We started Romans by asking “What is it that believers seeking to serve God in our cities need” and I suggested that we would find the answer in this letter, specifically the need for Grace and Peace. This is now reinforced by the next part of the letter.
A letter from Paul often seems to follow a structure.
- Challenge rooted in doctrinal argument
- Application to their circumstances and specific questions asked
- Final Greetings
This pattern is seen in the letter to Rome although the thanksgiving is somewhat curtailed here by a description of Paul’s particular desire and aim. This is seen in verses 11-12. Paul is constantly thanking God for the church in Rome and asking that God will allow him to come and see them
11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.
This gives us the theme for this section.
Paul gives thanks for the church at Rome, desiring to visit them for mutual benefit.
The mutual benefit includes spiritual encouragement and practical help. Paul’s team will no doubt prove helpful to the church in the city, building it up, encouraging it and helping it in outreach. However, for Paul, this is an intended stopping off point on route to Spain for his next major missionary trip. In Romans 15:22-24, this is explained further, Paul is looking for financial support towards the work in Spain, and perhaps to add further co-workers to his team.
This means that whilst the letter is often treated first and foremost as a doctrinal treatise, it is in fact practical letter, a missionary’s prayer letter if you will. This also causes us to pause and think about application to us today. If the primary theme here is Paul’s desire to visit the church in Rome for mutual benefit of this kind, then how do we apply it to us today?
The temptation is to over personalise. I could turn Romans into the basis for my own expression of plans and a request for help/support in them. We don’t tend to see that so much with Romans, perhaps because that would be over overt but we’ve seen people use other letters, especially 1 and 2 Corinthians to show Paul appealing for loyalty and obedience and apply it to their insistence on personal loyalty. However, we need to remember who Paul is. As an apostle, his visit brings not just the presence of a leader but the personification of the foundational revelation of the Gospel.
So, I want to suggest that the application to us is the need and opportunity for mutual benefit to and from the Gospel. In other words, we benefit from having the Gospel, it ministers to us. However at the same time we are called to be ministers of or for the Gospel, we serve it.
We will come back to that later but first of all, I want us to walk through the passage.
A look at the text
V8 Paul opens with thanksgiving for the Roman Christians. As mentioned above, his thanksgiving is rather concise and curtailed here compared to other epistles. There appears to be an urgency as he will move quickly to the purpose of the letter. However, as seems usually to be the case, there is still a connection between the thing he gives thanks for and what comes up in the letter. As we have seen, there is a missionary purpose to this letter and so, the starting point for Paul is thanksgiving at how well known the faith of the believers is around the Empire. This will have happened through reports but also because people from Rome were moving around the empire and sharing the good news too.
V9 -10 Paul’s thanksgiving is linked to two things. First of all, it is caused by the report he has of their faith and secondly it is prompted by his prayer, his desire to come and visit. Paul appeals to God as his witness. Of course, it may have been tempting for the church to think he was buttering them up, especially given the time it has taken Paul to come to Rome to see them. He insists however, that if there has been a delay, this has not been on his part. Rather, he has often prayed and sought the opportunity to visit. He describes this as “unceasing.” The sense there is that the priority is high up the list.
Appealing to God as his witness of course is not a deflection from hard evidence. Paul is not saying “God knows and so you just need to trust me on this.” Rather, he points out that the God who witnesses to the truth of his claim is the God whom he serves “with my spirit” or “wholeheartedly/with everything he has got/heart and soul” by proclaiming the Gospel about The Son. In other words, the evidence is founded in Paul’s character and track record.
Can the Romans trust Paul’s claim that he longed to pass through? Well just look at wha the has been doing, he has been moving around the empire using every opportunity to plant new churches and strengthen existing ones. When Paul will ask for support later, will it be so that he can pocket the cash for himself? Again, look at his track record, everything he receives gets passed on to where it is most needed.
It is reasonable to pause at this point and ask whether or not we would be able to make the same claim. Would our character and track record be God’s witness to his work in our life, the truth of our claims and the reliability of our promises?
Notice as well, that Paul’s confidence in the sovereign will of God does not lead to fatalism. He does not say “Whatever will be will be.” Instead he prays, begs even that in God’s will he may be able to reach Rome. By begging or pleading within God’s will, we are expressing our own desires but also desiring to better know and better love and obey God’s will on the matter.
V11 -12 Here Paul explains his reason for coming. He is seeking to share a “spiritual gift” with the believers. We do not need to speculate on what this is. It is not that by some special laying on of hands, some transfer that he will give them a new spectacular sign gift or impart a blessing such as happened with the Toronto Blessing in the 1990s.Rather, his concern is for mutual encouragement. That is the gift. They will encourage him as he sees what God is doing in their midst and he will encourage or build up them. The means by which Paul is likely to do this is by building them up by teaching them more of God’s Word, this is confirmed in verse 15.
I think that Schreiner is right to suggest at this point then that the gift and strengthening will come because Paul will set out and develop his understand of the Gospel as being something that includes and unites Jews and Gentiles. This will strengthen the church, enabling it to overcome divisions and provide a solid base from which to launch the Spanish mission.
In verse 13, Paul explains again that his long held desire has been to visit. However, he has been prevented. The exact way in which he has been prevented is not spelt out. We know that Paul experienced opposition that prevented him getting to some places such as Macedonia but it may simply have been that the urgent need in other places where there wasn’t yet a church or where apostles and elders were not present and available took priority.
His purpose in going to Rome was to have a fruitful ministry. His concern is to see believers growing in their faith and unbelievers converted so that the church grows. This concern arises out of a particular calling that he had to share the Gospel with Gentiles.V14 tells us that this is an obligation to all Gentiles regardless of class, specific ethnicity or education. Just as the Jews divided their world into Jews (God’s People) and Gentiles (the other natinos), so the Greeks divided the world between Greeks (civilised) and barbarians (uncivilised). Paul’s calling is to all. This is why he is so eager to get to Rome, because he sees the city as part of his mission field and responsibility (v15).
Served by the Gospel
The Church in Rome would be served by Paul’s eventual visit. In fact, he would reach Rome but not in the way intended, he would arrive as a prisoner though tradition holds that he still made it eventually to Spain prior to a second imprisonment in Rome and his later execution. The church was also served by his letter.
As I said at the start, the comparison for us is not the ways in which we might be blessed by the visits of individual Christian leaders but by the Gospel as represented by Paul an apostle. We too like the church in Rome have the benefit of his letter and his wider teaching, so we can be blessed by his specific focus and his expression of the Gospel.
If Schreiner is right and the particular blessing to Rome was that Paul’s articulation of the Gospel showed how we are all equal in our excuseless sin and therefore equal before the Cross and before the throne, then that is good news that will strengthen us too. This is important for those of us seeking to serve and witness in multi-cultural contexts. It is important for a church that is often split along class lines to hear. The Gospel is for all. If Paul could say that Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian, Slave and Free, Male and Female are all one in Christ Jesus then we should be able to say the same of Uni Students and apprentices, rich and poor, working class and middle class, north and south, city and country, black and white. If we want to know how to grow churches that will reflect that unity then first and foremost before we dig out the diversity training courses (I am not saying there isn’t a place for these), we need to go back to the basics of the Gospel.
The Gospel is the gift we need and serves us because at those times when life feels too difficult because ministry or vocation appears to be going nowhere, because once again your house has been broken into, the kids have been bullied at school, you’ve been kept awake by loud music at night or you’ve been subject to gossip and slander, then it is the truth that Jesus died for you, rose again for you and promised never to leave or forsale you that will keep you going.
Serving the Gospel
As well as being served by the Gospel, we too serve the Gospel. For the church in Rome, that called on them to encourage Paul on his visit, blessing him as he saw their faith lived out and practically helping him on his way as he continued in mission to Spain.
Practically for us today, we are called to play our part in making disciples of Jesus Christ. This means that it isn’t simply up to a few professional evangelists. So, how can you play your part in serving the Gospel, enabling others to benefit from the good news that we have received? Here are a few suggestions
- By making friends with neighbours and perhaps inviting them along to a church event.
- By giving someone a copy of Luke’s Gospel as a gift.
- By praying for two or three friends to come to know Christ
- By financially supporting Gospel work
- By considering a calling to full time urban mission.
- By making your home group more evangelistic in nature
- By texting a Bible verse and encouragement to a young Christian.
- By praying for the pastor and elders in your church.
- By dropping the pastor a note of encouragement
- By being willing to serve in different ways on a Sunday
- By getting involved in door to door outreach
- By sharing a link to an online church service.
I’m sure you can add to this list and I’m sure there is something there you can do.
Paul the apostle writes to a young church and humbly expects not just to bless them but to be blessed by them. There is mutuality expected there which stands in sharp contrast to our consumer age.
In what ways are you fully engaged not as a consumer but as a partner in the Gospel. In what ways is the Gospel serving and blessing you? In what ways are you serving the Gospel?
If you would prefer to watch the study then you can here.
 Contra Moo, Romans, 59.
 Schreiner, Romans, 54.