Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This post deals with the other two journeys that Paul was planning at the time of writing Romans.

2. A Journey to Spain

However, while he was reflecting on the phase of his ministry now coming to a close, Paul was also reflecting on what would happen next.  Having preached in the east of the Empire, Paul now wanted to go west and his attention turned to Spain.  He informs the Roman Christians: ‘So, when I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will set out by way of you to Spain …’ (Romans 15:28 NRSV).

Why Spain?  This cannot be answered with certainty.  Paul could have gone east from Jerusalem into the Parthian Empire where we know there were Jewish communities or even as far as India.  Even if Paul wanted to stay within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, then there was the north coast of Africa, which again had established Jewish communities.  There were in other words plenty of places that Paul could have visited.  The answer probably lies in the principles Paul gives for deciding where to preach.  In Romans 15:20, he writes:  ‘Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation …’

By this he doesn’t mean that everyone in a specific region has heard the Gospel, but that the Gospel is established there.  Spain obviously struck him as a region that had not been evangelized.  It also fitted with other ambitions.

3.  A Journey to Rome

The third journey that explains Paul’s reason for writing to the Roman Church is that Paul specifically wanted to visit the Church in Rome.  In Romans 1:11 at the start of the letter he writes of his longing to see them and tells them in 1:13 that he has often intended to come to them, but has been prevented from doing so.

The reason for Paul now wanting to go to Rome is probably two-fold:

1.  The first reason is one that is frequently commented on.  It is normally linked with Paul’s intended journey to Spain.  Paul speaks of how he intends to make this first visit to Rome on his way to Spain: ‘For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.’ (Romans 15:24)  What Paul probably means by this is that he is hoping Rome will be come a base for his mission in the west as Antioch was for his mission in the east.  Paul originally was ‘sent out’ by Antioch to preach the Gospel (Acts 13:2)  This sending out would involve the Romans in providing support in terms of money, prayer, and personnel – many of whom, as we have seen, were already known to him.

2.  All the above is undoubtedly true and important.  There may have been a second reason, however, and that is that Paul wanted to bring Rome within the orbit of his authority.  We have seen that Paul made a point of principle not to preach where Christ had already been named.  And yet, at the beginning of the letter, he tells them that he has wanted to visit them, as he puts it, ‘in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles.’  (Romans 1:13)

There is an apparent contradiction here.  Paul will tell them at the end of the letter that he is going to Spain because he doesn’t want to preach Christ anywhere that Christ is named, but here at the beginning of the letter he tells them he wants to come to Rome so that he may preach the Gospel and reap a harvest among them as he has the other Gentiles.

The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in the fact that, as we have previously observed, the Roman Church was not established by an apostle.  Paul clearly feels that this means it ought to come under his authority as the apostle to the Gentiles.  He actually is quite explicit about this.  His Gospel, he tells them, is about Jesus Christ our Lord ‘through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ …’ (Romans 1:5-6) 

These two reasons are, in fact, closely linked.  If Paul is to be able to use Rome as a base, it is essential that Rome recognizes that he is a genuine apostle, with all the authority that implies, preaching a message that he received from God.

In Romans then he sets out his Gospel, that is what is distinctive about his Gospel as the apostle to the Gentiles and seeks to explain it to the Romans in the hope that they will feel able to embrace both it and himself as the person preaching it.  Paul was not certain that they would any more than he was that the Jerusalem Church would accept the collection.  Paul was only too aware of those who would oppose it.  Paul writes at the very end of the letter: ‘I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.  Keep away from them.’  (Romans 16:17)

Romans 16:16-20 are sometimes considered to be an afterthought to the letter, coming as they do after all the greetings in that chapter.  It is worth reminding ourselves, however, that Paul having dictated a letter to a scribe, in this case as we have seen to Tertius, then adds a greeting in his own hand to authenticate the letter (see Galatians 6:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:17, 1 Corinthians 16:21, Colossians 4:18).  What is more he tells the Thessalonians that this is his practice in every letter he writes.  This would suggest that 16:17-20 are verses that Paul has added in his own hand.

If this is so, and the verses are there in any case whether in Paul’s own hand or not, they suggest that Paul feels he will have the same battle for the Gospel in the years to come as he had in the years just past.  Romans lays the groundwork for what Paul hopes will be future ministry in Rome in the years ahead.

In Romans, Paul writes about the themes that he believed to be essential in his preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles.  He goes into more detail and deals with the objections with more care than in any of his other letters.  He wants to be well prepared for the journeys that lie ahead.

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