MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 29, 2000 FROM ROMANS 15:22-29
This week, we continue in the second half of the 15th chapter of Romans. Last week, we noted this last section of the letter is not nearly as filled with deeply theological content as the preceding chapters have been. In the text we looked at last week, Paul gives an account of his church planting apostolic ministry. He labors to show these Roman Christians that his ministry was not his invention, nor was it powered by his energy. We saw Paul’s ministry was God centered in three ways. First, Paul’s ministry was FROM God. That is, reaching the Gentiles with the gospel was not Paul’s idea. The only reason he was doing what he was doing in planting churches among the Gentiles was because God told him to. God had chosen Paul to be his instrument to “carry my name before the Gentiles.”
We saw that Paul’s mission was also FOR God in that Paul ministered on behalf of God. He looks back on his tremendous ministry to the Gentiles and says, “CHRIST has accomplished [this] through me” Paul saw himself as a priest who offered as a sacrifice to God those Gentiles who believed. For Paul, his entire apostolic ministry was an expression of worship as a priest ministering in behalf of God. Finally, we noted that Paul’s ministry was only possible WITH God. Paul was called to “lead…the Gentiles to obey God.” The result of his ministry was not simply a truckload of response cards with the “yes, I believe” box checked. The result of his ministry was bringing dead people back to life, seeing rebels become worshippers. That is possible ONLY if God is powerfully at work within your ministry.
In our text this week, Paul changes his focus from the God centered character of his past ministry to his plans for future ministry—a future which he believes will include a visit to the saints at Rome. Let’s read Paul’s outlining of these future plans for ministry in verses 22-29 of Romans chapter 15. His ministry planting Gentile churches in the east had kept him from visiting Rome up to this time, a point he begins with in verse 22 where he says, “This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. 23But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, 24I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. 25Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. 26For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. 28So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this fruit, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. 29I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.”
In this text, Paul is essentially telling the Romans what his travel plans were for the future and where they fit in those plans. As you read this kind of text in your morning devotions, because it isn’t characterized by much explicit teaching, it is very easy to gloss over a text like this one. It’s easy to think, “What can I possibly learn and apply to my life by thinking about Paul’s intended ministry itinerary?” That seems pretty mundane on the face of it. It tempts you to wonder if this section of the letter was beneficial only to the Romans initially receiving it and who actually were interested in Paul’s future plans.
Although that is tempting to think, it is mistaken for at least two reasons. The first reason is because it is part of the word of God and Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16, “ALL scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That tells us that texts like this one in Romans 15 are God breathed and useful to equip us for every good work. A second reason why this is a very valuable text is because here Paul gives us insight into how he did ministry and Paul had an incredibly fruitful ministry. If we want our ministries to be fruitful, whether in the home, neighborhood, school, church, nations, we would do well to follow Paul’s example. This text about Paul’s ministry is a deep mine from which we can dig out principles for fruitful, God blessed, ministry.
The main principle about ministry this text teaches us is this: For ministry to be accompanied with God’s full blessing, it must be Spirit-led and God-driven in his mission. You’ll notice I said, “God-driven” there. This is a bit different than many in the church today who believe the church should be “PURPOSE” driven. The secular management community discovered a long time ago that people work much more diligently at something if there is a clearly set purpose. The church has often taken that truth and applied it by stating that the church must be purpose driven because it causes us to be so much more effective. We must be careful here. God made us in such a way as to be more effective if we are working toward a specific purpose, but we in the church should not be purpose driven as that term is sometimes applied. We should be GOD driven as he tells us what specifically HE wants us to do. We are called to be effective in ministry and that requires specific purposes, but our first call is to be faithful worshippers and that requires we spend time with Him and find out what HIS specific purpose is, not just any old purpose. And that is true in the church whether it relates to building a new church building or hiring additional staff. The guiding question should always be, “what does God want here?” The issue is not to get a purpose and allow it to drive us, but, through prayer and the word, find out what GOD’S will is and do it, motivated by the sense that we are doing the will of God, not simply fulfilling a purpose or goal or mission.
There are two points that can be drawn from this text. The first is; Paul’s ministry was dictated by God’s agenda, not Paul’s and second; God fully blessed Paul’s ministry. Both those points are found in the text and the clear implication is that if God is the One dictating our ministry agenda, he will bless that ministry. As we saw last week, God will only bless what is of, from and by Him and Paul’s ministry is manifestly of God. The first point is Paul’s ministry was dictated by God’s agenda, not Paul’s. We see this in three ways. The first way we see God’s control over Paul’s ministry agenda is in the TIMING of his visit to Rome. It is clear from this text that Paul had what appeared to be a strong personal desire to visit Rome.
We first see this back in 1:11 where Paul says to the Roman Christians, “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.” Paul knew he had a ministry to the Roman church which we now know to be in part, addressing the divisions which existed between the Jewish believers and Gentile converts. This was a major burden for him as we’ll see later in this text. But Rome was, as we’ve seen, a comparatively healthy church. There were strong believers in Rome who could give him encouragement as well and Paul, with the tremendous opposition he endured, needed encouragement just like anyone else. Mature Christians, like some of the believers in Rome could encourage him in his ministry.
In verse 23, Paul says “…I have been longing for many years to see you.” This was not just a fleeting desire. This desire to visit Rome had been in Paul’s heart for years. We see this in verse 22 as well where he says, “I have been hindered from coming to you.” That word “hindered” is in the passive voice and that implies that something had acted on Paul to prevent him from visiting Rome. His attempts to visit Rome had been aborted. There was something or some ONE hindering Paul from this desire to visit Rome. What hindered Paul—what stood in Paul’s way and set him on another course instead? God did. When Paul says “I have been hindered” that word hindered is known as a divine passive. That is, God had put the brakes on Paul’s desire to visit Rome. We know this because Paul spells out the specific reason why he had not been able to visit Rome. We see this in verse 23, “but now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions…” We must understand the context out of which Paul is writing. He is in the final phase of what we call his third missionary journey. This is chronicled in Acts chapters 18-21. This is the journey where he planted churches in the regions of Macedonia, Achaia and parts of Asia Minor. Although he had not planted churches in all the communities in these regions, he had established churches in key cities from which others could complete the task.
Remember from 15:20, Paul’s call was to plant churches where no churches had been planted, “to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” That was the call of God on Paul’s life. That came first—that was the priority, that was God’s agenda. That came BEFORE any visit to Rome, no matter how refreshing and encouraging that visit might be for Paul. Paul had wanted to visit Rome for years, but God had other things for Paul to do first. The timing of Paul’s visit to Rome must be GOD’S idea, not Paul’s. This is not to suggest that Paul was tugging at the reins, fighting God to go to Rome. It simply means that at some point, in some way, Paul lifted his desire to go to Rome and God in some way said, “you will go in MY timing and my timing is after you finish this task of Mine.”
We also see God’s dictation of the timing of
Paul’s Roman visit in verse 25.
He tells them that he will see them soon but,
“Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem
in the service of the saints there.”
In addition to planting churches among the
Gentiles, one more task was on God’s (and therefore Paul’s) agenda AHEAD of this Rome visit that Paul longed to
make. There was evidently a significant community of poor among
the Jewish saints in Jerusalem.
The poor are perpetually on the heart of God. God
laid the poor on the heart of all the apostles.
In Galatians two, where Paul is defending his
apostleship, he relates that the Jerusalem apostles happily sent him off to reach the Gentiles with only one request, “that we should continue to remember the poor.” But
beyond God’s general concern for the poor that Paul reflects, part of Paul’s mission as a Jew, a former Pharisee
ministering among the Gentiles, was to be a bridge builder and unifying agent between the Jews and Gentiles. We
have already seen that in chapters 9-11, chapter 14 and the first half of 15 here in Romans.
What better way to unite the Jewish and Gentile
believers AND minister to the Jewish
saints in Jerusalem than to have Paul collect
from the Gentile believers (which, we know from his letters he did in many churches) an offering to the poor in
Jerusalem? This offering to them would help the Jews see that God is
truly at work saving Gentiles and would dampen any suspicions about Paul’s work among the Gentiles. And,
as Paul points out in verses 25-27, the offering given by the Gentiles would remind the Gentiles that they have
a debt to pay to the Jews in the sense that Christianity, as we saw in chapter 11, is Jewish at the roots. Giving
this money to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem would be an important expression of their sense of indebtedness
to the Jews. Paul longed to go to Rome, but God controlled the timing of the visit so that when it did take place,
it would be PART of his agenda, not a diversion from it.
As we continue in the text we see God dictating Paul’s agenda in another way as it relates to his visit to Rome. Not only did God dictate the timing of Paul’s visit, but God also dictated the length of Paul’s visit. When Paul finally did get to Rome, his visit would be a short one. We see this in verse 24 where he says, “I plan to do so (that is, visit Rome) when I go to Spain.” He says in verse 28, “…I will go to Spain and visit you on the way.” There Paul makes it clear his main objective is Spain and Rome will be little more than a stopping off point where Paul had hoped “to have you [the Rome believers] assist me on my journey.” Now, why when you get to a place you have longed to visit for years, in a place where you, a badly beaten up apostle could be encouraged--why would you make that visit little more than a ministry stopover, thus transforming Rome for him from a place to visit, to a ministry base from which to launch into Spain? The reason was because Paul’s desires, his agenda, his travel plans didn’t belong to him.
Paul, unlike so many 21st century so called Christians did not see himself as a spiritual vacationer, leisurely strolling through life, ministering for Christ only when the opportunities fit within his itinerary and comfort zone. No, Paul saw himself through a biblical lens. He was a pilgrim—this world was not his home—he was here to know and worship Christ in the context of a mission for the glory of God. He would find his joy in God in the midst of that mission—there would be plenty of time for so called “rest” in heaven. Paul was not his own man—he belonged to another—he referred to himself as a “bond slave.” Bond slaves don’t set their travel itineraries. They don’t act independently of their Master. They go only where their Master permits and directs them to go and no where else. The Master dictates where they go and when and how long they stay there. They don’t make their decisions based on other factors—their ultimate question about any decision of this nature is, “What does the Master say?” And when they get the answer to that question, they do it.
The Master had already spoken to Paul on this issue. Paul was not sent to build on another man’s foundation, his call was to the unevangelized. And, as far as we can know, Spain was the only country bordering the Mediterranean which, at this time, had not yet been evangelized. It was a bastion of Roman civilization, but it had not heard the gospel. It would have been much easier for Paul on a human level to stay in Rome and minister comfortably there among the saints. But in the kingdom, its just not about what is easiest or most fun or most scintillating—its about what the Master says. Spain didn’t speak Greek. They spoke Latin, so Paul would have to minister in another tongue and we’re not sure how fluent he was in Latin. At the very least, he would have to do some boning up on the language. But this was the will of God for him. God not only dictated the timing of Paul’s Roman visit, but also the length of stay.
A third way God dictated Paul’s agenda was: God dictated the interruptions in Paul’s ministry. In order to see this point, we have to go outside this text, but Paul gives us permission to do that because he refers to his intention to minister in Spain. Though Paul had planned to visit Spain as part of his God-given mission to the unreached Gentiles, we know from the book of Acts, he didn’t make it there on this third missionary journey. Although the early church historians tell us he made a fourth missionary journey and Spain was part of that, we know this journey to Spain was interrupted and we will see that this interruption was also divinely appointed. We know from Acts 21 Paul did indeed make it to Jerusalem where we may assume he was able to make his contribution there. But he wasn’t there very long until the religious leaders had him arrested. But because Paul was a Roman citizen, the legal battles following his arrest had to be fought within Roman courts and the accounts of these trials and imprisonments are found in the last eight chapters of Acts.
So here is Paul in Jerusalem to touch base with some of the other apostles on his way back to Rome and then its on to Spain to plant churches among the unreached there…and what happens? He’s arrested. Paul’s God-driven agenda had been derailed—his ministry to the Gentiles was interrupted? How could God, whose mission it was to plant churches among the unreached Gentiles, allow this to happen to Paul? What is going on here? Well, in order to answer that question, we must go back to Paul’s conversion narrative in Acts chapter nine where Christ tells a hesitant Ananias His purpose for Paul. Remember what Christ tells Ananias Paul (then Saul) was going to do for him. He says in verse 15, “This is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and the people of Israel…” Now, Paul started ministering among the people of Israel and they rejected him so he then went to the Gentiles and he was headed to Spain to pursue that mission. But Paul had not, up to this point ministered to the “kings” of the Gentiles.
So how does God get Paul in a place where he can minister to the governing authorities of the Roman Empire? He uses the Jews in Jerusalem to arrest him and put him into the Roman legal system where, before the book of Acts ends in chapter 28, he has preached before two Roman governors in Caesarea and King Herod Agrippa who happened to be visiting in Caesarea. Paul preached so aggressively to Agrippa that he asks Paul in Acts 26:28, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian.” Isn’t this beautiful? So God “interrupts” His mission to the Gentiles through Paul to use Paul to minister to Gentile kings which was part of God’s agenda from the beginning. If Paul would have tried to get an audience with Agrippa or Festus or Felix for the purpose of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ to them, he would have been laughed off floor. But as a Roman citizen on trial, these men not only did listen to him, they were legally REQUIRED to listen to him and the gospel of Christ. The kings and authorities of the mighty Roman empire became a captive audience for Paul, the man God had chosen to bear the name of Christ before Kings. Do you see how gloriously and with such incredible wisdom God works among his people to accomplish His mission even in the so called “interruptions” in ministry when that person is willing to allow GOD to dictate his agenda and ministry?
The second point follows logically from the first point. If God dictates the agenda for Paul’s ministry, then we know that (second point) God greatly blessed Paul’s ministry. We know that Paul had a collection for the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. We know that Paul preached before King Herod and other high ranking Roman authorities. In verse 29, after Paul makes clear that his longing to visit Rome was to be satisfied in God’s time and for God’s purpose, he says, “I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.” When you see Paul’s ministry in Rome, this is precisely what happened. We know that Paul eventually did arrive in Rome because his legal battles terminated there. We know from Acts 28 that he spent more than two of the most restful years of his apostolic ministry there awaiting trial, under house arrest staying “in his own rented house and [he] welcomed all who came to see him.” For a man who spent much of his time in rat-infested jails, to live in a rented home, free to entertain any and all visitors, this was a great blessing. Paul had longed to visit Rome for years and when he had accomplished God’s agenda by planting Gentile churches in the east, making an offering in Jerusalem, Paul finally made it to Rome for a blessed stay. His longing was satisfied. And the strong indicators from church history are that Paul got to Spain as well on a fourth missionary journey.
Now, what can we learn from Paul’s ministry that will enable us to have fruitful ministries in our homes, neighborhoods, this church, this community, this nation and the nations across the ocean? Its not hard to discern the answer to that question. The answer is, give God the steering wheel and go where he tells you to go, when he tells you to go, for how long he tells you to go. And as you are doing that, when “interruptions” come, don’t have a coronary. Know that they are in some way from God, so just wait and let him show you how he can turn a so called “interruption” into even more glorious ministry. That is a very easy lesson to UNDERSTAND. But for people who are, by biblical standards are spoiled—for people who are not only used to, but actually are encouraged to do things when, where, how, for how long and at what rate THEY want to do them, this lesson is anything but easy to APPLY. For people who have been conformed by a culture that believes hindrances are to be swept away with a credit card or a prescription or a legal appeal, this lesson sounds positively ridiculous.
We are so different than Paul. We aren’t willing to suffer like Paul was, we aren’t willing to slavishly follow God’s agenda like Paul was, we aren’t willing to wait on God like Paul was (why wait when there’s Visa or American Express?). We aren’t willing to trust God when interruptions come like Paul was and when they occur we fold up our tents and assume THAT ministry could not possibly have been from God. We aren’t willing to allow God to dictate the where’s, the when’s, the for-how- long’s, like Paul was. And the crushing, staggering, God-dishonoring result is, we don’t have ministries that were blessed…like Paul’s was. We don’t have ministries remotely resembling ministries that looked like Paul’s in their character. There is little if any power, or sense of God’s hand on them. If we say we want this church to have a ministry that reeks of supernatural power and presence, that is NOT impossible. God longs to do that and bring glory to His name. The question is, do we really want it or do we just wish for it the way a child wishes on a star—“wouldn’t it be nice if…?” That kind of wish will never motivate anyone to live like Paul lived.
This whole thing is really about whether we are willing like Paul to trust God with our life, our ministry and our future and are we willing like Paul was, “to pick up our cross daily” and follow Jesus. The glorious reality of this is, though we are not apostles like Paul, God wants to bless our ministries like He did Paul for His glory. The sobering question is, do we want the blessing and the joy of the Lord (that comes from being faithful to God) badly enough to give up our padded pillows, convenient schedules and lives that are planned around OUR agendas? May God give us the grace to allow God to dictate our lives and ministry agenda for the glory of Christ.
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