“My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else.”
When Jesus ascended into heaven, the whole world was unreached. His followers immediately set out to reach the world with the Good News.
Paul is talking about reaching unreached people when he says, “My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard.”
While the idea of an unreached people group is not new, the emphasis in the 21st century Church has shifted from “countries” to “people groups.” To help us understand the difference, I have included here a lengthy quote from The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Church.
At the time of the Lausanne missionary conference in 1974, there were evangelical Christians in most countries around the world. During the conference, a missiologist named Ralph Winter drew the attention of the missionary world to the priority of unreached people groups. A people group is not the same as a country. Members of a people group share the same ethnic identity. They typically have a common language, a common religion, and a common history.
A country, defined by a fixed geographical border and a central government, usually has more than one people group living within it. People groups, on the other hand, often spill over political borders and live in more than one country. When Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations (Matt, 28:16–20), he used the word ethne, which refers to people groups and not to geopolitical countries.
Examples of people groups would be the Catalan and Basques of Spain, or the Kurds of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Everyone is part of a people group. But some people groups have access to the gospel (such as ours, if you are an English-speaking North American like me), and some do not. Ralph Winter pointed out to the evangelical world that there were still thousands of people groups that no one was trying to reach with the gospel. Unless someone intentionally crossed barriers of language and culture to bring them the good news of Jesus, they would remain lost in darkness. Beginning in the 70s, the focus of evangelical missionary activity shifted more and more toward unreached people groups.
Reaching unreached people is part of the Church’s DNA. The word “ethne” as used in the New Testament did not have in mind international boundaries as we might assume when we hear the word “nations.” The heart of the Church given by the Holy Spirit has always been that all may know, no matter what their ethnicity may be.
At the end of Romans 15, Paul makes an appeal for the believers in Rome to “strive together” with him, which I am sure they did. The Church continues to “strive together” in the cause of the Gospel as we see in the missionary efforts going on around the world. In Paul’s words, we find a recipe for striving together, making common cause in the Gospel.
In Romans 15:20-33, we see that the early Church was 1) united in purpose, 2) united in partnership, and 3) united in prayer.
First, we see that they were united in purpose. We see this in verses 20 and 21.
When Paul says, “and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named,” (Romans 15:20 ESV) he is addressing something that lies at the heart of the Church’s purpose.
Jesus spoke on a number of occasions of the worldwide ambitions of His kingdom. When He ascended to heaven, He left us with orders to “Make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19) When He taught about how the end would come, He said:
And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. ()
Romans 15:21 quotes the prophet Isaiah when it says:
But as it is written, "Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand."
We see in these words the desire for everyone to know and understand the Gospel. The promise of God to Abraham included the words “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The global ambitions of the Church are built on the foundation of love from which grows the passion and desire that everyone might know the truth.
This purpose of God to reach all the families of the earth is shared by us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Having been baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ, we strive as one for the cause of the Gospel. We are united in purpose. Because of this unity of purpose, we are also united in partnership. In Philippians 1:5, Paul even speaks of the partnership of the Gospel.
We see this partnership of the Gospel at work in Romans 15:22-29.
Paul speaks about how he has longed to visit the Roman Church but was hindered because of his continuing work. His work, of course, was preaching the Gospel to those who had never heard. However, the work had progressed to the point that there were Gospel preaching churches in places like Colossae, Philippae, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, and so on. Because the work had progressed to this point, Paul set his sights on regions yet further from Judea and names Spain as his next mission field.
As Paul speaks of his plans, a deep partnership is revealed. The churches of Macedonia and Achaia were sending financial assistance to the Church in Jerusalem. In this act, we see not only love in action but the temporal or physical nature of what is spiritual kinship. Paul states:
For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. ()
One aspect of our partnership in the Gospel is the obligation to support each other. The principle of reciprocity was established in the Law of Moses as the Apostle Paul points out in his letter to the Corinthians.
For it is written in the Law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain." Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. ()
We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have wrestled in prayer and labored for our benefit in the gospel. For example, it was because of farmers, mechanics and their families that I heard the Gospel. They gave of their time, their money and their love so that our small community would have a church, a Sunday school and a vacation Bible school. I owe these people a debt of gratitude that I can never repay. However, I can, as the saying goes, pay it forward. This is the kind of obligation Paul is speaking of in Romans 15:27. This is why he says, “For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.”
In Romans 15:22-29, we see that Paul fully expects both to bless the Roman Church and to be blessed by the Roman Church. He expects to bless them spiritually and to be blessed materially. He assumes they will partner with him in his efforts to reach Spain with the Gospel, and that they will be happy to do so. In this, we see another aspect of our partnership in the Gospel. He expects them to be happy to help because our partnership in the Gospel is a source of much joy and blessing. We cannot measure the joy that comes from knowing that our resources and efforts have brought the truth of the Gospel to those who have never heard, just as we cannot measure the joy of knowing that our children have grown up to love Jesus and follow Him. Our partnership in the Gospel is both an obligation and a privilege.
We have seen how we are united in purpose and partnership. Paul closes this chapter by showing that we are united in prayer. He says:
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, ()
Prayer is where purpose and partnership come together, where the heart for the work and the heart for the people come together in a plea to Heaven for guidance, strength and provision.
Paul asks for prayer for his immediate concerns. He asks for prayer that he would be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, that his offering and service to the saints in Jerusalem would be accepted and that he would be brought safely to Rome.
All three of these request were granted.
The offering and messages from Macedonia and Achaia were successfully delivered.
The unbelievers in Jerusalem made every effort to kill Paul, and God used Roman soldiers and a Roman prison to protect Paul from the hands of his would-be assassins. God used these same efforts and people to transport Paul safely to Rome. In the meantime, Paul had a furlough of study, prayer and ministry in prison for two years in Caesarea, where he ministered to the governing authorities of the region. And, although he was a prisoner, he did make it to Rome with joy and was refreshed in their company just as he had requested in Romans 15:32.
Prayer is where striving together in the Gospel begins. We are united in purpose and partnership, and this finds its expression in our prayers. We communicate with missionaries so that we can know what to pray for specifically, so that our prayers go beyond “God, bless the missionaries.” As we fellowship with each other, we learn of each other’s burdens and concerns so that we can bear each other’s burdens in prayers and petitions on each other’s behalf.
We do not control the results, but we continue faithful in prayer. No one, including Paul, expected their prayers on his behalf to be answered in the way that they were. However, their prayers were answered. Paul’s prayer request was “so that by God’s will I may come to you...” He did not lay out the route or the means for God to get Him to Rome. He most likely had in mind a sea voyage, but probably not as a prisoner. We must not forget that God works all things according to His purposes. The NLT translates Ephesians 1:11 to say, “He makes everything work out according to his plan.”
Prayer is joining together in purpose and partnership with each other and the Holy Spirit to see God’s will accomplished on earth. Jesus told us He is with us until the end of the age. We are to continue striving together until that end, His return, comes.