First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. And I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented thus far) in order that I might obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. Thus, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (1:8–15)
In seminary I learned a great deal from the books I read, the lectures I heard, and the papers I wrote. But I learned most from the attitudes and actions of the godly men under whom I studied. While around them, I discovered their true priorities, their true convictions, their true devotion to our Lord.
In the opening verses of his letter to the Romans, Paul also set himself forth for his readers to see before he attempted to teach them some deeper truths of the gospel. He opened his heart and said, in effect, “Before I show you my theology, I am going to show you myself.”
People serve the Lord from many motives. Some serve out of legalistic effort, as a means of earning salvation and God’s favor. Some serve the Lord for fear that, if they do not, they will incur His disfavor and perhaps even lose their salvation. Some, like Diotrophes (3 John 9), serve because of the prestige and esteem that leadership often brings. Some serve in order to gain preeminent ecclesiastical positions and the power to lord it over those under their care. Some serve for appearance’s sake, in order to be considered righteous by fellow church members and by the world. Some serve because of peer pressure to conform to certain human standards of religious and moral behavior. Children are often forced into religious activities by their parents, and they sometimes continue those activities into adult life only because of parental intimidation or perhaps from mere habit. Some people are even zealous in Christian work because of the financial gain it can produce.
But those motives for service are merely external, and no matter how orthodox or helpful to other people the service might be, unless it is done out of a sincere desire to please and glorify God, it is not spiritual nor acceptable to Him (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31). It is, of course, possible for a person to begin Christian service out of genuine devotion to God and later fall into an occasion or even a habit of performing it mechanically, merely from a sense of necessity. Pastors, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, missionaries and all other Christian workers can carelessly leave their first love and fall into a rut of superficial activity that is performed in the Lord’s name but is not done in His power or for His glory.
Even when the Lord is served from a right motive and in His power, there always lingers near a ready temptation to resentment and self-pity when one’s work is not appreciated by fellow Christians and perhaps goes completely unnoticed.
The apostle Paul was doubtlessly assailed by many temptations from Satan to give up his ministry when he was opposed, or to give up on a difficult, fleshly, self-centered, and worldly church such as the one at Corinth. But Paul was greatly used of the Lord because, by God’s grace and provision, he always kept his motives pure. Because his single purpose was to please God, the displeasure or disregard of other people, even of those he was serving, could not deter his work or lead him into bitterness and self-pity.
In his opening words to the believers at Rome, Paul tells of his sincere spiritual motives in wanting to minister to them. With warmth, affection, and sensitivity that permeate the entire letter, he assures them of his genuine devotion to God and his genuine love for them. Although Paul had not personally founded or even visited the church at Rome, he carried the heartfelt passion of Christ for their spiritual welfare and an eager desire to develop their spiritual and personal friendship. The letter to Rome reveals that Paul not only had the zeal of a prophet, the mind of a teacher, and the determination of an apostle, but also the heart of a shepherd.
When they first received Paul’s letter, the believers in Rome probably wondered why this great apostle whom most of them did not know would bother to write them such a long and profound letter. They also may have wondered why, if he cared so much for them, he had not yet paid them a visit. In verses 8–15 of chapter 1, Paul gives the answers to both of those questions. He wrote them because he cared deeply about their spiritual maturity, and he had not yet visited them because he had thus far been prevented. In these few verses the apostle lays bare his heart concerning them.
The key that unlocks the intent in this passage is the phrase “God, whom I serve in my spirit” (v. 9a). Paul had been raised and educated in Judaism. He had himself been a Pharisee and was well acquainted with the other Jewish religious set, the Sadducees, the scribes, the priests, and the elders. He knew that, with few exceptions, those leaders served God in the flesh and were motivated by self-interest. Their worship and service were mechanical, routine, external, and superficial. Paul also was well acquainted with the Gentile world and knew that pagan religious worship and service were likewise external, superficial, and completely motivated by self-interest.
Referring to such religion, Jesus told the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23–24). Worship that is true and acceptable to God does not involve a particular location, ritual, or any man-made activities or forms.
During the years before his salvation, Paul himself had worshiped and served God in an external, self-interested way (Phil. 3:4–7). But now that he belonged to Christ and had Christ’s own Spirit indwelling him, he worshiped and served Him in spirit and in truth, with his whole being. Paul was now motivated by a genuine, inner desire to serve God for God’s sake rather than his own, in God’s revealed way rather than his own, and in God’s power rather than his own. He was no longer motivated by self-interest or by peer pressure and no longer focused on Jewish religious tradition or even on self-effort to keep God’s law. He was not interested in trying to please other men, even himself, but only God (1 Cor. 4:1–5). The focus of his life and his ministry was to glorify God by proclaiming the saving grace of the gospel. He lived in conformity to the divine standard he proclaimed to the Ephesians, serving God “not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (Eph. 6:6). As he reminded the eiders from that church, “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me” (Acts 20:33–34).
Paul did not serve because it was “fun” and self-pleasing. “For even Christ did not please Himself,” points out later in the epistle; “but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached Thee fell upon Me’ ” (Rom. 15:3; cf. Ps. 69:9). Nor did Paul serve in order to gain glory and honor from men. “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). In a later letter to the church at Corinth he declared, “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5; cf. 1 Cor. 9:19).
In verses 8–15, Paul’s words suggest nine marks of true spiritual service: a thankful spirit (v. 8), a concerned spirit (v. 9–10a), a willing and submissive spirit (v. 10b), a loving spirit (v. 11), a humble spirit (v. 12), a fruitful spirit (v. 13), an obedient spirit (v. 14), an eager spirit (v. 15). A tenth, a bold spirit, is mentioned in v. 16a.
A Thankful Spirit
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. (1:8)
The first mark of true spiritual service, which Paul had in abundance, is thankfulness. He was grateful for what God had done for and through him, but he was equally grateful for what God had done in and through other believers. He perhaps did not thank the Roman believers themselves, lest it be considered flattery. He said, rather, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you.
Paul’s thankfulness was intimate, first of all because of his spiritual closeness to God. I thank my God, he declared. No pagan would have made such a statement, nor would have most Jews referred to God with a personal pronoun. For Paul, God was not a theological abstraction but a beloved Savior and close friend. As he testifies in the following verse, he served God in his spirit, from the depth of his heart and mind.
Paul gave thanks through Jesus Christ, the one eternal Mediator between God and man. “No one comes to the Father, but through Me,” Jesus said (John 14:6), and believers in Him have the privilege of calling Almighty God, my God. “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). It is because we have been given access to the Father through Jesus Christ that we always can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16), and can say, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).
Paul’s thankfulness was also intimate because of his spiritual intimacy with fellow believers, even to such as those in Rome, most of whom he did not personally know. I thank my God … for you all, that is, for all the believers in the church at Rome. His gratitude was impartial and all-encompassing, making no distinctions.
In every epistle but one, Paul expresses gratitude for those to whom he writes. The exception was the letter to the church in Galatia, which had defected from the true gospel of grace to a works system of righteousness and was worshiping and serving in the flesh because of the influence of the Judaizers. It was not that the other churches were perfect, which is apparent since Paul wrote most of his letters to correct wrong doctrine or unholy living. But even where the need for instruction and correction was great, he found something in those churches for which he could be thankful.
Paul wrote the letter to the Romans from Corinth, and at the time the Jews there were plotting to kill him (Acts 20:3). He was on his way to Jerusalem, where he knew imprisonment and possibly death awaited him. Yet he was still filled with thanksgiving.
Some years later, as he was prisoner in his own house in Rome while awaiting an audience before Caesar, Paul was still thankful. While there, he wrote four epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon), commonly called the prison epistles. In each of those letters he gives thanks for the believers to whom he writes (Eph. 1:16; Phil. 1:3; Col. 1:3; Philem. 4). During his second Roman imprisonment, he may have spent time in the wretched Mamertine prison. If so, we can be sure he was thankful even there, although the city sewage system ran through the prison. I was told on a visit there that when the cells were filled to capacity, the sewage gates were opened and all the inmates would drown in the filthy water, making way for a new batch of prisoners. But Paul’s thankfulness did not rise and fall based on his earthly circumstances but on the richness of his fellowship with his Lord.
The specific reason for Paul’s thankfulness for the Roman Christians was their deep faith, which was being proclaimed throughout the whole world. From secular history we learn that in a.d. 49 Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome, thinking they were all followers of someone named Chrestus (a variant spelling of Christ). Apparently the testimony of Jewish Christians had so incited the nonbelieving Jews that the turmoil threatened the peace of the whole city. The believers had, then, a powerful testimony not only in the city, but throughout the whole world. What a commendation!
By faith Paul was not referring to the initial trust in Christ that brings salvation but to the persevering trust that brings spiritual strength and growth. Faith like that also may bring persecution. Believers in Rome lived in the lion’s den, as it were, yet they lived out their faith with integrity and credibility. Some churches are famous because of their pastor, their architecture, their stained glass windows, or their size or wealth. The church in Rome was famous because of its faith. It was a fellowship of genuinely redeemed saints through whom the Lord Jesus Christ manifested His life and power, so that their character was known everywhere.
A thankful heart for those to whom one ministers is essential to true spiritual service. The Christian who is trying to serve God’s people, however needy they may be, without gratitude in his heart for what the Lord has done for them will find his service lacking joy. Paul could usually find a cause for thanks so that he could honor the Lord for what had been done already and hope for what God would use him to do.
Superficial believers are seldom satisfied and therefore seldom thankful. Because they focus on their own appetites for things of the world, they are more often resentful than thankful. A thankless heart is a selfish, self-centered, legalistic heart. Paul had a thankful heart because he continually focused on what God was doing in his own life, in the lives of other faithful believers, and in the advancement of His kingdom throughout the world.
A Concerned Spirit
For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers (1:9–10a)
The second mark of true spiritual service that exudes here, and that Paul exemplified in his life, is that of a concerned spirit. Although he was grateful for what had been and was being done in the Lord’s work, he was also deeply concerned about balancing those off with what yet needed to be done.
It is here that Paul presents the key phrase of verses 8–15, God, whom I serve in my spirit. Latreuō (to serve) is always used in the New Testament of religious service, and is therefore sometimes translated “worship.” Except for two references to the service of pagan idols, the term is used in reference to the worship and service of the true God. The greatest worship a believer can offer to God is devoted, pure, heart-felt ministry.
Godly service calls for total, unreserved commitment. Paul served God with everything he had, beginning with his spirit, that is, flowing out of a deep desire in his soul. In chapter 12 of this letter, he appeals to all believers, “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (v. 1). Such spiritual devotion is accomplished by refusing to “be conformed to this world” and by being “transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (v. 2).
Paul used a similar statement about true worship in writing to the church at Philippi: “We are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). When his shipmates had given up all hope of surviving the fierce storm on the Mediterranean Sea as they sailed to Rome, the apostle assured them, “I urge you to keep up your courage, for there shall be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.’ Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God, that it will turn out exactly as I have been told” (Acts 27:22–25).
Paul could declare to Timothy, “I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience” (2 Tim. 1:3). Because he served God from a sincere heart, he also served with a clear conscience. Paul’s worship and service were inextricably related. His worship was an act of service, and his service was an act of worship.
Because his young friend had appeared to stumble spiritually, Paul admonished Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). A few verses later he also warned: “Flee from youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (v. 22).
Paul’s primary service to God was the preaching of the gospel of His Son, the ministry to which the Lord had called him and to which he gave every breath of his life. But as he goes on to explain, that service to God included deep, personal concern for everyone who believed the gospel, whether they heard it from him or from someone else. He was not concerned for the saints in Rome because they were “his converts,” which they were not, but because he and they were brothers who had the same spiritual Father through trusting in the same divine Son as their Savior.
As he mentions several times in the opening of the epistle (1:10–11, 15), and reiterates near the closing (15:14, 22), he was writing to the Roman church somewhat as an outsider and stranger, humanly speaking. That fact makes his intense concern for the believers there even more remarkable and touching.
Perhaps because most of them did not know him personally, Paul here calls the Lord as witness to his sincere love and concern for his spiritual brothers and sisters at Rome. He knew that God, who knows the real motive and sincerity of every heart (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5), would testify as to how unceasingly he made mention of them always in his prayers. He was not redundant by using both unceasingly and always but simply gave a negative and positive expression of his concern.
Although he rejoiced in and gave thanks for their great faithfulness, he knew that apart from God’s continuing provision even strong faith falters. Those saints were therefore always in his prayers, never taken off his prayer list. Although for different reasons, the faithful saint needs the prayer support of fellow believers as much as the saint who is unfaithful.
Paul assured the saints of Thessalonica that “we pray for you always that our God may count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power; in order that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:11–12). In his earlier letter the apostle admonished them to have devotion to unceasing prayer (1 Thess. 5:17). He likewise counseled the Ephesian believers to “pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18).
Near the end of his Romans letter Paul pleads: “I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me” (Rom. 15:30). He did not ask prayer for himself for selfish reasons but for the sake of the ministry, that he might “be delivered from those who [were] disobedient in Judea, and that [his] service for Jerusalem [might] prove acceptable to the saints; so that [he might] come to [Rome] in joy by the will of God” (vv. 31–32).
Although Paul does not state the particular petitions he made on behalf of the Roman Christians, we can safely assume they were similar to those he mentions in other letters. “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name,” he wrote the Ephesians, “that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God” (Eph. 3:14–19).
That is praying in depth! Paul prayed that those saints would be strengthened by the Holy Spirit, that Christ would be at home in their hearts, that they would be filled with God’s own love, and that they would be made perfect in His truth and likeness.
Paul prayed that believers in Philippi would abound in love “still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that [they would] approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ,” demonstrating that they were “filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9–11).
He assured the Colossian church: “We have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience” (Col. 1:9–11).
The content of all Paul’s prayers was spiritual. He prayed for individual believers, but he also offered many prayers for groups of believers. He prayed that their hearts would be knit with the heart of God, that their knowledge of His Word would be made complete, and that their obedience to His will would be made perfect. The depth and intensity of prayer measures the depth and intensity of concern.
A willing and Submissive Spirit
making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. (1:10b)
Paul not only prayed for the spiritual well-being of the Roman church but was eager to be used by God as an instrument to help answer that prayer according to His divine will. The church has always been full of people who are quick to criticize, but seems short of those who are willing to be used by God to solve the problems they are concerned about.
Many Christians are much more willing to give money to an outreach ministry than they are to witness themselves. In his book The Gospel Blimp (Elgin, Ill: David C. Cook, 1983), Joe Bayly tells the imagined story of a man who hired a blimp to bombard his neighborhood with gospel tracts. The point of the book, and the popular movie made from it, was that some believers will go to great extremes to avoid personally confronting others with the gospel.
A man once came up to me after a worship service and suggested that the church provide $25,000 to create a sophisticated telephone answering service that would give a gospel message to callers. Like the man in The Gospel Blimp story, this man wanted to use his scheme primarily to reach an unbelieving neighbor. I therefore suggested, “Why don’t you just go over and tell him the gospel yourself?”
It is much easier, and therefore more attractive to the flesh, to pray for others to be used by the Lord than to pray that He use us. But like Isaiah, when Paul heard the Lord’s call for service or saw a spiritual need, he said, “Here am I. Send me” (Isa. 6:8). There is, of course, an important place for praying for others in the Lord’s service. But the true measure of our concern for His work is our willingness for Him to use us.
Paul had been making request to God for a long time that he could visit the church in Rome in order to minister to them and be ministered to by them (vv. 11–12). Apparently he hoped to make the journey soon, saying, perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you.
Paul’s eagerness to serve God was always directed by the will of God. He did not serve in the direction of his own desires and insight but according to the will of the One he served. When the prophet Agabus dramatically predicted the danger that awaited Paul in Jerusalem, the apostle’s friends begged him not to go. But “Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ Upon hearing those words, Luke and the others also submitted to God’s sovereignty, saying, ‘The will of the Lord be done!’ ” (Acts 21:11–14).
Some people ask, “If God is going to sovereignly accomplish what He plans to do anyway, what is the purpose of praying?” Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse designed an analogy to illustrate the relationship of a believer’s prayers to God’s sovereignty.
We will suppose the case of a man who loves violin music. He has the means to buy for himself a very fine violin, and he also purchases the very best radio obtainable. He builds up a library of the great musical scores, so that he is able to take any piece that is announced on the radio, put it on his music stand, and play along with the orchestra. The announcer says that Mr. Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra are going to play Beethoven’s seventh symphony. The man in his home puts that symphony on his stand and tunes his violin with what he hears coming from the orchestra. The music that comes from the radio we might call foreordained. Ormandy is
going to follow the score just as Beethoven wrote it. The man in his living room starts to scratch away at the first violin part. He misses beats, he loses his place and finds it again, he breaks a string, and stops to fix it. The music goes on and on. He finds his place again and plays on after his fashion to the end of the symphony. The announcer names the next work that is to be played and the fiddler puts that number on his rack. Day after week after month after year, he finds pleasure in scraping his fiddle along with the violins of the great orchestras. Their music is determined in advance. What he must do is to learn to play in their tempo, in their key, and to follow the score as it has been written in advance. If he decides that he wants to play Yankee Doodle when the orchestra is in the midst of a Brahm’s number, there’s going to be dissonance and discord in the man’s house but not in the Academy of Music. After some years of this the man may be a rather creditable violin player and may have learned to submit himself utterly to the scores that are written and follow the program as played. Harmony and joy come from the submission and cooperation.
So it is with the plan of God. It is rolling toward us, unfolding day by day, as He has planned it before the foundation of the world. There are those who fight against it and who must ultimately be cast into outer darkness because He will not have in His heaven whose who proudly resist Him. This cannot be tolerated any more than the authorities would permit a man to bring his own violin into the Academy of Music and start to play Shostakovich when the program called for Bach. The score of God’s plan is set forth in the Bible. In the measure that I learn it, submit myself to it, and seek to live in accordance with all that is therein set forth, I shall find myself in joy and in harmony with God and His plans. If I set myself to fight against it, or disagree with that which comes forth, there can be no peace in my heart and life. If in my heart I seek to play a tune that is not the melody the Lord has for me, there can be nothing but dissonance. Prayer is learning to play the tune that the eternal plan of God calls for and to do that which is in harmony with the will of the Eternal Composer and the Author of all that is true harmony in life and living. (Man’s Ruin: Romans 1:1–32 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952], pp. 122–23. Used by permission.)
The popular practice of demanding things from God and expecting Him to meet those demands is perverted and heretical, an attempt to sway God’s perfect and holy will to one’s own imperfect and sinful will. Paul sought the advancement of God’s kingdom and glory through God’s own will, not his own.
Self-styled messiahs are always megalomaniacs. They have grandiose schemes for winning the world for Christ. They always think big, and their plans seldom show evidence of being limited by God’s plans, which, from a human perspective, sometimes seem small and insignificant. Jesus’ ministry did not focus on converting the great leaders of His day or evangelizing the great cities. He chose twelve ordinary men to train as His apostles, and most of His teaching took place in insignificant, often isolated, parts of Palestine. He did not raise large sums of money or attempt to use the influence of great men to His advantage. His sole purpose was to do His Father’s will in His Father’s way and in His Father’s time. That is the highest goal for us, as well.
A Loving Spirit
For I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; (1:11)
Another mark of spiritual service is a loving spirit. Paul wanted to visit the Roman believers in order to serve them lovingly in God’s name. He did not want to go as a tourist to see the famous Appian Way or the Forum or the Coliseum or the chariot races. He wanted to go to Rome to give of himself, not to entertain or indulge himself.
The Christian who looks on his service to the Lord as a means of receiving appreciation and personal satisfaction is inevitably subject to disappointment and self-pity. But the one who focuses on giving never has such problems. Paul’s ministry goal was to “present every man complete in Christ. And for this purpose also I labor,” he said, “striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (Col. 1:28–29).
The apostle’s loving spirit is reflected beautifully in his first letter to Thessalonica. “We proved to be gentle among you,” he wrote, “as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:7–9).
The foremost characteristic of genuine love is self-less giving, and it was out of such love that Paul assured the church in Corinth, “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls” (2 Cor. 12:15). Willingness to spend was willingness to use all his resources and energy in their behalf, and willingness to be spent was willingness to die for them if necessary.
Paul was burdened for the physical welfare of the Roman believers, but his overriding concern was for their spiritual well-being, and therefore his principal purpose for longing to see them was that he might impart to them some spiritual gift.
The gift Paul wanted to impart was spiritual not only in the sense of being in the spiritual realm but in the sense that it had its source in the Holy Spirit. Because he was writing to believers, Paul was not speaking about the free gift of salvation through Christ about which he speaks in 5:15–16. Nor could he have been speaking about the gifts he discusses in chapter 12, because those gifts are bestowed directly by the Spirit Himself, not through a human instrument. He must therefore have been using the term spiritual gift in its broadest sense, referring to any kind of divinely-empowered spiritual benefit he could bring to the Roman Christians by preaching, teaching, exhorting, comforting, praying, guiding, and disciplining.
Whatever particular blessings the apostle had in mind, they were not of the superficial, self-centered sort that many church members crave today. He was not interested in tickling their ears or satisfying their religious curiosity.
Paul wanted to impart the spiritual blessings in order for the Roman believers to be established. He wanted those spiritual brothers and sisters “to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:15).
A young woman once told me that she had been teaching a Sunday school class of young girls for some while and thought that she loved them dearly. But one Saturday afternoon at her college football game the Lord convicted her about the superficiality of her love for them. Because of her busy Saturdays, she seldom spent more than a few minutes preparing her lesson for the next day. From that day on she determined to make whatever sacrifice and give whatever time necessary to give those girls something of eternal significance. That was the kind of committed, self-sacrificing love Paul had for the church at Rome.
A Humble Spirit
that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. (1:12)
Lest his readers think that he had in mind a one-way blessing, Paul assures them that a visit would be to his benefit as well as theirs. Although he was a highly-gifted and greatly-used apostle, having received revealed truth directly from God, Paul never thought that he was above being spiritually edified by other believers.
The truly thankful, concerned, willing, submissive, and loving spirit is also a humble spirit. The person with such a spirit never has a feeling of spiritual superiority and never lords it over those he serves in Christ’s name.
Commenting on this passage in Romans, John Calvin said of Paul, “Note how modestly he expresses what he feels by not refusing to seek strengthening from inexperienced beginners. He means what he says, too, for there is none so void of gifts in the Church of Christ who cannot in some measure contribute to our spiritual progress. Ill will and pride, however, prevent our deriving such benefit from one another” (John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960], p. 24).
Peter warned eiders not to lord it over those given to their care but rather to be examples to them. In doing so, “when the Chief Shepherd appears, [they would] receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:3–4). He then went on to advise both older and younger men to clothe themselves “with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (v. 5).
Paul, the greatest theologian who ever lived, was also one of the most humble men of all. He was blessed beyond measure, yet he had no spiritual pride or intellectual arrogance. Because he had not attained spiritual perfection but genuinely pursued it (cf. Phil. 3:12–14), he was eager to be spiritually helped by all the believers in the Roman church, young as well as old, mature as well as immature.
It is unfortunate not only that many learned and gifted leaders in the church think they are above learning from or being helped by younger and less-experienced believers but also unfortunate that less-experienced believers often feel they have nothing to offer their leaders.
When he was about to board a ship to India to begin missionary service there, some of William Carey’s friends asked if he really wanted to go through with his plans. Expressing his great desire for their support in prayer, he is said to have replied, “I will go down [into the pit itself] if you will hold the rope” (S. Pearce Carey, William Carey [London: The Carey Press, 1934], pp. 117–18).
A Fruitful Spirit
And I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented thus far) in order that I might obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles. (1:13)
Paul frequently used a phrase such as I do not want you to be unaware as a means of calling attention to something of great importance he was about to say. He used it to introduce his teaching about such things as the mystery of God’s calling Gentiles to salvation (Rom. 11:25), spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:1), and the second coming (1 Thess. 4:13). Here he uses it to introduce his determined plan to visit the saints at Rome. Often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented thus far), he assures his readers. As far as his own plans were concerned, he would have come to them long beforehand had he not been prevented from doing so.
His intent was not to make a social call but to obtain some fruit among the believers in Rome, even as among the rest of the Gentiles to whom he ministered.
Paul’s ministry was an unending quest for spiritual fruit. His preaching, teaching, and writing were not ends in themselves. The purpose of all true ministry for God is to bear fruit in His name and with His power and for His glory. “You did not choose Me, but I chose you,” Jesus declared to His disciples, “and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain” (John 15:16).
In regard to spiritual life, the Bible uses the term fruit in three ways. In one way, it is used as a metaphor for the attitudes that characterize the Spirit-led believer. This nine-fold “fruit of the Spirit,” Paul tells us, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23).
In a second way, spiritual fruit refers to action. “Now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God,” the apostle declares, “you derive your benefit [lit., ‘fruit’], resulting in sanctification” (Rom. 6:22), that is, holy living. The active fruit of a Christian’s lips is praise (Heb. 13:15), and the active fruit of his hands is giving (Phil. 4:16–17; “profit” is literally “fruit”).
In a third way, spiritual fruit involves addition, the increase of converts to Christ and the increase of their spiritual growth in Him. Paul spoke of Epaenetus as being “the first convert [lit., first-fruit] to Christ from Asia” (Rom. 16:5).
Among the Romans, the fruit Paul longed for was of the third kind, addition. It included both new converts and maturing converts. They were spiritual fruit in the broadest sense of being the product of the gospel’s power in men’s lives, both to save and to sanctify. The apostle wanted to be used to help the Roman church grow through new converts and grow in sanctification, which includes growth in service to Christ. When, some years later, he wrote to the Philippian church from Rome, he was able to give greetings even from believers within “Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22), believers he may have been instrumental in bringing to Christ.
As already noted, in the name of the Lord’s work some people strive for prestige or acceptance or money or crowds or influence. But a Christian who serves from the heart and whose spiritual service is genuine strives only to be used of the Lord to bear fruit for Him. The Christian who settles for less is one who serves only externally.
Nothing is more encouraging to pastors, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, and other Christian workers than to see spiritual results in the lives of those to whom they minister. Nothing is more deeply rewarding than the lasting joy of leading others to Christ or helping them grow in the Lord.
An Obedient Spirit
I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. (1:14)
Paul continues to talk about his attitudes and reasons for ministry, explaining that he did not preach and teach the gospel because of personal reasons or because the calling seemed attractive, but because he was under obligation. “I am under compulsion,” he said to the Corinthians; “for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me” (1 Cor. 9:16–17).
When the Lord called him to salvation and to apostles hip, Paul was doing anything but promoting the gospel but was rather bent on destroying it at all costs. He seems to be saying to the Romans, in effect, “Don’t thank me for wanting to minister to you. Although I love you and sincerely want to visit you, I was sovereignly appointed to this ministry long before I had a personal desire for it” (cf. 1 Cor. 9:16ff.).
Every sincere pastor and Christian worker knows there are times when ministry is its own reward, when study, preparation, teaching, and shepherding are exhilarating in themselves. There are other times, however, when the work does not seem very attractive, and yet you still study, prepare, teach, and shepherd because you are under obligation to God and to those you are serving. Christ is our Lord and we are His servants; and it is a poor servant who serves only when he feels like it.
Paul was under obligation in at least two ways. First, he was under obligation to God on behalf of the Gentiles. Because God had appointed him as a unique apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 1:5; Acts 9:15), he was under divine obligation to minister the gospel to them.
Second, he had an obligation, or debt, to the Roman believers directly, because of their spiritual need. That is the kind of obligation a person has to someone whose house is on fire or who is drowning.
When someone is in great danger and we are able to help, we are automatically and immediately under obligation to do what we can to save him. Because unbelieving Gentiles, like unbelieving Jews, face spiritual death, Paul was obligated to help rescue them through the gospel.
To Greeks and barbarians and to the wise and to the foolish seem to be parallel phrases, Greeks representing the wise and barbarians representing the foolish. The Greeks of that day included people from many lands who were educated in Greek learning and trained in Greek culture. They were highly sophisticated and were often looked upon as being on a higher level than others. They certainly looked on themselves in that way. The Greek language was thought to be the language of the gods, and Greek philosophy was thought to be little less than divine.
The term barbarians, on the other hand, was frequently used to designate those who were not hellenized, that is, not steeped in Greek learning and culture. The word is onomatopoeic, having been derived from the repetition of the sound “bar.” To a cultured Greek, other languages sounded like so much gibberish and were mimicked by saying “bar, bar, bar, bar.” In its narrowest sense, barbarians referred to the uncultured, uncouth, and uneducated masses, but in its wider sense it was used of anyone who was non-Greek.
Paul was therefore expressing his responsibility to the educated and the uneducated, the sophisticated and the simple, the privileged and the underprivileged. Like the Lord he served (1 Pet. 1:17), Paul was no respecter of persons. The gospel is the great equalizer, because every human being is equally lost without it and equally saved by it.
The first person to whom Jesus revealed Himself as Messiah was an adulterous woman who had a number of husbands and was living with a man who was not her husband. Not only that, but she was a Samaritan, a member of a race greatly despised by Jews. Yet Jesus drew her to Himself in loving compassion, and she was used to bring many of her fellow Samaritans to faith in the Messiah (see John 4:7–42).
An Eager Spirit
Thus, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (1:15)
Paul’s external obligation to minister did not preclude his internal desire to fulfill that obligation. He not only was willing but eager to preach the gospel to believers in Rome.
He was as determined to preach … in Rome as he was to go to Jerusalem, although he knew great danger awaited him there. “And now, behold, bound in spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me” (Acts 20:22–23). In his spirit he was compelled to go because that was God’s will for him. Therefore he said, “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24). Paul knew that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), that “to be absent from the body [is] to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
Paul had the same concern for the Roman believers as for those in Colossae, to whom he wrote, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24).
Life had but one value for Paul: to do God’s work. He was consumed by an eager desire to serve God, which included serving others in His name. That absolute commitment was shared by Epaphroditus, who “came close to death for the work of Christ” (Phil. 2:30). Such godly servants are like racehorses in the gate or sprinters at the starting blocks. They cannot wait to get on with the race of serving Christ.
A final characteristic of spiritual service, a bold spirit, is seen in the following verse, which will be studied in more detail in the next chapter. Paul declared, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom. 1:16). He knew that Rome was a volatile place and that Christians there had already experienced persecution. He knew that the capital city of the empire was steeped in immorality and paganism, including emperor worship. He knew that most Romans would despise him and that many probably would do him harm. Yet he was boldly eager to go there, for his Lord’s sake and for the sake of the Lord’s people.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 31–48). Chicago: Moody Press.