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; 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.”
This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 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, 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. (Romans 15:18–24)
There are three things in this text that I think we should focus on. All of them have direct implications for your life (even if you are not now aware of that), and all of them relate directly to God and his purposes in the twenty-first century:
- A holy ambition.
- An immeasurable need.
- A global strategy.
So let’s take those one at a time to see how they relate to each other and to us and our world today.
1. A Holy Ambition
Verse 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.”
Paul was controlled by a holy ambition. I say he was controlled because he says in verse 22, “This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you.” And he says at the end of verse 23, “I have longed for many years to come to you.” When you long to do something for years and years, but you don’t do it, something is controlling you. And what was controlling Paul and keeping him from going to Rome is that he was not finished with his ambition in the regions from Jerusalem to Illyricum. But finally, he says in verse 23, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” And then in verse 24: “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain.”
“Mom and Dad, single people, young and old—everyone should have a holy ambition, something you really, really want to do for the glory of God.”
In other words, he was controlled by an ambition to preach the gospel to those who had not heard the name of Jesus from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Albania today), and he would not turn from this ambition until it was fulfilled. But now the work is done in those regions, and his ambition is taking him to Spain. That frees him finally to do what he has wanted to do for years — namely, visit the church in Rome and enjoy their company for a little while.
It is a good thing to be controlled by a holy ambition. Are you controlled by a holy ambition? I am calling it “holy” because its aim is holy — to see people from all the nations who have never heard of Jesus believe in him and become obedient to him and be saved by him from their sin and from God’s wrath. And I am calling this ambition “holy” because it comes from God and his holy word, as we will see in a few moments. It is right and it is good to be controlled by a holy ambition.
Do you have a holy ambition? Not everyone should have Paul’s ambition. One plants and another waters (1 Corinthians 3:6–8). Each has his own gift (1 Corinthians 7:7). Each stands or falls before his own master (Romans 14:4). But I think God would be pleased if each of his children had a holy ambition.
For Girls and Boys
Little children, listen to me carefully for a moment. I know the words, “holy ambition,” are unusual and you don’t use them every day. “Holy ambition” means something you really want to do that God wants you to do. Something you want to do so much that doing it keeps you from doing other things that you also really like to do. Paul really wanted to go to Rome for years. But he didn’t go because he wanted something more. He wanted to preach the gospel in Asia and Greece where people didn’t know about Jesus. He really, really, really wanted to do this. We call that kind of desire an “ambition.” And we call it “holy ambition” when it is something God wants you to do.
Do you have one? Probably not yet. You’re only a child. That’s what you’re supposed to be. But some day you won’t be a child any more. And one of the differences between being a child and growing up is that growing up as a Christian means you get a holy ambition. Most little girls, my Talitha included, really want to have and play with dolls. That’s a good thing. But the day is going to come, little girls, when you will put away the fun of playing with dolls and grow up into the even bigger, better joy of caring for real babies in the nursery. And maybe you will even lead a ministry someday of caring for hungry babies far away, or lonely babies who have no mommy or daddy. And for some of you this will become a holy ambition. For others your holy ambition will be something else.
And boys, listen. If you are like I was, what you really want is a ball, a truck, and gun and somebody to play with. I’ve never had a real gun (except a pellet rifle). But I shot a lot of bad guys with my Matt Dillon pistol and my Lukas McCain-like, circle-handled rifle. I loved playing football with my friends and digging roads across the street for my trucks and drawing my pistol so fast you couldn’t see it. It was fun. And that was good.
But some day you won’t be a little boy any more. And one of the differences between being a little boy and growing up is that growing up as a Christian means you get a holy ambition. And that means the fun of guns and trucks and balls gets small and the joy of fighting for justice and salvation gets big. Growing up means getting a holy ambition to wield the sword of the Spirit mightily and drive a truckload of love to the needy and kick Satan’s rear end in the name of Jesus.
Mom and Dad, single people, young and old, Christians should have a holy ambition. Something you really, really want to do for the glory of God. Something that controls you. It helps you decide not to go to Rome yet. It gives eternal focus and passion to your life.
Where does a holy ambition come from? A crucial part of the answer is given in the link between verses 20 and 21. “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, [then Paul quotes Isaiah 52:15] ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.’”
Now here is the amazing and relevant thing about this for us. We know from Acts 9 and 22 and 26 that Paul was called by the risen Christ on the Damascus road. Jesus gave Paul his mission in Acts 26:17–18: “I am sending you [to the Gentiles, the nations] to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” So he got a calling straight from the risen, living, all-sovereign Jesus Christ to be a light to the Gentiles.
But that’s not what he says in Romans 15:21. He doesn’t say, “I have this ambition to be a light to the nations who don’t know Christ because Jesus called me on the Damascus road.” He says, “I have this ambition — I am controlled by a passion to preach where Christ has not been named — because Isaiah 52:15 says, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.’”
“God doesn’t lead us into ambitions that are pointless. There’s always a need to be met in the world by a holy ambition. ”
What do you make of that? Here’s what I make of it. When Jesus called Paul on the Damascus road to take the gospel to the Gentiles who had never heard, Paul went to the Old Testament and looked for a confirmation and explanation of this calling to see how it fit into God’s overall plan. And he found it. And for our sake he speaks this way. He doesn’t just refer to his experience on the Damascus road, which we will never have. He refers to God’s written word that we do have. And he roots his ambition there.
So my answer to the question, “where does your holy ambition come from?” is this: it comes from a personal encounter with the living Christ (not necessarily as dramatic as the Damascus road) shaped and informed and empowered by the written word of God. As you meditate on the law of the Lord day and night (Psalm 1:2) — as you immerse yourself in God’s word — he comes and takes some truth of that word and burns it into your heart until it is a holy ambition. If that hasn’t happened yet, saturate yourself with the word of God and ask him for it.
2. An Immeasurable Need
God doesn’t lead us into ambitions that are pointless — that you will regret at the end of your life. There is always a need to be met — not a need in God, but in the world — by a holy ambition. Holy ambitions are not about self-exaltation. They are always a form of love. They always meet someone’s need.
Now what is the immeasurable need Paul refers to in this text? Verse 20: “Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named.” That means that Paul has set his face like flint to preach the gospel to people who have never heard of Christ. They don’t even know his name.
The Nations Have No Excuse
Now here’s the question: if these people don’t even know Jesus’s name, then are they responsible to believe on him for salvation? And if not, then wouldn’t it be safer for them just to leave them in their ignorance and believe that God will have mercy on them and they will be saved because they haven’t heard of Jesus? Why, Paul, do you suffer so much to preach the gospel to people who have never heard the name of Jesus?
Paul gave the answer in Romans 1:18–23. Read it with me slowly and soberly and feel the weight of it the way Paul must have. These words are written about all those peoples and nations that have never heard the name of Jesus and that Paul’s holy ambition is driving to reach.
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. [Those are the fatal words that define the immeasurable need Paul sees; the nations that have never heard of Jesus will have no excuse at the judgment day.] For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Paul says in Romans 2:12, “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” Everybody will be judged according to what they have access to. And everybody will perish who does not hear the gospel, because everybody suppresses the truth that they have and lives in rebellion against God. There is only one hope: hearing and believing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The need of the nations who do not know the name of Jesus is an immeasurable need. It is an infinite need. The greatest need that can be imagined is the need of the nations to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and believe. Because the gospel of Jesus “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). And no one is saved without it.
Not everyone of you is called to go like Paul. But you can’t be a loving person and not want your life to count to meet this need.
3. A Global Strategy
But some of you God is calling to join Paul personally and vocationally in this particular global strategy. Here’s the strategy. And it is amazing. If you are newer to Bethlehem, listen carefully for how we understand missions. Here are Paul’s amazing statements.
First, verse 19: “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” That’s from Jerusalem up through Syria, across Asia Minor (Turkey), down through Greece on the east side and up the west to northern Italy where Albania is today. Paul says he has fulfilled the gospel there. And he underlines that astonishing statement in verse 23 by saying, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” And then in verse 24 he says, “I go to Spain.”
“The need of the nations who do not know the name of Jesus is an immeasurable need. It is an infinite need.”
What in the world did he mean that he had no room for work from Jerusalem to Illyricum? It is not a risk to say that there were tens of thousands of people yet to be evangelized in those regions. We know this because Paul writes to Timothy at Ephesus (in this very region) and commands him to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). In other words, there are people that need to be evangelized. And Paul says his work is done in this region.
We take that to mean: Paul is not a local evangelist; he’s a frontier missionary, a pioneer missionary. That is, his calling and his ambition is not to do evangelism where the church has been planted. The church should do that. Paul’s calling and his ambition is to preach the gospel where there is no evangelizing church. There are no Christians. They don’t even know the name.
Missions, Evangelism, and Holy Ambition
The terminology is not what’s crucial. What’s crucial is the distinction. There are frontier or pioneer missionaries, and there are evangelists. Missionaries cross cultures and learn languages. And frontier missionaries pour out their lives “by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” to break through thousands of years of darkness and the reign of Satan over a people who do not know the King of kings and the Savior of the world.
This was Paul’s ambition. And since the great commission to make disciples of all nations is still valid and there are peoples today who do not know the gospel, therefore every church should pray that God raise up many frontier missionaries, and make all of us evangelists.
I can imagine — indeed I pray — that ten years from now someone — perhaps ten of you — will write a letter home from an unreached people and say, “I am here to speak the gospel to those who have never heard, for as it is written in Romans 15:20, ‘I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation.’ God burned that word onto my heart and turned it into a holy ambition at Bethlehem Baptist Church, August, 2006.”
Lord, please, do that. Amen.