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Lesson 99: True Christian Unity (Romans 15:5-6)

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Some time ago, a Kudzu cartoon showed a church league softball game where the fundamentalists call, “Strike one! Yer out!” Those from the more liberal churches laugh at the punch line: “Boy, they’re strict!”

Then in another Kudzu cartoon, the umpire yells, “Strike three!” Then, “Strike four!” And, “Strike five!” “What’s going on,” a teammate asks the Rev. Will B. Dunn. “Isn’t anyone going to enforce the rules?” The Reverend says nothing. Then in the last frame of the cartoon, the ump bellows, “Strike 96!” Rev. Will exclaims, “I love playing the Unitarians!”

As those cartoons humorously point out, some Christians are so narrow-minded and strict that they would rewrite the rules so that you’re out after one strike rather than three. For others, who are not really Christians at all, anything goes. But those cartoons raise a more serious matter: How narrowly or widely should Christians draw the lines of fellowship? Should we be so strict that if you don’t believe exactly as we do, we won’t associate with you? Or should we allow four strikes or five—or 96?

Each year there are “unity services” held in Flagstaff in an attempt to bring many of the churches together. I’m usually not enthusiastic about these services and sometimes I’ve been asked why I don’t promote them. “After all,” the argument goes, “Jesus didn’t say that the world will know that we are Christians by our doctrinal agreement, but by our love and unity. So shouldn’t we set aside our differences and come together with other churches to show our unity?” Since this is an important issue, we need to think biblically about the matter of true Christian unity. How broadly or narrowly should we draw the lines of Christian fellowship?

It has been estimated that in the early 1980’s, there were between 21,000-23,000 Protestant denominations in the world. A more recent estimate puts the number at over 41,000. The Roman Catholic Church often uses this as an argument against Protestants, since there is only one Catholic Church worldwide. There are also about 60 different Orthodox Churches, stemming from the Great Schism of 1054. Should we all just set aside our differences and come together under one umbrella? If so, which (or whose) umbrella should that be? What is the essence of true Christian unity?

First, we should remember that the Lord Jesus, in His prayer just before He went to the cross, emphasized unity among His followers. In John 17:20-23, He prayed,

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”

Evidently, the unity for which Jesus prayed was not just an invisible, spiritual unity, but also a unity that the world can see. This visible unity among believers will make the world know that Jesus was sent to earth by the Father and that believers are the special objects of the Father’s love. So this is an important subject for us to think about clearly. The testimony of Christ is at stake!

As we’ve seen, from Romans 14:1 through 15:13, Paul addresses the potentially divisive issue of how the stronger and weaker believers in Rome should learn to get along and build up one another. The stronger believers were mostly Gentiles who understood that in Christ, we have been freed from observing the Mosaic Law. They did not have scruples regarding kosher meat or Sabbath laws. But the weaker believers (mostly Jewish Christians) could not shake off these things with a clear conscience. And so a potential split could have divided the church along racial lines.

But for Paul, it was crucial that there not be separate Gentile and Jewish churches. It is to God’s glory when “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman” (Col. 3:11) could set aside their differences and all come together in Christ as their all in all. So in our text, Paul offers what we might call a “prayer-wish” or a God-ward wish that God would grant the strong and the weak in Rome to be of the same mind so that they might with one voice glorify God. He’s saying that…

True Christian unity comes from God, is based on Christ Jesus, and results in glory to God.

1. True Christian unity comes from God.

Romans 15:5: “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus ….” To say that true unity comes from God is not to say that we have no responsibility in the matter. As we’ve seen, we need to work at harmonious relationships, whether in the home or in the church. They do not happen automatically. We are responsible to pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another (14:19). We must be careful not to put stumbling blocks in a brother’s way. We must be sensitive and gracious toward one another. But, having said all of that, true unity is not something that we can achieve by our efforts. True unity must come from God. So we must seek Him for it.

True unity is not primarily organizational unity. Organizations such as the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and the National Association of Evangelicals attempt to forge a type of organizational unity among various denominations. The World Council and National Council have always been theologically liberal, bringing together denominations with a wide spectrum of doctrinal beliefs. The National Association of Evangelicals generally has been more conservative, although their membership includes a denomination whose beliefs include “soul sleep” for believers after death and the complete annihilation of the wicked, rather than eternal punishment. While organizational unity can perhaps achieve some common goals, at its essence, true Christian unity is not organizational.

True unity is not primarily ethnic unity. Sometimes churches unite around a common ethnic heritage or language. While this is understandable if language is an issue, as Paul emphasizes (Col. 3:11), true unity goes beyond ethnic boundaries.

True unity is not primarily cultural unity. Years ago, the church growth movement came out with the homogeneous unit principle, which is that people like to go to church with others who are culturally similar. So if you want a growing church, you need to target a certain niche and shape your church to reach that niche. So you aim at young urban professionals or at Gen-X’ers or whatever different groups are out there. This helps to bring unity to your church by eliminating the “worship wars,” where some like to sing hymns to organ accompaniment, whereas others like ear-splitting rock music. But biblical unity is not primarily cultural unity.

True unity is not primarily outward conformity. Some churches have spoken or unspoken dress codes, where everyone is expected to dress or look a certain way. When we were in Dallas, the elders of the church we attended called me in to tell me that my dress slacks and dress shirt were unacceptable when I taught the young couples class. I needed to add a coat and tie. I told them that they were violating the spirit of James 2 and were excluding people who did not wear that type of clothing. True unity isn’t a matter of outward conformity.

True unity comes from God, who gives perseverance and encouragement. The phrase “the God who gives [lit., of] perseverance and encouragement” ties back to verse 4, where Paul says that these qualities come from Scripture. This makes it clear that God is the ultimate author of Scripture and that our unity must come from the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture as we grow in obedience to Scripture. Paul’s repeated use of “perseverance and encouragement” in connection with his prayer for unity implies what I have already stated, that unity is not automatic. Perseverance implies that there will be difficulties in relationships that need to be patiently worked through. We will need encouragement from God, since there will be discouragements and setbacks. For us to “be of the same mind with one another,” we must grow in the fruit of the Spirit as we work through our differences in dependence on God.

2. True Christian unity is based on Christ Jesus.

Paul prays that God may “grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus ….” C. H. Spurgeon put it (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 47:552), “We shall be likeminded with one another when we become likeminded with Christ; but not till then.” But, what does Paul mean when he prays that God would grant us “to be of the same mind”?

A. True Christian unity is not a matter of agreeing on every minor point of doctrine or practice.

We have already encountered this phrase in Romans 12:16, where Paul commanded, “Be of the same mind toward one another.” (He also uses it or similar expressions in 1 Cor. 1:10; 2 Cor. 13:11; Phil. 1:27; 2:2; 4:2.) He was not insisting that we all think alike or agree on every issue, which he knew would never happen in this life. Paul and Barnabas did not agree on whether to take Mark on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-40). Here in Romans 14 & 15, Paul recognized that differences would exist between the weak and the strong. He has not urged them to come to total agreement on every issue, but rather to be considerate of one another (15:2). So he is calling us to a unity that is based on our common salvation in Christ, our shared purpose in the gospel, and our shared hope in Christ. Thus …

B. True Christian unity is based on Christ Jesus.

But even here we need to be careful. The Mormons claim to be “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” We would also claim to be the church of Jesus Christ and we believe that we are saints who are living in the last days. So are we one with them in Christ? Hardly! The Jehovah’s Witnesses also profess to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but they deny His deity. Are we one with them? Although one popular preacher who always smiles and doesn’t judge anyone says that these groups are following the same Jesus, I hope that you realize that we’re not one with them!

It’s helpful to note the distinction that Paul draws in Ephesians 4 between two types of unity. In verse 3 he says that we are to be diligent “to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” But in verses 11-12 he says that the work of pastors and teachers in equipping the saints for the work of ministry is (4:13) “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” The unity of the Spirit already exists through the new birth. We are exhorted to preserve it in the bond of peace. The unity of the faith is something that we attain to as we mature in our knowledge of Jesus Christ. The unity of the Spirit is true of all believers by virtue of the fact that the Holy Spirit has baptized us into the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). The unity of the faith grows over time as believers grow in their understanding of biblical truth about Christ.

It’s also helpful to understand that there are different degrees of importance among biblical doctrines (Matt. 22:34-40; 23:23-24). Some doctrines are absolutely essential for salvation. I don’t mean that you must understand all these truths to get saved. A person gets saved by believing in Jesus as his Savior and Lord. I mean that to deny these truths knowingly is to deny the Christian faith. All true believers affirm these truths, which include:

The divine inspiration and authority of the Bible; the triune nature of the one God as three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; God as the creator of all that is; the full deity and true humanity of Jesus Christ; the sinfulness of the human race; the necessity of the new birth; Christ’s substitutionary atonement for our sins; salvation by grace through faith alone, apart from works; the necessity of growth in holiness for all believers; Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead; His bodily second coming in power and glory to judge the living and the dead; eternal glory with Him in heaven for believers and eternal punishment in hell for unbelievers; and, the personality and work of Satan. We are not unified with anyone who denies these essential truths.

Then there are other doctrines that are important for the Christian life, but they are areas where true believers disagree. There are varying degrees of importance with regard to these doctrines: some border on the essential, while others are less important. I would argue that what you believe about the more important issues will impact the way you understand God and His ways and the way you live out your Christian life.

These important doctrines include biblical views on: the specifics of the creation account; God’s sovereignty in choosing us for salvation apart from any foreseen faith on our part; the security of salvation for God’s elect; how to deal with trials; how to gain victory over sin; the role of psychology in Christian counseling; Christian marriage and family roles; the role of men and women in the church; church government; the place (if any) for the charismatic gifts; the meaning, mode, and subjects of baptism; the meaning of the Lord’s Supper; various methods to use in Christian work; and, biblical details about the end times.

Our level of agreement on these issues may determine how close of a personal friendship we may form with another believer. On a church-wide level, we have to think through whether the church should accept into membership the person who differs on one or more of these matters. Will accepting the person into membership lead to dissension or factions in the church? And as a church we need to decide on a case by case basis how closely we can work in areas like evangelism, pro-life causes, or help for the homeless with other churches that differ on some of these matters. I admit that this is not always easy to sort out!

Then there is a third level of doctrine that we could call interesting, but not essential or important. These doctrines won’t affect the way you live your Christian life. They include minor details of interpretation of difficult or obscure texts. We should study these matters because they’re in the Bible and we may hold personal opinions on them, but we should not divide from other believers over them. Some examples include: Who were the sons of God and daughters of men in Genesis 6? When will the battle in Ezekiel 38 and 39 take place? Did Christ descend into hell between His death and resurrection (1 Pet. 3:19-20)? What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7)? Did Paul write Galatians to north or south Galatia?

But the main point is, true Christian unity is based on Christ Jesus. We are “to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus.”

3. True Christian unity results in glory to God.

Romans 15:6: “… so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Note two things here:

A. True Christian unity begins on the heart level, but expresses itself outwardly in God-glorifying worship.

“With one accord” points toward the heart level. In other words, our unity should not be an outward show, while our hearts are at odds with one another. God looks on the heart. As Paul put it (Rom. 12:9), our love must be without hypocrisy. But then flowing out of hearts that are in one accord, we should express our common salvation in God-glorifying worship: “you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

For Paul, the main reason that we should be of the same mind with one another is not so that we all will be happy and get along with one another, although that is important. The main reason for true Christian unity is that it results in glory to God. When people from diverse backgrounds and personalities and ages join together in unified worship, the world will marvel, “How is it that these people who are so different all love one another?” So unified, God-glorifying worship is important for our testimony to a world that is so fractured and contentious.

Jonathan Edwards rightly argued that the purpose for which God created the world is His own glory (see John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory [Crossway Books]). If that is so, we must evaluate everything in our personal lives and in our corporate church life by the criterion, “Does this glorify God?” As Paul puts it (1 Cor. 10:31), “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Does my thought life glorify God? Do my attitudes glorify God? Do my words glorify God? Does how I spend my time glorify God? Does my behavior glorify God? Do my relationships at home and at church glorify God? Does my management of the resources God has entrusted to me glorify Him? Does my commitment to the church and my worship with God’s saints glorify Him?

B. God is truly glorified when we worship Him in truth.

Paul says that we are to “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul uses that same expression elsewhere (2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31; Eph. 1:3; cf., also, Col. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3). But why does he put it that way here? It seems to me that this emphasizes the fact that we are to worship not only in spirit (“with one accord,” “with one voice”), but also in truth (John 4:24). We do not truly glorify God unless we worship Him as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word.

The phrase emphasizes the priority of God the Father in the trinity; and both the deity and the humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ. While the three members of the trinity are all equally God, there is a hierarchy in which the Son submits to the Father and the Spirit submits to the Father and the Son. Jesus is the eternal Son of God the Father, which shows that He is God (John 5:18). Paul’s reference to “our Lord Jesus Christ” also calls attention to His deity and His humanity. He had to be both God (“our Lord”) and man (“Jesus”) to secure our salvation.

During His earthly ministry, Jesus normally called God “Father,” although He also called Him “my God” (Matt. 27:46; John 20:17; cf. Eph. 1:17; Heb. 1:9), showing His true humanity and His dependence on God. When Jesus was on earth, He glorified the Father (John 17:4), which we are now to do. Just as God the Father and God the Son are one, so we glorify Him through our unified worship in spirit and in truth. So we cannot join in unity with any who deny the trinity or the two natures of Christ, because they cannot worship Him in truth.


During World War II, a missionary who served in Calcutta was profoundly influenced by a communion service she attended. The leader was a Swedish minister. Among those present were a Chinese pastor, a Japanese teacher, a German doctor, several English citizens, and a small group of Indian believers. The missionary recalled that as she looked at that diverse company she felt a closeness to each person, especially when they partook of the bread and the cup. That bond of Christian fellowship was real, even though some of those people were from countries that were enemies in that brutal war (“Our Daily Bread,” Winter, 1980-81).

True Christian unity transcends differences in race, culture, age, gender, and background. It transcends differences over secondary doctrines or practices. True Christian unity comes from God, is based on Christ Jesus, and results in glory to God. May we all grow in our understanding and practice of true Christian unity to God’s glory!

Application Questions

  1. What are the potential advantages and disadvantages of a local church joining an organization for Christian unity?
  2. How would you counter the Roman Catholic criticism of the many Protestant denominations? Why is the Catholic Church “unified”? Is this for her good or not?
  3. What criteria should a local church use to decide whether to join a community “unity” service or project?
  4. Do you agree with the lists of “essential” and “important” doctrines? Would you add to, subtract, or change the priority level of any of them? If so, why?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Fellowship

Lesson 100: Accepting Those Who are Different (Romans 15:7-12)

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As you know, in the late 1960’s there was a lot of cultural upheaval that resulted in a wide gap between the younger and older generations, both in attitude and appearance. Hudson Armerding was the president of Wheaton College at the time. He had fought for our country during World War II, and as a member of that generation, was conservative in his grooming and attire. He also despised the counter-culture movement, because to him it represented unpatriotic draft-resisters, flag burners, and the like. So he did not like it when students dressed in the grubby counter-cultural fashion. Also, he thought that it was biblically inappropriate for men to have long hair. But the staff at Wheaton was trying to permit a degree of liberty among the students on this matter.

One day Armerding was scheduled to speak in chapel. Just before the service, they gathered for prayer. Just before they began, a young man walked in who had a beard and long hair, and was wearing a sash around his waist, with sandals on his feet. Armerding looked at him and was sorry that he had come in. Worse yet, the student sat down right next to the president. When they started praying, Armerding did not have a very good attitude.

Then the young man began to pray: “Dear Lord, you know how much I admire Dr. Armerding, how I appreciate his walk with you. I am grateful for what a man of God he is, and how he loves you and loves your people. Lord, bless him today. Give him liberty in the Holy Spirit and make him a real blessing to all of us in the student body. Help us to have open hearts to hear what he has to say, and may we do what you want us to do.”

As Armerding walked down the steps to go into the chapel, the Lord spoke to him about his attitude. After giving his message, he asked the young man to come to the platform. A ripple of whispering went through the students, many of whom thought that the president was going to dismiss the young man from school as an example to the rest of the students. But rather than rebuking him or dismissing him, everyone including the young man was surprised when Dr. Armerding put his arms around him and embraced him as a brother in Christ. It broke up the chapel service, as students stood and applauded, cried and embraced one another.

God used that simple act of one man laying aside his prejudice to turn the mood on campus to greater love and acceptance of one another. Dr. Armerding later learned that this young man had adopted his appearance in order to reach some of his generation who were alienated from God and the church (Hudson Armerding, Leadership [Tyndale], pp. 166-168).

Dr. Armerding put into practice what Paul tells us all to do (Rom. 15:7), “Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.” Paul is concluding his appeal to the (mostly Gentile) strong and the (mostly Jewish) weak factions in the church of Rome to show the love of Christ to each other. In 14:1, he told those who were strong to accept those who were weak in faith, but here he extends the command to both sides.

As a side note, in 14:3 Paul told the weaker believers not to judge the strong because God has accepted him. Here he tells both sides to accept one another because Christ has accepted them. For Paul, Christ is clearly God. But Paul’s goal in the section we are studying here is that the Gentile and Jewish believers in Rome would not only genuinely accept one another in their daily relationships, but also that they would join together in fervent worship to God for His mercy in accepting us through Jesus Christ.

Accept others (especially those who are different than you) for the glory of God because Christ accepted you and all peoples for the glory of God.

Verse 7 is the summary of what Paul has already said and the topic verse for this final paragraph of this section:

1. We are to accept one another to God’s glory just as Christ accepted us to God’s glory (15:7).

Scholars are divided over whether the phrase, “to the glory of God,” modifies Christ’s acceptance of us or our acceptance of one another. I agree with those who say that it applies to both phrases. God was glorified when Christ accepted us and He is glorified when we accept one another. Also, there is a textual variant where the NASB reads “us,” but most scholars prefer “you” (plural). It doesn’t make much difference as to the meaning of the command. The idea is that both Jews and Gentiles or whatever other different types of people are in the local church are to accept one another. “Accept” means much more than merely to tolerate. It has the notion of warmly welcoming others, especially those who are different than you are, into the fellowship of the local church.

A. The “one another” that you are to accept is precisely the one who is different than you are.

If you look for a church that is made up of people who are “your kind of people,” people who are just like you in their cultural background, their appearance, and their likes and dislikes, you’re missing the radical nature of Paul’s command here. In the context, the “one another” represented those from conservative, religious, Jewish backgrounds, who ate only kosher meat, who carefully observed Jewish holy days, and who had been taught from childhood not to defile themselves with any contact with “Gentile dogs.” It also included Gentiles from pagan, idolatrous backgrounds, who formerly “worshiped” with temple prostitutes, who had no problem eating any kind of food set before them, and who thought that the Jews were a bunch of legalistic, hyper-religious prudes. In other words, the other person whom you are to accept is precisely the person who is radically different than you are in almost every way!

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to accept your own personality quirks and habits? Comedienne Merrill Markoe observed, “It’s just like magic. When you live by yourself, all of your annoying habits are gone” (Reader’s Digest [2/07], p. 107). But then you get married and discover that your mate has some rather annoying quirks and habits that you hadn’t noticed when you were dating! And then you have little kids who somehow picked up their mother’s most irritating quirks and habits! If only everyone in the family could be just like I am, things would go much more smoothly!

And then you join a local church that is made up of hundreds of weirdos! Where did all of these crazy people come from? Sometimes you can identify with Achish, king of Gath, when David faked insanity in front of him to protect himself. Achish told his servants (1 Sam. 21:14-15), “Behold, you see the man behaving as a madman. Why do you bring him to me? Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this one to act the madman in my presence?” But Paul tells us to warmly welcome and accept those who are different from us in the local church. He isn’t talking about accepting those who are in unrepentant sin, of course (1 Cor. 5:9-13). But he is talking about the more mature believers accepting the immature and the immature accepting the more mature who may seem very strange in their eyes.

B. The reason for accepting one another is that Christ accepted you when you didn’t deserve to be accepted.

Several scholars (Cranfield, Moo, Schreiner) say that the Greek word that is normally translated, “just as,” should here be translated “because.” If so, Paul is giving the reason why we should accept one another, namely, because Christ accepted us. But we can’t divorce the fact that He accepted us from the way that He accepted us. He died for us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8). We were His enemies (Rom. 5:10). We were not seeking after Him (Rom. 3:11). He came looking for us in our lost, helpless condition (Luke 15:4). He didn’t require that we clean up our lives or make vows to change or do anything to deserve His love. Like the father of the prodigal son, Jesus ran to us, embraced us, and welcomed us into His family, in spite of our smell and dirty rags! He promises (John 6:37b), “… the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” That’s how we are to accept one another.

C. The goal of accepting one another is the glory of God.

As I said, I think that the phrase, “to the glory of God,” applies both to Christ’s accepting us and to our accepting one another. If Christ had only accepted those who had achieved a high level of righteousness, no one would marvel. That’s how the world system works. You earn your way. You get what you deserve. But the fact that Christ accepts sinners who come to Him for mercy and forgiveness glorifies God and His abundant grace. When God converted a proud, self-righteous Jew, who hated Gentiles and killed Christians, and turned him into the apostle to the Gentiles, that glorified God! When God opened your eyes and mine to see that our own self-righteousness is worthless trash so that we embraced Christ as our righteousness, that glorified God!

Now, we are to extend the same mercy that we received to other sinners, some of whom may already be saints in the local church. Granted, they may not yet be as sanctified as you are. True, they may have a long list of shortcomings and defects. But when we show the love of Christ to one another, even when the other person doesn’t deserve it, God gets the glory. That’s the aim behind accepting one another. It’s not just so that we all get along, as wonderful as that is. It’s so that God gets the glory!

Ligon Duncan (fpcjackson.org, “Accept One Another”) points out that we often think that to glorify God, we must go to the mission field or perform some exceptional spiritual feat. But Paul says that to glorify God we should accept those who are different than we are. Leon Morris puts it (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 503): “God’s glory was promoted when Christ received us sinners, and it is further advanced when we who are by nature sinners and wrapped up in our own concerns instead receive our brothers and sisters in Christ with warmth and love.”

Paul goes on to show how Christ accepted both Jews and Gentiles, and then to back it up (especially the Gentile part, which would have been difficult for the Jews) with Scripture.

2. Christ’s servant ministry to Israel and His mercy to the Gentiles serve as our example of what it means to accept one another (15:8-9a).

Romans 15:8-9a: “For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, and for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy ….” Verses 8 & 9 explain how Christ accepted both Jews and Gentiles: He became a servant to the circumcision (the Jews) to confirm the promises made to the fathers (15:8); and, He became a servant so that the Gentiles would glorify God for His mercy (15:9a). Verse 8 is a reminder to the Gentiles in Rome that God had given priority to Israel, as Paul explained at length in chapter 11. The Gentiles are grafted in to the olive tree and so must not become arrogant (11:17-20). The following quotes (15:9b-12) from the Old Testament remind the Jews that the promises to the Jewish fathers included the reception of the Gentiles. Thus neither group should look down on the other.

A. Christ’s servant ministry to Israel shows that God faithfully keeps His promises on the basis of grace, not performance (15:8).

Paul uses the word “circumcision” to refer to the Jews because it was the sign of the covenant to Abraham (Rom. 4:11). The “truth of God” here refers to His covenant faithfulness by which He remains true to His promises to Israel through the patriarchs (as Paul has already discussed in chapters 9-11). God did not fulfill His promises to Israel because of Israel’s faithfulness to God. He did it on the basis of grace, not performance.

In like manner, we are to extend acceptance to others in the church family on the basis of God’s grace. If you think, “Yeah, but he doesn’t deserve to be accepted,” the reply to you should be, “Neither did you!” I’m not suggesting that we overlook or not confront sin in other believers. If they have sinned against you, you should go in a spirit of humility and gentleness and seek to restore them (Gal. 6:1). But God’s grace demands that you go as a sinner who has received mercy and point the other sinner to the same source of mercy, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Isn’t it amazing that our Savior came as a servant! He easily and rightly could have come as the conquering King, wiping out His enemies. He will do that when He comes again. But in His first coming He came as a humble servant (Mark 10:45). As His disciples, we are to serve one another, especially those who are different than we are, in love.

B. Christ’s mercy to the Gentiles leads to God’s glory and shows us that the basis of acceptance is God’s grace, not performance (15:9a).

The Gentiles did not receive any covenant promises from God in the Old Testament, yet He graciously included them in His promises to the fathers (Gen. 12:1-3) and in many other Old Testament references (Rom. 15:9b-12). When we receive God’s mercy rather than His deserved judgment, it causes us to glorify Him. Now we are to demonstrate God’s mercy in our relationships with those in the church who are different than we are. We all deserve His judgment, but the church should be a place where everyone can find and experience God’s abundant mercy. This means that we are to be gracious and merciful towards one another, especially when someone has offended us or acted insensitively toward us. Thus Christ’s servant ministry to Israel and His mercy to the Gentiles serve as our example of what it means to accept one another.

3. The Scriptures confirm that God’s mercy to the Gentiles brings glory to Him, along with joy and hope to all sinners (15:9b-12).

Paul knew that the Jewish believers in Rome would be likely to be judgmental towards their Gentile brothers (14:3b). So he backs up his claim that Christ’s ministry will lead to the Gentiles glorifying God for His mercy with four Old Testament quotes. The first quote (15:9b) and the third (15:11) come from the Psalms. The second quote (15:10) comes from the Law. The fourth quote (15:12) comes from the prophets. The Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (or Writings) constitute the three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible. Thus Paul is showing that all of God’s revealed Word has always predicted that the Gentiles would also be included in God’s people, to the praise of the glory of His grace. For Paul, an appeal to Scripture settles the matter, because Scripture is authoritative.

A. Messiah (through David) gives praise to God among the Gentiles (15:9b; Ps. 18:49).

Romans 15:9b cites Psalm 18:49: “Therefore I will give praise to You among the Gentiles, and I will sing to Your name.” David wrote this psalm to thank the Lord for delivering him from all of his enemies. Towards the end of the psalm, he declares not only that he will praise God to the Gentiles, but among them, implying that they will be praising God along with David. But David’s declaration also points ahead to Messiah’s declaration (God’s Anointed, Ps. 18:50). Christ will praise God among the nations gathered around His throne, as they praise God for His mercy.

B. The Gentiles are invited to rejoice with God’s people (15:10; Deut. 32:43).

Romans 15:10 cites from the song of Moses (Deut. 32:43), “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people.” Paul has already cited from another verse in this song (Rom. 10:19). This verse advances on Psalm 18:49, where David (and Messiah) was praising God among the Gentiles. Now the Gentiles are called on to rejoice along with the Jews, because God has brought the blessings of salvation to both groups (Morris, p. 505).

C. The Gentiles are invited to praise God on their own (15:11; Ps. 117:1).

Romans 15:11: “And again, ‘Praise the Lord all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise Him.’” This quote from Psalm 117:1 advances on the previous two in that Israel isn’t even mentioned. The psalmist directly calls on the Gentiles to praise God for His great lovingkindness and enduring truth (Ps. 117:2).

D. The inclusion of the Gentiles is because the prophesied Jewish King also offers the hope of salvation to the Gentiles (15:12; Isa. 11:10).

Romans 15:12: “Again Isaiah says, ‘There shall come the root of Jesse, and He who arises to rule over the Gentiles, in Him shall the Gentiles hope.’” This prophecy refers to Jesus as the promised descendant of David. We might expect “root” to refer to the origin of Jesse, rather than to his descendant. But the root in Jewish thinking referred not only to the root itself, but to that which springs from it (Morris, p. 506). Paul began Romans (1:3) by referring to Jesus as God’s “Son, who was born of a descendant of David.” God kept His covenant promise to David when Jesus was born of David’s descendants in Bethlehem, the city of David.

At first glance, the fact that Jesus would rule over the Gentiles might lead us to think the next line should read, “And under His rule, the Gentiles will chafe.” But rather we read that under His rule, the Gentiles will hope! They hope in Him because He is the perfect, gentle, just, and loving ruler. When Jesus is your Ruler and Lord, you hope in Him. And, as we’ll see in verse 13, God’s faithfulness to all of His promises in Christ are so that we may be filled with all joy and peace in believing, so that we will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. These Scriptures confirm that God’s mercy to the Gentiles brings glory to Him, along with joy and hope to all sinners who trust in Christ.


I conclude with another powerful example of what it means to accept one another to the glory of God. Rebecca Manley Pippert concludes her book, Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World [IVP, 1979], pp. 177-178) with this story. When she first went to Portland, Oregon, to work with a campus ministry, she met a student named Bill. He was always disheveled in his appearance and he never wore shoes. Rain, sleet, or snow, Bill was always barefoot.

Bill became a Christian, but his appearance didn’t change. Near the campus was a church made up of mostly well-dressed, middle-class people. One Sunday, Bill decided to worship there. He walked into church with his messy hair, blue jeans, tee shirt, and barefoot. People looked a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Bill began walking down the aisle, looking for a seat. But the church was quite crowded that day, so he got all the way down front without finding a seat. So he just plopped on the carpet, which was fine for a college Bible study, but a bit unnerving for this rather formal church. You could feel the tension in the air.

Suddenly, an elderly man began walking down the aisle toward Bill. Was he going to scold him about how you’re supposed to look when you come to church? People thought, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. His world is far removed from that boy’s world for him to understand.”

As the man kept walking slowly down the aisle, all eyes were on him. You could hear a pin drop. When the man reached Bill, with some difficulty he lowered himself and sat down next to Bill on the carpet. He and Bill worshiped together on the carpet that day. There was not a dry eye in that church.

That elderly man was practicing what Paul is talking about here. He was accepting a young man who appeared to be very different than he was because he recognized that Christ had accepted him. When we do that, God is glorified.

Application Questions

  1. Some churches go so far in accepting others that they accept those who are in open sin (see 1 Cor. 5:9-13). Where is the balance between accepting sinners, but not those in sin?
  2. What are some contemporary examples of cultural differences that tend to segregate churches? How can we overcome these?
  3. In rearing children, it is important to distinguish between a child’s immaturity and his defiance. How can this distinction help with reference to accepting an immature believer?
  4. Why is it crucial to keep God’s glory as our primary aim in our relationships, rather than our happiness as the primary aim?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Fellowship, Glory

Lesson 101: Abounding in Hope (Romans 15:13)

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Romans 15:13 is a wonderful prayer that Paul wants every believer to experience: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

When you read a verse like that, you must ask yourself, “Does that verse even come close to describing me? Can I honestly say that my life is filled with all joy and peace in believing? Do I abound in hope?” And, since we all tend to give ourselves the benefit of a doubt in these matters, I need to ask, “Would my family or good friends describe me as being filled with all joy and peace in believing and abounding in hope?”

To varying degrees we all fall short of experiencing that verse and so we all can benefit by thinking about what it means and how we can grow in these qualities. I can’t imagine anyone saying, “I’m not interested in having joy and peace. I don’t want to abound in hope.” We all want and need these qualities, and yet even among believers, very few can legitimately claim to be filled with all joy and peace and to be abounding in hope.

A common factor among those who are depressed is that they lack hope. Discouraged people and those who are apathetic about life also lack hope. While the following statistics (upliftprogram.com/depression_stats) describe the American population at large, I would guess that they would not be much different for evangelicals:

Depressive disorders affect approximately 9.5% of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year…. Pre-schoolers are the fastest-growing market for antidepressants. At least four percent of preschoolers … are clinically depressed…. 30% of women are depressed. Men’s figures were previously thought to be half that of women, but new estimates are higher…. 15% of depressed people will commit suicide…. Depression will be the second largest killer after heart disease by 2020—and studies show depression is a contributory factor to fatal coronary disease.

Those are depressing statistics! I realize that there are often complex factors that cause depression, including various physiological components, so I’m not suggesting an easy, one-size-fits-all solution. If you are severely depressed, you should get a medical check-up. But before you turn to anti-depressant drugs (which have some serious risks; see web site mentioned above), consider seriously seeking God to fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a most practical verse for us all as we navigate life’s trials!

The God of hope wants us to be filled with all joy and peace in believing, so that we will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We’ll look at the source of this abundant hope; the foundation for it; the human and divine means for abounding in it; and, some practical strategies for growing in God’s joy, peace, and hope.

1. The source of this abundant hope is the God of hope.

By “the God of hope,” Paul means that God is the source or giver of hope. He is also the object of our hope, but here the focus is on God as the source of hope. In Romans 15:5, he describes God as (lit.), “the God of perseverance and encouragement.” He gives those qualities to those who seek Him. In 15:33 & 16:20 Paul describes Him as “the God of peace.” He gives peace to His people. Thus if we lack hope, the first place we should look for it is God, who is the source of true hope. Beat on His door like the friend asking for bread at midnight (Luke 11:5-8) until He gives it to you. And remember, biblical hope is not uncertain, like when I say that I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow because I have plans to be outside. Rather, biblical hope is certain because it rests on God’s promises; but we haven’t experienced the fulfillment yet.

The word hope in verse 13 links back with hope in verse 12c (citing Isa. 11:10), “In Him shall the Gentiles hope.” Him refers to Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation that comes to all peoples through Him. This means that if you have not come to Jesus Christ as a guilty sinner and put your trust in Him as your only hope for eternal life, then (as Paul puts it in Eph. 2:12), you have no hope and are without God in the world. What a bleak description of life without Christ!

I have a book by humorist Dave Barry titled, “Stay Fit and Healthy until You’re Dead.” He pokes fun at the fitness craze in America, but his title also uncovers the raw truth that we all tend to suppress: It is 100 percent certain that you’re going to die, no matter how fit and healthy you are. Unless you have Christ as your hope, you don’t have any true hope beyond the grave (1 Thess. 4:13), but only “the terrifying expectation of judgment” (Heb. 10:27). Put your trust in Christ as your Savior today!

It’s significant that the theme of Romans is “the gospel of God” (1:1, 16, 17; 15:16) and Paul mentions hope in Romans more than in any of his other letters. In 4:18 we read of Abraham with reference to God’s promise that he would have a son and become the father of many nations, “In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, ‘So shall your descendants be.’” In 5:1-5, Paul elaborates on our hope through the gospel:

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

In 8:20-21, Paul mentions the hope of the fallen creation as it waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Then he adds with regard to our waiting eagerly for the future redemption of our bodies (8:24-25):

For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.

In 12:12, we are to rejoice in hope as we persevere in our tribulations. In 15:4, we have hope through the perseverance and encouragement of the Scriptures. And, as 15:12 indicates, Jesus Christ is the object of all our hope. He is the Savior who has freed us from condemnation. He has given us eternal life as a free gift. Our hope rests completely in Him and the promise of His coming (Titus 2:13). As the apostle John tells us (1 John 3:2-3),

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

So if you’re lacking hope, you know where to find it: Seek the God who is the source of all true hope and put your hope in Christ as your Savior and Lord.

2. The foundation for this abundant hope is to be filled with all joy and peace.

Paul doesn’t pray that you will have a little bit of joy and peace trickling into your life now and then. Rather, he prays that the God of hope will fill you with all joy and peace so that you will abound in hope. He piles up these superlatives to show us what God can give us and wants to give us. Have you ever stopped to fill your water jugs at the spring that’s on the side of the road at the top of Oak Creek Canyon? There are two spigots that flow 24-7, 365 days per year with that delicious, cool spring water. Paul wants our “jugs” of joy and peace to be overflowing so that we are continually abounding in hope in God. Again, while we all fall short of this, don’t settle for an empty or partially full jug. Ask God to fill you to the brim with His joy and peace and hope.

Paul has already mentioned joy and peace (in reverse order and also in connection with the Holy Spirit) in 14:17, “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Both joy and peace are listed as part of the fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in the believer who walks in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 22). As qualities that the Spirit of God produces in us, the joy and peace Paul is talking about do not come from having a certain personality type. A person with Holy Spirit-produced joy is not just a person with a bubbly, optimistic personality. A person with Holy Spirit-produced peace is not just a laid back guy who never gets ruffled at anything. Rather, these are qualities that are not natural. And they do not come from being in favorable circumstances where just about anyone would be joyful and full of peace. In fact, they are often most noticeable when a person is in a situation where almost everyone would be depressed or anxious, but the Spirit-filled believer is full of joy and peace in God.

It’s also important to understand that the joy and peace that Paul is talking about are not a “Pollyanna positive” outlook that denies the reality of sorrow, grief, or genuine concern. Paul had great sorrow and unceasing grief in his heart over the great number of Jews who were rejecting Christ (9:2), yet he could write here about being filled with all joy. As I’ve pointed out before, the shortest verse in the Greek New Testament is, “Rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16), but the shortest verse in the English New Testament is, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). There is no contradiction. Paul described himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10a). By the way, Paul mentions joy 21 times in his letters; the next closest is John with nine times. It’s especially helpful to study joy in Philippians, where Paul was in prison and being wrongly criticized by fellow believers, and yet he was rejoicing always in the Lord.

We also need a realistic view of Spirit-produced peace. It does not mean that we glibly shrug off concern for difficult problems. Paul was filled with peace and yet he mentions the daily pressure on him “of concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). So we’re not talking about a “who cares, whatever” kind of peace, where a person irresponsibly shrugs off every concern. Biblical peace comes from taking all of our anxieties to God in thankful prayer (Phil. 4:6-7): “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Thus biblical joy is an inner delight in God and His sure promises that gives us comfort and contentment in every trial. It comes from knowing that our sovereign God will work all things, including tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword, together for our good because we love Him and are called according to His purpose (8:28, 35). Biblical peace is the inner contentment and freedom from crippling anxiety and fear that comes from being reconciled to God and, as much as it depends on us, being at peace with others (5:1; 12:18). As we’ve seen, it comes through taking every concern to God in thankful prayer. Being filled with God’s joy and peace is the foundation or platform that results in abounding in hope.

We all want this kind of joy and peace so that we will abound in hope, but how do we get these qualities? Paul mentions a human means and a divine means:

3. The human means of this abundant hope is to keep believing in God and His Word.

“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing ….” Paul does not specify the object of our faith, but obviously it is the same as the object of our hope (15:12), Christ, “the root of Jesse who arises to rule over the Gentiles.” In the Bible, hope and faith are sometimes virtual synonyms. Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Psalm 71:5, “For You are my hope; O Lord God, You are my confidence from my youth.” So to hope in Christ is to believe in Christ. It is to look to Him alone to fulfill all the promises of God to us. We find those promises in Scripture, which is why Paul said (15:4) that the Scriptures give us hope. Or, as he said (10:17), “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” To have and increase in abundant hope, we must believe and keep on believing in God and His Word.

But you may wonder, “How do I get this kind of faith that helps me abound in hope even in the midst of trials?” Part of the answer is to know your God and His ways through His Word. The Word shows God to be faithful to His people in all sorts of trials. Quite often, He delivered them as they trusted in Him, but sometimes He permitted them to suffer and die, promising rewards in heaven. In Hebrews 11:33-38, the author mentions those …

who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; [then, without missing a beat, he continues] and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.

Knowing God and His ways through His Word will show you that He is completely trustworthy. Even if you suffer a martyr’s death, He will give you the crown of life (Rev. 2:10).

The other part of having this kind of faith is to choose to believe God in spite of horrible circumstances that seem to be contrary to His promises. After Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and slaughtered many Israelites, Jeremiah grieved and lamented, but then he directed his thoughts toward God (Lam. 3:21-24):

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in Him.”

Or, as I’ve already mentioned with Abraham, whose body and whose wife’s body, were beyond the physical ability to conceive a son according to God’s promise (Rom. 4:18): “In hope after hope he believed ….” He chose to believe God’s promise in spite of circumstances to the contrary. The human means of growing in abundant hope is to believe and keep believing in God.

4. The divine means of this abundant hope is the power of the Holy Spirit.

“… so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Did you notice that the three members of the trinity are all mentioned in the context here? God the Father is the God of hope. The object of our hope is Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God who is also the root of Jesse. The power for joy, peace, and abundant hope comes from the Holy Spirit.

The power of the Holy Spirit is, of course, nothing less than the power of God that created the universe! He spoke and it was done (Ps. 33:9). The Spirit’s power is the resurrection power that gives new life to dead sinners (John 3:6-8). The Holy Spirit opens our minds so that we can understand the truths of God’s Word (1 Cor. 2:9-13). The Holy Spirit is the power that produces His holiness in us as we walk in dependence on Him (Gal. 5:16-23; 1 Cor. 6:11). The Spirit confirms our adoption as children of God and helps us as we struggle to pray (Rom. 8:15-17, 26). The Spirit strengthens us with power in the inner man so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith (Eph. 3:16-17). The Holy Spirit seals every believer so that we are kept for the day of redemption (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30). And so, as Paul says here, the Holy Spirit is the power who produces in us His fruit of joy and peace as we trust in Him, so that we abound in hope.


I conclude with some practical strategies for growing in God’s joy, peace, and abundant hope:

         Begin each morning by spending 20-30 minutes (minimum) in God’s presence, reading and meditating on His Word, praying, and singing.

As I’ve told you before, the godly George Muller, who trusted in God to provide for over 2,000 orphans at once through prayer alone, used to make it the first business of every day to have his soul delighted in God. If you lack joy and peace and hope, ask God to fill you with these qualities for His glory.

         Memorize some of God’s wonderful promises that kindle joy, peace, and hope in your soul so that you can meditate on them throughout the day.

Romans 15:13, 8:28, 8:32, and many other verses like them will help you to set your mind on the things above rather than on the problems that are getting you down (Col. 3:1-4). The Psalms are loaded with verses of trust in God in the midst of life-threatening situations.

         Immediately confess all grumbling as sin and instead deliberately think each day of things that you can thank God for.

Begin by thanking Him each morning for sending His beloved Son to save you from your sins. Thank Him that you have His Word to guide and sustain you. Thank Him for all your blessings and even for your trials (1 Thess. 5:18), which help you to grow.

         When you feel overwhelmed with despair or depression, talk to yourself: Tell yourself again and again to hope in God.

The depressed psalmist did this repeatedly (Ps. 42:5): “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence.” Psalm 42:11: “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.” Psalm 43:5: “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why are you disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.”

         Read the biographies of godly saints who have run the race before you.

As I’ve often said, I’ve gained more from reading Christian biographies than from any other source outside of the Bible. Read how William Carey, Hudson Taylor, George Muller, Charles Spurgeon, Adoniram Judson, and many more men and women of faith trusted God in the midst of overwhelming trials.

Here’s a parting quote from Judson, as he suffered horrible torture and deprivation in a squalid Burmese prison. A friend sent him a letter and asked, “Judson, how’s the outlook?” Judson replied, “The outlook is as bright as the promises of God” (exact source unknown, but you can find the quote on the Internet). Judson was abounding in hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. So can you!

Application Questions

  1. John Piper often says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Discuss how this statement relates to our need to fight depression and experience hope in God.
  2. Paul says (1 Cor. 15:19), “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” Why must our hope be anchored to eternity rather than to this life only?
  3. Do a quick read through Philippians (it’s short) and note every reference to “joy” or “rejoice.” Also, notice the frequent references to “mind” or “attitude.” Is there any correlation?
  4. Which of the concluding strategies for attaining joy, peace, and hope do you most need to apply? When will you start?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Spiritual Life

Lesson 102: Principles for Your Ministry, Part 1 (Romans 15:14-21)

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You may have seen the title of this message, “Principles for Your Ministry,” and thought, “Well, this message doesn’t apply to me because I’m not in the ministry.” If you thought that, you may not understand the New Testament truth that as a Christian God has given you spiritual gifts that you are to use in serving (“ministering” for) Him. There are no useless or inactive parts in the body of Christ. Every believer is a priest with a ministry to fulfill.

Or you may think that you’re not “in the ministry” because you’re not financially supported in your ministry. You work in a secular job. But so did Paul—he made tents to support his ministry. All of us are just as much “in the ministry” as Paul was. Someday we all will give an account to God of how well we fulfilled the ministry that He gave us.

The only way you can rightly say that this message doesn’t apply to you is if you are not saved. If you have not been born again, you cannot serve God. In fact, you cannot do anything for God to try to earn your salvation. If you try to earn your salvation by serving God in some way, you’re only going farther down the path away from God. You could do as many good deeds as Mother Teresa did, but if you think that those good deeds will get you into heaven, you will be shocked on the day of judgment. Good deeds can never erase the guilt of your sins. If they could, then Jesus did not need to die. It is only when you confess the pride of your self-righteousness and trust in Christ alone as your Savior from sin that you then can serve God. So if you’re not saved, the application of this message for you is, trust in Christ right now!

Since all of us who have trusted in Christ will give an account to God for how well we served Him with the gifts that He gave us, we need to know some biblical principles for how to carry out our ministries. In our text, Paul gives us at least a dozen such principles. (Don’t panic—we’ll only cover six today!) Paul has just completed the major doctrinal and practical parts of this letter. He now turns to some personal matters that extend to the end of the letter. This is the longest closing section of any of Paul’s letters, perhaps because he had not yet visited the church in Rome and he wanted to lay the groundwork for a possible future visit. In 15:14-21 he describes his past ministry. In 15:22-33 he shares his future ministry plans. In 16:1-16 he gives extended greetings to those whom he knew in Rome, followed by a final exhortation and encouragement (16:17-20), greetings from those who were with him in Corinth (16:21-24), and a final benediction (16:25-27).

It’s kind of difficult to sum up verses 14-21 in a single sentence, but here’s a stab at it:

Following Paul’s example, we should affirm the ministries of others while serving the Lord in line with our gifts and calling, giving Him the glory for any results.

Verses 14-21 fall into two sections: In 15:14, Paul affirms the gifts and ministries of the Roman believers, while in 15:15-21 he explains why he has written to them so boldly and how God has used him in ministry to the Gentiles.

1. Following Paul’s example, we should affirm the giftedness and value of others’ ministries in the body (15:14).

Romans 15:14: “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 admonish one another.” In this verse, Paul is being sensitive about presuming to write as boldly as he just has (in 12:1-15:13) to a church that he had neither founded nor pastored (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 887). He is aware that there may be some resistance to his ministry from some in Rome, and so he is being careful not to offend them by assuming a role over them that they would not accept (ibid.). At the same time, he goes on (15:15-19) to show them why they should accept his ministry, namely because God appointed him as an apostle to the Gentiles. This was confirmed by what God had accomplished through him. But in verse 14, there are at least four ministry principles that apply to us:

         Ministry Principle 1: If you’re a Christian, you’re in the ministry.

Paul affirms that the entire Roman church (not just the pastors) is “full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.” In other words, they are competent to minister to one another. In 1970, Jay Adams wrote a book based on this verse, Competent to Counsel [Baker], arguing against psychological counseling and in favor of biblical counseling. He called this “nouthetic” counseling, based on the Greek verb that is here translated “admonish.” It means to admonish, warn, or instruct, usually in a corrective sense. It implies that there is a problem, whether immaturity or sin, in the life of the other person that needs to be overcome. Several times Paul uses the word to describe his ministry. He told the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:31), “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” In Colossians 1:28 he wrote, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.”

He wrote to the Thessalonian church (1 Thess. 5:14), “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” They were all to exercise this ministry of admonishing fellow believers who were “unruly” or “out of step.”

In our text, Paul says that he is confident that the Roman believers are capable of exercising this ministry toward one another. While the elders may need to get involved at times, this is a ministry that the body is to engage in on a regular basis. If you know of a Christian who is drifting or going astray, it’s your responsibility to try to restore him to the Lord (Gal. 6:1). If you’re not sure how to go about it, ask an elder to coach you. But your relationship with the straying brother usually means that you are the most effective member of the body to try to restore him. You are your brother’s keeper. If you’re a Christian, you’re in the ministry.

         Ministry Principle 2: To minister effectively to others, you must know and personally apply biblical truth in your walk with the Lord.

The reason Paul believed that the Roman believers could admonish one another was that he was convinced that they were “full of goodness” and “filled with all knowledge.” Paul is not using flattery here, but he is being courteous (C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans [T & T Clark], 2:752) by assuming that the Roman believers were relatively mature both in their knowledge of Christian truth and in their practice of that truth. “Goodness” is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) and denotes uprightness in conduct (Eph. 5:9) or kindness and generosity towards others (2 Thess. 1:11; Moo, p. 888). “Knowledge” refers to knowing biblical truth.

When Paul says that the Roman believers are full of goodness and all knowledge, he does not mean that they were sinless in their behavior and qualified to teach at the seminary level in their knowledge of biblical truth. If that were so, he wouldn’t have needed to write all of the doctrinal and practical sections of Romans! Rather, he is assuming the best about the church as a whole. They are overall marked by moral virtue and they have a grasp of basic biblical truth. You don’t have to have arrived at spiritual perfection for God to use you in ministering to others. But you do need to be obedient to God’s Word (“goodness”) and you need to have a basic understanding of biblical truth (“knowledge”).

The two qualities must go together. There are morally good people who have no understanding of biblical truth, and so they cannot minister effectively to others. And there are people who know impressive amounts of biblical truth, but they don’t apply it personally. Their lives are not marked by godly conduct or unselfish, loving behavior. So they are not able to minister effectively, either. But if you know God’s truth and you’re applying it personally, then you’re able to admonish others. Your life backs up your message, and both are grounded in God’s Word.

         Ministry Principle 3: Trust God to work through others in the body and affirm their ministries.

Verse 14 probably especially relates back to the problems between the stronger and weaker believers that Paul has addressed (14:1-15:13). Paul was confident that the Roman Christians could work through these issues under the guidelines that he has given. He has already expressed his confidence in them in Romans lthough Paul was an apostle with unusual gifts and ministry experience, he did not see ministry as a one-way street from him to others. He also affirmed that others could minister to him and that they could minister to one another without him.

I’ve heard of pastors who were threatened if their flock listened to other preachers. Some pastors feel the need to control every ministry in the church, as if they are the only one in the church capable of teaching the truth or dealing with problems. I’ve also seen Christian parents who jealously guard their children from any spiritual input from other believers. But that mentality stems from pride and cripples the ministry of the body. If another Christian can teach my children, Hallelujah! If any of you learn God’s truth from another pastor, Praise God! If you can minister without me, wonderful! God works through the gifted body of Christ, not just through one leader. If you see someone in the body who is having an effective ministry, encourage him by telling him that you appreciate his ministry.

         Ministry Principle 4: Be sensitive towards others.

Paul was sensitive as to how the Roman believers may have taken his bold admonitions that he has just written. So he expresses his confidence in their ability to minister to one another and he goes on to explain why he had written as boldly as he had. His sensitivity did not mean that he held back in his boldness, as we’ll see in the next principle. But it did mean that he was aware of how his boldness might affect his readers. So he does not blast them or assume that they would welcome his admonition. He was careful to explain things in a sensitive, affirming manner.

One way to be sensitive in ministering to others, especially if you need to admonish or correct them, is to stop and think, “If I were in their place, how would I want to be treated?” If someone is in sin, he needs to be corrected, but with sensitivity and gentleness (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). Don’t come down on him as if you’re the righteous one and you can’t understand how he could do what he’s doing. Rather, come alongside as a fellow sinner who has found mercy from the Lord, as one prone to temptation, and express your concern that his sin is going to destroy his life if he doesn’t gain victory over it. Minister sensitively!

To sum up the next section:

2. Following Paul’s example, we should pursue our ministries as offerings of worship to God, giving Him all the glory for any results (15:15-21).

Romans 15:15-16: “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, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

Paul goes on to explain that his reason for writing so boldly on some points was to remind the Romans of the grace that God had given to him as a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He uses an illustration or analogy that the Jewish believers would have understood: Paul pictures himself as a Jewish priest, offering up the Gentiles as an acceptable sacrifice to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (see Isa. 66:18-20). This last phrase, “sanctified by the Holy Spirit,” would have countered some of Paul’s Jewish critics, who would have argued that the Gentiles were unclean. Rather, Paul says, when the Gentiles become obedient to the gospel (15:18), it shows that God has cleansed them.

Paul is not negating the priesthood of all believers or setting up a special class of Christian priests, who are intermediaries between the “common” people and God. That would negate what he says in Ephesians 2:18, “for through Him [Christ] we both [Jewish and Gentile believers] have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” Jesus alone is our high priest. We all have direct access to God’s throne through Him (Heb. 4:14-16). Rather, Paul is giving us an illustration of how we all should serve the Lord: as believer priests, we should offer up as worship to Him any results or fruit of our ministries that God gives us through the gospel.

These verses give us two more ministry principles:

         Ministry Principle 5: Don’t hesitate to be bold in challenging others or in reminding them of what they already know.

Although Paul was sensitive (15:14), he also could be bold (15:15). Even though he assumed that the Romans were “full of goodness,” Paul was bold to confront a number of problems that existed in the church there. Although he knew that they had “all knowledge,” he didn’t assume that they always remembered what they knew, and so he reminded them of it again and again.

At a couple of points in my life, the Lord has used someone who was bold and direct to change my direction. When I was 18, a Christian friend who was 23 asked me what Christian books I was reading. I told him that I only read what I had to read to get through college. He looked at me and bluntly said, “If you don’t read, you won’t grow as a Christian.” God used that bold comment to get me going as a reader, and reading has been the main way that I have grown in my walk with God.

About a year later, I was debating about whether to go to a 10-day training conference at Campus Crusade’s Arrowhead Springs headquarters. A staff member challenged me to go, but I told him that I needed to work to earn money for school the next year. He countered, “If you don’t step out and trust God for the funds now, when are you going to start trusting Him?” Wham! His bold challenge prompted me to go and the training I received there redirected my spiritual life. So be sensitive in ministering to others, but sometimes be bold to challenge them to change!

         Ministry Principle 6: Offer your ministry to God as an act of worship, pleasing to Him.

While ministry helps others either to get saved or to grow in Christ, your primary aim in ministry should not be to help others, but to minister to the Lord (see Acts 13:2; 2 Sam. 6:14-21). You want your service to be an offering that is acceptable to Him, “sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” You don’t serve for the praise that you get from others or even primarily for the satisfaction of seeing others helped. You do it as an act of worship to God.

Focusing on ministry as worship guards you from becoming a people-pleaser and it helps you to process criticism. I’ve seen people in ministry devastated because people didn’t like them or criticized them. Of course if the criticism is legitimate, you need to thank the critic and make appropriate changes. But if you’re being disliked or criticized because you confronted sin or tried to correct a problem (Gal. 4:16), and your focus is on doing it as an act of worship to God, then you can absorb the rejection and criticism from people, knowing that you pleased the Lord. Some day you will hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”


There are six more ministry principles in these verses that will have to wait until next time. You will be doing well to absorb these six principles that we have covered, let alone piling on six more! I hope that you will think through and apply these as the Lord impresses them on your heart. To review, they are:

         Ministry Principle 1: If you’re a Christian, you’re in the ministry.

         Ministry Principle 2: To minister effectively to others, you must know and personally apply biblical truth in your walk with the Lord.

         Ministry Principle 3: Trust God to work through others in the body and affirm their ministries.

         Ministry Principle 4: Be sensitive towards others.

         Ministry Principle 5: Don’t hesitate to be bold in challenging others or in reminding them of what they already know.

         Ministry Principle 6: Offer your ministry to God as an act of worship, pleasing to Him.

In his book, Finishing Well in Life and Ministry [Leadership Resources, 1997], written with Craig Parro, pp. 189-190), Bill Mills tells of a time several years ago when he taught a seminar on “The Ministry of God’s Word” at a Wycliffe Bible Translators center in South America. He had a wonderful time, but he didn’t realize the significance of what God was doing until his last evening there. As he ate dinner with the director and his wife, she said, “I have to tell you what God has done in my heart during these days. When we came to South America many years ago, we were assigned an Indian tribe and began translating the Scriptures into their language.”

Mills explains the difficult process that this entails, of first learning the spoken language, then developing an alphabet and a written language, translating the Scriptures, and teaching the people to read. Although it’s somewhat quicker today with the use of computers, it used to take about 20 years. It’s a long and tedious job.

The director’s wife continued, “We lived at the Indian village and spent as much time with the people as we could. We were teaching the Scriptures to them as we were translating. A church was being born in their midst. As we came toward the end of the project, the people were becoming more and more involved in the production of drugs and less and less interested in the Scriptures. When we finished the translation of the New Testament in their language and scheduled the dedication service, not one person even came! I have been so angry and bitter. We gave our lives so that they could have the Word of God in their language. When we concluded what was almost a life’s work, they did not even want it! I have not been able to handle the bitterness of this disappointment in my heart.”

Then she said this with regard to Bill’s ministry of the Word that week: “God has been speaking to me in these days by His Word and His Spirit. He has been doing something beautiful in my heart. It is as though God has been washing His Word over my soul and healing me, and He has opened my eyes to see this all from His perspective. I am just beginning to realize now that we did it for Him! That is the only thing that makes any sense in all of this. We did it for God!”

Mills rightly concludes, “That is the only thing that makes any sense in ministry. We do it for Him.”

If you’re not involved in any ministry, first make sure that you know Christ as your Savior and Lord through faith in Him alone. Then, ask Him where and how He wants you serve Him. You don’t have to be perfect—just growing in goodness and knowledge. Whatever He gives you to do, whether it’s rearing your children or serving your family or working in a mundane job or being a witness in your neighborhood or at work by your life and words or serving in some capacity at church—do it as worship for Him.

Application Questions

  1. Do you view yourself as “a minister of Christ Jesus”? If not, why not? How would this perspective change your life?
  2. Is “ministry” restricted to “spiritual” activities, such as evangelism or church ministry, or does it apply to doing laundry or mowing the yard or working at your job? Discuss in light of 1 Cor. 10:31 & Col. 3:22-24.
  3. How do you know whether to admonish someone who seems to be in sin or drifting from the Lord? What can you learn from Gal. 6:1, 1 Thess. 5:14, & 2 Tim. 2:24-26?
  4. How does viewing your ministry as an act of worship to God guard you from being a people-pleaser? How does it help you to process criticism in your ministry?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Ecclesiology (The Church), Empower, Glory, Spiritual Gifts

Lesson 103: Principles for Your Ministry, Part 2 (Romans 15:14-21)

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I’ve told you before about a recurring dream that I’ve had ever since my college days. Some of you have told me that you’ve had the same dream. Apparently, college is stressful, since many of us have had this same anxious dream. The basic format of the dream is that I’m in college and it’s near the end of the semester. Final exams are looming and I suddenly realize that there is a class that I am enrolled in, but I have not been attending. Now with the final exam staring me in the face I realize that I’m doomed. I can’t possibly prepare for the exam in a class that I didn’t even know that I was enrolled in. What a relief to wake up and realize that it was only a bad dream!

But what if it’s true and the exam not only affects whether I pass a college class, but how I will spend all eternity? I didn’t know that I was enrolled in this class, but now I’m standing before God who says, “Let’s see how you did. Hmm, you never attended class! You skipped the midterm! You didn’t do any of the assignments! In fact, you didn’t show up for the final! I’m afraid that I can’t give you a passing grade!”

You don’t want the day of judgment to be that kind of nightmare come true! As I said last week, whether you know it or not, if you’re a Christian, you’re in the ministry just as much as Paul was in the ministry or I’m in the ministry. True, you may not get paid to allow you to devote full time to your ministry. But God has given you spiritual gifts and a certain amount of time to employ those gifts for His kingdom purposes. As Paul says (Rom. 14:10, 12), “For we all will stand before the judgment seat of God…. So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” So as a gifted member of the body of Christ, you’re enrolled in the course. You’ll be graded on how well you did. You don’t want to get to the big final in the sky and realize that you haven’t been going to class or doing the assignments. You need to realize that you are in the ministry and you need conscientiously to be doing what God has given you to do.

Last time I summed up verses 14-21:

Following Paul’s example, we should affirm the ministries of others while serving the Lord in line with our gifts and calling, giving Him the glory for any results.

We saw:

1. Following Paul’s example, we should affirm the giftedness and value of others’ ministries in the body (15:14).

         Ministry Principle 1: If you’re a Christian, you’re in the ministry.

         Ministry Principle 2: To minister effectively to others, you must know and personally apply biblical truth in your walk with the Lord.

         Ministry Principle 3: Trust God to work through others in the body and affirm their ministries.

         Ministry Principle 4: Be sensitive towards others.

2. Following Paul’s example, we should pursue our ministries as offerings of worship to God, giving Him all the glory for any results (15:15-21).

         Ministry Principle 5: Don’t hesitate to be bold in challenging others or in reminding them of what they already know.

         Ministry Principle 6: Offer your ministry to God as an act of worship, pleasing to Him.

There are six more ministry principles in these verses that we need to explore. But first, let me read and explain 15:17-19:

Therefore in Christ Jesus I have found reason for boasting in things pertaining to God. 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, 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.

Paul is explaining further his ministry to the Gentiles, giving the reasons why he could write so boldly to this largely Gentile church and why he could glory in ministering as a priest the gospel of God, offering up the Gentiles as an acceptable sacrifice (15:15, 16). So the “boast” of verse 17 refers back to verse 16 (C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans [T & T Clark], 2:757). Paul is boasting or glorying in his role of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles and in offering up the Gentile converts to God as an acceptable offering. This goes back to 12:1, where Paul said that we are to present our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is our spiritual service of worship.

But why does Paul mention boasting at all? Back in 3:27 he said that faith excludes all boasting. Boasting or pride is the root of all sins. So why is Paul boasting here? The answer is that he’s doing here what he wrote (2 Cor. 10:17; citing Jer. 9:24), “But he who boasts is to boast in the Lord.” It’s wrong to boast in ourselves, but it’s right to boast in the Lord, so that He gets the glory for what He has done through weak human instruments, or “earthen vessels,” as Paul refers to us (2 Cor. 4:7). Paul’s boast here is “in Christ Jesus … in things pertaining to God” (15:17). He is glorying in what God has done through him, which is all “because of the grace that was given [him] from God” (15:15). As he goes on to explain further (15:18), he is only boasting of what Christ has accomplished through him, “resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles.”

“By word and deed” (15:18) is a summary of how God used Paul to bring about the obedience of the Gentiles. “Word” refers to preaching the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation (1:16). Verse 19 shows that the deeds included “the power of signs and wonders,” which were done “in the power of the Spirit.” Paul uses “obedience” for “faith” because saving faith is obedient faith (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).

The “signs and wonders” refer to miracles from different points of view. “Signs” points to the spiritual significance or purpose of the miracles, to point to the truth of the gospel. “Wonders” looks at the response that miracles produce in people, who recognize that God is behind them. Paul uses the phrase “signs and wonders” just two other times. In 2 Corinthians 12:12 he says, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.” The miracles that Paul did authenticated him as a true apostle. But in 2 Thessalonians 2:9, he uses the term to refer to the activity of the man of lawlessness (antichrist), “whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders ….” He will use miracles to deceive those who perish. So we need to be discerning, because those performing signs and wonders may be from God, but they may be from Satan.

This raises the whole question of whether we should expect signs and wonders to accompany the preaching of the gospel today. Some claim that we should expect miracles as normative and if we aren’t experiencing miracles, we must not be trusting in God.

First, we need to acknowledge that God is the Almighty Creator and He can do miracles if and when He chooses to do them. So we should not limit His power by our unbelief (Mark 6:5-6). At the same time, we should recognize that in the Bible, miracles tend to be clustered around the exodus, the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, a few at the time of Daniel, and many during the ministries of Christ and the apostles. The purpose of miracles in those situations was to authenticate the truth of God’s Word at key points in history. In between these times, there are occasional miracles, but they do not seem to be the norm.

Also, as the apostolic era wound down, the number of miracles seems to have waned. In the early days of the gospel, both Peter and Paul saw frequent, extraordinary miracles (Acts 5:12-16; 9:36-42; 13:9-12; 19:11-12). But later, Paul seems to have been unable to heal Epaphroditus, although God mercifully spared him (Phil. 2:25-27). He didn’t tell Timothy to claim healing for his frequent stomach problems, but rather to drink some wine (1 Tim. 5:23). Paul didn’t heal Trophimus, but left him sick at Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20). And, writing to a second generation church, the author of Hebrews explains how the Lord testified through the apostles with signs and wonders and various gifts of the Holy Spirit as confirmation of the gospel (Heb. 2:3-4). If those things were normative in the second generation, he would have appealed to their current experience as proof of the gospel. But rather, he points them back to what God did through the apostles. Obviously the miracles that God did through Paul were genuine and well-known, or his claims would have been refuted by eyewitnesses. But those miracles did seem to be unique to authenticate the gospel in the early days.

So the application for us is that we should pray for miracles and believe that God is able to do miracles if it is His will. But to say that miracles are normative for the present day goes too far.

Before we look at the final six ministry principles, let me also comment on the last half of verse 19, where Paul says that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum he has fully preached the gospel of Christ. Illyricum is the area presently known as Albania and the Balkan countries (former Yugoslavia). We don’t know whether Paul went into that area (perhaps from Macedonia, just to the east) or whether he means to the border of Illyricum. We might say, “I traveled from Mexico to Canada,” but the meaning is ambiguous. Did I travel from Chiapas (far southern Mexico) to the Northwest Territories, or did I travel from southern Texas to northern Minnesota? So we don’t know exactly what Paul means, except that he had preached the gospel from its point of origin in Jerusalem to the Gentile areas far northwest of there.

Also, by “fully preaching the gospel,” Paul doesn’t mean that he preached in every village and city in those regions. Rather, he had planted strategic churches in those areas, so that from them the gospel could go out into the surrounding areas. For example, Paul spent two years teaching the disciples in Ephesus, with the result that “all who lived in Asia heard the gospel” (Acts 19:10).

With that explanation of verses 17-19, let’s draw out some principles for your ministry:

         Ministry Principle 7: Deflect all glory in your ministry to God, because all results come from His grace (15:15, 17-18).

It is always wrong to boast in ourselves, but it is right to boast in the Lord. Paul is at pains to make it clear that his ministry was (15:15) “because of the grace that was given me from God.” His boast was “in Christ Jesus,” in “things pertaining to God” (15:17). In case we missed it, he clarifies (15:18), “For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me ….” Paul never got over the wonder that God would save and then choose to use a former persecutor and blasphemer like him (1 Tim. 1:12-16). Neither should we. If God uses you to do anything for His kingdom, it is all because of His grace.

So, what should you do when someone comes up and gushes about something that you did that helped him spiritually? It comes across as false humility if you say, “Please, it wasn’t me—it was the Lord!” I think you should say, “Thank you! It’s encouraging to hear how the Lord worked in your life through what I did. Thanks for encouraging me.” If they keep gushing, however, it may be time to interject, “Really, I appreciate your encouragement, but it was the Lord. I was just the imperfect instrument that He used, so give Him the glory.”

And in your heart, no matter how much people may praise you, remember the wit and wisdom of Winston Churchill. He was once sitting on an outside platform waiting to speak to crowds who had packed the streets to hear him. The chairlady of the proceedings leaned over and said, “Doesn’t it thrill you, Mr. Churchill, to see all those people out there who came just to see you?” Churchill replied, “It is quite flattering, but whenever I feel this way I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.” (James Humes, Churchill: Speaker of the Century [Stein and Day], p. 289)

         Ministry Principle 8: There is a legitimate sense of satisfaction that comes from realizing that God has used you (15:17).

Paul knew that he was merely a servant of God by His grace. When the Corinthians were dividing into camps following Apollos or Paul, Paul wrote (1 Cor. 3:5-6), “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.” He always knew that he was just a servant by God’s grace.

And yet, he also felt a sense of satisfaction at what God by His grace had accomplished through him. In 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, he wrote, “For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” And in our text (v. 18), Paul has a sense of satisfaction that God has used him to bring the pagan Gentiles into obedience to Jesus Christ.

The older I get and the longer I’m in ministry, the more I have to battle discouragement and a sense of failure. I often feel like quitting because I think, “I am not seeing anywhere near the results that men like John MacArthur and John Piper and R. C. Sproul see.” But then the Lord graciously gives me an encouraging email from someone who has been reading my sermons online or someone in the church tells me how God is changing them through His Word, and it revives me to keep going.

         Ministry Principle 9: The goal in your ministry should be to proclaim the gospel so as to produce genuinely converted, obedient disciples (15:18).

Romans is all about “the gospel of God” (1:1; 15:16; “gospel of Christ,” 15:19; “gospel,” 15:20), which results in obedience to God in the hearts of those who respond in faith. The gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:16). So the gospel is central to all ministry.

This means that you need to be able to give the gospel in a clear, succinct manner: “The bad news is, we all have sinned and are under God’s righteous judgment (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). We cannot be reconciled to a holy God by our good deeds. The penalty for our sins must be paid. The good news is, God sent His own Son to pay the penalty that we deserved. Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied God’s justice. But He didn’t pay the penalty for everyone, but only for those who will believe in Him (John 3:16). If you will turn from your sin and self-righteousness and trust in Christ alone, God will be merciful to forgive all your sins and freely give you eternal life (Eph. 2:8-9). Will you trust in Christ right now?”

Also, when you’re dealing with someone, do not assume that he is clear about the gospel or that he has trusted in Christ, even if he professes to be a Christian. Ask him, “If you were to die and stand before God and He asked you why He should let you into heaven, what would you say?” His answer will tell you what he’s trusting in for eternal life. Some give the right answer, but their lives contradict their profession. They need to know that saving faith is obedient faith. If someone isn’t growing in obedience, his claim to believe is suspect (1 John 2:4; 3:4-10).

Then Paul continues (15:20-21), “And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation; but as it is written, ‘They who had no news of Him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand.’” Paul’s aim in his mission was to preach the gospel where Christ had not yet been named, as Isaiah 52:15 prophesied.

Paul’s ambition to preach where Christ was not yet known so that he would not build on another man’s foundation did not prevent him from ministering to the church in Rome, which he had not founded. Rather, it reflects Paul’s overall calling and his general philosophy of ministry. He was called to plant new churches and move on. He was a pioneer evangelist, who felt “crowded” by too many Christians (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 896). Others were called to stay with those new churches and shepherd them. Both are needed. These verses lead to three final ministry principles:

         Ministry Principle 10: Understand how your ministry fits into the big picture of what God is doing (10:20).

Some are called to pioneer, but others need to stay long term in one location to build the church there. Some are gifted evangelists who can’t rest at night if they haven’t given the gospel to someone that day. Others see God use them more in encouraging and building up believers who are struggling. This doesn’t mean that the evangelist doesn’t disciple Christians or that the guy who focuses on discipling Christians doesn’t evangelize. It only helps you to know where to focus. You can’t do it all and you’re most effective when you’re doing what God has gifted you to do.

         Ministry Principle 11: Until the gospel has gone out to all people, we all should pray, support, and work toward completing the Great Commission (10:21).

John Piper wrote (Let the Nations be Glad [Baker, 2nd ed.], p. 17), “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” Our passion should be that God’s glory be known so that He is worshipped around the globe. Piper also has said, “You’re either a goer, a sender, or disobedient.” If you’re not passionate about missions, it may be because you’re not passionate about God.

         Ministry Principle 12: Base your philosophy of ministry on scripture, not on modern business or marketing techniques (15:21).

Paul cites Isaiah 52:15 to back his philosophy of taking the gospel to those who have yet to hear. That text comes out of Isaiah’s fourth “servant” passage, which points to Christ, the suffering servant. Paul saw his ministry to the Gentiles as a part of fulfilling the Old Testament prediction about the Gentiles coming to see and understand the good news about the Servant of the Lord (Moo, pp. 897-898). Paul based his ministry on Scripture.

In our day, there is a strong appeal to build your ministry on the latest business or marketing techniques. After all, these are “proven” principles that work. Successful pastors vouch for them. But you have to ask, “But are they biblical methods? Is it a philosophy of ministry based on Scripture?” If not, we should not follow it, even if it “works.” One example that I gave when we were studying chapters 14 & 15 is that the church growth movement urges pastors to utilize what they call the “homogeneous unit principle.” This is based on the philosophy that people want to be a part of a larger group that is just like they are. So you tailor one service for the older folks and another that appeals to the younger crowd. In other words, you design a product that appeals to your target audience. The only problem is, it isn’t biblical!


As I said, if you know Christ, you are enrolled in the lifelong class called “Ministry.” You will be graded on your performance. The final exam is coming. I pray that we all will take these ministry principles to heart so that we will hear one day (Matt. 25:21), “Well done, good and faithful slave…. Enter into the joy of your master.”

Application Questions

  1. How can a Christian figure out what his or her ministry should be? Does our main ministry change as we move through the stages of life?
  2. God’s glory should be our aim because it is God’s aim. How would you answer someone who said, “If God seeks His own glory, He must be an egotist”?
  3. Why must the gospel be central to all ministry? What does this mean practically?
  4. Is there a legitimate way to use business or marketing techniques in ministry? When are such techniques neutral and when are they harmful?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Ecclesiology (The Church), Empower, Glory, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Spiritual Gifts

Lesson 104: Dreaming Big for God (Romans 15:22-29)

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In Don’t Waste Your Life ([Crossway], pp. 45-46), which you all should read, John Piper contrasts two stories. The first story is about two women, one over eighty, the other in her late seventies, who had given their lives to make Jesus Christ known among the unreached people of Cameroon. In April, 2000, their brakes failed, their car went over a cliff, and they were both killed instantly. Piper asks, “Was that a tragedy?” He answers, “No, that is not a tragedy. That is a glory. These lives were not wasted. And these lives were not lost. ‘Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it’ (Mark 8:35).”

The second story shows how to waste your life. The February, 1998, Reader’s Digest, told of a couple who took early retirement when he was 59 and she was 51. They moved to Florida where they cruise on their boat, play softball, and collect shells. At first Piper thought that the story was a spoof on the American Dream, but then he realized that this is the dream: “Come to the end of your life—your one and only precious, God-given life—and let the last great work of your life, before you give an account to your Creator, be this: playing softball and collecting shells.” “That,” says Piper, “is a tragedy.”

It’s especially tragic when Christians waste their lives in light of eternity. Far too many Christians have been sucked into the American dream: to retire as young as possible and then devote your final years to living for yourself. The justification is, “I’ve worked hard for many years, so now it’s my turn to indulge myself for a while.”

I agree that we need to provide adequate financial resources for the time when we’re no longer able to work. I also understand the need for more leisure time as we get older, especially for spending more time with grandkids before they’re grown. But it seems to me that as those who are commanded by our Lord Jesus to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33), we ought to think and even dream about how God might use our few remaining years on earth for His purposes. If you no longer have to work 40-60 hours a week to earn a living, shouldn’t you give some thought to how you could use at least 20-30 hours a week to help fulfill the Great Commission?

If anyone deserved a retirement condo near the golf course or seashore, it was the apostle Paul. The man had endured threats on his life, beatings, imprisonment, being stoned, three shipwrecks, and numerous other dangers and hardships for the sake of the gospel (2 Cor. 11:23-28). “Slow down, Paul! At least take a little vacation time! You’re not getting any younger!” But, here he is telling the Roman Christians that he wants to visit them, but he won’t be staying long. He wants to go to Spain to preach the gospel there. His driving ambition was to keep preaching the gospel where Christ was not yet known (15:20). As he looked toward the final years of his life, he was still dreaming big for God. Following Paul’s example here …

Dream big and plan for how God might use you, but submit to God’s will and seek His blessing in the outworking of your plans.

If God has left you on this planet, He has a purpose for you to fulfill. Perhaps due to bodily weakness, all you can do is pray. Then pray! Perhaps you can give to the cause of missions. Then give! But you may be able to do much more. Then do it! I just read in Eric and Teri Powell’s newsletter of a woman who recently retired to Green Valley, Arizona. While still in the Chicago area, she had been asking God how she could honor Him in her retirement, and she kept hearing the words, “Green Valley Mall.” She didn’t know what that meant until she met Teri and a co-worker with the Scriptures in Use mission. She asked them if they needed a volunteer in their office. She didn’t know it at the time, but the office is located in the Green Valley Mall, where she now serves with Scriptures in Use. There are three lessons that we can draw out of Paul’s future plans and dreams:

1. Dream big and make plans for how God might use you (15:22-24).

Romans 15:22-24: “For this reason I have often been prevented from coming to you; 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 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—”

Paul wanted to see Rome (Acts 19:21) and spend a little while with the saints there, but he didn’t want to stay for very long. He wanted to use Rome as a base to reach further west into Spain, at the edge of the Roman Empire. Did Paul ever get there? We don’t know for sure. Some scholars doubt it, but others think that he did. About 96 A.D., Clement of Rome wrote to the church of Corinth and mentioned that Paul had reached “the limit of the west” before he died. For someone who lived in Rome, “the limit of the west” arguably could have referred to Spain. Another work dating from the late second century, the Muratorian fragment, takes Paul’s Spanish journey for granted (F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free [Eerdmans], pp. 447-449). So it’s possible but not certain that after his first Roman imprisonment, Paul was released and went to Spain before returning to Rome, where he was arrested again and finally executed.

We can draw four applications from these verses:

(1). Dream big for God!

Have a holy ambition to see God use you in ways beyond what you can ask or think. We spend time thinking about how we can enjoy our retirement years. We plan and talk and dream about where we can go and what we can do. But why not spend time thinking about how God could use your retirement years to advance His kingdom?

William Carey was a self-educated shoe cobbler in England who had a vision of taking the gospel to India. When he shared that idea with some ministers, one seasoned pastor called him a “miserable enthusiast” and told him that God would reach the heathen in His own way without human aid (William Carey [Zondervan], Mary Drewery, p. 31). But Carey persisted and overcame setback after setback. He eventually got to India, learned and translated the Bible into almost 40 languages, founded a university that still exists, and saw God make a substantial impact on the Indian subcontinent (see The Legacy of William Carey [Crossway], Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi). Carey’s motto was, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God” (Drewery, p. 39).

Maybe you’re thinking, “But I don’t have those kinds of talents. I can barely speak English, let alone learn another language! I don’t have much to offer in terms of advancing God’s kingdom.” But remember, in Jesus’ parable of the talents, the slave who received five talents and the one who received two talents both invested those funds on behalf of their master. The slave who only received one talent buried it and felt the wrath of his master (Matt. 25:14-30). Surely one lesson to take away from that story is that if you think that you don’t have much that you can do for the Master, you’re the one most in danger of doing nothing. And remember the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 from a boy’s meager lunch of five loaves and two fishes: Little becomes much when you yield it to the Lord Jesus.

So where should you begin? First, consider the local church. Talk to one of the pastors or our children’s coordinator about how you could use your gifts in ministry here. Become a mentor to younger men or women. Think about what you could do to reach others in your neighborhood for Christ. Volunteer to help tutor kids who need help in school or teach reading through the library literacy program and tell your students about Jesus. Help out at Sunshine Rescue Mission or Hope Cottage. Also, there are several local mission organizations that could probably use some help. If you can use a computer, there are ministries that will feed you contacts of those who want to know more about the faith. Use your creativity and your interests and ask God to use you to make an impact for His kingdom.

(2). Don’t let good things crowd out God’s best for you.

Paul wanted to get to Rome and that was a good desire. But something better had kept him from getting there, namely, preaching the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum. And while Paul wanted to visit Rome, there was something better that meant that he could not stay long, namely, going to Spain.

It’s difficult to understand Paul’s comment (15:23), “with no further place for me in these regions.” Surely Paul could find much to do in those regions! But as Everett Harrison explains (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:157), we can only understand his comment in light of Paul’s “restless pioneer spirit.” There were plenty of good things that Paul could have done in those regions. But in light of his gifts and calling, the best thing that he could do was to press on to areas where Christ had not yet been named, such as Spain.

So ask yourself, “What is the unique contribution that I can make to the cause of Christ in light of my gifts and resources? Where can I best be used of God?” Don’t let good things crowd out the best way that God can use you.

(3). Work out a plan for God’s will for you in line with your desires.

Paul had a desire and plan to go to Jerusalem with the Gentile gift for the poor Jewish believers, then to visit the saints in Rome, and then to move on to Spain. As we know, things didn’t work out exactly as Paul had envisioned, in that he got arrested in Jerusalem, spent several years in custody, and finally went to Rome as a prisoner. But he wasn’t wrong to lay out a plan in line with the desires that God had put into his heart.

Sometimes Christians have the mistaken notion that if you hate the thought of going to the jungle to a primitive tribe as a missionary, then that’s what God will have you do. Maybe the idea is that it is more spiritual to do something that grates against your will! While it’s true that God wants you to be yielded to whatever His will for your life may be, He’s not a sadist who delights to make you miserable! He’s a loving Father who wants to see His children happy and fulfilled. He gives us the desires and personality bents that we have. If He calls you to go to a primitive jungle tribe, He will give you the grace to live there. I’m not saying that it will be easy, but at least you’ll be able to shrug off the inconveniences and hardship and love what you’re doing. When we were in Central Asia for a month this summer, there were things about the culture that grated on us. But the missionaries who have been called to serve there just shrugged these things off with a laugh.

So God works through our desires or gives us the grace to endure hardship cheerfully. Work out a plan for how He might use you in line with your desires and abilities.

(4). Serve God in relationship with other likeminded believers.

Paul always worked in conjunction with others. We’ll see this in 16:21-23, where he sends greetings to Rome from eight men who were with him, along with greetings from the whole church. Part of Paul’s strategy in stopping for a while at Rome was to get them on board as his western base to reach out to Spain. He may have hoped to recruit one or more brothers from Rome to accompany him to Spain.

When Paul says (15:24), “to be helped on my way there by you,” many commentators think that at least in part he is asking for financial help. But I respectfully disagree. In my seminary master’s thesis (which the faculty accepted!), I argued that Paul had a fixed policy of not asking for personal support or making his own financial needs known to potential donors. When he ran out of funds, he went to work making tents. When support came in, he devoted himself more fully to the ministry (Acts 18:3, 5; Phil. 4:10-18).

But what about this phrase, “to be helped on my way there by you”? This (or a similar phrase) occurs eight other times (Acts 15:3; 20:38; 21:5; 1 Cor. 16:6, 11; 2 Cor. 1:16; Titus 3:13; 2 John 6). In 2 Corinthians 1:16, Paul tells the church there that perhaps they can help him on his way to Judea. But he is not suggesting that they provide him with financial support, because he resolutely states later that he will not accept such support from them (2 Cor. 11:9, 12; 12:14). William Sanday & Arthur Headlam (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T & T Clark, fifth ed.], p. 411) say that this phrase “need not mean more than to be sent forward on a journey with prayers and good wishes.” It was the custom for people to escort a respected guest for a short distance on his journey.

But here in Romans the phrase could be Paul’s asking the church there to partner with him in prayer (at the least) and perhaps for someone in Rome to go with him to Spain. Paul always worked with a team. So should we. Look for a local church or a mission agency that you can partner with.

So the first lesson from Paul’s future plans is, “Dream big and make plans for how God might use you in serving Him.”

2. In your planning, consider what will have maximum impact for Christ’s church (15:25-28).

Romans 15:25-28: “but now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 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. 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.”

When you read Paul’s letters, you realize that this gift from the mostly Gentile churches for the poor saints in Jerusalem was a really big deal to Paul. He spends two chapters in 2 Corinthians (8 & 9) urging them to be generous in this effort. He spent several months that ended up (when he got arrested) being several years diverting his efforts from his normal priority of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles in order to administer this gift and make sure it got to Jerusalem safely. He could have delegated this to a trusted associate, but he felt that it was important enough to go personally. He even went against two warnings from believers that Luke says came from the Holy Spirit (Acts 21:4, 10-14) not to set foot in Jerusalem. Although most commentators would not agree with me, I think that Paul was so intent on going to Jerusalem that he wrongly ignored God’s direct warnings not to go. So you have to ask, “Why was this so important to Paul?”

My answer is that he thought that taking the gift to Jerusalem would have maximum impact for Christ’s church. In 15:25 he puts it, “serving the saints.” He saw it as putting his seal on this fruit of the Gentile churches (15:28). I think he means that this gift confirmed the bond of unity between the Gentile and Jewish factions of the church. Paul insisted that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile (Gal. 3:28). The gift also authenticated the reality of the conversion of the Gentiles to the Jewish believers in Israel, who tended to be skeptical of Paul’s Gentile mission. It showed the power of the gospel to bring these former pagans to obedience to Christ and it authenticated Paul’s gospel. Also, it fulfilled the commitment that Paul had made to James, Peter, and John to remember the poor as he went to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:10). And, perhaps Paul saw it, at least in part, as fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies that the Gentiles would bring their wealth to Jerusalem (Isa. 2:2-3; 45:14; 60:5-17; 61:6; from Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 776).

There are several helpful principles of giving in these verses that I do not have time to develop. Note briefly that giving is both a duty and a delight. It is a duty to share in material things with those who have shared with you in spiritual things (15:27). And yet Paul mentions twice (15:26, 27) that the Gentiles were pleased to do it—it was a delight. The idea that the Gentiles are indebted spiritually to the Jews is the major theme of Romans 11. Also, note that giving is a form of fellowship. The Greek word translated “contribution” (15:26) is koinonia, “fellowship,” or sharing together. Giving to missionaries or to needy saints builds a bond of fellowship between you.

But the overall principle is, as you dream and plan for how God might use you, consider what will have maximum impact for Christ’s church. Finally,

3. Submit to the Lord’s will and seek His blessing for all your plans (15:29).

Romans 15:29: “I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.”

Paul is probably referring both to the spiritual blessings that he hoped to impart to the Romans and to the blessings that they would impart to him (see 1:11-12, 15). But in Paul’s case, it didn’t happen in quite the pleasant way that he envisioned! His trip to Rome was as a prisoner via a shipwreck. After he got there, some mean-spirited believers in Rome preached Christ out of envy and strife, thinking to cause Paul distress in his imprisonment (Phil. 1:15, 17). The point is that while Paul sought for and expected God’s blessing, he had to submit to God’s sovereign will in the outworking of what those blessings actually entailed. As Proverbs 16:9 says, “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” Or as the saying goes, “Man proposes; God disposes.”

So we should seek God’s blessing in all that we dream and plan for how He might use us, but we have to submit to how all of that actually works out. It may not go according to our plans, but if we walk with God and submit to Him, He will use us for His glory.


To take action on these verses, first ask God to show you how to spend your life (both now and in the future) in light of eternity. Don’t waste your life! With Moses (Ps. 90:12), pray, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” He concludes that psalm with the repeated plea (90:17), “And confirm for us the work of our hands; yes, confirm the work of our hands.” Give some thought to what abilities and desires He has given you to use for His purpose. If you’re married, talk about it with your mate. Think ahead to when you’ll be 75 or 80 and dream about how you would like for God to have used you by that time. Life is short—don’t waste it!

Then educate yourself about the needs of the world in light of the gospel. How can you strategically use your gifts and desires to have maximum impact for Christ’s kingdom? Work out some plans that will take you in that direction. Perhaps it will be to pray for and support missionaries or national believers to reach the unreached. But for some of you, it may be to go to the unreached with the good news of the Savior who has come. Whatever you do, dream big for God and use what He has entrusted to you for His kingdom and glory!

Application Questions

  1. If we “dream big” for God, there is the inherent danger of pride, of thinking that we are indispensable to God. How can we avoid this trap?
  2. What are some good things that might crowd out God’s best for you? What is God’s best for you?
  3. Many Christians rightly have plans for financial security. Why don’t we all have plans for how we can best be used by God?
  4. How can you determine what your spiritual gifts and abilities are? Then how do you figure out how to use those gifts for maximum impact in Christ’s kingdom?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Spiritual Life

Lesson 105: Praying Rightly (Romans 15:30-33)

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Whenever I speak about prayer, I want you to know that I speak as a fellow-struggler in the trenches. I’ve never found prayer to be easy. Also, many messages and books on prayer lay a guilt trip on the listener or reader for not praying enough. They tell about how Martin Luther was so busy that he had to spend four hours every morning in prayer. Somehow that is supposed to motivate me to get out of bed at 3 a.m. to pray, but it doesn’t work for me. So I don’t want this message to imply that I’ve got it together when it comes to prayer or to increase your guilt level.

But I do want for us all to learn how to pray rightly and be motivated to pray more by Paul’s request here that the Roman Christians pray for him. If we want God to use us individually and as a church in this New Year, we need to be people who depend on Him more in prayer. John Piper wrote (Let the Nations be Glad [Baker], p. 66),

Not only has God made the accomplishment of his purposes hang on the preaching of the Word, but he has also made the success of that preaching hang on prayer. God’s goal to be glorified will not succeed without the powerful proclamation of the gospel. And that gospel will not be proclaimed in power to all the nations without the prevailing, earnest, faith-filled prayers of God’s people.

I have a hunch that most of us would have to admit that our prayers usually focus on our needs or the needs of our immediate family. Of course we should take our needs and our family’s needs to the Lord in prayer. But in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), Jesus teaches us first to pray that God’s name would be treated as holy, that His kingdom would come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. After this He teaches us to pray for our own needs. So to pray rightly, the Lord’s glory (“hallowed be Your name”) and the Lord’s work (“Your kingdom come, Your will be done”) should be uppermost in our prayers. The lesson for us from Paul’s request here is:

To pray rightly, pray for the Lord’s work with the right motivation, the right mindset, the right understanding, and the right relationship.

1. To pray rightly, pray for the Lord’s work with the right motivation: We have great needs and a great God.

Romans 15:30: “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….” This verse teaches us four things about praying with the right motivation:

A. The urgency of needs should motivate us to pray.

“Urge” is the same word that Paul used in Romans 12:1, “Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice ….” The English Standard Version translates it, “I appeal to you.” The Holman Christian Standard Version reads, “I implore you.” Putting aside the debate about whether Paul was right to go to Jerusalem, he knew that he faced some severe difficulties there. The Holy Spirit had warned him that bonds and afflictions awaited him at the hands of the Jews (Acts 20:23; 21:4, 11). He knew that even among the believers in Jerusalem, many were prejudiced against his ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 21:20-21). They might not accept the gift of financial help that he was bringing from the Gentile churches. And so he urges the Roman believers to pray for two things (15:31): that he would be rescued from the disobedient in Judea; and that his service for Jerusalem (the gift) would prove acceptable to the saints.

Paul often asked for prayer in his letters because he was constantly aware of his desperate need for God to work if his efforts for the gospel were to amount to anything. He asked the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:25), “Brethren, pray for us.” More specifically, he asked them to pray that the word of the Lord would spread rapidly and be glorified and that he would be rescued from evil men (2 Thess. 3:1-2). He asked the Philippians to pray that he would be delivered from prison, but that whatever the outcome, Christ would be exalted through him (Phil. 1:19-20) He asked the Ephesians (6:19-20) and the Colossians (4:3-4) to pray that he would have opportunities to preach the gospel and that he would do so with boldness and clarity. He asked the Corinthians to pray that God would deliver him from the peril of death (2 Cor. 1:9-11).

These repeated requests for prayer are all the more significant when you remember that Paul was one of the most gifted and godly men who ever lived. If there was ever anyone who seemed to “have it together,” it was Paul! Sometimes such great men come across as if they don’t have any needs. They try to project an image of self-confidence so that others will follow their leadership. But Paul freely and repeatedly let the churches know that he desperately needed their prayers. For Paul, prayer wasn’t a nice thing to do; it was a necessity for survival.

In his excellent book, A Praying Life [NavPress], p. 65), Paul Miller observes, “You don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; you just need to be poor in spirit.” In other words, to be motivated to pray, don’t focus on more discipline; focus rather on how needy you and those you pray for really are. Unless God works, nothing will happen of any lasting spiritual significance.

B. The authority of our Lord Jesus Christ should motivate us to pray.

Paul urges us to pray “by our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is an appeal to Christ’s authority (C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T & T Clark], 2:776). When Jesus gave the Great Commission just before He ascended into heaven, He said (Matt. 28:18), “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” That doesn’t leave any place where Jesus does not have authority (see Eph. 1:21-22)! So we can pray to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ with the confidence that He has the power and authority to answer our prayers that are in accord with His will.

If you’ve ever had a difficult matter to resolve, you know that if you try to go through a lower level bureaucrat, your chances of getting what you’re after are slim. But if you know someone in a position of authority and you can do directly to him or her, you have a much better chance of success. As Christians, we can go directly to the God of the universe through the authority of His Son, who has all authority in heaven and on earth! That should motivate us to pray.

C. The love of the Holy Spirit should motivate us to pray.

Paul urges them to pray “by the love of the Spirit.” While grammatically this could refer to the Spirit’s love for us or to our love for the Spirit, I agree with the majority of commentators who argue that this refers to the love that the Holy Spirit produces in all who walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 22). Paul is saying, “If the Holy Spirit has produced His fruit of love in you, show that love by striving together with me in your prayers to God for me.”

If you love people, you’ll pray for them. You pray for your kids because you love them. You pray for other family members (even if they frustrate you at times) because you love them. If you care about someone’s eternal destiny, you’ll pray for his salvation. If you care about a couple that is struggling in their marriage, you’ll pray for them. While Paul knew many of the believers in Rome (16:1-16), there were many there whom he did not know. But by reading this letter to them, they could sense Paul’s love for them. Even though they had not seen Paul, the love that the Spirit put in their hearts for all who love the Lord Jesus should prompt them to pray for him. So when we hear of fellow believers who are in great need, the love of the Spirit should motivate us to pray for them.

D. Because the God to whom we pray is the heavenly Father, we should be motivated to pray.

Paul mentions all three members of the trinity in this verse: We pray by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit to God, who of course is the heavenly Father. Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6:9), “Our Father who is in heaven.” What a great privilege that we can come to the God who spoke the universe into existence by His great power and address Him as “Father”! When we come to His throne through our great high priest, we can draw near with confidence, knowing that it is a throne of grace where we receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need (Heb. 4:14-16). So to pray rightly for the Lord’s work, pray with the right motivation: We have great needs and we have a great triune God.

2. To pray rightly, pray for the Lord’s work with the right mindset: Prayer is warfare.

Paul urges the Roman Christians (15:30), “strive together with me in your prayers to God for me.” There are two things here:

A. Strive in your prayers.

This is the only time this compound verb (“strive together”) is used in the New Testament, but Paul uses the root verb with reference to prayer in Colossians 4:12, “Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God.” We get our word “agonize” from the Greek verb. It was used of athletic contests. Paul uses the noun most likely in reference to his own prayers for the Colossians (Col. 2:1), “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face.”

Paul describes his ministry as (Col. 1:29), “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” He sums up his entire ministry by using both the noun and the verb (2 Tim. 4:7), “I have fought the good fight.” Although he doesn’t use the same word, the same idea lies behind Paul’s description of spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:12), “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

These verses all fly in the face of the popular teaching that the Christian life is an effortless matter of “letting go and letting God.” I’ve heard Bible teachers say, “If you’re struggling, you’re not resting in Christ.” I guess Paul needed to learn some things from them! He struggled, he strived, he wrestled, he fought.

This means that if you don’t find prayer to be easy, welcome to the Christian life! It requires striving and wrestling against the forces of darkness and against the desires of the flesh. If you have the mindset that prayer is easy and effortless, you won’t do much praying. Prayer requires striving.

B. Strive together in your prayers.

Paul was already striving in prayer for his upcoming trip to Jerusalem, but he asks them to join him in the battle. Sometimes I’ve heard Christians try to rally large numbers to pray for some urgent need and it seems as if the mentality is, “If we just get enough people praying, it will tip the scales and God will have to answer.” But that’s not why we should strive together with others in our prayers. The effective prayers of a righteous man (singular) can accomplish much (James 5:16).

Rather, when more people pray, God gets more glory when He answers. Also, when more pray and God answers, it strengthens the faith of all those who prayed. And, it lightens the load of the person who is praying if others come along and help carry the burden. It helps to know that others care enough to pray for your need. Since prayer is warfare, it’s better to go into battle with as many troops as you can muster, rather than by yourself.

John Piper has often pointed out that our prayers are often ineffective because we wrongly view prayer as calling for the butler to bring us another glass of iced tea, rather than rightly viewing it as a walkie-talkie to call in more supplies and ammunition to the front lines of the battle. In other words, our prayers should not be focused on trivial things to make us more comfortable, but rather on crucial things to advance the cause of Christ against the enemy.

So to pray rightly, pray for the Lord’s work with the right motivation: We have great needs and we have a great God. Pray with the right mentality: Prayer is warfare.

3. To pray rightly, pray for the Lord’s work with the right understanding: Prayer is powerful, but we must submit to God’s sovereign will.

Paul asks for two specific things: to be delivered from the disobedient in Judea (unbelievers); and that his service (gift) to the saints would prove acceptable. Those requests teach us two things:

A. Understand that God’s power flows through our prayers.

Paul assumes that in response to his and the Romans’ prayers, God can restrain the disobedient Jews from killing him and that God can work in the hearts of the prejudiced and untaught believers in Jerusalem so that they will accept the gift from the Gentiles. The fact that the Romans were over a thousand miles away from Jerusalem and didn’t know either the disobedient Jews or the prejudiced saints made no difference. God was in both places and He is powerful to restrain sinners and change the hearts of believers. The fact that people have a “free will” to do as they choose makes no difference. Without robbing people of their freedom to choose and their responsibility for their choices, God works all things after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11; Ps. 103:19; Ps. 115:3; Prov. 21:1). He uses our prayers as a part of that process!

If salvation depends ultimately on the “free will” of lost, sinful people, then you should quit praying for their salvation, because God’s hands are tied! But if salvation is from the Lord, then pray that He will soften hard hearts, open blind eyes, raise dead sinners, and cause them to respond willingly to the gospel. It’s true that they must choose to believe in Christ, but it’s also true that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). So pray with the assurance that in some mysterious way that we cannot understand, God’s mighty power to restrain evil, to save the lost, and to sanctify the saints flows through our prayers.

B. Understand that God is sovereign in how He answers our prayers and so we must submit to Him.

Some of the “Word-faith” preachers arrogantly teach that we are to command God in our prayers and that He must do as we say! What blasphemy! God is sovereign; we are not. We should pray as specifically as we can in line with what we understand to be God’s will for His glory, but we have to submit to His sovereignty in how He answers.

Were Paul’s prayers here answered? Yes, sort of, but not exactly in the way that he probably was thinking when he asked for prayer. He was rescued from the disobedient in Judea, but only by becoming a Roman prisoner for the next four years. His service to Jerusalem seems to have been accepted (Acts 21:17), but the account is clear that many of the Jerusalem saints had a decidedly Jewish view of Christianity that wouldn’t have been enthusiastic about uncircumcised Gentiles being on equal footing with them in the church (Acts 21:20-21). They may have thought that by accepting the gift, they would be giving tacit endorsement of Paul’s work among the Gentiles. Or, they might have viewed Paul’s gift as a bribe to try to get them to endorse his breaches of the law among the Gentiles. Or, some may have been too ethnocentric to accept any help from the Gentiles. So we really don’t know to what extent Paul’s second request was answered.

Verse 32 expresses not a third request, but rather the desired result if the first two requests were answered. Paul wanted to “come to you in joy by the will of God and find refreshing rest in your company.” Even though the first two requests were perhaps not answered exactly as Paul envisioned, and he arrived in Rome as a prisoner via a shipwreck, he did come to them in joy (Philippians, which is full of joy in the Lord, was written during his Roman imprisonment) and with fresh encouragement in the Lord because of the warm welcome he received (Acts 28:15).

As a side note, as a church, we should make sure that visiting missionaries who come to us find refreshing rest in our company. Have them in your home and ask them about their work. I’ve talked with missionaries who visited a church where no one even bothered to ask about their work or how they could pray for them. They’ve been living in a difficult place, facing loneliness, hardships, and discouragements. It would encourage them to know that we’ve been praying and that we want to know how things have been going on the front lines. But the main lesson is: Pray with the right understanding, that prayer is powerful, but we must submit to God’s sovereignty in the outcome. Finally,

4. To pray rightly, pray for the Lord’s work with the right relationship: “The God of peace be with you all.”

Verse 33 is Paul’s benediction or prayer for the Roman saints. It’s the third benediction of this chapter. Paul has prayed that the God of perseverance and encouragement would grant them to be of the same mind with one another (15:5). He prayed that the God of hope would fill them with all joy and peace in believing (15:13). Now he prays that the God of peace will be with them. In 16:20 he assures them that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under their feet.

Since God is with all believers, Paul’s prayer here must mean that he wants them to experience God’s presence as the God of peace. Because of the cross, we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1). We also should experience peace with other believers, especially with those who are different than we are (Rom. 14:1-15:6; Eph. mstances as we bring our requests to Him in thankful prayer (Phil. 4:6-7). So we pray rightly when we are in right relationship with the God of peace.


So to pray rightly, pray for the Lord’s work with the right motivation: We have great needs and we have a great God. Pray with the right mindset: Prayer is warfare. Pray with the right understanding: Prayer is powerful, but we must submit to God’s sovereign will. And, pray with the right relationship: “The God of peace be with you all.” Let me suggest a few ways that you all can join with me in praying for our church in this coming year. (If you need ideas on specifically what to pray for family members, pastors, missionaries, or yourself, see “What should I pray?” under “Resources” on the church web site.)

         Pray for conversions, both through the witness of our people and through the Word preached (here on Sundays and online).

         Pray for all our missionaries.

         Pray through the church directory. As you do, pray for harmonious marriages and pray for the conversion, growth in grace, and protection of our children.

         Pray for health, strength, growth, encouragement, and wisdom for our ministry staff and our support staff.

         Pray for healthy, spiritually nourishing relationships to flourish through our small groups.

         Pray that all who come here would be serving, disciple-making disciples.

         Pray for God to put on the hearts of some to devote their lives to reaching the unreached.

         Pray for adequate finances, the sale of the Equestrian Estates property, and the purchase of the parking lot across the street.

         Pray that our worship services would be marked by sincere, wholehearted worship in spirit and in truth.

May this be a year when we see God do great things through our prayers!

Application Questions

  1. What most motivates you to pray? What most discourages you from praying? How can you overcome this?
  2. Do you view prayer as a wartime walkie-talkie or as a bell to call the butler for more iced tea? Discuss how these opposing views might affect your prayer life.
  3. Why must we maintain the tension between God’s power to change resistant hearts and man’s responsibility to believe? What happens if either of these is out of balance?
  4. Read through some of Paul’s prayers (Eph. 1:15-23; 3:14-21; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:9-14; 1 Thess. 3:9-13). What does Paul pray for? How can these prayers shape your prayer life?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Prayer

Lesson 106: Snapshot of a Church (Romans 16:1-16, 21-23)

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When you come to a section of Scripture like Romans 16 with its long list of names, it’s good to keep in mind Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” These verses, along with the lists of genealogies in the Bible, are inspired by God for our spiritual profit to equip us for every good work. So rather than skip over them quickly, we need to think about, “What food for my soul is here for me?” You have to dig a bit, but when you do you come up with some nuggets that make the search worthwhile.

Paul isn’t deliberately teaching here. Rather, he is greeting his friends in Rome and sending greetings from some who were with him in Corinth. But the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write these greetings to teach us. What we have here is a snapshot of these two churches that teaches us much about what our church ought to be. And the individuals greeted here can motivate and encourage each of us to be all that God wants us to be. We learn that…

The church is made up of ordinary, diverse people who know the Lord, are growing in Him, serve Him, and love one another.

I can’t comment on every name, but I want to point out seven features of this snapshot. But before I do, let me say that this chapter dispels the notion that Paul was a non-relational theologian who was so wrapped up in his study that he didn’t care about people. These verses show that Paul knew many of the saints in Rome by name and some of them closely, even though he had not yet visited Rome. The chapter brims with personal relationships that reflect Paul’s love for people. The best theologians are those who can form loving relationships. Let’s look at the snapshot:

1. The church is made up of ordinary, diverse people who are “in the Lord.”

Paul commends to the Romans “our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea” (16:1). Most scholars think that she was the one who carried the letter to Rome. She was probably a single, wealthy business woman (she was a “helper” or “patroness” or “benefactor” of many, including Paul). Her name comes from Greek mythology, and so she was probably saved out of a Gentile pagan background.

In fact a majority of the names in this list are Gentile, indicating the Gentile majority in the church (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 918). And the majority of the names are those of either slaves or freedmen (freed slaves). Some in the list may have been a part of Caesar’s household (see Phil. 4:22, written from Rome). Aristobulus (16:10) was a grandson of Herod the Great and was a close friend of the Emperor Claudius. He was not a believer. When he died, his slaves would have become the property of the emperor, but would still be called “the household of Aristobulus.” The following name, Herodion, probably refers to a Jewish slave or freedman who was a part of that larger household of Aristobulus now in the emperor’s service (see J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [Zondervan], p. 175).

The household of Narcissus (16:11) also probably referred to the slaves belonging to a wealthy, wicked freedman who was also friends with the Emperor Claudius. When Nero came to the throne, his mother Agrippina forced Narcissus to commit suicide (three or four years before Romans was written), so his slaves also would be part of the royal household.

Tertius, Paul’s secretary in Corinth (16:22), and Quartus, whom Paul simply calls “the brother” (16:23), were probably slaves. Their names mean “Third” and “Fourth.” They weren’t even the number one or number two slaves. Although they were third and fourth, they were members of the church (James Boice, Romans: The New Humanity [Baker], 4:1952, 1956). Tertius had the very important task of accurately recording Paul’s dictated words. Quartus is no longer just the fourth nameless slave, but is “the brother,” a noble designation.

In the same breath Paul mentions Erastus, the city treasurer, an important public position. An inscription has been found in Corinth mentioning an Erastus who was the public works administrator. It may refer to an earlier or later job of this same man who was now city treasurer. So in the church in Corinth you had low-level slaves right next to Erastus the important official.

Prisca and Aquila (16:3) were fellow tentmakers and fellow Jews with Paul, as were the others in this chapter whom he calls “my kinsmen” (16:7, 11, 21). As we’ve seen, there were tensions between the Gentile and Jewish segments of the church in Rome. Paul desperately wanted these diverse groups to work out their differences and grow in love as one body in Christ.

One other man who was probably a Jew was Rufus (16:13). A “Rufus” is also mentioned in Mark 15:21, where Mark says that his father was Simon of Cyrene, who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross. Since Mark’s gospel was probably written for the Romans, the Rufus there may be the one Paul greets here. If so, Rufus’ father was a Jew from Cyrene (modern Libya), who had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. Through his forced encounter with Christ and the cross, he came to faith in Jesus as His Savior and Lord. Luke mentions that when the gospel first went to Antioch, it was men from Cyprus and Cyrene who first preached it there (Acts 11:20). It’s possible (although not certain) that Simon of Cyrene was one of those men. His son Rufus was now a prominent member of the church in Rome.

We don’t know why Paul singles him out as “a choice man in the Lord.” The Greek term is, “elect” or “chosen” in the Lord, which is true of all believers. John Piper suggests that maybe Paul and Rufus had had a long discussion about God’s sovereign election. Also, perhaps they had talked about how God’s sovereignty had brought Rufus’ father in contact with Christ, so that the truth of election was now especially precious to him.

So the church in Rome was made up of these ordinary but diverse people. Some were slaves, others were blue collar workers, and still others were wealthy. Some were men, but Paul mentions a number of women. What drew them together and united them? We find the answer in a phrase that Paul repeats eleven times in these verses: “in the Lord” or “in Christ.” He asks the Romans to receive Phoebe “in the Lord” (16:2). He commends Prisca and Aquila as his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (16:3). He says that Andronicus and Junias “were in Christ before me” (16:7). He calls Ampliatus “my beloved in the Lord” (16:8). Urbanus is “our fellow worker in Christ” (16:9). Apelles is “the approved in Christ” (16:10). Perhaps he had endured some difficult trial in a commendable way. Paul sends greetings to those of the household of Narcissus, “who are in the Lord” (16:11). Tryphaena and Tryphosa are “workers in the Lord” (16:12). Persis the beloved “has worked hard in the Lord” (16:12). Rufus is “chosen in the Lord” (16:13). And Tertius, Paul’s secretary, sends his greetings “in the Lord” (16:22).

As we’ve seen in Romans, being “in Christ” through faith is the most important designation that can be true of anyone. Paul begins Romans 8 by stating (8:1), “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” He ends that chapter by saying (8:39) that there is nothing that “will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Whether you are wealthy or poor, ordinary or important, male or female, no matter what your background, those eternal blessings are offered to you in Christ Jesus if you will trust in Him as your Savior. What a tribute to the glorious gospel that saves ordinary, diverse people from every walk of life and places them “in Christ”!

2. The church is made up of ordinary people growing to know the Lord through sound doctrine.

It’s significant that although Romans is the most doctrinally deep letter in the New Testament, it was written to help common people, many of them slaves, to know Christ and grow in their walk with Him. Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 527) observes,

It was a letter to real people and, as far as we can see, to ordinary people; it was not written to professional theologians (although through the centuries scholars have found the epistle a happy hunting ground). As we consider the weighty matters Paul deals with, we are apt to overlook the fact that it was addressed to people like Ampliatus and Tryphena and Rufus. Clearly Paul expected this kind of person to be helped by what he wrote, a fact which modern experts sometimes overlook.

We live in a day when doctrine is shoved aside because supposedly it is either divisive or impractical. But Paul would have vigorously disagreed. He spends 11 chapters laying a solid doctrinal foundation before he gets around to the so-called practical section of this letter. And as noted, it was written for ordinary Christians, not just for theologians or scholars. It takes some mental effort to grapple with these profound truths, but it’s well worth the work!

3. The church is made up of diverse people who are deepening their relationships with one another in the Lord.

There are over 30 names in these two sections and it’s likely that Paul knew most of them personally. He mentions four of them as being especially close (“my beloved” or “the beloved”; 16:5, 8, 9, 12), including Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia. He calls Phoebe “our sister” (16:1) and Quartus “the brother” (16:23). He mentions Rufus’ mother as being his own mother (16:13). Apparently she had ministered to Paul as a mother would, perhaps when he was ill. Prisca and Aquila had risked their lives for Paul. We don’t know when this happened, but obviously there was a close bond between them because of this. He also directs the believers in Rome to greet one another with a holy kiss (16:16), a common custom in that culture (1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14). It would have been men with men and women with women. It’s a holy kiss! Be careful about being too physical in greeting members of the opposite sex!

All of these personal, warm greetings reflect the love between Paul and these believers and between all believers. It’s amazing that he could remember all of these names! Clearly, he took a personal interest in people, and so should we. We are not called to be Christians in isolation, but rather in relationship with one another. I realize that some of you have been burned in relationships and that makes you hesitant to risk getting burned again. But Paul got burned too (2 Tim. 1:15; 4:10, 14), but that didn’t keep him from pursuing close relationships with other believers.

4. The church is made up of people who are family and thus are hospitable and helpful toward one another.

Paul urges the church to extend hospitality to Phoebe, whom he calls “our sister.” She was family. Quartus was “the brother.” Prisca and Aquila opened their home to host the gatherings of the church (16:5), which they also did in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19). Probably the two groups mentioned in 16:14 & 15 represented other house churches, which could perhaps hold as many as 70 or 80 people (Moo, p. 919). In Corinth, Gaius apparently hosted a church in his house (16:23).

For at least the first two centuries, churches had to meet in homes due to persecution. There is a renewed interest in house churches in our day. They have the advantage of forming close relationships, allowing for closer shepherding, and involving every member in ministry. They have the disadvantages of lacking solid teaching and getting off track doctrinally if they lack trained leaders. They can also spawn relational conflicts that come from being overly involved in one another’s personal affairs. Also, if they don’t maintain an emphasis on outreach and healthy growth by division, they can become ingrown. Our home fellowships provide all of these advantages and disadvantages!. But they’re worth the risk. I encourage you to plug in to one. This snapshot also reveals that…

5. The church is made up of people who work hard together for the Lord.

Paul repeatedly mentions how these people were involved in serving the Lord. Phoebe was “a servant of the church in Cenchrea,” a port city near Corinth (16:1). She may have held an official position as a deaconess (1 Tim. 3:11), although some scholars dispute this. But even though she probably was busy as a single business woman, she was devoted to serving the church.

Paul calls Prisca and Aquila “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (16:3). Paul had met them in Corinth, where they worked together as tentmakers after they had been forced to leave Rome when Claudius expelled the Jews (Acts 18:1-3). By the way, Paul always calls her Prisca, the more formal name. Luke uses Priscilla, which was the diminutive nickname (like Liz for Elizabeth). They later accompanied Paul to Ephesus, where after Paul left they helped Apollos get straightened out in his doctrine (Acts 18:24-26). Now they had moved back to Rome. Still later, they would move back to Ephesus again (2 Tim. 4:19). Wherever they went, their hearts were for building up the church. Husbands and wives can find great joy in working together for the Lord. Husbands, if you and your wife host a home fellowship, help her with the work!

Paul also mentions Mary, “who has worked hard for you” (16:6). He calls Urbanus “our fellow worker in Christ” (16:9). Tryphaena and Tryphosa (probably sisters, whose names mean Delicate and Dainty) were not fragile—they were “workers in the Lord” (16:12)! Persis (another woman) “has worked hard in the Lord” (16:12). And he calls Timothy “my fellow worker” (16:21).

As we saw in chapter 12, every believer has been given at least one spiritual gift that he or she is to use in serving the Lord. There should be no benchwarmers in the body of Christ. First Peter 4:10-11 puts it like this:

As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

So the church is made up of ordinary, diverse people who are “in Christ.” These ordinary people are growing to know the Lord through sound doctrine, such as the Epistle to the Romans. They are deepening their relationships with one another, being hospitable and helpful to one another as family. They work hard together for the Lord.

6. The church is made up of both men and women who serve the Lord, but in different roles and capacities.

In the male-dominated culture of that day, it is significant that Paul mentions four women who worked hard in the Lord (16:6, 12), plus Prisca who along with her husband Aquila were “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (16:3). Paul entrusted probably the only copy of this precious letter to a woman, Phoebe, for safe delivery to Rome. In all, Paul mentions seven women by name, plus Rufus’ mother (16:13) and Nereus’ sister (16:15). Obviously Paul believed that women have an important role to play in serving the Lord.

But at the same time, we need to be careful not to “overinterpret this evidence” (Moo, p. 927). Those who argue for erasing all role distinctions in the church bring up two matters to support their cause. First, Prisca is mentioned before her husband in four out of six references in Scripture, which was against the common custom. We don’t know why. She may have been the more dominant personality of the two, the more gifted, the more socially prominent, or the one who was most significant in their home-based ministry (Moo, p. 919, note 11).

Second, although scholars for centuries have been divided over whether Junias (16:7) was a man or a woman, most today argue that it refers to the wife of Andronicus. “Outstanding among the apostles” could mean that the apostles regarded this couple as outstanding, or more likely it means that among those who were apostles, this couple stood out. So feminists argue that we have here a female apostle.

But if this is so, Paul was using “apostles” to refer to traveling missionaries (Moo, p. 924), not to those with special authority over the churches as was given to the twelve and to Paul. But to build a case on an unclear reference here to argue that Paul is going against what he clearly states in other contexts about men being in roles of teaching and leadership in the local church (1 Tim. 2:8-15; 1 Cor. 11:3-16; 14:34-38) is not sound interpretation (Moo, p. 927; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 797).

So the point is, women can and should have significant ministries in the local church and in the cause of world missions in biblically appropriate roles. In his book, What’s the Difference? ([Crossway], pp. 57-58) John Piper lists dozens of ministries that women can serve in. But the roles of teaching men and overall leadership in the church are restricted to men.

7. The church is made up of whole families that have come to faith in Christ through the gospel.

Paul mentions two households (16:10, 11), which referred to both the biological family members and the servants, plus Rufus’ mother and Nereus’ sister (16:13, 15). In the Book of Acts, we see whole households coming to faith (2:39, “you and your children”; 10:1-48, Cornelius; 16:15, Lydia; 16:31-34, the Philippian jailer). If you’re in one of our home fellowships, you’re familiar with the concept that Pastor Tom Mercer sets forth in his book, 8 to 15: Your World Delivered. He says that we all have between 8 and 15 people that we have natural bridges to, whether as biological family or people that we rub shoulders with every day. They’re the ones that we should pray for and, as God opens the door, share the gospel with. So make a prayer list of these 8-15 people and ask God to show them their need of Christ and to give you an opportunity to tell them the good news.


None of the people listed in Romans 16 were famous or powerful in the world’s eyes. None of them knew that their names would be enshrined in Scripture for millions of Christians down through the ages to read. Even though our names will never be in Scripture and none of us will probably be recognized or remembered by the world, God knows your name and you are important to Him. He sent His Son to rescue you from sin and judgment. He has given you an important role to play in His kingdom purposes. It may be to be a loving homemaker and to rear your children to love and follow Christ. It may be to set a godly example as a loving husband and father. It may include serving in some capacity in the local church or in the cause of world missions. It may be to tell your neighbor the good news of Jesus Christ and to explain to him (or her) how he can have his sins forgiven and go to heaven.

Whatever your gifts and calling, the most important thing is that you know that Christ has saved you from eternal judgment because you have put your trust in Him as Savior and Lord. Then look for ways that you can serve the Lord, as these people did. Read through the descriptions again and ask yourself, “How would Paul have described me if he had known me?”

William Barclay observes (The Letter to the Romans [Westminster, rev. ed.], p. 220), “It is a great thing to go down to history as the man with the open house or as the man with the brotherly heart. Some day people will sum us up in one sentence. What will that sentence be?”

Application Questions

  1. How would Paul have described you if you were in this list? How would you like to be described?
  2. If Paul wrote a letter to Flagstaff Christian Fellowship, what would he say? How would he commend or correct us?
  3. Many churches now have women pastors and elders. Which Scriptures would you use to argue against this?
  4. Can you share the gospel clearly when you get the chance? Make a list of your “8 to 15” and begin to pray for opportunities to share the gospel with them.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Spiritual Gifts, Spiritual Life

Lesson 107: A Final Warning: Beware of False Teachers! (Romans 16:17-20)

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Years ago, a seminary professor told his class at the beginning of the semester that they would work together on one major project during that semester. They would move systematically through the New Testament to categorize every area of truth and determine how many times each area is addressed. Their goal was to find what one thing is emphasized more than any other in the New Testament. When they completed the project, they were amazed to see that warning against false doctrine is emphasized more than any other thing, even more than love, unity, and experience (Renald Showers, in “Israel My Glory,” [April/May, 1995], pp. 24-25).

I have not verified their conclusion, but they’re probably right. Jesus warned (Matt. 7:15), “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Much of His ministry consisted of confronting the false teaching of the religious leaders of His day (cf. Matt. 16:11-12; 23:1-39). In His discourse on things to come, He warned (Matt. 24:4-5), “See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many.”

The apostle Peter devotes most of 2 Peter to warning against false teachers. Jude devotes his entire short letter to the same theme. John in his epistles repeatedly warns of false teachers. Paul’s final words to the Ephesian elders warned them (Acts 20:28-30),

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.

His final letters to Timothy and Titus repeatedly emphasize the need for sound doctrine. He told Titus (1:9) that an elder must hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” He goes on to explain that there are many empty talkers and deceivers who are upsetting whole households through their false teaching. In his final charge to Timothy, after telling him to preach the word, he explained (2 Tim. 4:3-4), For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

So it should not surprise us that as Paul concludes his letter to the Romans, in the midst of giving and sending warm greetings to the saints, he breaks in with this warning to beware of false teachers. Some liberal commentators have thought that this paragraph is so abrupt and out of context that it must have been added by a later scribe. But Paul was constantly battling false teachers who hounded his steps and perverted the truth of the gospel. He was writing from Corinth, where false apostles posing as servants of righteousness had caused much damage (2 Cor. 11:3-15). As he thought of his many dear friends in Rome, he didn’t want them to be led astray. He had heard that they were doing well in the Lord (16:19a), but the present is no guarantee for the future. So his love for them prompted him to insert this warning against the dangers of false teachers.

Paul’s words here are totally out of sync with our current culture that holds tolerance as the chief virtue. Even many professing evangelicals argue that we should set aside all doctrinal differences, even with the Roman Catholic Church, and come together in the areas where we agree. They say, “Jesus didn’t say that the world will know we are Christians by our correct doctrine, but by our love.” And so they hold unity services with those who deny the gospel and other core biblical truths. In its most extreme form, they hold interfaith services with those who believe in other religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.

Even the respected evangelist Billy Graham fell into this serious error. He was always known for cooperating with Roman Catholics in his crusades. But even worse, as far back as 1978 McCall’s magazine quoted Graham as having said, “I used to believe that pagans in far countries were lost if they did not have the gospel of Christ preached to them. I no longer believe that.” (Cited by Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided [Banner of Truth], p. 73.) In May, 1997, in a TV interview with Robert Schuller, Graham said,

I think that everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are members of the body of Christ…. God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for his name. And that is what he is doing today. He is calling people out of the world for his name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something they do not have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven (ibid., pp. 73-74).

Schuller was surprised by Graham’s words and asked for clarification, “What, what I hear you saying, that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they have been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you are saying?”

“Yes, it is,” Graham responded decidedly. At which point, Schuller exclaimed, ‘I’m so thrilled to hear you say this: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”.’ To which Graham added, ‘There is. There definitely is” (ibid., p. 74).

Of course there is a wideness in God’s mercy. As Romans 10:13 states, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But Jesus Christ is that Lord and He said (John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” So when a Christian leader as respected and popular as Billy Graham says that people of other religions will be in heaven apart from faith in Christ, it shows why we need to pay close attention to Paul’s warning here to be on guard against false teachers. He’s saying,

Even obedient Christians need to be on guard against false teachers who deceive others for their own gain.

Paul makes three points: First, believers need to be on guard against false teachers (16:17-18). Second, even obedient Christians need to be on guard against false teachers (16:19). Third, ultimately, it’s the God of peace and His grace that protect us from falling prey to false teachers (16:20).

1. Believers need to be on guard against false teachers (16:17-18).

“Urge” (Rom. 12:1; 15:30) is a word of strong appeal. Paul is talking to believers (“brethren”) and he shows us how to recognize these false teachers and how to respond when we encounter them.

A. Recognizing false teachers: to spot one you have to know what to look for.

Scholars debate exactly who these false teachers were. Apparently, they had not yet arrived in Rome, so Paul is giving a heads up so that when they arrived, the believers would be able to spot them. We cannot be certain, but since the Judaizers dogged Paul’s steps and tried to bring Gentile believers under the regulations of the Mosaic Law, they may be the ones in view (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 929; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 803). But the warning is generic enough that it applies to a wide range of false teachers. Paul lists four marks to identify false teachers:

(1). The motivation of false teachers is to promote themselves by causing dissensions and stumbling blocks.

Romans 16:17: “Keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned….” We need to understand that Paul is not saying that true teachers avoid all controversy! Jesus Himself provoked a lot of dissension by confronting the hypocritical religious leaders (Matt. 10:34-36; 23:1-36). Paul contended vigorously with the Judaizers in Galatians, where he tells how he confronted Peter publicly because he had come under their sway (Gal. 2:11-15). When the gospel or other core biblical truth was at stake, Paul believed in the necessity to contend strongly for the faith. In fact he sums up his entire ministry by saying that he had fought the good fight (2 Tim. 4:7). He was not opposed to controversy when the gospel was at stake.

But the word that Paul uses here translated “dissensions” is a deed of the flesh (Gal. 5:20). And these dissensions are “contrary to the teaching which you learned.” This dissension stems from self-centered, self-exalting motives. False teachers attempt to build a following because they love promoting themselves and being the center of attention. They’re after power, fame, money, or sinful sexual gratification. They don’t seek to exalt Christ and Him crucified. They don’t hold firmly to the gospel of justification by faith alone. By adding the word “stumbling blocks” (9:33; 11:9), Paul shows that these men created dissension by teaching damnable heresies. Invariably, those who stood for the gospel would rightly oppose them. The result was dissension in the churches. But at the root of it, these false teachers were motivated by promoting themselves, not Christ.

(2). The message of false teachers is to contradict core biblical truth.

Their message was “contrary to the teaching which you learned.” Paul is mainly referring to the truth of the gospel which the Romans had believed and which Paul had set forth so clearly in this letter. There are many areas of doctrine where godly Christians may differ and yet still be saved, such as various views of prophecy, baptism, church government, spiritual gifts, and other secondary issues. But there are core doctrines where all true Christians must agree or you cease to be Christian in any biblical sense of the word. All of the cults promote a way of salvation by works that detracts from God’s glory through the cross of Christ. All false teachers undermine the person and work of Christ. If you abandon these core doctrines for the sake of unity, the unity you end up with is not Christian unity. So pay attention to the message.

(3). The master of false teachers is their own appetites, not the Lord Christ.

Paul explains (16:18), “For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ, but of their own appetites.” False teachers are in the ministry for their own profit or gain. They take people’s money so that they can live lavishly. They love power and being in the limelight. Often false teachers take advantage of women in their congregation for their own sexual gratification. But they do not preach or live in submission to Christ as Lord. By the way, “our Lord Christ” clearly affirms the deity of Jesus Christ. True teachers seek to submit every area of their lives to Christ as Lord and God.

(4). The method of false teachers is to use smooth and flattering speech to deceive the hearts of the naïve.

False teachers are usually nice, likeable, and winsome. They flatter you by telling you what you want to hear. They smile a lot as they tell you how great you are and how you can have your best life now. They don’t talk about anything negative, like sin and the coming judgment. They say, “People are beat down enough as it is. When they come to church, they need to hear a positive message, like God’s love and acceptance” (apart from repentance, of course). They use biblical verses (often out of context) and biblical language, but they often change the meaning of the terms. For example, both the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about believing in Jesus as Savior and Lord, but their “Jesus” is not the Jesus of the Bible.

Arius (d. 336), was a heretic who denied the deity of Christ and was the forerunner of the modern Jehovah’s Witnesses. He gained a huge following. The courageous Athanasius battled against him. Parker Williamson describes Arius (Standing Firm: Reclaiming the Chastain Faith in Times of Controversy [Lenoir, North Carolina: PLC Publications, 1996], p. 31, cited by John Piper, “Watch Out for Those Who Lead You Away from the Truth,” on DesiringGod.org):

Here was a bright, energetic, attractive fellow, the kind of citizen whom any Rotary Club would welcome. Singing sea chanties in dockside pubs and teaching Bible stories to the Wednesday night faithful, this was an immensely popular man. His story reminds us that heresy does not bludgeon us into belief. We are seduced.

Note also that the deception takes place on the heart level, which refers both to the mind and the emotions. Deceivers know how to manipulate people’s feelings. They tell you stories that tug on your heart. They get you laughing. They often ridicule those who stand firm for biblical truth and portray them as mean, angry, and unloving. They appeal to greed and the desire that we all have to be healthy. If you’ll just send them a gift, they’ll pray for your prosperity and healing. By preying on your feelings, they lure you into their web of deception. So to recognize false teachers, watch their motives, their message, their master, and their methods.

B. Response to false teachers: Keep your eye on them and turn away from them.

Paul says, “Keep your eye on them and turn away from them.” The noun related to the verb “keep your eye on” is used in Ezekiel 3:17 (LXX) to refer to the watchman on the wall. His job was to keep his eye peeled for the enemy and to sound the alarm when he saw them coming so that they could prepare for battle. Since these false teachers often disguise themselves as “servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:15) or as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15), you have to be discerning to spot them.

Paul does not tell us to engage in dialogue with them or to invite them into our church to see if we can find some common ground as we discuss their ideas. Sometimes division or separation is both the necessary and the godly thing to do. Christian leaders especially have to be careful here. For example, when Billy Graham invited Roman Catholic leaders to sit on the platform with him at his crusades and he used the Catholic Church to follow up with those from Catholic backgrounds who responded to his message, he sent a strong message to the untaught that the Catholic Church preaches the same gospel that we preach. The problem is, they don’t. They preach salvation by grace through faith plus works, which is precisely the Galatian heresy. Paul preached salvation by grace through faith alone. The difference is not minor, because Paul said that the Galatian heretics were damned (Gal. 1:6-9)!

Should you invite cultists who knock on your door to come in and discuss their beliefs so that you might lead them to Christ? Maybe, but be very careful! The cults do a better job of training their people than we do. They can take you to every verse that seems to support their errors. If you’re not knowledgeable, they will confuse you and draw you into their heresies. I usually tell them that I have studied the Bible seriously for over 40 years now. If they’re seeking the truth of how to know God and go to heaven, I’d be glad to talk with them. But if their aim is to convert me to their errors, they’re wasting both their time and mine. Almost always, they say, “Thank you, have a good day,” and walk away.

So believers need to be on guard against false teachers. Also,

2. Even obedient Christians need to be on guard against false teachers (16:19).

Romans 16:19: “For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil.” Why does Paul begin this verse with “for,” which seems to be explaining the warning of verse 18? The sense seems to be that Paul rejoiced to hear about the obedience of the Roman believers to the gospel, but that obedience also made them a prime target for these false teachers. False teachers rarely make converts out of raw pagans. Rather, they go for unsuspecting Christians who lack discernment.

Paul also says, “I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil.” J. B. Phillips paraphrases it, “I want to see you experts in good, and not even beginners in evil.” Or, in Jesus words (Matt. 10:16, ESV), “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” In the context, “good” refers to sound doctrine in line with the gospel. “Evil” refers to the corrupt doctrine of the false teachers. While it’s helpful to have a basic knowledge of what the cults and other false religions teach so that you can avoid their errors and witness to them, it’s not edifying to study these errors in depth. Some who are targeting a particular false religious group may need to study their teachings more thoroughly. But our focus should be on being wise in the Scriptures. Knowing the truth will equip you to refute the errors of false teachers.

Paul concludes with a promise and a blessing:

3. Ultimately, it’s the God of peace and His grace that protect us from falling prey to false teachers (16:20).

Romans 16:20: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.”

A. The God of peace is able to crush Satan under our feet as we trust in Him.

This is Paul’s first mention of Satan in Romans. He is no doubt thinking of the first temptation in the garden, when the serpent deceived Eve. God promised that her seed (Christ) would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). The implication is that Satan is behind these false teachers who deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting, just as he deceived Eve. Note that in this context of spiritual warfare, where God will crush Satan, Paul calls Him “the God of peace.” He makes peace both between us and Him and peace between believers through the cross of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:14).

Satan was defeated at the cross (Col. 2:15). But until Christ returns the battle rages as the enemy seeks to deceive and devour Christians. We win the battles against him as we put on the full armor of God and resist his evil schemes (Eph. 6:10-20; 2 Cor. 2:11; James 4:7; Rev. 12:11). He will be finally defeated when Christ throws him into the lake of fire (1 Cor. 15:25; Rev. 20:10). While we should not ignore Satan and we should respect his cunning and power, we should not fear him. The Bible is clear that God will finally triumph and Satan will lose (1 John 4:4).

B. The grace of our Lord Jesus will protect us from the errors of false teachers as we walk closely with Him.

“Grace” takes us back to Romans 1:7: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace really is the theme of Romans because God’s grace is at the heart of the gospel. False teachers invariably subvert the grace of God, either by teaching salvation by works (legalism) or by promoting licentiousness. Knowing and experiencing God’s grace sustains us in the battle against the enemy. His grace motivates us to study His Word of truth, which protects us against the deceptive lies of false teachers.


J. C. Ryle was a champion for the truth in the Church of England during the 19th century. I’d recommend that you read him. In Warnings to the Churches ([Banner of Truth], p. 110), he wrote about how difficult yet necessary controversy in the church is. Then he added, “But there is one thing which is even worse than controversy, and that is false doctrine tolerated, allowed, and permitted without protest or molestation.”

After acknowledging that many would view what he writes as exceedingly distasteful, he states (p. 111), “Three things there are which men never ought to trifle with—a little poison, a little false doctrine, and a little sin.” Amen!

Application Questions

  1. Jesus told us not to judge others and yet a few verses later He said not to cast your pearls before swine and to beware of false prophets, both of which require judgments (Matt. 7:1-5, 6, 15). How do you reconcile these commands?
  2. Paul here gives at least four marks of false teachers (motivation, message, master, and methods). Can you think of others?
  3. When is it right and when is it wrong to discuss biblical truth with false teachers? What guidelines apply?
  4. How do we determine which doctrines are worth dividing over and which doctrines can be set aside for the sake of unity?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: False Teachers

From the series: Romans PREVIOUS PAGE

Lesson 108: The Goal of the Gospel: The Glory of God (Romans 16:25-27)

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How do you end a letter like Romans that has often been called the greatest letter ever written and the greatest book in the Bible? Normally, Paul ends his letters with a benediction, such as (1 Cor. 16:23), “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.” (See the end of each of his letters.) He has already given such a benediction in Romans 16:20 (16:24 is probably not in the original text). So now, as he thinks back over what he has written, Paul wells up with praise toward God, who has provided such a glorious gospel for people from all nations.

The problem is, in his burst of emotion, Paul piles up phrase after phrase and doesn’t supply a verb (in the original), so that the structure of the paragraph is difficult to decipher. I would not want the assignment of diagramming it! But many commentators observe that this short outburst of praise sums up all the great ideas of this epistle. William Sanday and Arthur Headlam (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T. & T. Clark], p. 436) state,

The doxology sums up all the great ideas of the Epistle. The power of the Gospel which St. Paul was commissioned to preach; the revelation in it of the eternal purpose of God; its contents, faith; its sphere, all the nations of the earth; its author, the one wise God, whose wisdom is thus vindicated—all these thoughts had been continually dwelt on.

They go on to suggest that Paul wished to end the letter with its former loftiness and thus perhaps wrote these verses with his own hand, bringing his argument to this eloquent conclusion.

We saw a similar outburst of praise in Romans 11:33-36, as Paul thought on the glorious truths that he had been writing on:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

We saw there as we see here that the goal of theology is doxology. The goal of sound doctrine is a heart that overflows in praise to God. Paul reminds us in this conclusion that the goal of the gospel is not only our happiness. Certainly, we should be exuberant that God has rescued us from judgment and bestowed on us every blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 1:3). But our happiness is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal of the gospel is God’s eternal glory. We can sum up our text:

The goal of the gospel is that we would glorify the only wise God through Jesus Christ as we live in obedient faith and proclaim Him to the nations.

As you know, the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” To glorify God, in simple language, is to make God look good as He truly is. J. Dwight Pentecost states (The Glory of God [Multnomah Press], p. 8), “Glory is displayed excellence.” Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology [Zondervan], p. 221) states that God’s glory “is the visible manifestation of the excellence of God’s character.” Robert Reymond (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith [Thomas Nelson Publishers], p. 165, italics his) puts it, “God’s glory is the sum total of all of his attributes as well as any one of his attributes.” John Piper (“To Him be the Glory Forevermore,” on DesiringGod.org, italics his) defines God’s glory as, “The glory of God is the infinite beauty and greatness of his manifold perfections.”

This concept, that the ultimate goal of the gospel is not about us, but rather about God’s glory, is a crucial and practical paradigm shift from the commonly held notion that the gospel is all about us. It affects, for example, our view of suffering. If the gospel is all about us and our happiness, then how do you deal with suffering and death, which aren’t happy experiences? But if the gospel is not ultimately about our happiness, but rather about God’s glory, then you can even face possible martyrdom as Paul did, with the goal that (Phil. 1:20) “Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”

Of course, as John Piper has often pointed out, our happiness and God’s glory are not at odds, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. And we are most satisfied in Him when we get a glimpse of His “infinite beauty and [the] greatness of His manifold perfections.” Just as when you view a spectacular sunset at the Grand Canyon, you exclaim, “Wow!” so when you see the beauty and greatness of God, you spontaneously praise Him. That’s the goal of the gospel.

Let’s break our text into three parts:

1. To glorify God, we need to be established according to the gospel and live in obedient faith.

In other words, we need to believe the gospel and our faith must translate into a lifestyle of obedience to Christ in thought, word, and deed, so that others will see how great God is through us. We’ll look at five aspects of being established in the gospel:

A. God has the power to establish us according to the gospel.

Romans 16:25a: “Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel….” The gospel is the good news that while we were yet sinners, God graciously sent His only Son to bear the penalty that we deserved. He rescues us from sin and judgment when we turn from our sins and trust in Christ alone. Paul calls it “my gospel” not because his gospel was different than the gospel of Christ and the apostles, but because Paul had received the gospel through direct revelation from Christ (Gal. 1:11-15). Thus he was certain of its content and truth. The other apostles later confirmed Paul’s gospel as authentic (Gal. 2:1-9).

He says that God is “able to establish you according to my gospel.” Other literal versions translate “establish” with the word “strengthen.” It originally meant to “fix something so that it stands upright and immovable” (Gunther Harder, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by G. Friedrich, trans. by Geoffrey Bromiley [Eerdmans], 7:653). “The effect or aim of strengthening is the impregnability of Christian faith in spite of the troubles which have to be endured” (ibid., 7:656). In view of Romans 16:17-20, it especially means being established so that you will not fall prey to false teachers (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], 2:240). C. E. B. Cranfield (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T. & T. Clark], p. 809) says that it means that God is able “to confirm you in your belief in, in your obedience to, the gospel.”

There are two sides to this strengthening or establishing us in the gospel. In Romans 1:11, Paul used this word to emphasize the human side of it: “For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established.” Through Paul’s ministry, he hoped that they would be established in the gospel. Peter uses the related noun (“steadfastness”) also to put the emphasis on human responsibility (2 Pet. 3:17-18): “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” Peter is emphasizing the same truth, that as we are steadfast or established in the gospel and resist the errors of false teachers, God will be glorified.

But in Romans 16:25, Paul’s emphasis is on the God-ward side of things: God is able to establish or strengthen us according to the gospel. As Paul puts it (Phil. 1:6), “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Since it took God’s resurrection power to raise us from spiritual death to life (Eph. 2:1-5), God is able to sustain and keep us so that our lives glorify Him.

Before you can be established according to the gospel you must have believed the gospel. Make sure that you have turned from your sins and trusted in Christ and His death on the cross as the only payment for your sins. This means repenting of trusting in your good works to contribute to your salvation. If you had anything to do with your salvation, then you have reason to boast in yourself. But there is no room for boasting if all you did was to receive an undeserved gift that God provided at Christ’s expense. Once you have trusted in Christ, you never outgrow your need for the gospel. Meditate on it and let it warm your heart every day: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”! Glory to God!

B. God establishes us through the preaching of Jesus Christ.

That phrase has two possible interpretations. It could mean that Christ is the one doing the preaching, either during His earthly ministry or through Paul. Or, more likely, it means that Jesus Christ is the one whom Paul preached. The gospel is the message about Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 1:23, Paul said, “But we preach Christ crucified.” In 2 Corinthians 4:5 he put it, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.” In Colossians 1:28 Paul explained his ministry: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.”

Preaching Jesus Christ does not mean focusing on Christ to the exclusion of practical matters. In 1 Corinthians, where Paul said (2:2), “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified,” he went on to talk about how to deal with an immoral man in the church, lawsuits between believers, singleness, marriage, divorce, and many other practical topics. But in each practical area, Paul always brought things back to Jesus Christ as Lord. He didn’t just dispense helpful hints for happy living that could easily have appeared in Reader’s Digest. He related all matters to the gospel and to the lordship of Christ.

By the way, you don’t have to be a preacher to “preach Christ.” You should preach Christ to yourself as you read God’s Word each day: “What does this text tell me about Jesus Christ and His lordship over my life? What does it tell me about His love, His grace, His authority, His holiness, or His promises?”

And if you get an opportunity to talk to others about the gospel, focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ. People will try to divert you onto side issues: “What about evolution? What about all the errors in the Bible? How can a loving God allow all the evil in the world?” Etc. I’m not suggesting that you totally dodge these questions, but don’t get bogged down with them. At some point, turn the conversation back to Christ by asking, “Who do you think Jesus Christ is? Have you ever read the gospels to discover who Christ claimed to be and why He came to this earth? Have you considered the evidence that supports His bodily resurrection from the dead?” You can also ask, “If I can give you a reasonable answer to your questions, are you saying that you will turn from your sin, put your trust in Jesus Christ, and follow Him as your Lord?” Jesus Christ is the issue everyone has to face!

C. God establishes us according to the revelation of the mystery that has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested.

This phrase could refer to another means by which God establishes us, parallel with, “according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ.” Or, it could be modifying those two phrases Murray, ibid., p. 2:241). If so, by “the mystery” Paul is referring to the gospel, which God planned before the foundation of the world.

In the New Testament, “mystery” does not refer to something mysterious or to a puzzle that needs to be solved, but rather to something previously hidden that is now revealed. The problem is, if Paul is referring here to the gospel, then how it was kept secret for long ages past? After all, we see it in type when the Lord slaughtered an animal and clothed Adam and Eve after they sinned. The Lord prophesied about the gospel in Genesis 3:15, where He promised that the seed of the woman would bruise or crush the serpent’s head. We again see it in promise when God tells Abraham that He will bless all the families of the earth through him. It’s implicit in the story of God providing the ram as a substitute sacrifice before Abraham has to slay Isaac. It’s pictured in the Jewish sacrificial system as set forth in the Law of Moses. So how was the gospel kept secret in long ages past?

There are perhaps two answers. First, even though we can now look back on these Old Testament texts and clearly see the gospel, it wasn’t always so clear to the people then. They knew that God promised to send a Savior, but even the disciples who believed in Jesus as that Savior did not understand beforehand why He had to die (Matt. 16:21-23). Concerning the inspired writers of the Old Testament, 1 Peter 1:10-11 states, “As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.” So in that sense, the gospel is “the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested.” We can see it much more clearly looking back than they could looking forward.

But Paul may be referring to a further aspect of the gospel here, namely, that the message would go out to the Gentiles and that they would be on equal standing with the Jews in the body of Christ. Paul has stressed this truth throughout Romans, especially in chapters 9-11. The Old Testament reveals in many places that the gospel would go to the Gentiles, so that was not a mystery. But the Old Testament never reveals that through the gospel the Gentiles would be fellow-heirs on equal footing with the Jews. God revealed this mystery to the apostle Paul (Eph. 3:4-6). That aspect of the gospel was often a stumbling block to the racially proud Jews. But it’s radically good news for the Gentiles. It strengthens and establishes us to know that God has given us equal standing with the Jews before Him through the gospel.

D. God establishes us by the Scriptures of the prophets.

This raises the question, “How could the gospel be kept secret in the ages past and at the same time be revealed by the Old Testament prophets?” The answer lies in the first aspect of the mystery that I just explained. There is a sense in which the gospel that we see clearly in the Old Testament on this side of Christ was in the shadows for those before Christ. It was in the prophets all along, but it didn’t come into sharp focus until after the death and resurrection of Jesus (Luke 24:25-27, 44-45).

The way that the Old Testament prophets establish us in the gospel is, as you read the Old Testament, look for Christ. Ask, “What does this text tell me about the sufferings of Christ and the glory to follow?” (You can refer back to my message, “Why You Need the Old Testament,” on Romans 15:4, for further detail.)

E. We know that God has established us in the gospel when we believe it and live in obedience to Jesus Christ.

The gospel leads to “obedience of faith.” We saw this phrase in Romans 1:5, where Paul said that his aim as an apostle was “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake.” Paul does not mean that we are saved by faith plus our works. That would be contrary to everything he wrote about the gospel in Romans 3 & 4. Rather, he means that genuine saving faith always results in a life of obedience to Jesus Christ. Jesus was clear that if we say, “Lord, Lord” and even do miracles in His name, but don’t obey Him, our faith is worthless (Matt. 7:21-23). James 2 makes the same point, that faith without works is dead faith, not saving faith. 1 John 2:3 plainly states, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” Those who profess to know Christ, but who live in perpetual disobedience, do not glorify Him. To glorify God, we must be established according to the gospel and live in obedient faith.

2. To glorify God, we must proclaim His gospel to the nations.

Paul writes (16:26b), “according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations….” Although some understand “the commandment” here to refer to the Great Commission, it probably rather refers to “God’s own determination to make known the mystery at the time that he did” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 940). For reasons that we cannot fully know, before Christ came, God mostly restricted the gospel to His chosen people, the Jews. But after His resurrection, Christ commanded us to take the good news to the nations. Even then, the apostles were a bit leery of Peter going into the house of a Gentile centurion and preaching the gospel (Acts 10-11). But then God saved the militant Jew, Paul, and commissioned him as the apostle to the Gentiles.

When Paul says that the gospel “has been made known to all the nations,” he is not saying that the missionary task has been completed. He has just stated how he aimed to go to Spain (15:24, 28). Rather, he is emphasizing “the universal applicability of the gospel” (Moo, ibid.). God is glorified when people from every tongue, tribe, and nation believe in and obey Jesus Christ. We all need to labor to that end.

3. The goal of the gospel is that we would glorify the only wise God through Jesus Christ forever.

Again Paul marvels at the wisdom of God, as he did in Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” When he says that God is “the only wise God,” he is not implying that there are some dumb gods out there, too! He is the only God and He is infinitely wise. His plan of salvation is not something that men could have thought up. It is not the composite of the best thoughts of all the religious geniuses down through the ages. We never could have come up with it on our own. Rather, God planned and revealed the gospel in accordance with His infinite wisdom to bring Him eternal glory through Jesus Christ.

Stephen Charnock discourses for over 100 pages on the wisdom of God from our text (The Existence and Attributes of God [Baker], 1:498-606). He observes (p. 502), “No man or angel could imagine how two natures so distant as the Divine and human should be united; how the same person should be criminal and righteous; how a just God should have a satisfaction, and sinful man a justification; how the sin should be punished, and the sinner saved.” God’s plan for the gospel reveals His infinite wisdom! Our eternal destiny is to worship and glorify God throughout the ages, so we had best start now.


Paul ends with “Amen,” which means, “This is true,” or “so be it.” The message of Romans regarding the gospel of God (1:1, 16) is true. It reveals the wisdom of God. You can stake your life and your eternal destiny on it. The goal of the gospel is that we would glorify the only wise God through Jesus Christ as we live in obedient faith and proclaim Him to the nations. Amen! So be it!

Application Questions

  1. What truth in Romans has most impacted your life? How?
  2. Do you live each day with the prayer, “Lord, be glorified in my life today”? If not, what would you need to do to begin?
  3. When you share the gospel, why is it important to stay focused on the person and work of Christ? How should you handle questions and objections?
  4. What are some of the practical benefits of “preaching Christ” to yourself each day?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Faith, Glory