Paul’s Mission (and ours) (Rom. 1:5)


In 1899, writer and publisher Elbert Hubbard wrote the now famous essay, “A Message to Garcia.”  It is a gripping and stirring article, the aim of which was to inspire a good work ethic driven by individual initiative and perseverance.  He begins by talking about a man by the name of Rowan who during the Spanish-American War was given the task of finding a certain General Garcia who was somewhere hidden in the interior of Cuba and to give him a message from President McKinley.  After briefly describing Rowan’s adventure by which he landed in Cuba, disappeared into the interior, and three weeks later appeared on the other side of the island having accomplished his mission, Hubbard writes:

The point I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?” 

He continues:

There is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college in the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this or that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies; do the thing - “carry a message to Garcia!”

He didn’t ask, “Where is he at?”  He didn’t ask a bunch of questions.  He was given a task, and he bent all his energies to find this man despite the many problems that were in the way.  If a problem arose, he didn’t give up; he took on the responsibility of solving it.  If difficulties presented themselves, he didn’t try to make someone else do the thing; he took them in stride as a challenge to be conquered.  Hubbard is right: we need more people who can “carry a message to Garcia.”

The apostle Paul was like this man Rowan.  Or perhaps we should say that Rowan was like the apostle Paul.  The Lord Christ gave him a mission and a message.  Paul didn’t argue; he simply carried out the task.  It was difficult and presented great problems, but he didn’t flinch. In fact, he puts it this way to the Corinthians:

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body (2 Cor. 4:8-10).

And he says: “we faint not”! (1, 16).  

The apostle refers to the mission entrusted to him by Christ in verse 5 of Romans 1: “By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name.”  Now what was it that made Paul so dedicated to his mission?  What was it that made him say, despite all the difficulties, “For whether we be beside ourselves, it is to God: or whether we be sober, it is for your cause. For the love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:13-14)?  

First of all, it was because of the one who gave him his mission.  It is a special task if it is given to you by someone like the President of the United States.  But this is a task given to Paul by someone infinitely more important than any world leader: it was the Lord Jesus Christ.  In the original text, the name “Jesus Christ our Lord” is at the end of verse 4 and would have read like this: “the gospel of God . . . concerning his Son, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  And then comes: “by whom we have received grace and apostleship.”  The one who gave him this mission is none other than Jesus Christ our Lord.  The Lord of the universe, the King of heaven and earth, the Savior of the church had appointed Paul to this task, and he was eternally grateful.  As he put it to Timothy, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:12-14).

Notice that Paul didn’t just look at this as a task.  He looked at it as grace – “grace and apostleship,” he says.  Not just that he didn’t deserve it, but as an undeserved gift that was good.  This was not a gift that he would rather not have had; it was a gift he felt deeply grateful for.  This comes out in the way he described his ministry to Timothy; you see it also in his words to the Ephesians: “I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:7-8).

Now it is true that Paul is speaking of himself here, and the “we” is probably an instance of the “editorial we.”  For the apostleship was given only to a few men at the beginning of the Christian church.  However, I think we would be wrong to think that the mission of Paul was limited to himself in every respect.  The mission of Paul is the mission of the church in every age, and it is a mission which the apostle is going to describe here in three ways.  

And just as it was grace to Paul to be involved in this mission, it is grace to us as well.  Do we see it that way?  What are we doing in our personal lives and as a church to join Paul in his mission?  Are we like Rowan and carrying the message into the world, or do we make our excuses and disappear into the busyness of our schedules?  Are we eager as Paul was (see verse 15) to spread the good news around?  Brothers and sisters, are our lives flavored with the gospel?  

Of course, we need to understand what Paul’s mission and the mission of the church in every age is.  Paul outlines it for us in three steps.  First of all, he gives us the Aim: “to bring about the obedience of faith.”  Second, he gives us the Audience: “among all the nations.”  Finally, he gives us the Ambition: “for the glory of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  

The Aim

The immediate task the Lord gave to Paul and his church is to preach the gospel of God “for obedience to the faith.”  Now at the end of the letter, we see that Paul uses the identical phrase in Greek, but there the KJV translators rendered it as “the obedience of faith” (16:26).  I think the apostle is talking about the same thing in either place, but I think the translation in chapter 16 is better than the one in the first chapter.  The problem is that saying “obedience to the faith” makes it sound like Paul is talking about adherence to a set of doctrines.  Now I don’t want to imply that we are not called to believe a set of doctrines.  Of course faith is belief in something, and we do believe doctrinal propositions.  However, that is not the point here.  The point is that the faith to which we are called is in fact an act of obedience.  We are called in the gospel to the obedience of faith, or, as one might put it, the obedience which faith is.  What do we mean by this?  What does it mean that this faith to which we are called is an act of obedience?

To understand this, we have to start by remembering who Jesus is: he is the Lord Jesus Christ.  We cannot receive him in any other way.  You cannot have Christ as Savior and not as Lord.  It is impossible.  You must receive the whole Christ and that means you must receive him as Lord.  You might recall that the very first words out of Paul when he was converted was, “Who are you, Lord?”  He immediately recognized him as Lord, even if he didn’t know anything else about him at that moment.

This is the consistent testimony of the entire NT.  Therefore, the gospel is a call to embrace Jesus Christ for who he really is: as your Lord and the only Savior of sinners.  This is not something only for people who care for it.  It is not something only for religious people.  Every person on this planet, everyone who has ever been born or ever will be born, is subject to the rule of Jesus Christ the Lord.  As Paul will put it later on in this epistle: “For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living” (14:9).  To reject the Lordship of Christ over your life is an act of treason and those who persist in this will be judged for their rejection of Christ.  This is why the apostle will say to the Thessalonians that “the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (2 Thess. 1:7-9).  Why are they punished?  Because they do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, that’s why.

And just because someone is religious, even very religious, that doesn’t cut it.  The apostle John writes, “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” (1 Jn. 5:10-12).  If you do not have the Son, no matter how religious you are, you don’t have eternal life.  In fact, Paul laments over the lostness of his very religious kinsmen, “For I bear them record,” he says, “that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:2-3).  Did you hear that?  What was their problem?  It wasn’t that they lacked religious zeal for God.  The problem is that they did not submit to the righteousness of God.  And where is that found?  Paul goes on: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (4).  We submit to the righteousness of God when we obey the gospel, and we obey the gospel when we put our faith and trust in Christ as Lord and Savior.

This is also the reason why conversion is sometimes described in terms of faith and sometimes in terms of repentance.  It’s not that they are the same thing, but one involves the other, like two sides of the same coin.  You can’t have faith in Christ without repentance towards God.  It’s why Paul summarizes his message as “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).  It’s why the apostle will tell the philosophers at Mars Hill, “God . . . now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (17:30).  You cannot turn to Christ in faith and not turn away from your sins in repentance.

And this is what Paul was aiming for in his preaching.  To bring people to the obedience of faith, which just means to bring them to embrace Jesus for who he really is.  And that is the mission of the church in every age, which is commissioned to make disciples – not of ourselves, but followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.  I wonder if there is anyone here today that has not obeyed the gospel?  I wonder if someone here has not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God?  Do you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord?  Is he your Lord, that is to say, does his word have real authority in your life?  You need to understand that it doesn’t matter whether you want him to be your Lord or not.  He already is.  You don’t make him Lord of your life, as some people put it. The question is whether or not you will submit to that reality.  The promise is that all who embrace Jesus Christ with their hearts as Lord and Savior will be saved; and those who reject him will be condemned.  This is not my word; this is the very words of the Lord and his apostles: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (Jn. 3:36).

Now someone at this point might ask, “But where is grace in all of this?”  And the answer is that it is everywhere!  For one thing, God never had to call rebels to repentance; he could have simply condemned us all.  The very call to the obedience of faith and to be reconciled to God is an act of sheer grace and mercy.  But grace is also in the fact that faith itself is a gift of God, isn’t it?  Left to ourselves we don’t come although we ought to come.  God could have left us there in that state of spiritual deadness, but if you have come you know it is because God in his sovereign grace drew you with lovingkindness and mercy.

Even the way the Lord comes to us in the gospel is an act of grace.  Listen to the way the apostle puts it to the Corinthians: “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).  Now God doesn’t have to come to us beseeching us.  But he does!  And the message is not, “I’ll have nothing to do with you,” but rather, miracle and wonder that it is: “Be reconciled to God.”  Who is this message to?  To the good person?  To the one deserving God’s attention?  No, it is to all who are “sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore.”  Who should obey the summons to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior?  You should, whoever you are!

The Audience

That brings us to the audience.  I’m saying that the message of the gospel is not for the frozen chosen.  Who is it for?  It is for those “among all nations.”  

Brothers and sisters, this is an act of grace.  We know that for many years God restricted his redemptive activity primarily to the nation of Israel.  He could have kept it that way.  But when Jesus came, the scope of God’s redemptive activity widened to the nations.  This was foreseen, to be sure, in the OT itself.  David exults in this, in Psalm 67, when we writes, “God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us . . . That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations” (1-2).  But it was through the New Covenant ministry of the apostles and the church that the nations came to actually participate in God’s saving blessings.

It's probably good for us to remember that two thousand years ago, many of our forefathers were barbarians, probably in Europe or what is now Great Britain and Ireland, living in utter depravity and worshiping false gods.  I know people nowadays like to imagine the ancient pagans as noble and peaceful and in harmony with the earth and all that, but the reality is that they were wicked and violent and enslaved to demonic religions.  I doubt anyone who praises them today would want to go back in time to live amongst them as they were.  And it could have remained that way.

Then in Acts chapter 16, an amazing thing happens.  Luke relates the event: “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us” (9).  Now at that time Paul was still in Troas, on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea.  But what happens as a result of this vision is that Paul and his companions travel for the first time into Europe.  Now that doesn’t mean that no one in Europe had never heard the gospel before (on the Day of Pentecost we are told that people from Rome where in Jerusalem and heard Peter preach the gospel), but here was the first concerted effort – as far as we know – for bringing the gospel to Europe.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

We should be thankful that the gospel has gone out, not only into Europe and the West, but into all the world, north, south, east, and west.  But that doesn’t mean we should rest and think the work is entirely done.  We are still to want to see the gospel going out to all the nations.  That’s why our church supports work that is being done in other parts of the world, like in India and Africa.  I know that many of you independently support missionaries in all parts of the world, and I commend you for this and thank God for your zeal in this.  We should thank the Lord for the privilege and the blessing to be means of bringing the blessing of the gospel to others.  

And I hope that we will continue to think of and look for ways to bring the gospel to all the nations.  It was Paul’s mission but through the Great Commission it is still our mission, and will remain so “to the end of the world” (Mt. 28:20).

The Ambition

Why should we do all this?  Brothers and sisters, a danger is to be very involved in religious stuff and it looks like we’re serving the Lord, but we’re really serving ourselves.  We can do things in the name of the kingdom of God when really what we’re doing is trying to build our own little kingdoms.  We can say we’re ambitious for the cause of God and truth when really we are just ambitious for a slice of the glory.  

So why did Paul do what he did?  He did it, he tells us, “for his name,” that is, for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.  To do something for the name of Christ is to do something for his glory, for his recognition.  The apostle had the same ambition that the psalmist had when he said, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake. Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?” (Ps. 115:1-2).

Of course we know that what motivated Paul in this way was the love of Christ.  He loved him because he was his Savior.  He loved him because he had saved him from a ruinous path of self-destruction and self-righteousness.  It was the love of Christ that constrained him.  It ought to constrain us, should it not?  The same is true for us: “For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:3-7).  Is there anything that compares to the love of God for us?  It is a love that is eternal and unchangeable.  It is a love that loved us even when we were his enemies.  It is a love that came at great cost, the death on a cross for the Son of God.  If he loved us this way, how can we not love him back and to give our whole life and every moment to seek his honor and his glory in this world and in the world to come?

And then I think another reason that motivated the apostle was his sense of the greatness and holiness of God.  Paul was constantly praising the Lord precisely because of who he is: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim. 1:17).  One of the reasons living for the glory of God is so fulfilling is that we are really living for something that counts.  We really are living for something that is truly great.  

On the other hand, suppose you are living for a sports team; its glory is a fading glory.  Suppose you are living for your country and are willing to sacrifice everything for that.  That is noble; but the glory of nations are often tainted with corruption and other evils.  And eventually all nations fall.  And if you live for yourself, what is that?  You are living for a tiny speck on a minuscule dot called earth in a rather smallish galaxy that is one of probably trillions out there.  To live for yourself is to live for a creature of a day, for a life that is like a vapor.  How meaningful is that?

But to live for God, now you are living for someone who is infinitely great and holy, who is eternal and unchangeable, who is perfect and good.  To live for God’s kingdom is to live for a kingdom that will never fall nor fail.  It is a kingdom worth living for; it is a kingdom worth dying for.  As Luther put it in the hymn we sing:

Let goods and kindred go
This mortal life also
The body they may kill
God’s truth abideth still
His kingdom is forever.

And here’s the thing: nothing done in the name of Christ is ever wasted effort, no matter how insignificant or small.  Nothing is without purpose.  Men may never notice or forget, but “God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which ye have showed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints and do minister” (Heb. 6:10).

Who are you living for?  What are you living for?  Is our work a work and labor of love to bring glory to the name of our Lord?

Now some people might say all this talk about living for the Lord and seeking his glory is just gibberish and that this is a prescription for misery.  They will tell you that if you really want to be happy, live for yourself.  But this is not only a lie, it is a deadly one.

Allow me to illustrate.  I recently watched the movie The Boys in the Boat, based on the true story about the underdog University of Washington rowing team that was able to make it all the way to the 1936 Olympics.  The boats used in the competitive rowing were eight-men racing shells (called “eights”).  But to maximize the speed each man had to work in complete sync with the other seven and they had to follow the instructors of the coxswain.  If you tried to work independently, you ended up working against the others, to the detriment of the speed of the boat.  And if you were in a race, that would spell inevitable defeat.

I think that is a good illustration for our place in the world.  God made this world to work in a certain way and you can either work with that purpose or against it.  The reason why God does anything is for his glory.  That means that the reason you exist is to bring glory to God.  This world is like those “eights” – if we choose to work independently of God and differently from the way God made us, we are going to end up sabotaging the very way we were meant to exist.  It may feel freeing for a time, but you are working against reality.  The only way to really experience the exhilaration of living is not to do your own thing but to live for the glory of God.

This is why Scripture consistently testifies to the reality that living for God rather than for yourself is the true path to joy, rather than the other way around.  The Beatitudes which teach us to live for the Lord all begin with “Blessed.”  The godly man of Psalm 1 is blessed as well.  The apostle tells us, “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17).  To be in God’s kingdom, that is, to consciously live for the glory and honor of King Jesus is joy in the Holy Spirit.

I’m not saying that the devil can’t give people joy substitutes that keeps them satisfied and also make the gospel seem disgusting.  But the point I’m trying to make is that they are just substitutes for the real thing, and, more importantly, that the summons to seek first the kingdom of God is not a summons to sacrifice your happiness but to find it in the right place.

So living for the glory of God is not consigning ourselves to perpetual unhappiness.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  Such is the impenetrable joy that God gives his people that it can survive even the most difficult of trials.  You see this constantly in the NT.  Like when Paul describes the Macedonian Christians: “How that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality” (2 Cor. 8:2).  Such is the joy that God gives that it can survive and even thrive in the midst of “deep poverty” and “a great trial of affliction.”    This was not an isolated event, for he noted that the Thessalonian believers “became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost” (1 Thess. 1:6).  “Much affliction with joy”!  Can the world give you anything like that?

So what is our ambition?  We are not to be slothful in zeal but fervent in spirit (Rom. 12:11).  It’s not that we shouldn’t have ambition or that ambition in itself is bad.  There is a bad ambition and there is a good ambition.  Bad ambition is living for yourself, your name, seeking your glory and your kingdom.  Good ambition is living for the God of heaven and earth, his name, seeking his glory and his kingdom. Which do you have?  What and who are you living for?  Paul says, in 2 Cor. 5:9, “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (LSB).  Let us be more and more like Paul!

Indeed, may our entire lives be lived so that men may see our good works and glorify, not us, but our Father who is in heaven.


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