In the previous paragraph Paul has reminded the Christians in Rome that he had been given a special calling to reach the Gentile world for Christ and the gospel of God’s grace. Now he is going to bring them in on the plans he has for the next stage of that work.
v.22 The reason, explained in the previous verses, that Paul has not visited Rome to this point is that he has been preoccupied with building the Gentile church from Jerusalem to Illyricum.
v.26 He mentions Macedonia and Achaia because he has been most recently among those churches. Those two Roman provinces formed the bulk of modern Greece and would have included the New Testament churches of Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Corinth. Indeed, Paul wrote Romans while spending the winter in Corinth, which was in Achaia.
v.27 The Gentiles owe loyalty to the Jewish believers because it was from them that the gospel of life made its way to the Gentile world.
v.29 You remember that Paul, on what is nowadays referred to as his third missionary journey, had been taking a collection for the poor believers in Jerusalem among the churches of his circle and was soon to take that collection to Jerusalem in the company of representatives of those largely Gentile churches. One would come from Philippi, one would come from Thessalonica, from Corinth, and so on and together they would bring this gift of money to the Jerusalem church. The poor Christians of the Holy Land needed help, to be sure, but Paul had additional hopes for this generous contribution of Gentile believers to their Jewish brethren. There was, as you know, a great deal of suspicion between Jew and Gentile in the church in those early days. The Jews, understandably, feared being overwhelmed by the influx of Gentile Christians and saw their spiritual culture being threatened and finally replaced. You can sympathize. You find it threatening when your spiritual culture is jeopardized in some way. Their spiritual life was quite different in some ways than that of Gentile Christians. Jewish Christians still worshipped in the temple in Jerusalem, for example; many of them at least still observed the distinction between clean and unclean foods, celebrated the feasts of the Jewish calendar, Passover, Pentecost and so on. They often, if not always, celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday as well as Sunday. They had two Lord’s Days, not just one. Gentile believers did none of this. As Jewish Christians, indeed the first Christians, this was their life. So it is not hard to understand that many of them were disturbed to learn that the Christians in Paul’s churches were not practicing their faith in the same way. They never worshipped on Saturday, they ate everything, and they never celebrated Passover or Pentecost. The Gentiles, on the other hand, grew quickly tired of being viewed as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. You can understand that as well. That alienation between the two parts of the church had to be overcome and it had been one of Paul’s principal goals on this third missionary journey to take steps to overcome that alienation. He very much hoped that a generous gesture of brotherly love brought by representatives of the Gentile churches would endear those churches to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem and Galilee and overcome their suspicion.
Verse 29 sounds very much as if Paul expected to breathe a sigh of relief when his visit to Jerusalem was concluded and he could get back to his proper work, travel to Rome, and spend some time there resting and being renewed in the fellowship of that church before heading on to Spain and new frontiers of ministry.
v.33 Paul’s prayer – in which he asks the Roman believers to join – is that the trip to Jerusalem would accomplish its purpose in drawing Jewish and Gentile believers together across the church. But, for that to happen, he would need to be protected from anti-Christian forces in Judea. Remember, Paul was once the champion of the Jews in their attempt to exterminate this new movement of so-called Christians. His betrayal, his going over to the side of the enemy still deeply rankled in Jewish circles in Jerusalem. Prominent church leaders, such as Stephen and James, had already been murdered, and attempts had been made on Paul’s life before; he had no doubt they would be again.
Paul’s way of speaking – “strive together with me in your prayers” – is striking. One writer paraphrases Paul’s words in this way: “Force out of heaven a blessing for me.” Prayer is work and a struggle; hard work to obtain specific help and blessing from God. It is as if God will grant the prayer only if the believers pray hard enough.
We don’t know if Paul ever got to Spain. He did in the first place, as we know from Acts, do precisely what he says here he intended to do. The following spring, in the company of several representatives of the Gentile churches he had visited on his third missionary journey, he traveled to Jerusalem with the gift of the Gentile Christians for their Jewish brethren. In Jerusalem, if you remember, he made a full report to the church of what the Lord had done in establishing Gentile churches throughout the Mediterranean world, a report that was greeted with great enthusiasm. And he took the opportunity afforded to him then to scotch the rumors that had circulated among Jewish believers in Jerusalem that Paul was undermining the practice of Jewish piety among Jewish believers of the Diaspora, that is Jewish Christians who lived outside of the Holy Land. It was one thing for Paul not to require Gentile believers to live according to Jewish customs. Hard as that was to take for some Jewish Christians, the Jewish leadership of the church had decided a long time before that it was not necessary for Gentile Christians to live like Jews in order to be Christians in full standing. But to undermine Jewish customs among Jewish Christians was harder to take still. But Paul had not done that. He had been accused of doing so, rumors were circulating that he had done so, but he had not. Paul knew very well that to encourage Jews to abandon Jewish ways – which, if not necessary were still perfectly legitimate practices for Jewish Christians – would have been unnecessarily provocative and so he was happy to have Jewish Christians continue to live as Jews in a number of important ways. It may not be required but it was perfectly acceptable. Indeed, in many ways he himself continued to live as a Jew. We read in Acts that on that same third missionary journey, if you recall, Paul had taken a Nazirite vow and, in keeping with the requirements of that vow had not cut his hair. Luke records the fact that he stopped in at a barber on his way to Jerusalem because the period of his vow had been completed.
To assure the Jewish believers that he had no objection to Jewish customs being practiced by Jewish Christians Paul, while he was in Jerusalem, participated in sacrificial rites in the temple that were part of the conclusion of a Nazirite vow taken by several men in the Jerusalem congregation. It was a wonderful way to cement his relationship with his Jewish brothers. By these means Paul had largely accomplished all that he had set out to do in Jerusalem. It had been a wonderfully productive visit.
But it did not end with Paul saying his farewells and heading off for Rome as Paul had planned and as he had told the Romans he intended to do. If you remember your history as it is reported in the final chapters of Acts, Paul was arrested on charges trumped up by his Jewish enemies, non-Christian Jews that is, and a plot was conceived to have him murdered. The plot was discovered and, for his own safety, Paul was transferred by the Roman authorities to their headquarters in Caesarea, on the coast, where Paul was to remain a prisoner for the next two years as he awaited trial. Then as now the wheels of justice turned slowly. Fearing some back-room deal between the Jewish authorities and the Roman governor, Paul, as was his right as a Roman citizen, appealed to Caesar and was eventually transported, still a prisoner, to Rome. He remained there for at least two more years under house arrest awaiting trial. So, he came to Rome as he had said he would, just not in the way he had intended, and not as soon as he had planned.
All the evidence taken together suggests that Paul was released from this first rather mild imprisonment in Rome [house arrest] – either because he was acquitted at trial or because someone intervened on his behalf or because the Roman authorities tired of the matter – and thereafter continued his missionary work for several years before [we don’t know how or why] being imprisoned in Rome a second time and executed during the persecution of Christians undertaken by the emperor Nero in the mid-60s of the first century.
So if Paul were to have made it to Spain, at the western edge of the Roman world, it would have had to have been during those few years between his first and second Roman imprisonments. There is precious little information to go by and it is simply impossible to say whether Paul actually realized his goal to take the gospel to Spain. [Bruce, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 445-450] As Eusebius puts it in his great early church history, written in the 4th century, “Rumor has it” that Paul resumed his ministry of preaching after his first appearing before Caesar.” Well that seems clear enough, but little more can be said with confidence. Some later writers say that he got to Spain but we don’t know if they were concluding that only from what Paul says here in Romans 15 about it being his intention to go on to Spain. Those later writers provide no additional evidence.
What is perfectly clear is this: Paul’s carefully laid plans to visit Jerusalem and then to travel to Rome en route to Spain did not materialize, at least in any form similar to what he had envisaged and written to the Romans. And, more than that, the prayers of both Paul and the Romans, such prayers as were asked for and as are described in vv. 30-32, though wonderfully answered, were answered in a far different manner than either Paul or the Roman Christians anticipated. Paul was spared from the unbelievers in Judea but at the cost of two years in a Caesarean jail; he made it to Rome but as a man in chains; and he certainly did not leave Rome soon thereafter on an evangelistic mission to Spain if he ever went to Spain.
As has often been said, “Man proposes but God disposes.” Or, as Robert Burns famously put it in his poem, “To a Mouse”:
“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley…” [that is “often go awry”]
Paul has taught us what to believe about essential things in his letter to the Romans: what to believe about man and his condition in sin, about God’s grace and the path it took and takes to deliver man from sin and guilt and to transform him or her into new creatures in Christ and to conform them to the image of Jesus Christ. Why we are to believe in Jesus Christ our Redeemer and look to him for the power to surmount the guilt and power of our sin and live to the glory of God: these are the great themes of Romans. Moreover, Paul has taught us how we ought to behave as Christians; according to what standards we ought to conduct our affairs. We are live lives of humility, love and gentleness, making room for one another and living so as to please others. All of that lies behind us in this great letter.
But here Paul shows us how the Christian life happens from day to day; how Christians live their lives amidst the push and pull of ordinary circumstance. It is not a panorama, to be sure; it is more of snapshot, but intensely interesting and helpful nonetheless.
How many times has this happened? A person becomes a Christian, whether over a period of time or quite suddenly. The gospel is presented to him, a Christian friend bears witness to her of God’s love in Christ and the reality of the love and grace of God, of the enormity of his own sin and guilt and need, of the forgiveness of sins, and of the hope of heaven are poured into the heart. By the Spirit of God he believes; she commits her life to Christ. In moments of blinding clarity their own sin and guilt and Christ’s redemption become luminously clear to them. They entrust themselves to Jesus and his cross. The empty tomb is no longer a theory to them but a living power. It is clear to them immediately that their lives will change, must change. Suddenly the standards of God’s law are not the unwelcome imposition on their freedom that they had once imagined, but the path to true goodness and to a life that pleases God. And pleasing their heavenly Father and their Savior is suddenly something they very much want to do.
It seems to them quite clear how all of this is going to unfold. They have entered a new world and in this world things will happen very differently than they happened in that old world they have left behind. God is on his throne and loves his children; of course they will prosper, of course Christians will be happy, of course they will succeed in not only living the Christian life but in serving the Lord in the world. The world of defeat and disappointment that had marked their days before has been left behind. A new and wonderful life lies before them and they fully expect to take it by the throat and make it their own.
But then comes a surprising, if not shocking discovery. The Christian life does not prove to be so easy and natural a thing after all. The sin whose power has been broken by the blood of Christ and his resurrection from the dead, is still very much with us and if that power has been broken it is not by any means always obvious that it is so. The attraction of sin, its grip on our hearts and our bodies continues and battles we thought lay forever behind us must be fought again and again.
And then God’s care and provision for his beloved children is not bestowed as we expected it to be. Troubles and disappointments of every kind continue to plague even the most faithful of believers. We pray but many of our prayers are not immediately answered, or, at least, not in any way easily detected by us. Instead of riding on the heights of the land, we find ourselves wading and struggling through the swampy bog along the valley floor. This is not what we expected. This does not seem to be what ought to follow our discovery of God, of his love and power, and our coming to belong to his family through faith in his Son.
So it has always been. Take one of the greatest of all Christian believers, Paul the apostle to the Gentiles. Here was a favored man. He had been given to see the exalted Lord Christ with his own eyes and hear his voice with his own ears. He had been granted some time later a vision of heaven itself and in that vision saw things so wonderful that he was not permitted to describe them to others. And yet what a life this man lived! Full of glorious accomplishment to be sure, but full of affliction, of pain, of loss, and of immense disappointment. Friends deserted him, enemies sought his life, his work drained him to the dregs, and in several cases triumphs of evangelism and church planting turned quickly into nightmares of personal recrimination and betrayal. And along the way he had to endure his own personal struggle to live worthy of the grace he had received, a struggle that, as he admitted earlier in this same letter, was all too frequently unsuccessful.
And like everyone else Paul had to make his plans and chart his course somewhat in the dark, and then pray that the Lord would bless those plans. Even the great apostle was not told precisely what to do or when or how to do it. The Lord had left to him immense territory for independent action. When he arrived in Palestine with the Gentile church representatives and their offering and before they traveled on to Jerusalem a prophecy was received that he would fall into the hands of his enemies in Jerusalem – as in fact he did – but he wasn’t told what to do about that. No instructions came with the forecast of events to come. He continued on to the capital because he felt he owed it to the Jerusalem brethren for him to come with those Gentile representatives and their offering. He needed to fulfill the pledge he had made to the Jerusalem church. In the same way, we have no reason to think that Paul had been told by the Lord to go to Spain in a vision or by some prophecy. In all likelihood he chose that course because it seemed to fit his overall strategy to bring the gospel to the Gentile world of the Mediterranean basin. It was a good plan, so far as we can tell. It made sense. Paul had only so many years left to do gospel work; if he could plant strategic churches in Spain, at the western end of the Mediterranean world, others could then fill in the gaps between Spain and Italy – as, indeed, others eventually would.
But, of course, it didn’t work out as Paul had planned. He spent two long and, no doubt in his view, unproductive years cooling his heels in a Roman jail in Caesarea. What a waste of time! What a miserable way for a man of such drive and high purpose to spend his life when that time could have been put to such remarkably good use. Or so it seems to us. And then two more years under house arrest in Rome. True enough, he was able to preach and teach, but how much more could he have accomplished if left free to fulfill his plans for church planting in the west?
And, to top it off, Paul had prayed – we are sure he prayed very diligently – and no doubt multitudes of his Christian friends prayed alongside him that the Lord would bless these plans to extend the gospel westward. But the prayers were heard very differently than they were offered and very different events ensued than had been proposed to the Lord. This text we read from Romans 15 is such a perfect expression of the Christian mind in its planning, hoping, and praying stage. And it reveals so much to us, so much more, because we happen to know what came of these hopes and plans and prayer.
Oh yes, here is the Christian life as you and I have experienced it for all the years we have followed Christ. Florence left a few days ago for Minneapolis, to see our daughter and son-in-law and to attend her 40th high school reunion in Cedar Falls, Iowa. A little more than a year ago, she left for Minneapolis intending to help Bryonie prepare a nursery in anticipation of the arrival of the twins she was carrying. We had all kinds of plans and there had been all manner of prayers: plans for her traveling to Minneapolis later for the birth of the babies, plans for their baptism, and so on. Before Florence landed the pregnancy was in trouble, and before the morning was out the babies were dead. We had all manner of plans and many people had prayed and were praying, but nothing happened as we had expected it to. Now we have new plans, for adopted twins, soon to be born in Florida. And many are praying. What story will the next few months tell? We do not know; we cannot say. We plan and we pray. And I know very well that what we read here of Paul’s plans and what we know of what they came to is a window on your lives as it is on mine. You too have had plans and you too offered prayers but things turned out so differently than you had expected and often so very differently than you had hoped. Sometimes, to be sure, they turned out wonderfully well, better than you could have hoped for and better than you prayed. But often they turned out for the worse, at least as we can judge such things. We were disappointed. We were left asking why or to what purpose God allowed such a thing to happen instead of what we had asked him for.
But we continue to make our plans because we must, because to do otherwise would be to fail to fulfill our calling as the servants of the Lord. But we cannot see the future and much in any Christian life is not at all what was expected. There is a great mystery here as the Bible admits and does not try to hide. There is so much that we do not and cannot know.
As T.S. Eliot put it [writing as a Christian]: “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” That’s exactly right. The Christian life ends up being an exercise in trying! We try – we try with our planning and our praying and our working – and sometimes we succeed and sometimes we do not. I don’t know why and you don’t either. The Lord has many uses for our disappointments; we know that. Our faith must be tested and tried in order to strengthen it; we know that. There is an unseen world whose issues and interests are also served by the struggles of the saints; we know that too. Our Savior told us that disappointments would inevitably come; we are often taught that the truest and most valuable faith is that which follows hard after Christ in the face of confusing and disappointing and troubling developments; we know that as well. All of that the Bible makes very clear. But so much remains unknown and unknowable to us; at least in this life.
Why are we not more successful at everything we do, children of God as we are? Why are our prayers not more regularly answered according to the terms in which we have offered them? Why are our plans not more regularly fulfilled? Why would a great apostle whose ministry was changing the world sit confined in jail for two years, two years at the very pinnacle of his powers and his influence? Paul’s plan, as he told it to the Romans, seems to us a plan the Lord would certainly want to bless. But it was not to be, or, at least, not to be in anything like the form Paul had planned.
I have been reading a fascinating history of the pilgrim settlement at Plymouth in 1620 and the years that followed. These people, as you know, were devout Christians and clever men and women. They laid their plans as wisely and carefully as they could. They calculated what they would need to survive through the first year of settlement, they learned all they could of the land to which they were to sail, and they purchased a ship to carry them and their goods to the new world. They had a plan and they had a purpose: to give glory to God by that way of worship and life they thought was taught in the Word of God. They wanted to bring a true and authentic Christian faith and life to the new world and make that serious, biblical Christianity the foundation of a new land.
And then nothing, and I mean nothing, happened as they had planned. They had to abandon the ship they had purchased when it began to leak at sea. The Mayflower, as famous as that name is in American history, was not their first ship! Had their ship been seaworthy it would have been the name Speedwell that would live forever in American history. As one delay followed another they consumed much of their stores of food and drink before they ever left for New England. From the beginning they were – again not their plan – accompanied by a number of people who did not share their theological and spiritual commitments; a tremendous disappointment. They prayed their way from England to Holland and back to England and on to the new world. They prayed their way across the Atlantic through the late autumn storms.
They wanted to do the Lord’s will but they found themselves starving in the bitter cold of an inhospitable land, watching helplessly through that first winter as half of their already seriously diminished company died. Why on earth did things come to this? They wondered themselves, but no answers were forthcoming. They tried and tried and prayed and prayed and eventually they prevailed, though not at all in the way in which they had expected and certainly not according to their plan.
The Lord met them and helped them, but like Paul sitting in a jail month after month in Caesarea, however sure they were that God was accomplishing his perfect will, interpreting that will and submitting to it was no simple matter.
“In his will is our peace,” said Dante, a line that became the English Prime Minister William Gladstone’s motto. You can only come to terms with Romans 15:23-33 if you have already read and believed Romans 1-11. Then and then only will you accept God’s will, whatever it is, as perfect and holy, however inscrutable. Then and then only will you trust your life and circumstances wholly to him who loved you and gave himself for you. Only then will you realize that God has higher purposes for you than that you live an uncomplicated and pleasant life. And only then will you be sure that the time of struggle takes its entire meaning from the fact that it is followed, for those who are in Jesus Christ, by eternal peace and joy.
“In his will is our peace.”