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. 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.
We think and talk a lot at Bethlehem about how healthy biblical doctrine and loving personal relationships are interwoven—how right theology connects with loving people. And in God’s providence, he has positioned us in the book of Romans this week in a text that is tailor-made to guide us in talking about the ministry of small groups and the personal relationships that they serve here at Bethlehem.
We as elders want you to know that creating and nurturing and overseeing the small-group ministry of the church is one of the most important things we do to fulfill our God-given mandate to take heed to all the flock (Acts 20:28). We believe that one way of describing our job is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). In other words, part of our responsibility is to take heed to all the flock by helping the flock take heed to the flock.
I hope that you will hear this sermon in that light. This message is part of my obedience to God’s demand to the elders to take heed to all the flock. My way of obeying is to try, with God’s help, and by God’s word, to motivate you to be a devoted part of a small group this year. I pray that God will do many other things through this message (because there are so many different needs here). But moving you all toward the relational experience of small groups is one of the main things I am praying toward. O how many needs get met in our lives when we are connected with caring, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated people!
Relationships in Romans
First, let’s get the bigger picture of Romans and then come to our text in chapter 15. At the beginning of this letter, in chapter one, and at the end of this letter, in chapter 15, Paul expresses his longing for a personal, mutual, loving relationship with the saints in Rome. He has never been there. He doesn’t know most of them. But listen to how he talks. And test yourself to see if this is the way you feel and speak and act. Romans 1:9-15:
For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God's will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine. 13 I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
You can’t miss the level of importance and preciousness that Paul puts on these hoped-for relationships.
- I pray without ceasing that I will be able to come to you.
- I long to see you.
- I want us to encourage each other as we share our spiritual gifts with each other.
- I have often intended to come but have been hindered.
- I would love to be used by God to reap some harvest among you.
- I am under obligation. I am your servant.
Then he comes near the end of his letter in Romans 15:22-24. And he picks up the point he made in Romans 1:13 that he had been hindered from coming.
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.
Again the emphasis is clear that he wants the joy of a mission-driven, personal, loving relationship with them:
- I have longed for years to come to you.
- I hope to see you as I go to Spain.
- I hope you will help me and be part of the mission.
- I want to enjoy your company for a while.
Don’t miss that last comment. I want to be filled up with the joy of your presence and friendship and faith and ministry. Paul was not afraid of saying that part of the fullness of his enjoyment of God comes through relationships with God’s God-besotted children. We see more of God, we know more of God, we enjoy more of God when we live in relationship with God’s people. If you try to be alone in your faith, needless distortions and discouragements will come. It’s not the way God designed us to be.
The Power of Prayer to Change People’s Wills
Then we come to our text at the end of Romans 15. Verses 28 to 33. I preached on this text several years ago and focused on the fact that Paul asked for prayer for protection from unbelievers and acceptance from believers. Verses 30b-31, “Strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.” My focus was on the power of prayer to change people’s wills. By prayer, the wills of unbelievers can be restrained from murder, and the wills of believers can be constrained to receive his gift.
So I won’t go over that ground but limit our focus today on two simple and wonderful observations that relate to life in small groups. I know Paul is not relating to the Romans as members of his small group. He is hundreds of miles away and doesn’t know most of them. So my point is not that the relationship we see here can only happen in a small group. I’m only saying that what we see here in Paul’s desire in relationship to the Romans is what should be experienced all the more in small groups. If Paul hopes to experience it from believers in Rome, even though he hardly knows them, how much more should we hope to experience it in our small groups.
Paul’s Longing for Two Simple Things
So what am I talking about? What are the two simple and wonderful things that he longs to experience with the Roman believers? You will see them if we read Romans 15:30-32:
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me [or we could say wrestle together along with me (Greek sunagonisasthai)] 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.
He longs for two things from his friends in Rome: He wants them join him in wrestling, and he wants to join them in resting. Wrestling and resting. Almost everything he wants from these relationships can be summed up under one or the other of these two desires: Wrestle alongside me for my safety in Jerusalem. And may God grant that I will be able to rest joyfully alongside you in Rome. Partners in wrestling. Partners in resting.
Make sure you see this. It almost sounds too neat to really be there in the text. Verse 30b: “Strive together (fight, wrestle, struggle, strive) with me in your prayers to God on my behalf that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea.” Then verse 32: “So that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.” Pray me though this crisis so that I may come and find joyful rest in your presence.
So let’s do two things with these two experiences of wrestling and resting. First let’s make clear that this is what Christ calls us to. Paul is not unusual. This is what life is like for all Jesus’ followers. And then in conclusion let’s focus on the fact that Jesus and Paul teach that we should experience this wrestling and resting together—not alone, but together.
The Call to Wrestle and Rest
First, this is normal Christian living: wrestling and resting. Let Jesus make this plain. In Luke 13:24, he says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” The word strive is virtually the same word that Paul used in Romans 15:30, “Strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf.” And Jesus explains why the striving—the wrestling—is crucial in Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
So Jesus is saying that striving and wrestling mark the path to life. Just like we saw two weeks ago from John 12:25, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The path that leads to life is a path of much self-renunciation, because so many of our desires as sinners are spiritually suicidal. So life is war. And victory involves fighting—wrestling. If you go AWOL from the narrow road that leads to life, you imperil your soul.
But that’s not the whole story. Jesus also said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Rest for your souls. Easy yoke. Light burden. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. Rest.
So there they are. The two descriptions of the Christian life: wrestling and rest.
- Strive to enter through the narrow door. Life is war. Fight the good fight. Wrestle.
- Come to me, you who are weary, and rest. Find a light yoke and an easy burden.
How can it be both?
Wrestling and Resting—Both
That’s not the main point of this sermon. But I will give you my short answer. It is both wrestling and resting partly because our hearts do not naturally rest in all that God is for us in Jesus. So we must fight against everything that inclines us to rest in anything but Jesus.
Money beckons us to rest in what it can buy. Sex beckons us to rest in the way it can make us feel. Power and recognition beckon us to rest in what they can give. Health and food and athletics and family and friends and hobbies and education and looks and accomplishments all beckon us to rest in what they offer.
But Jesus says, “Come to me and find rest for your souls.” Other shelters offer rest. Other yokes seem easy. Other burdens feel light. They are all an illusion. In the end, they enslave and destroy. Only Jesus gives deep and lasting rest and joy. Only Jesus supports the burdens he gives. Only Jesus uses a yoke to lift his team of oxen.
And there is another kind of wrestling—the kind Paul pleads for in Romans 15: Unbelievers sometimes conspire to hinder the cause of Christ—to threaten our gospel-spreading plans, and even our lives. This troubles and burdens our souls because we want the word to run and triumph. So we wrestle in prayer for the safety of Christ’s ambassadors, and the opening of many doors, and the bold proclamation of the gospel. And in our best moments of such wrestling, we do not lose our rest in Jesus.
We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender!
We go not forth alone against the foe;
Strong in Thy strength, safe in Thy keeping tender,
We rest on Thee, and in Thy Name we go.
We go to wrestle—resting on our Shield and our Defender.
Therefore, we must wrestle against every temptation to rest in anything but Jesus. And we must wrestle in prayer (not with guns or swords or bombs) against all the efforts of man and Satan to hinder the spread of the gospel. In all this, our wrestling is not a substitute for resting, but a means of resting.
That’s the short answer: Wrestling and resting—both of them define the Christian life in this fallen world because here we will always have to wrestle against what destroys our rest.
Wrestling and Resting—Together
So in conclusion notice especially today with our focus on the importance of small groups, that Paul wants this wrestling and resting to happen together. Mark those words near the end of verse 30: “Strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf.” Strive together with me. Strive together with me. Are you surrounded by a group of people who do that for you daily? As one of the pastors of this church, I am pleading with, and exhorting you and admonishing you: Put yourself in those kinds of relationships. May it be true of every covenant member of Bethlehem that you have a band of brothers and sisters who wrestle together alongside you and for you everyday.
And finally, mark the words in verse 32: “. . . so that by God's will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.” To you, with joy, and refreshed in your company. To you, with joy, and refreshed in your company. Between the battles, and even in the battles, there is rest—together. God loves to refresh his people through his people.
Paul tells us how it happens. He said in Romans 1:12 that he wants to see them so that “we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith.” God intends for the faith of some to refresh the souls of others. And the next week the roles may be reversed. The smallest victory of faith in your life shows Christ to me—and to others. Don’t keep it to yourself.
So I exhort you again: Be a part of a small group. God is being good to you in this exhortation. He is saying: I will cut all your burdens in half by having them shared by others. And I will double all your joys by having them shared with others.