I’m Coming To Rome Someday, I Hope: Seven Reflections on Knowing the Will of God
August 25, 2007
Romans 15:22-29 offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the Apostle Paul. Essentially it is Paul’s answer to the question, “Why haven’t you visited Rome yet?” We know from Romans 1:11-13 that though he longed to visit the church at Rome, he had been prevented by his duties elsewhere. Now that his letter is nearly over, he returns to that theme at the end of Romans 15, this time offering a more detailed explanation of his current travel plans. In one sense, this paragraph may not seem important to us because it simply records one man’s personal itinerary from 2000 years ago. But these verses provide a useful glimpse into the thinking of the Apostle Paul, and as such, they help us understand why he did what he did and the underlying priorities that guided his life. That alone is valuable because it speaks to a need we all feel for guidance in making decisions.
A few days ago I was asked to submit possible topics for a conference where I am speaking later this year. So I jotted down a few ideas in an email and sent it off. After talking it over, the leaders gave me a suggested topic: Finding God’s Will. I wrote back and said that I was perfectly happy with that topic because it touches everyone. We all struggle to find and do God’s will, especially as we stand at the crossroads of life. During my years as a pastor, I dealt with this issue almost continually as people came to me for major decisions they were facing. A job change … a move across the country … where to go to college … the call to foreign missions … hiring new employees … starting a business … buying a new home … dating and marriage… whether or not to have more children. The list is endless.
I have often framed the question this way. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have lunch with Jesus? Suppose the Lord himself granted you 45 minutes in which you and he could have lunch together, and you could ask any question you wanted. Surely, somewhere along the way, you would say something like this. “Lord Jesus, am I doing what you want me to do? Because if I’m not, or if there is something else you want me to do, please let me know.” Whenever I mention that in a sermon, heads nod across the audience because we all want to know if our lives line up with what the Lord wants from us. The only problem is, we can’t have lunch with Jesus, not in the literal sense I just imagined. That sort of face-to-face exchange will have to wait until we are in heaven. Between now and then, we will make thousands of personal choices, some big, some small, some trivial, some truly life-changing, and we will do it hoping, trusting and praying we are doing God’s will.
That brings us back to Romans 15:22-29 and its glimpse into the heart and mind of one of the greatest Christians who ever lived. Here is his explanation to the Roman Christians why he had not yet come to visit them. Let’s see what we can glean from what he wrote.
1) Paul made decisions on the basis of well-ordered priorities.
Fundamentally Paul says he has been “hindered” (v. 22) from coming to Rome because he has focused his efforts on preaching to people who have not yet heard the gospel (see verses 18-21). Therefore, he has delayed his trip to Rome while preaching from Jerusalem, north through Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) across the Aegean Sea to Greece and then through the region of Illyricum (modern-day Albania northward along the Balkan Peninsula). When he says in verse 22 that he no longer has any room for work in those regions, he means that he has helped plant churches in many of the major cities so that eventually the gospel will spread to the outlying areas. That work has taken many years, but now that it is done, he feels free to consider making a trip to Rome.
His ultimate goal is to preach the gospel in Spain, at the western edge of the Mediterranean Sea. For Paul that would be going to the “uttermost parts of the earth.” He hopes to stop in Rome and encourage the church there while on his way west to Spain.
2) Paul placed a high value on promoting unity in the body of Christ.
But even that trip to Spain must be delayed for a while because he must first go to Jerusalem to take the offering he had collected from the Gentile Christians for the poor Jewish believers in Jerusalem (vv. 25-27). This is a theme he touches in several epistles, most notably 2 Corinthians 8-9. Paul felt keenly the plight of his brothers in Jerusalem who were suffering enormous poverty. Everywhere he went in the Gentile world, he took an offering for the Jerusalem saints, thus revealing both his heart for the poor and his desire to promote unity in the body of Christ. Far from being simply an armchair theologian, Paul cared deeply about the suffering of the church in Jerusalem, and he understood that the Gentile believers, sharing the same spiritual blessings as the poor saints, had a solemn obligation to help relieve their suffering. But it is more than an obligation–it is a joy to the Gentiles to make that offering to the Jerusalem church. This is the point Paul makes in verse 28.
The rich help the poor.
The strong support the weak.
And in this way the church is made stronger and more united as Christians from many different ethnic backgrounds support each other.
3) Paul understood the importance of personal integrity in financial matters.
Most people agree that Paul wrote the letter to the Romans from Corinth. A little geography will help us here.
A) Going West
If he went directly from Greece to Spain = a trip of about 1500 miles.
Greece to Rome = 650 miles.
Rome to Spain = 850 miles.
B) Going East
But first he plans to go east.
He intends to go from Corinth to Jerusalem—around 800 miles.
So he’s really planning a three-part trip:
1) Corinth to Jerusalem = 800 miles
2) Jerusalem to Rome = 1400 miles
3) Rome to Spain = 850 miles
Total = 3050 miles
In the first century that meant a long, difficult journey by boat and on foot. Now that he has taken up the money, why doesn’t he send it on to Jerusalem with other trusted representatives so he can get on about the business of going to Rome and Spain? The answer involves integrity. He wants the poor saints in Jerusalem to know that as the apostle to the Gentiles (see Galatians 2:6-10), he cares deeply about his Jewish brothers and sisters. And he wants to make sure there is no question about how the money is handled since it no doubt amounted to a considerable sum.
Few things harm a ministry quicker than questions about financial integrity. If people feel that their money is not being handled honestly, they will soon stop giving. And not a few pastors have been disgraced because they took advantage of their position to feather their own nest. Paul is so determined to do all things with transparent honesty that he commits himself to making the long journey back to Jerusalem so that he can say to the Jewish believers, “Here is the money the Gentile saints have contributed toward your need.” That one act will go a long way to cement the bonds of trust between the Jewish and Gentile wings of the church.
4) Paul did not know exactly when he was coming to Rome.
Although he clearly states his great desire to visit the church at Rome, he cannot say when he will make the journey because he isn’t sure himself. Paul lays out his general priorities, explains his immediate plans, and then says, “I hope to come to Rome on my way to Spain.” This is the way of wisdom. He doesn’t set dates or make promises he can’t keep. The best he can do is to make an indefinite statement. Sometimes in doing God’s will, that’s the best course to follow. Because we don’t know the future, we can’t be sure of how events will play out. When Harold MacMillan was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he was asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman. Famously, he replied, “Events, my dear boy, events.” Life has a way of catching us by surprise. We make our plans—and we ought to plan carefully for the future—but our plans do not equal God’s will. Events will intervene.
The midnight phone call.
A sudden financial crisis.
An unexpected pregnancy.
A check in the mail.
“Will you marry me?”
“You’ve got cancer.”
“We’re moving to Miami.”
And the best-laid plans of mice and men will go astray. Paul understood that truth, so when announcing his plans, he didn’t make promises he couldn’t keep and he didn’t set dates needlessly.
5) Paul remained positive about a future he could not guarantee.
Verse 29 says, “I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.” Those words contain a note of optimistic confidence. Not only does he fully expect to come to Rome, he also fully expects to come with the blessing of the Lord. Beneath those words lies a bedrock faith in God’s sovereignty over the details of life. He believed that “the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord” (Psalm 37:23 KJV) and that the Lord would make his way straight (Proverbs 3:6). That didn’t mean that his way would be easy. Far from it. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-29 he speaks of being beaten with lashes, beaten with rods, being stoned and shipwrecked. He has been “on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (vv. 26-27). Not to mention the daily pressure of taking care of so many churches in so many places (v. 28). Paul’s life was far from easy, yet he had learned in every situation to be content—whether in ease or in enormous difficulty (Philippians 4:11-12)—through the strength that Christ provided (v. 13). How can a man be content while being beaten again and again and suffering so many trials? The answer must be that Paul had a big view of God, one so large that it encompassed the worst that could happen to him. The bigger your God, the greater will be your capacity to survive the darkest moments of life.
So when Paul says that he plans to come to Rome with the full blessing of Christ, he means that he expects that, no matter what else may transpire, God will orchestrate events to allow him to come to Rome, and that when that happens, he will be blessed and will bring a blessing from the Lord. His faith gave him optimism about a future he could not guarantee.
6) Paul’s delay in going to Rome proved a blessing he could not have imagined.
Verse 23 says that for many years Paul “longed” to come to Rome. He expands upon that in Romans 1:10-11 by saying that he had been praying without ceasing that someday he might come to Rome to minister to them and to be mutually encouraged together with them. No one in Rome could doubt his deep love for a church he has never visited. The long list of names in chapter 16 demonstrates his intimate knowledge of the congregation.
We may ask, “If Paul so greatly desired to go to Rome, if he prayed about it for so many years, if those Christians were on his heart every day, if he longed so deeply to see them, why didn’t God answer that prayer sooner?” The text offers one answer. Paul was “hindered” but not in a bad way. Not all hindrances come from the devil. In this case Paul was “hindered” by God’s call to preach the gospel where Christ had not yet been named. Someone else had gotten to Rome before him and established the first church there. That being the case, Paul would focus on being a pioneer missionary to cities in Turkey, Greece, Albania and along the Balkan Peninsula.
If we study Paul’s missionary method, it’s clear that he went to the leading city in any region, knowing that if he could plant the gospel in a major city, it would eventually spread to the smaller cities and towns and eventually to the rural villages. In that sense, he had a missionary strategy designed to make the best use of his limited time and strength. We could ask the question another way. “Paul, since Rome is the capital of the empire, it is therefore the most important city in the world. What happens in Rome matters more than what happens in Athens, Corinth or Antioch or even Jerusalem. Rome rules the world. Why not drop everything and go to Rome, strengthen the church, and build a stronger base for the gospel?” I actually think those considerations weighed heavily in his mind. He knew that Rome was the Number One city in the world, and that’s part of the reason he wanted to go there. So why didn’t he drop everything and go?
Fundamentally he knew his calling and stuck to it. Furthermore, if he had gone to Rome earlier, we might never have had the majestic letter to the Romans. Beyond all question, Romans is the greatest of all of Paul’s letters. It is the ultimate statement of his theology of God, sin and salvation. Martin Luther begin his preface to his commentary on Romans this way:
This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul.
C. H. Dodd called Romans “the first great work of Christian theology.” I would go even further. It’s not only the first but also the greatest work of Christian theology. No one in 2,000 years has written anything to match it. How much poorer the church would be if we didn’t have Romans.
And consider this. Paul wrote Romans in a rather detached, straightforward style precisely because he had never been to Rome and didn’t know the church members personally. Contrast his style with his letter to the Galatians, a church that he had personally founded. There he writes with deep emotion. The same is true of 1 Thessalonians. Where Paul knew the people, he wrote in a more personal style. When he didn’t, he wrote in a more didactic fashion. This actually works to our advantage because in Romans we have the clearest statement of Christianity in the New Testament. Luther is right. Romans really is “the very purest gospel.”
Though Paul didn’t intend it, his long delay in visiting Rome has proved a blessing to the entire Christian church for the last 2000 years.
7) Paul could not have foreseen how his plans would transpire.
We know that Paul eventually made it to Rome. However, when he wrote from Corinth, he planned to travel on his own to Jerusalem (which he did) and then on his own to Rome (which he didn’t). The Book of Acts records how he was arrested in Jerusalem, imprisoned and tried in Caesarea, sent by ship to Rome (see Acts 27 for the account of the shipwreck along the way) where he was placed under house arrest. It appears that he was later released, continued his ministry, imprisoned again, and (according to church tradition) he was ultimately beheaded in Rome.
He knew none of this when he wrote his letter from Corinth. By the way, we don’t know whether or not Paul ever made it to Spain. There is some evidence that perhaps he did, but we can’t be certain. That’s another little piece of the puzzle.
We know Paul made it to Jerusalem.
We know Paul made it to Rome.
We don’t know if Paul made it to Spain.
And we know that Paul didn’t know about the arrest, trial, imprisonment, shipwreck and house arrest when he wrote Romans. Based on what we know about Paul, I don’t think he would have changed his plans.
He felt called to go to Jerusalem.
He felt called to go to Rome.
How he got there didn’t matter. He made his plans but he left the outcome in the hands of the Lord.
And that is where we all must end in our search to know and do God’s will. It is good to make our plans based on the right priorities. Human planning and divine guidance are allies, not enemies. But like Paul, we will often find that our plans are delayed and sometimes they are changed completely by events we could not have foreseen.
Where does that leave us as we face the big and small decisions of life? The answer is, it depends on the size of our God. If we serve a big God who is truly sovereign over all the details of life, then we can move forward by faith knowing that our life is in his hands.
Here is my advice to everyone who wants to know and do God’s will:
- Seek first God’s kingdom in your life and in the world.
- Make the best plans that you can.
- Humbly submit them to your Heavenly Father, saying, “Your will be done.”
- Take the next step that is in front of you.
- Trust God to take care of everything else.
A few months ago, while thinking about our own personal journey over the last two years, I came to a conviction that has helped me greatly. The will of God is not a destination, it’s a journey. As I ponder our own personal future, I see some things clearly while other things are a mystery to me. Then I remember what Job said. “He knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold” (Job 23:10).
He knows the way that I take even when I don’t.
He knows the way that I take even when I can’t see clearly.
He knows the way that I take even when I get lost.
Walking with Jesus is a journey whose destination lies somewhere beyond the horizon. Even when we think we’ve arrived, we haven’t. Even when we think, “Aha! I’ve made it at last,” life suddenly changes and we take a sharp bend in the road.
No one ever fully “arrives” in this life. We all press forward, forgetting those things that are behind and pressing on to the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Even Paul said, “I have not yet attained” (cf. Philippians 3:12-13). Our God is infinitely creative in the ways he deals with his children. Let this be our motto as we seek to do God’s will:
Expect the unexpected, and
Enjoy the journey.
For all of us the future lies hidden in the hands of a loving God. It is enough to know that God loves us and is for us and therefore we can trust him with the details of life. Amen.