A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on September 18, 2022.
This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 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. At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. May the God of peace be with you all. Amen. (Romans 15:22–33).
In an era of digital and (so-called) social media, some, if not most Americans know politicians in Washington or actors in Hollywood better than they know their neighbor, if they know their neighbor at all. Our evenings are now filled by gaping at glowing screens rather than front porch fellowship. Local involvement and civic participation have waned as digital view counts surge. We are now labeled consumers for a national economy rather than citizens of local polity. We seem to be losing a love of local place and neighbor in exchange for homogenized amusement.
The church is not immune to this trend. What used to be the center of Christian culture has become an obstacle to on-going entertainment. Why invest yourself in a local church, when your options for Christian consumption are so varied and plentiful? Who wouldn’t agree that the late R.C. Sproul preaches a better sermon than your preacher, and he’s available on your device 24/7 from the convenience of your home? Why inconvenience yourself on Sundays by assembling with these so-called saints, when there are so many superior and satisfying options? If you’ve believed the gospel, own a bible, and subscribe to moral values, why bother with the local church? The answer may be found in how God made us and what he says to us.
By God’s design, we were created to live in community with one another and redeemed to live with each other in the fellowship of Christ’s church, and specifically in a local church. A church less Christian is an oxymoron. It should not surprise us that the bulk of the New Testament epistles were written to specific local churches then circulated to other local churches and so on. The encouragements given and the admonishments made were specific to local church issues. And while we can apply them as the Word of God to our own context, we cannot take them out of their original context. The Christian life and the local church are, as it were, inseverable.
So, when Paul writes, “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,” he wasn’t speaking figuratively. He hoped to see the individual members of the Roman church. He hoped to be helped by them personally. He hoped to enjoy their company in their close-quartered homes and the catacombs of first-century Rome. Being with them personally mattered (A Zoom call would not do!).
But the importance of the local church must never be a justification for becoming, what John Miller calls an “ingrown local church,” in which the church is viewed as passive in its relationship to the world and in its own life.” Practically speaking, Miller says, “this often adds up to its becoming a religious cushion for the comfort of its shaky members,” rather than a “‘a commissioned church’ with a responsibility to do something to bring in the harvest of non-Christians from the field of the world.
Paul teaches the church how to live out the Christian faith in our local context (How else can we really live?), but also to think beyond ourselves, to have a heart for the lost, a zeal for gospel advancement, to live locally and serve globally. Christ commissioned his church saying,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20).
His commission for his church is clear. We cannot be ingrown and obey. So, how do we live and serve locally and serve globally?
Paul had been hindered providentially from coming to Rome. As an apostle to the Gentiles, an evangelist to the nations, he was preaching the gospel “from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum” (15:19) so
Those who have never been told of him
and those who have never heard will
Paul’s missionary work was not complete until his “ministry of the gospel of Christ” was fulfilled (15:19). As our Lord said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37).
Undoubtedly, the harvest is plentiful, yet Paul had determined, by revelation or intuition, that there was nothing more to keep him in “these regions” (15:23 NET). His sights turn to Spain, but goals are not enough. Mobilizing missions requires help, and in this case specifically from the Roman church. Paul plans to come, stay a while, and launch from Rome to Spain, as he says, “in the fullness of the blessings of Christ,” probably referring to blessing he will impart to the local church and the blessing he will receive through and from them.
What we witness in this passage is a beautiful example of how Christ uses the local church in advancing the gospel to the nations. Few if any of the Roman Christians could do what Paul is doing, and we have no record of any specific missionaries called from the local congregation. But Paul was called and commissioned, and so through Paul the church could participate in Christ’s Great Commission. Through hosting Paul, caring for his needs, giving financially to his work, and praying that the “Lord of the harvest” (Matt. 9:38) would deliver the gospel to those “who have never been told” and those “who have never heard,” the church could vicariously share the gospel.
This is as applicable today as it was then. As we live locally, we must guard against becoming “ingrown,” merely a religious cushion for our own comfort. We are a commissioned church with the responsibility and privilege of mobilizing missions. But if you are not involved in the local church, how can you serve with us globally? If you are not investing your money in the church, if you are not invested in the missions we support, if you are not praying with us for the harvest, you are not only separating yourself from Christ’s body you are disobeying his command and commission. While it may sound counter-intuitive, serving globally starts by loving locally.
For this reason, in the coming months we will be introducing (or re-introducing) you to the missionaries we support as a church, some old, some new. We encourage you to give your tithes faithfully and specific offerings when you can, as our giving to missions as a church is designated as a percentage of our overall giving. And we will be circulating prayer cards as they become available to remind and encourage all of us to pray for the effective ministry of our missionaries. May God use us as a mobilizing missions church to fulfill the ministry of the gospel of Christ.
The heart of man plans his way,
but the LORD establishes his steps (Prov. 16:9).
Paul’s heart was set on Spain, but the Lord was directing his steps to Jerusalem. There the Jewish Christians were suffering persecution by the Jews. Ostracized from Jewish society and culturally condemned for Christ’s sake, they needed financial support.
So, Paul began a collection campaign, so to speak, from the churches in Macedonia and Achaia, likely referring to the churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Corinth, among possible others. But this is more than a campaign. Paul says, “I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints.” The Greek word translated “bringing aid” is the verb form of the noun translated “servant” or “deacon,” one who serves the church. The verb Paul uses connotes service on behalf of another. In other words, on behalf of other local churches, Paul is taking tangible relief to those suffering in Jerusalem, revealing their love for their brothers and sisters. Paul isn’t merely fundraising; he wants to include the Romans in this ministry.
Interestingly, Paul includes in his appeal the motivation of gratitude. The churches in Macedonia and Achaia were not only pleased to send support to needy Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, but Paul says, “they owe it to them.” To explain, Paul points them back to the spiritual blessings that came through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, namely Jesus the Christ. As the churches made up primarily of Gentiles were recipients of God’s grace through the Jewish Messiah, so they owe a debt of gratitude, paid through mercy ministry. In a sense, every Christian is the recipient of someone else’s endeavors by the grace of God. Gratitude for this grace is indeed a Christian virtue.
We often think of sending support as pertaining to evangelism and reaching unreached people groups with the gospel. But sometimes hurricanes happen, tornadoes turn up, floods flow in and with them devastation. Sometimes persecution leaves our brothers and sisters without the means to live safely or even survive. Yes, we should invest in advancing the gospel to the unreached but also remember our brethren in need. This is why living locally, investing yourself in the local church is so important, so we can come together to help other brothers.
Paul’s final appeal is for what John Piper calls “a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief,” also known as prayer. Piper says, “Prayer gives us the significance of frontline forces and gives God the glory of a limitless Provider. The one who gives the power gets the glory. Thus, prayer safeguards the supremacy of God in missions while linking us with endless grace for every need.” To Piper’s point, prayer in the local church plays a primary role in mobilizing missions and sending support. We are active partners in evangelism and mercy ministry as we “strive together” “by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit” in prayer.
We are then interceding on our brothers’ and sisters’ behalf, which includes a knowledge of their needs. Paul tells the church in Rome about Spain, his plans for Jerusalem, and then specifically asks them to pray:
that I may be delivered from unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.
He makes three requests, none of which are what Piper calls using prayer as “a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den.” If anything, Paul is walking into the lion’s den of Judea, so he asks for prayer for deliverance. He is delivering material blessings “for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem,” so he asks for prayer for acceptance. And he hopes to visit the church in Rome, to stay a while, in the Lord’s provision of joy, and be refreshed, and so he asks for all of this, deliverance, acceptance, and sustenance, through their prayers to God on his behalf.
If you connect Paul’s prayer requests to the historical account of Acts, you know that God did answer their prayers but not as one might expect. Paul was arrested in Judea by the unbelievers, but he was delivered from death through a Roman tribune. And Paul did eventually make it to Rome but in chains, and yet even then he came with joy and was refreshed in their company. As Paul prayed for the church’s peace, so he knew peace even in prison.
Our sovereign God works out his plans according to his will, and yet in love for us he works through the means of our prayers. Yes, God works through the prayers of the local church. Who knows the impact of your prayers in the advancement of the gospel around the world?God knows, and he tells us to pray.
So, brothers and sisters of this local church, let us live out our faith together, but let us not forget that we have been commissioned to go to the nations, knowing that we are active participants in the Great Commission with our brothers and sisters around the world, and striving together in prayer, praying: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 C. John Miller, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 15.
 Ibid., 52.
 Frederick William Danker, Ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 229.
 John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 45.