What do you do when God's will seems contrary to the desires He gave you? How do you continue to move forward in your service for God when He keeps closing doors? The apostle Paul wrestled with some of these same questions. In Romans 15, he confides in us his expectations for the future of his missionary work, but these great expectations never become reality. What will he do when his way does not match God's will?
Additional messages from this series are available here: Holy Obsession
For several decades, Dr. Charles McCoy pastored a church in Oyster Bay, New York. While pastoring, as a single man, he had time to continue his education, and he eventually earned 7 graduate and post-graduate degrees. When he turned 72, his Baptist denomination required that he retire from ministry, and reluctantly stepped away from the pulpit and people he had faithfully pastored for many decades.
In reality, he wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself. He wrote, “I keep thinking that my life’s over, and I haven’t really done anything yet. I’ve pastored this church for so many years . . . I’ve spent a lot of time working for degrees, but I haven’t won very many people the Lord.
One week after his retirement party, he met a missionary who invited him to come to India to preach. Dr. McCoy deferred, citing his age. Besides, he’d never been overseas, had never traveled across America, for that matter, he’d never flown in a plane. He couldn’t imagine traveling to India. Not the least of his concerns was the fact that he didn’t have that kind of money.
The thought, however, nagged at him.
Until finally, 72 year old-white haired Dr. Charles McCoy announced he would indeed go to India. He sold his car and a few possessions and bought a one-way ticket to Bombay. His friends were horrified. “What if you fall ill? What if you should die in India?
He replied with new-found faith and courage, “It’s just as close to heaven from there as it is from here.”
Dr. McCoy arrived in Bombay with his billfold, his passport, a satchel of clothes and his Bible – all of which were taken in a matter of minutes by some very clever pickpockets.
He was left with only the clothes on his back and the address of missionaries. The man who had originally invited him to come and preach had decided to stay in America and when he showed up on the missionary’s doorstep, they weren’t sure what to do with him. They invited him in and gave him a small guest room.
Dr. McCoy was anxious to do something for Christ and after 2 days of getting acclimated, he announced to the missionaries that he was going to visit the mayor of Bombay. “Don’t waste your time,” his new friends advised. After several years of trying, they had never been able to see the mayor. But Dr. McCoy had prayed about it and he went anyway, without any appointment. He presented his business card to the receptionist and she looked at it carefully, then disappeared through a door. Returning, she told him to come back at 3 o’clock.
Dr. McCoy returned that afternoon to find a reception in his honor attended by some of the most important civic leaders in Bombay. It seems the city fathers had been greatly impressed by McCoy’s tall frame (he was 6’4”), his distinguished white hair and all those degrees after his name. “He is a very important person” they thought, “perhaps even a representative of the President of the United States.”
Dr. McCoy was able to speak for a half-hour, giving his testimony and speaking to them about Jesus Christ. At the end, he was politely applauded by the assembled crowd. Afterward he was approached by a man in an impressive military uniform who invited him to speak to the students of his military school, which – as it turned out – was India’s equivalent to West Point. After his first address, McCoy was invited back repeatedly.
Invitations soon poured in from all over India, and he began an itinerant ministry of preaching the gospel. In Calcutta he started a church for Chinese believers. He was asked to do the same in Hong Kong where he was invited to come and live. He was then invited to Egypt and the Middle East, traveling everywhere an energy that he had seldom before felt.
He traveled and preached, planting churches, teaching in schools discipling believers, speaking before government leaders and dignitaries in several countries.
His international ministry would last for 16 years. He died at the age of 88, in Calcutta India, just before he was to preach at a special rally to men downtown.
Dr. Charles McCoy never once came back to America.
Can you imagine the challenges and changes in his life . . . as a 40 year old or 50 or even 70 year old man, he had no idea what God had in mind. And had God informed him what He had up His divine sleeve, when Dr. McCoy was in his 72 year, he would have probably fainted dead away.
Like Daniel of old who’s life had a dramatic reversal and entered the lion’s den, somewhere in his 80’s, some think he was in his 90’s. What a way to go! But God had still more surprises in store.
The truth is we all have our list of expectations. Whether we’ve written them down or not . . . we have this mental list that goes something like this:
- These are 3 things I expect God to do with my life;
- These are 4 things I don’t ever expect to go through;
- These are 2 things that I expect God to do with my career by the time I turn 30 or 40.
- By the time I’m 50 or 60, this is where I’ll live and this is what I want to be doing.
- These are 2 things I expect God to do while I’m in school;
- These are the things I expect God to provide for my children;
- Here are 3 things I expect God will do with my finances.
We all have our own original volume written in our hearts, entitled Great Expectations.
And they might be great things too. They might be good things.
But what if they don’t come true? What if God has something entirely different in mind for you?
That’s exactly what happened in the life of the Apostle Paul.
In Romans 15, Paul has been sharing his heart – his passion – his obsessions.
In the latter part of the paragraph, beginning with verse 20, Paul provides for us an inside look at his great expectations . . . his plans.
It’s as if he opens up his first century day-timer to show us all where he’s penciled in certain plans. And some of it isn’t in pencil – it’s in water resistant, permanent, magic marker.
But before he reveals his plans, he reveals his passion.
Look back at verse 20. And thus I aspired to preach the gospel.
The word aspired doesn’t quite carry the same punch as the original compound word Paul used. Philotimeomai - filew – to love and timh – to honour.
Rienecker/Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Regency, 1976), p. 382
Paul says, this is the honorable love of my heart. This is my passion – my ambition; you could translate it – this is my obsession.
Not only was Paul obsessed with godly living and the grace of God and the glory of God, which we’ve already discovered in this series – he also had a holy obsession for the global advancement of Christ’s gospel. He was literally obsessed with the great commission.
Ask someone what they are passionate about; what they obsess over and you will discover a great deal about that person.
Paul would say, “I am obsessed with the declaration of the gospel of Christ.”
And he quotes here in verse 21 from Isaiah, broadly applying the prophet’s words to the process of evangelism that began in Paul’s day and will continue throughout church history until Christ returns.
Adapted from John MacArthur, Romans: Volume 2 (Moody Press, 1994), p. 337
And Paul says, “I plan to be in the thick of it!”
He was like a more recent missionary to Africa named David Livingstone who was once asked, “Where do you want to go?”
And he responded, “Anywhere so long as it is forward.”
William Barclay, Romans (Westminster Press, 1955), p. 203
He was passionate about reaching Africa with the gospel of Christ.
Paul was likewise obsessed with reaching his world for Christ.
Edward Gibbon’s, in his famous work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he quotes a church leader named Tertullian who explained the rapid expansion of the gospel in the first century. Tertullian wrote, “We are but of yesterday but we have filled every place among you – cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace and your senate – we have left nothing [alone] but the temples of your gods.”
Harnack, the German church historian wrote that the great mission of Christianity was accomplished by means of informal missionaries.
James Montgomery Boice, Romans: Volume 4, (Baker Books, 1995), p. 1875
That’s a wonderful description. Not vocational missionaries, not formally trained missionaries, but by means of informal missionaries. We just dedicated several teams of them today. I trust we have an auditorium filled with them today – having this same obsession to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This was Paul’s obsession . . . he now reveals his objectives to travel to three places.
Paul gives us three personal goals in this paragraph.
I recommend you underline them:
The first is in verse 23 – [I am] longing to come to you
The second is in verse 25 – I am going to Jerusalem
The third is in verse 28 – I will go on by way of you to Spain; look back at verse 24 – whenever I go to Spain
He had these three major ministry plans:
-his short-term goal was to go to the believer’s in Rome (v. 22)
-his long range goal was to go to Spain (v. 24 & 28)
-his immediate goal was to go to Jerusalem (v. 25)
And I need to inform you that none of his objectives turned out like he thought they would. None of his plans happened like he thought they would.
Notice how he admits to that in verse 22, For this reason I have often been hindered from coming to you.
In other words, I had to mark it off my calendar time and time again.
The word translated “hindered” is a word that means to “cut in.” It described warfare in Paul’s day where armies often cut deep gulleys into the road so that the enemy army would have to stop and fill in the ditch before they could drive their wagons across.
We talk about hitting a bump in the road . . . or an obstacle in our path . . . same idea.
Paul is picturing himself on a wagon, driving at full speed toward Rome but he has to stop again and again because the road isn’t passable.
Other things come up. Other ministries demand his attention. Other believers need help. Not to mention beatings and hardships and shipwrecks.
How long has Paul been hindered from going to Rome?
He gives us a clue in verse 23. but now, with no further place for me in these regions, and since I have had for many years a longing to come to you . . . did you catch that? I have been longing to come to you for many years!
Paul would go forward in his calendar a few months and write in bold letters, “Going to Rome.” Then that wouldn’t happen. He’d go forward another month or too and with great longing write, “Going to Rome now” . . . he did this, in effect, for years.
Maybe you’ve longed for something good and godly for 6 months, or a year or several years . . . Paul will long for most of his Christian life to go to Rome and then when he finally gets to Rome, it will be nothing like he imagined.
He will not arrive in Rome as a pioneer, he will arrive as a prisoner.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- If you happen to believe that a Christian has been vaccinated against misfortune, you are going to be disappointed at the first sign of sickness.
- If you’re under the impressions that the closer a person walks with God, the more likely his plans will pan out, you are in for a big surprise.
- If you believe that obeying the Lord guarantees a life without interruption and disruption, you’d better buckle up . . . you are in for the ride of your life.
You may never have so much trouble; you may never be in so much trouble; you may never create so much trouble as you will when you live with an obsession to advance the name and glory and gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul longed to go to Rome . . . why?
For one thing – it was the capitol city of the Roman Empire.
Tomorrow afternoon I have the privilege of going to the Capitol building in Raleigh and preaching to an assembly of pastors and political leaders on the topic – the importance of preaching the word of God in bringing about social reformation.
As thrilled as I am for that opportunity to speak along with 3 other Christian leaders, I can’t imagine how Paul must have longed to preach the gospel in the palace of Caesar; to deliver the word to the Roman senators and philosophers . . . to the movers and shakers of his world.
More than that, Paul wanted to help the Roman believers grow.
He already said that in Romans chapter 1, remember? I can’t imagine you’ve forgotten, it’s only been 6 years. Paul wrote in chapter 1:13. “And I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you and have been prevented thus far in order that I might obtain some fruit among you . . .”
In other words, I want to be a part of your spiritual growth. I want the joy of growing with you all.
So Paul wants to go to Rome because of it’s influence in the empire; because of his influence on the believers, and thirdly, because of their potential influence in him.
Notice verse 24. whenever I go to Spain – for I hope to see you in passing, and to be helped on my way there by you.
The words “helped on my way” are from the verb propempw (propempw) which refers to helping someone on their journey by providing food and money, even companions to travel along if they can, perhaps even providing the means of travel.
Rienecker, p. 383
Paul is openly asking for food and money.
This is, in a very real sense, a missionary support letter.
Those who’ve gone on short term missions trips know what that’s all about.
You get out your family phone directory and write all your aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews; you write your former church, your teachers and every friend you think you’ve got and even some you haven’t been friendly with for years. And as you write you pray. And as you put them in the mailbox you pray. And as you wait to hear back from them you pray.
Paul is writing to the Romans . . . I need your financial support – and he was no doubt praying for years for the support he would need to make it to Spain.
He was adopting the same strategy that you have seen with missionaries and ministries and probably have adopted yourselves as you raised money for your own missions trips.
It’s the strategy that I remember reading about years ago, written very succinctly by Adoniram Judson, the great missionary to Burma in the mid 1800’s. He said, “When it comes to the matter of raising funds for the work of the ministry, I ask God . . . and I tell the people of God.”
What great advice . . . you tell the people . . . but you are ultimately depending upon God.
Paul’s short term goal is to get to Rome.
Now he talks about his immediate goal and that is to go to Jerusalem. Notice verse 25. But now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. 26. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27. Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them; for if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things.
When Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, the church in Jerusalem was suffering not only great persecution but great poverty. There was a famine throughout Palestine, and because of persecution by unbelieving Jews, many Christians had lost their job and many others were put in prison, making bad conditions even worse for their families.
Add to that the fact that many foreign Jews who were visiting Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost were converted to Christ and decided to remain in the city and become a part of the Jerusalem church – became house guests of believers who lived there, adding to the overall state of emergency.
MacArthur, p. 346
Details of this special collection are recorded in 1 Corinthians 16 and 2 Corinthians chapter 8.
What I love about Paul’s inspired choice of words here in Romans 15 is that when he refers to this contribution (in verse 26) he used the Greek word koinonia which is often translated “fellowship.”
But what a great choice of words . . . because this offering really was more than money. It was more than nickels and dimes. It was a relationship . . . it was fellowship . . . it was the sharing of life.
One of the reasons Paul was so passionate about taking this offering to the Jews was that it had been given by Gentiles.
In this era of prejudice when the race issue of Jew and Gentile was yet to be overcome, this offering was incredibly significant.
The Gentile believers were clearly saying – we are related to you . . . this is an expression of our communion and fellowship with you.
It was a magnificent testimony to the equality of the Christians.
But still further, it was a magnificent testimony to the unity of the church.
Paul wanted to make sure everyone got the message that we are not just members of isolated congregations – we are members of the church worldwide.
Barclay, p. 205
For those of you who are preparing to travel on some missions trip – you will discover that no matter where you go in the world – when you meet other believers in other states or on different continents there will be an immediate kinship . . . there will be the basis for an immediate fellowship.
He goes on in verse 28 to write, Therefore, when I have finished this, and have put my seal on this fruit of theirs . . . the word for seal indicates a sealing for the sake of integrity. A papyrus fragment from Paul’s day speaks of “sealing sacks of grain” in order to guarantee their contents.”
Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, (Zondervan, 2002), p. 90
Paul is basically saying, “I want to make sure all the money arrives safely to the Jerusalem church.
Paul’s short term goal is to go to Rome; his immediate goal is to go to Jerusalem; his long-term goal is to go to Spain.
Notice further in verse 28b, I will go on by way of you to Spain. Look back up at verse 24, whenever I go to Spain.
If you could have interviewed Paul and asked him, “Paul, what do you believe God wants you to do in the next 5 years?” He would have said, “Take this offering to Jerusalem, spend time in Rome building up the believers and then pioneer the gospel in Spain.”
Why Spain? It was producing the great minds of his generation. Seneca, the prime minister of the empire of Rome, was a Spaniard; Quintilian, the master of Roman oratory was from Spain; Lucan the poet was a Spaniard.
Perhaps Paul was thinking that he wanted to influence the leaders of the next generation.
More than likely, Paul wanted to go to Spain because Spain was considered to be the end of the civilized world. Paul wanted to take the gospel, as Christ commanded, to the ends of the earth.
I’m going to Spain!
This was the region Jonah had tried to escape to centuries earlier. Spain included the city of Tarshish. Jonah never made it to Spain either. He was given a free ride to Nineveh and a fish story people still can’t believe.
This was the region from which Solomon brought shipments of gold and silver, ivory and apeas and peacocks (I Kings 10:22)
These are Paul’s plans. But he will never make it to Spain.
He will make it to Jerusalem; Acts records his journey where he delivers the money to the needy community of believers.
Acts 21 records the shocking development how that a week after arriving, Jews from Asia stirred up the crowds in Jerusalem against Paul. Roman soldiers intervened and prevented him from being murdered, but placed him under arrest.
Acts 22 reveals that on the next day Paul stands trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin – the Jewish Supreme Court – and is condemned to death. The Roman soldiers again intervene and rescue him from being killed, but keep him in custody.
Acts 23 informs us that Paul is transferred to Caesarea where he remains in prison for 2 years. He appeals to give his testimony to Nero and is granted his appeal.
Acts 27 informs us of Paul, under guard, finally setting sail for Rome – and wouldn’t you know it, his ship is torn apart at sea by a fierce storm and they are shipwrecked on the island of Malta.
They end up spending the winter on Malta.
Acts 28 tells us they finally make it to Rome where Paul is placed under house arrest. He is able to meet with Roman Christians – all who would come to his apartment. After 2 years, it seems that he was released for a time being, but then arrested again and ultimately martyred by the Roman emperor Nero.
Timeline adapted from Kenneth Boa & William Kruidenier, Holman New Testament Commentary: Romans (Holman, 2000). p. 455
Paul never made it to Spain. His long term goal was never realized.
As for his short term goal, he made it to Rome, but Paul will not be able to personally build the church, for he will come bound in chains.
And he will not experience the life of a missionary, he will experience the death of a martyr.
The truth is, at the time when he writes Romans chapter 15, he didn’t know it yet.
Paul’s great expectations were not fulfilled. His prayers in this regard were not answered like he’d hoped; his longings were never fulfilled completed like he’d expected.
Maybe some of yours haven’t been fulfilled either.
Let me make three very simple observations about life in general.
Three observations about great expectations.
1. Your life seems to be held up or slowed down, during times you expected it to take off.
And God does not choose to explain why, until after it’s over!
Why the delays . . . why is the road torn up so I can’t drive my wagon across and keep on going.
Let’s go, Lord! Let’s get to Rome.
God never fully explained it to Paul . . . until after he arrived home.
Someone once wrote, “The Lord orders the steps of a good man and He orders his stops as well.”
When we say we believe God is sovereign we are saying that we believe God does not owe us an explanation for the steps or the stops.
2. Your life may involve experiences and challenges you never expected to face.
Who would have expected a riot . . . a trial . . . a riot . . . a shipwreck . . . house arrest.
And maybe Paul was tempted to think, “Lord, how does this make any sense . . . and how am I to endure this . . . years of house arrest and hindrances to the full expression of his heart’s desire to preach to the ends of the earth.
As with Paul, God will often not clarify how you can endure it, until you’re in the middle of it!
Sustaining grace is never measured out ahead of time. It is measured out day by day for His mercies are new every morning.
Once Paul was in the middle of it . . . he outlook had dramatically changed from that of Romans 15.
And Paul would write to Timothy while he is under house arrest. “Don’t be ashamed of me His prisoner; but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God . . . I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.” (2 Timothy 1:8 & 12)
3. Your life may turn in a direction you never expected to journey.
Often, God did not reveal when, until the last minute.
By the way, one thing that Paul thought would happen to him, did happen.
Notice verse 29. And I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.
That came true.
believe that the fullness of Christ’s blessing means you are without chains . . . or difficulties . . . or challenges.
I doubt if you asked the average Christian, “Is God blessing your life?” that they would say, “Oh yes; when I got up this morning to go to work, the car wouldn’t start – and then I got to work and was handed a pink slip – is God good or what?! I had asked Him for a sign that He cared and look at all the evidence!
Don’t make the mistake of believing that God’s blessing is always smooth sailing . . . no ruts in the road.
The exact opposite could be true!
When Paul came to Rome, he in the fullness of Christ’s blessing.
Now let me make three observations about God’s dealing in Paul’s life and ours.
- God does not always defend His decisions (if at all). . . but He asks that we surrender to Him anyway.
- God does not always provide answers for life’s interruptions . . . but He asks that we trust Him in spite of them.
- God does not always explain His unexpected plans . . . but He asks that we rely upon Him as we go through them.
Our problem is we most often say to God – “Oh Lord, I don’t understand . . . these aren’t the plans I’ve made for You . . . I know the plans I have for you!”
And God says, “I know the plans I have for you . . . I have plans for you . . . and they will ultimately give you a future and a hope.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, when our great expectations are not met, He remains great! And we must learn that He is our greatest expectation.
Did you know that Christ Himself became the great expectation of Paul? It was no longer traveling to Spain . . . or preaching in Rome.
Paul would write to Timothy near the end of his life, that the appearing of Christ will occur at the proper time – He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords; who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light . . . to Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen. (1 Timothy 6:15-16)