First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
“First,” he says . . . and what do you think would be his priority? What would come first to Paul as he speaks of his relationship with the Christians of Rome? It’s his gratitude to God.
- CHRISTIANS ARE GRATEFUL PEOPLE
There are lots of bitter people around like the woman who sat next to my friend on a bus whose opening words were, “If I met God I’d wring his neck.” How different is Paul here; “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you” (v.8). You understand why he starts there, it is because they have received the grace and peace of God that he mentions in the previous verse. Paul has just told them that they have been loved by God, and that God has called them to be saints. For those blessings and status they are in debt to God for every consequent virtue they possess and every victory they’ve won. They are thankful to God for. They deserved nothing, but he gave them everything. It was he who personally knitted them together in their mothers’ wombs. He gave them life and prolonged that life for many. He gave them intelligence and refined it. He brought them to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ; he opened their understanding so that they began to grasp the glory and wonder of the Lord Jesus Christ the Son of the living God. He took away their stony hearts and replaced them with living hearts, pure hearts and so they could see God. By grace he saved them through faith and that was not of themselves it was his gift. So they could never boast that they had been so smart to have spotted a good thing and that they alone had made the decision to believe in Jesus. The truth was that behind all their insights was God’s illuminating work. Behind their wills making a decision was God making them ready to decide aright. And although they had persevered until this time that was the consequence of his keeping them by his power and preserving them, having begun a good work in them he was continuing to work in them until that moment and on to the end. What did they possess in terms of intelligence, skill, gift, aptitude, or belief that they had not received from him? About what could they say, “Me . . . just me alone . . . I am responsible for this gift . . . ”? Nothing whatsoever.
So when Paul thought of them he didn’t respond by saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for becoming Christians. Thank you for your new birth, thank you for your adoption, thank you for your faith and repentance.” No. There are no congratulations here in his greetings for what they had done because they had been dead in trespasses and sins and God had made them alive. So Paul was filled with thanks to God for all that God had done and he had done everything. Their very breath was in God’s hands. “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you.” (v.8). We say, “Give credit where credit is due” and they owed the fact of their life and blessings and privileges to Almighty God.
Paul calls him “my God.” Jehovah is not the absolutely removed and unrelated one. There is no formality here; no hesitation about saying ‘God’ and calling him ‘my God.’ Paul possibly got the phrase from David in Psalm 63, “O God, thou art my God.” Or he got it from Thomas meeting the risen Lord and crying to him, “My Lord and my God.” It is so personal, our relationship with the living God, and so assured. Paul has no doubt and no hesitation and no uncertainty. “First I thank my God” he says, and he models for us the drawing near to God and the enjoyment of this blessed relationship.
And notice that all those divine blessings had come to the Christians in Rome from God through one means alone, “through Jesus Christ.” Without him they could have done nothing. So we see here the structure of living Christian discipleship itself. Here is a grand example of the three Gs. You know the three Rs; Ruin by the fall, Redemption through Jesus Christ and Regeneration by the Holy Spirit. That summarizes the theology of Christianity. There are also three Gs; Guilt, Grace and Gratitude, and they remind us of the structure of Christian experience. We are convicted of our sin and guilt; we hear of the pardoning grace of God in Jesus Christ, and subsequently live a life of gratitude to God for all his mercies to us.
Then there is something in particular about these Christians in Rome which moves Paul to give thanks to God, and it is that “your faith is being reported all over the world” (v.8). Of course that did not mean among the Aborigines of Australia or the Eskimos of Alaska or the Mongols on the Steppes there was gossip about the Christians in Rome. It is a natural hyperbole referring to the known world, the length and breadth of the Roman Empire. There was nowhere Paul had traveled where Christians had not heard of this congregation of Christians situated between Nero’s palace and the Coliseum. In the heart of the greatest city in the world was a congregation of believers and they did not consist simply of beggars and slaves but members of the imperial household and legionnaires from the imperial guard. Christians spoke in terms of the highest admiration and wonder of these Roman believers. It is not that there was anything by way of increased status and promotion and monetary gain from attending a Christian church every Lord’s Day. Anything but! They were risking their lives from going there. We think that Paul wrote this letter in the year 57 and it was seven years later that Nero gave orders to his soldiers to set alight a large section of Rome, and then he blamed the Christians for burning down the city. That allowed him to persecute them. Some of the people hearing this letter read for the first time were soon to be crucified; others had animal skins tied around them and were thrown to the dogs, others were set on fire and used for street lighting. They died such horrible deaths for professing Jesus’ name.
So if Christians in Asia Minor or Greece or back in Jerusalem inquired whether they were real disciples of Jesus then they were told of the trust of the Christians in Rome. That grace was being reported all over the world. You can imagine the conversations; “I heard that a slave was whipped until he bled when his master discovered that he was following Christ but he kept on trusting Jesus . . . and some of the women there have been divorced by their husbands because they’ve become Christians. They’ve been left with nothing but they still have faith in the Lord. ‘He will provide our needs!’ they say. Some of the soldiers have to be very careful and their centurions have threatened them with dismissal from the army but they are still trusting in God.” That faith of the Christians in Rome was a cause of humble thanks everywhere the gospel was planted. “Praise the Lord!” was the response. God was responsible for the conception and the continuance of the faith that lived in these men and women. Thanksgiving is the rent we pay God for mercies received.
It shows us the possibility of mere faith in Jesus Christ in one single congregation having a world-wide impact, that today Christians throughout the U.K. – and everywhere on earth where we in this church are known – experience an encouragement and joy and thanks to God for what they hear about us. The Roman church was an ordinary congregation. This was not a super-church. There are no hyper-churches. Paul has to write to these people who had this saving faith, and he has to exhort this congregation in these ways about basic moral behaviour, “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy” (Roms. 13:13). “Do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Roms. 13:14). “Why do you judge your brother . . . why do you look down on your brother? (Roms. 14:10). “Bear with the failings of the weak and not please yourselves” (Roms. 15:1). They were an ordinary congregation of mere Christians, limping and falling on their pilgrimage to heaven, just as we are. This is the reality of the Christian life. But these slaves and beggars and illiterates in Rome were able to hear and understand this letter in both its high theology and its holy ethics and receive by trusting God this morality and truth into their poverty-stricken lives. That fact was known in every church in the Empire. For that testimony to the keeping power of God Paul gave thanks for what had gone on in their lives through Jesus Christ.
- CHRISTIANS ARE PEOPLE WHO PRAY.
Now we all can kid ourselves that knowing about something is as good as doing it. Not so! I know a bit about cricket and I can talk cricket with men who play it but I have never played a game of cricket in my life. I love classical music and constantly listen to quartets and to rather obscure modern composers, but I cannot play an instrument. It is not like that concerning the devotion of the inward life of the believe interacting with God. You could be reading the best books from the Puritans until today in all your spare moments, and then simply mumble a few words to God in bed at the end of the day, and I would say to you that you are not a praying person. We know about prayer, and we approve of praying, but the actual activity of praying is anything but straightforward. I find prayer bewildering. A man in Clarbeston Road at a recent Harvest service told me he was a young Christian, and then he asked me how many hours a day did I spend praying. When I was in Korea a reporter asked me how many times had I read the Bible through. I told them both there were no more humbling questions they could possibly have asked me than those. How we need help concerning prayer, and there is much help in the Bible and in true Christian worship. In our text Paul tells these believers, “God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times” (v.9). So many interesting things here:
i] Preaching and praying go hand in hand. Praying without preaching is mysticism. Preaching without praying is proud unbelief. Unless God blesses the preaching there will be no fruit. God must open the heart; God must illuminate the mind by the Spirit; God must convict the hearers that the gospel is true; God must give faith and repentance to favoured members of the congregation; God must move the will to decide. Without God all you have is the voice of man and the arguments of man and the oratory and persuasive skills of man, and what starts with man is also going to end with man, but what God begins he always completes in the day of Christ. We must have God to come and help and bless us in our preparation, in our holy lives, and in our proclamation, and only then will the gospel come to people not in word only but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much assurance. So it is a sin to preach and not to pray; God has no dumb children in his pulpits. Paul preached with his whole heart, but he also prayed.
We see in our text that the preaching God blesses is whole-hearted preaching. God deliver us from a divided heart that fears man as well as God. Fear God you saints, and you will then have nothing else to fear. Serve him single-heartedly! And make sure the gospel you preach is about his Son, the two natures – divine and human, the three offices – prophet, priest and king, and the three states – pre-creation, incarnate and then highly exalted. It is on this Son that the gospel focuses, and it tells us who Jesus is, what he has done and still does, what he saves us from, how he teaches us to live and what he has prepared for us when we die. Paul preached the gospel of God’s Son with all his heart, and he prayed for the Christians in Rome. Preaching and praying go hand in hand.
ii] Paul was obviously and eminently a man of prayer. That is the next lesson we learn here. He tells the Romans that, “constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times” (v.9). He thus shows that he is a true apostle for it was the apostles who vowed, “We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). He tells all the Christians in Rome that he prays for every one of them. Why does he do it? Because they have come out of heathendom. Most of them are not converted Jews who were used to reading the psalms and singing them already from infancy having a pattern of true devotion. Peter and John and James and the author of the Hebrews and Jude wrote very few prayers in their letters but Paul has eight times as many prayers in his letters to churches in Greece and Rome. Those Gentiles had no tradition of personal devotion, so Paul became their great example in prayer. “Oh,” they thought, “though he is absolutely brilliant, and has had such great experiences of God, caught up to the third heaven, seeing sights and hearing wonderful words, still he tells us that he prays all the time. Then we need to pray all the time too.”
iii] Paul’s written prayers were very brief and to the point. This prayer of his is typical; it is only one or two verses in length. The longest prayer of Paul is just seven verses. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is three or four times as long. Spurgeon says, “Pray briefly and pray often.” Luther said, “When you pray let your words be few but your thoughts and affections be many.” I think that in the light of the evangelical spirituality of today ten minutes is the longest any of our preachers could helpfully lead a congregation in pulpit prayer, and for many even that, I fear, is too long a time. Oh for a return of the days when people were gripped by a preacher’s public praying so that time stood still though the minister had prayed for a very long time. No one has ever asked me to pray longer in Sunday services. Oh for a return to the days when long prayer meetings were a sign of vitality and marked by the presence of God. The Rev Fraser Macdonald of Portree died earlier this year at 88 years of age. He was studying theology with John Murray’s nephew, Alexander Murray, around 1950 and one night during the Edinburgh communion season he and Alexander went back to their room and decided to continue to read the word and pray. In what seemed to them a very short time, they found it was morning and time to get out to the morning prayer meeting. I fear many look at Prayer Meetings as a chore not a great blessing from God.
Paul’s prayers were also definite. They were brief but were very explicit. They were not vague ramblings or mere generalizations. Many prayers are incoherent, and aimless. They lack a point and when they’ve ended we remember nothing about them. I think the same is true about many prayer letters from missionaries. They are full of preaching when we crave for information. When Jesus taught Christians to pray then we see that there was worship, there was thanksgiving, there was one petition that followed another. There was no moralizing; there were no pious platitudes. Paul says here that when he prays for them his praying is characterized by immense gratitude for what God has done in their lives. “I am so thankful to God for you,” he tells them.
- CHRISTIANS EXPERIENCE UNFULFILLED LONGINGS.
“And I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you” (v.10). Paul knew that there was nothing wrong in his traveling to Rome and visiting the congregation there. There was nothing in Scripture that said, “Christians must not go to Rome,” and so he was free to travel there. There are some places that the Bible says, “Don’t go there.” Don’t walk in the counsel of the ungodly. Don’t stand in the way of sinners. Don’t sit in the seat of the scornful. But it does not say, “Whatever you do, do not go near Rome.” So we are free to ask God “When should I go? Is this year a good time? What is your will for me about my desire to go to Rome?” How do we find out?
i] Patience is needed. It seems from the text that Paul had it on his heart for some time, maybe even years, to go to Rome. You see the way he says, “I pray that now, at last, by God’s will the way may be opened up” (v.10). He had been praying and he was thinking that now God might be opening the way. How? Certainly there would be no voice from heaven, no vision, but God would order and control his circumstances as he prayed about it. I was thinking about going to a Bible College after I completed my degree in Biblical Studies at Cardiff University. I had written to London Bible College and I had a pleasant reply from them. Was that the answer? I knew that often we don’t see what the Lord will finally bring about. We sometimes think that this is his ultimate purpose for us, but then we discover what I once experienced climbing Cader Idris years ago, that when I had ascended the next peak and the next hill, I discovered that that was not Cader Idris at all but there were further heights to scale which I had not seen or anticipated.
So it was in the choice of a Bible College; the guidance came in this unusual way. One of our lecturers gave the eight of us an assignment to read an essay in an old copy of the Expository Times a notable liberal magazine. The particular issue was about five years old and the university library preserved the back copies of the magazine in big bound volumes. So I got the volume that contained this essay and sat in the university library and read it, and then I thumbed over the pages and at the end of this edition I discovered an advertisement for Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and the Chestnut Hill post office box number. I wrote it down and sent the Seminary a letter telling them of my interest in going there and within ten days I had a welcoming letter from the Registrar, Professor Paul Woolley, and then in the next couple of months he led me on through the steps of immigration and getting a student visa and in the course of time this wonderful providence occurred and I spent three years in the USA studying theology.
We are often tested in choices and guidance, as Paul had been. We walk according to the light God gives us and yet no doors open and the path disappears and crumbles beneath us. Doubts and disillusionment come to us, and maybe a tinge of bitterness. Only later on, maybe some years later, we find that those delays and closed doors were all perfectly appropriate for us. We can say, “Hitherto has the Lord helped us” (I Sam. 7:12). We need patience as we spread out a request to God.
ii] Clear thinking is essential. We need to evaluate things as rationally as we can. You notice the words Paul uses in our text, “at last by God’s will the way may be opened up for me.” He does not say, “I feel led to come to you at such and such a time.” In other words guidance is much more about thinking than that of feeling. I had read books written by three or four of the professors at Westminster Seminary, and I knew that they believed that the Bible was true and that they were wise men. They were confessional Christians and they were scholars and teachers. All that helped my decision-making. Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that they are not to be foolish but understand what God’s will is (Ephs. 5:17). It is a spiritual matter, of course, but not only a matter of spiritual sensitivity. It is a matter of your understanding – understanding the situation, the truth, yourself, the future, all of that and much more as best as you can.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm and it is often about being guided by God in the ways of his word. In one place he prays, “Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I believe in your commands” (v. 66). In other words, “I am a good disciple; what you say I believe. Then teach me wise judgment.” His desire was to have such an understanding and thoughtful application of God’s word in his life that he would be able, when an occasion arose, to put his finger on the will of God for him. This must come from studying God’s will. It comes from a heart attitude that what I want in life above everything else is to know the will of God, of how it applies to the various circumstances of life. You develop a taste or sense of the will of God. I know that it’s been God’s will that I should have spent these years in Aberystwyth. Sometimes you might be helped by making a list of pros and cons about some situation, the benefits of a certain action and the difficulties and you evaluate what you are going to do in the light of that list, and as time goes by you weigh one course of action rather than another.
iii] Commitment is paramount. You are talking with a friend about the future and you say, “I’m thinking about being a preacher, but I don’t think I am suitable for that work.” And he looks at you sternly and he says, “The issue is not your lack of ability. The issue is the absence of commitment, your lack of will to go for it.” That is the heart of the matter for many of you, not “Should I, or shouldn’t I? Sometime I feel like becoming a preacher and other days I have my doubts.” The issue is this, “Will I or won’t I?” Do I understand what the life and work of a preacher is? Yes. Have I seen preachers and have I read books on the work of the pastor like Preaching and Preachers by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones? Yes. Then where is the commitment. You are saying you are facing a question of guidance. The real issue, I say, is one of obedience. Are you willing to walk long paths of righteousness with the Lord leading you? Are you willing to go along through valleys of disappointment and frustration as long as he is with you?
There are very few if any books written by the Puritans on guidance because they looked at the facts as biblically as they could. They concentrated on teaching themselves and others the will of God which they discovered in Scripture. The Christian life is a life of daily obedience to God, daily submitting to his will and daily applying his truth to your hearts and lives. For some the way ahead is very clear and straight. For others it is the very reverse. Guidance is not easy for the most mature Christians. They are wonderful at helping you but they don’t find it easy to know God’s will for themselves. One or two such men having accepted a call to do a certain work in a church or teaching in a seminary actually changed their minds and withdrew just days before they were due to start. Professor Murray found the matter of marrying in old age an enormously difficult matter to be sure about and then regretted so deeply the many years he had lived before marrying his wife. It can take such a long time before we may reach a settled mind – in mature Christians. God does not deal with us as a crowd but as individuals. The very process we go through, reading, praying, talking to this man, and then to that man and sending off some inquiries is all part of the process by which he reveals his will to us. You see how cautious and uncertain Paul is here, but he is confident that God will make his will known to him. “And I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you” (v.10). God’s timing is absolutely perfect, and we can trust him without reserve. Will you trust God? Will you pray about it? Let me ask you, how many hours have you spent in praying about this very important issue? For example, the person you are going to marry, or the vocation you are going to follow in your life? Don’t huge issues like those demand much prayer? “Prayers at all times, and I pray . . .” (v.10).
iv] Frustrations are to be expected. It is so interesting to read what Paul tells us here, that there had been many times when Paul had made a plan to travel to Rome via a visit to other churches, or with certain companions, or on a boat from Greece and so on, many such plans and that they had all come to naught. Someone was ill, or he had other obligations, or there were fierce storms in the Med. for weeks. And everything fell through about going to Rome. He says, “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I had planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now)” (v.13). He tells them that very clearly. He doesn’t want them to think that he is a spiritual superman and that he always knows the times God is going to work in his life, sending him here or there. Even Paul with his intimate and privileged love of God was allowed by God to make plans and then God frustrated them. So these Christians in Rome and ourselves here, are not to think that we are very poor and immature servants of God when we go through such trials, relationships are broken, our plans to go to a certain college all collapse, hopes that such a church will call us all end in failure.
There’s a fascinating verse which casts light on this subject of guidance in the final chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Its lesson for me is how careful I have to be in telling other people what they must do next. In this new Festschrift dedicated to me Luke Jenner recounts how he came to see me about a call into the ministry. This is how he recalls our conversation (of which I have no recollection at all). “I remember rather cautiously going to speak to him about my very early, nervous thoughts about going into the ministry. It was halfway through my second year. I tentatively brought the subject up, expecting him to give some measured, careful advice to keep pushing doors, keep exploring possibilities, don’t dive in too quickly, etc. Instead, he just said, ‘Of course it’s the only thing for you.’”
See how Paul deals with Apollos here: “Now about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity” (I Cor. 16:12). You see the scene? It is vividly put before us, the mighty aged apostle and the younger man Apollos. Paul says to him, “Apollos, I am convinced that you need to go to Corinth now and speak to the church there and teach them and pastor them. You know that confusion in that church is over many issues. I have written to them and I will probably write again and that’s important, but they do need just now a voice, a mature Christian presence to lead them and give them guidance. I can’t think of anyone better suited for this work than you. I strongly urge you to go to Corinth soon. I speak to you as someone who knows God’s will. I speak to you as an apostle of Jesus Christ.” That was the apostle Paul. So what was the response of Apollos? “I’m sorry Paul. I am quite unwilling to go now. I have made a commitment to this and that. I have obligations that I must fulfil. There is no way that I can go to Corinth now. Sorry Paul, but no way Jose.” Paul pleaded with him and showed him the need and all the work that must be done there and how suitable Apollos was for this work and that Paul himself would help or arrange for help in others so that Apollos could go in the next month. But Apollos was firm, and Paul accepted it. There was no heavy shepherding that you hear of, people being made to hand over their bank accounts and houses to the church, leaders who dominate the lives of their flocks so that people change their jobs and move to another part of the country. There is nothing here like this with Paul. What does he tell the Corinthians about Apollos? That “he will go when he has the opportunity” (v.12). The decision is going to be made by Apollos because he has the same heavenly Father as Paul, or you or me. We are personally led by God and we have to recognize that each of us answers to God not to the leaders of the church for the big things of life.
So here are the principles that we meet in this matter of divine guidance:
i] In those areas specifically addressed by the Bible (e.g. the sanctity of life) these revealed commands and principles of God (his moral will) are non-negotiable.
ii] In those areas where the Bible gives no command or principle (non-moral decisions) the believer is free to choose his own course of action. Any decision made within the moral will of God is acceptable to God. Both Apollos and Paul were right.
iii] In non-moral decisions the objective of the Christian is to make wise decisions on the basis of spiritual expediency. “It is time for me to go to Rome, maybe on my way to Spain,” thinks Paul. That was right though it did not work out like that.
iv] In all decisions the believer should humbly submit in advance to the outworking of God’s will as it touches each decision.
So, Paul is telling the Romans at the beginning of this letter that he was praying that it would be God’s will for the way to be opened for him to come to them (v.10). Then by the time he had finished this letter – and how long that would have been I wonder, maybe a week or so – then Paul came to a definite plan. He tells them he is on his way to Jerusalem to take a gift to the Christians there from the Greek churches, but after he has delivered that safely he has decided to come to them “So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this fruit, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way” (Roms. 15:28). It was not to be was it? He never went to Spain. He got arrested after leaving Jerusalem but he did go to Rome in the most hazardous of voyages, almost drowned and the boat hit the rocks at Malta and sank, but all the passengers and crew were saved and finally another boat took Paul to Rome. The longing in his heart to get to the city had been sustained by God over many trials and God brought him there, but in ways Paul would never have dreamed of. God does guide us, often in surprising ways, but every Christian is led by the Spirit of God into doing the good and perfect will of God. Never despair. God has his perfect plan for your life.
27th October 2013 GEOFF THOMAS.