Lesson 57: Romans 15:17-21
The Promise of Success
by Bob Burridge ©2012
I remember the excitement I experienced when I successfully typed my first command lines into a computer. Before the 1970’s, computers were only found in universities, government facilities, and large businesses. The idea of a home computer was unheard of. Then there was the development of the first microprocessors. I was a science teacher then, so it was normal for me to stop in the Radio Shack at one of the local shopping malls. There I saw the newly announced TRS-80 home computer on display.
I had always been intrigued by computers from the time I first saw the Hollywood versions in the movies and on TV. There were the mysterious knobs, buttons, and banks of blinking lights on the Superman TV show, and the more sophisticated blinking lights and gauges on Star Trek. I thought of devices like the real ones those represented as existing only in the mystical domain of the mathemagically gifted.
I stood there at the counter of the Radio Shack looking with amazement at this legendary device, now compacted into what looked like a small black and white TV set with a bulky keyboard hooked up to it. There on the almost blank screen one word was displayed; it said “READY”.
I had no idea what that meant, but I wanted to know. I asked the clerk, but he had no more idea than I did. He told me that it could be programmed to do things using a computer language called BASIC.
I walked down to the book store in the mall where in a rather obscure section I found a few books about computers. Then, almost as if I’d seen a golden key from heaven, my eyes fixed upon a little yellow paperback book called “Basic BASIC”. I glanced at the first chapter where it said that when the screen says READY you can type in programs or commands. That was encouraging. I read a little more and discovered how to write a simple little program to print words on the screen, or the results of simple mathematical calculations.
I hurried back to Radio Shack, typed in a few simple lines, and it worked! I was hooked! I thought to myself “I can do this!”
I wrote a proposal to our school board. Within a few weeks we had one of those new computers. I also bought that book and a few others to learn how it worked, and how to write well designed programs for it. By the start of the following school year I had written a curriculum making our school the first in our county to offer a class in this new technology. It was such a curiosity that we received coverage by the local newspapers and television news programs. In time, my Middle School students found out they could do computer programming too.
It all seems so old fashioned now with what our personal computers can do. But it was a beginning. What seemed hopelessly beyond me was not as hard as it seemed, once I found out how these new machines worked.
There are a lot of challenges in life that seem overwhelming to us. We often avoid things we believe we cannot do. We tend to leave them in the hands of a few experts. Sometimes we even abandon growth in Christ because we are not confident that our spiritual weaknesses can be overcome. We are led to believe we are not able to help others spiritually. We leave these kinds of things to the formally ordained and professionally trained as if only they can tap the resources needed for us to mature into what God calls us to be.
Our Redeemer has given us all we need to be a part of the advance of his kingdom in the world around us, and in the lives of those who live in it. We not only have the book that tells us how the Creator made things to operate here, we also have the Holy Spirit who works in us and in others to do what we are unable to do on our own.
The Apostle Paul was encouraged to see Christ at work in his life, and that he was able to tell the Roman believers that they could also be successful servants of the Savior.
Paul had shown in Romans 15:1-16 that believers in Christ are the most able, the only ones able, to really help and encourage one another to be maturing in Christ. In verse 13 he showed how God empowers us to patiently help, and to strengthen the weak among us to lovingly admonish one another as brothers in Christ. In this next text (Romans 15:17-21) Paul draws from his own success to encourage us who are also redeemed to serve our Savior.
Paul was pleased with the success of his
ministry by the power of Jesus Christ.
Romans 15:17, “Therefore I have reason to glory in Christ Jesus in the things which pertain to God.”
His success had to do with the things pertaining to God. Of course all things have to do with God. However, here Paul evidently meant the special sense in which God had blessed his ministry of spreading God’s word, and of encouraging believers to live obediently for God’s glory. So, though everything we do ought to be centered upon God’s glory and done in God’s ways, there are times when his glory is more directly and immediately promoted, times when we talk directly about him and help others to walk more closely with Christ.
Paul rejoiced in one thing only regarding his success. It was because of his being in Christ that he had been a part of the conversion of so many Gentiles. The word translated “glory” or “boast” in some translations puts the focus upon what has been done. The bringing in of Pagans, who knew nothing of the ancient Covenant of God, was astounding! But Paul was careful not to imply that his success was due to anything in himself.
Self-glory is a motive promoted by the fallen world, but one that is a deceptive narcotic to our fallen souls. A proud spirit is wrong because all glory belongs to God. He is the purpose for which all things were created and exist. He made the universe, and all of us who are a part of it, to display his nature and character. We are here to promote his glory.
This is exactly why it is so wicked for humans to take self-glory in their accomplishments. They steal from God what is not theirs to take.
It is refreshing when successful people turn the glory back to God. We think of athletes like Tim Tebow and Kurt Warner of the Rams. I remember when Kurt corrected a TV interviewer who spoke of his winning Super Bowl touch-down pass of 73-yards as “putting first things first”. Warner said in response, “First things first, I’ve got to give the praise and glory to my Lord and Savior up above. Thank you, Jesus!” Comments like that are so rare among celebrities today, that when they occur they get our attention.
If our primary goal is to gain earthly things, self-pride seems as if it is a good motive. But it is also morally destructive and robs us of the true pleasure available to us in the things we actually accomplish. Awe in being able to take part in the wonderful work of God is a far better motivator, and brings a satisfaction with it that the one who boasts in himself will never know.
This does not mean we should never be motivated to do wonderful things here on earth. But our intent in all things should be that we do them for God’s pleasure. One of the memorable lines in the movie Chariots of Fire was when Eric Liddell explained that when he ran, it was for God’s pleasure. He said, “to win is to honor him.”
We must remember that not only our ability, but even our motive to accomplish good things, only come when God, out of his mercy, brings them to pass in us. In Psalm 115:1 the writer says, “Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, But to Your name give glory, Because of Your mercy, Because of Your truth.”
In 1 Corinthians 1:29-31 Paul wrote, “that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God — and righteousness and sanctification and redemption — that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.’ ”
Once we realize the source of and reason for our success, we can take great pleasure in the wonderful things we accomplish in Christ. Paul understood what a great privilege it was to be a human instrument in the hand of God. When used by him we are not like a gear, microprocessor, or cable. We are living, thinking, feeling, fallible humans, enabled by grace to do the work of the King of kings.
God certainly could do his work by supernatural means without us. But He chose to use mere humans, redeemed by grace alone. 1 Corinthians 1:21 reminds us, “… it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”
No one should hesitate to be pleased with his work in Christ. Nor should we fail to encourage God’s laborers as if it is wrong for them to have a sense of accomplishment.
There was a philosophy of child rearing for a while that warned parents never to praise a child so that they will not become proud and self-centered. That is just plain cruel and unbiblical. Self-pride is not the necessary result of praise and success. Paul commended many for what God did in them. His epistles are filled with encouragement about how God had used individuals and churches. Here he glories in what God had done in his ministry.
Paul knew that he owed his whole effort to the work of his Savior.
Romans 15:18-19, “For I will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ has not accomplished through me, in word and deed, to make the Gentiles obedient — (19) in mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and round about to Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.”
Paul would only speak of Christ’s accomplishments in his ministry. There was no need to multiply stories or reports of what Christ had done which the Apostle did not know personally and with assurance. He would not brag about his own abilities and talents as if they were done aside from or in addition to the work of Christ. This is consistent with what had always been true in the lives of God’s true laborers.
Isaiah 26:12, “LORD, You will establish peace for us, For You have also done all our works in us.”
Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”
Paul’s success in Christ was seen in the obedience of the Gentiles to the Gospel promises. Pagans who grew up outside the influence of the Covenant had been radically transformed. Their testimony and their deeds proved that such a change can be accomplished by the hand of God at work in his human servants.
Paul’s success was also confirmed in the power of signs and wonders. God sent miraculous evidences as the gospel first spread to the Gentiles. These did not only occur as deeds of the messenger, they were also produced miraculously among the early converts. Some spoke in un-known tongues, or were healed of diseases. These supernatural events demonstrated that God was the one who was expanding the covenant blessings to include all races of mankind. It was these evidences that silenced the objections of the Jews in Jerusalem. Supernatural miracles like those were not intended to continue in the church. They accomplished their purpose by attesting to the apostolic message in the first century. They clearly affirmed that the new era of God’s kingdom had begun.
Paul’s success was confirmed in the power of the Holy Spirit. It was not just the outward miracles that showed that changes were taking place. It was the inner change in the heart of lost souls that produced faith, repentance, and a desire to live by God’s revealed truth and moral principles. It is that regenerating change that is the root of all gospel success.
It was this simple teaching of the word in the power of the Spirit that was “turning the world upside down” (as Luke recorded it in Acts 17:6).
Paul knew very well, that his success did not depend upon his own skill. It was the proclaimed word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit that did it. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:4, “And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,”
Paul had taken the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum. Jerusalem was the South East extent of his work. From there, up to the time of the writing of this epistle to the Romans, he went as far as Illyricum (just north-west of the boarder of Macedonia). There he had preached the gospel in full, the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). He had done what God had called him to do.
Paul was driven by a strong desire, a passion, to go into new territory.
Romans 15:20-21, “And so I have made it my aim to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build on another man’s foundation, (21) but as it is written: ‘To whom He was not announced, they shall see; And those who have not heard shall understand.’ “
Paul was engaged in pioneer missionary work. He had introduced Christ in places where our Lord’s name was unknown. He understood his particular calling as that of preaching Christ where no one had spoken of him before. It makes me think of the old Star Trek lead in, with its annoying split infinitive that sticks in the mind. The starship Enterprise and its crew set out on a mission, “to boldly go where no man had gone before.”
In this way, Paul entered new cities, new regions, entering into hostile pagan cultures. He was a planter of new seed. It was for others like Apollos to water the seed of the gospel that others like Paul had planted. But every step of the work was a work of God. In 1 Corinthians 3:6 he wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.”
Of course this does not mean that Paul never engaged in other aspects of the work. He often helped out in places where others had laid the foundation. However, his passion, his main calling, was to venture into new territory with the good news.
The work he did was done with pure joy. The expression that begins verse 20 is translated in various ways in an attempt to bring the impact of the Greek word philotimeomai (φιλοτιμεομαι) into English. The New American Standard translates it as “aspire”. The King James Version has “strive”. Literally the word means “to love honor”. It was a great honor to be able to tell God’s promises to other people. That honor toward God highly moved Paul. This is why the word that means “to love honor” came to be used commonly of striving or aspiring toward a goal. As the New King James translates it, it was Paul’s “aim to preach the gospel”. This was the deep passion Paul had for the work God had given him. It was a joy to serve Christ, even though he was repeatedly persecuted by beatings and times in jail.
This honorable passion lives still in the hearts of many modern missionaries. God still raises up laborers to go where his Spirit is about to move. Lost souls are still saved by means of God’s proclaimed word and life giving Spirit. Those who love Christ should never become indifferent or lazy in their attitude toward mission work. Those not sent to the mission field are called upon to pray diligently for the work, to support the material needs of keeping missionaries on the field and of equipping them to do the work effectively. All of us can be a personal encouragement to missionaries by keeping in contact as brothers and sisters united in the work of the Christ’s Kingdom.
It is an unbiblical idea that we need no sense of passion and urgency for the work since it is God who is behind it all. Quite the opposite is true. God’s work is done by the very passion and urgency he puts into common people like you and me. How amazing that God, who could do it all on his own, determined that the best way to reveal his power, grace, and glory is to use us! Paul, this former persecutor and blasphemer, was privileged to bear this good news. He became the one to first take the gospel to many towns and into many homes.
Paul understood that this was the fulfillment of an ancient promise God had made. The spread of the gospel beyond the Jews to the whole world was not an innovation. It had been what God said he would do long before the time of the Apostles. The earliest chapters of the Bible hint at this truth. Moses spoke of it to Israel in the wilderness. The later prophets hundreds of years before Christ repeated it.
Here Paul quotes from Isaiah 52:15. It promises that the gospel would come to the Gentiles. The Prophet wrote, “So shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; For what had not been told them they shall see, And what they had not heard they shall consider.”
This verse introduces Isaiah 53 which tells of the coming work of the suffering Messiah. The Gentile Kings will be speechless, because what was not told to them they will have seen, what they did not hear they will have considered. Today we know that the suffering Messiah described in that chapter was Jesus. Paul was bringing the message of that fulfilled promise. He was seeing the gentile nations transformed just as God said they would be.
>> No mission can fail when it is the mission of God. << Gospel missionary work was not why Paul brought this up here. The context, remember, was about brothers in Christ being loving and patient toward one another, even toward the spiritually weak, toward those who quite plainly were wrong about things, toward people who were easily offended. Paul says all this about his own success in the ministry of the gospel because it shows the hope we have in doing the work Christ calls us to do. It was a fitting illustration because many of the Romans were themselves Gentiles who were part of the evidence he was citing. Paul wanted the Roman believers to be encouraged by this in their own labors. Since God was fulfilling his promises so clearly in the gospel and by Paul, why should any doubt that he will fulfill his promises to us as we patiently labor to encourage one another and to admonish one another in love, to walk in Christ clinging without doubt to the principles God gives us in his word? There is reason to glory in the great things God enables us to do for him. He does not leave us on our own to succeed in our callings. Even our motive and great concern comes from him. The Romans were not left to their own skills and devices to mature in Christ, nor are we left to struggle hoping someone stronger will take the lead. We are the laborers who raise God's children, who help our neighbors, who pray for and comfort the needy, who pioneer the gospel into new territories. I do not mean foreign nations necessarily, though who knows where we all may one day be? All the unevangelized regions of your own family and neighborhood are included in this great commission. Your mission field is where you are at the moment. It may be your department at work, your class at school, the team you compete with, those you chat with digitally. You live on the frontier of the gospel. Take up that pioneering spirit and driving passion. What hope can we have as we take the gospel to others in such simple ways? What hope can we have in showing patience and encouragement to our weaker brothers? How can we heal a morally decaying land and a fragmented and confused community of churches? It is all contained in this one collection of infallible and inspired books we call the Bible. It is all accomplished by the power of God, not by your own innate abilities. It is something you can do. It is not a complex duty which rests upon your own skills and power aside from the intentions of your Creator. You can do these things through Christ which strengthens you! (The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)