I’ve been thinking about the Apostle Paul’s words written to the church in Rome. I’ve thought about his unparalleled teaching, his deep understanding of the things of God, and his ability to communicate God’s truth to others. God had given Paul an ability to think, comprehend, and communicate godly truths like few who have ever lived. Yet, at the same time, there is no question that Paul had spent countless hours pouring over the Hebrew Scriptures, forming his messages in his heart and his mind, and meditating on how the teachings of the Old Testament shed light on the coming of Jesus.
Paul had a brilliant mind, but he was not an academic, he was a missionary. His heart was to share the Good News with those who had never heard the message of Jesus before. He ventured off the beaten path, he traveled to places where other followers of Jesus would have never considered going, and he rubbed shoulders with those, who years earlier, he would have never even given the time of day.
By the time he wrote the letter to the church in Rome he was well past “halftime” in his ministry and life. He didn’t know it, but he was headed to the finish line. Paul’s three missionary journeys had taken him through hardships and trials as well as allowing him to experience the joy of seeing new churches established and many people come to know Jesus as Lord of their life.
As a result of his conversion, the Apostle Paul’s life was radically altered. From the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he chose the road less traveled. The great American poet, Robert Frost, wrote a poem that was published in 1916 called, The Road Not Taken. In the poem he writes,
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. (Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken, 1916)
God called Paul to reach out to the Gentiles and the road that led to that ministry needed a pioneer. The Apostle Paul was the pioneer whom God used to blaze the trial and open the door for the Gentiles, who had lived in the darkness of their pagan ways, to come to know the salvation of Jesus Christ.
We all love the stories of great trail blazers. People like Lewis and Clark who opened up the West, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who continue to blaze new trails in the computer industry. We love to hear their stories, their great moments of breakthrough and victory, but we oftentimes miss the struggle that each and every one of them had to endure.
In my mind there is no story more epic in nature than the story of the Apostle Paul. Paul’s life was more than movie worthy. There were transitional moments that were sure signs that life would never be the same for Paul again after what he had just experienced. Life changing transitions like when Paul was on his way to arrest the followers of Jesus and ended up becoming one of them on the road to Damascus. There were painful times like when he and his friend Barnabas decided to go their separate ways. There were heart-wrenching episodes of Paul’s life that caused us to scratch our heads and wonder out loud, “How does this guy keep moving forward with all that is against him?” Paul wrote about some of the challenges he faced as he penned his letter to the church in Corinth. Paul was warning the people in Corinth about some of the leaders among them whose motives were questionable when he wrote these words.
23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28 NIV)
You don’t have to spend much time reading Luke’s account of Paul’s travels in the book of Acts or Paul’s letters to the churches to come to the conclusion that Paul was a man on a mission. It was a mission that he would describe as blessed beyond his wildest imagination, but at the same time it was excruciatingly demanding. In our Scripture for today we will see that Paul is not considering retirement, he is organizing his itinerary for what is to come. Read along with me from Romans 15:20-33.
20 It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. 21 Rather, as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” 22 This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. 23 But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, 24 I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. 25 Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27 They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. 28 So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this fruit, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. 29 I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ. 30 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. 31 Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, 32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed. 33 The God of peace be with you all. Amen. (Romans 15:20-33 NIV)
There are some great lessons that we can glean from Paul at this point. I want you to notice something that we might easily miss if we rush too quickly through these verses. In Romans 15:20-21, Paul shares with the folks in Rome the focus of his missionary career. He says that he has always had a desire to go where others had not been to share the Gospel. He didn’t want to build on someone else’s foundation. Then, in verse 22, Paul says, 22 “This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you.” Paul wasn’t following his agenda, but he was following God’s. It would have been much easier for Paul to reach out to the Jews. After all, those were his people. Paul was a Jew.
When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus set the course for Paul’s life. Paul was blinded and could not see as they led him into Damascus. God sent a man named Ananias to lay hands on Paul so that his sight would be restored, but Ananias was hesitant to go see Paul, knowing who he was and his hatred of Jesus’ followers. In Acts 9:15-16 we read,
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15-16 NIV)
His course was set, his gaze and movement would be fixed upon the lands that God, in His Sovereignty, had chosen for him to visit so that he might share the Good News. Paul began his mission and traveled throughout the ancient Near East. Paul’s journey’s led him over into Macedonia where he visited Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, Berea, and Athens in spreading the Gospel.
Paul yearned to visit the folks in Rome. He had not planted the church, but had heard many positive things about the believers there as he had crossed paths with believers from Rome during his missionary travels. He wanted to visit them, but Paul was more focused on following God’s plan than he was on doing what he desired to do. Paul mentions his longing to visit Rome here in Romans 15, but this is not the first time he shared with them his desire to visit them. In the opening verses of his letter to the people of Rome, Paul wrote,
11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong– 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. (Romans 1:11-12 NIV)
There is a great lesson in this for us. It is so important for us to be faithful to the mission God has given us rather than be distracted by what we would prefer to do. It is so much easier to do what we want to do isn’t it? It is much easier to do what comes naturally, that which we “enjoy,” instead of being faithful to do what God has called us to do. My experience has taught me that if I will just be faithful to the work God has given me, then, in time, what God has for me will become my love, my passion, and my joy. Let me explain what I’m getting at by using Paul as an example.
I mentioned to you that God called Paul to go to the Gentiles. Do you really think he was excited about that news when it came to him? He couldn’t stand the Gentiles any more than Jonah could stand the Ninevites, but he went. Paul did what God had given him to do and he was faithful in doing it.
About six years after Paul set out on his first missionary journey he visited the predominantly Gentile city of Philippi and established a church there. The date was probably 56-57 A.D. There was opposition to Paul’s message. He was thrown into prison and eventually asked to leave town. (Acts 16) Paul was able to visit Philippi on one other occasion, on his third missionary journey. After his second visit to the city, Paul would never visit Philippi again, but he had fallen in love with the Gentiles there.
Sometime after his second visit, Paul was arrested once again. Bible teachers are not in agreement as to whether he was in prison in Rome or Ephesus, but either way he was in prison. While he was sitting in prison he had lots of time to think. The people of Philippi were on his heart and mind so Paul wrote them a letter. Listen to some of what he had to say. In Philippians 1:4-8, Paul writes of his deep love for the people of Philippi.
4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:4-8 NIV)
Throughout Paul’s letter to the people of Philippi you get the sense that these are some special people, that Paul has a deep love for them, and that he wants to encourage them to “keep on” in the Lord. Then, in the last section of his letter, Paul writes,
1 Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends! (Philippians 4:1 NIV)
Paul not only developed a deep love for the Gentiles in Philippi, but he longed for them, they became his “joy.” What would Paul have missed if he would have allowed his discomfort with Gentiles to prevent him from traveling to Philippi? Think of all he would have missed. If all we did was what we wanted to do, what felt comfortable to us, then we would miss some of God’s richest blessings. I want to urge you to never resist God’s leading in your life. If you sense that God is leading you to get involved in some way that you have never been involved before then trust God, seek God’s leading, not your own comfort.
As I mentioned earlier, Paul expressed his desire to visit the people of Rome. He was planning on visiting them, but it would only be a stopover, a brief time of fellowship, because he was headed out to pioneer a new mission to Spain. Then, in verses 25-27, Paul lets them know that before he can go to his latest mission field he must go back to Jerusalem to deliver an offering to the impoverished believers in that city. Paul writes,
25 Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27 They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. (Romans 15:25-27 NIV)
Paul’s trip to Jerusalem must have been very important to him because it was going to add about 2,000 miles to his trip. He could have left Corinth and sailed straight for Spain, but personally delivering the offering to the brothers and sister in Jerusalem was at the top of Paul’s priority list. How do you explain that? What was it that caused such urgency in Paul to get to Jerusalem even though it was so far out of his way? Well, I’m so glad you asked.
In 49 A.D., at the Jerusalem Council, there was an important meeting between Paul and the leaders of the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. Paul traveled to Jerusalem to speak up for the Gentile believers, to provide evidence that God was working among the Gentiles, and to state his case that it was unnecessary for the Gentiles to follow the Law of Moses. By the time the meeting was over the Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem opened their arms to the Gentiles and required them to follow only the most necessary parts of the Law. They sent a letter to be delivered to the Gentiles and part of it read,
28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. (Acts 15:28-29 NIV)
Some time later, when Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, he was still battling the Judaizers who wanted the Gentile men to be circumcised and follow the Law. Paul said to them,
9 James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. (Galatians 2:9-10 NIV)
Paul doesn’t mention the four things James, John, and Peter required of the Gentiles, but he includes something that Luke left out in Acts—“to remember the poor.” There has been a lot of debate about why Paul didn’t mention the four requirements and why he included something that wasn’t required. One Bible teacher I read this past week even went so far as to say that Paul lied to the folks in Galatia. I would hardly go that far.
The believers in Jerusalem were going through a tough time. We don’t know why there was such poverty among the followers of Jesus, but nonetheless they were struggling just to make ends meet. Surely this would have been something that was talked about while Paul was in Jerusalem. James, John, or Peter might have mentioned in passing how they needed help and for Paul to do what he could to help out. Whatever the scenario was it stuck with Paul.
During his travels Paul asked the churches to contribute to the needs of the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. He mentions in Romans 15 that the believers in Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to give help. Paul had collected the offering and he was going to personally take it to the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.
When you first hear the story of the offering for Jerusalem you might think that the financial help would be a big boost to the believers in Jerusalem. You would be right, but I can think of two ways that the offering would be an even greater help than mere financial assistance. First of all, when the believers in Jerusalem saw Paul bringing the offering from brothers and sisters from other places it would be a great encouragement that they were not alone, that others cared about their situation. Each and every one of us needs to know that we are not alone don’t we? Sure we do. Secondly, the offering from other believers, Gentile believers, would strengthen the unity of the whole Body of Christ—Jewish and Gentile believers. There was still tension among the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers even though both groups were followers of Jesus. It is tough to look down upon someone who is helping you. It is difficult to hold on to old stereotypes of others when they are standing with you in your struggle.
Alongside of this is the fact that the believers in Macedonia who gave so willingly to help out their impoverished brothers and sisters in Jerusalem had their own struggles. They were poor themselves. Paul writes about them in his letter to the church in Corinth.
1 And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. (2 Corinthians 8:1-4 NIV)
What a testimony! Out of their own poverty and extreme trial the folks in Macedonia were enthusiastic to help others in need. Does that describe you and me? When we are going through trials do we become introspective, worry only about us, or in the midst of our trials do we seek out opportunities to help others who are struggling as well?
Before we get out of here today I want to share one more important lesson for us to consider. In verse 29 Paul says that he has confidence that when he does get to Rome he will come “in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.” Read Romans 15:29 with me.
29 I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ. (Romans 15:29 NIV)
How could Paul be confident that he would be blessed to overflowing in his trip to Rome? What does it mean to live a blessed life? Is it something similar to the “health, wealth, and prosperity gospel” that we have heard about for the last several years? You know the teaching right? God wants to bless you and His blessings consist of the best things in life—big homes, fancy cars, and a pocket-full of cash. I’ve got news for you. That type of teaching was the furthest thing from Paul’s mind.
The blessing is walking in obedience to God’s call and purpose for your life. Paul had his sights set on doing only what God had for him to do. Paul’s message was what God had done and was continuing to do through the life, death, and glorious resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. Paul walked where God called him to walk, he did what God would have him to do, and he sought only the glory of God in his faithful obedience. Listen to these verses and see if you draw the same conclusion.
22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:22-24 NIV)
1 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2 NIV)
14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14 NIV)
When Paul was arrested for the last time and it was evident to him that he had reached the end of his life. He wrote these words.
7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8 NIV)
Paul lived a blessed life, not a charmed life, not an easy life, not a carefree life, but a blessed life. He was blessed to be called by God from darkness to life. He was blessed to be given the opportunity to live his life for the glory of God. He was blessed to carry the message of the Cross to those who had not heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. He was blessed to suffer for Christ. Paul lived a blessed life, a life of obedience and faithfulness, and therefore wherever he went he went with the confidence of knowing that he went with the full measure of the blessing of His glorious Savior. What a challenge, what an inspiration, for you and me!
I want you to know that the blessing is in the struggle. The blessing is not in living a life free from sorrow, struggle, opposition, or discouragement. The blessing is in the struggle. If we will set our sights on living in obedience to God’s Word, to being faithful to what He teaches us in His Word, and doing what He has called us to do throughout our lives we will be blessed. I want to urge you this morning to surrender your life to Jesus Christ and let the journey begin.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
June 6, 2010