XVI. Unity and Mission (Romans 15:1–16:27)
XVI. Unity and Mission (15:1–16:27)
15:1-4 Paul is still musing on the idea of weakness and strength (the theme of chapter 14) as he begins chapter 15. But now he includes an example to help bolster his case. Each one of us is to please his neighbor (15:2) because even Christ did not please himself (15:3). If Jesus used his strength to bear with our weaknesses, how much more should we who are strong . . . bear the weaknesses of those without strength (15:1)? Patience for others should flow from our understanding of how patient Jesus has been toward us.
15:5 God’s desire is for believers to live in harmony with one another. He wants us to be united around our common Savior and toward a common kingdom agenda. Unity means oneness of purpose. Just as in an orchestra each instrument makes a unique sound but plays the same song, so also each believer possesses unique traits, but moves in a common direction. Unity embraces uniqueness—as long as the goal of the uniqueness is one purpose.
15:6 When we are united, we glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, not by being identical in every way, but by sharing one mind and one voice. Paul chooses the word “one” intentionally. Note that he doesn’t say we have the same mind and the same voice. Unity is not a matter of sameness, but of oneness. Like a quilt with various colors and patterns blended into a beautiful whole, the body of Christ blends different people together into a beautiful array of redeemed lives. Unity doesn’t wash out our differences; it combines them to form something greater.
15:7 As wide as we imagine the gap to be between ourselves and our most disliked enemies, Paul reminds us that there was never a gap wider than the one between us and God. If Christ . . . accepted you when you were weak and ungodly, certainly you can accept others when they differ from you in much less significant ways.
15:8-9a The unified body of Christ becomes a reflection of God’s intended mission. Christ became a servant of the circumcised (15:8)—that is, the Jews—not merely to save them, but also so that Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy (15:9). Together, a united fellowship of Jews and Gentiles carries the gospel of reconciliation to the rest of the world. After all, a message of reconciliation could only be communicated through a reconciled community.
15:9b-12 As if to remind his audience that God had this multi-ethnic unity in mind all along, Paul quotes from a number of Old Testament prophets who all preach the same message: God has always desired for all the peoples to praise him together (15:11).
15:13 In the midst of dark times, when it seems that the church will never achieve the unity God desires, or when the world seems immune to our message, we desperately need hope. This only comes by the power of the Holy Spirit of God, because he is the God of hope. Without him, we can make resolutions, try to fix our relationships, and seek all the best advice. But great advice without the power of the Spirit is like a ladder resting on a shaky foundation: we can only climb so high before we come crashing down.
15:14 The Greek word Paul uses when he tells us to instruct one another means “to admonish” or “to counsel.” Every mature believer has a responsibility to be a counselor to his brother and sister. To do this, we need two things. First, we must be full of goodness. If you aren’t seeking to please the Lord, don’t try leading other folks to please him. You can only lead someone where you’re traveling yourself. Second, we must be filled with all knowledge. This refers to the knowledge of God, the knowledge of the Scriptures. Biblical counseling comes from the overflow of the Word of God in you—not from your own thoughts and opinions.
15:15-16 Paul talks about something here that a lot of Christians have never experienced: a personal passion and call. My purpose, he says, is that the Gentiles may be an acceptable offering, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (15:16). Paul had found what made his bones burn within him. And even though he endured incredible hardships, that passion in his heart kept him moving. Passion is the motivation that compels you to take action.
15:17-19 One reason many Christians lack passion to fulfill God’s call is that they are seeking that calling from the perspective of time rather than the perspective of eternity. It’s no wonder when they quickly run out of steam because their goal in life is not what pertains to God (15:17). If we boast in anything other than Jesus Christ, then there is a large neon sign over our lives that flashes this message: “Temporary.” But if we boast in Christ Jesus (15:17), not only will our calling last; we will find that Jesus himself does the work through us. As Paul says, I would not dare say anything except what Christ has accomplished through me by word and deed (15:18). Paul had done miraculous signs and wonders, not because he knew special techniques, but because he relied deeply on God’s Spirit and trusted him to guide him (15:19). He was able to do miraculous things precisely because he was aware that he couldn’t do miraculous things on his own.
15:20-22 At a moment’s notice, Paul was able to offer up his mission statement in a single line. Paul’s aim was to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named (15:20). I wonder how many of us have the same confidence about God’s call on our lives. It may be that we have not, as James would say, because we ask not (see Jas 4:2). Have you asked God to show you your role in his mission? Have you prayed, “God, it’s all yours. I won’t tell you ‘never.’ I’m here to do whatever you ask”? Ask God to ignite his fire in you and to direct you to his mission. I promise you: it’s worth it.
15:23-24 Paul does not just preach about the importance of Christian community. He lives it out. As he discusses his travel plans with the Roman believers, he candidly admits that he has strongly desired for many years to come to them (15:23), and that he hopes to be assisted by them for his journey to Spain (15:24). Paul may have been the greatest missionary of his—or any—generation, but he knew he needed help. Even the strongest saints need each other, to enjoy the company of other believers for a while (15:24).
15:25-29 One of the many tasks Paul undertook during his travels was collecting money for the poor. On his way to Jerusalem, he had with him a contribution for the poor among the saints there. It had been generously given by the churches in Macedonia and Achaia (15:25-26).
Churches always have been, and always should be, the primary organization for alleviating poverty in communities. When we assume that someone else should take care of the poor, not only do we harm those in poverty, but we also send out a terrible false message about our Lord, who “though he was rich, for [our] sake he became poor (2 Cor 8:9).
15:30-33 Paul had a keen sense of God’s unique call on his life; he had a vision of the united church; he had a passion burning in his bones to be a minister of the gospel. But even Paul knew that the power for ministry comes through prayer. He thus appeals to his Roman brothers and sisters . . . to strive together with [him] in fervent prayers to God on [his] behalf (15:30). This is not false modesty. Paul knows that he will fail if not sustained by prayer. We have the same need Paul did. Do we have the same conviction?
16:1-2 Paul begins his greetings with mention of Phoebe, called a servant of the church (16:1). The word Paul uses for “servant” is the same root word that is translated “deacon” in other parts of Scripture. Therefore, Phoebe—whose name means “bright” or “radiant”—had an official capacity as a deaconess in the Roman church, showing that women have critical roles to play in church leadership under male authority. They too work toward accomplishing God’s kingdom program. Those women among us who serve the church are to be welcomed in the Lord and assisted in whatever matter [they] may require . . . help (16:2).
16:3-16 We don’t know much about most of the people in this list, yet what we see here is an example of unity within diversity. There is ethnic diversity: Prisca and Aquila (16:3), Andronicus and Junia (16:7), and Herodion (16:11) are all Jewish believers; they are included in this list right alongside the many Gentile believers. There is diversity of gender, as several prominent women are named—Phoebe (16:1), Prisca (16:3), Mary (16:6), Junia (16:7), Tryphaena and Tryphosa (16:12), and Julia (16:15). There is even a diversity of class: Aristobulus (16:10) and Narcissus (16:11) are called heads of “households,” indicating a high position in society; they are in this list with others who probably owned nothing at all. While diverse in their backgrounds, origins, and skills, all of these people co-labored with Paul in the ministry of the gospel. As Paul says repeatedly, they worked very hard in the Lord (16:12).
16:17-18 Unity in the church, however beautiful, is fragile. Even as Paul delightfully sends greetings to his unified brothers and sisters in Rome, he knows that a threat lurks. Thus, he warns them to watch out for those who create divisions and obstacles (16:17). “Keep your eyes open,” he says, “for those who are actively seeking to split people up instead of bringing them together. You can recognize them by what they say and whom they serve.” Indeed, they speak words that are contrary to the teaching that you learned (16:17), and they do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites (16:18). Even though they have smooth talk and flattering words (16:18), they are deceivers who will destroy the unity of the body of Christ.
16:19-20 Deceivers in the church are not merely annoyances. As Paul hints here, they are tools of Satan. The good news is that Satan loses: The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet (16:20). The more the Word of God goes out and the church is built up, the harder God drives his heel down on Satan’s neck.
16:21-27 The book of Romans began with a declaration that Paul’s message was not his own, but is the gospel of God, promised in the Scriptures. It ends in much the same way, as Paul prays that God would strengthen . . . according to [the] gospel (16:25), a gospel that was revealed and made known through the prophetic Scriptures (16:26). This is part of Paul’s closing benediction, in which he points everything back to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ. In other words, history is his story, and our lives exist to bring him glory forever (16:27).