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 so 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. I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles (Romans 1:8-13).
It has been said that the apostle Paul was the greatest Christian who ever lived. That claim would be hard to dispute. He was certainly the most dynamic force for the gospel in the first century and, arguably, in all church history. No one was more mightily used to spread Christianity throughout the known world than Paul. Wherever he went, the gospel was preached, souls were saved, and churches were planted. His passion for proclaiming Christ remains virtually unmatched over these many centuries.
In order to understand what drove the apostle Paul in ministry, it is necessary that we receive a glimpse into the apostle’s heart. That is what these verses provide us. Here, he opens wide his heart and allows the believers in Rome to see his sincere desire to serve them. With humility of soul, Paul is unusually transparent as he gives them a personal insight into his own spiritual life. He wants them to know how strong is his desire to minister to their needs. He writes as a true servant of the Lord, who is giving himself selflessly to them for their spiritual good.
A God-Given Love
As Paul writes this epistle, what is amazing is that he had never been to Rome. He had never met these believers to whom he is writing this magnificent treatise. Unlike other churches that Paul had planted, such was not the case with this church in Rome. He is not writing to people whom he personally knows. He had never seen their faces and only knew some by name. This letter, nevertheless, reveals how large-hearted the apostle was for the church, wherever it was found. His heart is especially drawn to this flock in Rome. The more Paul loved God, the more his heart was enlarged for these fellow believers.
This same deepening love for others should be found in us. The more we adore and worship God, the more we will experience a growing affection for others. Rather than withdrawing into seclusion and removing ourselves from other people, we should be ever advancing to serve the needs of those around us. We should serve our fellow believers in the body of Christ. Moreover, we should have a contagious faith that reaches out and spreads to others with the saving message of Jesus Christ.
A Life of Service to Others
As Paul begins the book of Romans, he expresses that he desires to come see the believers in Rome so that he can minister to them. When he wrote this letter, Paul was about to leave Corinth for Jerusalem to deliver the special offering he received from the Gentile churches for the poor Jewish saints. He hoped he would be able to travel from Jerusalem to Rome, and then to Spain. After his journey to Jerusalem, he longs to come to Rome and minister to the Romans. It is this spiritual mindset that a servant possesses as he lives for Christ. It is this selfless attitude that must exist in those who minister the gospel of Jesus Christ to others.
As we consider these verses, I want to draw to our attention several timeless principles from the life of Paul that must be present in our spiritual lives. It is one thing for us to know the gospel, but something else to put it into practice. Now that we have believed this saving message, we need these same character qualities that were in Paul to be in us. If we are to be servants of God, the following eight virtues must be present in our lives.
I. SPIRITUAL Mindset (1:8)
First, we see that Paul lives with a spiritual focus. He sees opportunities to serve others through a spiritual lens. He writes, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world” (v. 8). What immediately drew Paul’s attention was the faith of these believers that was spreading to countless other people throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. More specifically, this meant the proliferation of the gospel. He gives thanks to God for the influence of their faith. This gratitude is directed toward God as an acknowledgment that He is the One who is behind this rapid expansion of the gospel. Paul recognizes that God is the Cause of their witness for the gospel to spread far and wide. He affirms that the outreach of their faith is being extended by the invisible hand of God. As he thinks of the witness of these believers, he thanks God, not them. This is the transcendent spiritual mindset that Paul has.
A spreading faith that gives witness to the gospel is one primary way that the apostle appraised the greatness of a church. What captured his attention was how they proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ to the world. As Paul viewed the church in Rome, he was impressed by their faith, not the facilities in which they met. They were probably meeting in common houses and the catacombs. He was not taken with the location of their gathering places, wherever that was in the city. Rather, he was focused upon their vibrant gospel witness and their passion to make Jesus Christ known. Their true strength lay in their spreading His name to the surrounding Empire. This is what he valued in this church.
Their faith in the gospel had spread far and wide, because Rome was the strategic nerve center for the entire Empire. All roads, it was said, led to Rome. Believing travelers leaving the Imperial City took the good news with them throughout Europe and Asia Minor, even to Africa. Their faith was so dynamic that it spread wherever they went to the surrounding regions. As they lived for Christ, they stood out like stars on a dark night. Even the unbelievers could see the reality of their commitment to Christ in that sin-infested realm. Their faith in Christ was out in the open for all to see and hear.
It must be remembered that these early believers in Rome were not living in a Christian society. To the contrary, there was not a more immoral, pagan cesspool of iniquity than the Imperial City. Every foul depravity was present in Rome, including prostitution, adultery, lesbianism, homosexuality, and far worse. Nevertheless, this is exactly where God planted this gospel-witnessing church, next to the gates of hell. As the light shines brightest in the darkest night, their faith in Jesus Christ radiated throughout the Roman Empire.
In These Dark Days
This reality should be a great encouragement to us. In these dark days in which we live, we need to know that God most often works the greatest to build His church when the circumstances are the most difficult. God never has to have the political or social scene just right to plant His church. Sometimes we think a church can only grow in a certain sociological setting. It is presumed that God’s work can only thrive if certain conditions are met. But God delights in building churches in the darkest places under the most adverse surroundings.
We need to be thanking God for the same contagious faith wherever we see it in other churches. We need to be intensely grateful to God for the witness of other believers for the gospel. We need to be praising God for wherever we see a testimony for the gospel making a difference in the world. And like the believers in Rome, we, too, must not hide our faith. What we believe, we want to be made known to the world around us. We want people to know where we stand with Jesus Christ. The gospel is primary in our lives. We want to make known the truth of Christ crucified to a lost, dying world.
II. Servant Heart (1:9a)
Second, we next see the commitment of Paul to serving God sacrificially. He writes, “For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son” (verse 9). Here, as in the previous verse, Paul maintains his gospel focus. The apostle understands that he serves God through the preaching of the gospel. Ministry was not a job to him, but an opportunity to serve God. The word “serve” (latreuo) is translated in other places in the New Testament as ‘worship.’ For Paul, his service for God was one chief means by which he worshiped Him. His “preaching of the gospel” was an act of magnifying His name. He expounded the gospel in order to exalt the name of God and lead others to do so.
Paul’s service for God, he says, was “in my spirit.” It was with his whole heart, with his whole being. That is, he served God from the depth of his inner person. It was not a shallow, superficial effort that he offered God. Rather, it was what rose up from the core of his soul with passion and zeal.
Most specifically, Paul’s preaching of the gospel centered in God’s Son. He has already stressed that the gospel “concerns His Son” (1:3), who was raised from the dead by the Spirit (1:4), and through whom all “grace” comes (1:5). The preaching of the gospel was “for His name’s sake” (1:5). All Paul’s efforts to faithfully preach the gospel were centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
This is the kind of preaching that is much needed today. It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ in the fullness of His person as the Son of God and the Son of Man, truly God and truly man. It is the expounding of Christ as Lord and Savior, the only Redeemer and Reconciler of sinners. It is declaring Jesus as the highest Judge on the last day, before whom all the world will stand and give an account.
III. SELFLESS Prayers (1:9b-10a)
Third, Paul served the Lord with selfless prayers. He addressed the believers in Rome, stating that “God is my witness, how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers” (verse 9). These regular intercessions for the believers in Rome are clear evidence of the selflessness of Paul. He was constantly praying for the churches and believers wherever the gospel went. This is an indication that his focus was not on himself, but was on others. He was doing more than merely thinking about them, but was actively approaching the throne of God on their behalf. He was petitioning God that in His will, he would be able to come to them in order to serve them. Paul understood the necessity of praying for those whom he desired to serve, that God would open doors through which he could pass in order to minister to others.
Recently, there has been a shift in the focus of my prayers before I preach. In years past, I have been so focused upon myself that I have predominantly prayed for myself before stepping into the pulpit. I still ask for God’s grace in my preaching, but I have been convicted that I need to be more focused in prayer on those to whom I am speaking. I need to pray more that God will prepare their hearts to receive the message. I need to pray more that those who hear me will be saved and sanctified. I am consciously aware that I am totally dependent upon the Holy Spirit to bring my message to their inner person. Like Paul, we need to be praying selflessly for others that the gospel will prevail with them.
IV. SUBMISSIVE Will (1:10b)
Fourth, another aspect of a godly servant is his humility of being submissive to God. As this section continues, Paul writes, “making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you” (verse 10). By this statement, the apostle reveals that he was yielded to the sovereign will of God in his ministry. Paul clearly recognized the overruling providence of God. He knew that Jesus Christ holds the keys that can either unlock the doors before him or close them shut. Though Paul desired to travel to Rome, he knew that he could not do so unless the will of God allowed it. He could not use his apostolic authority to make it happen. Paul recognized that door will not open except by the sovereign hand of God.
If anyone could have exclusively relied on his own ability in ministry to open doors and make things happen, it would have been the apostle Paul. He was a brilliant intellect, who had been trained at the feet of Gamaliel. He was personally taught by the risen Christ Himself. He was the author of inspired books in the New Testament. He was a powerful preacher and successful church planter. If anyone could have rested on their own God-given abilities, it would have been this extraordinary servant of God. However, he understood that he must pray for divine appointments to serve others.
Paul will eventually make it to Rome, but it will not be how he imagined it would be. He would eventually arrive there as a prisoner of the Empire. He never dreamed that he would be taken there under arrest and would spend two long years confined in Rome. He finally made it to the capital city of the whole world, but not by the way he thought he would. From this, we learn that the path of providence often takes unexpected turns, but is laid out by an all-wise, sovereign God.
In like manner, we, too, must be intercessors in prayer for such opportunities to serve God. I have never met a Christian who says, “I think I pray too much for others. I need to cut back on my prayer life.” That has certainly never been true in my life. I am always convicted that I need to be praying more for others. I find myself starting a lot of my prayers by confessing that I have not prayed enough for others. Our intercessions should begin with praying for the needs of those to whom we want to minister. Ultimately, the success of our ministry lies in the hands of our sovereign God. We can deliver the message to others, but God must open their ears and take it into their hearts if they are to receive the truth.
Every Christian needs to have this same submissive will as was exhibited by Paul. Regardless what our own desires, we must be humbly yielding to the overruling providence of God. By way of personal testimony, there have been many times in my life when I have tried to open doors that the Lord kept shut. In each instance, God knew far better than I did and had a better plan for my life than what I ever would have dreamed. Surely, each one of us would give this same testimony. Even at times, when we reached our desired end, God often took us on a different path than what we ever imagined. As His servants, we must learn to submit to His sovereignty over our lives.
V. Steadfast Spirit (1:11)
Fifth, we note that Paul expressed a strong desire to strengthen them with a spiritual blessing. He writes, “For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you so that you may be established” (verse 11). His desire to preach the gospel in Rome involved the initial conversion of souls. Further, his aim was to nurture the obedience of faith in believers (1:5). His intention was both to win converts and to strengthen and edify those who were already believers. He desired that the church in Rome be established and persevere in the faith. He longed that the believers “live in a manner worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). Thus, he desires to come in order to fortify the Roman believers by giving them a more comprehensive understanding of the gospel, which would strengthen and edify them in the Lord.
Paul realized that a sacred stewardship had been entrusted to him in the gospel. He must invest in others what has been deposited into him by the Lord. When he says “spiritual gift,” he is not referring to the supernatural ability to serve God, like what he mentions in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. Rather, he means that he desires to give a spiritual blessing to those in Christ. He desires that their faith be more deeply grounded in the Lord. It would have been selfish to keep the truth to himself. He must not horde to himself the truth of the gospel. Conversely, he was steadfast to pursue imparting the truth into others.
For Paul, merely knowing the truth of the gospel is never intended to be an end in itself. The desired goal of the knowledge of the gospel is that once it is received by faith, it must be deposited into other people. The Romans must not only know and believe the gospel, they must be transformed by it. His goal was that people, once saved, would be sanctified by the gospel. Success was more than having the truth taught to the mind. The gospel must affect their walk with the Lord. This necessitated that Paul travel to Rome in order to preach the message of the gospel.
VI. Self-Denying Humility (1:12)
Sixth, we see Paul’s humility in his service of the Lord. He writes, “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” (verse 12) That is a remarkably humble statement by this highly-regarded apostle. In many ways, Paul has been elevated by God’s will to an exalted level of ministry. He could have said, “I am an apostle. I will minister to you, but I hardly see how you can minister to me.” But instead, he expressed that he “be encouraged together” with them. In other words, he wanted to encourage them, but he also desired that they encourage him. Paul understood that the Christian life is a two-way street. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man another” (Proverbs 27:17). The apostle knew that whenever they would be together, he would minister to them and they would minister to him. What an extraordinarily humble statement by Paul.
Yet sadly, how contrary this is to what we see with many spiritual leaders today, who strut around like peacocks before others. Too often, pastors appear aloof from those whom they serve. They seem above the fray, unapproachable, unable to receive feedback from others. Some ministers try to outdo what another is doing. But to the contrary, Paul says that he desires to come to Rome and have mutual ministry with each other. He is inviting them into his life, anticipating that time when he will come. Paul does not have an elitist mentality. He has a humble, selfless heart, making him easy to talk to. So must we be the same
VII. sensitive Heart (1:13a)
Seventh, we see in Paul that a godly servant should be sensitive to the spiritual needs of others. Paul writes, “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that I have often planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far)” (verse 13). Why would he say that? The reason lies in this fact, that the believers in Rome were expecting him to come and minister to them. However, the apostle had not yet arrived. Consequently, they were doubting his sincerity in wanting to come to them. He realized that they must be thinking, “If Paul really loved us, he would have been here by now.” With a pastor’s heart, Paul has a genuine sensitivity for how they must be feeling. He wants them to know that he has been attempting to travel there, but he has been providentially prevented. He has not yet been provided with an open door by God. Paul, nevertheless, wanted them to know that his heart’s desire was to come there.
Here is a sensitivity toward others that is needed by every one of us. As we minister the gospel, we need to be considerate of what others are feeling. We have certain expectations of each other and must be alert to how we may be disappointing others around us. We must be mindful of how we may have injured others. We must regard others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). We would do well to be as discerning toward others to whom we minister.
VIII. SOUL-WINnING Aim (1:13b)
Eighth, the last quality of a godly servant that we see in Paul is being a soul winner. Paul concludes, “So that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles” (verse 13). This “fruit” refers to people that he desires to bring to faith in Christ. Their conversions will be the result of the seed of the word being sown into their lives. Jesus said to His disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain” (John 15:16). He was referring to their fruitful gospel ministry that would see many souls brought to faith in Christ. Paul’s belief in sovereign election in no way hindered his initiative to share the gospel with others. In fact, the doctrines of grace fueled him to take action to reach others with the saving message of Christ. In desiring to go to Rome, his goal was to win souls to Christ.
We learn from this that Paul was not content to merely proclaim the gospel with little regard for the outcome. He never assumed an attitude that his listeners could either take it or leave it. Paul was determined that people be saved. He longed for those without Christ to be converted through his preaching the gospel. As he made the truth known, he pled with people to commit their lives to Christ. He never tossed out the truth with a cavalier attitude. He was never indifferent to its reception or rejection. He longed to see fruit from his labor. He desired to see a harvest of souls from his labor. He yearned that the lost are brought into the kingdom through his efforts.
The sovereignty of God in the doctrine of election and our human responsibility in evangelism must always be kept in balance. Divine predestination must never override our passion to reach souls. Martin Luther illustrated the necessary balance this way. He talked about the drunk man on the horse, who was always falling off the horse to one side or the other. That is the way, Luther explained, we tend to be in our Christian life. We fall out of balance to one side or the other. We are either so focused upon doctrine that we lose sight of our personal responsibility to tell other people about Christ. Or we are so committed to evangelism that we are superficial in our knowledge of the Scripture. What a challenge it is for us to be balanced, holding divine sovereignty in one hand and our human responsibility in the other.
The passion to win people to Christ was a strong drive in Paul’s spirit, a fire in his bones. This drive was pouring out of him. This was down deep in his spirit. Reaching lost souls with the gospel was what Paul was about.
A Needed Response
As we have considered these character qualities, let me ask you this question: Which one of these aspects of Paul’s character most challenges you? Which one of these made you think, “I need more of this in my life?” That would be a very important self-diagnosis for you to make. Whatever is most needed in each one of our lives, it would be important for us to ask for the Lord’s help to develop us in this area.
Positively speaking, where do you see God at work in your life right now? Where do you see progress in your spiritual growth? Where do you see the hand of God at work in your life?