|The Gospel of Godís Grace #16
The Heart of an Apostle
February 22, 1998 / Romans 15:14 ó 16:27
It is a fascinating thing to be given a glimpse into the heart of a great man or woman. Perhaps that it why biographies and autobiographies are so popular ó although Dennis Rodmanís As Bad As I Wanna Be isnít exactly the sort of life story I recommend for reading. Volumes like Navin Chawlaís Mother Teresa or Billy Grahamís Just As I Am are more the sort of thing I have in mind.
Some of the most significant personal experiences I have ever had took place in informal settings as casual comments. I shall never forget, for example, a private talk with one of the men who had a strong influence on my early preaching. It was a conversation in my office with Batsell Barrett Baxter on the day after he had been found to have a recurrence of cancer ó the recurrence that would shortly take his life. "Do you know the worst thing about this situation?" he asked me. "It forces me to focus so much attention on myself." That is a significant insight into a manís heart.
In this closing section of Paulís greatest epistle, we get glimpses into his Christ-centered heart. These verses are not a formal autobiography by any means. They constitute more of an anecdotal aside to the theme of his letter. His theme is still the gospel of the grace of God. But here he is tracing out some of its most personal implications for him. He writes of his personal mission with the gospel. He tells the church in Rome of his travel plans. He delivers personal greetings to dear friends. And he reveals himself again to be a man with a heart for God.
A Man With a Mission
In writing to Rome about his plans to visit there, Paul was breaking with his general pattern and philosophy of ministry. "It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone elseís foundation" (15:20). But Christ was already known at Rome. There was a functional, strong church in the capital city of the great empire. Thus the apostle wrote: "I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another" (15:14).
But there is more to evangelistic ministry than the obvious matter of preaching the gospel to lost people who do not know about Jesus and his redemptive work among men. Faith must always be nurtured by teaching. The gospel must be protected from both antinomianism and legalism. And those who have already received and embraced the truth about Jesus need to be encouraged to aid in sharing it with others.
Indeed, Paul refers in this text to a "priestly duty" he sensed in preparing the Gentiles to be "an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit" (15:15-16). A priestís duty was to bring joy to the Lord by offering up sacrifices on behalf of the people. Just as a prophet functioned in bringing Godís message to the people, the priest functioned in reverse to bring the peopleís sacrifices to God. Specifically, Paul seems here to have in mind offering to God a reconciled humanity as Gentiles along with the Jews were presented in one body to the glory of God.
When we read Paulís summary of his ministry in verses 17-22, we would seriously misread him to hear egoism and arrogance. To be employed of God for one of his holy purposes is an ultimate act of humility. Genuine ministry of the Word of God is submission to a call from above rather than presumption from below. Do you recall the response of the Old Testament prophet Amos to a challenge to his "arrogance" in speaking Godís message? "I was neither a prophet nor a prophetís son," he declared, "but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, ĎGo, prophesy to my people Israelí " (Amos 7:13-14).
Amosí point is clear enough, isnít it? He was minding his own business when the Lord gave him the task of preaching to Israel. One can almost hear him thinking to himself: "If the truth were known, Iíd rather be back tending my flocks and groves right now than bearing this awful responsibility!"
I can bear witness to the self-doubt and hesitation preachers experience who take their work seriously. On the one hand, you must speak the Word of God so boldly and with such conviction that those who want to discount your message may dismiss your work as conceit and personal ambition. On the other, you can only come to the task God has given you by agony, prayer, and struggle. I, for one, would be afraid to entrust my soul to the leadership of any shepherd or teacher who does not wrestle with periodic uncertainty about his worthiness to have any part in an enterprise so noble, so divine. Preaching the gospel is serious work and is not to be taken lightly.
There was anything but arrogance in Paul about his ministry. He never forgot that he was a former blasphemer and persecutor who was preaching "because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles" (15:15b-16a). His testimony here about his preaching, his lifestyle, and the signs God did by him was offered for sake of encouraging others to submit to the divine will for their lives.
Consistent with his philosophy of preaching where Christ was not known, Paul was planning a missionary trip to Spain and was planning to visit Rome en route (15:23-24). The best evidence available to us says that he probably made that trip between his two Roman imprisonments (cf. Acts 28:16, 30). Certain references in the Pastoral Epistles are best explained in light of such a ministry to Spain. As Paul looked to that work, he clearly viewed Rome as a strategic base. Thus he wanted to visit Rome, establish a relationship with the church there, and solicit their assistance in the future.
At the moment, however, he was in the process of putting together a relief collection among the Gentile churches on behalf of famine-ravaged Christians in Jerusalem (15:25-26; cf. Acts 11:27-30; 1 Cor. 16:1-3). He clearly saw this collection as a means to furthering the unity of believers among Jews and Gentiles (15:27-29).
Knowing the hostility of many in Jerusalem toward him and apprehensive over the reception of the collection he was taking from Gentiles to Jews, Paul asked the church at Rome to pray for him. "I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, so that by Godís will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed" (15:30-32). To that request for their prayers, he added his own short prayer for them: "The God of peace be with you all. Amen" (15:33).
A Man With Friends
We should not, however, see Paul as merely a man with work to do and a missionary strategy to implement. He knew that he did not stand alone in his ministry. He did what he was able to do in service to God only because of the prayer, encouragement, and strength he was able to draw from others.
You have surely heard someone tell of the giant Redwood trees in the western United States. Majestic and impressive as they are, the tallest and strongest among them grow in clusters. Redwoods have rather shallow root systems for their bulk and must interlock their roots with one another to withstand the elements. It is the same with Godís people in community. Any one of us is so frail that he or she could succumb to the fierce storms of life ó except for the strength of others.
The people of God must always remember that we do not stand alone. Paul, who regarded himself as "less than the least" of Godís saints, realized that the strength that sustained him for his ministry came in large measure from heavenís ministry to him through his sisters and brothers. Indeed, many of us who preach the gospel are able to accept the truth that we are weaker than many in the churches we serve. We sense very keenly the need for prayer and strength from those to whom we minister.
In the first sixteen verses of Romans 16, Paul names twenty-six persons ó and refers to many others in their "families" or "households" ó who were his friends, fellow workers, and team members. Phoebe, "a servant [footnote: deaconess] of the church in Cenchrea" (16:1), probably delivered the letter from Corinth to Rome. Cenchrea was Corinthís port city, and this dear sister in the Lord was clearly held in high regard by the apostle. She is the sort of person he could trust with an important task. The four descriptive terms used of her ó sister, servant, saint, and helper (16:1-2) ó make her outstanding among a list of outstanding people.
In the remainder of the list, we find familiar names like Priscilla and Aquila (15:3-5) but far more unfamiliar ones.
Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.
Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
Greet Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.
Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ.
Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus.
Greet Herodion, my relative.
Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord.
Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.
Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them.
Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the churches of Christ send greetings (16:5-16).
Now if you ran through that text quickly ó as most of us do with the "begats" of biblical chronologies ó please go back and read it through slowly. Perhaps you should pronounce the names aloud. These are important people in the life of someone you respect and admire. Paul wanted them remembered and honored for their place in his life. As you read, notice such descriptive statements as "worked very hard for you" or "have been in prison with me" or "tested and approved in Christ" or "a mother to me."
These verses remind me of an episode from the final days of Jesusí earthly ministry. In Bethany for one final time, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, took a jar of expensive perfume and anointed our Lord with it. Criticized by some of the persons present for dinner that night for being wasteful, Jesus affirmed what she had done and added this: "I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her" (Mark 14:9).
Jesus wanted Epenetus, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Rufus, Julia, and the others remembered for their Christian labors. He wanted to applaud them for what they had done, encourage them to stay strong in their faith, and inspire others to imitate their godly examples. Indeed, before closing the epistle, he also adds the names of several people at Corinth who were helping him there even as he wrote the church at Rome. He included their greetings and good wishes to the Romans (16:21-24). Paul was keenly aware that his work was made possible by others who kept him encouraged as he ran his race for the Lord.
The Special Olympics state finals for Michigan were held in Mount Pleasant one year. Nearly 3,000 special athletes competed in games where caring was more important than winning. All of them at least eight years old, all those mentally impaired children had a wonderful experience because of the "huggers." Each finish line was manned by people whose job was to be sure that each competitor in the race ó not just the winners ó got encouragement during the run and a hug at the end of each race. A reporter wrote of the event and said love had been the key to its success.
Paul was thanking some of his huggers here. More than that, he was hugging them back. It is important for us to do both in our spiritual lives. Who are the people who have been your strong encouragers at critical times? Have you let them know how grateful you are for their invaluable help? Do any of them need your encouragement today? If so, wouldnít it be a good thing to get in touch?
Let Somebody Know
Have you ever wished ó after it was already too late ó that you had said something, done something? It is a common experience, I fear. For example, I remember reading a newspaper column by the late Mike Royko that was written after the crash of a DC-10 in Chicago. He wrote about some of the grieving families who lost loved ones on that flight.
Particularly poignant to me was the story of a middle-aged business executive whose daughter had died in the accident. He spoke through his tears and said, "I donít think I ever told my daughter how much I really loved her, how much she always meant to me. I was always so busy, and she was growing up so fast. Now Iíll never get to tell her."
Several years ago, I preached the funeral of an elderly man. Among his several children, one of the daughters was particularly distraught as the casket was being closed for the final time. She had to be physically supported as she wailed over and over again, getting louder and louder each time, "Daddy, I love you. And you know I loved you." She had lived at quite a distance from her father and had paid him very little attention for the past several years. I thought as she sobbed that she was trying to convince herself of something she knew was not true.
The time to tell people you love them is now. The time to express your appreciation is today. Loving parents, inspirational teachers, faithful friends, spiritual mentors ó it isnít right for us to receive, receive, receive from them and never affirm them for what they have done. Paul knew that. Some of us need yet to learn it.
The final two things that remained for Paul as he closed the epistle were a warning against those who would destroy the unity of the church and a benediction. Both reflect his brotherly concern for people in whom he had a great interest.
His warning against people who would subvert the gospel and divide the church comes as no surprise. He was followed around on his missionary tours by critics and enemies who made it their lifeís work to make Paulís life miserable. Some were the Judaizers who wanted to keep the church bound to the dietary laws, circumcision, and other features of Hebrew custom. Others were people who had strained the gospel through the sieve of their Greek philosophy and who were determined to infiltrate the church with their "enlightenment." Paul knew that his opponents would also be dangerous for other Christians, so he wrote:
I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil (16:17-19).
What confidence there is in this warning. For all that Satan and his cohorts had in mind, Paul was "full of joy" over the faithfulness of the church at Rome. He was sure they could withstand whatever Satan had in mind to attempt there. Thus he had nothing more to say to them ó except to commend them to God with a beautiful benediction.
Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him ó to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen (16:25-27).
At the end of a letter about the gospel of Godís grace, Paulís two themes have taken him right back to its beginning. The theme verse for everything in the epistle came early: "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" (1:16). Isnít it interesting to notice that the great apostle closes where he started?
He is still writing about his personal mission of preaching the gospel ó dreaming of Spain and wanting Rome to partner with him in taking the gospel there. He is grateful for all those he knows at Rome, Corinth, or in any other place who have already been his partners and encouragers in preaching Christ. And he is still pointing everyone to the once-hidden mystery of Godís saving work that has come to fulfillment in Christ Jesus.
Keep your eyes and heart focused on the same mystery.
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