Events over that past week have derailed many plans. For the people of Suncor, Target, Sony and others, mass layoffs have radically changed family directions. For a provincial and federal standpoint, fallings prices of Oil have meant the readjustment of budgets and plans. From individual families to government offices, they have expressed difficulty in planning for the future with so many sudden and unexpected roadblocks thrown in their path.
In Romans 15, the Apostle Paul comments about his ministry, especially his plans and hopes for future work in the Lord’s service. As Paul bares his heart to a group of believers, most of whom he has never met and who lived in a place where he had never been, he provides some valuable principles for all who read.
Underlying the surface of this very personal passage is the basic principle that was the foundation of Paul’s life, the principle that directed everything he thought, said, wrote, and did. He articulates that truth in (verse 32: “by the will of God.” The rest of the passage leads up to that statement and reveals in an intimate and unique way the attitudes, perceptions, and purposes of a believer who lives wholly in the knowledge of God’s will.
For all who seek to discern God's will, we must realize that true success in the Lord’s work can be attained only as we wholly accept our divine calling and diligently commit our heart, mind, time, abilities, and spiritual gifts to fulfilling that calling. Genuine success sometimes can fail as much from trying to do more than we are called to do as from doing less. Paul did not try to do the work of several apostles but only the work to which the Lord had specifically called him. He demonstrated the same kind of economy of effort as Jesus, whose ministry was strictly focused on His Father’s calling and will. He did not cure every illness in Palestine, nor did He attempt to preach to every Jew, much less every Gentile. Yet, after only three years of ministry, He could say to His Father in the Upper Room, “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You hast given Me to do” (John 17:4), and could say on the cross before the world, “It is finished” (19:30).
In Romans 15:22–32, Paul demonstrates in his own life six characteristics, or elements, of his own ministry that should be evidenced in the life and ministry of every believer who is committed to doing God’s will. We can Discern the Will of God through 1) Providence (v. 22), and 2) Planning (vv. 23–24)
First, we can Discern God's will through:
1) Providence (Romans 15: 22)
Romans 15:22 This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. (ESV)
This reason refers to Paul’s fulfilling his divine calling as “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles,… from Jerusalem and roundabout as far as Illyricum,” in order that “they who had not news of Him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand” (Romans 15:16, 19, 21). The agency that has hindered him was not stated. It could have been God, Satan, evil people, or other gospel opportunities. Remember Paul wrote Romans while he was in Corinth. In Corinth Paul’s opponents attacked him because he had not been able to fulfill his travel plans. Paul was surely affected by the attacks from within the Corinthian church. (Utley, R. J. (1998). The Gospel according to Paul: Romans (Vol. Volume 5, Ro 15:22). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.)
As he says that it has happened "so often", it is expressed in the Imperfect tense, it is denoting continuousness, and implying a succession of hindrances (Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 3, p. 175). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.).
• In Discerning the Will of God we must not mistake the first roadblock as a sign of divine halting. We may mistake a roadblock, tire, or be confused. If God wants us to change course, He will repeatedly make it clear as we shall see.
What Paul is saying is that He has been hindered in coming to them because he was concentrating on “fulfilling the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum.” It was the needs of ministry in these regions that “hindered” Paul “many times” from coming to Rome (Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 899). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.).
• Last week we considered the general calling that believers have on their lives with the universal holiness mandates in scripture specified in prefix: "This is the will of God"...
• Now we must consider how this mandate plays out in particular actions. Before we understand the particular directive movements from God, we must understand what we are generally called to do.
• Paul here had a clear understanding what his mission was, and therefore was guided in its delivery.
As he describes that he was hindered (Enkoptô), it literally means to cut into or cut out. It was used of deep trenches that sometimes were dug across a road to impede an enemy army. It came to be used metaphorically of any hindrance or impediment. The imperfect tense of the Greek verb indicates continuation, and its being passive indicates that the cause was from the outside.
• When we encounter obstacles in our path, we should first consider who put them there. Often our own doubt, recklessness or laziness has put a barrier to what God has called us to do before us. Enemies of the gospel will attack us and use various means to stop us in spreading the truth. But some times God wants us to move in a particular direction and will use various means to do this. Who put the obstacle before us will mean a very different response. If we act before determining this, we will move in the wrong direction.
Because of God’s plan and control, Paul was providentially and continually prevented from coming to the church at Rome. God has changed the natural course of events by direct, miraculous intervention, such as in opening the Red Sea for Israel to cross safely and then closing it on the pursuing Egyptian army. But God also—and most often, as far as our human understanding can perceive—controls people and events in non-miraculous and indirect ways that we cannot observe or be aware of. This is providence—God’s sovereign control of everything exercised not through the miraculous, but through ordering all the complex natural events so that they accomplish His will. Even Paul, the most prominent of the apostles, who was used as a human instrument for recording much of God’s Word in the New Testament, did not presume to fully understand the Lord’s working in his life. But God’s providence was a crucial element in achieving the intended purposes for Paul’s service. God did not explain to Paul His reason for not allowing him to minister in Bithynia. Somehow, Paul knew as we saw last week, that it was “the Spirit of Jesus [who] did not permit them” (Acts 16:7). And it was not until he and his companions had travelled on to Troas that their ultimate destination became clear.
Please turn to Proverbs 19 (p.542)
From Proverbs 16:9 we learn that “the mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps”. Paul reminded believers at Philippi that “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
In Proverbs 19, we see the interplay of wisdom, instruction, correction and God's will:
Proverbs 19:20-25 Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future. Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand. What is desired in a man is steadfast love, and a poor man is better than a liar. The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish and will not even bring it back to his mouth.Strike a scoffer, and the simple will learn prudence; reprove a man of understanding, and he will gain knowledge. (ESV)
• As a course of God's providence (v.20) He may bring in those of wisdom to give advice and instruction. Yet even with our best plans (v.21), the purpose of the Lord will prevail. We know however if our aims are God's aims (v.22) it results in life and satisfaction (v.23). The Lazy (v.25) will fail to take action and chock it up to trusting in God's providence, but such fatalism with result in correction. The wise will take that correction sooner than the fool.
• God effected His will in Paul’s life by providentially controlling all the intricate circumstances around him.
Illustration: God Moves in a Mysterious Way
The hymn God Moves in a Mysterious Way was written by William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), the English poet, friend of John Newton, who struggled all his life with sadness. Cowper wrote this hymn following a period of almost suicidal depression. Calling for a carriage, he ordered the driver to take him to the Ouse River, three miles away, where he planned to kill himself. The driver, knowing the state of mind of his passenger, breathed a prayer of thanks when a thick fog enveloped the area. He purposely lost his way in the dense fog, jogging up one road and down another as Cowper fell into a deep sleep. Several hours passed, the driver going in circles, letting his passenger rest. Finally he returned him to his home. “We’re back home,” said Cowper. “How is that?” “Got lost in the fog, sir. Sorry.” Cowper paid his fare, went inside, and pondered how he had been spared from harming himself by the merciful providence of God. That same evening in 1774, his forty-third year, reflecting on his narrow escape, he wrote this autobiographical hymn: God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform; He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. Deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill,He treasures up his bright designs and works his sovereign will. You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread Are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face. His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower. Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his work in vain: God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain. (Ernest K. Emurian, Living Stories of Famous Hymns (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1955), 51–52.)
Secondly, we can Discern God's will through:
2) Planning (Romans 15:23-24)
Romans 15:23-24 But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while. (ESV)
A second element for a believer who faithfully fulfills their divine calling is care in making plans for ministry. Contrary to how it may seem on first thought, sensible and careful planning by God’s people does not necessarily indicate lack of trust in His providence. Waiting on the Lord’s providence does not preclude personal planning. Paul went according to the way God opened the doors. He planned to go in a certain direction. He kept that clearly in his mind, but “he did not tell God how or when it had to be. Paul subordinated his plans to God’s overall direction, and he did not annoy when the specifics of God’s plan or God’s timing varied from his own (Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The New Humanity (Vol. 4, p. 1871). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.).
Jesus asked rhetorically in Luke 14, “Which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it?… Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and take counsel whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand?” (Luke 14:28, 31).
The prerequisite in every case, of course, is that our planning, no matter how carefully and sincerely made, be constantly and completely subject to the Lord’s control and alteration—just as were Paul’s plans to minister in Bithynia and to visit Rome. He believed there he had no longer had any room/was no further place for him in these regions where he had been ministering, and since he longed for many years to come to Rome whenever he went as verse 24 notes, to Spain. He did not claim that God was calling him to minister either in Rome or in Spain, but he strongly hoped for and planned for both ministries. Notice that Paul’s desire to visit Rome was not a new thing, it was something that he had wanted to do for years, but God had not given him the opportunity to do it. This tells us something about how we live out our ministry, and our Christian lives. God doesn’t always send us where we want to go. Paul wanted for years to go to Rome, but he had responsibilities elsewhere. It didn’t change the fact that he wanted to come. (Sproul, R. C. (1994). The Gospel of God: An Exposition of Romans (pp. 245–246). Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications.)
• As much as we faithfully seek God's directive will, we must, with humility, acknowledge that He may direct our steps along the way. Even though we seek to honor Him and do it in a godly way, the route, timing and composition of the group may change as per His adjustment.
• If not even the Apostle Paul will claim with precision God's immediate will, how definitive should we be about claiming infallibility on the exact knowledge of variables that God may change. To do so, will undermine our testimony and may derail faith.
Let's consider Paul's desired destination. Spain included the city or region referred to in the Old Testament as Tarshish, the place to which Jonah sought to flee (Jonah 1:3) and from which ships brought King Solomon “gold and silver, ivory and apes and peacocks” every three years (1 Kings 10:22). Spain was on the far western side of the continent and had become a major center of commerce and culture, made accessible by way of the renowned Roman roads. Ruins of impressive Roman architecture still exist there today. That province had produced such outstanding men as Martial, famous for his epigrams; the poet Lucan; the notable orator Quintilian; and the greatest Spaniard in the Roman Empire, Seneca, the notable statesman and Stoic philosopher who tutored Nero and was prime minister of the Empire. Yet, from the most reliable historical and archaeological evidence, Spain was not evangelized until the middle of the third century. This itinerary would require Paul to travel (mostly by boat) about 3,000 miles: c. 800 from Corinth to Jerusalem, c. 1,500 from Jerusalem to Rome, and c. 700 from Rome to Spain. Such a trip would be long, perilous, and uncomfortable (Cottrell, J. (1996). Romans (Vol. 2, Ro 15:23–29). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co.).
• If we are frustrated in how little we accomplish for the Kingdom of God, perhaps it is because of how little is undertaken. Every great result came from a great undertaking through great sacrifice.
It therefore is understandable why Paul’s plan was to minister in Spain. And he strongly desired to see the believers at Rome in passing. Because the church in Rome was well established and mature, Paul did not want, as he had already explained, “to preach the gospel… where Christ was already named, that [he] might not build upon another man’s foundation” (v. 20). But, although his intended layover in Rome was to be brief, it was of great personal importance to Paul. While visiting that church, he hoped to be helped on his journey/way there (Spain), after he had first enjoyed the company of the Roman believers for a while.
To be helped is from the verb propempô, which, in the New Testament, is used in a rather specific and technical sense. It was always used of the custom in the early church of furnishing an escort, as well as supplies, for someone being sent out to minister in a distant field. After returning to the church in Antioch, which had originally commissioned and sent them out (Acts 13:2–3), Paul and Barnabas again were “being sent on their way [propempô] by the church” (Acts 15:3). The term is used of the Ephesian elders’ “accompanying [Paul] to the ship” that would take him to Jerusalem. It is translated “escorted” in Acts 21:5; “send… on [the] way” in 1 Corinthians 16:6, 11 and 3 John 6; and “help… on [the] way” in Titus 3:13. Here we find Paul making plans to complete a plan he had been working on for years—to visit the church in Rome. And in the restatement of his plan we find a snapshot of his long-term goal and desire for the church in Rome—that they might assist him on his journey to Spain. Paul was not “using” the believers in Rome to help him accomplish a self-serving goal. Rather, he was involving them in the priority of the church—reaching all nations with the gospel (Boa, K., & Kruidenier, W. (2000). Romans (Vol. 6, pp. 451–452). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.).
• A helpful lesson for us therefore is seeing how it is necessary to move beyond mere aims to specific operations. A godly goal without a detailed plan, is just a wish.
• A plan can also have multiple phases of implementation. We are not to just put off step after step and rush everything all at once, but for big projects, attempt to achieve them in phases.
• Finally, big goals need help. There is nothing wrong with calling others alongside to help us in the journey. It will mean sharing the vision, and asking for specific help, at a time that they can help.
Please turn to Romans 1 (p.939)
For Paul. it was not that the churches in which he already had ministered were perfect, that they needed no more pastoral care, or that every professing believer was true or mature. He had expressed in the opening comments of this epistle, his great hope:
Romans 1:9-13 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10]always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God's will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you-- that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. (ESV)
• Paul’s sees his ministry is like bringing ripened crops as a gift to God. Paul neither “planted” nor “watered” the church at Rome (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6), but its increased maturity and obedience would be a harvest nonetheless. (Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 2158). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.)
• We are all particular tools in God's hands. Any part of the planting, nurturing, pruning or harvesting may be performed by different people at different times. We don't have to know how all the parts fit together, we just have to be faithful here and now for what God has called us to do. He will work out the rest.
Making sensible and careful plans for serving God does not conflict with reliance on His providence, and reliance on His providence does not excuse failure to plan. But personal plans, no matter how unselfish and spiritually motivated, must be subject to God’s plan. Paul’s desire to visit Rome was strong, but his desire to obey God was stronger still. He had the self-discipline and steadfast dedication to fulfill what God had given him to do, setting his personal dreams aside until, and if, the Lord brought them to pass.
Illustration: Informal Missionaries
When we study an extraordinary person like Paul it is very easy for us to dissociate his achievements from our own plans or expectations, just because we think of him as being so extraordinary. But although he was certainly that, the vision Paul had and the things he accomplished were not really that extraordinary in these early formative years of Christianity. Paul’s dreams were the same as those of the great majority of God’s people.
In Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire we are told about the rapid expansion of Christianity in the first century of the Christian era. How did that occur? Gibbon suggests that it was because in the early church “it became the most sacred duty of a new convert to diffuse among his friends and relations the inestimable blessing which he had received.”( Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960), pp. 143–91..)
In other words, each believer considered himself or herself to be a missionary. Adolf Harnack, the great German church historian, declared, “The most numerous and successful missionaries of the Christian religion were not the regular teachers but Christians themselves, in virtue of their loyalty and courage.… It was characteristic of this religion that everyone who seriously confessed the faith proved of service to its propaganda.… We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries.” (Adolf Haranack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), p. 368.)
That is exactly what we need today. If you see this need, you will press on with the missionary task, because you will know that God has given you important things to do for him today (Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The New Humanity (Vol. 4, pp. 1874–1875). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.).
(Format note: Outline & some base commentary from MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Ro 15:22–23). Chicago: Moody Press )