(We are continuing a series of articles commenting on Paul’s epistle to the Romans. We pray that you will be blessed by these articles. Editor)
The first seven verses of the first chapter of Romans are the salutation. No uninspired letter ever embraced so much in its greeting as this one. The apostle was so overflowing with the love of God that he could not write a letter without covering almost the whole gospel in the salutation. The next eight verses may well be summarized in the words “debtor to all,” for they show the completeness of the apostle’s devotedness to others.
Let us read them carefully, and not be content with one reading:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers; Making request, if by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto you. For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me. Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let [hindered] hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles. I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also.
A Great Contrast—In the days of the apostle Paul the faith of the church in Rome was spoken of throughout all the world. Faith means obedience; for faith is counted for righteousness, and God never counts a thing so unless it is so. Faith “worketh by love.” (Galatians 5:6) And this work is a “work of faith.” (1 Thessalonians 1:3) Faith also means humility, as is shown by the words of the prophet, “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4) The upright man is the just man; the man whose soul is lifted up is not upright or just; but the just man is such because of his faith; therefore only the man whose soul is not lifted up has faith. The Roman brethren, therefore, in the days of Paul, were humble.
But it is far different now. An instance is given by the Catholic Times of June 15, 1894. The pope had said, “We gave authority to the bishops of the Syrian rite to meet in synod at Mossul,” and had commended the “very faithful submission” of those bishops and had ratified the election of the patriarch by “Our Apostolic authority.” An Anglican paper had expressed surprise, saying, “Is this a free union of equal churches, or is it submission to one supreme and monarchical head?” To which the Catholic Times replies: “It is not a free union of equal churches, but it is submission to one supreme and monarchical head.… To our Anglican pleader we say, You are not really surprised. You know well what Rome claims and always will claim, obedience. That claim is now, if it ever was, before the world.”
But that claim was not before the world in the days of Paul. In those days it was the church in Rome; now it is the Church of Rome. The church in Rome was famous for its humility, and its obedience to God. The Church of Rome is famous for its haughty assumption of the power of God, and for its demand for obedience to itself.
Praying without Ceasing—The apostle exhorted the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) He did not exhort others to do that which he did not do himself, for he told the Romans that without ceasing he made mention of them always in his prayers. It is not to be supposed that the apostle had the brethren at Rome on his mind every waking hour of the day, for in that case he could not have thought of anything else. No man can be consciously in prayer every moment, but all can continue “instant in prayer,” or, as Young translates it, “in the prayer persevering.” (Romans 12:12)
This is in harmony with what the Saviour said, that “men ought always to pray, and not to faint,” or grow weary. (Luke 18:1) In the parable that follows, the unjust judge complains of the “continual coming” of the poor widow. That is an illustration of praying without ceasing. It is not that we are to be every moment in conscious prayer, for then important duties would be neglected, but it is that we should not grow weary of praying.
A Man of Prayer—This is what Paul was. He made mention of the Romans in all his prayers. To the Corinthians he wrote, “I thank my God always on your behalf.” (1 Corinthians 1:4) To the Colossians, “We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you.” (Colossians 1:3) Still more emphatically he wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy.” (Philippians 1:3, 4) Again to the Thessalonians, “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; remembering without ceasing your work of faith,” etc. (1 Thessalonians 1:2, 3) And further, “Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith.” (1 Thessalonians 3:10) To his beloved son in the faith he wrote, “I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day.” (2 Timothy 1:3)
“Rejoice Evermore”—The secret of this is to “pray without ceasing.” (See 1 Thessalonians 5:16, 17.) The apostle Paul prayed for others so much that he had no time to worry about himself. He had never seen the Romans, yet he prayed for them as earnestly as for the churches that he had raised up. Recounting his labors and sufferings, he adds that they are “beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:28)
“As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”—He fulfilled the law of Christ by bearing the burdens of others. Thus it was that he was able to glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ suffered on the cross for others, but it was “for the joy that was set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2) They who are wholly devoted to others, share the joy of their Lord, and can rejoice in him.
“A Prosperous Journey”—Paul prayed earnestly that he might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to visit Rome. Read the twenty-seventh chapter of Acts, and you will learn just what kind of journey he had. Most people would say that it was not a prosperous journey. Yet we do not hear any complaint from Paul; and who can say that he did not have a prosperous trip? “All things work together for good to them that love God.” (Romans 8:28) Therefore it must have been prosperous. It is well for us to consider these things.
We are apt to look at matters from a wrong side. When we learn to look at them as God looks at them, we shall find that things that we regard as disastrous are prosperous. How much mourning we might save if we always remembered that God knows much better than we do how our prayers should be answered!
Spiritual Gifts—When Christ “ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.” (Ephesians 4:8) These gifts were the gifts of the Spirit, for he said, “It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” (John 16:7) And Peter said on the day of Pentecost: “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear.” (Acts 2:32)
These gifts are thus described: “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)
Established by Spiritual Gifts—“But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.” What is the profit? “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ; till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12, 13)
The gifts of the Spirit must accompany the Spirit. As soon as the early disciples received the Spirit in accordance with the promise, they received the gifts. One of the gifts, speaking with new tongues, was manifested that very day. It follows, therefore, that the absence of the gifts of the Spirit in any marked degree in the church, is evidence of the absence of the Spirit, not entirely, of course, but to the extent that God has promised it.
The Spirit was to abide with the disciples forever, and therefore the gifts of the Spirit must be manifest in the true church until the second coming of the Lord. As before stated, the absence of any very marked manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit is evidence of the absence of the fullness of the Spirit; and that is the secret of the weakness of the church, and the great divisions that exist. Spiritual gifts establish the church; therefore the church that does not have those gifts can not be established.
Who May Have the Spirit? Whoever asks for it with earnest desire. (See Luke 11:13.) The Spirit has already been poured out, and God has never withdrawn the gift; it only needs that Christians should ask and accept.
“I Am Debtor”—That was the keynote of Paul’s life, and it was the secret of his success. Nowadays we hear of men saying, “The world owes me a living.” But Paul considered that he owed himself to the world. And yet he received nothing from the world but stripes and abuse. Even that which he had received before Christ found him was a total loss. But Christ had found him, and given himself to him, so that he could say, “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
As Christ’s life was his life, and Christ gave himself for the world, Paul necessarily became a debtor to the whole world. This has been the case of every man who has been a servant of the Lord. “David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep.” (Acts 13:36) “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant; even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)
Personal Labor—There is a foolish notion prevalent that ordinary labor is degrading, especially to a minister of the gospel. It is not all the fault of the ministers themselves, but largely the fault of the foolish people about them. They think that a minister must always be faultlessly attired, and that he must never soil his hands with ordinary manual labor. Such ideas were never gained from the Bible. Christ himself was a carpenter, yet many professed followers of him would be shocked if they should see their minister sawing and planing boards, or digging in the ground, or carrying parcels.
There is a false dignity altogether too prevalent, which is utterly opposed to the spirit of the gospel. Paul was not ashamed nor afraid to labor. And this he did not merely occasionally, but day after day while he was engaged in preaching. (See Acts 18:3, 4) He said, “These hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.” (Acts 20:34) He was speaking to the leaders of the church when he said, “I have showed you all things, how that so laboring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Verse 35)
Paul’s Example—“Neither did we eat any man’s bread for naught; but wrought with labor and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:8) “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you.” (2 Corinthians 12:15) “Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent.” (2 Corinthians 11:23) “But by the grace of God I am what I am; and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all; yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)
The grace of God is manifest in service for others. The grace of Christ led him to give himself for us, and to take upon himself the form and condition of a servant. Therefore he who has the most of the grace of Christ will labor the most. He will not shun work, even though it be the most menial service. Christ went to the lowest depths for the sake of man; therefore he who thinks that any service is beneath him, is altogether too high for association with Christ.
Gospel Liberty—Gospel liberty is the liberty that God gives men through the gospel. It expresses His idea of freedom. It is the freedom seen in nature and in all the works of His hands. It is the freedom of the winds, blowing where they list; it is the freedom of the flowers, scattered everywhere through wood and meadow; it is the freedom of the birds, soaring unrestrained through the heavens; the freedom of the sunbeam, shooting from its parent orb and playing on cloud and mountain top; the freedom of the celestial orbs, sweeping ceaselessly on through infinite space. This is the freedom which flows out from the great Creator through all his works.
Tasting Freedom Now—It is sin that has produced what is narrow and contracted and circumscribed, that has erected boundary lines, and made men stingy and niggardly. But sin is to be removed, and then perfect liberty will be realized once more in every part of creation. Even now this freedom may be tasted, by having sin removed from the heart. To enjoy this freedom through eternity is the glorious privilege now offered in the gospel to all men. Who that claims to love liberty can let this opportunity pass unimproved?
We have covered the introduction to the main body of the epistle. The first seven verses are the salutation; the next eight treat of personal matters concerning the apostle and the brethren in Rome, the fifteenth verse being the link which unites the introduction to the directly doctrinal portion of the epistle.
Let the reader note carefully the verses referred to, and he will readily see that this is not an arbitrary division, but that it plainly appears. If in reading any chapter, one will note the different topics touched upon, and the change from one subject to another, he will be surprised to find how much easier it is to grasp the contents of the chapter, and to hold them in mind. The reason why so many people find it difficult to recall what they read in the Bible, is that they try to remember it in bulk, without giving special thought to the details.
In expressing his desire to meet with the Roman brethren, the apostle declared himself to be debtor to both Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and to the unwise, and therefore ready to preach the gospel even in Rome, the capital of the world. The fifteenth verse, and the expression, “preach the gospel,” give the keynote to the whole of the epistle, for the apostle glides from this naturally into his theme. Accordingly, we have next, The Gospel Defined—Romans 1:16, 17.
(To be continued)
(This article was taken from a series of articles printed in The Signs of the Times from October, 1895 through September, 1896. Some editing has been done for this publication. Editor)