Thursday, November 30, 2006

Paul’s Missionary Philosophy in Romans

While there were, not doubt, several reasons for Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, at least one of those reasons was to solicit support for his proposed missionary journey to Spain (Romans 15:24). If that is the case, and I believe that it is, then this book may suggest several ideas for both evaluating missionary candidates and developing general themes for a Biblical philosophy of missions. Since Paul represents the ideal missionary candidate, we should take careful note of how he presents himself to the church at Rome and look for statements concerning his personal philosophy of missions. These elements occur in both his opening remarks (Romans 1) and conclusion (Romans 15-16).

In this article, I will examine how Paul introduces himself to a prospective supporting church, why he chose to go to Spain, and what he plans to do during his visit to Rome. As we learn about Paul’s missionary methodology in the 1st century, we can develop principles to guide us in conducting missionary programs in the 21st century. I plan to post these principles in my next blog entry.

I. Paul’s Introduction to the Roman Church (Romans 1:1-12; 15:15-18)

The call to missionary service must be very important since Paul mentions it several times throughout the book of Romans (1:1, 5; 15: 15-16). The Holy Spirit called Paul into missionary service after Paul had already established himself in the teaching ministry at the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1-2). While it is obvious from the list of acquaintances found in chapter 16 that several members of the church at Rome knew Paul and his calling, it was still appropriate for Paul to remind them of that fact and to state that He was “set apart for the gospel of God” (1:1). He notes that he is qualified for his calling because God has equipped him for the position (1:5; cf., 15:15-16).

Paul based his ministry on the truths found in God’s Word and focused his teaching on the person of the Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord (1:2-4). This affirmation not only assured the Romans of his orthodoxy but also indicated the ultimate foundation for his success and the underlying authority of his message. Paul says, for example, in Romans 16:25-26, that it is his preaching of Christ that establishes (or strengthens) Christians and leads them to the obedience of faith [1]. Furthermore, the message Paul preaches, the one revealed by the Scriptures of the prophets, has been authorized by commandment from the eternal God. It is worth noting that the entire epistle is a grand presentation of the gospel of Christ and its implications for the life of the believer.

Paul also notes that his ministry goals match those of the church at Rome. The focus of Paul’s ministry concerns the evangelism of all Gentiles (1:5). Notice how his purpose aligns itself nicely with the practice of the church at Rome to proclaim their faith throughout the whole known world (1:8). While Paul may be referring to their reputation in this verse, he uses a term (kataggello) that often signifies the proclamation of gospel truth rather than just the testimony of one’s faith (cf., Acts 13:5; Acts 17:23; 1 Cor. 2:1; Col. 1:28). It appears then, that the church at Rome was serious about fulfilling the great commission by going into the entire world to preach the gospel.

II. Paul’s Reasons for Going to Spain (Romans 15:19-23)

In this section, Paul tells how he has preached the gospel from Jerusalem, throughout Asia Minor, and unto the Balkan Peninsula (15:19) [2]. He did more than just preach the gospel, though. He fully preached the gospel, indicating completeness to his ministry. We know from the book of Acts that Paul planted churches in several important cities throughout this region. By planting churches in these strategic cities, Paul could depend on those churches to reach their surrounding areas with the gospel and thus ensure the complete distribution of the gospel throughout a wide geographic area. For example, in Pisidian Antioch the Gentiles spread the Word of the Lord throughout the whole region even though the city officials ran Paul and Barnabas out of town (Acts 13:48-51). The Thessalonian church so evangelized the area of Macedonia and Achaia that Paul could say “in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything” (1 Thes. 1:7-8). It appears that Paul’s missionary team coordinated some of these efforts through converted national pastors such as Epaphus, who worked in the Lycus Valley out of the church of Ephesus (cf., Col. 1:7-8; 2:1; 4:12-13). Since Paul had effectively finished his work in this area, he set his sights towards points west, namely, Spain.

The reason for going to Spain, and not some other place, is Paul’s desire to plant churches in new regions, where the people had not yet heard the gospel. God gave Paul a ministry of foundation laying; others, such as Apollos, build upon that foundation (1 Corinthians 3:5-10). Consequently, Paul will not go and build on another man’s foundation (15:20). He will only go to places where Christ is not named. This is the heart of missionary work – planting churches where there are no churches, training others (preferably nationals) to take over the work once a foundation has been laid, and moving on to the next area. Since Paul geared his ministry towards unchurched, frontier, or pioneer-type mission fields, there was no further place for him in those regions just named (15:23). God has directed him to Spain and Paul needs the church at Rome to help him on his way (15:24).

III. Paul’s Plans for his Visit to Rome (Romans 15:24, 28-29)

Paul states in Romans 15:24 that he hopes, on his way to Spain, “to see you in passing, and to be helped on my way there by you, when I have first enjoyed your company for a while.” This verse establishes for us one of the reasons for Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. He wants to raise support for his missionary trip to Spain and, in modern terminology, set up a meeting for his presentation. We have in the church at Rome what is known today as a supporting church. The church at Antioch was Paul’s sending church. In these verses, we get a glimpse into what amounts to 1st century missionary deputation.

The verb translated “to be helped on my way” in the NAS is the Greek word propempo. While this term may simply mean to escort or to accompany (Acts 20:38; Acts 21:5), it is often used to denote more substantial assistance for a journey (Acts 15:3; 1 Cor. 16:6, 11; 2 Cor. 1:16, Titus 3:13). In 3 John 6-7, we see the term used in reference to supporting strangers (i.e., itinerant missionaries who were unknown to Gaius beforehand [3]) in their work for the Name (i.e., Jesus Christ). John adds that supporting [4] such missionary endeavors is both the duty (“we ought to support . . .”) and privilege (“so that we may be fellow workers . . .”) of the New Testament church (3 John 8). The usage in Romans 15:24 is similar to that in 3 John and indicates that this term is the “regular technical term for missionary support.” [5]

Before Paul can expect the church at Rome to support his trip to Spain, he must spend some time with them in ministry (15:24b). We know from chapter one that Paul planned to impart unto them a spiritual gift (1:11), enjoy mutual encouragement in the ministry (1:12), and preach the gospel (1:15). While there is no doubt that Paul’s ministry in Rome included certain official apostolic duties, it is also true that his stay was meant to qualify himself for missionary service in the sight of the Romans. Paul does not expect the church at Rome to support him sight unseen. He first sends an introductory letter that explains his doctrinal position (i.e., the book of Romans) and then he plans a visit so that the Roman church can see him in action. Paul does not plan to stay long but long enough so that he (and they) can see fruit from his labors (1:13).


1. Paul mentions this goal three times in this epistle (1:5; 15:18; 16:26). Faith that saves demonstrates itself initially with one’s obedience to the gospel (cf., 2 Thes. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17; Rom. 10:16) and throughout one’s Christian life by obedience to his Lord (cf., James 2:14-26). “Viewed in this light, the phrase captures the full dimension of Paul’s apostolic task, a task that was not confined to initial evangelization but that included also the building up and firm establishment of churches.” – Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), pg. 53.

2. Illyricum sits on the eastern edge of the Adriatic Sea in modern day Albania or Yugoslavia.

3. D. Edmond Hiebert, The Epistles of John (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1991), pg. 330.

4. The reading of the NAS, reflecting the reading of earlier manuscripts (hupolambanein, “to support”), includes the idea of receiving such men (KJV: apollambanein, “to receive”) but also adds the concept of support and protection. See Hiebert, pg. 333-334.

5. Moo, pg. 901. Hiebert calls it “something of a technical term in regard to the missionary activities of the early church.” See Hiebert, pg. 331).