An anecdote survives about Albert Einstein. He was once asked by a student, “Dr. Einstein. How many feet are there in a mile? To the utter astonishment of the student, Einstein replied, “I don’t know.”
The student was sure the great professor was joking. Surely Einstein would know a simple fact that every schoolchild was required to memorize. But Einstein wasn’t joking. When the student pressed for an explanation of this hiatus in Einstein’s knowledge, he declared, “I make it a rule not to clutter my mind with simple information that I can find in a book in five minutes.”
Albert Einstein was not interested in trivial data. His passion was to explore the deep things of the universe, to plumbs the depth of mathematical and physical truth.21
The apostle Paul, too, was disinterested in trivial data. But, unlike Einstein, his passion was not to explore the deep things of the universe, but rather to know the Creator of the universe through his Son, Jesus Christ, and then to preach Christ to all creation. It was this very passion for Christ and the gospel that led to Paul’s desire to visit the church in Rome. In short, while Einstein was engrossed in physical reality, Paul was enamored with final reality—the invasion of the eternal into the present.
Passion is the mob of the man that commits a riot upon his reason—William Penn
1:8 First of all, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world. 1:9 For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of his Son, is my witness that I continuously remember you 1:10 and I always ask in my prayers, if perhaps now at last I may succeed in visiting you in the will of God. 1:11 For I long to see you, so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, 1:12 that is, that we may be mutually comforted by one another’s faith, both yours and mine. 1:13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I often intended to come to you (and was prevented until now), so that I may have even some fruit among you, just as I already have among the rest of the Gentiles. 1:14 I am a debtor both to the Greeks and to the barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 1:15 Thus I am eager also to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome.
I. Paul, who serves God with fervency in the preaching of the gospel of his son, gives thanks for the faith of the Romans (since it is proclaimed throughout the whole world) and continuously asks God if he might at last visit the Roman church (1:8-10).
A. The first thing Paul wants to say to the Romans is that he thanks God through Jesus Christ for all of them because their faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world (8).
1. Paul thanks God through Jesus Christ for all the Romans.
2. The faith of the Romans is proclaimed throughout the whole world.
B. God, whom Paul serves with fervency in preaching the gospel of his son, can witness that he continuously prays for the Romans including the request that he might be able to visit them at last (9-10).
1. Paul serves God with fervency in the preaching of the gospel of his son.
2. God is Paul’s witness that he continuously remembers the Romans in prayer.
3. Paul’s prayer is that he might finally succeed in visiting the Romans.
II. Paul, who had hitherto been prevented from visiting the Romans, longs to see them in order to strengthen them and to preach the gospel among them since he is obligated to all men (11-15).
A. The reason Paul wants to visit the Romans is so that he might impart some spiritual gift to them, in order to strengthen them, and that they both might be comforted by each other’s faith (11-12).
1. Paul longs to see the Romans (11).
2. Paul wants to impart some spiritual gift to the Romans (11).
3. The spiritual gift will strengthen the Romans (11).
4. Paul wants to be mutually comforted by his faith and that of the Romans (12).
B. The reason Paul wanted to visit the Roman church in the past (and now currently wants to preach the gospel there), though he had been prevented many times, was so that he might have some fruit among them—just as he had among all the Gentiles—since he was a debtor to Greeks, barbarians, the wise and the foolish (13-15).
1. Paul does not want the Romans to be unaware that he tried several times to visit them (13).
2. Paul was prevented in coming to Rome until now (13).
3. Paul wanted to have some fruit among them (13).
4. Paul already has fruit among the rest of the Gentiles (13).
5. Paul was a debtor to Greeks, barbarians, the wise and the foolish (14).
6. Paul was eager to preach the gospel to those in Rome (15).
I. Paul’s Thankfulness for the Romans and His Desire to Visit the Church (1:8-10)
A. Their Faith Is Proclaimed in the Entire World (8)
B. Paul’s Service in the Gospel (9)
C. Paul’s Prayer to Visit the Church (10)
II. Paul’s Desire to Strengthen the Roman Church and His Explanation of His Previous Attempts to Visit (11-15)
A. Paul’s Desire to Strengthen the Roman Christians by Imparting A Spiritual Gift to Them (11-12)
B. Paul’s Previous Attempts to Visit (1:13a)
C. Paul’s Reason for Ministering in Rome (1:13b-15)
It was common for Paul, having greeted the recipients of the letter, to move on to a somewhat lengthy note of thanksgiving and prayer for the church in question (except, of course, in Galatians where he is constrained to immediately address their defection from the gospel). Such is the case here in Romans 1:8-15.
Paul is thankful to God that the faith of the Romans is well known, undoubtedly due in part to his prayers, and he expresses his deep desire, as an apostle to the Gentiles, to visit the capital city of Rome in order to encourage the church and preach the gospel there too.
1:8 Paul says that the first (Πρῶτον, prōton) thing he wants to mention concerns his thankfulness, namely, that he always gives thanks for the church in Rome because their faith is proclaimed in the whole world. As always in Paul, everything in life, especially his relationship with God and prayer, was approached through Jesus Christ (διὰ ᾿Ιησοῦ Χριστοῦ, dia Iēsou Christou). Christ is the center of God’s plan for the world: He is the way in which God reached out to us and the way we in turn approach God. The personal pronoun my (μου, mou) reminds one of similar expressions in the Psalms (3:7; 5:2; 13:3; 22:1; cf. Also Phil 1:3; Phlm 4) and reflects Paul’s deep personal relationship and dependence on God.
But Paul is thankful, not for generalities, but for the specific fact that the church’s faith in Christ had become known in all the world. The apostle most certainly viewed this as the work of God himself, for while he is thankful for the church, his thanksgiving goes directly to God. The expression throughout the whole world (ἐν ὅλῳ τῷ κόσμῳ, en holō tō kosmō) does not mean that every person in the entire world had heard of their faith, but rather that the church had become known throughout the Roman empire (cf. Col 1:23).
1:9-10 The term for links verse 9 with verse 8 by way of reinforcement: Paul has God as a witness that his profession of praying for them is indeed true. The statement God…is my witness (μάρτυς γάρ μού ἐστιν ὁ θεός, martus gar mou estin theos) is a very solemn expression, used by the apostle on other occasions. It probably represents an oath he had taken to pray for the church with great constancy (cf. 2 Cor 11:23; Gal 1:20; Phil 1:8; 1 Thess 2:5, 10). Again, this is not the frivolous kind of oath condemned by Jesus (Matt 5:33-37; cf. Jas 5:12), but rather Paul’s unflinching commitment to pray for the Roman Christians.
The term serve translates a Greek verb (λατρεύω, latreuō) which is connected in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) to ideas of priestly service, ministry, and worship. The expression in my spirit (ἐν τῷ πνεύματι μου, en tō pneumati mou) does not likely mean “by the Holy Spirit,” nor does it refer to the place where this ministry of prayer takes place, that is, in the “inward man.”22 The expression is most likely saying something particular about the fervency of Paul’s service to the Lord. We might paraphrase it: “God, whom I serve with all my heart…” If we take the following phrase, in the gospel of his son (ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ, en tō euaggeliō tou huiou autou), to mean “in the promulgation of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” then it is likely that “in my spirit” means “with all my heart.” The whole expression would then be paraphrased: “God, whom I serve with all my heart in the promulgation of the gospel of his Son….” This work of furthering the gospel would include, but is not limited to, preaching. Indeed, in the nature of the case it involves many other elements, not the least of which is fervent prayer for those who come to respond to the good news. For Paul, it is important that the church in Rome know of his profound commitment to God in the work of preaching the gospel and maturing the saints, for the apostle will soon ask them to support him financially in the work of reaching Gentiles as far west as Spain.
In short, Paul’s desire is that now at last, if God makes a way, he may succeed in coming to Rome. It is not that he had not wanted to come beforehand. On the contrary, on many occasions he had desired to come, but it was not God’s will at that time. Perhaps God will open the way after he finishes his service to the saints in Jerusalem (15:25).
1:11 There is a specific reason why the apostle who has so focused his life on doing the will of God longs to come and see a church he did not found. It is because he longs to impart some spiritual gift (χάρισμα…πνευματικὸν, charisma pneumatikon) to them in order to strengthen (εἰς τὸ στηριχθῆναι, eis to stērichthēnai) them.
The spiritual gift Paul wants to impart to them is not the sort of spiritual gift mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14. These gifts were given according to the will of the Holy Spirit apart from any human agency (1 Cor 12:11). Also, the explanatory comment which follows in Romans 1:12: “that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith,” indicates that Paul is thinking generally about spiritual encouragement. He is talking about God imparting a spiritual blessing (i.e., encouragement; cf. 15:4) to the church while he is fellowshipping with them in Rome. It is his desire that through being with them, and by the Spirit of God, the church will be strengthened in their faith and fortified in their resolve to live obedient lives for Christ (6:12-14).
1:12 Paul’s humility, though he has been regarded as the greatest of the apostles, shines through in this verse. Not only does he want to bring a blessing to the Christians in Rome, he is certain that he too will be encouraged by their faith, that is, that they will be mutually comforted by one another’s faith (συμπαρακληθῆναι ἐν ὑμῖν διὰ τῆς ἐν ἀλλήλοις πίστεως ὑμῶν τε καὶ ἐμοῦ, sumparaklēthēnai en humin dia tēs en allēlois pisteōs humōn te kai emou). In short, while they both share the same love for the same Christ, the Roman Christians come from a different perspective and will undoubtedly contribute much to Paul’s personal edification. Paul was a humble man, willing to receive blessing from any source his God might choose.
It is interesting to note that in neither 1:11, nor in 1:12, does Paul mention his plans to visit Spain, but instead waits until much later in the letter (15:24). Why is this so? It seems that he simply does not want the church to misunderstand his motives. If he were to mention it right up front the church might wonder if he were as interested in them as he had claimed to be or if he just wanted to make acquaintances with them to get their money, as it were. To discuss such a matter right up front would surely cause many to take issue with him and so he avoids mentioning it for now. But he will mention it later. It is only after the substance of the letter has been written and his gospel clearly laid out for all eyes to see, that he will feel free to comment on his future plans.
1:13 The Roman Christians are not to be unaware (a common Pauline expression; 11:25; 1 Cor 10:1; 12:1; 2 Cor 1:8; 1 Thess 4:13) that he had tried many times to come to them. But, as he says, he had been hindered. We are not told the nature of this hindrance, but it could have been due to the activity of Satan. Such was the case in his experience with the Thessalonians (1 Thess 2:18). Some have also suggested that his inability to get to Rome might have been due to the pressure of the all-consuming work already undertaken in the East (cf. 2 Cor 11:27-28). Whatever the cause, and it certainly was not due to any hesitancy or reluctance on his part (he had tried many times), he was unable to get there. This, he wanted them to know for certain.
But when he comes, and he appears hopeful this time, his desire is to have some fruit among them just as he had among other Gentiles. But what does he mean by fruit (καρπός, karpos) or “harvest” as some translations have it (e.g., NIV)? He is certainly not implying that there were some in the Roman church who were not saved. Some have suggested that since he uses the term “fruit’ in Romans 15:28 in reference to monies acquired in support of the Jerusalem church that he intends “money” by the use of the term in 1:13. There is nothing in the context of 1:13, as there is in 15:28, to support this idea.
Others have suggested that since the term is used in 15:28 in connection with Jewish/Gentile relations, Paul is hinting at some sort of reconciliation, or at least a bolstering of the relationship, between Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church. This is further strengthened in the light of the edict of Claudius in AD 49 when the Jews were expelled from Rome due (most likely) to hostilities over Christ. This means that many Jewish Christians would also have had to leave.23 When they returned, probably some three or four years later, the church they left had now become primarily Gentile. This may have caused some strife which Paul had later heard about by the time he wrote Romans (ca. 57 or 58). This may also account for the discussion in 14:1-15:13. The biggest weakness of this view is that it is overly subtle for there is nothing in the context of 1:13 to indicate that this was in any way in his mind.
In the end it seems best to take “fruit” as a general reference to spiritual blessing and growth, more in line with its usage in 6:21-22. This may certainly include such issues as Jew/Gentile relations, but to argue that this is the exclusive referent may be a bit too narrow. The reference to “preaching the gospel” in Rome also seems to suggest a broader notion since the gospel entails many ideas (1:15).
1:14-15 The lack of explicit grammatical connection to 1:13 lends a note of seriousness to 1:14. In a matter of fact way, Paul says that he is obligated—not because of anything in the people themselves (cf. 15:27), but because of his calling as an apostle (1 Cor 9:16b)—to the Greeks, the barbarians, the wise and the foolish.
The term Greeks (῞Ελλησιν, Ellēsin) refers to those who were of Greco-Roman status, culture, language, and heritage. The term Barbarians (βαρβάροις, Barbarois) refers to all other peoples outside Greco-Roman language, influence, and culture. Paul is not using the term “barbarians” pejoratively, as it was during the period and as it is often used today (Col 3:11). The reference to the wise (σοφοῖς, sophois) and the foolish (ἀνοήτοις, anoētois) is not a commentary on the first pair, Greeks and barbarians, respectively, but is simply another way of talking about all humanity. There are wise people (or at least they pride themselves on having attained some degree of wisdom) and there are foolish people in all cultures and Paul is a debtor to all of them.
Since he is indebted to all men, he is very eager to preach the gospel in Rome. This does not mean that he feels there are unsaved people in the church, though the tendency for non-Christians to be a part of outdoor meetings was not uncommon. It is rather that the verb to preach (εὐαγγελίσασθαι, euaggelisasthai) sums up Paul’s entire apostolic career and fits well with the breadth of his ministry, covering other aspects such as teaching and discipleship, but nonetheless centered as it was, on proclaiming the gospel.
Idea: Serve Christ in the Mission of the Gospel
I. By Giving Thanks for Other Christians (8-10)
A. Especially When Their Faith Is Proclaimed (8)
B. In Sincere Prayer for Them (9-10)
II. By Seeking to Encourage Other Christians (11-13a)
A. Strengthening Them Spiritually (11-12)
B. Evidencing Genuine Love for Them (13a)
III. By Understanding the Universality of the Offer of the Gospel (13b-15)
A. In Your Immediate Ministry (13b)
B. As Underlying All Mission (14-15)
Romans 1:8-15 contributes to systematic theology in at least two important ways, one negative and the other positive: (1) spiritual gifts; and (2) the universal offer of the gospel.
First, in 1:11 it has been contended that some Christians have the ability to give others spiritual gifts. After all, Paul said he wanted to impart a spiritual gift to the Romans. Doesn’t this mean that some Christians can also give spiritual gifts to other brothers and sisters in the faith? The answer is no, at least not according to this passage. We said in our commentary that this is true for at least two reasons: (1) spiritual gifts, like those outlined in 1 Cor 12-14, Ephesians 4, and Romans 12 are given according to the will of the Spirit, not our will; (2) the explanatory comment in 1:12 indicates that what Paul means in 1:11 is general spiritual blessing through fellowship, not spiritual gifts.
The second contribution of the passage to systematic theology is positive. It has to do with the universal offer of the gospel. We must remember that the gospel is to be preached to all men, regardless of their socio-economic station in life, education, race, or whatever. This is true because (1) God is no respector of persons; (2) all men suffer from Adam’s curse; (3) Christ’s death is sufficient for any man; (4) there is no other way of salvation, and (5) Christ has been resurrected, exalted (Rom 1:4), and now reigns over all men and will someday hold all men accountable (Acts 17:31). In short, the universal Lordship of Christ is the grounds for the universal offer of the gospel to all men, whether they be Romans, barbarians, the wise or the foolish (1:14). In keeping with Christ’s Lordship, Paul calls the proper response to the gospel, the “obedience of faith” (1:5).
This passage teaches us that as Christians we ought to serve God wholeheartedly as disciples of Christ. Our service should be expressed in many ways including prayer for others, encouraging others in fellowship, and seeking to promote the gospel among the saved and unsaved whenever we can.
21 Adapted from R. Kent Hughes, 1001 Great Stories and Quotes (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1998), 302; originally cited in R. C. Sproul, “Right Now Counts Forever,” Tabletalk, vol. 11, no. 3 (June, 1987).
22 Cf. Cranfield, Romans, I:76-77.
23 It is not likely that all Jews had to leave the city, but perhaps, as Acts 18:1-2 indicates, some, perhaps many, did.