We have arrived at a bittersweet moment Church. It’s a bitter because the passage that we’ve now come to in Paul’s letter to the Romans is the beginning of the end. As he wrote a lengthy introduction in Romans 1, so now Paul brings Romans to an end with a lengthy conclusion. That we’ve come to the end is bitter because we’ve so deeply enjoyed our trek through this magnum opus of the Apostle Paul. We’ve learned a great deal and more importantly we know God better because of our time spent together in it. But, this isn’t only bitter, it’s sweet as well. That we’re coming to the end of Romans is sweet for three reasons. First, it’s sweet because we should view this as a grace and as a blessing from the Lord that He’s enabled us to travel through all these chapters together. Second, it’s sweet because we’ll now see how Paul wraps up his greatest of all letters. And third, it’s sweet because there is still so much to learn, even in this conclusion.
Finish the following sentences for me:
Peanut butter and jelly.
Batman and Robin.
Mario and Luigi.
Tom and Jerry.
I think you’ve got the idea. These are all things that go together, that belong together, that so belong together in fact, that to name one is to automatically think of the other. I bring this up because Romans 15:14-21 is all about the heart of Paul. And as we look at his heart described here we find three things: pride, humility, and ambition. When we think of pride we normally think of sin, when we think of humility we normally think of virtue, and when we think of ambition we normally think of vice. But, though we might think pride, humility, ambition don’t belong together, they strangely do, and all three define the heart of this Apostle in the text before us, wonderfully so. And, Lord willing, we’ll see today how these three things ought to define us as well.
Let’s take them one as they come to us in the text.
“I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God.”
Why do we begin with Paul’s pride? Because there it is in v17, “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God.” So it’s clear, Paul is proud here. And his pride isn’t a bad, it’s a wonderful. But why is he proud? It all begins in v14 where we see Paul’s pastoral heart. “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” Don’t you love this? As Paul has now said most of the things he has desired to say to these Romans, I think he feels a great pride in these Romans, in their spiritual maturity. It shows the great apostle Paul as Paul the pastor and Paul the shepherd encouraging these Christians. But this Roman church he’s writing to, he didn’t plant this church, he’s never been to this church, he’s never pastored this church. Why then does he feel a pastoral burden for them, and why does he commend them in this way if he’s never met them?Well, while Paul hasn’t been there he has heard of them, but more so, I think Paul feels especially burdened to write this letter to them because Paul was appointed by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and Rome, in his day, was the heart of the Gentile world. So of course he would want to write to them and visit them if he can. He deeply felt and believed these Gentiles were his responsibility and calling to reach and teach. So he does. And he writes all of Romans to them. And interestingly enough he doesn’t write it to teach them things they don’t know, but to remind them and encourage them in their faith.
v14 expresses his great heart for them. He is satisfied, convinced, persuaded about them, that they’re mature and maturing in the faith. Which is why he speaks of them as a full people. Notice that detail in v14? He says they’re full of goodness, full of knowledge, and full of wisdom and sound instruction in the walking out of their faith alongside one another. v14 is how every pastor ought to feel about his congregation, as he experiences God growing and nourishing a people by His grace over years and years of being with them. At least, it’s how every pastor ought to feel. I know there are hard churches out there, and hard contexts to do church in, but nonetheless v14 still ought to be a kind of goal or target every pastor intends to arrive at. I count it a joy to feel this way about you, about SonRise. Sure our room here might be full as God grows us, which is great, but more importantly…you are a full people. You have heads full of sound doctrine, hearts full of warm devotion, and hands full of desire to serve each other in easy needs and hard needs. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, SonRise is a rare place to be, and I count it a high privilege to be your pastor. As Paul could say of Rome, I can say as well, I am proud of you and have a deep pride in you.
But, see v15? Even the best of churches still needs reminding and correction. That’s proven true here with us, as it proved true in this Roman church too. On some matters, Paul says, he has written boldly because they needed it. Perhaps this makes us think of the ending of chapter 1 and the clear call against all kinds of sin that must’ve been rampant in Rome. Or perhaps this makes us think of chapter 6 and the clear call to no longer live in sin if you’ve been raised with and united to Christ, that we’re now dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. Or perhaps this makes us think of the clear call in chapters 14-15 about how the weak ought to stop judging others and how the strong should start bearing with others. Wherever you look in Romans v15 proves itself. Paul has been bold here as he taught us the truth and shown us Christ. This letter is unique and stands out distinctly as being written by one who knows Christ and desires to make Him known.
v15-16 affirm this. By the grace of God given to Paul he serves these Romans as a minister of Jesus Christ. And because of this, see what he says? Because of this, he has a kind of priestly role. Is that strange to think of? To think of Paul the priest? It might be. We don’t often hear Paul speak like this, and for good reason. We no longer live under the shadows of the OT, we no longer worship God according to Levitical law, we no longer make animal sacrifices, and we no longer require a high priest to go to God for us. Why? Because the Lord Jesus is our High Priest who has once for all made the great sacrifice for our sins on the cross for us, tearing the curtain in two, and opening the way to God for all who come to Him in faith. So why then does Paul speak of himself serving in a kind of priestly role here in v16? He does so because of two passages of Scripture.
First, Romans 12:1-2, just a few chapters before this where he mentioned our Christian life as a sacrifice to God, a continual dying of ourselves on the holy fiery altar of God, offering up our lives to Him in response to the gospel. I think Paul writes like he does here in v16 because he has that in mind. This is priestly language, similar to that Paul uses here in chapter 15. But second, I think he has something Isaiah said in mind as well. In Isaiah 66, a prophecy is made that one day all the Gentiles will come into the Kingdom and be an offering to the Lord. It seems that Paul views his work, his ministry, as the fulfillment of this prophecy. He is the Apostle to the Gentiles after all. So because of all this, Paul pictures himself as a kind of priest who, through the gospel, is offering up the Gentiles themselves as a sacrifice/offering to God.
Why does this matter? Because it shows us that God is doing something utterly unique through Paul. Through the grace given to him, God is not only bringing in the Gentiles, God is filling these Gentiles with His Spirit and making them holy. And Paul, v17 says, is aware of this, and is proud of this. Proud that God would use him in such a way. This isn’t arrogant of him to say this, it’s honest and right for him to do so.
But, lest we misunderstand his pride, Paul goes on to explain his pride in v18-19 saying that it’s really humility.
“For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ…”
So Paul is proud of his work, as we’ve seen. But now he clarifies what he means by saying he is proud, and surprisingly, the pride he has in his work and ministry looks like humility. Why? Because of what he says here in v18, “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me…” In all his ministry, all his achievements, all his successes, and all his accomplishments Paul’s not viewing it as the fruit of his own labors, no. He sees all his great work as Christ’s achievements, Christ’s successes, Christ’s accomplishments, and Christ’s work. And because He sees it like this, He’s not going to pat himself on the back for a job well done, no, he acknowledges Christ as the source and the strength in all his ministry. Paul mentions something similar in one of his letters to the church in Corinth. In 1 Cor. 15:9-10 he says, “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” See it? Paul worked hard, he’s not lazy, he worked harder than anyone else. But he didn’t conclude with self-congratulations or gain a strut and swagger, no. He worked harder than anyone and concluded, it was all Christ! This, Church, is the essence of true humility.
We’ve seen Paul give all the credit to Christ here. And as we saw back in v16 we now see the purpose of Christ’s work through Paul stated again in v18-19, to bring the Gentiles to obedience. And added to that we see the means, the methods, or the strategy Christ uses through Paul to win the Gentiles: word and deed, the power of signs and wonders, and the power of the Spirit. Word referring to Paul’s preaching and teaching. Deed referring to a life lived for Christ in line with the word he is preaching. What kind of life though? Paul lived a life with a certain kind of deeds, specifically, deeds of power, signs and wonders which accompanied and attested to the validity of his message about Christ. But, notice how careful he is in describing this, what was the source of these signs and wonders? The power of the Spirit dwelling in Paul. So the chief worker in Paul isn’t Paul, it’s Christ. The purpose of Christ’s work is to bring the Gentiles to Christ. And we just went through the means used by Christ to get all of this done. Now see added on top of all these things the end result of the work of Christ through Paul, a ministry completed. From Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum Paul has fulfilled his ministry.
Remember Church, these are not just the things Paul is eager to speak about, v18-19 tell us these are the only things Paul is eager to speak about. Only what Christ has done, only what Christ is doing, and only what Christ, by His grace, will continue to do in and through Paul until the day he dies. What a heart is in this apostle! It beats for Christ, to know Him and make Him known. Would that such a heart be in us as well. May we would put aside consumer Christianity, may we quit being barnacles on the bottom of so many churches, may we set ourselves to hard work for the gospel moving ahead in more and more hearts, may we rely on the power of the Spirit to attend our ministry so that those who encounter us encounter God in and through us, and at the end of the day when we look back at all the work we’ve done may we with joy and full conviction confess that Christ has done it all!
We’ve seen Paul’s pride, we’ve seen Paul’s humility, now see Paul’s…
“…and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of Him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”
The passage so far has led up to this point. Paul is proud of his hard gospel work among the Gentiles. And he humbly acknowledges and enjoys that Christ is the One who has done it all. What does this lead to for him? After such hard work in winning the Gentiles to Christ, does Paul lose all drive and ambition? Or does his ambition adjust to different things like retirement, relaxation, or rest? No. He speaks of his ambition to keep going, of it still burning brightly. Specifically of his ambition to preach Christ where Christ has not been named. Paul desires to be on the frontiers of missionary work. Literally this means moving on, out beyond where he has been before, beyond his former region of work in from Jerusalem to Illyricum. If we look ahead in v22-24 we know this means Paul intends to visit Rome for the first time soon and go on from there to Spain. Why does he desire to do this? He states it in v21. So that…“Those who have never been told of Him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” This is a quote from Isaiah 52, and I think Paul uses it here to mirror something of Isaiah’s desires. Isaiah desired the Gentiles would know Him they haven’t seen or heard of. Who is the Him? The suffering servant Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the great ambition that controls Paul. And it is a great and godly ambition.
We do a good job in the Church, I believe, of teaching our kids and teaching each other of the need for humility. And this is right, humility is something we should speak of a lot and seek to grow in. But I don’t think we speak enough about growing in holy ambition. Of growing in high and holy desires like Paul speaks of here. I don’t believe any of us lack ambition.
All of us are very ambitious about something. My question is: what is that something? To all of you who are young, what do you desire for yourself? To graduate, go to college, get married, and start your real life? To all of you young adults, what are you ambitious for? Making a name for yourself, gaining popularity in your social media accounts, or moving up and ahead in your jobs? To all of you parents, what do you desire for your children? That they behave, stay out of trouble, get a good education, grow up to have good careers, a nice family, and a comfortable life? Those of you who are older, is this similar to what you desire for yourself? To make it to retirement healthy and with enough money travel, go on vacations, and live how you please?
Church, if these are the things we’re ambitious for we desire far too little for our children and for ourselves. Over and above all things, our one great ambition must be to know Christ and to make Him known. Romans 15:20-21 ought to set our sights higher. To make our lives count for what matters most. I don’t say this to you to give you an option of what your life could be about. I say these things to you today to tell you if you don’t base your life on these things, your life will be wasted. Succeeding in things that don’t matter eternally and ultimately is a tragedy. It doesn’t have to look like frontier missions like Paul, but if you’ve never considered it, you should. Whatever you do, wherever you go, knowing Christ and making Him known ought to be our great ambition that drives all we do.
Pride in Christ. Humility in Christ. Ambition for Christ. Such is the heart of Paul, and Church, may such a heart be found in us as well.
 Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 903.
 Daniel M. Doriani, Romans, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2021), 514.
 J. V. Fesko, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 415–416.
 Moo, Romans, 907.
 Ibid., 910.
 Doriani, Romans, 520.