Dr. Richard L. Strauss
October 13, 1991
Purpose: To show us how we, like Paul, can be used of God, and enjoy the sense of significance which that brings.
Students of human nature have suggested to us that one of our greatest human needs is for a sense of significance. And I think I agree with that. We all want to have the assurance that we've contributed something important in life, with a meaningful role to fill--that we've made some valuable contribution and our life counts for something worthwhile. That's right, I have that need. I want to feel like I am needed and that I've accomplished something useful. Because without that sense of significance, life is hardly worth living.
That's one of the great blessings of knowing Jesus Christ. You see in Him, we are significant. Our significance doesn't lie in how much money we make, or how many things we have, or how high of position we have attained, or how attractive we may be, or how talented we may be, or how many friends we have around us. None of those things. It lies in our position as children of God, who've been chosen of God and equipped to take our place and fulfill our purpose in God's great eternal plan. There's great joy, and blessing, and significance in doing the will of God.
Now the apostle Paul was a man who enjoyed a fruitful ministry. And as a result, had a strong sense of significance. He knew he was being used of God and there's nothing more joyful and significant than that. And he had that confidence. And we're going to learn a little bit more about this man in a brief personable personal addendum in his letter to the Romans.
His purpose for adding these verses seems to be to explain why he hasn't visited the Roman Christians before this. They are probably wondering why the apostle Paul hasn't come to Rome. Here's why, he's going to tell us. But he's also going to prepare them for an upcoming visit and tell them why he really wants to come. That's all ahead of us here this morning.
In the process, we learn some of the reasons for his fruitful ministry. I'd like to show you three keys to the kind of useful service that helps us feel significant. Each one of them is illustrated in the life of the apostle Paul.
Flexible Planning Is a Key to Fruitful Service
The first one is flexible planning. Now he's just finished telling us in verses 20 and 21, of his firm commitment to Pioneer missions: his resolve to preach the gospel in places where Christ has never been named. You see, it seems as though there are always new areas where the gospel had never been preached, and always that inner compulsion in the apostle Paul to go there and tell them about Jesus. And he says in verse 22 it's for this reason I've been much hindered from coming to you. You see the gospel had already been preached in Rome, and the church had already been established there, so getting to Rome was not one of his top priorities. They didn't need him there like some other parts of the world did. But now he plans to remedy that.
Romans 15:23. "But now no longer having a place in these parts, and having a great desire these many years to come to you, whenever I journey to Spain, I shall come to you."
He gives us two reasons there are planning to visit them. First of all, he says there was no more place for him in those parts. That doesn't mean he doesn't have anything to do where he was. He always had things to do. There was always something to teach somebody about the things of Jesus Christ, but the point he was making is that church had been established in those parts. He had preached in almost every major area in Greece and in Asia and now he didn't need to be there anymore and he felt free for the first time to travel west and visit the saints in Rome.
The second reason is simply that he had always had a longing to visit Rome and meet the Christians there in the capital city of the Empire--such a critical place where he could make such a great impact for Jesus Christ, and there they were. He wanted to see the church in Rome.
But Rome wasn't his final destination. He had his eye on another place. Did you pick that up in verse 24? He wanted to go to Spain, a country which at that time had never yet had a gospel witness. You see Paul was always thinking ahead. Always laying tentative plans to do the thing he loved to do best and the thing he was called of God to do, and that was: preach the gospel in virgin territory.
And he had some plans for the Roman Christians in that regard, too.
Romans 15:24b-c. "For I hope to see you on my journey, and to be helped on my way there by you, if first I may enjoy your company for a while."
To be helped on his way means more than just, "Good-bye, Paul; God bless you!" He was counting on them to assist him in evangelizing Spain. He wanted to use the Roman church as his base of operations, just as Antioch had been for his first three missionary journeys. He was looking for prayer support from them. He was looking for financial support from them. And he was looking for personnel support. He wanted this new evangelistic thrust into Spain to be a team effort, and he wanted the Christians in Rome to be on the team. That was the plan.
Paul always had a plan. He knew where he was going and why. He probably lived by that familiar adage, "To fail to plan is to plan to fail." He didn't want to fail in doing the job God called him to do, so he planned. That was one of the reasons he accomplished so much for God's glory.
I'm afraid that some Christians fly by the seat of their pants a good deal of the time. They just drift along with the tide and move whichever way the wind is blowing. That may be one reason they accomplish so little for the glory of God and consequently feel so useless and insignificant. I do talk to Christians from time to time who feel like that. They don't have any good reason for living and they don't feel like they're making any contribution to anybody. I wonder whether the reason is that they haven't really prayerfully sat down and planned what it is that they're going to be doing. They've never given any prayerful thought to what God wants them to do and how He wants them to do it. There's no plan.
What good thing, for the glory of God, would you like to see happen? Do you want to see your neighbors come to Christ? It would be helpful to develop a plan. Have you thought about how you're going to develop a relationship with them? Have you thought about how you're going to show them that you really care about them as people--not just as statistics to be "won"? How are you going to build a bridge and win the right to be heard? Have you thought about that? Have you sought God's wisdom? Have you done any planning?
Are you considering professional Christian service, possibly the mission field? Do you know how you're going to get there? Do you know what you need to do? Sometimes folks walk into Pastor Harry Larson's office and say, "We want to be missionaries and we're ready to go." And they find out that they're not ready to go because they haven't even thought about what it's going to take to prepare them, and equip them, and get them ready to do that ministry. You will never get there without a plan.
Do you want to be a better teacher and more effectively communicate the truths of God's Word so that people are strengthened in their faith and become more like Jesus? That probably won't happen without a plan. Part of that plan will probably be attending some teacher training classes and learning some principles of communicating the truths of Scripture. It will take a plan.
Do you want to build the things of Christ into the hearts and minds of your children and mold their characters into the image of Christ? That's something God wants you to do. But it isn't happening in some Christian homes because there's never been any thought given to it. They don't have a plan. They haven't sat down and sought God's wisdom and figured out what they need to do in order to mold our children in spiritual things.
You may never get started without a plan. Paul had a plan. We don't know for sure that Paul carried out his plan and got to Spain. Tradition says he did and I suspect he did, but we're not told that specifically. But even if he didn't get there, you can be sure that it didn't crush him. If there is one thing clear from examining Paul ministry, it is that his plans were always flexible--always subject to God's final approval and always subject to change. He was never locked into anything. Just the way he words it here indicates that: "For I hope to see you." He lived by that great passage in Proverbs that Solomon wrote: "Man's heart plans his way but the Lord directs His steps."
You see, I lay the plan but sometimes God moves me in a different direction than what I had planned. Some people spend so much time planning in such intricate detail that they never get around to doing anything. They use their planning as an excuse for never getting started. And if they do get started, and their plan does not work out exactly the way they laid it, and they end up feeling like failures--frustrated, useless and worthless.
Folks, that's so unnecessary. Lay your plans, prayerfully and thoughtfully, then get going with them--but always in total submission to God's sovereign purposes, which may not fully unfold until you're well on the way. Learn to rest in His sovereign control of every circumstance and to accept whatever He allows to happen. Whatever it is.
I didn't plan to get cancer. That wasn't in my list of goals I set way back when. That wasn't something I really wanted. But I know without any shadow of doubt in my mind, it is part of God's plan, which is superior to mine. God didn't do it because He's angry with me. He allowed it to happen because He wants to accomplish some good things through it. I am firmly committed to that. You see, I've got a plan. But God doesn't always fit Himself into my mould. He's got a plan that is always superior to mine. And I need to believe that and rest in it. That's flexible planning.
It's one of the keys to useful service, and the sense of significance that comes from being used of God. There's a second key, once again illustrated in Paul's life. That is, fulfilled promises.
Fulfilled Promises Is a Key to Fruitful Service
There was something Paul had to do before he traveled to Rome.
Romans 15:25-26. "But now I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem."
Collecting a gift from the Gentiles for the relief of poverty stricken Jewish believers in Jerusalem was one of Paul's major concerns and one of his major projects (refer to 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-4). There were several reasons for that.
The church in Jerusalem was desperately poor. Famine had taken its toll on the people. And besides that, the Jewish religious leaders were doing everything in their power to oppress the Christians, even denying them employment whenever they could.
Another reason for Paul's concern is found in that word contribution (verse 26): "a certain contribution for the poor among the saints." It is actually the word koinonia, meaning "fellowship" or "partnership." That's what he calls an offering: a partnership.
We know that tension existed in the church between Jewish and Gentile believers, but if the Gentiles would contribute to the physical needs of the Jews in Jerusalem, that would do wonders in cementing the unity and oneness of the church. We feel a sense of kinship and partnership with someone who helps us or with someone we are able to help.
A third reason for Paul's concern is described in Romans 15:27: "It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things."
Believers in Jerusalem had shared the gospel with the Gentiles, the wonderful news of forgiveness and life in Jesus Christ. Now the least the Gentiles could do was minister to the physical needs of their Jewish brothers and sisters who were suffering so much and who had so little. Paul saw it as a debt they owed.
But it was more than just a debt, it was actually a promise he had made. On a previous trip to Jerusalem, when Paul met with James and Peter and John, he promised them that he would continue to do everything in his power to help the poor believers in Jerusalem (refer to Galatians 2:10). And Paul was not one to go back on his word. He did what he said he would do. When he made a commitment, he followed through and kept his promise. It was one of the reasons why he accomplished so much for the glory of God, and had so much joy and blessing in ministry.
Romans 15:28-29. "Therefore, when I have performed this and have sealed to them this fruit, I shall go by way of you to Spain. But I know that when I come to you, I shall come in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ." That's the way Paul lived his life: in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.
You know, following through and doing what they say they will do is not that important to some Christians. For example, they join a church and with that act of joining they make a promise to pray for its ministry, attend its services regularly, and support it financially, but they fail to follow through on some of those commitments. They don't keep the promise they made. Maybe they accept a job in the church, and then fail to show up to do it. Failure to keep their word is one reason they accomplish so little for the glory of God and, consequently, feel so useless and insignificant, as so many Christians do. They need to learn to follow through.
We have significance in Christ. It is ours simply because we belong to Him, but we shall not enjoy that significance fully until we begin to do what we say we are going to do. That brings a sense of accomplishment and joy when we know we've done the will of God.
Those who were alive at the time will never forget those dark days of World War II when the enemy marched confidently into the Philippines, and General Douglas MacArthur, as brilliant a soldier as he was, had no alternative but to retreat. As he stepped into the boat bound for Australia he uttered those famous words: "I shall return." It was two and a half years later when he stepped out once more on Philippine soil and proclaimed triumphantly, "This is the voice of freedom, General MacArthur speaking. People of the Philippines: I have returned." He had kept his word, against all odds. He had made his promise good, in spite of the powerful pressures against him. His sense of satisfaction was impossible to hide. And no man was more appreciated and respected than he.
Now bring that over into the spiritual realm. Do you want to be used of God in fruitful service, and enjoy the satisfaction and fulfillment and blessing that He gives as a result? Then be responsible. Learn to follow through and keep your word. Do what you say you're going to do. If you've made a commitment, follow through on it. That is an essential key to useful service and the sense of significance that follows.
Flexible planning and fulfilled promises: two vital keys to useful service. There is one more in this passage, illustrated in the life of the Apostle Paul, and that is faithful prayer.
Faithful Prayer Is a Key to Fruitful Service
Everything of eternal value that we are ever privileged to accomplish is accomplished by God's power working through us in answer to somebody's prayer: our own or somebody else's, or both. And that is why Paul pleads with the Romans to pray for him.
Romans 15:30. "Now I beg you, brethren, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in prayers to God for me."
Don't miss that word strive. There is a conflict raging between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and the battle can only be won through prayer. Oh, it's going to be won ultimately. But I mean the battles we face day by day can only be won through prayer. We shall never enjoy success in our spiritual service and the joy it brings apart from prayer. So let's pray for one another. It is so vitally essential.
I have to tell you that I wouldn't think of standing up here and trying to teach you God's Word without first laying hold of God in prayer myself, and without the knowledge that many of you are praying for me. You pray that God will impact people's lives through the ministry of whomever is preaching that morning, and help you, personally, to grow in His grace and knowledge. Our elders gather before the morning begins every Sunday, and we lay hold of the Lord to accomplish some good things through the ministry of this day. And we prayer for others in other locations around the campus communicating the Word of God. If you are teaching a Sunday School class, somebody is praying for you. Do you spend time in prayer?
Look at what Paul asks them to pray for.
Romans 15:31-32. "That I may be delivered from those in Judea who do not believe, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, that I may come to you with joy by the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you."
There are three requests here.
- That he would be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea. That was an important request. The unbelieving Jews in Judea and Jerusalem hated the Apostle Paul and they wanted to see him dead. There were literally thousands of them. That's a tall order and a good prayer request--when somebody wants you dead, you know. It's nice to have people praying for you.
- That his service would be received by the believers in Jerusalem. Many of the Jewish Christians resented him for not insisting that his Gentile converts follow the whole Jewish law. Some of them even considered him a traitor to his nation for directing his primary ministry to Gentiles. There was some question as to whether they would even accept a gift from the Gentile churches. So that was another tall order.
- That with the first two prayers answered, he might head for Rome in the will of God, filled with joy, where he hoped to find spiritual refreshment in fellowship with the Roman Christians in preparation for his evangelistic thrust into Spain.
Now, I have a question for you: Did God answer all of those requests? It would seem that He didn't, at least not in the way Paul expected them to be answered. While number two was answered and the Jewish Christians accepted him and the gift, his actions were misrepresented by the unbelievers in Jerusalem and they instigated a riot in which he was dragged from the temple area and beaten. You could hardly say he was "delivered" from the unbelievers. And yet he was, because the Roman guard in Jerusalem saw his plight and rescued him from his would-be assassins. That's what they were up to--they were going to kill him. So he was delivered.
How about number three? You know the rest of the story. First he was imprisoned in the Roman army barracks in Jerusalem. Then he was moved from there because there was a plot to kill him. He was moved from there to a prison in the regional capital of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast where he remained for two years. After appealing to the Caesar he was put on a ship for Italy, shipwrecked on the island of Malta, and finally arrived in Rome in chains where he remained for at least two more years under house arrest.
So did God answer his prayer or not? Well, yes, I guess He did. He did arrive in Rome with joy by the will of God. That's what he prayed for, wasn't it? Paul always lived his life with joy. Even when he was in prison, he had joy in the Lord. And evidently, that was God's way to get him there. It wasn't his way, but it was God's way.
And look what God enabled him to accomplish along the way. He had the opportunity to give testimony concerning Jesus Christ before two Roman governors and a regional king in Caesarea, and eventually before the court of the Roman emperor himself. His shipwreck allowed him to proclaim the gospel on the unreached island of Malta. Then during his two years of imprisonment in Rome he was able to witness to one Roman soldier after another, so that the gospel penetrated the entire Praetorian Guard, which was Caesar's personal security brigade.
So many good things had happened that Paul was able to write to the Philippians from prison in Rome and say, "But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel" (Philippians 1:12). That's fruitful ministry, in answer to prayer. Did God answer Paul's prayer? Most certainly, He did. It wasn't in the way Paul expected or asked, but in a way that brought great glory to God.
But you need to know that it only brought Paul a sense of usefulness because he was willing to admit that God sometimes answers prayer in ways that are different from what we expect. You've had that happen in your life, haven't you? He answered, but it wasn't the way you thought He would. It was altogether different, and you saw how it worked out for God's glory and your good.
Many of you know the name of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries martyred by the Auca Indians of Ecuador in 1956. Just three years before his death, after watching an Indian die in a jungle hut, he had affirmed his willingness to serve God and die among those people if necessary, praying, "Lord, let me live until I have declared Your works to this generation." (See Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor.)
I'm sure Jim Elliot didn't expect God to answer his prayer by letting him be speared to death before he was 30 years old. But neither did he have any idea that within three years of his death, his name would be known all over the world, and that his journals would challenge thousands to give themselves to the Lord's service. He is still speaking today though he's been in heaven for 35 years (Our Daily Bread, February 24, 1982). That wasn't how he expected his prayer to be answered, but it was a great answer.
What is it that you have been praying for?
Greater fulfillment through a new job? Maybe God wants you to touch some life right where you are. Nothing could be more fulfilling than for God to use you to make an impact in someone's life who is in desperate need of spiritual help.
Are you praying for a raise in salary to meet your needs? Maybe God wants to meet your needs in some other way that will bring Him praise He would never get through a raise.
How about healing? Is that what you're praying for? Maybe He wants to use your physical illness to bring spiritual healing to someone else's life.
Maybe you're praying for a specific open door of ministry? Maybe you have a direction that you believe God wants you to take and that's the direction you're going, and you want to do that. That's it. But maybe God has a different area of ministry for you that you don't even know about yet--a different place of service where He will accomplish far more through you than He could in any other way.
So trust Him. Pray for what you believe He wants you to have--you have every right to do that. You've thought about it, you've searched your own heart, you're praying about it. But then trust Him to answer in whatever way He knows is best. Let Him use you in whatever way He desires. And you will never need to feel useless and insignificant again. You have that sense of joy and blessedness that comes from doing the will of God.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
You know, there was an experience in the life of the Lord Jesus that beautifully illustrates this. That is the Garden of Gethsemane, where He looked for some way other than bearing the Father's wrath against the whole world's sin. He looked for some other way to reclaim the human race from the condemnation of sin. And He cried out, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from me." It wasn't possible. There was no other way. God the Son--the infinite, eternal Son of God--had to die and in that death, had to bear the Father's wrath against the world's sin. There was no other way. And coming to that understanding so clearly in His heart, He added, "Yet not My will, but Yours be done."
You see, He prayed for release from that ordeal. There was no release possible. The Father answered His prayer by giving Him the grace to bear it.
And in that act--the act he performed at Calvary, followed by His triumphant resurrection from the grave--He provided for us eternal salvation. Because He understood and submitted to the Father's will, you and I have eternal life: forgiveness and acceptance by Almighty God.
Maybe not everyone here has that. Maybe there are some who are worshipping with us today that are not absolutely assured of their own eternal salvation. There isn't any other way but through what Jesus did at Calvary and through His resurrection from the tomb. It's there that He paid the penalty that you and I deserved.
Will you acknowledge that and will you trust Him? Will you receive Him as your Savior today? Let's bow our heads and our hearts prayerfully in His presence.
As we're bowed before Him, let me ask you if you know Christ in a personal, saving relationship? Have you put your faith in Him alone for your eternal salvation? If you're not certain you have, we'd like to invite you to do that right now. You can do that right where you are. In fact, you don't even need to move. This is something that happens in your heart, your mind, your soul. Are you willing to say yes to the Lord?
"Yes, I believe that Jesus died for my sin. There was no other way of deliverance from the condemnation that I deserve. And Lord Jesus, I'm trusting You as my Savior and I'm asking You to come into my heart right now and save me from sin."
If you'll make that commitment in the quiet of your own soul right now, the Lord Jesus will become your eternal Savior, as Jesus Himself taught it in John 3 to a man named Nicodemus: You would be "born again." The world has distorted the term, but the Bible makes it clear. One birth is not enough to enter heaven. You need two. The second one is a spiritual birth that comes when you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Will you put your faith in Him right now?
If you've done that--you really know you have and you're a child of God--would you be willing to respond to the challenge of Paul's life today? What plans are you making for useful spiritual service? Are you drifting or do you have some plans?
What commitments have you made that you need to follow through on? What prayers has God answered in a manner differently from what you expected? Maybe you've been a little upset with Him because He hasn't done what you wanted Him to do. Would you be willing to lift up your spiritual eyes and look at the things God has done and the answers He's given that might be a little different from what you expected but were exactly what would bring greatest glory to Him and bring good to your spiritual life.
Father, I pray that the challenge of Paul's life would find willing response in our lives today. Lord, I pray that you would keep changing us moment by moment and day by day, into the very image of the Lord Jesus Christ. For it's in His name we pray. Amen.
Continue to ROM 36: An Honor Roll of Saints