Chapter 23 (The Book of Romans: A Universal Gospel)

Chapter 23:Paul’s and the Romans’ Places in the Work

15:14-16:27

The rest of the book of Romans is devoted to Paul’s personal plans and interactions with the Romans. Complete is the analytical study of the gospel and also of its practical instruction in principle. Paul’s only remaining purpose is to discuss with the Romans what his immediate plans are and how those plans relate to the Roman church. As he does so, though, we will see that still he is possessed by the same one idea as has been in his heart and mind throughout the book: The universal gospel for all men, Jew and Gentile. Now, as he discusses his plans and the Romans’ part in them, the picture revolves around Paul’s work to bring about the fulfillment of this gospel message in its spread to all mankind, both Jew and Gentile.

His first act is to explain why he is even writing to the Romans. What is the need? This closing section offers some close parallels with the introductory section at the beginning of the letter, being its natural counterpart. Just as there, Paul here is quick to assure the Romans that he does not write to them or desire to visit them because he views them as in great need of his spiritual guidance, being bereft of wisdom and knowledge themselves. Rather, he confirms that he has a great confidence in their fullness of knowledge and their ability to minister to one another apart from his instruction or from his coming to them. He does not come to set right a church in a terrible condition:

But I myself, my brothers, am convinced concerning you all that even you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another. (15:14)

Why, then, is he writing to them, and why does he desire to come visit them? He assured them in chapter one that he did desire to impart spiritual blessing to them, but that also he expected to be ministered to by them in mutual fashion, to be encouraged by their faith as well. Paul does not treat this church as some group inferior to himself, patronizing them as though he were the superior addressing the lower class.

Rather, Paul actually has in view the hopes that the Romans will join with him in the work of the ministry to which he has been called. Paul emphasizes an important part of his perspective in writing to them, which he also emphasized in the opening verses of the book, that he has been called to be an apostle to the Gentiles:

But I wrote to you more boldly from part as reminding you all because of the grace given to me by God in order for me to be a minister of Christ Jesus unto the Gentiles, administering the gospel of God so that the offering of the Gentiles might become acceptable, sanctified in the Holy Spirit. (15:15-16)

The fact of Paul’s calling to minister to the Gentiles meant that he was greatly desirous to help any and every Gentile church to better understand the gospel and become more acceptable to God through further sanctification of the Holy Spirit. This would explain one reason why he would bother to write to the Roman church. He desires to fulfill his calling as a minister to the Gentiles by helping them to grow in the grace of Christ.

At the same time, however, even greater of a focus for Paul was proclaiming the gospel for the first time to those Gentiles who had never heard it. It was certainly a worthy endeavor to minister to existing churches, one that Paul often undertook. But his first view was to preach the gospel in all parts of the world:

So that I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ from Jerusalem and all around unto Illyricum, but thus aspiring to preach the gospel not where Christ was named, so that I might not build upon another’s foundation, but rather, just as it has been written, “To whom it has not been reported, concerning Him they will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” (15:19-21).

This guiding principle for Paul is bringing him to a new phase of his plans for ministry because he now feels that he has preached in all the parts of that section of the world where he has labored, and the time has thus come for him to move on to a new part of the world. He states that he now plans to travel to Spain, but that he hopes to spend some time with the Romans en route. And what is more, he hopes that they will join in with him in the ministry by sending him forth to Spain once he comes to them and stays with them for a while:

Therefore I also was prevented many times from coming to you, but now no longer having place in these regions, but having a longing to come to you for many years, whenever I should come into Spain. For I hope, passing through, to behold you and to be sent forth there by you if from you first I should be filled from part. (15:22-24)

So this is the plan that the gospel has brought Paul to make. His life is devoted to the ministry of the gospel, which means the spreading of the tidings of salvation through Christ to all the Gentile world. This is a gospel message for all men, for all nations and peoples. So Paul’s purpose in life is to preach that gospel in all parts of the world.

And the Romans? Paul assumes that they likewise will be eager to participate in that same great work. This would be the only natural place for them to fulfill, having received themselves the fruit of this salvation. They surely must now also speed forth the gospel to all other Gentile nations. If they have understood the gospel and its import for all men, this will be the natural thing to do.

But yet this is only one side of the picture, for the gospel is for both Jew and Gentile alike, we now understand. To minister to the Gentiles is one great side of the picture, but Paul is in the very midst of fulfilling also the other side. What about the Jews? Paul himself is a Jew, as he has reminded us throughout this letter, and his desire, as we have seen, is to spur the Jews to jealousy through ministry to the Gentiles, hoping to save some of his own kin. Similarly, those Jews who have believed in Christ and thus proven to be true sons of Abraham must become one body with the believing Gentile churches throughout the world.

For these reasons, Paul has made plans that will interrupt for a time his ministry to the Gentile world: He is going to Jerusalem. What is he going to do there? He is actually fulfilling a task of mercy and love from the Gentile churches of Macedonia and Achaia towards the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. They are sending money to help the poor there in a time of need:

But now I go to Jerusalem ministering to the saints, for Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a fellowship unto the poor of the saints who are in Jerusalem. (15:25-26)

For Paul, this is a most fitting part of the gospel picture. It is a living fulfillment of the grand plans of God that Paul laid out for us in chapters 9-11 in the matter of Jew and Gentile relations. The Gentile Christians are recognizing that they have received the gospel through a great and important Jewish heritage. They see themselves, and rightly so, as in debt to the Jewish people. They do not despise the Jews by any means, but recognize the proper relationship between God’s chosen people of old, Israel, and themselves the Gentiles who have been brought into salvation through the instrumentality of the Jewish people. They are now concerned, in their position of salvation and honor, to do good to the Jews, helping the Christian Jews and seeking even also to be used to bring more Jews to faith in Christ. This understanding of loving obligation to the Jews on the part of the Gentiles is the proper and healthy attitude for them to have, Paul says:

For they were pleased, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles shared in their spiritual things, they ought also in their material things to minister to them. (15:27)

And so, then, Paul is doing all that he can to serve by his labors the plan of God to spread salvation to all the Gentiles and likewise to use that very spreading of the gospel to the Gentiles as a means to minister back to the Jews in return, from whom the gospel of salvation first came to the Gentiles. This is God’s plan being accomplished before our eyes. It was no merely abstract and theoretical matter that Paul dealt with in explaining the gospel; it was rather the controlling principle of his life. He ever had an eye towards both sides of this gospel equation, both the Gentiles and the Jews. May we learn to think likewise in full accord with the gospel message of salvation. Paul would no doubt urge us to the same eager participation as he does the Romans in his final exhortation before his goodbyes:

But I exhort you, brothers, through our Lord Jesus Christ and through the love of the Spirit, to agonize with me in prayers for me towards God, so that I might be rescued from those who are disobedient in Judea and my ministry unto Jerusalem might become acceptable to the saints. (15:30-31)

Naught is now left to do but to say goodbye in chapter 16. Surely that is a straightforward matter that will not have much to do with questions about Jew and Gentile, right? Well, not exactly, for even though the greetings are themselves simple matters enough, yet Paul cannot help but think about those individuals whom he greets in terms of their service and place in this whole gospel picture that he has contemplated with us. With various individuals, Paul highlights some aspect or other of their place in the gospel work of bringing salvation to all men, Jew and Gentile:

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus, such as who for my life set under their own necks, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. (16:3-4)

Greet Epainetus, my beloved, who is the firstfruits of Asia unto Christ. (16:5)

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen. (16:7)

Greet Herodian, my kinsman. (16:11)

These are just a few places where the emphasis comes out in some distinct way concerning a member’s role as Jew or Gentile in the spreading of the gospel to all men. Many other places Paul simply refers generally to the fact of a member’s work in the gospel, or his brotherhood in the gospel, or some like feature. Many of them served in the gospel, he says, and are certainly partakers of it themselves, and thus beloved. Whatever role each brother has had in that gospel work, this is how Paul greets them and remembers them. His thought is ever on the ministry of the eternal gospel of salvation. The grand thought of this mystery has come to control all for him, and he trusts that it will also for his fellow Christians whether Jew or Gentile. Each one has his part in the fulfillment of this gospel in all the world. Paul looks upon them according to what they have done in that task.

What, we might ask, would he say in greeting us? How are we a part of that process? What is our task and role? Is our life devoted to that same cause and purpose? Would Paul be able to look upon us and see plainly what it is that we have done and are doing to be a part of the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan of salvation for all mankind? Let us seek that out as the defining call and purpose of our lives, and may God grant us to know it and fulfill it in all honor, worthy of such a God of wisdom, mercy, and love and worthy of such a glorious gospel through which He has called us to Himself.

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