When I was serving as a ministry intern in Canada back in 2016, my church was doing a sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Romans. There were so many significant theological concepts that could be covered! How countless Christians have understood key terms such as righteousness, sin, law, gospel, justification, and sanctification has been shaped by their interpretations of Romans over the centuries. However, the topic that I was assigned to preach on was Romans 15:22–33, which is basically Paul’s discussion of his travel plans. How could I come up with an inspiring message from this section of the letter? Perhaps I should have been grateful that I was not asked to preach on the next chapter, which is a list of individuals whom Paul encouraged the churches in Rome to greet. At least in this latter instance, though, the fact that Paul names both men and women from Jewish and non-Jewish ethnic backgrounds as ministers of the gospel sets a wonderful example of egalitarian ministry.
The approach that I decided to take for my sermon was to examine whether Paul achieved the goals that he set out for himself in Romans 15. First, Paul had arranged to deliver a collection of money to the followers of Christ in Jerusalem that he mentioned several times in his previous letters (e.g., Galatians 2:10, 1 Corinthians 16:1–4; 2 Corinthians 8:1–9:15). Not only was this collection a generous gift to the poor, it was also a symbol of unity between Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Christ. However, while the book of Acts narrates that Paul eventually arrived in Jerusalem after his third major missionary journey, it does not let the reader know if his gift was even accepted. Instead, James, the brother of Jesus, reported that some of their fellow Jewish believers were suspicious of Paul, because they had heard rumours that Paul was maligning the Law of Moses when he was evangelizing non-Jewish audiences (Acts 21:20–25).
Second, after returning to Jerusalem, Paul hoped to travel to Rome and meet the believers there in person for the first time. After all, he acknowledged that other missionaries had planted churches in Rome before he had a chance to get there. Although Paul worried about his impending arrival in Jerusalem when he wrote the letter to the Romans, he might not have anticipated that he would be arrested on false charges (Acts 21:27–36). As it turned out, Paul was able to make it to Rome in the end, but he was transferred there as a prisoner to stand trial before the Roman emperor. The book of Acts closes with Paul under house arrest in Rome for two years while he was waiting for his trial (Acts 28:30-31), though he made the most of this opportunity to engage in ministry there.
Third, Paul had plans to briefly stay in Rome and then move on to Spain to introduce the gospel to those who had not yet heard it. Indeed, Paul wanted the Roman churches to support his new missionary endeavour. However, there is no indication in any of the New Testament writings that Paul fulfilled this dream. Yet there is a reference that Paul had reached the farthest bounds of the western part of the Roman Empire in 1 Clement 5:6, a letter that is attributed to the bishop Clement of Rome and generally date to the late first century CE. If this is the case, Paul may have been initially released from his Roman imprisonment and gone on a further missionary journey that may have included Spain, before he was re-arrested and subsequently executed during the reign of the Emperor Nero. On the other hand, it is equally plausible that Paul’s imprisonment in Rome as recorded in the last chapter of Acts ended with his martyrdom and, thus, that Paul never actually made it to Spain.
Like Paul, I want to plan for the future. I think that financial planning is important if we are to be good stewards of the resources that we have been given and five-year-plans are useful for thinking through our short and long-term goals. However, like Paul, our plans are ultimately not in our hands. Five years ago, I never would have expected that I would have the opportunity to move to Australia in 2018 to take up the position at Vose, for which I am so grateful. And none of us could have anticipated that, in 2020, there would be a global pandemic that would disrupt and change what we had planned to do during this time. For many people, it has been a season of grief and anxiety. Nevertheless, in the midst of the uncertainty about what the future may hold, God remains sovereign through it all and God’s divine purposes will be accomplished. Regardless of how the outcome turns out, we can entrust our plans as individuals and as communities of faith to a good God.
-Dr. Mike Kok
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