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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Romans 15

 

 

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Verses 1-13

Chapter 31

ROMAN CHRISTIANITY ST. PAUL’S COMMISSION HIS INTENDED ITINERARY HE ASKS FOR PRAYER

Romans 15:14-33

THE Epistle hastens to its close. As to its instructions, doctrinal or moral, they are now practically written. The Way of Salvation lies extended, in its radiant outline, before the Romans, and ourselves. The Way of Obedience, in some of its main tracks, has been drawn firmly on the field of life. Little remains but the Missionary’s last words about persons and plans, and then the great task is done.

He will say a warm, gracious word about the spiritual state of the Roman believers. He will justify, with a noble courtesy, his own authoritative attitude as their counsellor. He will talk a little of his hoped for and now seemingly approaching visit, and matters in connection with it. He will greet the individuals whom he knows, and commend the bearer of the Letter, and add last messages from his friends. Then Phoebe may receive her charge, and go on her way.

But I am sure, my brethren, quite on my own part, about you, that you are, yourselves, irrespective of my influence, brimming with goodness, with high Christian qualities in general, filled with all knowledge, competent in fact to admonish one another. Is this flattery, interested and insincere? Is it weakness, easily persuaded into a false optimism? Surely not; for the speaker here is the man who has spoken straight to the souls of these same people about sin, and judgment, and holiness; about the holiness of these everyday charities which some of them (so he has said plainly enough) had been violating. But a truly great heart always loves to praise where it can, and discerningly, to think and say the best. He who is Truth itself said of His imperfect, His disappointing followers, as He spoke of them in their hearing to His Father, "They have kept Thy word"; "I am glorified in them." [John 17:6; John 17:10] So here his Servant does not indeed give the Romans a formal certificate of perfection, but he does rejoice to know, and to say, that their community is Christian in a high degree, and that in a certain sense they have not needed information about Justification by Faith, nor about principles of love and liberty in their intercourse. In essence, all has been in their cognisance already; an assurance which could not have been entertained in regard of every Mission, certainly. He has written not as to children, giving them an alphabet, but as to men, developing facts into science.

But with a certain boldness I have written to you, here and there, just as reminding you; because of the grace, the free gift of his commission and of the equipment for it, given me by our God, given in order to my being Christ Jesus’ minister sent to the Nations, doing priest work with the Gospel of God, that the oblation of the Nations, the oblation which is in fact the Nations self-laid upon the spiritual altar, may be acceptable, consecrated in the Holy Spirit. It is a startling and splendid passage of metaphor. Here once, in all the range of his writings (unless we except the few and affecting words of Philippians 2:17,) the Apostle presents himself to his converts as a sacrificial ministrant, a "priest" in the sense which usage (not etymology) has so long stamped on that English word as its more special sense. Never do the great Founders of the Church, and never does He who is its foundation, use the term ίερεύς, sacrificing, mediating, priest, as a term to designate the Christian minister in any of his orders; never, if this passage is not to be reckoned in, with its ίερουργειν, its "priest work," as we have ventured to translate the Greek. In the distinctively sacerdotal Epistle, the Hebrews, the word ίερεύς comes indeed into the foreground. But there it is absorbed into the Lord. It is appropriated altogether to Him in His self-sacrificial Work once done, and in His heavenly Work now always doing, the work of mediatorial impartation, from His throne, of the blessings which His great Offering won. One other Christian application of the sacrificial title we have in the Epistles: "Ye are a holy priesthood," "a royal priesthood". [1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9] But who are "ye"? Not the consecrated pastorate, but the consecrated Christian company altogether. And what are the altar sacrifices of that company? "Sacrifices spiritual"; "the praises of Him who called them into His wonderful light". [1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9] In the Christian Church, the pre-Levitical ideal of the old Israel reappears in its sacred reality. He who offered to the Church of Moses [Exodus 19:6] to be one great priesthood, "a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation," found His favoured nation unready for the privilege, and so Levi representatively took the place alone. But now, in His new Israel, as all are sons in the Son, so all are priests in the Priest. And the sacred Ministry of that Israel, the Ministry which is His own divine institution, the gift [Ephesians 4:11] of the ascended Lord to His Church, is never once designated, as such, by the term which would have marked it as the analogue to Levi, or to Aaron.

Is this passage in any degree an exception? No; for it contains its own full inner evidence of its metaphorical cast. The "priest working" here has regard, we find, not to a ritual, but to "the Gospel." "The oblation" is-the Nations. The hallowing Element, shed as it were upon the victims, is the Holy Ghost. Not in a material temple, and serving at no tangible altar, the Apostle brings his multitudinous converts as his holocaust to the Lord. The Spirit, at his preaching and on their believing, descends upon them; and they lay themselves "a living sacrifice" where the fire of love shall consume them, to His glory.

I have therefore my right to exultation, in Christ Jesus, as His member and implement, as to what regards God; not in any respect as regards myself, apart from Him. And then he proceeds as if about to say, in evidence of that assertion, that he always declines to intrude on a brother Apostle’s ground, and to claim as his own experience what was in the least degree another’s; but that indeed through him, in sovereign grace, God has done great things, far and wide. This he expresses thus, in energetic compressions of diction:

For I will not dare to talk at all of things which Christ did not work out through me (there is an emphasis on "me") to effect obedience of [the] Nations to His Gospel, by word and deed, in power of signs and wonders, in power of God’s Spirit; a reference, strangely impressive by its very passingness, to the exercise of miracle-working gifts by the writer. This man, so strong in thought, so practical in counsel, so extremely unlikely to have been under an illusion about a large factor in his adult and intensely conscious experience, speaks direct from himself of his wonder works. And the allusion, thus dropped by the way and left behind, is itself an evidence to the perfect mental balance of the witness; this was no enthusiast, intoxicated with ambitious spiritual visions, but a man put in trust with a mysterious yet sober treasure. So that from Jerusalem, and round about it, [Acts 26:20] as far as the Illyrian region, the highland seaboard which looks across the Adriatic to the long eastern side of Italy, I have fulfilled the Gospel of Christ, carried it practically everywhere, satisfied the idea of so distributing it that it shall be accessible everywhere to the native races.

But this I have done with this ambition, to preach the Gospel not where Christ was already named, that I might not build on another man’s foundation; but to act on the divine word, as it stands written, [Isaiah 52:15] "They to whom no news was carried about Him, shall see; and those who have not heard, shall understand." Here was an "ambition" as far-sighted as it was noble. Would that the principle of it could have been better remembered in the history of Christendom, and not least in our own age; a wasteful overlapping of effort on effort, system on system, would not need now to be so much deplored. Thus as a fact I was hindered for the most part-hindrances were the rule, signals of opportunity the exception-in coming to you; you, whose City is no untrodden ground to messengers of Christ, and therefore not the ground which had a first claim on me. But now, as no longer having place in these regions, eastern Roman Europe yielding him no longer an unattempted and accessible district to enter, and having a homesick feeling for coming to yon, these many years-whenever I may be journeying to Spain, [I will come to you]. For I hope, on my journey through, to see the sight of you (as if the view of so important a Church would be a spectacle indeed), and by you to be escorted there, if first I may have my fill of you, however imperfectly.

As always, in the fine courtesy of pastoral love, he says more, and thinks more, of his own expected gain of refreshment and encouragement from them, than even of what he may have to impart to them. So he had thought, and so spoken, in his opening page; [Romans 1:11-12] it is the same heart throughout.

How little did he realise the line and details of the destined fulfilment of that "homesick feeling!" He was indeed to "see Rome," and for no passing "sight of the scene." For two long years of sorrows and joys, restraints and wonderful occasions, innumerable colloquies, and the writing of great Scriptures, he was to "dwell in his own hired lodgings" there. But he did not see what lay between.

For St. Paul ordinarily, as always for us, it was true that "we know not what awaits us." For us, as for him, it is better "to walk with God in the dark, than to go alone in the light."

Did he ultimately visit Spain? We shall never know until perhaps we are permitted to ask him hereafter. It is not at all impossible that, released from his Roman prison, he first went westward and then-as at some time he certainly did-travelled to the Levant. But no tradition, however faint, connects St. Paul with the great Peninsula which glories in her legend of St. James. Is it irrelevant to remember that in his Gospel he has notably visited Spain in later ages? It was the Gospel of St. Paul, the simple grandeur of his exposition of Justification by Faith, which in the sixteenth century laid hold on multitudes of the noblest of Spanish hearts, till it seemed as if not Germany, not England, bid fairer to become again a land of "truth in the light." The terrible Inquisition utterly crushed the springing harvest, at Valladolid, at Seville, and in that ghastly Quemadero at Madrid, which, five-and-twenty years ago, was excavated by accident, to reveal its deep strata of ashes, and charred bones, and all the debris of the Autos. But now again, in the mercy of God and in happier hours, the New Testament is read in the towns of Spain, and in her highland villages, and churches are gathering around the holy light, spiritual descendants of the true, the primeval, Church of Rome. May "the God of hope fill them with all peace and joy in believing."

But now I am journeying to Jerusalem, the journey whose course we know so well from Acts 20:1-38; Acts 21:1-40, ministering to the saints, serving the poor converts of the holy City as the collector and conveyer of alms for their necessities. For Macedonia and Achaia, the northern and southern Provinces of Roman Greece, finely personified in this vivid passage, thought good to make something of a communication, a certain gift to be "shared" among the recipients, for the poor of the saints who live at Jerusalem; the place where poverty seemed specially, for whatever reason, to beset the converts. "For they thought good!"-yes; but there is a different side to the matter. Macedonia and Achaia are generous friends, but they have an obligation too: And debtors they are to them, to these poor people of the old City. For if in their spiritual things the Nations shared, they, these Nations, are in debt, as a fact, in things carnal, things belonging to our "life in the flesh," to minister to them; to do them public and religious service.

When I have finished this then, and sealed this fruit to them, put them into ratified ownership of this "proceed" of Christian love, I will come away by your road to Spain. (He means, "if the Lord will"; it is instructive to note that even St. Paul does not make it a duty, with an almost superstitious iteration, always to say so). Now I know that, coming to you, in the fulness of Christ’s benediction I shall come. He will come with his Lord’s "benediction" on him, as His messenger to the Roman disciples; Christ will send him charged with heavenly messages, and attended with His own prospering presence. And this will be "in fulness"; with a rich overflow of saving truth, and heavenly power, and blissful fellowship.

Here he pauses, to ask them for that boon of which he is so covetous-intercessory prayer. He has been speaking with a kind and even sprightly pleasantry (there is no irreverence in the recognition) of those Personages, Macedonia, and Achaia, and their gift, which is also their debt. He has spoken also of what we know from elsewhere [1 Corinthians 16:1-4] to have been his own scrupulous purpose not only to collect the alms but to see them punctually delivered, above all suspicion of misuse. He has talked with cheerful confidence of "the road by Rome to Spain." But now he realises what the visit to Jerusalem involves for himself. He has tasted in many places, and at many times, the bitter hatred felt for him in unbelieving Israel; a hatred the more bitter, probably, the more his astonishing activity and influence were felt in region after region. Now he is going to the central focus of the enmity; to the City of the Sanhedrin, and of the Zealots. And St. Paul is no Stoic, indifferent to fear, lifted in an unnatural exaltation above circumstances, though he is ready to walk through them in the power of Christ. His heart anticipates the experiences of outrage and revilings, and the possible breaking up of all his missionary plans. He thinks too of prejudice within the Church, as well as of hatred from without; he is not at all sure that his cherished collection will not be coldly received, or even rejected, by the Judaists of the mother church; whom yet he must and will call "saints." So he tells all to the Romans, with a generous and winning confidence in their sympathy, and begs their prayers, and above all sets them praying that he may not be disappointed of his longed for visit to them.

All was granted. He was welcomed by the Church. He was delivered from the fanatics, by the strong arm of the Empire. He did reach Rome, and he had holy joy there. Only, the Lord took His own way, a way they knew not, to answer Paul and his friends.

But I appeal to you, brethren, -the "but" carries an implication that something lay in the way of the happy prospect just mentioned, - by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the love of the Spirit, by that holy family affection inspired by the Holy One into the hearts which He has regenerated, to wrestle along with me in your prayers on my behalf to our God; that I may be rescued from those who disobey the Gospel in Judaea, and that my ministration which takes me to Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints, may be taken by the Christians there without prejudice, and in love; that I may with joy come to you, through the will of God, and may share refreshing rest with you, the rest of holy fellowship where the tension of discussion and opposition is intermitted, and the two parties perfectly "understand one another" in their Lord. But the God of our peace be with you all. Yes, so be it, whether or no the longed for "joy" and "refreshing rest" is granted in His providence to the Apostle. With his beloved Romans, anywise, let there be "peace"; peace in their community, and in their souls; peace with God, and peace in Him. And so it will be, whether their human friend is or is not permitted to see them, if only the Eternal Friend is there.

There is a deep and attractive tenderness, as we have seen above, in this paragraph, where the writer’s heart tells the readers quite freely of its personal misgivings and longings. One of the most pathetic, sometimes one of the most beautiful, phenomena of human life is the strong man in his weak hour, or rather in his feeling hour, when he is glad of the support of those who may be so much his weaker. There is a sort of strength which prides itself upon never showing such symptoms: to which it is a point of honour to act and speak always as if the man were self-contained and self-sufficient. But this is a narrow type of strength, not a great one. The strong man truly great is not afraid, in season, to "let himself go"; he is well able to recover. An underlying power leaves him at leisure to show upon the surface very much of what he feels. The largeness of his insight puts him into manifold contact with others, and keeps him open to their sympathies, however humble and inadequate these sympathies may be. The Lord Himself, "mighty to save," cared more than we can fully know for human fellow feeling. "Will ye also go away?" "Ye are they that have continued with Me in My temptations"; "Tarry ye here, and watch with Me"; "Lovest thou Me?"

No false spiritual pride suggests it to St. Paul to conceal his anxieties from the Romans. It is a temptation sometimes to those who have been called to help and strengthen other men, to affect for themselves a strength which perhaps they do not quite feel. It is well meant. The man is afraid that if he owns to a burthen he may. seem to belie the Gospel of "perfect peace"; that if he even lets it be suspected that he is not always in the ideal Christian frame, his warmest exhortations and testimonies may lose their power. But at all possible hazards let him, about such things as about all others, tell the truth. It is a sacred duty in itself; the heavenly Gospel has no corner in it for the maneuvers of spiritual prevarication. And he will find assuredly that truthfulness, transparent candour, will not really discount his witness to the promises of his Lord. It may humiliate him, but it will not discredit Jesus Christ. It will indicate the imperfection of the recipient, but not any defect in the thing received. And the fact that the witness has been found quite candid against himself, where there is occasion, will give a double weight to his every direct testimony to the possibility of a life lived in the hourly peace of God.

It is no part of our Christian duty to feel doubts and fears! And the more we act upon our Lord’s promises as they stand, the more we shall rejoice to find that misgivings tend to vanish where once they were always thickening upon us. Only, it is our duty always to be transparently honest.

However, we must not treat this theme here too much as if St. Paul had given us an unmistakable text for it. His words now before us express no "carking care" about his intended visit to Jerusalem. They only indicate a deep sense of the gravity of the prospect, and of its dangers. And we know from elsewhere {see especially Acts 21:13} that that sense did sometimes amount to an agony of feeling, in the course of the very journey which he now contemplates. And we see him here quite without the wish to conceal his heart in the matter.

In closing we note, "for our learning," his example as he is a man who craves to be prayed for. Prayer, that great mystery, that blessed fact and power, was indeed vital to St. Paul. He is always praying himself; he is always asking other people to pray for him. He "has seen Jesus Christ our Lord"; he is his Lord’s inspired Minister and Delegate; he has been "caught up into the third heaven"; he has had a thousand proofs that "all things," infallibly, "work together for his good." But he is left by this as certain as ever, with a persuasion as simple as a child’s, and also as deep as his own life-worn spirit, that it is immensely well worth his while to secure the intercessory prayers of those who know the way to God in Christ.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Romans 15:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/romans-15.html.

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