Romans (Part 50) – Travel Plans (15:14–24)
We begin now our last section of Romans—Section 6: Ending Comments. In the first part of this last section, Paul discusses his travel plans. But he begins in verses 14 through 24 of chapter 15 with a transition, explaining the reason he had written to them and how that interacted with his view of his own ministry. As we discuss this—Paul’s statement of purpose—I think it would be helpful to see this purpose in light of the historical setting of Paul’s missionary journeys. So let’s discuss that historical setting first. We can divide Paul’s general journeys into four. The first was with Barnabas and, although they stopped first in Cyprus, the journey centered in Galatia (AD 48–49). In his second journey (AD 50–52), Paul revisited Galatia and then traveled west through northern Asia, crossing to Macedonia, but the journey centered on his stay in Corinth (Achaia). His third journey (AD 53–58) found its base in Ephesus. His final trip (AD 58~65) took him as a prisoner to Rome. His execution, though not mentioned in the Bible, probably took place shortly after the great fire in Rome (which occurred in July of AD 64 and was the one during which Nero fiddled). Nero put the blame for the fire on Christians, and thus began the general persecution of Christians by Gentiles (they already were being persecuted by Jews). Therefore, when you consider that Paul was on trial for his life for being a Christian when the mood in Rome suddenly swung heavily toward the persecution of Christians, it seems most likely that this situation brought about his end. (And it is also at this time that we suddenly have no more letters from Paul to read.)
Speaking of his letters, he wrote Galatians (evidently his first) during his Corinth journey. First and Second Thessalonians were written from Corinth on that same journey after having begun churches in Thessalonica on his way through Macedonia. During his Ephesus journey, he wrote his two Corinthian epistles back to the church at Corinth. First Timothy was written toward the end of his Ephesus journey after Paul had left Ephesus, leaving Timothy to oversee the church there. Titus was also written in that same time period as I Timothy. It was obviously on his last missionary journey that he wrote the four letters we call his prison epistles. Ephesian was most likely written first (and possibly while a prisoner still in Caesarea). Colossians, being very like Ephesians, was probably written closely following. And Philemon Philippians followed, probably written from Rome. Second Timothy was his last letter, also written in Rome, although we call it a pastoral epistle rather than a prison epistle. Its darker character with Paul seemingly understanding his journeys have come to an end (1 Tim 4:6–8). That leaves the book we are studying—Romans. It seems to have been written from Corinth toward the end of his third (the Ephesus) missionary journey (at around the same time as 1 Timothy and Titus).
Paul’s letters always seem to be tied to what is on his mind. For example, we can see easily from the timetable that his letter to the Galatians is just after he had been in Galatia noticing their problems. His mind was full of exhortation for them which he then wrote down for them. The same is true of his Thessalonian epistles, his Corinthian epistles, and his 1 Timothy and Titus epistles. Thus, to follow the pattern, Paul’s mind must have been full of the details of the struggles of the Roman church, giving him the basis for which to write. To understand that basis, we need to take a look at a few extra details of Paul’s travels. This will involve some friends of his who were also in ministry work with Paul—Priscilla and Aquila.
For some reason (historians continue to debate proposed reasons), Claudius ordered the expulsion of Jews from Rome at some point during his reign. Acts 18 helps us narrow the date. The expulsion occurred before Gallio was proconsul of Achaia (and he was so for only one year—AD 50). Just before the event in Acts discussing Gallio (18:12), we learn in Acts 18:2 that Priscilla and Aquila had “recently come from Italy . . . because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome” (emphasis added). Therefore, it seems that Claudius’s edict came about in the AD 48–49 time period, just as Paul was in Galatia. Paul met Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth as Paul arrived there in either late AD 49 or early 50 (Acts 18:1–2). Priscilla and Aquila were tentmakers, as was Paul. Because of their shared occupation, and as members of the tightly knit community of Jews, Priscilla and Aquila offered their home as a place for the fellow Jew traveler, Paul, to stay. Though Acts does not mention it, Paul probably presented the gospel to them, and they became believers at the time. (However, that is conjecture. They could already have been Christians prior to Paul’s arrival.) Toward the end of Paul’s second (the Corinth) journey, he travels to Ephesus. Prisiclla and Aquila decide to go with Paul continuing with him in his gospel-proclaiming mission. Shortly after, Paul journeyed back to Antioch in Syria, leaving Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus (Acts 18:18). It is there in Ephesus, after Paul has left, that Apollos comes to preach. He was a Jew from Alexandria who apparently was preaching accurately about the coming Messiah, having embraced John’s baptism. Priscilla and Aquila explained the fulfilled gospel of Jesus’s atonement and lordship to Apollos, who apparently then understood their instruction well.
Paul returned to Ephesus, beginning his third missionary journey (Acts 19:1). A few years later, toward the end of that Ephesus (third) missionary journey, Paul left Ephesus to travel through Macedonia and to Corinth. And, as we already discussed, Paul heard of a plan to kill him and so took the circuitous land route back through Macedonia rather than board a ship there in Corinth. However, while still in Corinth, he wrote the letter to the Romans.
Now, I have presented all this travel information, along with the timing of the writing of his epistles, to get to the point of where Paul was and where Priscilla and Aquila were when Paul wrote Romans. From Acts we know that Priscilla and Aquila (P&A from here on) were in Ephesus with Paul on that third missionary journey. And that is confirmed in the first letter to the Corinthians where Paul, writing from Ephesus, sent a greeting to Corinth fromP&A. However, when writing Romans from Corinth (after his Ephesus stay in his third missionary journey), Paul sent a greeting toP&A in Rome. Later, while in his Roman prison, Paul wrote 2 Timothy (Timothy was bishop in Ephesus) and sent a greeting toP&A, who are therefore, obviously back in Ephesus. We see, then, that P&A although with Paul in Ephesus, had suddenly gone to Rome sometime after Paul had left Ephesus to head for Corinth. No doubt, P&A probably sent a message to Paul explaining their sudden journey to Rome, perhaps to help with the Jew/Gentile conflict in the church. Those struggles were the same struggles we have seen occur in all the Gentile world concerning Jew and Gentile relations in the Christian church (especially noted in the Galatians and Ephesians epistles as well as the narrative in Acts). It was with a mind full of this news about Rome that Paul decided to write his letter to the Romans (that we have just studied) discussing all these Jew and Gentile conflicts.
That background will help us, I think, as we continue through Romans 15 in which portion Paul is explaining his purpose in ministry.
Paul begins in verses 15–16a specifying that he is writing not for his usual mission activity. His usual mission activity (which we learn later in verses 20–22) is to minister in areas that had not yet received the gospel message. The church in Rome was already established. So Paul’s intent was not to start over with them. He tells them he recognizes their already established Godly goodness and truth (knowledge). And he also tells them he knows they are ableto instruct one another. I highlighted able because while able, Paul’s message to them is that they have not seemed to fully instruct (admonish in goodness and truth) each other fully. That admonishment—that communication of truth and goodness—is our image-bearing quality of love. Their Jewish-Gentile conflicts were breaking down their communal love, just as Paul had seen it occur in the churches of Galatia and in Ephesus.
Paul lets them know, in verses 16b through 19, that he is acting in the rule of a priest—one who represents God to the people and the people to God. Paul has presented the gospel of God (representing God to the people). But Paul is also interested in the second side of his priestly duty—presenting the Gentiles as an offering to God. That offering was in actuality their conformity to God’s truth, goodness, and beauty, communicated in love—the very emphasis in his letter, particularly in chapters 6, 12, and 13–15.
And the offering of the Gentiles was also shown in symbolic sense—in the collection of money for the Christian poor in Jerusalem. In order to understand that idea more fully, we need to step through the passages discussing Paul’s collection of offering.
In Acts 11:27–30, we are told that a famine was coming throughout the Roman world. Because of that, the church in Antioch of Syria decides to collect an offering for their poor brethren in Jerusalem. First, why Jerusalem? If the famine was to occur throughout the Roman world, why shouldn’t they give money to the poor in Rome or Athens or even right there in Antioch? Notice first that their intention is to support particularly the poor among fellow Christians. And that is an important point, even for us today. Yes, we are to be kind and helpful to all who are vulnerable. But the major intent is to help fellow Christians in their vulnerability rather than merely the world at large. And that is for two reasons.
The first reason is that it is so commanded. Jesus, in his Matthew 25:31–46 sheep-and-goat story, indicates that the expression of love for those who are brothers of Christ(Christians) is the important focus. It is that love in regard to our community as Christians that is supposed to identify us (John 13:34–35). And Paul elsewhere tells us, “as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith” (Gal 6:10, emphasis added).
The second reason has to do with why it is so commanded. It is commanded because that is the normal course of interaction in truth, goodness, and beauty in which we will continue for all eternity. And in this time, it is a witness (as the John 13 discussion indicates), bringing the light of God’s TGB revelation to a lost world.
So that is the reason the church in Antioch decided to give to the Christian poor. And why in Jerusalem? Well, where were the Christian poor? Remember this is just at the beginning of the gospel going out to the world. Paul had not even gone on his very first missionary journey yet. But thousands in Jerusalem had already turned to Christ. And those thousands were being persecuted in Jerusalem by the non-Christian Jewish hierarchy, already giving them economic woes even before the famine period came upon them. There was a need predominantly in the center of the Christian world—Jerusalem, so the offering was sent there. And it was brought to Jerusalem by Barnabus and Paul (Acts 11:30).
We read in Galatians 2 that as Paul is in Jerusalem, having brought the offering, he also presents the work among the Gentiles, seeing them come to Christ as well. He presents this privately to only the leaders of the church (Peter, James, and John mentioned). Recognize that all knowledge of Christ’s fulfillment was only beginning to be worked out in mind and doctrine. These people who had spent their lives immersed in Jewish Law—given by God—had to struggle with what applied to their now-Christian freedom in the fulfilled atonement of Christ. But with the help of the Cornelius incident (Acts 10), the leaders accept the work for the Gentiles, but they ask Paul to continue to remember the poor (Galatians 2:10). And Paul does so.
We read in 1 Cor 16:1–4 that Paul is and has been instructing new churches to collect an offering for the poor in Jerusalem. In 2 Cor 8 and 9, Paul spends the two chapters urging the continuing of this collection, giving example of the Macedonian churches who have eagerly done the same. The offering, Paul insists, is not for himself. He takes means to ensure the integrity of the gift by having the givers choose a designated person to carry the offering to Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:4 and 2 Cor 8:16–24). But Paul understands the offering to be necessary. He tells the Romans of his hope that the offering is acceptable. Acceptable? To whom? To God? No. He hopes the offering is acceptable to the Jews. That they recognize this offering from the Gentiles not as some payoff to them to join their club, but rather as it was intended—as an expression of love, showing that those who had would provide for those in need, the vulnerable, which is the exact message of the gospel since the Fall. It is what love looks like, and Paul saw this offering as symbolizing the knitting of the Gentile and Jewish Christian communities.