Ambition and Glory

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I have a friend whose first job was as a staff worker supporting university Christian Unions. And he did it because he was passionate about evangelism among students – making opportunities for them to hear about Jesus. And it really allowed him to focus on that one thing. Well, by God’s grace, students did start turning to Jesus in numbers. And this friend realised there was no local church he felt confident to feed them into – nowhere for them to belong and be taught the Bible and sent back into the student world to live for Jesus. And so, in his words, he became a reluctant church-planter. And he’s now the pastor of a several-hundred-strong, and growing, church. And I asked him recently, ‘What would you say to someone who asked, ‘Aren’t you sorry you had to give up doing evangelism for running a church?’’ And he said, ‘I’d tell them it’s a completely false distinction.’

You see, what he’d learned is that when God blesses evangelism, you need good church life for those new Christians to get into. And that when you have good church life, it leads naturally to more evangelism. Ie, working at evangelism and working at church life go absolutely hand in hand. You can’t say, ‘Let’s concentrate on one or the other.’ It’s both, and – all the time.

And that’s one of the big messages of Romans, which we’re looking at these Sunday mornings. So would you turn in the Bible to Romans 15. This is where Paul starts to wrap up the letter, and underlines why he’s written it in the first place. Look down to v15:

15I have written to you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me 16to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles... (vv15-16)

So he’s writing because of the job God gave him of taking the gospel to the Gentiles [ie, non-Jews – the rest of the world]. And that job means he’s got those two hand-in-hand things on his mind: working at both evangelism and church life. As far as working at evangelism goes, we’ll see next week that he was writing to the Romans because he wanted to come to Rome and then have them send him on in his next mission to Spain (see 15.23f).

And as far as working at church life goes, that’s why he wrote much of the letter – especially chapters 14 and 15, which we’ve just done. And if you’ve been here, you’ll remember: these first churches were a mix of people converted from a Jewish background and people converted from a Gentile background. And a lot of the Jewish Christians felt they should still keep the whole law of Moses – circumcise their kids, eat kosher food and so on. And they felt the Gentile Christians should do the same – they wanted a Jewish church culture, if you like. Whereas the Gentile Christians knew they didn’t have to come under the law of Moses, and they wanted a different church culture altogether. Which was a recipe for division. And it may be that the church in Rome was actually divided – with Jewish Christians meeting in their house church and doing things their way; and Gentile Christians meeting in their house church and doing things their way. So, welcome to the world of denominations – the Jewish Church, the Gentile Church, the Baptist Church, the Pentecostal Church and so on. To misquote the marriage service, what God has joined together, man has done a lot of separating over the last 2,000 years of church history.

So, the first thing Paul does in today’s passage is to wrap up what he’s been saying about church life. And he tells us,


Firstly, WORK AT CHURCH LIFE NOW THE GOSPEL HAS BROUGHT YOU TOGETHER (vv14-16)

Look down again to v14:

I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.

So he thinks they’ve got a good understanding of the gospel – he’s not writing to correct any big error. So why is he writing? Well, look at v15 again:

15I have written to you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me 16to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (vv15-16)

Let’s deal with the detail of that. In Old Testament (OT) times, you had the temple with its priests and offerings as a gigantic visual aid of how God could accept you. And the priests were like go-betweens between the people and God. So, you might have brought a lamb as a sacrifice, to show you knew your sin needed paying for if it was to be forgiven. And the priest would offer the lamb to God for you – he’d be your go-between. Now that whole visual aid pointed forward to Jesus. And the moment he died on the cross, as the only sacrifice which could really pay for our forgiveness, that visual aid was fulfilled and scrapped. So there are no sacrifices today that we can offer to make ourselves acceptable to God. And there are no priests today, either. But Paul picks up that idea of being a go-between and he says: whenever we share the gospel with someone, we’re acting as go-betweens between God and them – playing a kind of priestly role in the hope, as the end of v16 says, that they...

might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit [ie, that they might give their lives to God as their rightful ruler, through the work of his Spirit bringing them to do so.] (v16)

OK, let’s step back from the detail, now, and take in the main point. Why is Paul writing? Well, v14, not to correct them on the gospel. But, v15, to remind them of the gospel and, on some points, pretty boldly to press home the implications of the gospel – the biggest one being: that Gentile Christians don’t have to come under the law of Moses.

Because the gospel says we’re accepted by God solely through trusting in Jesus’ death – by being forgiven, not by being good enough. So, the law doesn’t enter into that. And the gospel says: what the risen Jesus then asks of us is not to live under the law of Moses but to live under his Lordship. And as our Lord, he does still require of us some of the things in the law of Moses – like, ‘Don’t commit adultery’ and so on, as we saw in chapter 13 (see vv8-10). But a lot of the law of Moses, like the food laws, is simply not binding on us today.

And that’s what Paul has just pressed home in chapters 14 and 15. He’s just said, ‘If you’re a Jewish Christian, don’t insist that your Gentile brothers should do anything more than the obedience the Lord Jesus requires. By all means eat kosher and all the rest of it yourself, if you feel you should, conscientiously. But don’t criticise those who don’t; and don’t try to foist it on everyone, don’t try to make it the church culture so that it’s hard if not impossible for new Gentile Christians to settle in. Be flexible and accept them – after all, Jesus is now their Lord and yours.’ And he’s also just said, ‘If you’re a Gentile Christian, don’t you insist that your Jewish brothers drop eating kosher and all the rest of it. Don’t criticise them for it; don’t hive off in your own little group to create your own little church culture; bear with them. Be flexible and accept them – after all, Jesus is now their Lord and yours.’

Now, you’re probably sitting there thinking, ‘But we’re not a mix of Jewish and Gentile background believers – so what’s the application to us, today? Well, many of us have been here at JPC for years. We’re the ‘old guard’ – and some quite a lot older. And you may have heard the gag, ‘How many people at JPC does it take to change a light bulb?’ Answer... ‘Change??!!’ And the message to us is: we need to become more flexible on everything but the gospel, or we will hinder new Christian brothers and sisters from settling in – and therefore we will hinder evangelism. Because if God does work significantly through our evangelism over, say, the next 10 years, there will be a lot of new people here who are not like us – because they’re a different generation, converted from a more non-Christian background, and living in different subcultures. And if we’re not flexible, we will hinder them settling in and staying in. So, eg, we’re going to have to flex over what these services are like; how many we have; what goes into them; whether we have them here or elsewhere; whether we have some not on Sundays. We’re going to have to flex towards people with no Bible background; so they’re not just lost in sermons or Home Groups. And so on.

We need to be flexible. But above all, we need to be welcoming – looking for new faces, making new friendships. Because our cliquiness – our lack of will to relate outside our own little friendship circles at church – may be the biggest hindrance to a new Christian. But if Jesus is now their Lord and ours, that’s not on, is it?

But then if you are a newish Christian, the message for you is that you’ll need to bear with the church culture – which can be something of a culture shock. Maybe it’s more traditional and formal than anything else you meet in life. Maybe a whole lot of things aren’t explained and just mystify you. Maybe other Christians just seem on another planet: they can’t name a single song in the charts right now, and they’ve never heard of anything you watch on TV. Well, can I say: bear with us; remember that you’ll actually change the church culture by being part of it; and remember, above all, that Jesus is now our Lord and yours, and that’s the most important thing we have in common.

So that’s the first thing: work at church life now the gospel has brought you together – and that itself will be a witness to the power of the gospel. Eg, I remember interviewing a student up at the front here about how he came to faith in Jesus and he said, ‘It was through the university Christian Union: what first attracted me was that it was the only university society I found where really different people from really different backgrounds actually seemed to get on, while all the other societies were just cliques.’ Well, wouldn’t it be good if the same could be said of our church? So, work at church life now the gospel has brought you together.


Second, GIVE JESUS THE GLORY FOR WHAT HE’S DOING THROUGH THE GOSPEL (vv17-19)

Paul’s just talked about the job God gave him of taking the gospel to the Gentiles – the rest of the world – and it’s reminded him of everything that’s happened through his evangelism. But then straight away he goes on to say, ‘It wasn’t ultimately me who did it.’ Look on to v17, where he says:

17Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God [ie, I give the glory to him; I attribute any results to him. V18:]. 18I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done – 19by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. (vv17-19)

I remember going to speak at an outreach event for the Newcastle Christian Union. And the students who’d organised it said to me just before the meeting, ‘Would you like us to pray for you?’ And I said, ‘Yes I would.’ So this lovely Christian lass prayed. And she started her prayer, ‘Lord we pray for Ian as he goes in like Daniel to the lion’s den...’ So there I was wondering what kind of friends they’d managed to get along. And then she said, ‘And we pray for your Holy Spirit to be at work, because we know that without him, no-one’s going to understand a word he says...’ And I think I know what she meant! I think she meant what Paul meant in vv18-19 – that no-one comes to faith in Jesus unless God by his Spirit brings them to faith. But it sounded slightly like she thought I was going to be a hopeless speaker, and the sinful part of me wanted to say, ‘Hey, I can do this! I’ve got a good talk here!’ And that’s just the attitude Paul wanted to repent of. You see, he’s writing to the Romans partly because he wants them to send him on in his next mission to Spain. So the temptation is to start talking himself up – you know, ‘Here are the statistics from my last five missions – look what a great speaker I am. You’ve got to back me!’ But he does the exact opposite, doesn’t he? Look at v18 again:

18I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done – 19by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. (vv18-19)

So, yes, he’d prepared talks and preached and led groups and spoken to people 1-to-1 and planned and organised and done finances – and even been enabled to do some healing miracles. But he’s saying, ‘I didn’t convert anyone. I didn’t turn anyone’s heart back to God – I can’t. Only God, by his Spirit, can.’

So our part is to explain to people that Jesus died for their forgiveness and rose again to be the rightful Lord of their lives. But only God by his Spirit can enable them to see that and receive him. So as a church, let’s say v18: let’s not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through us. So, as you probably know, over 5,000 came to Carols by Candlelight again last Christmas. And then over 600 to those Christianity Explored tasters in January. And 150 went on to do the course itself. Most of them stuck with it and nearly 50 are now doing the Discipleship Explored course. And in response to that, and as and when anyone comes to faith in Jesus, we should say, not ‘Well done us’ but ‘Praise God!’

We need to talk about what’s going on in a way that gives the glory to Jesus. I’m always uneasy when I hear people saying what a great church this is: partly because it’s not – it’s very imperfect. But more importantly because it makes us sound great rather than Jesus – it makes us sound like the ultimate cause of what’s going on here. And likewise, I’m always uneasy when I hear people saying what a great speaker so and so is – because it makes it sound like the power to bring someone to faith lies in the speaker. Now of course we want speakers we can trust to get the gospel across – but we mustn’t trust in speakers, because only God by his Spirit can bring people to faith – which is why evangelism has to begin and end with prayer.

So that’s the second thing: give Jesus the glory for what he’s doing through the gospel. Because the goal of evangelism is not that people think we’re great, but that they think Jesus is great.


Third, KEEP WORKING TO GET THE GOSPEL TO THOSE WHO’VE NEVER HEARD IT (vv19-22)

Look down again to half way through v19:

So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum [which is modern-day Albania/Bosnia], I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. 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. 21Rather, as it is written:
"Those who were not told about him will see,
and those who have not heard will understand."
22This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you.
(vv19-22)

So remember: one reason Paul wrote Romans was because church life needed working at. And there are always plenty of internal issues and pastoral needs in a church. But we’ve got to keep outward-looking. It’s church life and evangelism – both, and, all the time. So Paul’s other reason for writing was that he’d completed his pioneer evangelism in the eastern Mediterranean and he now wanted to come to Rome and have them send him on to Spain.

Now in v19, where he says, ‘from Jerusalem... to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel,’ he doesn’t mean that every single person in that region has heard it. What he’d done was to plant churches in strategic centres throughout that region, so that he could move on, trusting that from those churches the gospel would go out to the whole region. And that’s really the only justification for the concentration of resources we have here. Because God has put us in a strategic centre – not least because of the student and international population, which means people are constantly moving out from us, world-wide, having heard the gospel and been built up and trained to share it with others. That at least is the vision. But we have a long way to go. Because ultimately we want to send out not only personal evangelists but church planters. And it’s sobering to reflect that, by Paul’s standards, it’s quite a long time since we last planted a church.

So Paul wants to move on again because he says, v20, ‘It’s always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known’ - Ie, ‘I’m a pioneer missionary.’ Now if you’re a Christian, I hope you understand yourself to be a missionary. Having said that, it’s not God’s will for every Christian to be a pioneer missionary like Paul – for all of us to disband and move where the gospel has never been heard. But it is his will for every church to have a vision for pioneer evangelism, and to play its part in sending and supporting pioneer missionaries (among others). Because it’s all too easy, with all our internal issues and pastoral needs, to forget there’s a world out there. To forget that the most optimistic figures are that 47% of the world’s population are non-Christians – but living where there’s some kind of indigenous church, however small; but that 20% are non-Christians living where there’s no indigenous church. The less optimistic analysis puts that last figure at 27%, and almost all of them live in the so-called ‘10-40 window’ – Asia and the middle East, the strongholds of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

So we’ve got to continue to support people like Jock and Katie Hughes, pioneering in Indonesia. But who else should we send? Should we send you? Having been on a summer mission team or through supporting a particular missionary, or whatever, is God putting it on your heart that you should go somewhere else in this world to get the gospel to those who’ve never heard it? If so, pray about it and come and talk about it. Because one thing we do know from the Bible is that it is his will that we send more.

But at the same time, of course, there are people on our own doorstep who’ve had little or no opportunity to hear the gospel. And although it may not be God’s will for you and me to move on from Newcastle, it is his will for us to move on in Newcastle – to keep working at new relationships – with neighbours, colleagues, course mates, fellow Mums and Dads at the school gate and so on – so that we can be inviting new people to hear about Jesus. So, this year we’re planning some October events with Graham Daniels and Christians in Sport, then the usual Christmas opportunities and then to use the church’s 150th birthday in January to do things like Christianity Explored tasters on twice the scale of last year. And the question is: will we have new people – significant numbers of new people – to invite? Because one frightening church survey said that within five years of becoming Christians, most said they had no friends outside church. And maybe the main thing many of us need to do towards evangelism later in the year is to spend the next six months seeing less of Christians – less of one another – and more of people outside church. Because isn’t that Paul’s example? Look at v22, to finish. He says,

This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you.

... ie, ‘Because I’ve prioritised time for non-Christians over time for Christians.’

So what’s the message of this bit of Romans? I think you can sum it up in two words: ‘Both, and.’ We need to keep working to get the gospel to those who’ve not yet heard it. And we need to work at our church life, so that those God does bring to faith can settle with us, belong with us and help us become a church that better glorifies Jesus.

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