I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong – that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.
There would be few people living within the mighty Roman Empire who’d have refused an opportunity to visit Rome, to see the city with its great buildings and maybe catch a glimpse of Emperor Nero himself, any more than any of us would refuse a visit to New York. Paul, the Roman citizen, was no exception; he longed to visit Rome, but he had particular reasons for going there. Being a Christian affects everything. It impacts even your travel plans and vacations. Paul wanted to go to Rome to see his fellow Christians there, and impart to them some spiritual gift to make them stronger; he also wanted to get the encouragement of experiencing their faith in God and also be an encouragement to them. He wanted to go to Rome to gather some spiritual fruit there just as he’d done in Thessalonica, and Philippi, and Corinth. Let’s look at his godly ambitions one by one.
- PAUL WANTED TO IMPART TO THEM A SPIRITUAL GIFT.
That is his ambition as he explains it in the opening verse of our text. An apostle would have been able to do this, unlike you or me. The apostles had the authority and power to bestow spiritual gifts to strengthen the members of this congregation. Remember how it had been when Philip preached in Samaria and many were converted. He sent the joyful news to Jerusalem and the apostles came along to verify this for themselves, and seeing the faith in Christ of these men and women they imparted a spiritual gift to them; “Peter and John placed their hands on the Samaritan believers and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:19). That was within the remit of being an apostle, like their ability to write infallible Scripture and to do mighty signs and miracles.
Now I don’t think that that is what Paul is primarily writing about here. I think that he is using those two words ‘spiritual gifts’ in the more general sense of strengthening every single one of them in the body of Christ in how they’re to live and what they’re to believe. Look at this mighty letter. It contains a summary of the messages he had hoped to bring to them – should the door to entering Rome be opened to him. When you read our text aren’t you struck by some intentional indefiniteness about this subject of the gifts in this verse? He talks about “some spiritual gift.” That is rather vague. It’s in the singular. I think it might well mean that God would be giving the Roman congregation such a spiritual gift if he were to give them the apostle Paul himself for six month’s preaching and counseling and praying. Imagine having one of the preachers today who always seems to help us when hearing him preaching to us, and he is staying in the Manse for six months and preaching in our pulpit all through that time. What a spiritual gift from God that would be. We would say that to him as we said good-bye and thanked him; “You have been a gift from God to me.” This reference to imparting to them some spiritual gift is as broad as that.
Then also notice this that Paul doesn’t list the spiritual gifts at this point – as he does in I Corinthans 12 and Ephesians 4; he makes no reference to them here, but when he does so later in Romans chapter 12 and verses 6, 7 and 8 then that little sample list doesn’t contain any of what we’ve come to refer to as miraculous gifts, or sign gifts, or gifts of revelation, in other words, the more splashy gifts. This is what he writes; “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” If by ‘prophesying’ Paul means public proclamation – and I think that he does – then there are no sign gifts or revelation gifts mentioned here at all, or in the entire letter.
Again, this phrase ‘spiritual gift’ only occurs here in the New Testament, and it is a good literal translation of the original Greek, but Paul never elsewhere uses the combination ‘spiritual and ‘gift’ to refer to those gifts which he writes about, for example, in his letter to the Corinthians. He never refers to tongues and miracles and words of revelation like prophecies by this unique phrase “spiritual gift.” What is transparent is that the apostle longed to be the medium of conveying to the saints at Rome some gift of the Holy Spirit which would have the effect of strengthening and confirming them in their faith. If he can’t come personally to do this then he was certainly able to write them this letter, the first piece of New Testament that they had ever received, and in the long run that would have been far superior than some of them being strengthened in receiving one or other of the gifts.
Let me explain to you the nature of ‘spiritual gifts’; the phrase in the original Greek consists of words that have come over into English, charisma, ‘gift of grace’, and pneumatikon, ‘Spiritual’. That is the phrase before us in verse 11. You understand that spiritual gifts are not merely talents or abilitites, like being able to make money, or to paint, or having a flair for public speaking. Steve Jobs was the enormously talented co-founder of Apple computers; and again Bryn Terfel has a remarkable sweet voice for a baritone. They were gifted men, but Christians alone have spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are a God-given, Spirit-created and Spirit-sustained ability to serve and receive service from other members of the body of Christ and to do so in scores of different ways.
For example, there is the spiritual gift called ‘helps’ and that, presumably is the gift of helping other people to get on in the Christian life, helping them in raising their children in a way that gives God pleasure, helping them in looking after sick members of their family, or maintaining a wise relationship with other people, helping them by giving them advice and counsel or just listening patiently to them pouring out their hearts to you before you speak. Almost every Christian has that basic spiritual gift and some powerfully so, and we all need to strengthen that gift. That comes about through coming under the power of the word of God.
Let me illustrate this by referring to a letter I received two days ago from Fiona Adams in Senegal. In it she describes what she’s doing each week in that missionary school, and it seemed to me in reading her litany of activities that she has the spiritual gift of ‘helps’ in a big way. She writes as follows, “My job here is very varied. I am the school administrator and here is a taste of some of the things I’ve done since we arrived 9 months ago: lead orientation sessions for new staff … driven for school trips … helped with swimming lessons … given first aid treatment … interpreted in and out of French, and translated documents … weighed fruit for the kitchen and staff … taught English as a foreign language to two Brazilian pupils … lead pre-school sessions … dealt with emails and correspondence … run the crèche during church services … washed up … paid electricity, social security and tax bills … done rotas for Senegalese staff … catalogued in the staff DVD library … worked out and paid the salaries of the Senegalese workers … read books to assess their suitability for the school library … ordered bread … locked up some of the buildings at night … greeted and helped visitors … cooked … lead prayer meetings and fellowship groups … sold phone credit cards and stamps … collected the post twice a week … sewn costumes for a school play … operated the sound and lighting systems during church services …”
Fiona came here thirty years ago as a Cwmbran teenager. The Holy Spirit was already in her life, in other words, she was a real Christian, and so she threw herself by his energy into evangelical activities in the Christian Union at the university and in the church here and at home. Through the next years God led her, tested her, and strengthened those gifts preparing her for all the demands on her time and physical strength in the rich variety of helpful things that she is doing now in west Africa. She is not self-conscious at all about what she is doing.
She is not thinking to herself, “I certainly have the charismata of helps.” She simply responds to needs as Providence brings different needs to her, and she gets on with helping. That generally is how spiritual gifts operate. You do what you can, where you can, with all the strength and wisdom you have in obedience to Scripture and all the time you are asking God that the power of his word may enrich your life more and more. There is no need for any Christian here to wail, “I don’t have any spiritual gifts.” Of course you do if you are trusting in Christ alone for your salvation, and thus want to serve the Lord. There is a God-created energy which every believer has that helps you to serve the church and your fellow believers. Go with the flow of providence by the help of the Spirit of God.
Those few lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament are not at all exhaustive, and the gifts are obviously broad and overlap, and most Christians possess a rich variety of gifts. They suggest to us what kinds of activities we can do in the name of Jesus Christ and for the glory of God. We have seen in Romans 12 he mentions, serving, teaching, encouraging, contributing to the needs of others, showing mercy and leadership as “gifts.” Those are pretty widely embracing words for duties at home and work and church and outreach, huge umbrella gifts under which you go on living your life as a believer and doing your work in your small corner and I in mine. In fact we dare not narrowly define what those gifts are because the New Testament doesn’t amplify and tell us. There is a nice mystery about them. No one can claim that what today is called ‘tongues-speaking’ is identical to the tongues of the New Testament. No one knows. It is certainly not like the tongues spoken at Pentecost and so tongues today is probably not the same as the New Testament gift. Even when this gift was present in New Testament times Paul could say, “In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (I Cor.14:19). Better to say, “Death – the wages of sin” or “Behold the Lamb of God” or “Believe on the Lord Christ.” Preachers would rather cry those words to a congregation and pray with such words to God that any glossolalia
I would suggest that the gift of ‘faith’ is growing in trusting God wisely in various circumstances and so passing through the different tests God brings into our lives. We are supposed to call them all joy because God strengthens us by them and enables us to go through them, and we all know the experiences when God did that in our lives. Again, I would think that the gift of ‘knowledge’ is gaining a grasp of the teaching of the Bible, of the covenants, and grace and law, and the person and work of Christ, whereas the gift of ‘wisdom’ is the application of the precepts and principles of the Bible to different areas of personal, family, church and social life. The gift of ‘leadership’ would show itself in vitality, common sense, consistency, intellectual ability to think through problems, a wise display and control of moods like joyful, grieving, enthusiastic, contented, reverent emotions. Leadership would also involve high spirituality and integrity and reliability – a leader meets his deadlines. All those are examples of spiritual gifts, charismata that have been birthed and matured by God the Holy Spirit. What is most important is this principle, that the gift that costs nothing is worth nothing. Blurting out something is very cheap, but standing in showers of rain in Owain Glyndwr square on a blustery autumn morning and offer literature to people for an hour or two is costly. It requires the gift of compassion and love for the Saviour.
Paul is talking about the means of growing strong through the exercise of such spiritual gifts as those that I’ve just explained to you. Now that is exactly what Paul’s letters are all about, and this epistle to the Romans in particular, quite clearly and thoroughly, and that is why this letter takes sixteen chapters. Knowing its power in your life will make you strong. The apostle is saying something like this; “I want to come to you . . . No, I long to come to you in order to impart some spiritual gift to you all, but if I’m prevented from coming in the flesh then I can be with you in the spirit and so I’m now writing this letter to you in which I am imparting to you (and incidentally to a congregation in Wales in 2,000 years’ time . . . and millions like them) this spiritual gift, understanding about how you are to behave yourselves through the gifting ministry of the Holy Spirit individually in the congregation, and also in your families, and also on the streets of Rome. You slaves all need gifts of the Spirit for your work. Or if your work is a legionnaire in the army, or a teacher, or a housewife then you need spiritual gifts and God provides them and my letter will develop them. Should I be able to come to you I will be able to strengthen you in person as I preach and talk to you and pray with you, but if I am prevented by God’s providence from the journey and cannot hold a convention in Rome for six months’ of meetings explaining to you about ‘Exercising Spiritual Gifts’ then I’ll do the next best thing. I will write to you this letter and I’ll tell you about the plight of man, and the work of salvation, who Jesus Christ is, what he has done, the nature of the Christian life, and how you ought to behave yourself in the church which is the pillar and ground of the truth, and so on.” Do you understand that all the things in this letter had this aim in mind of imparting spiritual gifts to the congregation in Rome in order to make them strong? Knowing this letter really well, having the power of its truth in your affections and mind will have that effect upon you. You will be changed and sanctified and strengthened by it. And if you don’t know this letter then you might tempted to think, “Well, I can speak in tongues” and you will do so until the cows come home, but without being gripped by Romans you are destined to remain a wee baby Christian deluded into thinking that you’ve become a hyper-Christian, a Spirit-baptized Christian.
So we know that the greatest need that every single church has today is for the apostolic word to come searchingly and powerfully, convicting sinners, enlightening our minds, building us up and increasing our usefulness. For such a need to be fulfilled is not going to be met in our town by a visit of an apostle, because all the apostles are long dead and buried, but it will be met and is being met week after week in our congregation by the opening up and application of the New Testament that the apostles have left us – the gospels and the letters and the Old Testament Scriptures that they viewed so highly. In other words, as we pastors preach that word we are helping to develop and mature all the spiritual gifts that God heaps upon this congregation, those rich gifts that are used in such abundance every day in our homes and with our neighbours and in our relationships as members of the body of Christ. Fiona Adams has never met an apostle, and never will, but she has the Scriptures and is getting stronger in exercising spiritual gifts.
We could not survive as a church without the Holy Spirit gifting us and sustaining those gifts in every believer here. Pray that God’s providence will guide you to use your gifts wherever he puts you in the week ahead. My desire as I preach to you every week is identical with Paul’s, that I “may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong” (v.11). Only the strong are going to survive in fighting with the world, the flesh and the devil. We all need to become stronger and stronger disciples and so stir up the gifts that are within you.
2. PAUL WANTED TO ENCOURAGE, AND BE ENCOURAGED BY THEM.
Paul tells us that his aim in coming to them is encouragement! “That you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (v.12). There are over 60 references to encourage and encouragement in the New Testament (N.I.V.). It’s a big theme. There’s a lot of outright discouragement in the world. There is criticism and damning with faint praise, and much scorn. There was much that would discourage the Christians in Rome; there was little mutual appreciation. Men today seem to think that the way to motivate a church is to scold and rebuke and point out the faults of others and let nothing pass. Men imagine that that is the way to revive and get things done. They go about it in that negative way, and the result is that a number of congregations are wilting. People feel that their best efforts are not at all worthwhile. People become passengers and they refuse to try in case they don’t measure up. There is talent unutilized and unapplied. I am saying that when Christians get together then one of the reasons is to give encouragement and be encouraged. We owe it to one another.
Think of the great example we have in the ministry of a little known preacher called Barnabas. He appears in the book of Acts as a delightful warm servant of churches as a son of encouragement. He was not known as a great theologian, or evangelist but wherever he went and visited congregations he spread encouragement and inspiration and renewed aspiration and made them feel good. When he left a congregation people felt strong. They felt they could carry any load and climb any mountain and overcome any trial. They could do anything after Barnabas had been there because he was a son of encouragement. Notice how Paul encouraged Christians?
i] Paul wrote this letter, and it addressed the theme of encouragement. All the words about the person and work of Christ – how superb our Lord is, and what is definitive sanctification, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God, the security of the grace of God towards us and his utter sovereignty as a potter has over clay – all that is given for this end, to encourage the Christians of Rome, to build up morale and make them feel real good. Remember how helpful your letters can be.
ii] Paul constantly expressed words of encouragement to various congregations. With 1 exception every letter of the apostle begins with a pos. word of appreciation and thanks to God for all that God’s done to the churches to whom P. is writing He tells this church at Rome, and then at Colossae, Philippi. Thessalonica and Corinth, “Whenever I think of you I thank God for you, and I’m thanking God for you all the time . . . I always have you in my heart . . . I am praying to God about you constantly, and every time I pray I thank God for all you are and for every quality you possess. I remember without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. I think of your love to all the saints, and how everywhere in the world your faith in God is known, and I remember with such affection our fellowship in the gospel until now.” There he goes, praising them to high heaven.
He does not do that when he writes to the Galatian congregation because that church has abandoned the gospel, and so it is all the more striking the fact that he expressed his gratitude to God for these other churches. How genuine it was. He is at such pains to express his awareness of the qualities of those Christians, and his personal debt to them and thankfulness for them. He is so encouraged by the graces that they possess and the faith they show. Sometimes we are so frightened to say to each other, “I thank God for you . . . I praise God for you . . .” We are so reluctant to acknowledge on another’s graces. Yet Paul is doing that and he wants the churches to know how much he appreciates them. He rehearses to them the graces God has given them.
iii] Paul followed the example of Christ. From where did Paul get his ministry of encouragement? He got it from the Lord Jesus didn’t he? Christ sat down on the mountain and preached to his disciples and he said to them, “You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world.” “Us . . . us?” What qualifications did they have? How had they been proved in religious work? They hadn’t preached a sermon in their lives. They hadn’t suffered very much as his disciples. They were quite flawed human beings, and yet Jesus wanted them to know that in his estimation they were the salt of the earth.
We say it don’t we? But usually we say it in the absence of people. When they are not in the Prayer Meeting then we thank God there for our pastors and elders, but our Lord did it to their faces. Wasn’t there a danger that they would become proud? Maybe, but our Lord did it. I guess the Lord doesn’t mind us being proud of him and his life and his gospel, and bragging about him. We glory in him. We tell the world that he is the greatest. That is a legitimate sense of personal pride. So Paul can say to one church that they please the Lord in every way. I am sure they could hardly believe their ears, and he praises another church that it is steadfast, and another for its self-sacrifice. “We are being steadfast? We hadn’t noticed . . . We just hang on by our finger tips . . .” they’d reply. He praises them for their faith and love and patience and hope. He wants them to be aware of these graces, that the Holy Spirit had not given up on them.
The devil takes such comfort in making us feel we are half-saved Christians! We feel so useless and then we don’t get involved because “What do we have to offer?” Men and women, God does not want us to be overwhelmed and self-destructive with feelings of unmerited worthlessness. Then we’d be good for nothing. You really matter to God. You really matter to us. You really matter to me. I can’t imagine how my life will be without this relationship with you year after year. We are nothing to the world. We are nothing to many of our unbelieving family. We are patronized as the ‘religious ones.’ And we are nothing in our own eyes, but you matter to us, because you matter to our heavenly Father. What we see and know you’re doing is so worthwhile. You are very valuable to this church and we praise God when we think of you. I will seek every opportunity in the years to come to express my thanks to you because that is what our Lord did and his apostles. They made mere Christians feel they were loved. They made church members know how grateful and useful they were, because the devil is saying to you every moment, “You are failures. You are useless. You are rubbish.”
iv] Paul knew how easy it is to feel discouraged. He once said, “We are hard pressed on every side.” Maybe the person we admire the most is the person most liable to discouragement. You think of Elijah and in the days that followed the triumph at Mount Carmel and the destruction of the prophets of Baal filled the whole country from Dan to Beer Sheba with the explits of Elijah. What a great man he was. The nation buzzed with talk about him, in the homes, at meal-times, in bed, at the wells, in the city gates all the conversation was just how wonderful Elijah was, and yet while all that was going on Elijah was lying under a juniper wishing that he were dead, feeling he was no better than all his ancestors. The people of Israel would be thinking that he would never be downcast again in his entire life, but their hero was the lowest he had ever been, quite suicidal. God needed to come to him and say to him, “What are you doing here Elijah?” The most eminent and blessed men need encouragement. You read the lives of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Cornelius van Til and you see how lonely and isolated they often were, their closest colleagues and even their families didn’t understand them.
I wonder is it OK for you to think that part of your mission in life is to keep someone humble? I think that that is God’s work. He will keep us sweet; he will measure out the cares. It is our work to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, but we have no divine vocation to be the humbler of the brethren. Our calling is to be “be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” “Each other,” Paul says. He leaves no one out. I remember 35 years ago when Dad died and the parade of young and old from the church who came to the Manse to sympathize with me what a wonderful time of Christian fellowship it was. How wise the students were in what they said; the young people were so sweet and comforting. You do not need to be a minister or an officer to say encouraging words. You don’t need training in it, or to go to college, or get a degree in counseling. You just need to be a Christian, and have some prudence, and humility, and a united heart, and know the indwelling of the Comforter. That is what we need and then we simple folk can encourage an apostle – because Paul needed encouragement so he tells us in our text – and the apostle can also encourage us, and life will be far sweeter.
- PAUL WANTED TO REAP A HARVEST IN ROME.
So Paul desired to go to Rome firstly to give some spiritual gift to them to make them strong, and, secondly, to encourage the Christians, and finally he tells them he had a third desire. It was to come to them, “in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles” (v.13). He wanted to go to the great city to gather fruit as he had in Corinth and Philippi and Galatia.
In other words he longed to go to the heart of the greatest empire in the world to win men and women for Jesus Christ. Paul wanted to go to Rome to reap a harvest there too. Incidentally wouldn’t that be the best encouragement that any congregation could possibly have? Can you hear the conversation? “What growth we’re experiencing! More new chairs are needed again! A larger building is being inquired about by the elders since Paul has come here. And all these new faces, men and women, boys and girls, hungry for the word of God. Ten men have been saved and the town is talking about it.” What new joy would be in the fellowship through Paul coming and faithfully sowing the seed of the Word! There is that old hymn, rarely sung today:
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labour ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Paul tells us that in other places, among the rest of the Gentiles, he had had a harvest, so why not at Rome too? He didn’t think that the toughest hardest place in the whole world was Rome and that he would rather not go there because it was hopeless. He didn’t think like that. The Spirit had not been quenched in Paul’s heart. He still was convinced that the gospel was the power of God unto salvation to all who would believe. So he wanted in Rome also to bring the harvest sheaves into the great barn of Christ. That was his purpose in going to that city, not to see the sights or receive the plaudits of men and women but to be the channel God used to save sinners and bring glory to the Saviour.
You remember that the Lord Jesus once spoke to his disciples and he pointed out to them, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matt. 9:37&38). How could Paul pray for the spread of the gospel in Rome and not volunteer to be a worker in the harvest field in that vast city if God would use him there? You know that our weakness in evangelism doesn’t have anything at all to do with any failure in methods. All that the New Testament church had we have today, the same Saviour and the same dependence on him, the same prayer-answering God. In fact we have much more because all that the church in Rome had was one letter from Paul whereas we have 27 New Testament books including four gospels. Our failure is not a lack of message or methods. It is not the absence of an altar call that is the reason for our weakness, or the lack of contemporary music, or that we are not offering some of those special courses with videos and booklets. The absence of those things is not the cause of our failure to see more people becoming true Christians. It is mostly a matter of heart. We are not looking at our town as a plentiful harvest field. We are not praying that God would send out workers into this harvest field. We are not saying to God, “Here am I. Send me.” But Paul was saying that. Paul was happy to be a mere workman in a field cutting corn and binding it into bundles and loading it on a hay wagon hour after hour week after week. Paul felt honoured to do that. He wasn’t the Bridegroom. He was just a friend of the Bridegroom. “Let me tell you about my best friend,” we can say to men and women. Our glorious friend has told us to sow the seed and gather in his harvest. For the rest of our lives we are going to do what he’s told us, and then he will never lay the blame for the defective harvest on us. I will never belittle God. I will never say, “God cannot” or “God needs . . .” What business do I, a worm, have to tell people what God cannot do, or what God needs. He doesn’t need me, nor my sins, nor death, nor grave. He can make his angels gather in the harvest, should he so choose, but he will use men and women and he will make men and women willing to be used.
Do you want to be part of reaping a harvest here? Is that one of the things you think about, “As I go to church today it’s not just that I want to get something out of the sermon, or that I want to fellowship with my friends, but I’m going to church today with the agenda of welcoming and helping others in the congregation who’ve not yet known my Lord.” Is that something that’s on anyone’s heart? We’re desirous to encourage one another and see fruit in the lives of one another. We want to be a blessing to ten men in Aberystwyth. Paul says, “When I think about you Roman Christians, I long to see you, because I want to produce eternal fruit in Rome reaping a harvest in your midst.” Paul didn’t wait until the stalks of wheat jumped out of the ground and gathered themselves together in sheaves, and then leaped on board the wagon to be towed away. He knew that he had to go into the field with his sickle and he had to cut down the corn and bind it and bring it in. Pray that men in love with labouring would go forth and bring in the harvest. That is how the harvest would be safely brought home. That’s the way I ought to think, and you too; “How can I help that person? How can I encourage someone to become fruitful unto God? How can I gain a little harvest to the Lord?”
3rd November 2013 GEOFF THOMAS