Lesson 59: Romans 15:30-33
Confident Prayers for an Unknown Future
by Bob Burridge ©2012
When I was in Jr. High I was taught how to play the trumpet by my dad and some other musicians who were happy to help me with my technique. In 7th grade I decided to try out for the school orchestra. When I was awarded my blue sweater with the gold school emblem on it, I was assigned to the second trumpet section.
I reported to my first section practice with excitement and enthusiasm. But it wasn’t a very enjoyable experience. There we were, all of us second-trumpeters in a little practice room playing what seemed to be a meaningless string of notes that had little beauty in them. We spent a good bit of the time just counting and waiting for the next moment to join together with a few seemingly non-melodic sounds.
I was feeling rather discouraged about it. I wanted to play music, not just practice exercises that made no sense. All the practice sessions were the same way. This was what we were going to play in public? Our great first performance, which was sure to be attended by my parents and seen by all the other kids at school, was going to be a horrible embarrassment.
I remember the moment when the whole orchestra first gathered in the orchestra pit in front of the massive stage in the school auditorium. It was our first rehearsal of all the sections together. As I sat there I kept thinking to myself how sad that instead of a real piece of music, we were going to be playing these stupid exercises that didn’t even have a good melody to them. I imagined what it might have been like to have a more musically gifted conductor who would pick better music for us.
Then the moment came. The conductor stepped up onto his platform, made a few friendly remarks to us, then gave us a very serious look, raised his baton, and we all started. The whole orchestra actually started at once. I could hardly believe my ears! This was music! Our little notes filled in around all the parts the other instruments were playing. The blend of individual sounds merged into a wonderful arrangement. All through that session I could hardly wait until I found out how each little passage we had been practicing fit in with the whole sound.
As the rehearsal progressed, we had to stop a few times while certain sections had to go over their part so that it was just right. Then we would play it again as a whole until we ran into another problem that had to be worked out. As the session moved toward the end of the arrangement, and as each individual learned how to do his part just right, it all came together in the most wonderful way.
When the day came for us all to put on our sharp dark blue sweaters, and gather with our freshly polished instruments in front of family and all our school friends, the sweaty palms were not from embarrassment over our own seemingly meaningless notes. They were over the anticipation of doing justice to the great piece of music we were about to present.
There is a similar sense in which we all take part in God’s great plan. We have our individual assignments. They may seem small, unimportant, disconnected, or even rather ugly at times. But together, they are part of an unimaginably wonderful design. There will come a day, when we will see it all blend together in un-anticipated beauty. Until that time, it is our duty to responsibly learn, and carry out our individual parts.
One of those duties is prayer. We often pray concerning things about which we have little knowledge. We never know how God will direct the exact outcome of any situation. Certainly we don’t imagine that we have the responsibility of telling God what’s best for him to do. So how then should we pray? What should we expect as we pray? This next section of Romans is a good example by which we can examine this issue.
Paul asked the Romans for their prayers as he went on to Jerusalem.
Romans 15:30, “Now I beg you, brethren, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in prayers to God for me,”
Paul did not make a mere mild suggestion for them to pray. He urged them, in no uncertain terms, to battle together with him before God. The word translated as “strive together” is sun-ag-o-NIZ-o-mai (συναγωνιζομαι). It literally means to “fight, combat, contend, or struggle along with someone”. In Paul’s day the root word was often used in a military sense of combat, or of the struggle to win a wrestling match (the Olympic type, not the Smack down type).
Obviously Paul did not view prayer as a mere formal exercise, or simply as a scheduled item for a daily check list. He saw their prayers as their joining with him in his spiritual battle for Christ’s glory.
When Paul wrote to the Ephesian church about the spiritual struggle they were in, he compared the spiritual armor and weapons with implements of war. At the end of the list in Ephesians 6:18, he mentioned the importance of prayer. When we contend with spiritual enemies he said we must do so, “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints”
Our Missionaries, Pastors, Elders, and our fellow congregation members, all need prayer support in their daily battle for the Gospel of Christ.
Paul appealed to what bound them together in life and mission.
First: Their prayers were to be made through the Lord Jesus Christ. The wording means that we pray by means of, or on account of our Savior. Unless we pray as people redeemed by grace, we have no right to stand before God, and no authority to speak about our hearts desires with him. There is no promise in all of the Bible that God uses the prayers of unbelievers as a part of his blessings and workings here on earth. Praying “in the name of Jesus” is not just a phrase we plug in that leads up to the “Amen”. It means that we consciously approach God in prayer as a person who knows that he only has access to the holy throne because of the Cross of Jesus.
Second: Their prayers were to be made through the love of the Spirit. Just as we are made acceptable to pray by the work of Christ to redeem us, so also we are stirred to prayer by the love the Holy Spirit implants into our hearts. The Spirit’s love for us emerges in our changed attitude which provokes us to pray out of love for one another. What a marvelous foundation God lays down here as the groundwork for our mutual prayers!
Then Paul asked them to pray very specifically for three matters.
Romans 15:31-32, “that I may be delivered from those in Judea who do not believe, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, that I may come to you with joy by the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you.”
First: He asked them to pray for his deliverance on his trip to Judea. There were two different groups of Jews in the land of the Judea. There were the Jews who believed in the promises of God. These were the ones who recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Paul calls them the saints at the end of verse 31. There were also those who did not believe. They were the ones who refused to submit to the message of the ancient prophets. They had twisted the law of Moses into a perverted system of salvation by works. They proudly saw themselves as having exclusively earned God’s favor. When they realized how contrary the message of Christ was to their Rabbinic religion, they became more violent persecutors than the pagan Romans.
Generally, the Gentiles had no problem when the Christian messengers came to town. Individuals sometimes caused trouble when their evil businesses were effected. But in most cases, it was the unbelieving Jews who stirred up the crowds against the Christians.
Several times these Jews plotted to have Paul killed. They saw their own traditions and beliefs threatened by the popularity of the gospel. Just before he wrote this letter, his travel plans had been re-routed through Macedonia when the Jews plotted to kill him (Acts 20:3). So Paul asked them to pray for deliverance from them when he got to Jerusalem.
There are often real dangers in bringing the message of God’s judgment against the kingdom of evil. Those who truly hate the truth of God will also hate those who carry his message. There is much more tolerance for the varieties of false religion, even for moral perversions, than there is for the real truth of God.
Fallen hearts hate the idea of a God who is truly Sovereign, and despise a salvation that is by grace alone.
At the root of our fallen souls, we rebel against the fact that there is a God with standards that condemn us. In that inherited depravity from Adam, we want a god who caters to our own whims, one who is ultimately bound by the permission we give him to do his work. That is how depraved our human nature is at its unredeemed root.
That’s why the true gospel message is so disliked and often meets with violent persecution. As long as you just talk about religion and morality in general, people smile, nod in agreement, and assume you are on the same page with them. But, when you get down to the distinctives of real Christianity their toleration fades.
The matters that divide us are these:
1. There is a truly Sovereign God who made all things, and who rules all things absolutely. God is not there just to give us a good time. He made all things for his glory. Our only true joy is in making that our goal in life and in the life to come. This means we have to submit our luxuries and lusts to his holy will.
2. We are depraved in Adam, and can only do good and find salvation by God’s provision. This means that all our rituals, good deeds, and human efforts are stained with sin. It means we cannot take credit for our accomplishments, aside from first acknowledging God as the source of every good. The message of grace alone being extended to unworthy creatures is distasteful to the fallen soul. It rips off its mask and exposes the ugly side that proves we need Christ as our only hope. It means we need regeneration, not just a nurturing of some natural good that resides in all of us.
The fallenness of the creature is most starkly revealed in his refusing absolute subjection to his Creator.
Paul could have just worked with the unbelieving Jews in their common struggle against the political and social abuses of the pagan Roman government. He could have just talked about Moses and the Prophets in generalities that would not have rocked their theological boat. But God called him to tell the truth in love. That created a great danger to him, as it does to us as well.
Paul’s prayer also shows a godly concern for his own life. He was willing, but not careless, to lose it for the Lord. Preservation of life is an important and God honoring concern. Our lives are not just ours for indulging our fantasies or gratifying our comforts. Our lives are an entrustment from God to be enjoyed in serving him and caring for his creation.
The ancient Christian writer Ignatius once asked people to pray that he would be honored with the crown of martyrdom rather than to be preserved from his enemies. What a different attitude the Apostle Paul and the prophets had than Ignatius. They were certainly willing to give their lives for God’s honor and truth rather than deny him. But they neither sought to die, nor were ever careless about preserving their safety. Here Paul shows us that it is right to ask others to pray for our safety as we face dangers.
Next, Paul asked them to pray that his service for Jerusalem would be accepted. The Jews who believed in Jesus as their Messiah, also presented a challenge. Some of them still had a negative attitude toward the Gentile believers. They still considered them as outsiders.
As we saw in the last study, the Jewish believers in Jerusalem were suffering great hardships. Paul was bringing financial help which had been sacrificially given by the Gentile believers in Macedonia and Achaia. Paul wanted the Romans to pray that the relief he was bringing would have a good result. His desire was that it would demonstrate how the fruit of the Holy Spirit was at work in the hearts of the Gentile believers, that it would help the Jews accept them better. If this gift would produce true gratitude among the Jews for the gospel effect in the Gentiles, it might help heal the racial and cultural tension that troubled the church there.
Finally, he asked them to pray that he would find joy and refreshment when he came to them. The refreshment he had in mind was spiritual though, not physical. Paul looked forward to the fellowship he hoped to have at Rome after his rewarding trip to Jerusalem. It is a wonderful thing to be able to be among other believers reflecting together upon God’s Sovereign love and grace at work.
So, how were the Apostle’s prayer requests answered? They did not come to pass in the way he evidently expected.
First: Did God deliver him from the raging anger of the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem? The Jews there persecuted him. They falsely accused him of violating the temple and had him arrested. Some of them took a vow that they would assassinate him. But he was delivered from their fanatical violence. God even used the laws of the pagan Roman Empire to ensure his safety. Prayer answered. His enemies failed to silence God’s messenger, and he was preserved to be able to continue his ministry.
Second: Did he see the Jews accept the Gentile’s kindness? It does not directly tell us. We do see that as time went on the distinctions of Jew and Gentile disappeared in the church. Probably his mission produced some of that healing in the attitude of the believing Jews who were slow in accepting the changes God was making as his promises were fulfilled. There is no reason to doubt that it did.
Third: Did Paul come to Rome with joy and find refreshing rest among the believers there? His arrival there was not under the kind of circumstances in which the world would find reason for rejoicing. At Jerusalem he was falsely accused, arrested, jailed, beaten, his life threatened, bound over to Caesar, shipwrecked on the way to Rome, bitten by a poisonous snake — hardly the way Paul would have foreseen the prayers being answered.
However, God did bring him there with joy. Paul’s expectation and prayer request was that his mission would honor God in the greatest way and bring him to them rejoicing. It did.
Though he arrived as a prisoner, he came with excitement about what God was doing. He was able to bring the Gospel message to Rome personally. He had access to people who otherwise would never have listened to what he had to say. From prison he wrote in Philippians 1:12, “But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel.”
He came rejoicing in the Roman’s fellowship and in all that God had done. In many of his prison letters Paul sends greetings from those in Rome, those with whom he found joyful fellowship and encouragement. As he said in his prison letter to Philippi, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.” (Philippians 4:11)
Those who received this letter in Rome, and who prayed as Paul requested could be pleased to know that God moved them to be part of the advancement of his Kingdom. The Apostle had been kept alive, a step toward unifying the church had taken place, the gospel was taken to some who had not heard it before, and the believers involved found great spiritual refreshment together as they rejoiced with the Apostle.
So, how do we pray concerning the unknown plan of God? We know that since God is unchanging and all powerful, whatever he has decreed cannot, and thankfully should not, be changed. That’s not what godly prayers are designed to accomplish.
Why then should we bother to pray? If nothing changes that God has known for all eternity, then what can our prayers really do? Are they just empty exercises done for our psychological benefit? Or if our prayers could actually change what the Creator originally decreed as best, then do our prayers become the final god over the universe? Absolutely neither of these views is consistent with what the Bible teaches.
God decrees not only the final outcome, but also all the means by which it comes to pass. One of the wonderful tools he uses in carrying out his plan is prayer offered by his redeemed people. Not just the prayers of the great Apostles and Prophets. Not just the prayers of Ministers, Elders and Deacons. God uses the prayers of somewhat immature new converts like those Paul was writing to in Rome. He uses the prayers of the parents, teachers, barbers, sales representatives, plumbers, drivers, cooks, engineers — people at every level of society and skill.
Yes, God could just do it and let us observe; but instead he includes us, and calls us to serve.
When we wrestle in prayer, and ask him to bless;
when we cling to the truth which by grace we confess,
when we hope in the promise, and call in his name;
when we rest in the One who has shouldered our shame,
we are there in the process he decreed at the start;
we are used as loved children, each doing his part.
God commands us to pray, and he tells us that it matters. Rather than philosophizing about things far beyond our knowledge, we should simply rejoice to be a part of the rise and fall of nations, the victories of the gospel as it makes dramatic changes in otherwise hopeless lives, and the wonders performed by surgeons, teachers, pastors, and moms.
Then Paul ends this wonderful section of his letter with a prayer of benediction.
Romans 15:33, “Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.”
The Apostle’s own prayer is directed toward all who in faith read these words. For him and for his readers in Rome, unsettling times were ahead. They were about to face intense persecutions, wars, divisions, heresies, confusion, and many tragic deaths. Yet through it all, what ever the circumstances, by the prayers of sinners saved by grace the peace of the God who upholds all things was with them. Jesus promised saying, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Paul he seals his benedictory prayer with an “Amen”. It is a confident affirmation that it is truth. What a wonderful way to end our prayers!
Just as their prayers were but a little part of the whole of God’s plan, so also was Paul’s trip to Jerusalem, his arrest, the false charges, the jail time, the plots against his life, and his dangerous trip on the sea. The same is true of our lunch hour, our trip to the store, the good night kiss on the cheeks of our children, the hug after school, the homework paper, the business deal, all we do every day for God’s glory. Much of it might seem mundane, disconnected, even ugly at times when the pieces stand alone. But together, they make up the whole which is the arrangement by God, the orchestrator of the wonderful symphony of everything.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)