Michael Bird says, “I like to think of Romans 15:1-13 as Paul’s graduating address for readers going through the ‘Christ College’ of 12:1-15:13.” The first 13 verses do feel very much that way. Paul is wrapping up what the gospel culture he’s been expounding. Then, in the second half of chapter 15, he is explaining more his reasoning for writing to the Romans and gives us valuable insight into his mission and how that impacts our mission.
1 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
8 For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” 10 And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” 11 And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” 12 And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” 13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
Paul puts the burden of building and maintaining gospel culture on the shoulders of the strong. He is not excusing the weak. He’s simply telling the strong that they set the tone. They should bear the failings of the weak. In this instance, he’s referring to the “strong” Gentiles who enjoy the freedom in Christ to eat all foods and ignore Jewish festival days, and to the “weak” Jews who still follow the Torah laws. Paul is not calling the strong merely to tolerate the weak. He’s telling them to indulge them at the expense of themselves. They should bend over backward for them precisely because they understand freedom in Christ.
And what are the grounds for such a command? Jesus Christ himself. His work of humility is the foundation and power from which the strong can draw from. Paul uses Psalm 69:9 as proof of Jesus bearing the failings of the weak, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” As the strong bend down to help the weak, they replay the humility of Christ bending down to help us all. Their death to preference leads to new life for those for whom they die. That’s the power of the gospel. It frees us from our personal likings and comforts to serve others with love beyond this earth. To do this is to fulfill the command of Paul in verse 2, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” A gospel culture knows nothing of pithy putdowns and mindless insults. It knows much of humble service and gospel encouragement.
We can only go so far in our own power. A car cannot run without fuel, but the car cannot create the fuel. Likewise, we cannot run without the fuel of the Holy Spirit, but we cannot create the fuel. God must give himself. And the good news of the gospel is that he has, and he does, and he will continue to do so. He does this in a variety of ways. One way is through the reading of the scriptures. Paul gives us insight into how he read the Bible and how he expects us to read as well in verse 4. “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The Bible is not just a historical record. It is a historical record leading us to the living God. We can look to it to find instruction on how to live as holy people. Furthermore, we can find in it encouragement and hope. How is this so?
The Bible is our primary source for the workings of God throughout history. And we know that living the Christian life is a high calling. Jesus did not rise from the grave to give us a mediocre existence. He rose from the grave to give us his best. But his best is hard for us to hold in our two hands. We lose our way. We get sidetracked and confused. So, God in his grace gave us the Bible to help in times of need. We have before us all the information the God of the universe deemed good for us to know. We would be foolish to ignore it. We would be wise to search it. Scripture endures. Scripture encourages. Scripture gives us hope. When it gets hard to live the Christian life, we can turn to the Scriptures to find the supreme example of humility in the person of Jesus Christ. We can see what he did and what he gives to find the strength we need to build a gospel culture that radiates Christ’s beauty.
In all this, Paul has one goal he’s striving toward. It’s the same goal the entire Bible is striving toward: the glory of God. Paul prays the first prayer since Romans 1:9-12. He prays that God would give them the endurance and encouragement to live in harmony with one another so that with one voice they may glorify God. He’s not praying that they would all learn to think alike but that they would all learn to love alike with the aim of glorifying God. Despite all our differences in ethnicity, race, culture, age, etc. God is uniting his people so that the sound coming from the church building throughout the world is the song of praise of the glory of his grace. It is one voice singing to one God who has made his varied people one people in his Son.
The glorious reality we have walked into when we came into Christ is the reality that in him we are welcomed completely. Jesus has welcomed us, and he calls us to welcome all his people. “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The word Paul chose to use for “welcome” is the image of pressing into the heart. When another Christian walks into our church, our response should be to press that person into our heart. We accept them wholly, as Christ has accepted us. Can you imagine the beauty that would radiate from the community if that was the default reaction? How can the world ignore that?
After all, the work of Jesus benefited the whole word. It is fitting, therefore, that the whole world would see his glory. Paul uses several Old Testament scriptures to prove this point. The gospel was preached throughout the scriptures—the plan was always to bring the Gentiles in. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome filled with Gentiles. As Paul looks back over the Old Testament, he sees the fulfillment of God’s promises and this church is proof. Think of the joy that must have filled his heart? That’s why he prays in verse 13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” The Christian life leads to abounding hope. We serve and follow a God of hope that gives out joy and peace to his children. The path all in Christ are walking down is one that leads to an abundance of happiness. And the more people included, the happier it is.
Community is hard. A joyful and peaceful community is even harder. But God can create it through the gospel. And that’s why Paul is writing this letter. He aims to join Jew and Gentile. Michael Bird gives us a vivid illustration of how this may have looked.
Imagine a group of Gentile Christians in Rome, perhaps a mixture of slaves and artisans, sitting at the back of a leather-worker’s shop one night, huddled around a candle, singing a hymn, recounting their day, and sharing what little food they had. One of the slaves is a scribe and is able to read from a notebook a few verses from Psalm 69. Then in walks Herodion, a Jewish freedman, who had returned to Rome from Alexandria some weeks ago. Herodian turns to Rufus, the leader of the house church, and says, “greetings and peace.” Rufus has not seen Herodion for six years and when they had last met there had been a ferocious debate about drinking wine. Herodion had visited Rufus’s shop to explain why drinking pagan wine was wrong; it was defiled by its use in libations, so God-worshipers must avoid it or risk God’s judgment. Rufus wasn’t convinced and Herodion stormed off cursing Rufus and his pagan drink.
Now, however, Rufus looks at Herodion; he looks weak and malnourished. Perhaps his master has cast him out for his Christian faith. Everyone in the group looks at Rufus to see what he will do. Rufus rises, kisses Herodion on the cheek, sits him down, and gives him some bread and a few turnips and pour him a cup of water. He looks at Herodion and says, “Eat! For we all belong to the same Lord.” That is why Paul wrote Romans.
14 I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. 15 But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. 18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; 20 and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”
22 This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 23 But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, 24 I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while. 25 At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27 For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. 28 When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. 29 I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.
30 I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, 32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. 33 May the God of peace be with you all. Amen.
Despite what we may be led to believe about the health of this community, Paul is actually satisfied with them. He recognizes that they are “full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” He gives them credit where credit is due. But Paul has a reason for writing this letter, and we are now about to see that more clearly. Paul has not held back on saying hard things. He’s an apostle, after all. But he said these things as reminders, not as new information. Paul did not plant this church nor he has visited them. But he plans to come soon, and when he does, it will be the launch pad for his next phase of ministry.
He is living out the grace that Jesus gave him. That grace manifests itself in three actions: (1) Paul is a minster of Jesus to the Gentiles, (2) he has a priestly duty to preach the gospel, and (3) he brings the offering of the Gentiles to God. This is Paul’s ministry: to take the gospel to the Gentiles, pressing the heart of God to the edges of the world.
Paul is an ambitious man. That’s a phrase that sounds anti-gospel. Paul says elsewhere he boasts only in Christ, showing humility. How can he be both ambitious and humble? Paul is ambitious in the right way. He is ambitious for the Lord’s sake. He is jealous for the glory of God. His heart burns for the gospel to go forth into the world and change lives.
Paul looks to Isaiah 52:15 for both confirmation of his ministry and encouragement to continue his ministry. “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” In context, Isaiah is talking about the Servant being announced before the world, leaving them without words at his glory. The engine the powers Paul’s life is the glory of God going out to the nations. His goal is to preach to those who have not yet heard, but he can’t do that without also preaching to those who have heard.
In verse 24, we see that Paul’s plan is to go to Spain. Spain had a very small number of Jews and no Christians. So, preaching the gospel in Spain is, in Paul’s mind, to take the gospel to the edges of the world. Isaiah talks about the coastlands and islands hearing the good news. Paul aims to fulfill that Scripture, but he needs the Romans’ help.
But before Paul can go to Spain, he must go to Jerusalem. He is bringing an offering to the Jews there who desperately need it. And this is more than just a simply offering. This is an offering from the Gentiles. We see this in Acts 24:17. As Michael Bird says, “The collection was more than mere charity; it was symbolic for the reciprocal unity of common fellowship that Paul has sketched out in Romans 3-4, 9-11, and 14:1-15:13.” Paul’s life bears witness to his message: the gospel has the power to break down all walls that divide us. Jesus’ good news is big enough to cover any bad news we can muster.
Paul then asks for prayer in verse 30-33. Like any missionary, he needs the prayers of others. Specifically, he requests prayer for deliverance from unbelievers in Judea and that his service for Jerusalem would be accepted. These two things going well will provide an easy transition to Rome. We know from history that Paul did eventually make it to Rome but not in the way he wanted. He was arrested in Judea because of the Jews. This seems like an unanswered prayer until we realize that this arrest likely saved him from the death the Jews were planning (Acts 22-28). The offering was accepted (Acts 24:17), however. And he did finally make it to Rome, although not in the joy and anticipated refreshment he had hoped. He went instead in chains, bound to a guard that heard the gospel from him (Acts 28:13). You can imprison Paul’s body, but you can’t imprison his message. He never made it to Spain, but the gospel made it beyond those shores, and one of the ways was through the writing of Paul, especially the book of Romans.
There is much to be gained from a study of the history of Paul’s life, and the history of the other New Testament authors and first-century missionaries. But to learn from their history should move us to action. N.T. Wright puts it powerfully, “Just as the principle and ultimate goal of all historical work on J.S. Bach ought to be a more sensitive and intelligent performance of his music, so the principle and ultimate goal of all historical work on the New Testament ought to be a more sensitive and intelligent practice of Christian mission and discipleship.”
Jim Eliot understood this missionary heart, and he did something about it. He left and shared the gospel with those who had never heard. When asked why he didn’t stay at home and preach there, he replied,
You wonder why people choose fields away from the States when young people at home are drifting because no one wants to take time to listen to their problems. I’ll tell you why I left. Because those Stateside young people have every opportunity to study, hear and understand the Word of God in their own language, and these Indians have no opportunity whatsoever. I have had to make a cross of two logs, and lie down on it, to show the Indians what it means to crucify a man. When there is that much ignorance over here and so much knowledge and opportunity over there, I have no question in my mind why God sent me here. Those whimpering Stateside young people will wake up on the Day of Judgment condemned to worse fates than these demon-fearing Indians, because, having a Bible, they were bored with it, while these never heard of such a thing as writing.
God, I pray Thee, light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn for Thee. Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus.
Paul didn’t write Romans to merely make us feel better. He wrote Romans to spur us to action. He wrote Romans so we would, by the power of the gospel, break down dividing walls and unite as one people for one purpose: the glory of God. Paul wrote Romans to get to Spain. It could be said, as N.T. Wright has put it, “One of the most important lessons in Romans 15 might be put thus: God allowed Paul to dream of Spain in order that he might write Romans.” Paul’s desire to journey to Spain via Rome gave the world the most theologically rich book ever written. The book of Romans is proof that God works all things for the good of those who love him, even when we the path we planned seems to have been erased. You can bind a man in chains, but you cannot bind his message.