Mark Sellers, our youth director, brought a list of excuses into our church office. Unedited, these were excuses a public school had received from parents for their children’s absences.
(1) “My son is under the doctor’s care and should not take P.E. Please execute him.”
(2) “Mary could not come to school today because she was bother by very close veins.”
(3) “Please excuse Ray Friday. He has loose vowels.”
(4) “Please excuse Roland from P.E. for a few days. Yesterday he fell out of a tree and misplaced his hip.”
(5) “Please excuse Sarah for being absent. She was sick and I had her shot.”
(6) “Please excuse Tom from being absent yesterday. He had diarrhea and his boots leak.”
(7) “Please excuse Jimmy for being. It was his father’s fault.”
While quite different from the parent’s excuses, our text is also an absence excuse. After years of hoping to visit the saints in Rome, Paul offers an excuse for his absence:
9 For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, 10 always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; 12 that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 And I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented thus far) in order that I might obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles (Romans 1:9-13).
Paul had good reason to offer an excuse for not yet having reached Rome. Although his introduction to the Romans indicates he had wanted to visit these saints for years, he had not done so. Now Paul writes this epistle to them from Corinth, some 600 miles southeast of Rome, as the crow flies. He admits to having preached the gospel as far as Illyricum,121 just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. During his ministry in Illyricum, he could have been less than 400 miles from the city of Rome.
But now as close as he is to Rome and as eager as he is to visit the saints there, when he leaves Corinth Paul plans to head not northwest toward Rome, but southeast, traveling more than 800 miles back to Jerusalem. Though so close, he does not press on the remaining distance but turns around and goes in the opposite direction to Jerusalem.
From all appearances, it seems as though Paul may never reach Rome; some might wonder if he really wants to go there. Paul’s excuse explains his absence even though he is close to Rome at the time he writes this epistle. If the Epistle to the Romans is Paul’s ministry to these saints in absentia and by mail, Romans 15:14-33 provides his excuse for his prolonged absence when he could have visited with relative ease.
One may wonder why this excuse is even preserved in the text of the New Testament. How can Paul’s excuse possibly be of value to us? In most cases, an ancient excuse would not be of value to those of a much later day; yet Paul’s excuse has great value. Indeed, his reasons for not having visited, and his future plans to visit, are most instructive. Here Paul reveals his priorities for living out his life and the basis of his plans for future ministry. Paul informs his readers how he determined on a practical, daily basis the will of God for his life.
In his introduction of this major section of Romans, Paul speaks of knowing God’s will as the result of having our minds transformed:
I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2, emphasis mine).
Paul’s explanation of his delayed arrival, his past ministry, and future plans in Romans 15:14-33 provides an excellent illustration of how God’s will becomes evident—as our minds are conformed to the mind and will of God, and as we live our lives in accordance with our gifts and calling.
Paul’s words may be an excuse, but they are included in the Scriptures for our edification. May we look to the Spirit of God to guide our study and application of these important words.
Romans 15:14-33 contains four paragraphs:
(1) Verses 14-16 — Paul’s Reasons for Writing Romans
(2) Verses 17-21 — Paul’s Reasons for His Absence
(3) Verses 22-29 — Paul’s Reasons for Another Delay
(4) Verses 30-33 — Paul’s Requests for Prayer
In verses 14-16, Paul explains his reasons for writing this Epistle to the Romans. Verses 17-21 describe Paul’s priorities and principles which shaped his ministry up to the time of his writing. These verses explain Paul’s absence in the past. Verses 22-29 spell out his plans for the immediate future which will delay him from coming to Rome until he commences his ministry to Spain. He will then be able to visit Rome on his way to Spain. Finally, in verses 30-33, Paul requests prayer for some specific matters, closing this section with the benediction of verse 33.
14 And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish122 one another. 15 But I have written very boldly to you on some points, so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, that my offering of the Gentiles might become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Compliments are not handed out by Paul without good reason. His epistles contain a number of instances with strong words of admonition and rebuke. Paul informs his Roman readers in verse 14 that his reason for writing this epistle is not their immaturity or any serious doctrinal deficiency. I must confess his words take me somewhat by surprise. My mistaken impression was that these Roman Christians were not well taught, and that this epistle was Paul’s prescription for their ailment.
According to Paul, these saints scored well in their spiritual attitudes and aptitudes. In verse 14, Paul mentions three specific areas of strength. First, they were “full of goodness.” This seems to speak of their disposition toward God and toward men. They had “good will” toward God and others. They were rightly motivated. Second, they were “filled with all knowledge.” Doctrinally, they were well taught with no grave deficiencies in their biblical and theological knowledge. Third, they were “able also to admonish one another.” There seems to be a sequence to these three commendations. The Roman Christians’ “goodness” and “knowledge” qualified them to “admonish” one another.
For those familiar with Dr. Jay Adams and his approach to biblical counseling, this phrase, “able to admonish,” is the basis for his book, Competent to Counsel. Several inferences from this text pertain to biblical counseling. First, being “competent to counsel” requires that one be filled with both “goodness” and “knowledge.”123 Second, biblical counsel involves more than just admonition, which is but one element of counseling (see, for example, 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15). Third, we would infer from this text that counseling is not the private duty of a very few “counselors.” It is viewed by Paul as a “one another” function in which all Christians are to be involved. It is also a reciprocal function—not just a one-way activity. Most counseling of which I am aware, including so-called “Christian counseling,” is of a different kind than that which our text describes.
If these Roman Christians did not need to be taught or corrected, why did Paul write this epistle—one of the most extensive, systematic expositions of doctrine in all the Bible? Were his words wasted on this group of saints? Not at all! Paul understood men and their needs precisely. He did not write this epistle to inform as much as to remind. He did not write Romans to innovate as much as to reiterate.
This is a very difficult but vital principle for those of us who devote our lives to teaching the Bible. I personally find great exhilaration when I learn something new, and I find great pleasure in sharing this new insight in my teaching ministry. Such insights seldom focus on the fundamentals of the faith but on incidentals. To the degree that we innovate, we depart from the fundamentals which we are responsible to reiterate.
New and novel “truth” is a dangerous thing:
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.” (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.) (Acts 17:16-21)
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-8).
The apostles emphasize the fundamentals as those truths which are a part of the old, old, story which needs only to be retold rather than replaced with something new:
Therefore, I shall always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you. And I consider it right, as long as I am in this earthly dwelling, to stir you up by way of reminder, knowing that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will also be diligent that at any time after my departure you may be able to call these things to mind. For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”—and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. And so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep (2 Peter 1:12–2:3).
The great danger for Christians is similar to that which faces athletes—in focusing on the fine points, one can forget the fundamentals. In their prime, the Dallas Cowboys could pull off a “flea flicker” or a “double reverse,” but such plays did not win football games. Football games are won or lost because teams execute or fail to execute the fundamentals of the game.
So it is with the fundamentals of the faith. The great danger for Christians is that we may lose our focus on the fundamentals and begin to pay too much attention to the fine points. In the words of our Lord, we may “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (see Matthew 23:24). Paul wrote Romans to remind these growing Christians of the fundamentals of their faith. There is little “new” in Romans, but all of it is vital.
The concept Paul highlights at the end of verse 15 and all of verse 16 is fascinating! Here, he explains his motivation for writing the Book of Romans. If his purpose was to remind the Roman Christians of the fundamentals of the faith, his motivation was to carry out his God-given mission and calling as an apostle to the Gentiles:
15 But I have written very boldly to you on some points, so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, that my offering of the Gentiles might become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Paul was fully aware of his purpose. God made his purpose most evident at the time of his conversion (see Acts 9:15-16; 22:21; 26:15-18). Paul sets out this purpose at the beginning of this Epistle to the Romans:
Through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name’s sake (Romans 1:5).
Notice that Paul perceived his calling to be a very broad one. He was not just called to evangelize among the Gentiles; his words indicate he was called to bring about “the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.” Paul sensed a responsibility to all the Gentiles, even those he had not seen before and those he had not led to Christ. His responsibility was to minister in such a way as to encourage and facilitate an obedience which stems from faith. Paul’s calling included all the Gentiles, encompassing the broad category of discipleship—and not just evangelism.124 This is precisely why he wrote this epistle to the Roman saints: to challenge them to the obedience which stems from faith. This is also Paul’s reason for placing so much emphasis on personal convictions—because these are matters of faith.
The imagery in verse 16 is most interesting. Paul speaks of himself as a “priest” who is “offering” a sacrifice to God—the sacrifice of the Gentiles. His desire and motivation is to present the Gentile believers at Rome to God as a sacrifice which is acceptable to God through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. His ministry, whether from a distance by this epistle, or in person, is directed toward the edification and sanctification of the church to the glory of God. We see similar language used elsewhere in Paul’s epistles:
I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness; but indeed you are bearing with me. For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:1-3).
Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me (Colossians 1:25-29).
Paul’s priestly imagery is not simply a graphic illustration or the use of symbolism. In using this imagery, Paul reveals his understanding of the union of his personal calling with that of Israel’s calling as a nation. He speaks of himself as a priest because he is a Jew, a true Jew, one who is carrying out the priestly ministry which God gave to the nation Israel.
Let us go back to the beginning of Israel’s history to recall the ministry and calling of the nation Israel, as God Himself defined it:
And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel” (Exodus 19:3-6, emphasis mine).
Israel was chosen by God to be a blessing to the nations. They were to bless the nations in a variety of ways, but one of those ways was by serving as a kingdom of priests. As a kingdom of priests, Israel was to minister in such a way as to proclaim God’s salvation to the Gentiles and to offer up Gentile converts as a sacrifice to God. When Israel failed to do this,125 her priestly role was given to the church; thus, at the present time we see the same terminology applied to the church:
And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture: “Behold I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, And he who believes in Him shall not be disappointed.” This precious value, then, is for you who believe. But for those who disbelieve, “The stone which the builders rejected, This became the very corner stone,” and, “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:4-10; see also Revelation 1:4-6).
And so when Paul speaks of himself as a priest, offering up the Gentiles as a sacrifice to God, he understands that his individual calling as a Jewish Christian is not unique, but typical—typical of the calling of every Jew. Unfortunately it was a calling which the Jews, as a nation, rejected. When the Jews repent and are restored, they will once again play their priestly role among the nations:
Then they will rebuild the ancient ruins, They will raise up the former devastations, And they will repair the ruined cities, The desolations of many generations. And strangers will stand and pasture your flocks. And foreigners will be your farmers and your vinedressers. But you will be called the priests of the LORD; You will be spoken of as ministers of our God. You will eat the wealth of nations. And in their riches you will boast. Instead of your shame you will have a double portion, And instead of humiliation they will shout for joy over their portion. Therefore they will possess a double portion in their land, Everlasting joy will be theirs (Isaiah 61:4-7, emphasis mine; see also Isaiah 66).
Romans 15:15-16 therefore expands on Romans 12:1-2. In chapter 12, we are told that we should present ourselves as living sacrifices to God, sacrifices which are pleasing and acceptable to Him.126 Now in chapter 15, we see that as members of a kingdom of priests we are also privileged to present other believers as sacrifices to God as well. Our goal in ministry should be to edify and build up our fellow-believers, so that we might present them to God as a pleasing offering. Here is a dimension of the “priesthood of every believer” which is hardly ever discussed. As we can see from his life and ministry, Paul understood his priesthood well.
17 Therefore in Christ Jesus I have found reason for boasting in things pertaining to God. 18 For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed, 19 in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit; so that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. 20 And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, that I might not build upon another man’s foundation; 21 but as it is written, “They who had no news of Him shall see, And they who have not heard shall understand.”
After years of hoping to see Paul, some of the Roman saints may have begun to wonder if he was ever coming at all. Other churches seemed to have questions about his coming as well. Some may have accused Paul of being scatter-brained or fickle. Thus, Paul felt the need to explain his absence not only here but elsewhere (see 2 Corinthians 1:15–2:4).
Paul intends in verses 17-21 to demonstrate that it was his commitment to his calling and ministry that kept him from Rome—his priorities kept him from Rome. Since his ministry is his defense, it is necessary for Paul to describe this ministry. In verses 17-19, Paul points to the success of his ministry, not to boast in his own accomplishments but to give glory to God and show that God’s hand of blessing was evident in that ministry. Some use their ministry as an excuse for avoiding other obligations. Paul points to the hand of God in his ministry to show that he was acting in the will and the power of God.
Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles bore the evidences of God’s blessing and power. His success was the result of God’s working through him. And so, as he went about proclaiming the gospel, the Holy Spirit bore witness to God’s presence and power by signs and miracles.
This should not be twisted to suggest God’s power will always be evident in such miraculous ways. Remember Paul’s ministry was that of an apostle. He took the gospel to places where the name of Christ had never been heard. The signs and wonders accompanying his preaching were proof to pagans that God was in their midst and that Paul’s message was one to be taken seriously. These “signs and wonders” were God’s accreditation of Paul as an apostle:
I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me. Actually I should have been commended by you, for in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles. For in what respect were you treated as inferior to the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not become a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong! (2 Corinthians 12:11-13).
In the last part of verse 19, Paul indicates his conviction that his task was nearly finished. “From Jerusalem … to Illyricum” Paul said he had “fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” This is an incredible statement. We might wish that we could say this of our block or our neighborhood. Paul said it concerning a large portion of his world.
Understand that Paul in no way claims to have preached to every single person living in this vast area. Paul is simply claiming to have fulfilled his task as an apostle. His task as an apostle was to lay a foundation. His mission was to preach Christ and to establish churches in crucial locations so that the gospel could then be proclaimed by believers from these outposts. His mission was to set out lights in that darkened part of the world. These lights127 were local churches, strategically placed so that the gospel would resound from these outposts. And resound it did:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world (Romans 1:8).
Knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:4-10).
Assured that he had fulfilled his mission as an apostle from Jerusalem to Illyricum, Paul’s eyes now look to the horizon of his world. His desire was to preach the gospel where it had not been heard before. He did not wish to build on the foundation of another. He found the words of Isaiah 52:15 descriptive of his calling, and thus he quotes them in verse 21: “THEY WHO HAD NO NEWS OF HIM SHALL SEE, AND THEY WHO HAVE NOT HEARD SHALL UNDERSTAND.”
Someone might easily misinterpret Paul’s desire not to build on the foundation of another. Is Paul being petty? Is he saying he wants to preach where he has control and where he alone gets the glory? Is he demonstrating some kind of autonomous, independent spirit? Not at all! Paul is reflecting his grasp of his calling as an apostle. He did not wish to build on the foundation of another because his calling as an apostle was to lay a foundation:
According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-11).
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).
Paul’s words explain why a visit to Rome was not high on his list of priorities and thus why he had not yet reached Rome. His calling as an apostle was to lay foundations where the gospel had not yet been proclaimed. The church at Rome had already been planted, and the saints there were full of “goodness” and “knowledge.” To go to Rome would have been going where the foundation was already laid. Paul was too busy laying foundations from Jerusalem to Illyricum to go to Rome—yet. He is finally considering a visit to Rome in his plans for future ministry as described in the next verses.
22 For this reason I have often been hindered from coming to you; 23 but now, with no further place for me in these regions, and since I have had for many years a longing to come to you 24 whenever I go to Spain—for I hope to see you in passing, and to be helped on my way there by you, when I have first enjoyed your company for a while—25 but now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27 Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things. 28 Therefore, when I have finished this, and have put my seal on this fruit of theirs, I will go on by way of you to Spain. 29 And I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.
Verse 22 concludes Paul’s excuse of verses 17-21 and introduces his next topic—his plans for the future and their bearing on his visit to Rome. The good news of this paragraph is that at last Paul is planning to visit Rome. The bad news is there is yet one more delay.
Paul had been “hindered” from visiting Rome, hindered by his calling and his ministry. His delay was not accidental but purposeful. As much as he wanted to visit Rome and to enjoy the fellowship of these saints, he had to stick to his post, to his calling. Now that Paul’s ministry as an apostle in the region from Jerusalem to Illyricum is nearing completion, he is making plans for the next phase of his ministry.
Given his principles and priorities as an apostle, Paul must go somewhere the gospel has not yet been proclaimed (see verses 20-21 above). His sights are set on Spain, which meets his specifications for ministry. Since Rome will be a stopping place on his way to Spain, he tells the Roman saints he plans to stop there on his way to Rome. After a time of fellowship, he plans to proceed on to Spain.
One final task must be accomplished, however, before he sets out for Spain. This task will take him back to Jerusalem, and from there he will set out for Spain. This may seem like needless back-tracking. Paul will have to travel another 2,000 miles or so before he reaches Rome when he could go directly to Rome some 600 miles distant. It is apparent that this mission to Jerusalem must be a high priority, and so it is.
In one sense, Paul’s task is finished. He has preached the gospel and laid a foundation from Jerusalem to Illyricum. But the gospel has not yet come full circle. The unity of the Gentile Christians with Jewish Christians needs to be demonstrated and strengthened. The Gentiles have the opportunity to do so, because the saints in Jerusalem are presently in dire straits. The gospel required that the Jews in Jerusalem proclaim the good news to the Gentiles in distant places (see Acts, chapters 10, 11, and 15). Now, the gospel required the Gentiles to minister to the Jews in Jerusalem in material things.128 Paul was taking a collection from the churches, along with an appointed representative from these churches, to the saints in Jerusalem. To Paul, this was a very important mission, demonstrating and reinforcing the essential unity between Jews and Gentiles who have been brought together in one body, the church. Only when this task was completed would Paul feel free to press on to Rome and ultimately to Spain. This one more delay was needed.
30 Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me, 31 that I may be delivered from those who are disobedient in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints; 32 so that I may come to you in joy by the will of God and find refreshing rest in your company. 33 Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.
Paul’s priorities are seen not only in his previous ministry but in his plans for the future as well. They are also reflected in his prayer requests, recorded in verses 30-32, along with a benediction in verse 33.
We should first recognize that it was not only appropriate, but essential, for Paul to ask the Roman saints to pray for him. Just as Paul was ministering to them in his prayers for them (Romans 1:8-10), they should reciprocate by praying for him (15:13). Their prayers, like Paul’s, should be motivated by the Lord Jesus Christ and by the love which the Holy Spirit generates (see Galatians 5:22). In praying for Paul, they are actually participating with him in his ministry; they are, in Paul’s words, “striving together with him” (verse 30).
First, Paul requested that these saints pray for him that he “might be delivered from those who are disobedient in Judea” (verse 31). He does not ask that they pray for the salvation of these unbelieving Jews. They have had their opportunity. Judgment now awaits them. Paul does not see this journey as an evangelistic campaign among the unbelieving Jews but as a ministry to the saints in Jerusalem (verse 26).
Paul may have already been warned of the dangers which awaited him in Jerusalem, as he would be after he left Corinth:
“And now, behold, bound in spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God. “And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will see my face no more” (Acts 20:22-25).
The danger ahead did not deter Paul from pressing on to Jerusalem, but it did prompt him to ask the Roman saints to pray for him. I do not think Paul wanted their prayers for his safety as much for his sake as for the sake of the gospel (compare Philippians 1:19-26).
Second, Paul asked the saints in Rome to pray that his service to the saints in Jerusalem might be effective, that it might be “acceptable to the saints there” (verse 31). The Gentiles gladly gave to minister to the Jewish saints, but would the Jews gladly receive these gifts? Paul asked for prayer that they would.
Finally, Paul asked for prayer that with “joy,” and in “the will of the Lord,” he would come to them and find “refreshing rest” in their fellowship (verse 32). He did wish to be with them, but this was a lower level priority, not only in his plans and ministry but even in his prayer request. How this prayer was answered is another story recorded in Acts 20-28. Once again, God worked in ways beyond human anticipation. Paul would indeed be delivered from the unbelieving Jews and arrive safely in Rome, thanks to his arrest and the Roman government. God works in wondrous ways.
A benediction is pronounced in verse 33: “Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.”
If Paul had not been able to be with the Romans, and if his coming to them was still to be delayed, they could find great comfort in knowing that the “God of peace” was with them, always. Paul was absent; God was not.
We probably could all agree Paul’s excuse should be accepted. In the light of Paul’s calling and ministry priorities, the church at Rome must be put lower on the list of Paul’s priorities than more pressing matters. The irony is that in his so doing, the whole world has been greatly blessed by the Book of Romans. The epistle to the church at Rome was the result of Paul putting off his visit to Rome. Because of this, not only the church at Rome, but the church throughout the centuries has been blessed by this mighty epistle. It has changed the course of many lives; it has changed the course of history, specifically, through the Reformation. Thank God, Paul knew better than to visit Rome but chose to write a letter instead. In knowing and keeping his priorities, we are the benefactors of this letter.
Paul’s Epistle to the Romans teaches us the power of the pen to minister to saints we may never see. His letter was written to a church he had never visited and to many individuals he had not yet seen. It has also ministered to many “unseen” saints throughout the history of the church. Our ministry, like Paul’s, needs not be limited to those who are nearby; I know of many who minister to missionaries far away by simply writing to them. I know of those who minister to those in prisons around the country by simply writing. To whom could you and I minister with a letter, if we but had Paul’s vision and commitment?
What a commentary Paul’s words provide on knowing the will of God! Paul was convinced that it was not the will of God for him to visit Rome until he had completed his mission to the Gentiles and the Jews, from Jerusalem to Illyricum. Paul would not allow his desire to be with these saints to keep him from his mission, his ministry, his calling.
Paul knew the will of God because he understood his calling. While some of his calling was individual and unique to him, much of his calling was common to the calling of Israel as a priestly nation and to all Christians in general. Often we agonize over specific decisions when our general mission and calling make such decisions self-evident. Let us join with Paul in considering our calling and walk in a manner consistent with that calling. In so doing, we shall discern the will of God for most of life’s decisions.
May the cause of Christ and His gospel so dominate our lives that, like Paul, we will live our lives to the glory of God and to the furthering of His kingdom.
121 “There is no mention of Illyricum (the Roman province bordering the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea) in Acts or in any of the Pauline Epistles up to this time. But the interval between the end of Paul’s Ephesian ministry and his setting out on his last journey to Jerusalem was probably greater than might be inferred from a casual reading of Acts, where it is compressed into half a dozen verses (Acts xx. 1-6). There is reason to think that Paul crossed to Macedonia in the summer or autumn of AD 55 (cf. 2 Cor. ii. 12f.) and spent the next fifteen to eighteen months in Macedonia and Achaia. It must have been within this period that he traversed Macedonia from east to west along the Egnatian Road, to the frontier of Illyricum, possibly crossing into Illyricum and preaching the gospel there, for such a journey cannot well be fitted into his itinerary at any earlier point.” F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963), p. 261.
122 The term rendered “admonish” or “warn” is used as a verb in Acts 20:31; Romans 15:14; 1 Corinthians 4:14; Colossians 1:28; 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 14; 2 Thessalonians 3:15. The noun form is used in 1 Corinthians 10:11; Titus 3:10; Ephesians 6:4.
123 I take it the “knowledge” to which Paul refers here is primarily biblical and doctrinal knowledge but it may also very well include practical knowledge, which the Book of Proverbs would call wisdom. In order to counsel, we need to have goodwill toward men, wisdom concerning life, and sound biblical doctrine (not necessarily in this order).
124 Paul understood well the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. He grasped that evangelism was not all our Lord commissioned the church to accomplish, but rather that ministry which led to the obedience of all that He had commanded.
125 The prophet Jonah is one of the most striking and dramatic examples of Israel’s refusal to accept her God-given role as a priestly nation. Jonah was typical of the attitudes and actions of the nation as a whole.
127 I think this is what our Lord meant when He referred to the seven churches of Asia as “lampstands” in Revelation 1:12ff.
128 This is their obedience to Romans 12:13.