Romans 15:20-24 “It 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. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’ This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. But 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, I 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.”

Paul has just been telling the Romans in the nineteenth verse of this chapter that “from Jerusalem all the way round to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” “All the way round to Illyricum” – those are his words, that long, long way to Illyricum. The man writing these words was Saul of Tarsus the leading Pharisee of his day, full of energy, intelligence and precocious talent. He’d been the one taking the lead in the Jewish attempt to destroy Christianity. His conversion to confessing that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and the Son of the living God was the most extraordinary change of life witnessed in the early church. He was the last man anyone expected to become a Christian. There is that fine sentence at the end of the first chapter of the letter to the Galatians that shows the frisson his conversion created amongst the first generation of Christians as they were saying to one another, “‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they praised God because of me” (Gals. 1:23&24).

Now we might have expected Paul to have gone to Jerusalem and that soon by united recognition of his godliness, theological brilliance, eloquence and zeal, he had been speedily appointed by the church as its leader, but that is not what happened. A fairly anonymous disciple named James becomes the pastor-preacher in Jerusalem, whereas Paul went away from Jerusalem “all the way round to Illyricum.” Yes it was via Arabia, and yes, via Damascus, then back to Jerusalem (for a mere 14 days), but then “all the way round to Illyricum” to the Gentile mission for fourteen long years.

Can you see him walking over a thousand miles from his home country, sleeping under the stars, washing himself and his clothes in a freezing stream, buying some food in a village and cooking it on a little fire, speaking of his Saviour whenever he could, but always heading for the main towns of every region stretching from Syria and on to Turkey, to Albania, to the north of Italy. Hear him! “I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:26&27). Yet . . .

“There’s no discouragement

Shall make him once relent

His first avowed intent

To be a pilgrim.” (John Bunyan).

With that vast land facing him, and all those factors ganging up against him it is impressive to hear Paul confidently claim that he’d fully proclaimed the gospel there; gospel preaching had been fulfilled in Illyricum. One man had proved to be sufficient for the task that God had given him to do. Jonah was another lonely man who preached in a pagan city of three days’ journey and the whole community was affected. Philip was the one man God sent to Samaria and the whole of that region was changed. What does Paul mean when he claims to have fulfilled his divine mandate in that vast region where there were still a million unconverted people? Paul was saying that the task of frontier mission had been completed. The fallow virgin ground had been ploughed up and some of the scattered seed had taken root. There were now men and women all over Illyricum filled with the Spirit of God. They lived in every part of that whole region. While the task of evangelism had only just begun now there were people in the various language groups, Celtic tribes and Baltic dwellers, Turks and Albanians, who had received the gospel and were able and anxious to share it in their own language. Paul’s calling was to be a frontier missionary in Illyricum. Paul, the greatest of the Christians in piety, and discernment, and power in preaching was not preserved in a Jerusalem study to write the first systematic theology. He was sent by the Lord to the back of beyond to plant churches. That shows the priority God gives to the work of mission.

What kept Paul going? There was this;


“It 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” (v.20). Young Christians, give up your small ambitions! What can we say about this special work?

i] Foundation work is the most joyful work. We all love to be the first to tell someone some super news. “Have you heard the good news?” We love to see their faces light up, or we can be a little disappointed if they say, “O yes, I knew that . . . I’ve known that for days.” For the apostle Paul life consisted of Jesus Christ, of telling people about him, especially those who had never heard of him before. Paul did not travel through Illyricum teaching a set of rules, or laying down a series of ceremonies. He didn’t go there to promote a cause and gather people around it. Paul went there with the gospel of Christ. God has so loved the world that he has given up his only begotten Son, sending him into the world, born of the virgin Mary. He lived an utterly sinless life as a real man, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. Jesus had kept God’s moral law, his ceremonial law and his civil law perfectly, but there came a time when his love for all whom the Father had given him meant that he took our guilt and shame and he bore our condemnation instead of us. He died as our substitute on the cross of Golgotha becoming the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the people of Illyricum and those men and women from all over the world and right through history until the very end. He died for our sins, and we are assured of this reality by the fact that on the third day God raised him from the dead. He lives at the right hand of God; he lives in us personally when we have received him into our lives; he comes where we gather in his name. We know him as our own Lord. He is our great living Shepherd, our Prophet, our Priest and our King. We know that if you come to him as a sinner expressing your need of him then Jesus will never rebuff you, however bad you’ve been. He will accept you and give you a comprehensive pardon, the gift of sonship and eternal life. That is the gospel of Christ and Paul’s great ambition was to preach it everywhere, especially where no one had the slightest knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. It gave the greatest amount of happiness to the people of Illyricum. The truth made them free indeed. Paul had such pleasure in laying a gospel foundation in the heart of paganism

ii] Gospel Foundation Work is Essential Work. We had workmen doing a job in the Manse many years ago which was half completed, installing central heating and modernizing the ground floor. Something then happened that meant the original workmen left, they could not continue the job and finally after some months new workmen were appointed to finish the work, fixing cupboard doors and so on. How they had grumbled to me during the first few days at what the earlier gang of men had done, how sub-standard it all was, “What were they thinking of, doing it in this way?” But they finished in the end. No one likes to finish off what someone else has started. In the Banner of Truth we get sent manuscripts of books that are 75% excellent, but who is going to rewrite the remaining 25% of the book? It is easier to write a whole new book.

A preacher friend described the difficulty of building on someone else’s foundation in a letter he sent me this week. A young woman had begun to attend their church, and he wrote, “We have just had Arianne begin to attend the church. She had heard something of the gospel in a congregation some distance away from us, but in language and approach it was even further away. She’d been told that all she needed to do was to recognize that God existed, that he loved her and that Jesus was the Messiah, sent to Israel to fulfil the divine promises. There wasn’t a word about recognizing one’s sin and despairing of one’s ability to please God, nothing about repentance or casting oneself on the grace of God, little about Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. She had been baptized and continued in that congregation for some months, taking a more active role.

“Then a friend had invited her to visit our church where she soon found herself beset by doubts. We preach a different Gospel. We make much of God’s holiness, of man’s sin and, consequently of the surprise of divine grace in God actually loving sinful man in such a way that he gave his only Son over to death for man’s salvation. We speak of the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ, of the inability of man to earn God’s favour – even his inability to trust in God unless his nature is changed. We speak of a powerful, divine intervention in the life of individuals, transforming a human heart and moving him to faith and repentance. Arianne told us, ‘I’m not sure I am a believer. I shouldn’t take communion.’ Some months have passed. Arianne has sat through a pre-baptismal class and heard the ministry of the Word. Her mind is clearer now, and so is her heart. She comes to church with a greater confidence and an eagerness that is nothing less than delightful. We expect her to take communion soon and to enter more fully into the life of the church.” My friend had had to build on a bad foundation. He had to begin by clearing away that superficial foundation of ‘decisionitis’ that her faith was built upon. He had to establish a new foundation for Arianne to stand on. He had to teach her what these words mean;

“My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

I came here to this pulpit two thirds of the way through the 20th century and during the previous 65 years the Welsh churches had listened to 67 varieties of theology. Here there had been quite a succession of ministers none of whom stayed very long, a couple were conservative, numbers of others were liberal and they had left behind them a moral people but utterly confused with a lot of apathy. That is the foundation on which I had to build, but not me alone, but some of you who were my supporters in our great enterprise, who longed and prayed and worked for a more consistent, historically Christian, confessional and biblical testimony being loved and declared in this congregation. If it were not for you friends of mine then humanly speaking I would have had no more success in surviving than many of my friends who were quickly evacuated from the pulpits of similar churches. Foundation work is necessary work

iii] Gospel Foundation work is slow and secret work. You go down and down to the bedrock, and in proportion as you intend going up you first have to go down. It is no small business to lay a foundation which you long should last until the return of the Saviour. It is the most unrequiting task because when you’ve worked your hardest your labours are all hidden out of sight and no one thanks you for them. It is hardly possible to find men who will choose such work. A builder desires to build the dome, the windows, the fresco, the entrance features that will be noticed immediately and admired – “what fine craftsmanship!” But where are the men who will say, “Let me dig down, and clear away, and lay a foundation. Let other men build the walls and decorate the balconies”? Paul chose such largely anonymous work; “My business is not to work in Jerusalem but rather to go where nobody else will go.” That is the challenge today. Where are the young men who are saying, “Where is the place other men don’t want to go?” What humility! What trust in the Lord! For Carey it was India; for Judson it was Burma; for Paton it was the New Hebrides. Paul thinks, “I persecuted the Son of God,” and the more he thought about it the worst it seemed, and this was an inner force compelling him to serve where no one else would go. Christ humbled himself and made himself of no reputation. He came from the loving warm light of his Father’s presence right into the darkness of our world, and Paul too humbled himself to leave historic Jerusalem, and academic Antioch. He went to Illyricum to pioneer evangelism and church planting and all he left for history, his life corpus, measures 130 pages in my large-type Bible, a small paperback in length. Christ became a servant, and so did Paul; he humbled himself. There is nothing that love cannot do. There is nowhere love won’t go; the deeper the love the more willing the sacrifice. “This was my ambition,” says Paul (v.20).

One of the best things that happens to us as Christians is that we become controlled by a holy ambition. We say, “This one thing I do.” One of the worst things for non-Christians is to have nothing to live for, to be constantly asking the question, ‘Is this all there is? Is this what life is all about? Surely there is something more.’ How is it with you? Let me test you concerning your ambitions. Are you realizing your destiny as someone created by God and for God? Are you operating in terms of one superlative ambition? Here is the best of all, to live the life of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of the people whom God in providence brings into your life year by year so that these people also come to trust in him, become obedient to him and are saved by him from their sin and the wrath of God. That was Paul’s mission in life. Who would true valour see let him come hither. Here was this brave man; here was a happy person; here was someone totally satisfied in this, in bringing the good news of the Lord Christ to people who’d never heard the name ‘Jesus.’ It is right and it is good to be controlled by such holy ambitions.


I read the following words in a sermon on this passage by John Piper and they touched me and I have adapted them and altered them here and there but the approach is his. He turned to the little ones in the congregation and he said this; “Children, listen to me carefully for a moment. I know the words, ‘holy ambition,’ are unusual and you don’t use them every day. ‘Holy ambition’ means something that you really long to do in life that God wants you to do. Something you want to do so much that doing it keeps you from doing other things that you also enjoy doing. Paul really wanted to go to Rome; year after year he thought ‘Rome this year or Rome next year . . .’ But he was never able to go for fourteen years because he wanted something else more than going to Rome. He wanted to preach the gospel of the Lord Jesus in places where people didn’t know a single thing about Jesus – not a thing, not even his name. Imagine that! They never knew the Sermon on the Mount. They never knew that he spoke and the winds obeyed him. They never knew the parable of the prodigal son. They never knew he could raise the dead. Paul really, really, wanted to talk about this Christ to people who had no idea about the gospel at all; Paul wanted to do that more than anything else in the world. Paul is calling that kind of desire an ‘ambition’ and we are calling it a ‘holy ambition’ because it is something God wants us to do. Becoming rich, and living until you are a hundred, and having two boys and two girls are ambitions but they are not holy ambitions because people who don’t want the living God also have ambitions like that.

“Do you have a holy ambition? Probably not yet. You’re still a little boy or girl. That’s what you’re supposed to be. But some day you won’t be a little girl any more. And one of the differences between being a child and growing up is that growing up as a Christian means you get a holy ambition. Every Christian has a holy ambition. Most little girls really want to have toys and play with dolls, and that’s a great thing. But the day is going to come, girls, when you’ll put aside playing with dolls and you’ll grow up into the bigger and better joy of caring for real babies that smell and yell and also are very cute – your own baby perhaps. Maybe one day you’ll even help to care for children in an orphanage in Africa, lonely babies who have no Mummy and no Daddy because they have died of AIDS. And for some of you this will become a holy ambition. For others your holy ambition will be something else.

“And boys, listen. If you are like I used to be, what you really want is gerbils, a book, a ball, a sword, a gun, Monopoly and somebody to play with. I loved playing football with my friends and making roads across the garden for my cars and drawing my pistol so fast you couldn’t see it. That was fun. And that was good, but some day you won’t be a little boy any more. And one of the differences between being a little boy and growing up is that growing up as a Christian means you get a holy ambition. And that means the fun of toy guns, toy swords and gerbils gets less satisfying while the joy of fighting for truth and salvation gets bigger and bigger and so satisfying. Growing up means getting a holy ambition to wield the sword of the Spirit mightily and to drive a lorry full of love to the needy. Of course some of you might have holy ambitions when you are young. One of my grandsons is just eight years of age but he said last month that when he grows up he would like to be a preacher because it is such a wonderful work. I would love him to become a preacher like his father and grandfather. We must wait and see but I am glad he has such a holy ambition now. All Christian Mums and Dads, and single people, students, old age pensioners should have a holy ambition, something that they really, really want to do for the glory of God, something that controls them. Thinking in that sort of way, with a Christian mind, helps you to decide what you are going to do when you graduate. It gives eternal focus and passion to your life.” Paul had one of those Christ-honouring ambitions.

Where did the ambition come from? Did he get it in a dream? Was it just a feeling he had? Did an old lady in the church in Damascus say to him, as some Christian women can say, “Young man, you ought to become a preacher/missionary.” How do we get a great purpose by which to live our lives? You might expect that right here in our text Paul would remind the Romans about his Damascus Road encounter with the risen Christ, and the commission to evangelize the Gentiles which he received from the Lord, “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18), but that’s not what Paul says in our text. There is nothing about, “I have this ambition because Jesus called me on the Damascus road.” No. What Paul says is, “I have this ambition—I am controlled by a passion to speak of Christ where he has never been named—because of Isaiah chapter fifty two and verse fifteen, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.’” (Is. 52:15).

It is for our sake that Paul speaks that way. If he had referred to his experience on the Damascus road then we’d be tempted to think, “We’ll haven’t had an experience like that; we never have and we never will, but if we did then what a difference it would make to our Christianity. If I had met the living Christ I would be so zealous for the Lord.” We imagine we’d be preaching in front of the bank in the middle of town day after day. We’d be talking to our neighbours and writing letters to our families, giving out tracts on the way to church. We’d be on fire for the Lord – if we had seen the Son of God shining brighter than the noonday sun we would shine for him too, but we haven’t and so it’s tougher for us than it was for Paul.” Some people dream, “If only God gave me Holy Spirit baptism” and then they imagine how they would work for the Lord. But Paul doesn’t appeal to his sight of Christ, or his experience of the Spirit, rather he refers to God’s written word that you all have, the miraculous book which you’ve got, and a verse in it from the prophecy of Isaiah chapter fifty-two and verse fifteen, a verse which is speaking of the effects of the Messiah coming and setting up his kingdom. There will be people who had never ever been told one word about Christ but they will see him clearly as his life and teaching is described to them. They will see the green hill far away; they will see Lazarus raised from the dead; they will see the Upper Room and the Last Supper as we have all seen those events who’ve got the Bible. And we people who hitherto had never heard one peep about Jesus will hear and understand. This is going to happen in the world when the Messiah comes, and Paul says, “It has actually, happened and I am the one God used to make it happen.” Paul’s holy ambition to let others know of Christ was earthed in the Bible. “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand” (Is. 52:15).

So where must your holy ambitions come from? Of course they come from a personal encounter with the living Christ – though usually not as dramatic as Paul’s on the Damascus road. Some followers of our Lord don’t know even the year they became a Christian, though they are real believers, but you have to know him as your very own Lord and Saviour. Then that knowledge of Christ has to be constantly shaped and informed and empowered by the written word of God. God doesn’t speak to us by our tracing patterns of goose-pimples on our arms during religious ecstasy. God speaks through the Bible, “Understand these things; believe these truths; obey this commandment; live like this; be this sort of mother, and this sort of church member . . .” As you listen to the preaching of the Bible week by week God comes and takes some of the truths you need and he applies them to your hearts until a holy and pure ambition grows and you live by that ambition. Ask God that he will do this for you week by week, give you humble holy ambitions, and sustain them in you.


Give up your small ambitions. Paul had so effectively evangelized that vast area of central Europe that he can say quite casually, “Well . . . there is no more place for me to work in these regions” (verse 23). What in the world did he mean by that? There were still tens of thousands of people yet to hear the gospel in Illyricum. We know this because of this, Paul wrote to Timothy at Ephesus on the borders of this very region and he commanded him to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). So there were multitudes who still needed to be evangelized, but Paul, unlike Timothy, was not a local evangelist; he was the apostle to the Gentiles, a frontier missionary, a pioneer missionary. That is, his calling and his ambition was not to do evangelism where a congregation had been planted. Let that local church be involved in that. Paul’s calling and his ambition was to pioneer and preach the gospel where there was no evangelizing church and no Christians, where they didn’t even know the name ‘Jesus.’

So Paul told the Romans, “I am going to Spain” (v.24) which was wholly unreached as far as we know. This is important because of what he doesn’t say, and also what he does say. He doesn’t say, “And everyone in Rome who is obedient to the Great Commission must go with me on a great trek to Spain. Please advertise in all the housegroups the march of the million men to Spain and book the Coliseum for a huge rally when I arrive and I will give them an inspirational talk on ‘Naming and Claiming Spain for Christ.’ Such thoughts never entered Paul’s mind. Paul was going there, by himself, just the apostle, and no one else, but Paul wasn’t a loner. What he goes on to say is this: “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” (v.24).

We say there are three choices facing us all as far as the worldwide mission of the church is concerned. You can be a goer; you can be a sender; or you can be disobedient. The Bible doesn’t assume that everyone’s got to go, and it doesn’t command everyone to go, but it does assume that the ones who don’t go care about the goers and support the goers and pray for goers and hold the rope of the goers.

How important is this? Here was Paul, and he was brilliant intellectually, one of the greatest thinkers this world has ever seen. He had encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He had been caught up to heaven and heard words and seen sights it wasn’t lawful for him to share with any man. He had been the most successful church planter in all the early church. He could speak in foreign languages more than any man. He could do the miracles and signs which an apostle could do. If there was a big tough Christian who didn’t need assistance and enjoyable company and survive loneliness it was Paul. Yet here he says that he hopes they will assist him on his journey to Spain (he doesn’t take their assistance for granted; he hopes they’ll give it to him), and that he is looking forward to a time of enjoyable company with them. This is no crank! No loner! Then in verse thirty and on to the end of the chapter we read these words (which we will look at in more detail on another occasion), “I 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. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen.”

Even Paul asked for prayer. So we are encouraged to say to one another, “Pray for me.” Why? If God knows and plans everything, why pray? Let me make three clear statements that define Biblical prayer (I’ve taken them from a friend);

i] Prayer is a frank admission that God is sovereign. When we pray we admit that the matter before us is in God’s hands alone. We are saying that tomorrow, and our planned visits to Jerusalem or Spain (or whatever our plans might be) are not under our own control, but under God’s control. All our futures are in his hands not ours.

ii] Prayer is a joyful surrender to God’s sovereign purposes. We are acknowledging that God has the right and power to do whatever seems good to him. We are saying that regardless of what God does about our going to Jerusalem or Spain (or wherever), we will believe that he is working everything together for our good.

iii] Prayer is an earnest pleading with God for grace to glorify him regardless of what he does. We are really saying, “Father, give me grace to trust you for Jerusalem and Spain and everything else. Help me to behave like your dear child who knows his Father in heaven will never wrong him whether the answer is “yes” or “no”

We know how strange the answers were to the prayers of Paul and those of the congregation in Rome. For Spain the answer was, “No, you are not going there.” For Jerusalem the answer was arrest through the trouble stirred up by Paul’s enemies so that Paul was never again free to travel and church plant, but how comforting to Paul and the churches to know that they had prayed earnestly about Spain and about Jerusalem. Imagine if they had been fatalists. What if they had merely shrugged their shoulders and said, “Que sera, sera; whatever will be, will be,” and then the door shut on Spain because Paul got arrested in Jerusalem. “Aaaah!” they’d have cried, “if only we had prayed about it!” The congregation there in Rome had prayed about it. They had brought it to God earnestly and God had answered their prayers and they could encourage one another saying, “We would have assisted him on his journey to Spain and enjoyed his company. We did cry to God as he asked us to, that he would be rescued from unbelievers in Judea and God did hear and answer us, so we must say, “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.”

We are in exactly the same place facing the future as Paul was and this church in Rome as they read Paul’s request for prayer. None of us know what God has decreed for the year ahead, either in general terms for our land or for our own lives in particular. What we do know is that God commands us to pray because he is pleased to suspend certain blessings on the prayers of his people. So I think it is all right for us to say from our own perspective that prayer changes things. In other words, if we fail to pray we may well forfeit those “things” that God has said may be ours if we’d but pray for them.

Somebody has written that it’s better to say that “prayer implements things” in other words, prayer brings those things to pass that God has decreed or commanded. We were saved because we heard the gospel preached; God had decreed by the foolishness of the message preached we’d come to hear of Christ and trust in him. When we travail in birth that Christ should be formed in men and women that is another means God uses to implement his things. When you think about us praying to God you are discussing the interfaces of God’s sovereignty and our own responsibility. We acknowledge that the Lord is King with real sovereign control over our lives and we adore him for that. If we ignore our Sovereign and don’t pray to him then we know we are sinning and feel guilty. We know that God has designed to use such things as our witnessing and our credible godliness and our praying as the means of fulfilling his gracious purposes for us.

25th February 2007 GEOFF THOMAS