Joy+Debt = A Two-Thousand-Mile Detour to Jerusalem
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.” 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 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.
Two weeks ago we saw two amazing things in Romans 15. One was that Paul said in verse 19b, “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” That’s from southern Palestine, up through Syria, across Turkey, down through Greece, and then up in to Albania. Paul has finished his gospel work there. And to underline that staggering claim, he says in verse 23, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” Really? We know there were plenty of non-Christians who needed to be evangelized, because he wrote to Timothy in Ephesus, “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5).
We concluded from this that Paul’s calling was to be a frontier missionary, a pioneer missionary, whose job was to plant the church in places where there were no churches and then move on while the church went on with the work of evangelism.
The other amazing thing was simply that a holy ambition, like Paul’s passion to preach the gospel where no one knows of Christ, functions to keep you from doing many good things that you would really like to do. He says in verse 23b, “I have longed for many years to come to you.” But he says in verse 22 that this holy ambition to finish fulfilling the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum has kept him from doing what he want to do: “This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you.” So, as amazing as it may sound, holy ambitions have a tremendous power to give unity and focus and meaning to your life by keeping you from doing a hundred good things that you would like to do, but would not advance your holy ambition.
A Two-Thousand-Mile Detour?
Now, today we see a third amazing thing in this chapter, namely, that even though Paul really wants to go to Rome (“I have longed for many years to come to you,” Romans15:23b), and even though he has now fulfilled his holy ambition to preach the gospel fully from Jerusalem to Illyricum (vv. 19, 23), he still doesn’t go to Rome. Instead, he takes a two-thousand-mile detour to Jerusalem. Most scholars agree that Paul is probably writing Romans from Corinth. Jerusalem is about a thousand miles in the wrong direction if he wants to go to Rome.
So does he want to go to Rome or doesn’t he? Let’s take him at his word in verse 23b when he says, “I have longed for many years to come to you.” And let’s take him at his word when he says that the reason he has been hindered in coming is his commitment to fulfill the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum. If we take him at his word, then here’s the conclusion we must draw. This detour to Jerusalem is really important! Think of it. This detour is putting the trip to Spain on hold. This detour is taking a frontier missionary in exactly the wrong direction from where even his holy ambition is driving him.
So the question today is: What could possibly be so important that Paul can’t simply hand it off to someone else to do in Jerusalem, and then head west to Rome and on to Spain? What is it that is so important that it rivals his commitment to preach the gospel to those who have never heard the name? Or is this detour to Jerusalem something that is in fact essential to the success of the mission to the Gentiles? Let’s get the key verses in front of us. Verses 25-28:
At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to [literally, “serving”] the saints [that is, Christian Jews who live in Jerusalem; Paul’s usual name for Christians is “saints,” cf. 8:27]. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia [that is the northern and the southern parts of Greece where Paul planted churches and where he is writing this letter] have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27 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 [literally, sealed to them this fruit], I will leave for Spain by way of you.
Four Basic Facts
Now let’s sum up the facts before us.
First fact: Paul still intends to come to Rome and then go on to Spain. Verse 28: “I will leave for Spain by way of you.” His purpose for passing through Rome is clear from verse 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.” He wants the refreshment of their fellowship and he wants their support. In one sense, Romans is a missionary support letter. Here in this letter, he says, is what I believe and preach. Would you support me as I go to preach this in Spain?
Second fact: There are poor Christians in Jerusalem. We know from Acts 11:28 in the Bible and from the Jewish historian Josephus outside the Bible (Antiquities iii. 15. 3; xx. 2. 5; 5. 2) that there was a famine in Judea between A.D. 44 and 48. That may have been part of the reason for such a dire need among the Christians in Jerusalem.
Third fact: The Christians in Macedonia (in and around Philippi) and Achaia (in and around Corinth) had taken up offerings to send to the poor in Jerusalem. Verse 26: “Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.” Paul writes about this collection for two whole chapters in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.
Fourth fact: Paul himself is delivering this offering to the poor in Jerusalem rather than giving the task to someone else. Verse 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.”
Why This Detour?
Those are the basic facts. Now here’s the question: Why is this detour to Jerusalem so important to Paul—not only that he would take the time away from his mission to the unreached, but also that he would write about it? I see four answers and I will treat them very briefly under these four headings. What is at stake in this trip is 1) the reputation of the gospel; 2) the Christian commitment to the poor; 3) the unity of the church across ethnic lines, especially Jew and Gentile; and 4) the love-producing experience of holy joy.
Let’s see if we can move through these and draw some applications for our lives.
1. The Reputation of the Gospel
My first thought was that Paul wanted to take this money to Jerusalem himself, rather than give it to another, because he has personally raised this money, so that any embezzlement of it would undermine his ministry and bring reproach on the gospel. This text doesn’t say that. But when we go to 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 where Paul gives his fullest explanation of this offering for Jerusalem he explicitly connects the offering with the gospel. In 2 Corinthians 9:13, he says this, “By their approval of this service, they [the poor saints in Jerusalem] will glorify God because of your [the Gentiles’] submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ.”
In other words, one of the things at stake in this collection for the poor is the demonstration of what the gospel does to people—it makes them generous. It frees them from the love of money. And so if this collection were to be embezzled by Christians on the way to Jerusalem, it would contradict the very nature of the gospel. Paul is jealous that this not happen. So jealous that for the love of the gospel he puts his own integrity on the line and takes it himself.
Are you that jealous that your money is used in a way that makes the gospel shine as the most precious thing in your life?
2. The Christian Commitment to the Poor
Paul takes this offering to the poor in Jerusalem himself to underline the importance of ministry to the poor. He could have sent the offering by someone else. But he takes it himself at a tremendous cost. People warned him not to go because they knew he would be persecuted, probably imprisoned, which he was for two years.
But you may recall what Peter and Paul said to each other after their meeting in Jerusalem. Paul tells us in Galatians 2:9-10 what happened when he met with Peter and James and John in Jerusalem to explain to them his calling as an apostle. He says, “They gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” Perhaps already at the time of this meeting there was a crisis in Jerusalem and many Christians were destitute. Peter, then, would be saying: “Paul don’t forget where you came from. Don’t forget your people. Don’t forget the poor.” Paul in essence gave his right hand to Peter and said, “I won’t forget.”
I pray that every campus of Bethlehem will be marked by a manifest care for the poor, especially the poorest of the poor who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul came to the end of Galatians and wrote in chapter 6, verse 10, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Not either-or, but both-and. Both poor unbelievers and poor believers.
3. The Unity of the Church across Ethnic Lines, Especially Jew and Gentile
Romans 15:27 is very provocative in regard to race. It says, “They [the Gentile believers in Macedonia and Achaia] were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them [that is, the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem]. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their [that is, Jewish] spiritual blessings, they [those Gentiles] ought also to be of service to them [those Jewish Christians] in material blessings.”
What makes this so provocative is that Paul seems to draw attention to the Jewishness of the poor in Jerusalem. He seems to be arguing here the same way he did back in chapter 11. Recall what he said. He said that we Gentiles are like wild olive branches that were grafted into the rich root of the natural olive tree, that is, the covenant made with Israel. So we have our spiritual life and hope and blessing because we have become Jewish by belonging to the Messiah. We are attached to the Jewish root.
The spiritual blessings we enjoy—forgiveness of sins, and justification by faith, and reconciliation with God, and escape from hell, and all things working together for our eternal good, and the hope of enjoying the glory of God—all of these are owing to our being connected to the seed of Abraham, namely, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16). Jesus said in John 4:22, “Salvation is from the Jews.” Our savior is the Jewish Messiah.
Paul wanted the Gentiles never to forget this. He says in Romans 11:17-18, “If some of the branches [that is, Jews who did not accept Jesus as Messiah] were broken off, and you [Gentiles—most of us here in this room], although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree [that’s exactly what Paul means by the “spiritual blessings” in Romans 15:27], do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.”
I’m tempted to go back and preach those messages all over again from chapter 11, but they are all available and we must press on. Suffice it to say, Paul didn’t have to bring this up. He could have motivated generosity to the poor purely by love for people without any reference to being Gentiles and Jews. But he brought it up and we should hear it and embrace it. Paul has a burden that Jew and Gentile be one in Christ, and that to that end Jews realize that their spiritual blessings have flowed to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ, and Gentiles need to realize that God’s covenant with Israel is the source of their life.
These two truths cut the root of ethnic pride. Gentiles dare not boast over the Jews but seek the salvation of Jewish people, and rejoice over their unity with those who embrace Jesus. And Jews dare not boast in their heritage as a privileged possession, because the Messiah is giving it freely to anyone who believes in him. Bethlehem, beware of ethnic pride and prejudice. Love the unity and ethnic diversity of the church.
4. The Love-producing Experience of Holy Joy
A final reason that Paul takes this two-thousand-mile detour is to show that holy joy is at the root of this offering—and the root of love. Look carefully at verses 26 and 27, “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased [that is a key word and Paul will repeat it in verse 27; it means they wanted to do this; Paul did not have to twist their arms] to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it [there it is again], and indeed they owe it to them.”
We know these are not careless, throw-away words, because when Paul describes the giving of the Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 8:2 this is what he stresses: “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” This is what is in the words they were pleased in Romans 15:26 and 27. They delighted to do this. In fact, Paul says, they begged to do it (2 Corinthians 8:4).
And then Paul adds in verse 27, “And indeed they owe it to them.” It was a debt, an obligation. In other words, the giving to the poor Christian Jews in Jerusalem was both duty and delight. It was owed and it was freely given.
Paul was walking the razor’s edge between two errors. On the one hand, the Gentiles might think, “There’s no obligation here. There’s no debt to be paid.” And on the other hand, the poor saints in Jerusalem might feel, “They only did this out of debt. Paul put a big guilt trip on them and they had to give. There was no joy and no love.” And against both of those errors, Paul said it pleased them—they gave out of an abundance of joy—though many of them were poor. And it was their obligation to do so. There is no necessary conflict between duty and delight. It is possible to love doing what you ought to do. Indeed, you should pursue that joy in your life.
And to make it plain that Paul himself rejoiced to love like this, he went two thousand miles out of his way.
So I close with these summary exhortations:
1) Be vigilant for the reputation of the gospel.
2) Care for the poor. Ask God for that kind of heart.
3) Love the unity of the church and its ethnic diversity, and rejoice that there is one people of God, not two.
4) Embrace the glorious truth that when you are born again by the Spirit of God and treasure Christ—who died for you—above all else, you begin to change. You delight to do what it is your duty to do, and want to do what you ought. This is holy joy. And it lasts forever.