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17. Reading Paul’s Mail (Romans 15)


One illicit method of learning something about the other person is to read their mail. Now I know that there are many times when we read Paul’s epistles that we suspect he has been reading our mail. But Romans 15 and 16 is one occasion in which the Spirit of God enables us to read Paul’s mail, and personally I’m excited about it.

You may be a bit surprised by this, having been inclined to think just the opposite. Bible students remind us that at verse 14 we have passed the teaching portion of the epistle and have come to a few personal concluding remarks. At the surface of the matter, we are inclined to agree with the commentators and settle back for a brief rest until we come to another epistle, supposing introductions and conclusions to be formalities, about as meaningless as our casual greetings: “Hi!” “How’s it going?” or “Good to see you.”

But this is not the case with this concluding section of the epistle to the Romans from the pen of the great apostle, Paul. Not at all! You see, we learn about as much about Paul from reading the body of his epistles as we do about the preacher from hearing his sermons. What we all want to know is, what is he really like? You learn about the preacher by inviting him to your house for dinner, or by visiting him in his home. You and I can learn what made the apostle Paul tick by looking closely into these ‘personal’ sections of his epistles. Here, as I have already said, we are truly reading Paul’s mail. Here we will learn much about how great Christian doctrine is applied to the realities of life. This is where the rubber meets the road.

In chapters 1-3a, Paul has demonstrated the need for a God-kind of righteousness. This is because all men are sinners who do not seek God, and who have rejected and revised whatever knowledge they had of Him. The righteousness which is acceptable to God (and which man cannot earn or merit) has been provided by God through the life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. This righteousness is appropriated by faith and not by works (Romans 3b-5). The new position of the Christian ‘in Christ’ demands a new kind of life, a life which cannot be lived in the power of the flesh (man’s natural abilities), but only through the provision of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6-8).

Somewhat parenthetical, but vital to the argument of Paul in this epistle, is an explanation for the failure of the Jews to come to salvation while religiously zealous, when the Gentiles are finding it, seemingly without even looking for it. Paul’s answer is that while Israel expected salvation by virtue of their ethnic origins and works, God grants salvation on the basis of mercy, not justice, and on the basis of faith, not works. Israel failed not only because God did not choose every Israelite, but because they did not choose Him. All of this was designed to bring salvation to the Gentiles, and by their conversion to provoke Israel to once again turn to their God (Romans 9-11).

In Romans 12:1 through 15:13 Paul deals with the Christian’s obligations to God and man in view of the divine mercy he has received. Our obligation to God is a sacrificial life of worshipful service. That service is to be manifested within the church by the exercise of our spiritual gift and within our human relations by the exercise of love (Romans 12). We are obligated to abide by the laws of the land and to live by the law of God (chapter 13). The law of love is exhibited toward our weaker brethren by allowing him to hold his own convictions on matters of Christian liberty, and by refraining from exercising any personal liberties which might occasion the stumbling of a less mature saint (chapter 14).

In the first 13 verses of chapter 15, Paul puts his finger on the central issue in the responsibility of the strong to the weak in the faith. He then gives three incentives for the strong Christian to give up his rights for the good of the weak. From verse 14 on, we are privileged to read Paul’s personal correspondence for great insight into that which makes a great man of God distinct from the ‘run of the mill’ Christian.

Final Words Concerning the Strong and the Weak

The Central Issue (vv. 1-2). Although 1 Corinthians was written to those who were obviously weak in their Christian faith, such is not the case in Romans, for here Paul speaks of himself and his readers as those who are ‘strong’: “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1).117

The central issue of these first two verses is that we must set ourselves upon pleasing our weaker brethren rather than ourselves. At the heart of the friction which exists between the strong and the weak is selfishness. Paul does not demand that the weak ‘shape up,’ but that the strong ‘put up’ with those who are less mature. More than this the strong must be willing to lay aside personal liberties which do not help the strong get stronger, but which do hinder the weak.

At the heart of the matter is the issue of self-discipline and self-denial. This is evident in the epistle of 1 Corinthians (cf. especially 9:24-27; 10:1-13). The only reason why a strong Christian would refuse to yield to the sensitive scruples of the weak is because he is bent upon his own satisfaction.

Now the surrender of our Christian liberties to the weaker brother is not necessarily unconditional. First of all, it is the surrender of Christian liberties, not of Christian liberty. That is, we are to surrender the use of our rights which cause a weaker brother to stumble, not to surrender the liberty we have from the Law to legalism which insists on salvation by faith plus works. Second, we are to endeavor to please our neighbor in that which is both for his good, and for his upbuilding or edification: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification” (Romans 15:2).

Just as a wise parent refuses to give in to every whim of their children, so the wise Christian refuses to surrender to every whim of the immature. Only when our surrender of liberties builds up the weaker brother and is for his ultimate good, do we give in to his weakness. Here, as in every area of Christian experience, there are no formulas for us to follow which tell us when to surrender and when to stand fast. It is a decision of faith for which we must ask divine wisdom.

Three Motivations for Christian Surrender

In verses 3-12, there are three specific motivations for the surrender of our personal liberties to our weaker brethren. In verse 3 there is the motivation we find in the example of our Lord. In verses 4-6 there is the motivation we receive in the exhortation of the Old Testament Scriptures. In verses 7-12 there is the motivation we find from the existence of a divine plan to save Gentiles as well as Jews.

(1) The example of Christ (v. 3). The first factor in Paul’s incentive program is a reminder of the example set by our Lord Jesus Christ.118 Our Lord did not choose to please Himself, that is, to satisfy fleshly appetites, but rather to suffer reproach and persecution of men in order to bless us with salvation. Most seem to emphasize the similarity of our situation with that of Christ. Thus, we are to choose to please others by our self-denial, just as the Lord Jesus Christ sought to please us by His self-denial.

Although this is certainly a valid emphasis, I would agree with Murray,119 that the emphasis here probably falls on the contrast inherent between our Lord’s self-denial and ours. Our Lord Jesus was willing to suffer the reproaches of dishonor toward God, reproaches totally unjust and unmerited. How can we even begin to compare the sacrifice of fleshly desires to that sacrifice of our Lord?

(2) The exhortation of the Old Testament Scriptures (vv. 4-6). Having just cited the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 69:9, Paul broadens his argument by insisting that it is precisely here where the value of the Old Testament Scriptures can be recognized.

That which we find in the Old Testament Scriptures is not without great importance in our own lives. It is not just a record of God’s dealings with men now long-departed, nor is it a reminder of the ‘long ago and the far away’; it is a great source of encouragement and hope: “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

How can the Scriptures produce hope? And even more perplexing, what relationship does hope have to the present matter of surrendering Christian liberties? First, we must begin by defining the word ‘hope.’ Webster says, in part, that hope is, “… desire accompanied by anticipation or expectation.”120 Biblically, we would want to be more exact than this. Christian hope is the assurance of realizing a goal, yet future, but which is certain because it is promised by God and will be accomplished by Him.121

This assurance of future blessing is absolutely vital to the subject at hand. Paul is exhorting the stronger brother to forsake the enjoyment of certain liberties for the present time because it may cause a weaker Christian to stumble. Hope is what makes the Christian so distinct from those of the ‘now generation’ who suppose they ‘only go around once’ and thus must ‘grab all the gusto they can get.’ Christians don’t have to ‘grab for gusto’ as the television commercial suggests because we don’t go around only once. The confidence of greater blessing in the future enables us to forsake the relatively insignificant pleasures afforded by our Christian liberties. Just as the athlete has his attention fixed on the winning of a wreath and so denies himself of present luxuries, so the Christian with his eye fixed on the hope before him says no to what hinders his brother’s spiritual growth (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

Hope, then, is essential in forsaking the pleasures of certain Christian liberties in the present. But how does the Old Testament help to produce hope? Chapter after chapter of the Old Testament Scriptures remind us of the great men of faith who, because of the hope set before them, denied earthly pleasures in order to experience the hope promised by God.

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen (Hebrews 11:24-27).

It is little wonder that the little word hope is so frequently employed in this chapter. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). Hope fastens our attention on future blessings far greater than the passing pleasures of this age, and the Old Testament Scriptures rivet our attention on Christian hope.

With this assurance the apostle shifts from the exhortation of verse 4 to petition in prayer in verses 5-6. He prays that the God Who is the source of perseverance and encouragement would glorify Himself by the united praise brought forth as it were by one mouth, the united praise of the strong and the weak.

(3) The existence of a people of God from among the Jews and the Gentiles (vv. 7-12). In verse 7 we are brought back to the central theme introduced in chapter 14, the acceptance of one another by the strong and the weak. “Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). The acceptance of individuals within the body of Christ should be no more exclusive than God’s acceptance of those who are His people. It is my personal ‘intuition’ (and no more than this!) that the real source of friction within the church at Rome had to do with differences which arose between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile believers. If there is any truth in this it would probably mean that the Gentiles tended to be the strong Christians (without any of the Jewish scruples about certain days or certain foods) while the weak, would be the Jews. Spiritual pride would then be mixed with racial pride and create a potential rift in Christian unity.

When Paul emphasizes the salvation of the Gentiles, in verses 8-12, he does so with a distinct purpose in mind. By reminding the ‘strong’ Gentile believers that God has chosen to save Gentiles he prompts a heart-felt sense of gratitude. But when Paul reminds these Gentiles that God’s primary purpose in history is to save Israel, he calls forth an attitude of humility. If the Gentiles wish to be proud of their being stronger than their weaker Jewish brethren let them remember that God’s primary interest has been in keeping His promises to the Jews. God has purposed that Jews and Gentiles rejoice in unison, so let them do so. “And again he says, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people’” (Romans 15:10).

Paul concludes this section with another prayer, a prayer for hope, for joy, for peace, from God through the Holy Spirit. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

A Look Into the Life of Paul

Paul’s instructional task is completed with verse 13, but in the final half of chapter 15 we come to a much more intimate side of the apostle for here we get a personal look at Paul the missionary. In verses 14-21, we learn Paul’s philosophy of ministry. In verses 22-29 we read of Paul’s plans for ministry. In verses 30-33 we conclude with Paul’s petition for prayer for his ministry.

Paul’s Philosophy of Ministry (vv. 14-21)

(1) Paul’s evaluation of the Roman’s maturity (vv. 14-15). The Roman saints were much different from those in Corinth, for Paul has no words of rebuke for them, but a sincere commendation: “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” (Romans 15:14). These Christians were mature and well-equipped for ministry. They were qualified to counsel and admonish one another.

Paul did not write to them because there was much revelation of which they were ignorant, but because they, like ourselves, were inclined to forget those truths so essential to practical Christian living. There is a real lesson here for many of us who are forever desiring to be taught some new truth, when God is concerned with our application of what we have previously learned.

(2) Paul’s evaluation of his own ministry (vv. 16-21). One of the things which Paul finds necessary to remind the Romans about is his own ministry and apostleship. His calling was to be a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. Just as Paul had exhorted each of us to present ourselves to God as a sacrificial act of worship, so Paul sees his ministry as a priestly ministry, first of all offering himself to God in service, and then offering up the Gentiles (verse 16).

Paul was a man who knew how to handle success. There was much in his ministry of which to boast. Many Christian leaders today find much to boast about, but Paul’s boasting is of another kind. Paul knows that success is the result of divine grace. His ministry was marked by divine grace. He was accredited as an apostle by signs and wonders and miracles (v. 19), but this was the work of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s ministry was characterized not by power alone, but also by great vision. Who of us could claim to have fully preached the gospel, even as far as Illyricum (our modern day nation of Yugoslavia). Paul’s vision was to be a pioneer, not to build upon other men’s foundations, but to blaze trails with the gospel of Jesus Christ. “And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, that I might not build upon another man’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).

In doing this, Paul saw himself fulfilling that which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet: “They who had no news of Him shall see, And they who have not heard shall understand” (Romans 15:21; Isaiah 52:15).

Paul’s Plans for the Future (vv. 22-29)

The greatness of the apostle Paul can be seen by his burning zeal. He is not content to ‘rest on his laurels,’ but now desires to go to the west, to Spain, with the gospel. Paul could not be true to his philosophy of ministry and visit Rome while parts of his world were left unevangelized. But now that there was no region untouched with the gospel (v. 23), he could look to Spain, and on his way, he could visit the saints in Rome.

There was yet one task remaining which would keep Paul from Rome. Early in his ministry Paul had been exhorted by Peter, James and John to remember the poor (Galatians 2:10). The saints in Macedonia and Achaia, sensing their obligation to minister materially to those who had sent the gospel to them, delighted to make a generous contribution to those in Jerusalem and to send it with Paul (v. 26). As soon as this task was accomplished Paul would set out for Rome and then be sent on122 to Spain.

Paul’s Petition for Prayer (vv. 30-33)

We would naturally be inclined to suppose that the greatness of Paul’s ministry could be deducted from what we have already read. That is, Paul’s greatness was the result of the Holy Spirit’s dynamic manifestation through the apostle and also of the breadth and intensity of Paul’s missionary vision. But there is one additional factor which provides, to a great extent, the key to Paul’s success as a missionary statesman. That key is found in verses 30-33.

Paul is thoroughly convinced that his ministry would be a complete failure without prevailing prayer, and not just his own petitions, but those of the saints in various churches on his behalf. “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” (Romans 15:30).

These prayers were to be specific and directed toward Paul’s particular situation. He was well aware of the dangers ahead in Jerusalem, and especially of the strength of his Jewish opponents. Paul asks not only to be delivered from his opposition, but also to be effective in ministering to the saints (v. 31). If God spares Paul from the enemy and gives him a fruitful ministry among the saints he will arrive in Rome in joy, eagerly anticipating a refreshing stay with them (v. 32).

Conclusion and Applications

One final word on the strong and the weak. The attitude of the strong Christian is to be that of our Lord Jesus Christ, a willingness to set aside personal pleasure for the spiritual well-being of the weak. But our duty of Christian love is to avoid only what will cause one to stumble and to practice that which will edify and build up the weaker brother in the faith. We are not to treat the weaker Christian like a spoiled willful brat but as a weaker brother.

The Making of a Godly Ministry

I would like the thrust of our concentration to be upon those characteristics of Paul’s ministry which, humanly speaking, made him the man of God that he was, and his ministry the history-making effort the New Testament informs us it was.

(1) Paul had a ministry based upon biblical principles. It was a ministry that was biblically motivated. Paul viewed himself, as we all should do, as a priestly minister offering up his own life in service to God and offering up as well those whose lives he touched with the gospel as a sacrifice of praise to God (v. 16).

Furthermore, his was a ministry based upon biblical methodology. Over and over again today, I am faced by those in the ministry who are basing their ministry on pragmatism rather than on biblical principles. Paul had a biblical perspective of ministry. He knew that his ministry, as all things, was of God, through God, and unto God (Romans 11:36). His ministry was not of his own choosing—he was appointed as such by divine calling (vv. 15, 16). His ministry was through God, that is, it was carried out by the enabling power of God, by signs and wonders and the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 19). It was a ministry that was unto the praise of God. Paul did not boast in what he had done, but in what God had accomplished through him. The theme of Paul’s ministry was, to God be the glory.

(2) Because Paul’s ministry was a biblical one, it was also a balanced ministry. Paul ministered to both the Jews and the Gentiles. He ministered to both the strong and the weak. He ministered not only to the lost, but to the saved. He ministered not only to the spiritual needs of men, but to their material needs.

I must comment here that there is a great need for balance today in the matter of spiritual and material needs. Some today are telling us we should only seek to save the lost, while others, in seeking to tip the scales to a more even position, minister more to material needs. A biblical ministry will not exclude either ‘material’ or ‘spiritual’ ministry at the expense of the other.123 This is not illustrated only by Paul and the apostles, but also in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(3) These verses reflect Paul’s philosophy of ministry. The apostle purposed to preach the gospel where it had not yet been proclaimed. He did not criticize others who did so, but he had the spirit of a pioneer. He was a trailblazer.

(4) Paul’s ministry was one of priorities. Not only did Paul have biblical principles and his own personal philosophy of ministry—he also had priorities. He would not go to Rome or to Spain until he had fully preached the gospel in the regions in his priority target area. When his heart tugged toward Rome and Spain, he would not go until he had delivered the gift of the Macedonians and the Achaians to Jerusalem.

(5) Paul’s ministry incorporated planning. Principles and priorities are of little value without a plan. And yet so many Christians today seem to equate the ‘leading of the Spirit’ with spontaneity. They feel that spiritual Christians must always ‘fly by the seat of their pants.’ Not so with the apostle Paul. He was a man with very definite plans. Now I must hasten to add that Paul’s plans were flexible and subject to change. Paul may or may not have reached Spain. Paul did not reach Rome as he had expected. It is not wrong to plan; it is wrong to be presumptuous about the future (cf. James 4:13ff.).

(6) Paul’s ministry was undergirded with prayer. No one believed in the sovereignty of God more than Paul, but Paul was also a fervent believer in human responsibility. It was God Who saved the elect and hardened the rest (Romans 9:15, 18, 22-23), but no one would be saved apart from hearing the gospel (Romans 10:14-15). So God’s eternal decree has long ago been determined, but God has ordained that His purposes should be achieved through human responsibility, and one such obligation is that of prayer.

Paul was a great man of prayer himself, but he coveted the prayers of the saints on his behalf. My friend, if the apostle Paul needed the prayers of the saints, we need them more today. Not only should you be praying for your own needs and the needs of those who minister at home and abroad, you also need the prayers of your fellow saints.

Here then are some earmarks of a successful ministry. It should be based upon biblical principles. It should be based upon a personal philosophy and guided by priorities. It should include planning and prayer. Most of all it must be dependent upon divine grace. May God enable each of us to minister in this way.

117 Cf. also Romans 15:14 where Paul compliments his readers on their progress in the faith.

118 Cf. also the parallel reminder in Philippians 2:1-8, esp. vv. 5-8.

119 “The frequency with which this Psalm is alluded to in the New Testament and its details represented as fulfilled in Christ marks it as distinctly messianic. The part quoted must be understood in the Light of what immediately precedes in the Psalm: “the zeal of thy house hath eaten me up.” It is not our reproaches that are in view but the reproaches of dishonour leveled against God. These reproaches vented against God by the ungodly fell upon Christ. This is to say that all the enmity of men against God was directed to Christ; he was the victim of this assault. It is to this Paul appeals as exemplifying the assertion that Christ “pleased not himself.” We may well ask then: how does this feature of our Lord’s humiliation bear upon the duty of pleasing our neighbor in the situation which Paul has in view? It is the apparent dissimilarity that points up the force of Jesus’ example. There is a profound discrepancy between what Christ did and what the strong are urged to do. He “pleased not himself” to the incomparable extent of bearing the enmity of men against God and he bore this reproach because he was jealous for God’s honour. He did not by flinching evade any of the stroke. Shall we, the strong, insist on pleasing ourselves in the matter of food and drink to the detriment of God’s saints and the edification of Christ’s body? It is the complete contrast between Christ’s situation and ours that enhances the force of the appeal.” John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), II, pp. 198-199.

120 Webster’s New World Dictionary College Edition (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1957), p. 699.

121 “(c) NT hope is a patient, disciplined, confident waiting for and expectation of the Lord as our Saviour. To hope is to be set in motion by the goal ahead, awaiting in this movement towards the goal. It demonstrates its living character by the steadfastness with which it waits, … by the patient bearing of the tension between the now, as we walk (for the moment) …, by … faith (2 Cor. 5:7), and our future manner of life (cf. Rom. 8:25; 1 Thess. 1:3). This waiting is something active, for it involves overcoming. Although the waiting may be painful, this too is reckoned positively as “travail” which announces “rebirth” (Matt. 24:8). Therefore those who hope are comforted and confident (2 Cor. 5:8; 2 Thess. 2:16; 1 Thess. 4:18). Hoping is disciplined waiting. Therefore, in 1 Pet. 1:13 the warning, “set your hope fully upon the grace …,” is preceded by “gird up your minds,” i.e. be ready for the onslaught. To this context belongs the fundamental renunciation of all calculations of the future, the humble recognition of the limits set to our knowledge, the submission of our wishes to the demands of the battle for life to which we have been appointed. The goal of our hope calls us to “watch and pray.” The man who competes for an earthly … crown makes the necessary sacrifices (1 Cor. 9:25). Hope becomes the motive for personal purity (1 Jn. 3:3), spurs us on to strive for holiness (Heb. 12:14) without which no man can see God. Filled with the longing to return home to his Lord, the apostle seeks his glory in pleasing him (2 Cor. 5:8f.). Hope requires us to hold fast our confession of it without wavering (Heb. 10:23) and to be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks us to give an account of our hope (1 Pet. 3:15). Finally, however, NT hope is a joyful waiting (Rom. 12:12) … It gives courage and strength. It protects the inner man as a helmet protects the head (1 Thess. 5:8). As a ship is safe when at anchor, our life is secured by hope which binds us to Christ, our great High Priest who has entered the sanctuary (Heb. 6:18f.).” E. Hoffman, “Hope,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, General Editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), II, pp. 243-244.

122 “This phrase, ‘brought on the way,’ or sent forward, refers to a semi-official custom of the apostolic churches in furnishing an escort to go some or all the way with a departing minister or missionary. Paul is here most likely asking that one or more of the Roman brethren be sent with him to Spain. (See Acts 15:3; 20:38; 21:5; I Cor. 16:6, 11; II Cor. 1:16; Titus 3:13; III John 6.) The original word is technical and is used only in reference to this custom.” James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), pp. 239-240.

123 To be biblically accurate, it is wrong to distinguish between ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ needs. Why would the ‘deacons’ of Acts chapter 6 have to be such highly qualified men spiritually (cf. v. 3) if their ministry to the widows was just ‘material’?

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