The Missionary Challenge of Paul's Life

Bethel College Chapel | Minneapolis

I would like to direct your attention to the word of God in Paul's missionary letter to the Romans (15:7-24). And within this text you may want to alert yourself as we read to three things: the model, the mission and the miracle of Paul's life as a missionary.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written:

For this reason I will praise you among the Gentiles;
I will sing hymns to your name.

Again, it says,

Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.

And again,

Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and sing praises to him, all you peoples.

And again, Isaiah says,

The root of Jesse will spring up,
one who will arise to rule over the nations;
the Gentiles will hope in him.

May the God of hope fill you with great joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclainming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation. Rather, as it is written:

Those who were not told about him will see,
and those who have not heard will understand.

This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while.

1. The Model of Paul's Missionary Life

First let's notice the model for Paul's life as a missionary. His model was the mission of Christ described in verses 8 and 9.

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy.

The Son of God became a Jewish servant to the Jewish people in order to confirm God's promises made to the Jewish patriarch Abraham. And that has been a great offense to the world. But since one of the promises made to Abraham was, "By you shall all the families of the earth shall be blessed," (Genesis 12:3), therefore, Paul goes on to say in verse 9 that the ultimate purpose of Christ's mission to the Jews was "that the Gentiles (or nations) might glorify God for his mercy."

Paul considers this ultimate purpose so crucial that he engages in a kind of exegetical overkill by citing four proof texts from the Old Testament to prove that God's purpose is to be glorified among all the gentiles or peoples.

In verse 9 he quotes Psalm 18:50—"I will praise you among the Gentiles."

In verse 10 he quotes Deuteronomy 32:43—"Rejoice, O Gentiles with his people."

In verse 11 he quotes Psalm 117:1—"Praise the Lord all you Gentiles, and sing praises to him, all you peoples." Here the parallel between "Gentiles" (goim) and "peoples" (ha'umim) shows that nations or tribes or families are in view not just individual non-Jews. (Note the similar parallel in the next verse between "Gentiles" and "nations" (`amim).

And in verse 12 he quotes Isaiah 11:10—"The root of Jessie will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; the Gentiles will hope in him."

So what is clear from this piling up of proof texts is that Paul wanted to say: the mission of Jesus Christ was to reach all the nations, all the peoples--for the glory of God. It is not a merely Jewish phenomenom. God aims to be glorified for his mercy from all the peoples. That is why his Son ransomed men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 5:9).

So Christ is the model of Paul's life as a missionary. He simply picks up where Jesus left off—to the Jew first, but ultimately to the Gentiles, that all the peoples might glorify God for his mercy.

2. The Mission of Paul's Life as a Missionary.

Paul was so gripped by the purpose of Christ to get glory for God from all the nations that it was the passion of his life to always be on the frontiers moving out to those nations. You can see this in three amazing statements in this text.

2.1 One is the statement in verse 20—"I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named." Paul's life was dominated by a great ambition. Is yours? Do you just drift from day to day trying to get assignments done with no coherent driving vision of your future? Paul was driven with godly ambition. You see it in the second amazing statement:

2.2 Verse 24: "I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain." To Spain? How did he even know there was such a place as Spain?—without TV or radio or National Geographic or jets! My guess is that every time he got on a boat he asked the seasoned sailors, "How far west have you been? What are the people like? How long does it take to get there? What supplies would I need? Are they religious?" And the sailors told him about the end of the world—Spain. And his ambition drove him westward for the glory of God.

2.3 But what about all the unbelievers still in Judea and Samaria and Syria and Asia and Macedonia and Achaia? That leads to the third amazing statement at the end of verse 19—"So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ." This is astounding! From Jerusalem in southern Palestine to the land that connects nothern Greece and northern Italy Paul has preached in such a way that he can say, "I'm finished. My work is done." Verse 23: "There is no more place for me to work in these regions." My missionary task is complete.

In less than 25 years the work of frontier missions in the entire eastern Mediterranean was finished. O, of course, there were thousands yet to be won to Christ in that area. But it is not the job of frontier missions to win everybody to Christ. That is not the Great Commission, and that is not the task of frontier missions. It is the task of domestic ministries, the job of indigenous churches.

The danger facing every mission agency is that it might penetrate an unreached people and then simply work there for 25 or 50 years and call it missions because it is church work in another culture. But I want to plead with you this morning to consider for your life the ambition of the Apostle Paul. Could it be that there are many among you (or perhaps seven: The Bethel Seven) whom God is calling to pick up where Paul left off and make it your aim and your passion to go where the gospel has not yet taken root?

In 1906 James Fraser was studying engineering at Imperial College in London. Later he became a legend as "Fraser of Lisuland" because of his frontier evangelism and church planting in the Yunnan Provence of China. The turning point of his life was in college when he read a two-penny pamphlet with these two sentences,

If our Master returned today to find millions of people unevangelized, and looked, as of course He would look, to us for an explanation, I cannot imagine what explanation we should have to give. Of one thing I am certain—that most of the excuses we are accustomed to make with such good conscience now, we shall be wholly ashamed of then.

He was never able to escape the power of these sentences. And God gave him a holy ambition.

A few years ago when I had to preach my first missions sermon at Bethlehem I took the yellow pages of the Minneapolis and St. Paul phone books and counted the number of churches in the Twin Cities. There are more churches in the Twin Cities than there are North American Protestant missionaries to the 1.9 billion people that make up 10,000 Muslim, Hindu, Chinese, and Buddhist unreached people groups. Let me say that again: there are 1.9 billion people in 10,000 unreached people groups served by about 700 North American Protestant missionaries. But there are more CHURCHES in the Twin Cities than that.

I could only think of one explanation for this state of affairs: disobedience. What would we say to the Master who commandedus 2000 years ago to make disciples of those l0,000 peoples? It was a personal crisis for me like is was for Fraser. And I told my congregation that I would have to resign and engage more directly on the frontiers unless I could be convinced that by my staying on as pastor of Bethlehem more could be done for the cause of frontier missions than if I were to go myself. How else could I stay in a place where there were 800 churches evangelizing just two million people, and these already reached by any mission standard?

Frankly I don't think the crisis is over in my life. And I hope it isn't over in yours. God intends for there to be missionaries like Paul whose passion even at the end of his life is not retirement but Spain! God is calling some of you to look at your homeland and say with the apostle Paul, "I have no room for work in these regions."

3. The Miracle of Paul's Missionary Life.

If you say that, and live that for the next forty years, it will be a miracle. What I mean is that there is nothing in you by nature that would give you the perseverance to abandon wealth and comfort and family and security and the at-homeness of your own culture for forty years to live out the gospel in a hard place with no applause. It is not in you. It is a miracle—a supernatural gift of God. Just like it was for Paul.

This is the meaning of verse 18. He says of his missionary work, "I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me..." In 1 Corinthians 15:10 he says, "I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me." In 2 Corinthians 3:5 he says, "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our sufficiency is from God." In other words Paul's missionary labor was not his own; it was God's labor. His missionary life was a miracle, a supernatural gift of God. It was as though Paul had died and Christ had taken over his ministry.

If you think you have it in you to be a frontier missionary, you are disqualified. The only people who will bear fruit for God are people who know they can't. "I am the vine; you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do NOTHING" (John 15:5).

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20)

If you were to ask Paul, "Well, if it is Christ that accomplishes everything in your missionary life and gets all the glory, what do you do?" he would answer, "I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.

I trust his sovereign grace to conquer the greed and fear and vanity of my heart.

I trust his sovereign grace to give me hope when I am depressed and friendship when I am lonely and spiritual power in the face of satanic forces and words of truth and wisdom when I need to preach.

I trust his sovereign grace to give me love when I am hated and peace when I am surrounded by turmoil and perseverance when I feel like quitting and want to go home.

And I trust him to give me just enough health and protection to do the work he called me to do, as long as he has called me to do it, and just enough sickness and danger to keep me deep and earnest and real in my prayers.

When you step out in faith like this on the way to the frontiers, it is not you who step but Jesus Christ. And forty years from now when you write your last missionary letter you will know exactly why Paul said, "I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me--to him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.