As we read Romans 15, we especially prayed that God would speak timely words to us and lead us in our current lives.
Today is December 6, 2020 and the US election results have not yet been released. The coronavirus pandemic is still raging in the United States, and there are various negative news reports and comments spreading beyond the USA. Scores of people have been working at home for a long time, and there are still many uncertainties. We don’t know when the pandemic will end; when we can go back to work; whether it is safe to get a COVID-19 vaccine; who will be the president of the United States; what the future of the United States will be; and how China-US relations will develop. These questions and many others invoke and weaken the hearts of many people, including the hearts of Christians. Many feel confused and are even living in fear. Christians are no exception.
Under such circumstances, what timely words can Romans 15 provide us to comfort our hearts?
Let me first point out that the context of the book of Romans is somewhat similar to our society today. The gospel of the Roman church was very prosperous and believers had strong faith. However, serious racial conflicts occurred in Rome. The conflict between Jews and Gentiles escalated to the point that that all Jews were forced to leave Rome during the reign of Claudius (Acts 18:2). These serious racial conflicts within their society inevitably penetrated the church leading to conflicts between Jewish and Gentile believers within the Roman church.
During the time the Jews were ordered to leave Rome, Priscilla and Aquila had arrived in Corinth from Rome where they met Paul. All three of them were tentmakers. I assume Paul gradually learned about the situation regarding the Roman church through his contact with these two which led him to become burdened with visiting the Roman church. Since the church in Rome had not been founded by Paul and he had never visited it before, we may wonder why Paul was so burdened for them. In my recording of the reading of the book of Romans, I mentioned many times that Paul may have learned about the situation of the Roman church–the conflicts between Gentile and Jewish believers–through Priscilla, Aquila, and others. Therefore, he was particularly burdened to visit them in Rome. He hoped that on his way to preaching the gospel in Spain, he would visit Rome (Romans 15:23-24).
Although Paul had such hopes, he was not sure whether he would make it to Rome since he was mostly determined to go to Jerusalem to bring the financial offering of the Gentile church to the Jewish believers. Paul’s purpose in doing this was to increase fellowship between the Jewish and Gentile believers. Since the Gentile believers had received spiritual blessings from the Jews and Christ and the gospel came from them, Paul also believed that Gentile believers should bring material blessings to the Jews, especially the poor among the saints at Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-27).
However, it was revealed through the prophecy of Agabus and others that if Paul arrived in Jerusalem he would be bound, and his life would be in danger. Therefore, Paul is unsure whether he will really have the opportunity to go to Rome, visit the church there, and go on to Spain through Rome. These were uncertainties for him. Under such circumstances, Paul wrote the book of Romans which is composed of sixteen chapters. Paul wrote to expose the truth of the gospel to the people of the Roman church. In the book of Romans, he specifically mentions that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Jews and Gentiles are both sinners, but all are justified by faith (Romans 3:24).
Romans is like an exhortation letter written to the Jews and Gentiles. It talks about the sins of the Jews and the Gentiles but that God first revealed himself to the Jews (Romans 3:2) and that the ancestry of Christ can be traced back to the Jewish patriarchs (Romans 9:5). In other words, God blesses the Gentiles through the Jews, and Paul uses this illustration to exhort the Gentiles to accept the Jews. On the other hand, Paul also exhorts the Jews to accept the Gentiles because God accepts them.
Romans 15 is the penultimate chapter of the book of Romans. One more chapter and the book is finished. Therefore, at the beginning of this chapter, Paul once again talks about “how Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs” (ESV, Romans 15:8); and how God accepted the Gentiles (Romans 15:9-12).
We can envision the conflict between the Jewish and Gentile believers in the Roman Church. Perhaps it is no less than the racial conflict in American society today. The serious racial conflicts between African Americans and Whites in American society are also reflected in the church. Although I personally don’t think that the former president Donald Trump is racist, he is portrayed as such by some media outlets and, therefore, opposed by most African American churches and believers. I personally believe that Trump was a vessel chosen by God to bring America back to the foundations of a Christian nation. But because racial conflicts penetrate the church, many Christians clash over whether to support Trump or Biden.
Some Christians who support Trump say, “Isn’t it obvious that God has chosen Trump to bring the United States back to its foundation of a Christian nation? Biden and left-wing supporters condone abortion and homosexuality. Shouldn’t every Christian oppose this? If you support Biden, wouldn’t it be like murdering babies and accepting homosexuality? Do you still need to think about this? Shouldn’t you support Trump who favors protecting lives and opposes abortion?” Since many people who oppose Trump believe that Trump is a racist, they claim he does not accept immigrants and even encourages white supremacists trends. They point out his sarcasm when talking about immigrants as leverage for their argument. I know a lot of African American pastors and believers that oppose Trump, some of whom are my seminary classmates and friends on Facebook. According to statistics, in the 2016 presidential election, only 8% of African American voters voted for Trump. Chinese immigrants have split into two factions. One group supports Trump are are called “Trumpists;” the other party is termed “Anti-Trumpists”. The two factions often criticize each other on the internet.
Coupled with the raging pandemic, we Christians live in such an environment. Many people worry about their lives and do not know what the future holds. A lady in our meeting recently commented, “In this situation, how can we hear God’s voice clearly and know what to do?” She admitted that she can’t hear God’s voice clearly and is often confused.
It can be comforting to see that Romans 15 is showing us that even an apostle like Paul, a person living in the center of God’s will, did not fully understand God’s leading. The Bible tells us that we know in part, and we prophesy in part (ESV, 1 Corinthians 13:9). In other words, even if we are prophets and God has spoken to us, what we hear and the pictures we see are not comprehensive. There’s a lot that may still be unclear. Many prophecies were given that Trump would serve a second term of presidency and even that he will eventually win again. However, many things in the natural do not line up with this. Regardless, I firmly believe this will come to pass, but I know many Christians are still in doubt. We have the prophetic words, but we are not sure of their details.
Paul’s situation was similar. He insisted on going to Jerusalem, but Agabus and others told him through the Holy Spirit that he might be bound when he gets there. Still, Paul insisted on going, even if it meant sacrificing his life. Since Paul was not clear about whether he would eventually go to the church in Rome, so he wrote the book of Romans. But when he was in Jerusalem, the Lord stood beside him during the night and encouraged him: “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” (ESV, Acts 23:11) This was something Paul didn’t know before he went to Jerusalem. When he was imprisoned in Jerusalem, then the Lord appeared to encourage him. It’s through the confirmation of Lord’s prophetic words that Paul became sure he would reach Rome. He still hoped to travel from Rome to Spain, but the Bible and historical records unfortunately do not record in detail whether he had eventually arrived in Spain. Perhaps, he was already martyred in Rome before he arrived there. Even after receiving confirmation from the Lord, Paul still did not know about every step of his life.
Therefore, people expecting us (Christians) to know everything today is impossible. We don’t know when the coronavirus will end. We don’t even know who the president of the United States will be. But this is not important. The important thing is that Paul lived completely by faith and hope in God during his process, and he also encourages believers today to live by faith and hope during theirs. This is the inspiration I received when I read Romans 15. I encourage you brothers and sisters joining our Bible Study, not to focus on the difficulties and perplexities of the environment around you, but to focus on God’s laws and His loving nature. We should focus on His promises as well. Just as God opened a path for the Israelites through the Red Sea and saved the Israelites from the hand of the Philistines, He will also save us from today’s Pharaohs and enemies. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He is eternal. He saved us in the past, He will also save us now. Since He loves us, He will save us to the end (Hebrews 7:25).
Paul had experienced a great deal of suffering in his life, but he was full of endurance and hope in his suffering. He said, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” (ESV, Romans 5:3-5) In his suffering, Paul developed faith, joy, endurance, character and hope. Hope did not put him to shame, but rather elevated him to stand victoriously before God.
Today, we Christians experience suffering. We may not fully understand God’s will and His presence in our society. Therefore, during these times, God wants us to learn how to endure and have faith amidst crises. We need to know God’s laws and His loving nature. We need to also know and trust that He will save us even to the end. If we are rooted in Him and if we rest in Him, we will be saved because God’s word tells us, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (ESV, Isaiah 30:15) Paul also said in Romans 16:20 (ESV), “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” At this time, we Christians should live out our faith with endurance and be full of hope for God’s promises and salvation. We should also be full of peace and should not be restless with the changes happening around us including uncertain rumors. Remember, our victory lies in resting in the Lord! The result of certain things according to God will be manifest, but the process is also important. It is a process of maturing our faith and endurance. We cannot overlook the process.
The verses I prayed and sang this week were Romans 15:5-6 and 15:13. These are Paul’s exhortations in this chapter. Verses 5-6 (ESV) say, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here, Paul identified God as the God of endurance and encouragement! When the Jewish and Gentile believers in the Roman church were in conflict, Paul encouraged everyone to endure and accept each other in love. He prayed that the God of endurance and encouragement would allow Jewish and Gentile believers to accept each other in Christ Jesus that they may live in harmony with one another. This is also good encouragement for the American Church today. Verse 13 of Romans 15 (ESV) says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” I spent time this week praying this verse. This verse again mentions that God is the God of hope. Because of our faith, we are filled with joy and peace. We will also abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Several of us who read this verse felt that this is what the Holy Spirit is really saying to us today. In the current, difficult atmosphere of the United States, we must learn to be rooted in the Lord, exercise our faith and endurance, and be full of joy and peace. Let us be filled with the Holy Spirit and be full of hope for God and the future.
I recall hearing a preacher state that when the great revival is approaching, God will allow turmoil to happen in society. The turmoil includes plagues, wars, and disasters. The purpose of these is to shake people’s hearts and shake everything that can be shaken, so as to produce an unshakable kingdom (Hebrews 12:28). At this time, churches and Christians are like medical teams prepared by God. They are called and trained by God to find the injured, bind up their wounds and preach the gospel to them. The best time to preach the gospel is during times of turmoil. Turbulent environments are environments set up by God to shocks unbelievers by allowing them to see that believers are living in peace, joy, endurance and hope amidst the turbulence. Although Christians are touched by it, they demonstrate a trust in God thus showing unbelievers that God does exist. These unbelievers will therefore trust and accept the Lord. Unfortunately, many Christians are as panicky and fearful as the people of the world, thus they cannot fulfill God’s call and become a witness for Jesus Christ. Instead of rushing out to the battlefield to heal the wounded and rescue the dying, some people are hiding in the trenches because of fear. I recall jokingly hearing that the people who hide in the trenches because of fear of death often cannot escape the cannonball attack. The turbulent atmosphere raised up by God is not for the purpose of judging the church, but the world. The church brings salvation and is a lighthouse and a doctor when the world experiences turmoil. If we, Christians, are afraid and anxious, how can we be a lighthouse in the storm?
In one of my prophetic dreams, I saw an angel stretching out a huge stick from heaven to the ocean on earth. He began to stir it and after which, I saw the waves surging. Many people’s houses were destroyed and people were running for their lives. I found myself, however, miraculously swimming to a safe place. My interpretation is that the time of turmoil is just beginning. The purpose of turmoil is to shake people’s hearts and bring in the great harvest of the gospel. Those who are living God’s will, who testify to the Lord and preach the gospel, will receive His miraculous protection. We must seize the opportunity to preach the gospel. We must especially live in peace, joy, endurance and hope so that the God of peace can crush Satan under our feet.
Peace is our greatest weapon during chaotic times. John Wesley once preached the gospel to American Indians. His results were not good and instead very frustrating. On his way back to England, the ship encountered a huge wave during its voyage. The passengers on the ship screamed in terror, and Wesley was also very frightened. He then saw a group of Moravian brothers gathered very quietly in the front singing hymns. Their faith in God moved Wesley deeply and it caused Wesley to recognize his lack of faith. This became a spiritual turning point in Wesley’s life. Later, Wesley became a devoted servant of God and brought great revival to England. This shows that Christians living in faith and peace in God are a very strong testimony.
I still have countless prophetic dreams. In some of these dreams, God has told me that this world will go through a lot of fierce turmoil and immense spiritual warfare. But God has a beautiful purpose. Countless people will enter the unshakable Kingdom of God because of this. We should not simply hope that the turmoil will pass. We should learn to endure, have faith, and be full of joy, peace, and hope during the turmoil.
Peter said, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (ESV, 1 Peter 1:6-9) Paul also had the same experience as Peter. His life was full of trials and hardships, but he lived in joy, peace, endurance and hope. Paul continually urges believers to pray and live out this same experience.
This is the inspiration and the timely words of the Holy Spirit that we received when reading Romans 15 in our group time. I hope these words will encourage any Christians who are currently dealing with anxiety. Don’t worry, God sits on the throne and reigns. He controls everything. We just need to turn our hearts to Him. If we sin, we should repent and. We may also pray that the world repent and be saved. God will surely guard us amidst our difficulties! Since He loves us, He will save us to the end. Because Jesus Christ, our high priest, lives forever! We should become ministers of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (ESV, Romans 15:16). This is God’s will for us! May we receive endurance and encouragement from the God of endurance and encouragement! May we get hope from the God of hope!