A Commentary on Romans — Longing to Go to Rome (1:8-15)

8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 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 do not want you to be unaware, 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.

Paul’s thankfulness for the believers in Rome

Paul begins with the Greek word Πρῶτον, meaning “first” (though the sequence is not continued). The sense of this word is well conveyed by the J.B. Philips translation: “I must begin by telling you how I thank God.” Paul then commences this section by notifying the believers in Rome that he is thankful to God for them, in particular since their “faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Rom 1:8). Though Paul says “I thank my God…” James Dunn notes that this “does not, of course, signify ‘mine and not yours’; it is simply a way of stressing the fervor of his devotion, his deep personal commitment.” [1] Robert Mounce comments that “Religion, for Paul, was an intensely personal relationship. God is not a ruling deity far removed from his people. The true believer views God as a close companion. David cried out, ‘O God, you are my God’ (Ps 63:1).” [2] Paul also states that he thanks his God through Jesus Christ. This expression is characteristic of Paul’s language and indeed that of other early Christian writers (Rom 5:11; 7:25; 16:27; 1 Cor 15:57; 2 Cor 1:20; 2 Cor 3:4; Col 3:17). Indeed, the concept of Jesus as mediator between God and man is a common theme throughout the New Testament (e.g. Mt 11:27; Jn 14:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Heb 8:6; 9:15; 12:24).

The expression of thankfulness for the spiritual successes of fellow believers is typical of the majority of Paul’s letters. Furthermore, Paul made it a habit in his letters to spotlight those areas in his recipients’ Christian lives that were worthy of commendation, even when there were other elements that were worthy of rebuke. Even to the Corinthians, with all of their many failings and faults that Paul criticises them for, Paul wrote “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge – even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you – so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Cor 1:4-8). Given that the Corinthian church was characterised by strife and division (1 Cor 1:10-16) – a problem that evidently still persisted at the end of the first century (1 Clem 46-48) – as well as spiritual immaturity (1 Cor 3:1-4), sexual immorality (1 Cor 5:1-2), desecration of the Lord’s supper (1 Cor 11:17-34) and disorderly worship (1 Cor 14:26-40), Paul’s expression of thankfulness is quite striking. Paul even indicates that he has bragged on account of them to the Romans and to the Macedonians concerning their eagerness to give of their finances for the relief of the saints in Jerusalem (Rom 15:26-27; 2 Cor 9:1-5).

Likewise, in the letter we know as Ephesians (though I suspect it was probably a circular letter that was originally addressed to the Laodiceans), Paul wrote, “because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,” (Eph 1:15-16). To the Philippians, Paul similarly wrote, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,” (Phil 1:3-5). Paul also openly commends the church in Philippi, saying, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel,” (Phil 1:7).

To the Colossians, Paul and his co-author Timothy wrote, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven,” (Col 1:2-5). 

To the Thessalonians, Paul wrote, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Thess 1:2-3) and “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing,” (2 Thess 1:3). Paul gave a similar commendation to the believers in Thessalonica as he had to the Romans. He wrote, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers of Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,” (1 Thess 1:6-9). Paul also speaks of his bragging concerning the Thessalonians, just as he does of the Corinthians: “Therefore, we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring,” (2 Thess 1:4).

To his disciple Timothy, Paul wrote, “I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day,” (2 Tim 1:3). Paul also commended Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well,” (2 Tim 1:5).

Finally, to Philemon, Paul wrote, “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,” (Philem 1:4). He added a commendation of Philemon: “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you,” (Philem 1:7). 

The only Pauline letter that does not contain any expression of thankfulness is his epistle to the Galatians. Perhaps Paul chose to dispense with any opening commendation and note of gratitude as a result of the Galatians’ defection from the true gospel (Gal 1:6-9).

We can thus discern that Paul was regularly thanking God for the spiritual successes of his brethren in the Lord, an example that we would do well to emulate. How often do we point at the flaws of others, but fail to recognize areas in which they have shown marked spiritual growth? Furthermore, Paul’s words in those letters cited above reveal that these epistles were written to individuals and churches whom Paul deeply cared for. Paul’s letters were not intended to be taken as esoteric theological treatises, but rather were spawned from a deep pastoral concern. In like-manner, those of us who are in teaching positions should exposit the Scriptures to those whom God has entrusted to us not merely with the purpose of building up their head-knowledge but rather out of a pastoral concern and care for God’s people.

The Acclaimed Faith of the Roman Believers

Paul notes that the occasion for his thankfulness is that the faith of the Romans is being spoken of all over the world – that is, the Roman empire. The singling out of one’s faith for commendation is again typical of Paul’s letters, as seen from the quotations above. Paul uses the somewhat formal verb καταγγέλλω, meaning “to make known in public, with implication of broad dissemination, proclaim, announce.” [3] James Dunn argues that this “indicates that Paul is consciously striving for effect.” [4]

Interestingly, the testimony of the Roman church appears to have been so strong that the Roman historian Suetonius recounts that the emperor Claudius “banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus,” which very likely is a reference to Jesus (Life of Claudius, 25). This same expulsion of the Jews from Rome is also noted by Luke (Acts 18:2).

Paul’s Exemplary Prayer Life

Returning to Romans, Paul continues, “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers,” (Rom 1:9-10). Calling God as his witness would have assured Paul’s readers that he was not utilizing empty rhetoric regarding his concern on their behalf. Craig Keener notes that “calling a deity to ‘witness’ underlined the veracity of one’s claim, since deities were expected to avenge false claims about them.” [5]

From the Pauline corpus, we can discern that Paul had a rich prayer life, characterised by intercession. Bruce Barton et al. comment that “We would expect Paul to pray for his own converts and the churches he helped establish, but these words show that he also prayed for those outside his immediate acquaintance and responsibility. Paul had not personally visited these believers, so he had not yet been able to prove his love for them, but he appeals to God as his witness, confirming his constant prayers for the believers in Rome.” [6] Robert Mounce notes, “We are reminded that the real work of the ministry is prayer. Preaching is more a result of the ministry of prayer than it is a ministry itself. A sermon that does not rise from intense and heart-searching prayer has no chance of bearing real fruit. F. Laubach has said that it is the preacher’s business to look into the very face of God until he aches with bliss. Preaching that does not grow out of a life of prayer is like ‘fruit’ from an artificial tree. Where there is no life, there will be no real fruit.” [7]

Paul often recorded the content of his intercessions. In Ephesians, Paul wrote, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God,” (Eph 3:14-19). 

To the Philippians, Paul similarly wrote, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God, being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy,” (Phil 1:9-11).

Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians: “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ,” (2 Thess 1:11-12). Paul, moreover, implored his readers to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) and to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,” (Eph 6:18).

In the case of the Romans, Paul’s chief prayer is that “somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (Rom 1:10-12). Paul acknowledges that God is sovereign over his plans, and that he will only come to visit the Romans if God permits it, a caveat that he includes elsewhere (1 Cor 4:19; 16:7). Paul almost certainly has in the back of his mind the dangers he may encounter (Rom 15:31-32).

Paul’s Desire to Visit Rome

Paul expresses his earnest desire to see the Roman church in person: “I do not want you to be unaware, 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,” (Rom 1:13). Paul’s intended trip to Rome, a journey that he purposed to eventually take him to Spain (Rom 15:22-29), had two basic objectives. The first was to enjoy fellowship with the believers in Rome (Rom 1:11-12), and the second was to preach the gospel to those who were in Rome (Rom 1:13, 15). Relating to the former, Paul indicates that he hopes to impart some “spiritual gift” to the Romans that they may be strengthened (Rom 1:11).

What is the “spiritual gift” that Paul intends to give to the Romans? Paul discusses the subject of gifts in Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Corinthians 14:1-24. However, I think it is unlikely that in Romans 1:11 the charismatic gifts, or the gifts of the spirit more broadly, are in view, though this interpretation enjoys support from William Sanday and Arthur Headlam [8] and more recently from Charles Kingsley Barrett. [9] The gifts of the spirit that Paul discusses elsewhere are distributed according to the will of God (Heb 2:4) and there is no indication in Scripture that a believer, even an apostle, could impart one of those gifts to another. 

Robert Mounce suggests that Paul “wanted to share with them some spiritual insight or gift he had received from the Spirit.” [10] James Dunn, though leaving unspecified exactly what spiritual gift Paul has in mind, notes, “As the form of the word implies, χάρισμα denotes an embodiment of grace (χάρις), the concrete expression of God’s generous and powerful concern for his human creation, so that it can be used of any act or utterance which is a means of divine grace, a medium through which God’s graciousness is experienced.” [11] James Edwards further argues that “the spiritual gift seems to be related to Paul’s preaching of the gospel, for he closes this section by repeating that he desires ‘to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome’ (v. 15).” [12] He suggests that “It is, of course, possible that Paul uses these two expressions generally of ‘blessing,’ or perhaps with reference to his missionary labors, i.e., that in Rome he may see new converts and deeper conviction in faith.” [13] Edwards also proposes as a possibility worth considering “that the spiritual gift which Paul hopes to give and the harvest which he hopes to reap are subtle references to the need for reconciliation between Gentile and Jew in Rome.” [14]

Personally, I think the expression “spiritual blessing” in the context of Romans 1:11 is best understood as a general term for ‘blessing’, probably with specific reference to Paul’s missionary work. The text does not supply us with sufficient information to confidently discern Paul’s meaning with greater precision, though the suggestions surveyed above are all plausible. Whatever the “spiritual gift” was, the purpose was evidently that Paul and the Roman believers “may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom 1:12). Craig Keener comments that “Paul did not found the Roman church, so he writes more as a brother than as a father (contrast 1 Cor 4:15–16). Thus, he speaks unobtrusively of ‘some’ Spirit-inspired gift (1:11) and even insists that he and they will be mutually ‘encouraged’ by the other’s faith (1:12).” [15] An admirable trait of Paul’s character was that, though he was an apostle, he nonetheless believed that he could be encouraged by the faith of the Roman Christians, just as they could be by his. This offers us a glimpse of Paul’s genuine humility.

Paul writes that, “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented)” (Rom 1:13). Paul also notes later in the epistle that he has “so often been hindered from coming to you,” (Rom 15:22), which he notes was because he was detained by regions that were in greater spiritual need (Rom 15:20), since, he wrote, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation,” (Rom 15:20). It is also plausible that a contributing factor was the temporary prohibition against Jews in Rome, instituted by Claudius (Acts 18:2). Of course, Paul did eventually visit Rome, though not as he had anticipated, since his visit to Rome was as a prisoner in chains (Acts 28:17-30). This is a sobering reminder that God is sovereign over our plans. As James says, echoing Proverbs 27:1, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that,’” (Jas 4:13-15). This reality is impressed all the more upon our minds in the wake of the pandemic of 2020-2021, which has revealed to us that we are not as much sovereign over our plans as we had hitherto thought.

Paul also believed firmly in the necessitude of prayer in the forming of one’s plans and travel itinerary. In Romans 1, Paul indicates that he prays continually, “asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you,” (v. 10). Likewise, when writing from prison in Rome to Philemon in Colossae, Paul instructed him to “prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you,” (Philem 22). An important lesson we can draw here is that we should be intentional about committing our plans, especially relating to ministry, to the Lord through prayer. Otherwise, we reveal that we believe ourselves to be self-sufficient and without need of God’s grace.

Paul’s Obligation

Paul writes, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome,” (Rom 1:14-15). Since Paul was a servant who was “called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1), he was under obligation to God and also to those to whom he ministered. In 1 Corinthians 9:16 he wrote of his obligation to preach: “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

The term “Greeks and to barbarians” refers to Greek and non-Greek speakers. The word βαρβάριος, translated “barbarian”, is an onomatopoeic word, meaning literally “to make unintelligible sounds.” From a Greek point of view, this would refer to those speaking languages other than Greek. [16] James Dunn argues that “In using the phrase here, however, Paul is not necessarily accepting the viewpoint of the ‘Greeks’ or designating particular groups as ‘barbarians.’ By now it had simply become a standard phrase to include all races and classes within the Gentile world.” [17] In addition, Paul indicates that he is to preach the gospel “to the wise and to the foolish,” referring to the educated and uneducated classes (Rom 1:14). Thus, Paul’s obligation was to preach the gospel to all people regardless of nationality or education. Indeed, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise,” (Gal 3:28-29). In other words, all people who have accepted the grace of God have the same standing before Him, irrespective of ethnicity, social standing or gender.

In verse 15, Paul writes, “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Even though Paul was under obligation to preach, it was not a burden to him. On the contrary, he was “eager to preach” to those who were in Rome. Robert Mounce comments, “Obligation need not be joyless commitment to an unpleasant task. Paul’s eagerness grew out of his own transforming experience on the Damascus road coupled with the realization that he was privileged to share the good news with others.” [18]

Summary

In summary, we can glean from this section of the letter that Paul had an exemplary prayer life, and was continuously thankful to God for the spiritual successes of his brethren in the Lord, spotlighting those areas for which his readers could be commended. Though Paul desired earnestly to visit Rome, he nonetheless recognized God’s sovereignty over his plans. Paul intended to impart to the believers in Rome some spiritual gift. Though it is not clear exactly what he had in mind, it probably refers to some way in which he would bless the Roman church, perhaps relating to his intended missionary work in Rome. Paul indicates that, though he is under obligation to preach the gospel to all people, regardless of ethnicity or education, he is also eager to preach the gospel in Rome.

Footnotes

[1] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, vol. 38A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1988), 28.

[2] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 65.

[3] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 515.

[4] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, vol. 38A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1988), 28.

[5] Craig S. Keener, Romans, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 23.

[6] Bruce Barton, Philip Comfort, et al., Life Application New Testament Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001), 580.

[7] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 66.

[8] William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of the Romans, 3d ed., International Critical Commentary (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1897), 21.

[9] Charles Kingsley Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, Rev. ed., Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1991), 25–26.

[10] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 67.

[11] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, vol. 38A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1988), 30.

[12] James R. Edwards, Romans, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 36.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Craig S. Keener, Romans, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 24.

[16] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 166.

[17] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, vol. 38A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1988), 33.

[18] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 70.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin