learn much from Paul here. The vast majority of references to fellowship in the church I hear refer NOT to the spiritual building up and encouragement Paul is referencing, but rather purely social activities.
I am in no way saying that light conversation over coffee or healthy diversions like games or recreation or sports or hobbies we share with other Christians are not valid forms of fellowship--they are, but they are NOT the predominant expression of it. The predominant expression of fellowship is like that found in this text about Paul and texts like Hebrews 3:13. The author writes, “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” The purpose of the fellowship conveys what kind of fellowship he is speaking of. The author says the purpose of this fellowship is to prevent us from being hardened by sin. Sin is a spiritual force which seeks to lure us into its arms and as we enjoy its self-centered pleasures and at the same time blind us and harden us to the fact that it is destroying us from the inside out. That is the effect of sin which the author says fellowship prevents. In light of that purpose, do you suppose the fellowship he has in mind is rooted in biblical admonition, prayer and encouragement in the faith...or a cup of coffee and donuts and light chit chat and recreation with other believers? The former is certainly what the author envisions fellowship to be. This is the heart of true fellowship.
That’s the predominant understanding of fellowship in New Testament--is that the predominant mode of fellowship in the church today? No. Not in my experience. Why not? Many bemoan the fact that we need to have more spiritual fellowship--and that is true, but its a superficial analysis if that’s as far as it goes. ONE reason we don’t have more fellowship in the church of this variety is because there is little felt need for encouragement to live radically obedient lives for Christ. The reason for many of is we aren’t zealously pursuing Christ. Let me explain. Life is difficult for everyone--the opening words of a popular book which came out a number of years ago were, “Life is difficult.” But it is uniquely difficult for the Christian who is seeking to be obedient. That person is constantly swimming upstream against the current of this world which stands in opposition to Christ. If all you are doing is working to maintain sanity amidst within the difficulties which this life brings to everyone, your need for fellowship will most of the time be met in small talk and recreational activities and harmless, superficial diversions.
But if you are zealously seeking to follow after Christ, those things alone will not supply you with the strength you need to persevere. If you are seeking to be a dedicated soldier of the cross engaging the enemy through ardent prayer and holy living you are under fire. The flaming arrows of the evil one will begin to wear down your faith. You will desperately need encouragement and uplifting because you will begin to grow weary NOT simply because you are living in a fallen world, but because you will be seeking to follow Christ--you will sense a need for this kind of fellowship. For those people, (which should be all of us) God has given us the body of Christ to rejuvenate, refresh, admonish and encourage us. This mends our wounds, it refills our empty spiritual tanks and enables us to go back out to the battle lines with a song of praise on our lips.
If you are not in a spiritual battle--if you are not living a God centered life of warfare, you wont sense a need for this kind of fellowship--there will be no sense of felt need for this kind of edification. To use another metaphor, if you run a marathon, after the race you need to make sure your body is properly hydrated, your electrolytes are up--get a rub down, check for bone and muscle damage--you need alot of care, but if you are just jogging out to get the paper from the mail box, all you need is a sip from the tap. Paul was on the front lines and so when he looked at the healthy Roman church, it was to him, not only a place to minister, but a place to be refilled--to have his wounds healed--to be encouraged. Paul’s fellowship was God centered because what He needed most from others was what they could give him in the Spirit, not merely social contact. Are we people who are living for Christ? If we are, we need not only the social contact with each other, but also much, much more. If we are not sensing that need, it is probably because we are living a mediocre Christian life and don’t need deep, rich fellowship.
Finally, we see a third lesson from Paul’s autobiography here. That is: Paul was God centered in the rest of his ministry. In verses 11-15 Paul gives three reasons for his anticipated visit to Rome. He wanted to “impart some spiritual gift,” (v.11), “to have a harvest” (v.13) and “to preach the gospel” (v.13). We saw last week that Paul preached the gospel for God and not primarily for man. These other two aspects of his mission are equally God-centered. To have a harvest among the Romans implies God-centeredness because every harvest belongs to someone and the One to whom this harvest belongs is not Paul, but God. Using this agricultural metaphor in 1 Corinthians three Paul says, “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. Foe we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
To impart a spiritual gift is to communicate for Paul, “I can give you only what God has given to me.” Paul did not come in the power of His personality, but in the power of the Holy Spirit--it was a God centered ministry from beginning to end.
Finally, Paul says in verse 14 that he is, “obligated both to Greeks and non Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.” That makes it sound like Paul feels he is in debt to these people and his ministry is intended to horizontally pay back something he owes to these people. He was obligated to those he ministered, but it was GOD, NOT the people themselves who established this obligation. It is because God called Paul to minister to the Gentiles that he was obligated to the Gentiles. He says in 1 Corinthians 9 “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” The source of that warning was not the people to whom Paul preached, but the One for whom He preached.
Do we have this sense of God centeredness in our life? Is there anything in our life about which we can say with earnestness, “Woe to me if I do not...” Can we tie everything in our life easily to God’s purpose or do we have to go through some heavy rationalization to draw an artificial connection between what we do and the will of God? Are we busy doing God’s business or are we busy doing our own business in God’s name? Is our fellowship biblically balanced between light social contact and the deep, rich fellowship that is absolutely essential for those who seek to live the Christ life? If our fellowship is predominantly superficial, you can bet our faith is too. May God give us the grace to live God centered lives as Paul did.
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