It is impossible to be fully Christian in the absence of other Christians. These days, with the sheer volume of spiritual options at our disposal, it’s easy to think of our spiritual lives as a merely personal journey. Christian radio, podcasts, a treasure trove of Christian writings—all of these start to seem like a menu from which we may order to satisfy our individual spiritual tastes.
Yet this is wholly alien to New Testament Christianity, which emphasizes the need to recognize the way we fit together in the larger body of Christ.
At the end of his letter, Paul shifts his tone from the theological concerns that dominated the earlier chapters, to a personal reflection of Christian ministry in the past, present, and the future.
It was customary, in Paul’s day, to include expressions of confidence in the closing of important letters. But we shouldn’t read this as little more than an email signature; we should see this as Paul’s deeply personal reflection on the past work in the gospel:
14 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. 15 But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God 16 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. 17 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. 18 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, 19 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; 20 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, 21 but as it is written,
“Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand.” (Romans 15:14-21)
One of the great advancements that the early Church got to experience was the extension of God’s program to Gentiles. The “signs and wonders” were visible expressions of the Holy Spirit which served to authenticate that they were, in fact, included into God’s program (cf. Acts 2:22; 5:12).
Paul now turns his attention to what’s going on at present:
22 This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 23 But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, 24 I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while.25 At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27 For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. 28 When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. 29 I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ. (Romans 15:22-29)
At least part of what was going on here was to use the material blessings from Macedonia and Achaia to solve some of the financial issues going on in Jerusalem. But this would also serve to cement relationships between churches of various stripes throughout the region—many of which would now contain Gentile believers.
Finally, Paul turns his focus forward, looking beyond his present to what God might do in the future:
30 I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, 32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.33 May the God of peace be with you all. Amen. (Romans 15:30-33)
The “amen” could almost be the close of the letter, were it not for the fact that Paul went on with some closing thoughts in the next chapter. His prayer is twofold: for safety and for success.
We need to understand the past, present, and future in order for God’s kingdom to flourish in today’s Church. Too often we get fixated on just one of these three things and neglect the other two. To idolize past success fosters a strong sense of nostalgia, but no real forward momentum. To focus on the future and neglect the past is a form of deliberate amnesia—a disconnect from the body of believers that paved the way for us today. We need one another—across all generations—if we’re going to make this thing called Church work.
One writer refers to the Church as God’s “unfinished project,” and I like that. It helps us to remember that we are building a body of believers, but this growth is not completed until the return of Jesus. To that end, let us remember that we’re in this together, and each of us has a role to play as we continue to grow together.