NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FIFTEEN (Lesson XX)
In the late 1800s, Albert Barnes gives his description of the area Paul refers to as the circumference of his ministry: Illyricum was a province lying to the northwest of Macedonia, bounded on the north by a part of Italy and Germany, on the east by Macedonia, on the south by the Adriatic Sea, on the west by modern Croatia. So by taking Jerusalem as a center-point, Paul preached not only in Damascus and Arabia, but in Syria, in Asia Minor, in all of Greece, in the Grecian Islands, and Macedonia. This included a large part of the known world at that time. That means the Gospel reached into areas where Christianity is still active today, all because of the labors of one tireless man. There is no place in the Acts of the Apostles where it is recorded that Paul actually made it into Illyricum (modern day Albania), nor that he preached the Gospel within its borders, but only to its borders. It may have been, however, that when in Macedonia, he crossed over into that country; and this is rendered somewhat probable from the fact that Titus is mentioned as having gone into Dalmatia,1 which was a part of Illyricum (east coast of Croatia on the Adriatic sea).2
F. F. Bruce adds his research to what he understands to have been the extent of Paul’s travels: The province bordering the Adriatic Sea on the east. Illyricum is not mentioned in Acts or in any of the Pauline letters up to this time. But the interval between the end of Paul’s Ephesian ministry and his setting out on his last journey to Jerusalem, while compressed into the brief space of Acts 20:1–6, probably covered the best part of two years. At some point, during this period Paul appears to have traversed Macedonia from east to west along the Egnatian Way3 and turned north into Illyricum. To spend some time in a Latin-speaking environment would be helpful preparation for his planned campaign in Spain.4
15:20 My aim has always been to share the Gospel in places where people have never heard of Christ. I do this because I don’t want to build on the work that someone else has already started.
Here Paul shares an ethical code which in some cases has been ignored. Today the word “evangelism” seems to be an acceptable way of luring disgruntled sheep away from another shepherd’s flock. Consequently, Christian unity is disrupted and weakened. Often, new congregations formed in this manner only last until another sheep in wolf’s clothing comes in to lead the unhappy members away from them. And you can be sure that God’s blessing will not be upon such dubious endeavors. However, in many cases, evangelistic services are often conducted in churches, auditoriums, arenas, and even sports venues.
Someone might say, well what about the reformation? Did this apply to how God used Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Wesley and others in leading hungry believers into a new relationship with Christ? Theirs’ was not a case of promising that the grass was greener on the other side of the fence. These converts were led out of the bondage of a formal religious vacuum into the expansive freedom of grace and then excommunicated from the universal church of that era It is alright for members of any congregation to leave when they become subject to false doctrine or questionable teachings. Paul made it clear, “My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else.”
Paul repeats here what he said to the Corinthians: “We take no credit for the work others have done there. Instead, we hope your faith will keep growing because of help from others. Then we will grow because of you.”5 In fact, says Paul, “Through God’s loving-favor to me, I laid the stones on which the building was to be built. I did it like one who knew what he was doing. Now another person is building on it. Each person who builds must be careful how he builds on it. Jesus Christ is the Stone on which other stones for the building must be laid. It can be only Christ.”6 He had the same message for the Ephesians: “You have been built on the foundation laid by the missionaries and the early preachers. Jesus Christ, Himself is the Cornerstone, which is the most important part of the building. Christ keeps this building together and it is growing into a holy building for the Lord.”7
What Paul says here about not taking credit for what others have done but being satisfied in plowing new soil for the seed of the Gospel, made an impression on several early church scholars. Ambrosiaster does not find it surprising that Paul wanted to preach in places where the name of Jesus had never been heard. For he knew that false apostles were going around spreading doctrines that were not based on the teachings of Christ and the disciples. This was disheartening because once people were led astray by these false instructions it was so difficult to get things straightened out again.8 Therefore, he wanted to be the first to reach those who had never been evangelized because if these false disciples got there ahead of him, then the job of putting things right would be twice as difficult.9
Then we read of Paul’s reluctance to build upon another missionary’s foundation without giving them credit. In fact, he was so reluctant to force himself upon other evangelists’ disciples that he was determined to go where nobody had preached before. He wrote all this to show the Roman believers that he was not in this for fame, or glory, or notoriety but in order to fulfill his calling by the Lord Jesus Christ to preach everywhere the doors would open to him. If he loved anything, it was seeing people come to know Jesus as their personal Savior for the first time, even at his own expense.10
Pelagius looks at this subject from a different angle. As he saw it, any person who built on someone else’s foundation is not doing anything wrong as long as they build to improve and enlarge the project.11 In some cases, if the original project had been abandoned, this would simply be completing work that was started but not finished. But Paul was ready to lay the foundation and then let someone else build upon it to the glory of God. We see from Scripture that Paul never named his efforts “The Ministry of Paul the Apostle,” nor did he ever name a church after himself such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in Ephesus.12
Then Patriarch Gennadius (458-471), from the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, where Paul was venerated as the main Apostle, sees an ulterior motive in Paul actions. In explaining why Paul had not yet managed to visit the Romans seems to be that he believed that maybe Peter had already been there as their teacher, so he went to places where as yet no one had preached the Gospel of Christ.13 Gennadius’ theory is just a guess because no historical record exists showing that Peter ever traveled into Greece or made it to Rome.14
When it came to Paul’s desire not build his ministry on the foundation of another preacher of the Gospel, thereby giving him an advantage so that it might appear as though he had done it all on his own, Luther believes that had Paul done so his Apostolic office would have suffered a loss of great respect. The Apostles were sent out to found churches since they themselves were the foundation stones of the Church.15 He speaks of another person’s foundation, not as though it was founded on another Gospel, but that the same Gospel was preached through the service by another Apostle16.17 What Luther is aiming at is to show that he did not believe Paul ever took over the work of another missionary and then claimed that it was all done by him.
John Calvin has a few things to say about Paul’s urgent desire to preach the Gospel. He feels that Paul not only felt it necessary to prove himself to be the servant of Christ and missionary for the Christian Church but also to be effective in his office as an appointed Apostle. This is what he was trying to do in order to get the attention of the Roman believers. That’s why he mentions here the proper and peculiar distinction of Apostleship. First and foremost, the work of an Apostle was to preach and teach the Gospel where it had not been heard before. The Apostles then were the founders of what would become known as the assembly or fellowship of believers in Jesus the Messiah. The pastors who succeeded them built on that foundation to strengthen and enlarge the congregation raised up by them. So what Paul is really saying is that he was not called to pastor but to evangelize and take the Gospel to places that were still without the Word of God so that others could follow and build upon the foundation that he laid down in Christ’s honor18.19
Robert Haldane, a man with a missionary heart, finds kinship with Paul in his dedication to preach the Gospel, especially to those who had somehow been missed in evangelistic or missionary efforts. He notes that the Greek verb philotimeomai has been translated as “strived” (KJV), and signifies “to be fond of good honor,” or “to strive earnestly.” Haldane feels that both efforts may have been in Paul’s mind. First, to try as hard as he could to accomplish his mission for the honor of being a good and faithful servant. This is not worldly ambition but a desire which is lawful and commendable.
Similar ambition has often been seen in the work of missionaries who by their labors, the Gospel has been carried to countries that were previously strangers to the very name of Christ. This then would cause others to attribute to them the honor of bringing more sheep into the fold of Christ the Shepherd. It is through this means that God excites men and women to fulfill His purposes of mercy to the different nations of the earth.20 I can say from personal experience that it is an honor to be named a missionary and to have as one’s main aim, the spreading of the Gospel at all cost.
1 2 Timothy 4:10
2 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 The Egnatian Way or Via Egnatia extended from the Adriatic Sea on the western shore of Greece to the straits at Byzantium (later called Constantinople or Istanbul) to the east.
4 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, pp. 261–262
5 2 Corinthians 10:15
6 1 Corinthians 3:10-11
7 Ephesians 2:20-21
8 See 2 Corinthians 11:12-15
9 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 29
11 See 1 Corinthians 3:12
12 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Gennadius of Constantinople: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 When Catholics are asked about the story of Peter being in Rome, they give this answer: “Admittedly, the Bible nowhere explicitly says Peter was in Rome; but, on the other hand, it doesn’t say he wasn’t. Just as the New Testament never says, ‘Peter then went to Rome,’ it never says, ‘Peter did not go to Rome.’ In fact, very little is said about where he, or any of the Apostles other than Paul, went in the years after the Ascension. For the most part, we have to rely on books other than the New Testament for information about what happened to the apostles, Peter included, in later years.” See https://www.catholic.com/tract/was-peter-in-rome.
15 See Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:14
16 See Romans 2:16
17 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 217
18 See 1 Corinthians 3:11; Ephesians 2:20
19 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. p. 622