Through his apostles, our Lord Jesus Christ continued to fulfill the purpose for which his Father sent him into the world: “For the Son of man is come to seek and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Paul was the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13; 2 Tim. 1:11). He was constantly on the move, traveling thousands of miles by land and sea to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Occasionally he settled in one location for an extended period of ministry, as in Corinth and Ephesus, but typically, after a return to Antioch, which was his home base (Acts 11:26; 13:1; 14:26; 15:35; 18:22), he would begin another preaching circuit, visiting the churches he had planted and preaching “where Christ was not named” (Rom. 15:20). Behind his life and labors was the ardent desire that the Gentile world would become an acceptable offering to God. Paul’s labors were monumental. He knew that the gospel of Jesus Christ was no local or temporary phenomenon but the very power of God unto salvation and destined to harvest the nations unto Jesus Christ so that “every knee would bow to him and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Laboring by the mighty working of Jesus Christ in him (Col. 1:29), he traversed the Roman world from corner to corner (Rom. 15:19).
A Journey into Spain with a Stop in Rome (vv. 22-24)
These were the first, heady, and suffering days of Christ’s kingdom. Thousands were flocking to his gospel banner. Although the “accuser of the brethren” was cast out of heaven and crushed by Christ’s cross, Satan hindered Paul’s efforts to the degree God permitted (1 Thess. 2:18). At other times, the Holy Spirit forbade him to go into certain regions (Acts 16:6). Ever the church’s gospel mission proceeded according to the Spirit’s direction and by his power. Due to his work in other regions, Paul had been unable to make a trip to Rome. Moreover, as a church existed early in Rome, soon after Pentecost (Acts 2:10), a gospel foundation was already laid there. Yet, Paul wanted to visit the capital of the Gentile world. His work was coming to an end in the regions he was laboring, and he turned his eye westward to Spain. He purposed to stop in Rome so that they could assist him with his westward mission. He also wanted to be refreshed by their company. We know that Paul made it to Rome, though as a prisoner. It is uncertain whether he made it to Spain. Clement of Rome in his Epistle to the Corinthians said that he did, but it is difficult for us to work this trip into his known itinerary and the chronology of his movements, for upon his coming to Jerusalem he was apprehended by the Jewish authorities, made a prisoner under the Roman governor in Caesarea, and eventually sent to Rome for trial. He was a prisoner there for two years. Whether he was then martyred in Rome by Nero or released for a time and able to preach the gospel in Spain, we cannot say with certainty.
Should we not be greatly stirred to gospel zeal by the example of the apostles, and especially by Paul’s diligence? We are not apostles, but they have laid the foundation for our faith (Eph. 2:20). The world is not our own mission field in the same sense as it was theirs, but our families, neighbors, and circles of influence are. When we see how zealously the Lord Jesus labored through the apostles, we should aspire for him to work the same gospel fervor in us, for we are animated by the same Spirit. We serve the same glorious Savior, and his power, beauty, and worthiness are undiminished. Low gospel zeal is a sure evidence of immature faith, coldness of heart toward Jesus Christ, or worldliness. The “secret” of gospel influence is fellowship with Jesus Christ. The more we walk with him, the more he speaks and exerts his power to save men through us (Col. 1:29). He will heal and strengthen us. If you would win men to Jesus Christ, there is only one way: to be transformed by Jesus Christ. As he forms his life in us, “to live will be Christ.” By God’s gospel power, men will see in us Jesus Christ, the hope of glory, the wisdom and righteousness of God, and the Savior of miserable sinners.
And notice that although Paul was head and shoulders above most of the believers in the first century, by Christ’s grace to him and his apostolic office, he nonetheless felt his need of the fellowship of the saints. This is one way gospel zeal is intensified: through constant, true gospel fellowship with one another. There is no point to being in the body of Christ unless we are rejoicing in him and encouraging one another to grow up into him in all things. The church is the singing, speaking, worshipping, praying, and gospel working manifestation of Christ’s life, joy, peace, and salvation in us, and from us into the world. Therefore, we must “consider one another to provoke unto love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). Our conversations, joys, and sorrows must be Christ-centered, Christ-empowered. Again, this brings us back to each disciple’s dominating passion: to know Jesus Christ, to be found in him, to share in his resurrection and his suffering, and one day to behold his glory. The more each disciple grows in Christ, the more the church will grow in gospel zeal and our Savior’s kingdom will progress, not by our power and wisdom, but by his own working and life in us.
Paul recognized that while he wanted to visit the Roman believers, his plans were subject to the Lord’s direction. “The heart of man devises his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Thus, we are also taught here that the Lord Jesus holds the “stars in his right hand” (Rev. 1:16), the pastors of his church. He causes them to shine where he wishes. The growth of the church and spread of the gospel are in his powerful hand and directed by his omnipresent Spirit. He is the Head and Lord of the church, of all things, and he rules in every great and small matter that concerns his precious Bride and promotes his victorious kingdom. Whatever we may see with our eyes, however much grief we may feel at the weakness of the church or despair at the failings of Christ’s pastors, he holds them in his hand and will direct and empower them to accomplish the purposes for which he has sent them. He is the Master Builder, the only Head of the church. He has the plan. He holds the reigns. He will have the preeminence.
To Jerusalem First with a Love Gift from the Gentiles (vv. 25-26)
Before visiting the Roman believers and making a gospel foray into Spain, Paul intends a trip to Jerusalem. From Acts, we know that this is a dangerous trip Paul plans, for the Jews throughout the Roman Empire are stirred against him, and especially those in Jerusalem. To them, he is a hated and marked man, a traitor, and public enemy number one. For his part, he is going to “minister to the saints” there. In his possession is a sizeable gift gathered by the Gentile believers in Macedonia and Achaia, the Philippian and Corinthian believers. Paul has worked hard to gather funds to support the struggling church in Jerusalem, which has suffered greatly under persecution from their countrymen (1 Thess. 2:14-16). He calls the gift a “contribution,” which is the same word used for “fellowship.” Material aid to the struggling church in Jerusalem is an extension of the fellowship in the gospel that Jew and Gentile share. Paul speaks of this at length in 1 Corinthians 8-9. The gospel works a unity of love and life far more defining than ethnic differences and prejudices. Through faith in Jesus Christ, the ethnic differences between believers become secondary and must never divide. We are one body in the Lord (Eph. 2:14-16). We share in him an eternal bond that does not obliterate national and ethnic boundaries but sanctifies the races so that they may be one in praise to God for his mercy, love for Jesus Christ, and cooperation in the gospel work of God’s kingdom. It is in this way that Paul says in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Rom. 10:12; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). The original unity of our race in Adam was shattered by sin and the outworking of the curse through all the world’s families. Jesus Christ powerfully reunites man’s fractured families so that they can become one holy body in the Lord.
The Gentiles Indebted to the Jews (v. 27)
The unity of Jew and Gentile in one body was to Paul not simply a pious theory. He constantly encouraged the Gentile believers to give liberally to their persecuted brothers in Jerusalem. Here is a remarkable demonstration of Christ’s unifying power. Men hold tightly to their purses even for their friends, but the Gentiles in Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to contribute to the relief of those who were their former enemies! This was more than a noble expression of their love. Paul speaks of the Gentiles as being debtors to the Jews. This is a spiritual debt to those who, to borrow from our Savior’s parable, labored in the heat of the day for the sake of those who would enter into God’s vineyard late in the day. To the Jews were the covenants of promise made. They alone were the recipients of God’s word and the preservers of true religion in the world. This is the reason that Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). No Gentile believer should ever forget that from the Jews, “as concerning the flesh Christ came” (Rom. 9:5). Since the Gentiles have been brought into the blessings formerly enjoyed only by the Jews, love and gratitude demand that the Gentiles now contribute to the relief of the Jewish believers. Paul saw this gift as a tangible demonstration of the unity of Jew and Gentile in Jesus Christ. Yes, it would relieve the earthly needs of those who had suffered for Christ, but even more it would be a testimony to the power of Christ’s unifying grace, not only to Jewish believers but also to Jewish unbelievers. By calling them “carnal things,” Paul in no wise denigrates our earthly life but is using an expression for the needs of the body such as food and clothing. Christian love unites both the higher, spiritual things and the lower, material things into one expression of the true, transnational fellowship that all believers have by virtue of our common faith in Jesus Christ.
This is a very different philosophy of race relations than what we commonly see. Rabid tribalism and atheistic unity are the two philosophies with which we have to contend. The former would draw such absolute lines between men of different races that there is no possibility of accord and warfare is a way of life. It would elevate racial differences to such a level that prejudice and bigotry consume the whole world in the fires of racial hatred and strife. The latter, which is exemplified in the theory and practice of the United Nations, sees all racial differences as artificial and would endorse a blending of the races and obliteration of the boundaries that God has set (Acts 17:26). The apostle would have nothing of either view, and neither should be. Higher than all national boundaries and ethnic differences between men sits the enthroned King, Jesus Christ, over all men and nations. Out of these nations he has gathered a body where there is neither “Greek nor Jew, bond or free, male or female, for ye are all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28; Rev. 5:9). It is not that race and gender are abolished but that they must give way to a higher unity and purpose in Jesus Christ, who is the healer of sin’s breach between the nations and the Prince of Peace who will bring worldwide peace to all the nations through submission to his reign. Although we do not yet see this peace as pervasive as God has promised, we do see Jesus (Heb. 2:9). However hostile the Jews are to the Gentiles at the present day, our dominating passion must be for their salvation, as it was the apostle’s (Rom. 9:1-3). We must remember that we are engrafted onto their covenant tree and must labor and pray for the promised day when the Lord shall recover them to it. Until then, are hearts are grieved by their hardness, but we must not think of them only in terms of their present unbelief but according to the prophecies the Lord has given of their restoration. It shall be like “life from the dead” for the world (11:15).
I Shall Then Come to You in the Fullness of the Blessing of Christ’s Gospel (vv. 28-29)
“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (Eccl. 7:8). Paul is determined to finish this good work of fellowship. It will “seal to them this fruit.” Their gift will be the confirmation of the authenticity of the love that the Gentiles in Macedonia and Achaia have for their fellow-believers in Jerusalem. Love should never be in word only, but in deed and truth (1 John 3:18). After delivering this contribution, Paul expresses his intention of coming to them. His intention was realized, but not in the way he anticipated. Again he mentions Spain, for that is his primary reason for turning his thoughts westward. And when he comes to the Romans, he “will come in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.” This is a rich phrase. Paul saw his life as a living out of the gospel, a life dedicated to promoting the gospel, a life supported and empowered in the blessing that Christ’s gospel gives to all who dedicate themselves to “living by the faith of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:20).
Do our lives reflect this gospel blessing? It is rare to hear of Christians speak of their comings and goings in this way. We cannot speak in this way, however, unless our lives and activities are a living unto Jesus Christ. If our work is dedicated to him, how much more special our morning commute would be, for this would be our pathway to serve the risen Savior. Our homes would be happier and family life more purposeful by committing our closest human relationships to the grand purpose of promoting the gospel through acts of love, worship in the home, and encouragement in the things of God. How different body life is when disciples of Christ gather to speak of the blessing of the gospel and worship the God who has redeemed us through the blood of his Son.
Are you weary, child of God? Are your sins and problems drowning you in despair, doubt, and fear? Would you live with more purpose, with even the small, mundane, and burdensome things of life taking on a brighter hue of purpose and significance? Think of the fullness of gospel blessing that we have in Jesus Christ. His heart is not constricted in its love; his arm is not shorted so that it has lost its power. He is not despairing over the condition of the world or fretful about his church. He sees our sins and weaknesses as occasion to display his saving power and sustaining grace, if we would but seek him and commit ourselves more fully to him. He looks at lost men and nations not as reasons to fear for the survival of his church in a world run amok in unbelief but as a trumpet call to look upon the harvest-ready fields and to sound the gospel trumpet to languishing, sin-laden souls. Paul did not know exactly what was awaiting him in Jerusalem, as Luke makes clear (Acts 20:22-23), but whatever it was, he is making gospel plans. He is anticipating the gospel blessing of Christ upon him. He is no different than we are. We serve the same glorious Lord and King. We are citizens of heaven, a kingdom of priests, fellow-heirs with Jesus Christ and of heaven, and the possessors of all things in Christ. He is exalted and extolled (Isa. 52:13; we shall be blessed in him as we live in gospel fellowship with him in all that we do.