Romans Commentary, Romans 15:14-33

This commentary was prepared for Kairos Publications in Buenos Aires. It was composed specifically for the Latin American church. In some cases I have retained the words “Latin America,” at other times I have substituted “the Americas.” The bibliography reflects what is available to the Spanish-speaking church. We will publish it a section at a time, and eventually as an entire pdf file. The reader will notice that its purpose is to explain and apply this wonderful epistle to the church of today. Blessings! Gary Shogren

To download the full commentary as a pdf, click here Shogren_Commentary on Romans


VIII. The Priestly Ministry of Paul and his Itinerary (15:14-33)
A. His ministry is centered on evangelizing areas which have no church (15:14-22)
B. He plans on visiting Jerusalem, then Rome, and then on to pioneer territory in Spain

VIII. The Priestly Ministry of Paul and his Itinerary (15:14-33)

A. His ministry is centered on evangelizing areas which have no church (15:14-22)

Paul concludes in vv. 14-15a by affirming that the Roman Christians are “full of goodness”. Even if he had to speak strongly about some issues he is not giving them anything new; the epistle was designed to refresh their memories, to “remind you of them again”. No-one could complain that he was introducing some new doctrine.

It is fitting, given the language of worship earlier in this chapter, that he refers in vv. 15b-16 to his holy service as an apostle of Christ. The word he uses (leitourgos) could have a secular sense of “servant” (see Rom 13:6); nevertheless, in this context he is using it in the religious sense of one who enters the temple sanctuary to worship God (as in Heb 8:2). This has nothing to do with the doctrine that the clergy are “priests” who offer the sacrifice of the mass on the Christian altar, the so-called “ministerial priesthood” that is “directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1547). Rather Paul is a sacred worker in the sense that he ministers God’s grace to the nations. By receiving Christ the Gentiles are not only serving God, they themselves are transformed into an acceptable sacrifice (v. 16b). Reading this we return in our minds to 12:1-2, where even Gentile believers can offer sacrifices: not some animal on an altar in Jerusalem, but their very own bodies or persons to the service of God.

It is typical of the apostle to use the term “boast in” or “glory in” or (as the NIV) have pride in (see GNB, REB). It is a word group that when used negatively, sums up all that is wrong with the human race in its arrogance and fondness of creating gods according to its own tastes. It is invalidated by our sin and our utter need of Christ (Rom 2:17, 23; 3:27). On the other hand, it is proper to boast about God, that is, that we draw attention to him and give him glory (Rom 5:11). 1 Corinthians keeps both truths in tension: “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:29 ESV, which improves on the NIV); and then, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:31 ESV; Paul quotes Jer 9:24).

In the mouth of today’s TV evangelists, what Paul says next might be a boast about their own power, anointing, gifts, money, etc. But when Paul talks about his mission, he glorifies God, who empowers him in what he says and does, and performs many miracles through him. The book of Acts mentions relatively few miracles of Paul; we must assume that he did many more than it records. Paul told the Galatians, for example, that the miracles they had seen were a sure proof that salvation comes through faith and not through the works of the Law of Moses (Gal 3:1-6). He probably is referring to miracles in other passages (see especially 1 Thess 1:5; 1 Cor 2:4; 4:20; also 1 Cor 12:10). Of course, someone will observe, and correctly, “Well, the greatest miracle of all is when someone comes to Christ.” But Paul’s language here is visible supernatural signs of God’s presence in healings, exorcisms and other signs. They proved that he was an apostle (2 Cor 12:12), and this verse implies that the false apostles could not do miracles: that is, God would not ratify their gospel by doing miracles through them.

Paul claims to have preached from Jerusalem in a counter-clockwise arc which led through Cyprus and Asia Minor, modern Greece and “all the way around to Illyricum” (v. 19; he does not mention here that he had earlier worked in Arabia, Gal 1:17-18). Illyricum lay at the western end of the Via Egnatia (see our comments on 15:22); it is part of modern Serbia. We have no record in the epistles or in Acts of Paul having traveled that far west. It is possible that the mission to Illyricum was commissioned by Paul but not personally carried out by him. At any rate, he had nowhere to go in those regions where there was not some gospel witness, “where Christ was not known.”

It was a fundamental part of his self-consciousness as an apostle that he was to evangelize Gentiles in faraway places and in areas where the gospel had not yet reached. In some cases, there were a handful of Christians already waiting when Paul arrived (for example, Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth, Acts 18:2; see also Acts 18:24-19:7). But Paul’s work was not to evangelize random individuals but to lay the foundation of a witnessing church (1 Cor 3:10). It was that task that he had already performed in the northeast quadrant of the empire. His visit to Rome probably was in order to give an apostolic foundation to the church that already dwelled there. Paul quotes (v. 21) what for us is a messianic passage, Isaiah 52:15, where the Servant of Yahweh is manifested by peoples who do not know him, to the extent that “kings will shut their mouths because of him” (see other Isaianic language in Acts 26:18, 23).

Practical Thought: A missionary comes to your church to speak, and he tells you to go to Acts 1:8 – “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

He goes on to say:

Jerusalem was their own city, and they were supposed to evangelize there first. Judea was their home region. Now, Samaria was like but not identical with Judea, but next in line since it was a nearby mission field. And of course, “the end of the earth” means any foreign country.

In conclusion, the preacher asks: What is your Jerusalem and Judea? What is your Samaria? What is the uttermost part of your earth? He may add that, You shouldn’t go to the ends of the earth until your Jerusalem is evangelized.

This is not the principal meaning of Acts 1:8 in its context, nor in the context of Paul’s words in Romans 15. We are helped by Luke 24. Since Luke and Acts are two volumes by the same author, the last chapter of Luke and the first of Acts overlap. In Luke 24:44-49 Jesus talks about the mission, in different terms and with more detail, including the statement that the gospel will go forth, specifically from Jerusalem, to all nations. The important new datum from Luke is that this program comes from “the Scriptures” – in other words, the Bible predicted not only the death and resurrection of Jesus; it also foretold that the Spirit would come (as in Joel 2:28-32); and that the gospel would go forth from the city of Jerusalem. Most commentators have pointed to Isaiah 2:3 – “For the LORD’s teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem” (NLT, which is preferable for its translation of “teaching” rather than “law”).

So, “beginning in Jerusalem” was a once-and-for-all first act in the gospel’s advance: from Zion to whatever nation may be named, God made the gospel go forth by centrifugal force. As Jesus had said in Mark 13:10, before the end of the age “the gospel must first be preached to all nations”; he and the disciples were on the Mount of Olives at the time, facing the Holy City.

Another observation: until the day of Pentecost, Jerusalem was never the “home town” of the apostles. With the likely exception of Judas Iscariot, the apostles all came from Galilee in the north. When Jesus was raised, they were staying in borrowed quarters. They continued in the city and there receive the Spirit and first preach the gospel. In Acts 2-9 the Twelve are living and working in Jerusalem, their new adoptive town.

Many of the converts on the Day of Pentecost were Diaspora Jews, who later returned from Jerusalem to other nations in their world, taking the gospel to them, from Zion. Due to the persecution, believers moved to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1).

From Jerusalem, Phillip went to evangelize Samaria, followed by John and Peter (Acts 8). Peter evangelized the Mediterranean coastline and made the first Gentile converts (Acts 10-11). According to tradition, the apostles then went out to many nations.

B. He plans on visiting Jerusalem, then Rome, and then on to pioneer territory in Spain (15:23-33)

Letters from the first century sometimes included an itinerary, in which the writer would announce his travel plans. Paul traveled far and wide, planting churches and later revisiting them, and sending deputies such as Timothy or Titus with specific tasks to perform. This made it a natural step to include descriptions of his plans for the near future (see for example 1 Cor 16:1-12; 2 Cor 1:12-2:4; similarly, Phil 2:19-30; Philemon 22). From Rome he would move westward to Spain, skipping over Alpine Italy and Gaul (France) in his most ambitious journey to date – he would have gone from the eastern frontier of the empire (Jerusalem) to the western (Spain, and from there the Atlantic Ocean). The province Hispania had been a major trading region with the Greeks, the Carthaginians, and the Phoenicians for centuries before the Romans arrived. With regard to a Jewish presence in Spain, one might think of Spain as having a huge population, up until their expulsion in 1492; nevertheless, it is not certain that there was any Jewish settlement as early as AD 58; it would have been relatively easy for Paul to make inquiries about colonies of Jews already living there.

Paul wants to enjoy the company of the Romans for a time (vv. 24, 28-29), but he hints at a deeper commitment: he wants the church to “have you assist me on my journey”; this is a helpful expansion of the verb “aid” or “send on one’s way” (propempō is also used in 1 Cor 16:6; 16:11; Tit 3:13 and elsewhere). It is stronger in meaning than simply “see off”; it implies that the host has the duty to supply whatever the traveler needs to get to his next stop. This short statement by Paul is a sudden revelation, since it answers some of the questions of why he wrote Romans:

  • I want you to support my missionary work in Spain.
  • Thus, you will have to be firmly convinced that this is a necessary work.
  • Thus, I will go over the entire gospel message to show why the gospel must go forth to this faraway land (Spain was as far from Rome, as Rome was from Corinth).
  • In particular, you need to know that Spanish Jews and Gentiles both need the gospel.
  • And even more, you Christians in Rome, Jew and Gentile, must be united together in the gospel if you are going to do something as costly as underwriting a mission to Spain.
  • And though Paul does not mention it, perhaps he hopes to encounter another young assistant in the church of Rome, a new Timothy.

But for now, Paul was about to make a trip eastward to Jerusalem, to carry out a charitable work for the poor saints there. Poverty and famine seem to have been chronic during these decades (see Acts 11:27-30). He borders on sounding casual: “Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem.” In fact, Paul had been planning this project for years (see Gal 2:10). The church in each city would appoint “trustees” to carry the gift (1 Cor 16:3-4; 2 Cor 8:18-21; Acts 20:4).

In v. 27 Paul shows that the Gentile Christians owed the saints in Judea for sharing the gospel with the nations. This is an extension of the duty all Christians have toward one another: “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need” (12:13). The irony is that now the Gentiles can send material blessings, sacred offerings, to Israel (see too 1 Cor 9:11; Gal 6:6). Behind this offering lies the prophetic promise that booty will flow from the nations to Zion. But now the apostle can see with greater precision what that meant: the nations are not paying tribute to their conquerors, but willingly blessing their Jewish brothers in Christ. But Paul already foresees that “the unbelievers in Judea” (v. 31) might cause him harm, even though he is doing much good for Jewish Christians there. As it turns out his fears will be confirmed, and he would face the threat of death.

While Paul is usually pictured as praying for his disciples, he is not shy about asking them to pray for him in turn: in fact, he seems to have held it as a principle that those he leads to Christ should “send” him in prayer to his next stop and to ask God that he have a safe and fruitful time (vv. 30-33; also, the very similar 2 Thess 3:1-4).

What happened to Paul’s plans?

First, Paul planned to sail from Corinth to Syria (Acts 20:3) and from there to Jerusalem. But this is not what happened: there was a plot against him in Corinth, and so he traveled northward through Macedonia, retracing his steps, celebrating Passover in Philippi, then sailing past Ephesus to Miletus (Acts 20:13-16). Since Paul had missed the chance to get to Jerusalem for Passover, he wanted at least to arrive there for Pentecost – the Feast of First Fruits would in fact provide a neat symbol for his gift to the Christians there. He delivered the gift to the church, as he notes later in Acts 24:17 – “I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings.”

Second, he had hoped to go directly from Jerusalem to Rome. This did not take place, at least, not in any way that he had imagined. After two years in prison he appealed to Caesar and was taken as prisoner to put forward his case in the capital. After he arrived he spent two further years under house arrest (Acts 28:30). He interacted with the Jewish leadership in Rome, which claimed to know nothing of Christianity except for second-hand information (Acts 28:21-22).

Third, he had wanted to go to Spain. There is no firm evidence that he ever arrived there, and I am inclined to believe that he did not. Clement of Rome spoke of Paul “having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West. Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place” (1 Clem 5.7 [Holmes]). This may mean that Clement thought that he had gone to Spain, but a better interpretation is that the “west” is Rome, the place where he testified before the emperor and was executed.

Practical Thought: What may be learned from all this? To begin with, Paul made plans. He prayed, he strategized, and then he moved ahead. But just as striking is the fact that he could and did change plans. He wanted to go from Corinth to Jerusalem but changed his plans. He wanted to go from Jerusalem to Rome but could not. He wanted to go from Rome to Spain and perhaps he was not able. This shows us that not even the great apostle knew his own future, as if God had revealed his destiny ahead of time. Even Paul had to deal with the unknown; frightening changes of circumstance; people reacting badly when they had little cause to. Like Paul we must be people of faith, that is, we rely on God’s care for us and pray for his strength and direction, leaving to him the hidden possibilities.

Study Questions:

  1. We might fall into the trap of honoring the gospel mission with our words but forgetting to support our people who have gone to evangelize the world. According to Romans, what kinds of help can be given to missionaries are sent out from a church?
  2. What do you think of this statement: “We have so many needs right here (in your own town) that we cannot be investing in Christian work in other places”?

“Romans Commentary, 15:14-33,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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