57. Romans 15:23-33
Paul continues with his closing remarks to the Romans by leading into discussing his desire to visit them by saying there is nothing left for him to do in the region of the eastern Mediterranean. This statement grows out of his commitment, stated in verse 20, to “preach the gospel where Christ is not known,” so he “would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” Paul has completed his evangelism in the “unentered territory” in the region of Achai, and he is finally ready to expand his evangelism to Spain and Rome.
Paul has been longing to visit Rome, but it was not God’s will that he go yet. I says he planned many times to go to Rome, but he had “been prevented so far” (Romans 1:9-15). After he is sure the Gentiles in the eastern Mediterranean have been evangelized and have “received this fruit”, or their new life in the gospel, he will go to Spain and stop at Rome on the way (Romans 15:28-29). He is confident that if he visits Rome, they will support him in his planned work in Spain.
Acts 19:11-21 records the miracles and struggles Paul endured at Ephesus. The “word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power,” Luke reports, and after his time in Ephesus he decided to go through Jerusalem and then go on to Rome.
Paul tells the Romans that he longs to see them so they can strengthen each other mutually in the faith. He says he is under obligation to preach the gospel to all classes of Gentiles, and he is eager to preach to the Romans so he can have a harvest among them as he has “among the rest of the Gentiles” (Romans 1:14-15).
Service to the Saints
Before Paul goes to Rome, however, he has to go to Jerusalem “in the service of the saints.” He states that the churches in Macedonia and Achaia have taken up a collection for the church in Jerusalem, and Paul is committed to delivering these gifts.
We first learn of the story behind these gifts in Acts 11:28-30. Agabus, a man with a prophetic gift, predicted “through the Spirit” that a severe famine would spread over the Roman world. After Agabus delivered his prophecy, the disciples all agree that they would provide financial help for their brothers in Judea.
In 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 we read a little of the back story of how the early church rose to help the church in Jerusalem during this famine. Paul is urging the Corinthian church to finish collecting the offerings they have promised to give to the church in Jerusalem. A year before they had said they would give an offering, but they had never actually taken up the collection.
Paul is firm with the Corinthians who are immature and have many internal discipline problems. He tells then that the poverty-stricken Macedonians have eagerly, “out of the most severe trial…pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.”
The Paul tells the secret of the Macedonians’ astonishing generosity: “they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.”
Paul then tells the Corinthians that he is sending Titus to them to collect their part of the gift, and he admonishes them to remember that the Lord Jesus gave up His riches for their sakes. H further reminds them that, the year before, they had been the first to say they’d give to the church in Jerusalem, but now, a year later, they had not completed their collection—and the Macedonians had exceeded all expectations with their commitment to God and their generosity which far surpassed their poverty.
Paul further tells them that the goal of giving is not so the giver will suffer while the receiver will flourish. Rather, the goal is quality. If those who have money help those who have not, then the receivers will be able to help the givers when they are in need.
Paul continues his admonition into 2 Corinthians 9 and ends with the reminder that gifts are to be generous, not grudging.
The conclusion of Paul’s serving the saints in Jerusalem is found in Acts 24:17 where he tells his story and says that after an absence from Jerusalem of several years, he came to Jerusalem to bring his people (the Jewish believers) offerings and gifts for the poor.
Paul did not hesitate to speak plainly to believers who were not participating in giving when there was a need. Providing for the poor when there are extenuating circumstances, especially in the church, is a foremost responsibility of Christ-followers. As the body of Christ, all believers are connected by the Holy Spirit, and we are obligated to care for one another. In spite of his own hardship and weariness and commission to preach, Paul made this gift to Jerusalem a matter of prime importance.
Our personal concerns, as Christ-followers, including our actual work, are secondary to administering God’s care to His children as He directs.
Paul is the one who, in Galatians 3:28-29 and also Colossians 3:9-13 said that in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. In Christ all are Abraham’s seed and
heirs according to the promise.”
Yet Paul is making a distinction in Romans 15 between the Jewish believers and the Gentile ones. Moreover, he is stating that because the Gentile believers have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they “owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.”
There are two “tracks” to what Paul is saying. The first one addresses the issue of supporting those who “direct the affairs of the church…especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17-18). The second “track” addresses the issue of believers’ respective “Jewishness” or Gentile ethnicity.
When Paul writes to Timothy shortly before Paul’s death, he instructs Timothy how to “run” the church. He gives him directions for selecting elders and deacons, for dispersing assistance to the needy—especially the widows, for cutting off false teachers and countering doctrines of demons. In this letter he also addresses the matter of supporting those who preach, teach, and run the church. “The worker deserves his wages,” he writes (1 Tim. 5:17-18).
Related to the issue of how the church is run—and also related to the declaration that there is no Jew or Greek in Christ—is the issue of internal harmony among the members. The church at Corinth was unruly and was filled with factions and divided loyalties among the followers of various teachers. In 1 Corinthians 1:9-11 he pleads with them, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.”
Of first importance is the matter of the body working together and supporting one another. If members are fighting and divided, the issues of support and spiritual legacy are eclipsed. As individual members of Christ’s body, we are obligated first of all to submit to our Head, the Lord Jesus, and secondly to honor one another, considering one another better than ourselves.
With this in mind, part of the functioning of a supportive body includes caring for those whose work is to teach and preach the word of God to the people. While all are one in Christ and no one is more important than another, all have different gifts appointed by God for the service of the church. We are to honor and care for each person and respect his or her gifting and calling. Similarly, we are to understand how God has worked historically to bring salvation to us.
Paul’s statement that the Jews deserve the material blessings of the Gentiles springs from the historical revelation that salvation is from the Jews, as Jesus told the woman at the well in John 4:22-23. Paul addressed this fact in Romans 11:28-29: “As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”
In spite of the fact that there is no racial or social distinction among members of the body of Christ, nevertheless each member of the body retains his or her social position and his ethnic heritage when he is grafted into Christ. These things are part of our identities, and history records that God revealed His purposes for saving man through His revelation to the Jews. Paul is making it clear that God’s call of and revelation through the Jews is unique in history, and even the unity of the church does not negate the historical facts of God’s promises and purposes.
Because Gentiles received the full status of Abraham’s children through the Jewish Seed of Jesus, and because the Jews were chosen to hold and reveal God’s salvific intentions through their law, we Gentiles are to praise God for His preservation of the Jews and for His free salvation which He gave us as a result of His preserving the Jews. Just as they were the lineage through which God rescued the whole world, now the Gentiles were God’s means of rescuing the Jewish believers from the suffering of famine.
Striving in prayer
Paul ends this section of his letter by pleading with the believers in Rome to join in his struggle by praying to God for him, (NIV) or to strive with him in their prayers so that he can be rescued from the disobedient—unbelievers—in Jerusalem.
Paul is living in the hardship that God revealed to him at the beginning of his ministry. When Saul was in Damascus, blind and waiting for God to act, God spoke to Ananias, telling him to pray for Saul because he was His chosen instrument to preach to the Gentiles and to kings and to the sons of Israel, “for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).
As Paul’s ministry continued, this suffering was always evident. He wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians about his struggle for survival: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many” (2 Cor 1:8-11).
Paul admits that he felt he would die. The despair and difficulty he experiences was “beyond [his] ability to bear”. It was so difficult that he had no means of managing it except to rely on God. He had to surrender his ability to problem solve and plan; he had to trust in God who could raise the dead. He knew that if God delivered him from his troubles, it would be a deliverance that was as much of a miracle as raising a dead person. His own deliverance would be a miracle of life that could only be accomplished by God Himself.
This passage emphasizes the significance and importance of our prayers for each other: “On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” Paul states here that the prayers of the believers helped him. Moreover, he shows that the ultimate purpose of our helping others by our prayers is the end result of people recognizing God’s hand at work and giving Him the glory and praise.
We are not told how our prayers work; we are told that they help each other, and we are commanded to pray,
In Colossians 4:12 Paul sends greetings to the church from Epaphras, who was originally from Colossae. Epaphras, Paul says, “is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand fir in all the will of god, mature and fully assured.” Here we see more specifically how we are to pray for one another. We are to pray for the spiritual strength and growth of each other, praying for God to keep the other strong and to firm in God’s will.
This is a prayer that we can always know is God’s will to pray. The words of Scripture tell us how Epaphras prayed for his fellow Colossians; this is also a prayer we can pray for each other: that God will keep our leaders and loved ones firm in the will of God, that He will make them mature and fully assured in truth and reality and the knowledge and strength of God.
At the end of Paul’s list of the armor of God in Ephesians 6 is an interesting command. It’s especially interesting because the passage about putting on the armor of God involves the way we protect ourselves with truth and righteousness salvation and faith and the word of God. Most of the armor is defensive rather than offensive. The word of God is the only offensive piece in the collection. Then, right after instructing the believer to put on the all the armor of God, Paul gives a command for action: “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”
He doesn’t stop there: “With this in mind,” he says, “be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” (Eph 6:18-20).
Paul combines the command to pray with the command always to be alert. He asks the Ephesians to pray for all the saints, and he specifically asks that God will give him words to declare the gospel fearlessly as he should.
Again we see that Paul asks believers to pray for one another and to specifically pray for him—and for all who speak the gospel—to be fearless, declaring is clearly. He asks that they pray that whenever he opens his mouth, he will be given God’s own words to speak the gospel clearly.
In this passage in Romans, Paul acknowledges that he is going into danger. He asks that the believers pray for him to be rescued from the unbelievers, or the disobedient, who are in Judea. Acts 20:22-24 gives us the background to this particular request.
Luke records that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Paul that “bonds and afflictions await him” in Jerusalem. He didn’t know exactly what would happen, but God had revealed that he would be captured. Paul knew he was moving into opposition and hardship, and he was pleading with the Romans to pray for him, knowing that their prayers for his strength and firmness in God’s will and fearlessness in proclaiming the gospel would help him.
Before he left for Jerusalem from Miletus, Agabus the prophet came to him and symbolically took Paul’s own belt and tied his hands and feet with it. He said to Paul, “The Holy Spirit says, 'In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles’” (Acts 21:11-13).
Paul knew he was walking into capture and bondage at the hands of unbelievers, and he was asking for prayer that he would be rescued from their persecution.
The intensity of this passage in Romans 15 emphasizes the fact that our prayers make a difference. It is not prayer itself that is powerful, however; the power is God. In ways we are not told, our prayers make a difference in the unseen spiritual realm. As members of the body of Christ, we must care for one another and support one another by our prayers.
Prayer for one another is something we can know how to do. We never have to wonder if we are praying God’s will when we pray the prayers in the Bible. We must give thanks in all things. We pray on all occasions with all kinds of requests; we pray for one another to be firm and strong in God’s will, to be fearless in proclaiming the gospel; to be delivered from the attacks and snares of unbelievers. We pray for their maturity and assurance.
Overall, Paul is asking us to “strive” in prayer. We are not to be casual about it; we are to offer our fellow believers to God and ask for Him to give them His mind, to plant them in truth and reality, to reveal Himself to them; to protect them; to glorify Himself through them; to help them bear fruit that will last and never to waver in their faith. Our prayers make a difference. God only knows “how” it works, but we are commanded to pray.
We can ask God to bring to our minds the people for whom we must pray, and we can know that when we have an impression to pray, we should do so.
If it is God’s will
Paul ends this passage of his letter by asking the Roman believers to pray for him so he will be rescued from unbelievers in Jerusalem “so that by God’s will [he] may come to [them] with joy and together with you be refreshed.”
Most of us were taught to pray “If it be They will” or “according to They will, Amen.” For some of us, this phrase was an add-on when we were praying for something we really wanted. On the one hand, this phrase was part of a “formula” for correct prayer that would help ensure one’s prayers would be answered. On the other hand, it often was a niggling sword-point that was like a warning or a threat that God might not answer—because He just might or might not really care how I feel.
From a born-again Christ-follower’s experience, what does it really mean to say, “If it is God’s will”? Is this just a phrase that reminds us God is in charge, or is there something more involved?
James states one of the Bible’s classic demonstrations of how to pray: “Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”
In this passage James equates making plans and announcing them with boasting and bragging. He tries to bring perspective to the situation by reminding his readers that their lives on earth are temporary; they are here—but when they least expect it, they vanish. This mortal life, he tells them is transient.
James is not attempting to shame his readers with realizing they are worthless and of no account. Rather, he is redirecting them to a biblical worldview. These new Christians with an orthodox Jewish background are just figuring out how to live in the new covenant as born-again members of Christ’s body. James is telling them that God is sovereign. Their lives are not for their own benefit or advancement or even enjoyment; their lives are for God’s glory. The length of their own lives is something they cannot foresee or control; the events of their lives are not even ultimately only their own decisions.
James is asking his readers to realize that they must surrender their own dreams and even their very good ideas to God. God, he is telling them, is the One who ultimately ordains our steps. James is not saying that people should not make plans; rather, he is telling them that every idea and plan they have is part of what they must submit to God.
God does give us the ability to make plans and have ideas that glorify Him, but these things only come about in the context of our submission to Him. It is not only our beliefs that God asks us to submit; He asks us to submit the most personal expressions of ourselves to Him. Even our own talents, which are from God, we must offer to Him in surrender. All we are, including our really good ideas for God, we must submit to Him.
Ultimately, God asks us to give up our rights to be in charge of our own outcomes. He does not ask us to be fatalistic or passive; rather He asks us to own our ideas and plans and to willingly offer them to Him for His glory and facilitation. We have to be willing to hold our plans loosely, deferring to God’s sovereign love and perfect knowledge.
When we give our plans to God, we are not sublimating them or stuffing our feelings. We are not trying to repress or kill our emotions or feelings. Instead, God asks us to be fully engaged, knowing and feeling and thinking, but to surrender our most personal desires and expressions to Him. We have to be willing to know and have Jesus even if it means we lose the ideas or dreams we love.
God doesn’t ask us to give up ourselves just for the discipline of self-denial. God asks us to trust Him, to trust Him enough that, if our ideas are not His idea, we are willing to let them go and receive His will instead. He asks us to surrender our attachment to ourselves and to see ourselves as part of His story instead of seeing Him as part of our story.
God does not leave us empty. When we surrender our ideas and plans and problem-solving to Him, He fills us with His presence and power and peace, and we learn to lean on Him even when the physical reality around us doesn’t look hopeful. The Lord Jesus and our eternal life is more real and permanent than is the mortal life we have on this sin-bound world. He asks us to trust Him who is beyond mortal time and creation. When we trust Him, we can hold our dreams and plans loosely, because He will bring us along with His plans and His work. He will give us His work to do, and it will far exceed our desires and hopes for ourselves. But we have to be willing to hold our own plans loosely.
James ends this passage by saying that trumpeting our plans is a form of boasting, and he is blunt enough to say this boasting is evil. Again, the idea is not that we never let people know what is about to happen; the idea is that we submit the plans to God, acknowledging that even though our plans may be good, we defer to God’s sovereign act, from beginning to end. We tell people the plans that are made with the admission that we are trusting Him, not merely focusing on carrying out our plans.
Then, to close this thought, James reiterates his admonition once more in an even more pointed way: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” In other words, given the context of this passage, James is saying that when we know that our days and plans are directed by God yet fail to defer to Him, making plans and informing people of them without acknowledging that we surrender them to God, we sin. We are never to claim “credit” for the things we do. Our lives and breath are His, and God is the One who gives us His work to do and brings it to us at just the right time. He is the one who gives us His ideas, and we are not to take credit for what is actually God’s provision for us.
In Acts 18:19-21 Paul left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus. They didn’t want to see him go, and they asked him to spend longer with them. He declined to stay, but he said as he left, “I will come back if it is God’s will.”
Paul was neither dismissing them nor being fatalistic. He was telling his friends that he loved them and would plan to come back, but he surrendered the whole issue to God. He knew that God’s glory and God’s will transcended physical visits with dear friends. Those are definitely gifts from God, but in the big picture, God knows we have eternity with each other. Our “job” is to acknowledge that in the time God gives us on earth, what He asks us to do to bear fruit for His kingdom may trump our own desires at the present time.
God is not a God of subtraction. He is a God who calls us to Himself, to an eternal viewpoint that sees this mortal reality as it really is: transient. Yet we ourselves are not transient. Our physical lives are, but we are not. What comes after we die is very much better than what we have here (Phil 1:22-23). God asks us to trust Him and to lean on Him. He gives us in this life His own love and security, and He gives us one another in the body of Christ for this purpose. We can trust Him with the details of “when” and “how”.
Paul demonstrated the same submission when he wrote to the Romans (Rom 1:9-10) and to the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:18-19 and 16:6-7). In the first text, Paul is taking the church to task for the arrogance of some of the members. He actually says they’re being arrogant as if he’s not coming—in other words, as if they’ll never be held accountable for what they’re doing. Paul then points out that he is going to go see them—if the Lord wills—and will see exactly how powerful their arrogance is. Again, the point is that Paul is submitting his visit and his desire to see them to God. He’s not trying to “kill” his plans and desire; he’s merely submitting it so that his identity and emotion aren’t invested primarily in his plans but in the Lord Jesus who will bring His will to pass.
In the second passage, Paul tells the Corinthians he wants to spend some time with them, not merely make a passing visit. But again, he acknowledges that this will happen “if the Lord permits”.
Hebrews 6:1-3 has an interesting acknowledgement of God’s leading. The author is not speaking here of personal plans or travel but of helping his readers move from spiritual immaturity to spiritual maturity. He asks them to leave behind “the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity.” He tells them he doesn’t want to lay the foundation again but move onward to mature Christian understanding and living. The author is pleading with his readers to take their spiritual situation seriously. He’s asking them to be willing to grow and deepen, to stop floating through life a superficial Christians. Such growth is only possible as a person takes seriously his commitment to truth and the word of God, studying and praying and being internally receptive and vulnerable to God’s spirit, letting God change him and teach him and reveal reality to Him through His word and through surrender of his own life and decisions.
This writer is not even making a personally emphatic statement about making sure these people grow, but he is submitting even his concern for them to God, saying that if God permits, he and they will move toward maturity, not getting stuck at the elementary teachings of truth. Even one’s own spiritual growth and one’s responsibility to others must be surrendered to God. It is only in surrender that we learn to trust God and learn what is actually true. Unless we surrender to God’s will, we will keep acting according to our natural perception. God’s intention for us is to understand our lives with the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).
Surrender is the only “soil” in which trust and faith will grow.
Peter gives the same advice in his own words in 1 Peter 3:15-17: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.”
Peter advises believers to be respectful and gentle and to keep a clear conscience so those who speak against them maliciously will be ashamed of their slander. Peter states it as a given that believers will be slandered—but we are never to descend to the level of their attacks. We are to stay respectful and gentle.
Then Peter adds, “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” It is also a given that believers will suffer for the sake of Jesus. Peter adds “if it is God’s will” to say that God is the one who determines who will suffer. He does not ask all His children to endure the same things, but He does ask all His children to surrender their lives and decisions and dreams to Him.
He asks all of us to submit to His will, giving up our control and our desire to manage our lives and plans to Him. He promises to give us the mind of Christ, and He takes responsibility for our provision and well being. We will find great peace as we surrender our need to control and orchestrate the events of our lives, instead yielding to our Father who will show us how to proceed.
God is calling us to a deeper surrender and to a life of trust and prayer. He asks us to be grateful for His salvation and to trust Him for the details of our lives. God is asking us to strive in prayer with our brothers and sisters, and He is asking us to strive in prayer for our own involvement in ministry.
Ask God to show you for whom you should be interceding, and ask Him to teach you to trust Him. It is a normal human tendency to fear giving up control of our own destinies, but God asks us to surrender and allow Him to teach us how to respond to His guidance instead of making plans and working toward our own ideas of what’s good and right.
Ask God to reveal to you whatever compromises you have made that keep you from commitment to Him. Ask Him to teach you to trust Him and to release your grip on the things that define you and that you dream of achieving. Ask Him to give you a spirit of submission to Him for the sake of the gospel.
No more place for me to work
Service of the saints
Join me in my struggle by praying
Rescued from unbelievers in Judea
1. Why does Paul say “there is no more place for me to work in these regions”?
2. Why did Paul hope to go to Rome, and why hadn’t he gone before this?
Rom. 15:15-16, 29
3. What does Paul mean when he says he is going to Jerusalem to serve the saints? What do we know about the background of this service?
2 Corinthians 8:1-6
2 Corinthians 7-15
2 Corinthians 9:1-5
4. What are the practical and spiritual implications of Paul’s saying, “For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings”?
1 Cor 1:9-11
1 Timothy 5:17-18
5. What is significant about Paul’s use of the intense verb “strive” when he asks the Romans to strive with him in prayer, and what is the nature of the “disobedience” of the people in Jerusalem from which he wishes to be delivered?
2 Cor 1:8-11
6. Why does Paul say that “by God’s will” he will come to Rome?
1 Cor. 4:18-19
1 Cor. 16:6-7
1 Peter 3:15-17
7. As you read Paul’s commitment to ministry even in the face of difficulty, of what is God convicting you?
8. For whom or what is God asking you to strive in prayer for His sake?
9. Ask God to reveal to you whatever compromises your commitment to Him. Ask Him to show you how and for what to pray. Ask God to give you a spirit of submission to His will and to integrity for the sake of the gospel.
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