On March 11, 1965, Gary Duschl of Virginia Beach, Virginia began making a chain of gum wrappers. Today, over 53 years later, it contains over 2.4 million gum wrappers and is 101,440 feet long as of April 11, 2018 and growing. This length is 19.14 miles and would require the average human being about seven hours to walk! It is the equivalent to 337 football fields or 69 Empire State Buildings. Guinness’s World Records declared Gary’s chain of gum wrappers to be the longest in the world. The chain took over 38,000 hours to create. Regardless of what you think about this endeavor, it is quite an astounding accomplishment! I am impressed with Gary Duschl. Can you fathom the time, energy, and skill he put into this endeavor? What astounding ambition! http://www.gumwrapper.com/
What is your ambition? What do you hope to achieve with the rest of your life? Many people are consumed with work, family, money, and pleasure (not necessarily in that order). How much of what you do could be seen as a chain of gum wrappers? As a believer in Jesus Christ, you ought to be driven by an even greater ambition—one that can change world history and extend beyond the grave.
Paul gives you a holy ambition to shoot for in Romans 15:14-33. In this passage he prepares to conclude his letter. When biblical writers begin to wrap up their letters, people tend to tune out. However, these twenty verses answer the question: “How do I develop a mission ambition?” He says: God calls you to mission possible.
Perhaps you are thinking of “Mission Impossible” and are looking for Tom Cruise to appear. But this is not a movie, this is your life—your personal mission. Paul is going to ask you to do some impossible things in this text, but the underlying implication is that with God all things are possible if you humble yourself and depend upon Him to live His supernatural life in and through you. Paul imparts three characteristics of mission ambition.
1. Ambitious servants proclaim Christ (15:14-21)
If you are saved, you are called to proclaim Christ with your lips and your life! In 15:14 Paul writes, “And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.” According to Paul, the Roman Christians excelled in three spiritual attitudes and aptitudes:
(1) They were “full of goodness.” These believers were good spouses, parents, employees, neighbors, and Christians. They were rightly motivated and were characterized by moral excellence in their lifestyles. Do you exude this kind of “goodness?”
(2) The Roman Christians were “filled with all knowledge.” Paul uses a word that often signifies knowledge gained by learning, effort, or experience. Doctrinally, these believers were well taught with no grave deficiencies in their biblical and theological knowledge. They also applied what they learned. Does your biblical IQ far surpass your AQ (application quotient)? If so, you are far better obeying what you know than continuing to add to your head knowledge.
(3) They were “able also to admonish one another.” There seems to be a sequence to these three commendations. The Roman Christians’ “goodness” and “knowledge” qualified them to “admonish one another.” The word “admonish” (noutheteo) has to do with counseling and guiding another Christian. The Roman Christians challenged and instructed one another in God’s Word. They also cared so deeply about one another that they took the time and the risk to lovingly confront those veering off the path. This is a critical need in every church.
Many of us fail to handle conflict the way we should. We either go into denial and avoid the confrontation altogether, face it head-on with a prideful attitude, or acknowledge the problem but shrug it off for the sake of maintaining a friendship. All three of these reactions are inappropriate. God expects you to lovingly admonish those believers who He has placed in your life. This is not a job for your pastor; it is a job for you. Often, you will be able to have a greater impact on individuals in the body than your pastor. You have unique gifts, experiences, and passions that God will use in your church. But you must step out in faith and do your part. Don’t wait for someone else. Don’t count on someone else! God calls you to mission possible. He will give you the strength to fulfill what He calls you to perform.
In 15:15a Paul writes, “But I have written very boldly to you on some points so as to remind you again.” The apostle has written “very boldly” on numerous points:
(1) the Gentiles that have not heard the gospel are condemned;
(2) just being moral will not get a person to heaven;
(3) a person is justified by faith without any good works;
(4) through one single person sin came into the world;
(5) where sin increased, grace increased even more;
(6) we died to the law and are no longer under the law;
(7) nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; and
(8) God will keep His promises to Israel despite their faithlessness.
Paul does not pull the punch—he makes it plain. His purpose is to “remind” his readers of what they know. He uses a word that literally means “to over remind” (epanamimnesko).
Why do we need to be reminded of basic truth?
(1) We are forgetful. As we age it is amazing how our memory can fade. Now that I am over 50 I am becoming a bit of an authority on this subject. Hence, we all need to be reminded of the truth we have known.
(2) We are easily distracted. Marriage, family, work, church, and our own personal pursuits can often crowd out our learning. Thus, we need to regularly return to our theological moorings and regain our focus.
(3) We think we know more than we do. One of the grave dangers of being involved in a Bible church is that it is easy to get puffed up like a spiritual blowfish and assume that we have a grasp on various theological concepts, when in reality, we don’t. Every believer can benefit from going over the fundamentals. After all, the vast majority of biblical interpretation is not profound; it is straightforward.
As Mark Twain said, “Most people are bothered by those Scripture passages which they cannot understand. But for me, the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.” Our great need is to be regularly reminded of what we know; then, we must be challenged to obey! Are you grounded in the fundamentals of the faith? Are you prepared to go back to the basics? Are you willing to obey what you know? God calls you to mission possible.
Paul now explains why he can speak such forceful and repetitious words to the Roman believers. He declares: “. . . because of the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (15:15b-16). God gave Paul “grace” (charis) to minister. Grace is simply God giving to us what we don’t deserve. Paul’s calling and ministry as an apostle are founded upon grace. If you underline in your Bible, underline the words “minister” (leitourgos), “ministering as a priest” (hierourgeo), and “offering” (prosphora) in 15:16.
These are all technical Greek words that are used to describe the Jewish priests who offered animal sacrifices in the Jewish temple. Paul uses these terms drawn from temple worship in Judaism to describe his own apostolic ministry. Instead of being a temple priest, Paul is a minister of Jesus; and, instead of being in the Jerusalem temple, Paul serves on the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Instead of having a priestly duty to bring animal sacrifices as an offering, Paul’s priestly duty is to share the good news about Jesus with Gentiles.
Two significant principles stem from this verse:
(1) Ministry is a gracious privilege.Admittedly, it is daunting at times. It is easy to feel taken for granted and unappreciated. This can lead to the fleshly response, “My church is lucky to have me!” Yet, the reality is, “I am fortunate to serve my church.” Ministering to others is a privilege! Do you see your opportunity to minister as a privilege or a burden? When you have served in a ministry for an extended period of time, it is easy to grow weary and disillusioned. Pray this week for a greater awareness of the privilege of ministry.
(2) The gospel is a precious responsibility. A priest handled an offering very carefully in order to keep it holy; we must handle the gospel just as carefully. You must see yourself as a spiritual heart surgeon who is dealing with matters of eternal life and death. How well do you know the gospel of Jesus Christ? Have you mastered its contents? God calls you to mission possible.
Verses 17-21 describe the priorities and principles that shaped Paul’s ministry up to the time of his writing and explain his absence in the past. In 15:17-18a he writes, “Therefore in Christ Jesus I have found reason for boasting in things pertaining to God. For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.” Paul states that he boasts (lit. “glories”) in “things pertaining to God.” Now keep in mind: no one hated boasting more than Paul. But when it came to boasting in what Christ had done through him, Paul could brag with the best of them! He does not say, “I boast about what I have done through Christ,” as if he were the subject and Christ merely the instrument. Rather, he says, “I boast about what Christ has done through me!” Paul is merely a tool, an instrument, a vessel for the work of Christ.
It is so easy to take credit for our own ministry accomplishments. Sometimes we are not even cognizant that we are doing it. We must deliberately choose not to rob God of any of His glory. This means we must consciously seek to be out of step with our culture. Today heroes in sports, entertainment, and politics promote themselves and their own agendas, yet as believers we are to be absolutely dependent upon Christ. God calls you to mission possible.
There are many reasons why Paul depended upon Christ so much. One reason was the sheer immensity of the task that God called him to. God-sized tasks typically bring about great humility. Paul explains that his ministry resulted in “. . . the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit; so that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation; but as it is written, ‘THEY WHO HAD NO NEWS OF HIM SHALL SEE, AND THEY WHO HAVE NOT HEARD SHALL UNDERSTAND’”(15:18b-21).
God did great things in and through Paul whose specific burden was to preach to those who had never heard. He pictured the region from the city of Jerusalem to the city of Illyricum as being like a big circle. (Presently, Jerusalem is in modern-day Israel, and Illyricum is in what used to be Yugoslavia, modern-day Croatia, Bosnia, and Albania.) Within this circle Paul planted about a dozen Christian churches in key cities. His strategy was to plant a church in a prominent city, and then empower church leaders to fan out into the smaller towns and villages. In this passage Paul was not saying that there were no longer any non-Christians in this circle, but he felts he was laying the foundation for the churches as he proclaimed God’s good news in this entire area.
Paul’s heart would be for us to follow in his sandals and focus on those who have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ. This means that churches should be forming churches where there are no churches. We must be committed to praying for world evangelization, particularly in the 10/40 window. We must seek to plant churches throughout the world including our own county. We may even be called to offer our lives in the service of world missions. History has told us that the lieutenants in Napoleon’s army carried in their jackets, close to their hearts, a map of the world. What Napoleon was trying to communicate to his men was world conquest! Wherever they went, they had that map close to their heart. Their vision was world domination. The same is true for the disciple of Jesus Christ. Our cry must be, “God give us a passion for souls.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said it well: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
[Not only do ambitious servants proclaim Christ, but . . .]
2. Ambitious servants make plans (15:22-29)
It is good to make plans and then hold them loosely. God has ways of redirecting our paths. Paul writes: “For this reason I have often been prevented from coming to you; but now, with no further place for me in these regions, and since I have had for many years a longing to come to you whenever I go to Spain—for I hope to see you in passing, and to be helped on my way there by you, when I have first enjoyed your company for a while—but now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things. Therefore, when I have finished this, and have put my seal on this fruit of theirs, I will go on by way of you to Spain. I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ” (15:22-29). Opposition and closed doors are not a sign of God’s disapproval. Rather, God can powerfully work through such circumstances. When Harold MacMillan was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he was asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman. Famously, he replied, “Events, my dear boy, events.” Life has a way of catching us by surprise. We make our plans—and we ought to plan carefully for the future—but our plans do not equal God’s will. Events will intervene.
Perhaps you had plans for your life, which you thought were God’s will that did not come to fruition. You may have been engaged to the person you had waited your entire life for only to see the relationship break up. Maybe you are a married woman who has longed for a child of your own, but now you and your husband have been unable to conceive. You may have asked, “God why are you depriving me of being a mom? Do you think I am unfit for the task?” Perhaps you have prepared yourself for ministry and find yourself unable to get a job. It seems like every time you apply you are rejected. You may be wrestling with resentment, “God, I have spent thousands of dollars on college. I’ve tried to honor you with my life, and I feel like the well has run dry. What am I supposed to do?” Often, what has appeared as setbacks, God can use to promote us to the next level of Christian growth and character.
The apostle is also concerned that the Roman Christians give to the church at Jerusalem. The word “helped” refers to a generous financial gift. The phrase “serving” (diakoneo) is often used in connection with raising money. Apparently, many of the people who had turned from Judaism to Christ had lost their jobs and been ostracized from their families. Paul reminded the Gentile believers that salvation came through Israel, and told them that they had a moral obligation to help these Jewish believers who were enduring hardship because of their faith in Christ. Hence, the rich should help the poor; the strong should help the weak. Paul also emphasized two other terms: “pleased” (15:26, 27) and “indebted” (15:27).
His point is that sacrificial giving is a debt and a pleasure. How can these both be true at the same time? If you are a parent, you are under obligation to care for your children. If you do not care for your children, the State will remove them from your care. Yet, you likely also find pleasure in parenting (at least most of the time). If you are a parent, this great responsibility is both an obligation and a pleasure. Of course, the more you grow in Christ and spend time with your children the more pleasure you will discover in your parenting. Likewise, you are under obligation to give, but the more you grow in Christ and the more you get to know those in need the more pleasure arises in giving. Will you give sacrificially to those who need your financial assistance? Remember, you don’t own your wealth—you owe it. But there is great pleasure in giving generously to those in need. Perhaps in addition to giving cheerfully and generously to your local church, God is calling you to give to our persecuted brothers and sisters throughout the world. If so, do it today.
[Ambitious servants proclaim Christ and make plans. The third and final characteristic of ambitious servants is . . .]
3. Ambitious servants solicit prayer (15:30-33)
The quickest way to get on mission and recognize “Mission Possible” is to pray and to ask others to pray for you. In 15:30 Paul writes: “Now 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.” In Romans 1 Paul assured the Christians at Rome of his prayer suppo;t, now he turns to them and asks them to return the favor. In praying, they are actually participating with Paul in his ministry; they are, in Paul’s words, “striving together with him” (sunagonizomai).
The word-group agonizomai is often associated with the strenuous discipline of the athlete who struggles to prevail, such as contestants wrestling in the Greek games. It is a Greek word from which our English word “agonize” comes from. Clearly, Paul saw prayer as part of the Christian struggle. That is why Samuel Zwemer, ground-breaking missionary to Muslim lands, could utter his famous saying, “Prayer is the gymnasium of the school.” Paul expects you to pray diligently for your leaders. If you are in leadership, there is also wisdom in recruiting a prayer shield. A prayer shield is a team of people who will pray for you in the course of your ministry. Oh, how we need prayer to fulfill our ministries and finish well!
Paul makes two specific requests in 15:31-32:
(1) “that I may be rescued from those who are disobedient in Judea” (15:31). He does not ask that they pray for the salvation of these unbelieving Jews. They have had their opportunity. Judgment now awaits them. Paul does not see this journey as an evangelistic campaign among the unbelieving Jews but as a ministry to the saints in Jerusalem (15:26).
(2) Paul also prayed “that my service for Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints” (15:31). The Gentiles gladly gave to minister to the Jewish saints, but would the Jews gladly receive these gifts? Paul asked for prayer that they would. The goal of Paul’s prayer requests is: “so that I may come to you in joy by the will of God and find refreshing rest in your company” (15:32). Thus, the “refreshing rest” (sunanapausomai) envisioned is not the relaxation of a hammock and a tropical drink. The refreshment stems from the fellowship and joy that exist when members of the church mutually minister to one another. God calls you to mission possible.
We must keep our main focus in prayer on the main task of the gospel. We must go for Satan’s jugular in our prayers and not get distracted into majoring on minor skirmishes. I imagine Satan briefing his demons: “I am afraid we can’t stop them praying altogether. Some of them have gotten in the habit. But, let’s divert them from the jugular and get them aiming for the little toe. See if you can get them to spend all their prayer time praying about physical illness. When their circumstances are difficult, get them to focus their praying on asking that things will get easier. Don’t, whatever you do, let them pray for courage and faithfulness to Christ in their difficult circumstances. I don’t mind too much if their health returns or for their circumstances get easier; but, I mind very much if they are loyal witnesses to Christ and servants of the gospel.”
In our final verse of this chapter, Paul writes, “Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen” (15:33). Paul uses the familiar term “peace” (Gk. eirene/Heb. shalom) to emphasize that his mind is preoccupied to the end with Jewish and Gentile unity. Similarly, God wants us to experience true peace and harmony with other believers by tearing down any ethnic, social, and preferential barriers in the local church. God calls you to mission possible.