Romans 15:20-24: Paul the pioneer missionary


I would like to begin by adapting a well-known illustration relating to missions that John Piper uses in his book Let the Nations Be Glad.1 You along with ten others are on an old school lifeguard boat with oars attending to a sinking ship. You are the captain of this little band of life savers. The ship you are attending is a liner with many people that cannot swim and there are only a few life boats. You and you little team get stuck in and are trying to rescue as many as you can. But suddenly you see about 500m away another boat is sinking, what do you do? What would love do? Perhaps you might reason to yourself, well these souls are just as lost and as valuable as those. You might think to yourself that it would tire the crew to row over to that other boat and souls would inevitably drown in the meantime. You might reason that it would be more efficient to not try and save those on the other boat. If it is about saving as many as you can as effectively as you can you might want to ignore the other boat. Now apply this illustration to the reality of missions. There are those who have a need here in Timaru, in Canterbury, in New Zealand. There are those who have need in the English speaking world. Based on this illustration, as we think about the need of people in the world to be saved doesn’t it sound reasonable and practical to spend all of our efforts on local outreach where we can be more efficient rather than other parts of the world? How do we choose where to put in our efforts? What does the bible say about how we should be thinking about the world’s need?

Today as we continue in Romans 15:20-24, we will see Paul’s answer to this issue. ‘and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 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, 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.’ Paul tells us that we are to be concerned and to prioritise the unreached peoples. And perhaps hearing our little illustration he might want to add one important detail. The first ship has some lifeboats, that is, some churches in their area, but the second ship farther off has no lifeboats, no churches. As the captain of this little band should you go to the sinking ship that has some lifeboats or the one that has none? The answer is obvious – the one which has none.

As we look at Paul revealing his travel plans to the Romans he reveals to us as well his priorities in missions. We will divide this portion under two headings, we want to look in the first instance at Paul’s ambition in missions, and secondly his expectation of the church in partnering with him in missions.


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