George Whitfield, the eighteenth century evangelist, travelled extensively in the UK and America preaching the gospel. God used him to help bring many to faith in Christ. He was also concerned for the poor, inspired partly by the orphans he met in Georgia. So he was concerned for both spiritual and physical needs. No doubt he learnt that both from Christ and from Paul and no doubt it involved him and others in much service, struggle (as Paul often describes his own ministry especially with regard to helping people to maturity in Christ) and prayer. The Apostle Paul travelled far and wide preaching the gospel chiefly to the Gentiles and planting churches in areas where Christ was not known. That was his ambition as he states back in v20. But (v25-27) he was also keen to serve the poor among the saints, in other words the Christians in Jerusalem. In Galatians 2:10 he says that he is not just keen but eager to remember the poor.
These priorities of preaching the gospel, planting churches and a desire to help the poor have motivated us as a church in our partnership with Mburi in Kenya, with Armonia in Mexico City, with Navajeevana in Sri Lanka, with HTG in Gateshead and now David has been invited to help in South Sudan, where 40% of the population go to church but where there is great poverty and very little infrastructure following Muslim oppression from the North. Over the years there has been much Christian service and struggle and many have lost their lives. The opportunity in South Sudan to help build a Christian nation is now so no doubt there needs to be much more service and struggle along with prayer to see that progress under God. And our ambition here in this city is to preach the gospel, plant churches where Christ is basically not known, change the culture and help the poor perhaps especially through church planting. So as a start we are praying for 2000 people to be here on Sunday January 16 for our 150th Anniversary and for 1500 to attend the Christianity Explored Taster Sessions. This too will involve much service, struggle and prayer in the power of the Spirit. So I hope none of us are expecting or wanting an easy, trouble free Christian life and ministry. Jesus never promised that. But he does promise to be with us by his Spirit. And there will be joys and blessings in amongst the struggles. In Romans 15 Paul’s looking forward to enjoying the Roman Christians’ company (v25) and to coming to them with joy for spiritual refreshment (v32). And in v29 he writes:
I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.
But Paul also knew that these ambitions of preaching the gospel and church planting along with helping the poor and two more concerns – closer fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians and a desire to fellowship with the church at Rome had and would lead to much service, struggle and prayer and were now directing his travel plans, so my first heading:
1. Paul’s travel plans and priorities
20It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation… 22This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. 23But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, 24I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. 25Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there.
I don’t know what your travel plans are this summer. Paul’s were clearly motivated by his ambitions and priorities. He tells us (v25) that he’s about to travel from Corinth to Jerusalem – 800 miles by ship to personally bring the gift collected for the Christian poor in Jerusalem. He then plans to go from Jerusalem to Rome by ship – 1,500 miles to enjoy fellowship and spiritual refreshment with the Roman brethren and receive what Paul calls assistance with his proposed mission trip to Spain where he expected to preach and plant – a further 700 miles by ship. Altogether 3,000 miles by boat plus more on foot at a time when such travel was uncertain and hazardous! Yes we may face BA strikes, volcanic ash clouds and even the problems of parking in Jesmond but not normally shipwrecks, lynchings and death threats as Paul did. Yet he was willing to serve and struggle for the sake of the gospel, the growth of the church and the poor whatever the cost. Are you, am I, are we?
You see Paul’s pioneer church planting ministry in Greece and its environs is now complete. But does Paul plan to retire, put his feet up and write post cards to his friends as he watches the boats come in to the Greek ports? Well of course he does write letters – important letters to churches and church leaders inspired by God. But no he sees further opportunity to go and preach and plant churches, this time in Spain. But he also sees the opportunity to visit the church in Rome on the way. Do we see opportunities for ministry? Do we see the world as God does? Do we see with eyes of faith? In Rome he hopes to enlist the support of the church for his missionary effort in Spain – financial support, prayer support and no doubt also help with translators and other specific needs. But now he’s on his way to Jerusalem in the hope of serving the church there. V25-27:
25Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. 26For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.
V27 makes it clear why the collection for the poor in Jerusalem is so important to Paul. It’s not just a charitable project. No, it’s also designed to bring Gentile and Jewish Christians into closer fellowship. The Gentiles after all, have benefited spiritually from the Jews. As Paul explains in chapter 11, Gentile believers derive whatever spiritual blessing they experience from the Jewish Messiah and the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. The Gentile Christians can partially repay this debt by sharing with the Jews their own material blessings.
Paul will only head for Rome and Spain when he’s completed this task. Why must Paul accompany this collection? Surely as an apostle he should be evangelising or teaching? The hint is in v28 where literally Paul writes, “I have sealed for them this fruit” which denotes an official affirmation of authenticity. Paul, as the Apostle to the Gentiles, must accompany this gift to Jerusalem in order to authenticate its purpose as a healing gesture. So it’s interesting that Paul a key teaching apostle doesn’t only do ‘word’ ministry.
2. What else do we learn from Paul’s travel plans and priorities for today?
Well I’ve mentioned a number of points already especially with regard to service and struggle and I’m not going to repeat those. But what else?
First – the need to balance spontaneity and obligation in giving to the Lord and his people. Paul says that those who gave were pleased to do so (v26-27), they did so freely. Yet Paul in the same verse says that the Gentiles owe it to the Jews to share with them. And Paul combines these same points in 2 Corinthians 8-9 regarding the same collection: God loves a cheerful giver who doesn’t give by compulsion, yet the Corinthians’ giving is also a matter of obedience (2 Corinthians 9:7,13). So each of us must recognise that we’re under a certain obligation to give back to the Lord a portion of what he’s given us. We owe it to him in repayment for his grace, and we owe it to other believers who need our help such as those in South Sudan. Yet at the same time our giving should be free and unconstrained. So how can both be true at the same time?
Well let me suggest this analogy. I know I’m under obligation to be a good father to my children; I owe it to them. Yet I also delight in trying to be a good father to them (at least most of the time). The key is the personal relationship. Because I love my children, my fathering is not an onerous obligation but a glad responsibility. I discharge the obligation with delight and gratitude. Our giving to the Lord must arise from the joy of our relationship with him so that it’s also a glad obligation.
Secondly – church planting. Paul says in v20 that his ambition was to preach the gospel where Christ wasn’t known. We’re not the Apostle Paul but are there enough Christians giving themselves to this task today? The vast majority of Christian workers are serving a small minority of the world’s population. What is God calling us to do? Also Paul’s example suggests that our missions work should have as its goal the planting of self-reproducing churches. And that is our aim and Holy Trinity Gateshead share that goal.
Thirdly - prayer is vital, so my final heading is
3. Join me in my struggle by praying
30I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.
Now most writers on these verses say that Paul refers to prayer as a struggle. Well I’m sure many of us can relate to that. Judging by attendances at Days of Prayer many of us struggle to make time for prayer. Certainly praying, especially regularly for others, does demand time and effort. And prayer can often be a struggle with ourselves as we seek to align ourselves to God’s will.
However here in v30 it seems clear that he’s referring to his own ministry as a struggle and that he’s inviting the Roman Christians to participate with him, through their prayers, in his missionary work.
And our mission partners invite us to participate with them, through our prayers, in their missionary work. They believe that prayer support is vital. And there are two opportunities for us to do just that this week apart from our ongoing support in Home Groups. On Wednesday at Mission Focus – 8pm in the church hall when we’ll be hearing from the team going out from JPC to Brazil and on Thursday at the AWM prayer meeting when there’ll be a special guest – the details are in the notice sheet. And of course we’re also to pray for our mission to this region including this summer’s Holiday Club HMS HotchPotch, the 150th Anniversary of JPC, Christianity Explored Tasters etc. etc.
And Paul doesn’t just invite them, he urges them, he appeals to them to join him in prayer, even though they’re hundreds of miles apart, by [the authority of] our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit. A very strong appeal to say the least! And yes what Paul wanted prayer for was incredibly strategic and dangerous; but this passage still speaks to us today – by extension it urges us to pray for our mission partners and our mission here by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit. Will we respond?
So what does Paul ask them to pray for? Three things. Look at v31-32:
31Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, 32so that by God's will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed.
First he wants them to pray that he would be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea. He’s aware he has many enemies among unbelieving Jews who want him dead. Paul’s willing to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus as he says in Acts 21 but he requests prayer for protection and deliverance. Our mission partners and even we in the future may face great opposition and even prison or death for the name of the Lord Jesus but of course it’s not wrong to request prayer for protection and deliverance.
Secondly he wants them to pray that his service in Jerusalem - that his bringing of the offering from Gentile Christians for the poor - might be acceptable to the Jewish Christians. Why? Because Paul’s concerned they might refuse the gift as being tainted by the ‘unclean’ hands of Gentiles, by his gospel and his seeming disregard of Jewish law and traditions. You see he longs that Jewish –Gentile solidarity in the body of Christ may be strengthened by the Jewish Christian acceptance of this gift.
Only when these requests have been answered will Paul’s third be possible - to be able to come to Rome ‘with joy’ and be spiritually refreshed with them. Let’s pray for Andy and Mei-Ling Wilson, our mission partners in Taiwan, to be spiritually refreshed as they visit us for a few months shortly.
Notice v32 that he prays that “by God’s will” he may visit them. It’s a reminder to us about why and how Christians should pray. The purpose of prayer isn’t to bend God’s will to ours. No – it’s to align our will to his. The promise that our prayers will be answered is conditional on our asking according to his will. As some of you know two of my favourite verses in the Bible are from 1 John 5:14-15:
14This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
Now I don’t think that means we have to use the words – ‘if it’s your will Lord’ every single time we pray but what it does mean is that every prayer we pray should be a variation on the theme, “Your will be done”. What does that mean in practice? Does it mean we can never pray very specifically? Is it right, for example, to pray for the Holiday Club to be at capacity this summer, for 2000 people to be at JPC on the 150th Anniversary weekend in January and for 1500 to be at the Taster Sessions a week or so later?
Well God has revealed his general will for all his people in Scripture, namely that we should become more like Christ. So we should pray with definiteness about such things. We also know that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16), that he doesn’t want anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), that we’re to go into the highways and byways and bring people in (Luke 14:21-23) so it’s right to pray in faith for many to come under the sound of the gospel and to repent and believe. But God’s particular will for each of us – such as which job and which Christian person to marry has not been revealed in Scripture and so it’s right to add ‘by God’s will’. Praying like that doesn’t reveal unbelief but rather proper humility.
So what about these prayers of Paul and the Romans? How were they answered? Well from what Paul says in Acts 24 it seems that the gifts to the poor in Jerusalem were accepted.
So what of the other two requests? Was Paul delivered from unbelievers in Jerusalem? Well yes and no. No in that he was arrested, tried and imprisoned! But also yes because he was rescued from lynchings three times, also from a flogging and from a plot to kill him. Did he reach Rome? Yes but three years later, as a prisoner and after being shipwrecked on Malta! It seems that if you want an easy life don’t pray! But if you want to fulfil God’s purpose for your life – do! And get others to pray with you too. You see God’s will for us to follow and become like Christ means that life won’t be easy. Life here on earth wasn’t easy for Christ so why would it be for us? Service and struggle go together. But through that God’s purposes are worked out for us as individuals, as a church and further afield. So let’s remember to join with our missionaries by prayer, to join with David and Joy by praying for them and for the opportunities in South Sudan and for the mission we’re engaged in here always being prepared to be the answer to some of those prayers ourselves.
So prayer is an essential Christian activity and it’s vital to ask people to pray for us and with us, as Paul did. However there’s nothing automatic about prayer. Prayer isn’t like using a coin operated machine or a cash dispenser. The struggle involved in prayer lies in the process of coming to discern God’s will and to desire it above everything else. Then God will work things out providentially according to his will, for which we have prayed.
So as Paul prays (v33) and with this I conclude:
The God of peace be with you all. Amen.