NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FIFTEEN (Lesson XXI)
15:21 But as the Scriptures say, “Those who were not told about Him will hear, and those who have not heard about Him will understand.”
Paul now quotes from the prophet Isaiah to further confirm his efforts and calling.1 Clearly, it says that those who never heard of the Messiah would be enlightened and would understand the meaning of His coming death and resurrection, as it relates not only to the Jews but to them as well. Later on, God would reiterate to Isaiah this plan for the Gentiles: “I made myself accessible to those who didn’t ask for me, I let myself be found by those who didn’t seek me. I said, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ to a nation not called by My Name.”2
This idea of the message of the Messiah being preached everywhere was not new to Judaism. In Isaiah, we read more about the text from which Paul was quoting, where it says: “See how my servant will succeed! He will be raised up, exalted, highly honored!”3 In the Chaldean paraphrase, it goes: “Behold, my servant the Messiah will prosper, He will be exalted and extolled, and He will become renown.”4 A Jewish Rabbi admitted that he was aware that Christians refer to this “servant” as Jesus of Nazareth and explains that His being raised up and exalted indicated His body which was likened to the Temple would be raised up from the grave. Later, many Jewish scholars say that when Isaiah speaks of the Messiah as a servant, it means that the Messiah would be born on the day in which the Temple was destroyed and then bound with chains.5 If that was what the Jews thought in Paul’s day, that’s why he wanted to get the truth out to replace any speculation about who the Messiah really was.
On Paul’s use of the prophet Isaiah’s words to validate his own ministry, John Calvin sees that by Paul speaking of the kingdom of Messiah, among other things, he is predicting that by the knowledge of Christ spreading among the Gentiles throughout the whole world, His name would be declared to those by whom it had never been heard before. It is only proper that this is done by the Apostles to whom the command was specifically given. That’s why the Apostleship of Paul was made evident from the fact that this prophecy was also being fulfilled through his ministry.
Calvin feels that it would be absurd for anyone to apply this same template to all those who hold a pastoral office. Pastors are charged with constantly preaching the Gospel so that churches founded by the efforts of evangelists will grow and strengthen. Paul served as a preacher and teacher of the Gospel, especially to those foreign nations where Christ’s name was unknown. But after founding a church and upon his departure, he declared that the same doctrine should be daily proclaimed in every place by the preaching of the pastors. Calvin felt that it would be very permissible for us to take the words of the prophet Isaiah as announcing the commencement of the kingdom of God.6
As we mentioned before, since Robert Haldane had the spirit of a missionary he speaks here of feelings he’s familiar with concerning the spread of the Gospel to places where people still lived in ignorance of God’s plan of salvation. He feels that the fulfilling of this prophecy involves the spread of the Gospel in uncivilized countries. As such, it is God’s way of fulfilling His predictions and purpose. He gives His people an earnest desire to be the means by which this was accomplished at the time of His choosing. This will make the Gospel much more effective as it is carried to every country under heaven.
Having been a missionary myself, and studied missiology as part of church history, I can see these seasons come and go in the spread of the Gospel around the world. It must be understood that once the season of planting and harvesting in any field is over, it’s time to take that seed to another field for planting so it can produce fruit for the next harvest. But a problem develops when the spirit of evangelism wanes into just keeping the gathered seed from spoiling and not used to promote church growth. In some places, it has gone from being a mission to being a museum. But whenever the Lord has work to do He raises up servants with a heart to perform the work needing to be done.7
One Jewish writer makes note that Paul has given us an interesting sequence of verses to explain his concept of missions. In verses 20 and 21 Paul states how his mission has been to preach the Gospel in various places. In verse 22, he says this has also been his plan for those in Rome – although already believers. So why would he need to go there as though they never heard Gospel? No doubt it was because he learned that something was missing from how they practiced their faith. It could have been that they got away from a proper Torah-based foundation. Furthermore, the Roman congregation seems not to have been founded by one of Yeshua’s original disciples, but by those converted by the Apostles’ efforts elsewhere and then returned to Rome following the events of Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2. Paul will clarify his desire later on in verse 29.8
15:22 That’s what has kept me so busy and prevented my coming to see you even though I have wanted to come many times.
Paul was hoping by this explanation that the Roman church would understand why he never made it to their city. There is no indication that Paul knew, or was even told by the Spirit, that he one day he’d be in Rome to meet the saints there, and that it would not be as part of his missionary travels but because he appealed to Caesar. This was not the first time Paul was prevented from visiting the believers in a certain location. He told the Thessalonians: “Christian brothers, because we have not been able to be with you, our hearts have been with you. We have wanted very much to see you. We wanted to come to you. I, Paul, have tried to come to you more than once but the Adversary got in our way.”9
Some early church scholars share their reasons as to why Paul may have been hindered from visiting Rome. Origen is of the opinion that Paul was not hindered by Satan, as some think, but by the fact that he was too busy planting churches in other places where nobody ever preached the Gospel before.10 Then another writer, Ambrosiaster, makes the point that Paul already mentioned at the beginning of the Epistle that although he wanted to come to them, he felt the obligation to counter the heretical teachings of false apostles spreading in Jerusalem and throughout Galatia. These imitation apostles would have found the journey to Rome very difficult, so Paul thought that it would do little harm if he postponed his visit for a short while.11 So it is clear that some 100 plus years after Paul wrote this letter, early church scholars could not find any other particular reason that kept him from going to Rome, so we should feel relieved of trying to find one ourselves.
As John Calvin sees it, Paul here is not apologizing or trying to make an excuse for not having visited Rome earlier. As far as Calvin is concerned, Paul is trying to tell the Roman church that in spreading the Gospel from Judea as far away as Illyricum he carried out the mission assigned to him by the Lord. But even though he wanted to include Rome, the right time had not yet come. But most of all, he wanted them to know it was not on purpose that he did not dismiss earlier chances to visit them. So the only reason he never came to them sooner was that of impediments not of his own making. But now he saw a glimmer of hope and would be coming as soon as the Lord made it possible.12
15:23-24 Now I have finished my work in these areas. And for many years I have wanted to visit you. So I will visit you when I go to Spain. Yes, I hope to visit you while I am traveling to Spain, and I will stay and enjoy being with you. Then you can help me continue on my trip.
We must keep in mind that Alitalia Airlines did not exist in Paul’s day. Most Bible scholars believe that Paul wrote this letter while in Corinth around 57-58 AD. So an overland trek from Corinth to Rome required a long walk to a port in northern Greece, a ferryboat ride over to the east coast of Italy, and then an equally long overland trip up to Rome on the west coast. So the hardship keeping him away might have been his health or lack of funds. Yet, Paul did not take it off his want-list. He was planning to visit Spain and would use Rome as a stopover on the way. Paul’s wanting to go to Rome was no secret. When he was ministering in Ephesus, Luke tells us: “Paul thought he would go through the countries of Macedonia and Greece. Then he would go to Jerusalem. He said, ‘After I have been there, I must go to the city of Rome also.‘”13
In what appeared to be Paul’s plans to pass through Rome on his travels elsewhere, some early church scholars expressed their thoughts. Origen thinks that what Paul says here must not be understood to mean that Paul had so little love for the Romans that he was only going to drop by to see them briefly because he was in a hurry to go elsewhere. What he says in the next few verses will prove he had no such thought or intention.14 For Chrysostom, Paul expresses himself in this manner in order to keep the Romans from feeling proud. They were not used to being a mere stopover on someone’s journey.15 And Pelagius notes that it is not certain whether Paul ever got to Spain or not. The reason he says that he will enjoy their company for a little while is that they did not need him to come in order to believe, he wanted to visit in order that they might be strengthened in their belief. 16
1 Isaiah 52:15
2 Ibid. 65:1 – Complete Jewish Bible
3 Ibid. 52:13
4 The Chaldee Paraphrase on the Prophet Isaiah: Translated by Rev. C.W.H. Pauli, London Society’s House, London 1871, p. 181
5 The Commentary on Ibn Ezra on Isaiah: Translated by M. Friendlander, The Society of Hebrew Literature, London 1873, pp. 239-240
6 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 623
8 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18
10 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Acts of the Apostles 19:21
14 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 29
16 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.