July 21, 2019

Romans 15:14-33: The Manner of Paul's Ministry

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Series: Romans: The Gospel of Grace Scripture: Romans 15:14–33

Romans 15:14-33: The Manner of Paul’s Ministry

I’d like to begin this morning by asking you a question: Do you have a holy ambition for your life? Do you have a holy ambition for your life? And by that, I mean an ambition to use your life for something that transcends it—something related to God and God’s purposes and God’s glory. Is your life driven by that kind of an ambition? 

John Piper tells the story of two missionaries named Ruby Eliason and Laura Edwards who were both killed in Cameroon. Ruby was over eighty years old and single, by choice, for her entire life. Instead of having a family, she poured her life out for one thing: to make Jesus known among the unreached, the poor, and the sick. Laura was a widow, a medical doctor, and was nearly eighty years old herself, serving with Ruby in Cameroon. And the way they died was that the brakes on their vehicle gave way so that their vehicle ended up going right over a cliff. They were killed instantly. Now, consider this: was that a tragedy? Was it a tragedy? Keep in mind that these women devoted their entire lives to the glory of God. They were driven by a holy ambition right up to the very end. So, in my opinion, that’s not a tragedy but rather a glory. 

Piper then shares another story, much different than the first, about a couple named Bob and Penny. Readers’ Digest records how his husband and wife duo took an early retirement from their jobs when Bob was 59 years old and Penny was 51. They now live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells. Now I don’t know anything else about Bob and Penny’s life. But if that’s what they were living for—if that early and luxurious retirement was their highest ambition—that’s a tragedy. Yet I wonder how many of us have bought into that vision for our lives—the American dream of a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before we stand before the Creator of the universe and give an account for what we’ve done. “Here it is Lord—my shell collection. And I’ve got a nice swing, and look at my boat.”That is a waste of a life. So I ask you again: do you have a desire for something more than that? Do you have a holy ambition for your life? Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to move overseas as a missionary. Most of us are probably called to glorify God through our lives right here in Pittsburgh—in our families, at our jobs, and through the other “ordinary” things we’re involved with. Yet the question remains: do you have a holy ambition for your life? 

And we can see that holy ambition modeled in a truly inspirational way in the life of the Apostle Paul as it’s described here in our main passage in Romans 15. So if you have a Bible, please open it to Romans 15. If you’re using one of the Bibles we provide, that’s on page 786. We’ve been working our way passage by passage through Paul’s letter to the Romans, and this morning we find ourselves in Romans 15:14-33. This passage gives us a picture of what the Apostle Paul was like—how he thought, what he lived for, what made him “tick.” And as we’re going to see, Paul’s life centered around the ministry he had received from God. That’s the main idea of this passage. Paul’s life centered around the ministry he had received from God. And as we work our way through the passage, we’ll see three ways Paul describes his ministry. He describes it first as a priestly ministry, second as a pioneering ministry, and third as a prayer-driven ministry. 

A Priestly Ministry

So first, Paul describes it as a priestly ministry. Look at verses 14-17: 14 I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. 15 But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. 

So in these verses—specifically in verse 16—Paul compares himself to a priest in the Old Testament. Just as a priest of the Old Testament would help connect people to God, Paul spent his life proclaiming the gospel to those who were not yet Christians in order to connect them to God. Now, by the way, this is very different than denominations and churches today that refer to their leaders as “priests.” In my opinion, that’s a very unfortunate choice of words because it implies that “ordinary” Christians somehow need a special group of elite Christians called “priests” in order to be fully connected to God. That’s just not what the Bible teaches. According to the Bible, every single Christian is already connected to God and is able to confess their sins directly to him and pray directly to him and enjoy just as much direct access to God as any Christian leader. So I really don’t think it’s helpful to refer to Christian leaders as “priests” because, in a sense, every genuine Christian is a priest. 1 Peter 2:5 refers to all believers as “a holy priesthood.” So we want to keep that in mind as we read verse 16 of our main passage and think about Paul’s “priestly service of the gospel of God.” Paul wasn’t a priest in the sense that he connected other Christians to God by virtue of some elite status he possessed. Rather, he had a “priestly ministry” simply in the sense that he proclaimed the gospel and thereby connected non-Christians to God. 

And then Paul takes the metaphor a bit farther as he talks about the “offering of the Gentiles [being] acceptable.” Just as an Old Testament priest would want to offer sacrifices to God that God found acceptable, Paul desires to offer those who are converted through his ministry as a sacrifice to God that God finds acceptable—not literally, of course, but figuratively. Paul views the converts that are the fruit of his ministry as an offering that he will one day present before God. 

Now understand here that this isn’t an offering of merit but rather an offering of gratitude. In other words, Paul wasn’t trying to earn his salvation through his service to God. The Bible’s very clear that there’s no way anybody can ever do that. We’re all so sinful and so depraved that we can never make ourselves acceptable in God’s sight no matter how hard we try. That’s why we need Jesus so desperately. The reason Jesus came to this earth wasn’t just to help us out a little bit or give us the extra boost we needed to be good enough for God. No, he came because we were utterly helpless and needed Someone to rescue us from our helpless condition. And the way Jesus rescued us was by dying on the cross. He died for our sins, taking on himself the judgment we deserved. Then he resurrected from the dead in order to seal the deal and now offers us salvation as a free gift. It’s not something we can earn but rather something we have to humbly receive. So, back in our text, the “offering” Paul says he wants to present to God isn’t an offering of merit but an offering of gratitude. Paul’s so grateful for the salvation he’s received that he wants to express his gratitude by being faithful to the calling God’s given him. 

Kind of like a thank-you note. As I kid, I wasn’t really a big fan of thank-you notes. My mom would make me write them, but I didn’t really enjoy them because…well…that’s just the way I was. But now, I’ve hopefully gained some perspective in life and have come to value the practice of writing thank-you notes. They’re such a nice way to express gratitude to someone who’s given you something or done something for you. And, of course, you’re not trying to repay someone by writing them a thank-you note, are you? It’s not like someone buys you a gift that’s valued at $50, and so you put a $50 gift card in the thank-you note. No, a thank-you note isn’t repayment. It’s simply an expression of gratitude. And that’s the spirit in which I believe Paul was dedicating this “offering” of the fruit of his ministry to God. He was so grateful for the salvation he’d received that he just wanted to express that gratitude to God. And I think that’s a very appropriate goal for all of us. 

Let me ask you this: with the way you’re living now, are you going to have any kind of an “offering” to present to God when you meet him one day? Of course, everything we do is ultimately by God’s grace. But, in a manner of speaking, are you going to have any “offering” to present before God? Are you being faithful to share the gospel with people? Have you ever played a part in seeing someone else come to faith? Are you personally discipling a new Christian or maybe one who’s younger in the faith than you are? What kind of an offering are you going to have ready for God one day? 

A Pioneering Ministry

Then secondly, not only was Paul’s ministry a priestly ministry, it was also a pioneering ministry. Look at verses 18-21: 18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; 20 and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”

Now what do you think Paul means when he says in verse 19 that “from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum [modern-day Albania] I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ”? What does it mean to “fulfill the ministry of the gospel”? Obviously, I don’t think Paul’s claiming that there were no non-Christians left in this region. I’m sure there were still plenty of people who needed the gospel between Jerusalem and Illyricum. Instead, Paul had fulfilled his ministry in that region in the sense that he had brought enough people to faith and planted enough churches that those Christians and churches were now numerous enough to carry on the work of gospel ministry themselves—without Paul being there. We might say that the region now had a viable gospel witness. And so, Paul says in verse 20 that it’s now his ambition to preach the gospel in other regions, where Christ hasn’t yet been named. That’s the sense in which Paul’s ministry was a pioneering ministry. 

And that’s a good reminder for us that there should be a special place in our hearts for the people in this world who currently don’t even have an opportunity to hear the gospel. It’s not just that they haven’t heard it but that they don’t even have an opportunity to hear it. There’s no gospel-teaching church in their region. Perhaps the Bible hasn’t even been translated into their language yet. So they have no opportunity whatsoever to hear about Jesus. The phrase that’s commonly used to describe groups of people like this is “unreached people group.” According to a ministry called the Joshua Project, an unreached people group is “a people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group without outside assistance.” And the Joshua Project estimates that there are approximately 7,100 people groups in this world that are still unreached. The total number of people groups in the world is 17,065, and out of those 17,065 people groups, 7,100 of them are unreached. On the map you see up front here, those unreached people groups are represented in red. Then yellow represents a either a nominal church or a church in a formative state, and green represents a church that’s more established and that has a significant presence. But look at all that red. 7,100 unreached people groups still—2,000 years after Jesus gave us the Great Commission. In terms of population, that amounts to 3.19 billion people. Out of the 7.67 billion people on planet earth, a staggering 3.19 billion of them live in an unreached people group. My friends, that’s more than a concern. That’s a tragedy! 3.19 billion who will live and die without ever hearing a word of the gospel—unless something changes. 

You know, in Revelation 7:9-10, we read a beautiful description of what heaven’s going to be like. It says, 9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” You see, part of what’s going to make heaven so beautiful and part of what’s going to bring God so much glory is that heaven will be populated not just with a bunch of people who are all very similar to each other but with people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language. And all of them are going to be declaring God’s praises. What a beautiful thing! 

And you and I have been commissioned, as Christians, to help make that a reality. Perhaps there are some even in this very room whom God is calling to move overseas and help reach an unreached people group. Maybe God’s calling you to have a pioneering ministry like the Apostle Paul. And even if you’re pretty sure that God’s not calling you to do that, I can assure you that God is calling you to support those who do have that calling. One way we might do that is through our efforts at discipling people in the church. You may not be called to go overseas as a missionary, but perhaps someone you’re discipling is called to go, and you can have a part in that through the time you invest in that person. Then another way we can support the effort to reach the unreached is through our giving. A portion of our church’s budget does go to help send missionaries to these unreached people groups. And then a final way we can support those who go is through our prayers. We should be praying for these people groups to be reached and for those who are laboring to reach them.

A Prayer-Driven Ministry

And that actually brings us to the third feature of Paul’s ministry that we see back in our main text, which is a prayer-driven ministry. Paul’s ministry was a prayer-driven ministry. Look at verses 30-32: 30 I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, 32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. So Paul asks the Christians in Rome to join him in his ministry through prayer. He says, “strive together with me in your prayers.” Notice the word “strive.” In the original language, that word translated “strive” was often used of a fight. If two people got in a fight with each other, they were said to be striving against one another. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a fight—I did one time as a young child in elementary school—but I can tell you that, even in elementary school, striving against someone in a fight is pretty intense. It’s an activity that requires everything you’ve got. 

And that’s how Paul asks the Christians in Rome to pray for him. He asks them to “strive together with me in your prayers.” Pray like you mean it. It’s similar to the way Paul describes one of his missionary associates praying in his letter to the Colossians. In Colossians 4:12, Paul writes that “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” So Epaphras is said to be “struggling” in prayer. The NIV translates that phrase as “wrestling in prayer.” Again, the idea is to pray like you mean it. Put your heart into it. Don’t just give your time to prayer—give yourself to prayer. 

And the reason why we should give ourselves to prayer and why Paul requests that the Christians in Rome give themselves to prayer is relatively simple: prayer is the means God has ordained to bring about his desired ends. Prayer is the means God has ordained to bring about his desired ends. God desires to do things and has actually determined to do things but has also determined the way he’ll do those things is through the prayers of his people. So if we want to see the gospel move forward, what we need more than anything isn’t a brilliant strategy for outreach but rather a prayerful dependence on God. We need to pray. You see, the work God’s given us to do of spreading the gospel is heavenly work in the sense that it requires heavenly power—supernatural power, an outpouring of the Spirit of God that will change the hearts of those we’re trying to reach. And the only way we can expect God to unleash that power and pour out his Spirit is through prayer. That’s why a Christian leader named S. D. Gordon once said that, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” Another Christian named Robert Murray McCheyne stated that, “What a man is on his knees before God, that he is, and nothing more.”

And when you think about it, what a privilege that God invites us to come before his throne in prayer. God actually invites to come before him and lay our petitions at his feet. And I believe the reason he does that is to make it clear to everyone involved that, in this spiritual war, victory belongs to the Lord. As Proverbs 21:31 says, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” And God requires that we pray in order to make that reality clear to everyone. He wants to make it clear that he himself is the source of all power and the source of all grace. I heard a story a few weeks ago about Alexander the Great. One time, Alexander was asked by one of his generals for an enormous amount money so that the general could marry a particular woman. Of course, back then, you had to pay a dowry, so the general asked Alexander for an enormous amount of money to pay this dowry. And when Alexander’s treasurer was informed of this request, he was bit a bit taken aback and basically said to Alexander, “Can you believe this general asked for this amount of money?” But Alexander replied, “Don’t you understand? That this man asked me for this ridiculous sum does me great honor.” So the treasure’s like, “What?” And Alexander goes on, “Yes, for him to ask me for this ridiculous sum shows that believes I’m both rich and generous.”

Let me ask you something: are you insulting God by either not praying or by not praying for things that are big enough—things that only God could do? As John Newton famously wrote in one of his hymns, speaking of prayer, “Thou art coming to a King; large petitions with thee bring. For his grace and power are such, none can ever ask too much.” What a privilege that we get to come to God in prayer. 


So Paul’s ministry was a priestly ministry, pioneering ministry, and a prayerful ministry. That’s how he spent his life: preaching the gospel…to those who had never heard it before…through the power of prayer. And I’m not sure our treatment of this passage would be complete if we didn’t ask ourselves how our lives compare to the Apostle Paul. Maybe we’re not called to do exactly what Paul did and personally take the gospel to the most remote corners of the world, but I believe we are called to have the same kind of singular focus in our lives that Paul had in his. Remember the question I asked you in the beginning: do you have a holy ambition for your life? 

You see, there’s a very real sense in which your life isn’t your own; it belongs to God. And God has given it to you for a purpose. Kind of like if you were to give your life savings to an investment advisor with instructions for her to invest it in a particular mutual fund. But let’s say, instead of investing it in a mutual fund on your behalf, she instead goes out and buys a Ferrari for herself. Now if it were my money, she’d only have enough to get a Chevrolet, but let’s say you had enough money for her to get a Ferrari. I’m guessing you’re not your going to be very happy about that, right? You entrusted that money to her for a specific purpose, and it would be wrong—not to mention illegal—for her to spend that money on something outside of your stated purpose. And yet, what we need to be reminded of is that God’s given us our lives for a purpose and expects us to spend our lives pursuing that purpose. So how are you spending your life? Is your life guided and driven by a holy ambition? 

Now in closing, let me give you a word of encouragement. I began today’s message by sharing a story with you that I first heard from John Piper—the story about the two missionaries and how they contrasted with the couple who took an early retirement for recreation. Let me read to you what Piper says as he reflects on that and encourages those who desire to live with a holy ambition. He says, “You don’t have to know a lot of things for your life to make a lasting difference in the world. But you do have to know the few great things that matter, and then be willing to live for them and die for them. The people that make a durable difference in the world are not the people who have mastered many things, but who have been mastered by a few great things. If you want your life to count, if you want the ripple effect of the pebbles you drop to become waves that reach the ends of the earth and roll on for centuries and into eternity, you don’t have to have a high IQ or a high EQ. You don’t have to have good looks or riches. You don’t have to come from a fine family or a fine school. You just have to know a few great, majestic, unchanging, obvious, simple, glorious things, and be set on fire by them.” Is that you? Have you been gripped in that way with the gospel? 

other sermons in this series

Jul 28


Romans 16:1-16: The Bond We Share

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Romans 16:1–16 Series: Romans: The Gospel of Grace

Jul 14