REFLECTING ON PAST MINISTRY SHOULD CAUSE US TO GIVE ALL CREDIT TO GOD
Frank Thielman: The next section (15:17–21) continues to describe the shape that God’s apostolic call has given to Paul’s ministry, but shifts from the present letter to Paul’s past work. “Therefore” (οὖν) in the first sentence signals a transition to the new section, and this first sentence is itself transitional, pointing back to Paul’s general description of his call in 15:16 and forward to the examples he will give in 15:18–21 of what Christ has accomplished through him among the gentiles in the past. The last part of this section ends with a general principle that Paul observes in all his work and explains why his past work had stretched over such a large area. He was “eager to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named” so that he “might not build on another’s foundation” (15:20–21). This provides an effective transition to a discussion of his future work in the next section, which will include the surprising news that he will not stay in Rome for long but will quickly press on to Spain, where Christ has not been named.
R. Kent Hughes: Paul mentions here at least three marvelous happenings in his life:
- Gentiles came to belief,
- signs and wonders accompanied his ministry, and
- he himself preached the entire 1,400 miles from Jerusalem to Illyricum, which is in present-day Yugoslavia. Not bad—especially in sandals!
But Paul takes no credit. Christ did it through him.
John Toews: Paul knows that boasting is dangerous. He immediately qualifies his boasting, therefore, by asserting that he does not dare to speak about anything except what Christ has accomplished through me (v. 18). Paul is only an agent for doing the work of Christ. The goal of that work is the obedience of the Gentiles in word and work. In 1:5 the goal was the faithful obedience of the Gentiles, here it is the holistic obedience (speech and behavior) of the Gentiles. Paul has worked toward that goal in power … by means of the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 19a). The gospel is the power of God (1:16) and Paul has served that gospel in power. The evidence of that power is signs and wonders, Jewish language for describing the miracles of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. The significance of Paul’s mission is parallel to the Exodus event—just as Moses led Israel from slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the promised land so Paul has led the Gentiles from slavery in Sin and exclusion from God’s people into the eschatological people of God.
John Witmer: Paul recognized that all credit goes to Christ. And yet Paul was involved; God worked by what he had said and done. The apostle had been used by God to perform signs (simeion, miracles that signify theological truths) and miracles (teraton, miracles that produce wonder). . . And all this, Paul said, was through the power of the Spirit (cf. Rom. 15:13). Anything Paul achieved that was worthy of praise had God’s grace as its source, Jesus Christ as its motivation and goal, and the Holy Spirit as its energy. . . Paul purposed to be a true pioneer evangelist, opening virgin territory to the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
J. Ligon Duncan: In this brief passage (:14-21), Paul tells us something of his plan and pattern of ministry. He tells us of his desire to go to places where the gospel had not been heard. He tells us about his desire to see people converted to Christ who have never heard His name named. He tells us about his desire, not simply to be the one who sees a person make a profession of faith in Christ, but the one who sees a person built up by the Holy Spirit, changed, transformed, growing, a real disciple. He tells the Romans why he wrote to them and why he wrote so boldly and he gives a beautiful estimation what he sees in them in terms of the spirits work in sanctification. I would like to look at some of those things with you tonight. Paul is not just describing for us something that has no relevance to other Christians but himself. He’s not just telling you how he went about his business because he wanted to talk about himself. Paul is sharing with us his designs in ministry and his desires in ministry and his goals in ministry and his pattern in ministry because he wants these things to capture our hearts too. He wants us to think in these terms in the way we relate to one another. He wants us to think in these terms as we view ourselves as disciples in the world who are witnesses to the Lord Jesus Christ.
I. (:17) REFLECTING ON PAST MINISTRY ALLOWS US TO BOAST IN WHAT GOD HAS ACCOMPLISHED THROUGH US
“Therefore in Christ Jesus I have found reason for boasting in things pertaining to God.”
Frank Thielman: The article (τήν) points back to 15:15–16 and shows that the “boast” Paul refers to is his call to evangelize and instruct the gentiles and to present them, as a priest might, to God. He points out that he only has this boast because he is “in Christ Jesus” and that the boast itself consists only of “the things that pertain to God.” It is, therefore, qualitatively different than either ethnic boasting (3:27; 11:18) or boasting in one’s own works (4:2), both of which the gospel excludes. Nevertheless, the boast is only possible because Paul possessed a certain role and competence that qualified him to speak boldly, even to gentile believers in a city that he had never visited.
Thomas Schreiner: The “therefore” signals that his boast is in what God has done on his behalf, for it is God who commissioned him as the apostle to the gentiles and it is God who ordained that his offering of the gentiles would be pleasing in his sight.
Bruce Hurt: “Seeing I have received this office from God and am appointed a minister of the Gospel to the Gentiles, I have confidence and rejoice.” Since in the previous verses Paul has asserted his divine appointment as an apostle, he shows, in this and the following verses, that the assertion was well founded, as God had crowned his labors with success and sealed his ministry with signs and wonders. Therefore, he was entitled as a minister of God to exhort and admonish his brothers with the boldness and authority which he had used in this letter.
Douglas Moo: Because God is the One who has given Paul this service, he can legitimately “glory” in it (v. 17). Glorying or boasting in something can be wrong when we are trying to take credit for our own achievement (cf. 2:17, 23; 3:27; 4:2–3), but it is appropriate when it is the product of God’s own work (cf. 5:2, 3, 11).
John Schultz: Boasting, like humility, is always a fragile matter; it evaporates when you touch it. The only reason Paul mentions it here is because he intends to visit the church in Rome and he wants them to be prepared to receive a blessing. That is why he writes in vs. 19: “I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.” In his first epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle stated the same principle: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” If we have identified ourselves with Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection and if we have turned over to Him to control of our life, we may, in humble appreciation, boast in what God does in and through us in blessing other people. Denying that God uses us is not a sign of humility; it can be a form of well-disguised pride.
II. (:18-19) REFLECTING ON PAST MINISTRY GIVES GOD ALL THE CREDIT FOR THE POSITIVE RESULTS
A. (:18a) Positive Results through the Agency of Christ
“For I will not presume to speak of anything
except what Christ has accomplished through me,”
Frank Thielman: Paul’s boast is in no way a claim to special status or power for himself, but only an explanation of why he claims apostolic authority among the gentiles.
James Dunn: Note the balance of Χριστὸς διʼ ἐμοῦ: anything achieved has been done by Christ; but the agency is Paul’s. This is the emphasis which Paul wants to retain in any assessment of his work.
Everett Harrison: He restricts his glorying to Christ Jesus (cf. Gal 6:13, 14), the one he serves as a minister (cf. v. 16). This relationship means not only that the glory goes to the Savior, but also that as the minister of Christ Paul must depend on him for everything that is accomplished in connection with his mission. Paul is only the instrument by which God brings Gentiles to obey him in faith and life (cf. 1:5). Christ is the one ultimately responsible as he continues to work through his servant (cf. Acts 1:1).
B. (:18b-19a) Positive Results by the Power of the Spirit
- (:18b) Acceptance of the Gospel by the Gentiles
“resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed,”
Frank Thielman: The obedience that Paul speaks of here probably includes both believing the gospel (1:5; 10:16) and living in a way that is pleasing to God (6:16), and the “word” and “work” that brought about this obedience is probably the preaching of the gospel (cf. 10:17) and the signs and wonders that accompanied this preaching (15:19; cf. 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5).
James Dunn: It was this Christ who was the authority behind both Paul’s gospel and Paul’s mission (in Paul’s eyes the two were one anyway; hence again the tight cohesion of the central block of the letter with the personal explanations on either side of it). And not only the authority, remote and exalted in a distant heaven, but the one who was in fact acting through Paul. This is why Paul could boast, because he could take no credit for what he had done. And what Christ had done, and not just Paul, was to work “for the obedience of the Gentiles.” The recall of a key motif from 1:5 is no doubt deliberate since it ties together precisely a key theme of Jewish covenant self-awareness (obedience) and Paul’s outreach to the Gentiles: it is precisely Paul’s claim that the obligations of the covenant were being fulfilled in the faith response of the Gentiles.
John Piper: The deeds have a supporting role. They are not the direct means of saving people the way the word is. Deeds cannot tell the story of the death and resurrection of Christ with its saving meaning. Only words can. So the deeds have value as they confirm the word. That’s the way Luke explained the relationship between word and deed in Acts 14:3. Paul and Barnabas were in Iconium, and Luke says, “So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly [word!] for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands [deeds!].” God bore witness to the word of his grace. That was the function of the deeds. They witness to the truth and value of the word.
- (:19a) Authenticating Manifestations of the Power of the Spirit
“in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit;”
Thomas Schreiner: Paul’s “signs and wonders” refer to the miracles that attested to the truth of the gospel he proclaimed (cf. 2 Cor. 12:12; cf. also Acts 2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12; Heb. 2:4). In other words, the signs and wonders are designed to bring about the obedience of the gentiles. The terms “signs” and “wonders” reach back to the exodus, in which God’s salvation was accomplished with “signs and wonders” (Exod. 7:3; Deut. 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 26:8; 34:11; Neh. 9:10; Ps. 104:27 LXX [105:27 Eng.]; Add. Esth. 10:9; Bar. 2:11). Here the signs and wonders accomplished through Paul are tokens of the inauguration of the new age, and verify the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Douglas Moo: “Signs and wonders” (NIV “miracles”) is standard biblical terminology for miraculous acts that accompany and give credence to God’s Word. The phrase is especially prominent in Old Testament descriptions of the Exodus (e.g., Ex. 7:3, 9; 11:9–10; Deut. 4:34; Ps. 78:43) and in the book of Acts (e.g., Acts 2:22, 43; 4:30; 5:12; 14:3; 15:12). Paul perhaps uses this expression to signal his importance in salvation history. God works miracles through him because he is God’s “point man” to open up the Gentile world to the gospel.
James Dunn: For the first and only time Paul gives an overview of his missionary work. He speaks of the power of signs and wonders, the power of God’s Spirit as characterizing the work through him. Once again the overtones and allusions would be clear to his readers: Paul’s ministry as continuous with and manifesting the same power/finger of God as every Jew knew to have characterized the Exodus (e.g., Exod 7:3; 8:19); Christ’s ministry through Paul in the power of the Spirit as the eschatological equivalent of the epochal ministry of Moses (cf. Matt 12:28//Luke 11:20). As Moses had established the first assembly/church of God in the old epoch, so Christ through Paul was now establishing the redefined people of God for the end time.
Charles Spurgeon: The power that is in the Gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher, otherwise men would be the converters of souls, nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning, otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of men. We might preach until our tongues rotted, till we would exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless the Holy Spirit be with the Word of God to give it the power to convert the soul.
C. (:19b) Accomplishment of the Foundational Gospel Proclamation
“so that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum
I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.”
Frank Thielman: He had in view neither the chronology of his travels nor the ethnicity of those to whom he preached but simply his role in taking the gospel at various times to various locations between the two geographical endpoints of Jerusalem in the east and Illyricum in the west.
John Murray: Paul had discharged his commission and fulfilled the design of his ministry within the wide area specified.
Thomas Schreiner: Paul also begins with Jerusalem because of the salvation-historical priority of the Jews (Schnabel 2016: 824), not because his ministry began in Jerusalem. We cannot know for certain whether Paul preached in Illyricum (roughly the area of modern Albania and former Yugoslavia). The preposition μέχρι (mechri, until) could include that area or exclude it, and thus all the verse requires is that his preaching extended near the borders of Illyricum. . .
This hardly means that every village or town had heard the gospel. Paul’s strategy was apparently to plant churches in key cities, and from there coworkers would fan out and evangelize smaller towns (cf. Epaphras in Colossians; so Hofius 2002a: 2, 4). He believed that his foundational work was completed in the region, and thus he planned to further the work in areas where gentile churches were not yet established. Establishing churches didn’t occur in a day. As S. Porter (2015: 281) says, “For Paul preaching the good news meant more than simply proclaiming the good news and then leaving. For Paul, preaching the good news meant trying to bring his hearers to faith in Jesus Christ and the establishment of a community of believers. This took time and effort.”
Douglas Moo: Paul has brought to the divinely ordained climax his commission to plant thriving, self-reproducing churches throughout the region he has described.6 He is now, therefore, in a position to move on.
Bruce Hurt: Pleroo is also used of John the Baptist who “fulfilled his course (of life)” (Acts 13:25+). He completed His God-given assignment and so too did Paul fulfill his Gospel assignment.
Everett Harrison: How well has Paul fulfilled his task in proclaiming the gospel as a minister of Christ? He now affords his readers a glimpse into his activity over many years (v. 19b). There is no account of churches founded or the number of converts or the sufferings entailed in all this service. Paul is content to draw a great arc reaching from Jerusalem to Illyricum (a Roman province northwest of Macedonia) to mark the course of his labors. Years – perhaps as many as ten – were spent in Syria and Cilicia before his ministry in Antioch that led in turn to travels in Asia Minor and Greece and establishing congregations in those areas. Luke’s account of Paul’s final visit to Macedonia and Achaia before going up to Jerusalem for the last time is very brief (Acts 20:1, 2). Yet it is at least possible that a visit to Illyricum or its border was made before settling down at Corinth for the winter. The Egnatian Way would have made travel easy from Thessalonica to the Adriatic Sea. Paul mentions Illyricum probably because he was closer to Italy there than he had ever been before. We can picture him anticipating in Illyricum the day when he would be free to cross the water and set foot in Italy, making contact with the Roman church.
The statement “I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ” is not intended to mean that he had preached in every community between the two points mentioned but that he had faithfully preached the message in the major communities along the way, leaving to his converts the more intensified evangelizing of surrounding districts. His ministry in Jerusalem was brief and met with great resistance, for he was a marked and hated man for abandoning the persecution of the church that he had carried on with such vigor in Jerusalem (Acts 9:28, 29). But the very fact that it was attempted at all displayed his determination to fulfill that part of his commission that included Israel (Acts 9:15). His habit of visiting the synagogues wherever he went points in the same direction.
III. (:20-21) REFLECTING ON PAST MINISTRY REINFORCES OUR AMBITION
A. (:20) Paul’s Ambition as a Gospel Pioneer
“And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named,
that I might not build upon another man’s foundation;”
Denney: The duty of an Apostle was with the foundation, not the superstructure. I Cor. iii. 10.
William Hendriksen: Paul considered himself to be a trail-blazer for the gospel, a pioneer missionary, a founder of churches. He planted. Now let an “Apollos” come to water the seeds! See 1 Cor. 3:6. That this basic program did not in any way prevent the apostle from visiting an already flourishing congregation in order to enjoy and impart the blessings of Christian fellowship and even to preach a few sermons there, must be granted. But the apostle’s main aim was to proclaim the good tidings to those who had not yet heard this uplifting message. His ambition was to establish new foundations (churches), not to build upon someone else’s foundation.
B. (:21) Paul’s Ambition as the Apostle to the Gentiles
“but as it is written, ‘They who had no news of Him shall see,
And they who have not heard shall understand.’”
Thomas Schreiner: Paul’s call to preach Christ where he has not yet been acknowledged is vindicated by Isa. 52:15, one of the servant songs, in which gentiles who have not heard will see and understand through the ministry of the servant of the Lord. That gentiles are intended by Isaiah is clear because the same verse says that “he will sprinkle [i.e., cleanse from their sins] many nations” (NIV). Paul scarcely thinks of himself as the servant in this verse, since the proclamation is “concerning him” (περὶ αὐτοῦ, peri autou), that is, the servant, Jesus. Paul’s role throughout the passage is as the proclaimer, the one who “announces” (ἀνηγγέλη, anēngelē) and helps people hear (ἀκηκόασιν, akēkoasin). Thus in the Isaiah citation Paul discerns his call to proclaim the gospel where Christ has not yet been heralded.
Grant Osborne: Paul quotes from part of Isaiah 52:15 to show that those who had been ignorant of God’s Word would respond positively to the Messiah. Isaiah predicted how surprised the Gentile nations would be when they saw the humiliation and exaltation of God’s Servant, the Messiah. Paul uses this prophetic word to affirm the need for his missionary efforts to the Gentiles.
John Murray: This text is derived from a context in which the world-wide effects of Messiah’s sacrifice are in view and the appropriateness of the application to the apostle’s Gentile ministry is apparent. He conceives of his own work as the minister of Christ to be conducted in pursuance of this prophecy and, therefore, as not only in accord with God’s design but as specifically demanded by this Scripture.