A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 15:30-32 4) Paul requests prayer for his visits (continued).
Paul’s reference to the will of God in relation to prayer is very significant. He has prayed earlier that ‘now at last by God’s will the way may be opened’ for him to come to Rome (1:10) Here he again prays that *by God’s will* he may come to them. His use of this qualifying clause throws light on both the purpose and the character of prayer, on why and how Christians should pray.
The purpose of prayer is emphatically not to bend God’s will to do ours, but rather to align our will to his. The promise that our prayers will be answered is conditional on our asking ‘according to his will’ (1 Jn.5:14). Consequently every prayer we pray should be a variation on the theme, ‘Your will be done.’ (Mt.6:10).
What about the character of prayer? Some people tell us, in spite of Paul’s earlier statement that ‘we do not know what we ought to pray for’ (8:26), that we should always be precise, specific and confident in what we pray for, and that to add ‘if it be your will’ as a cop-out and incompatible with faith. In response, we need to distinguish between the general and the particular will of God. Since God has revealed his general will for all his people in Scripture (e.g. that we should control ourselves and become a like Christ), we should indeed pray with definiteness and assurance about these things. But God’s particular will for each of us (e.g. regarding a life work and a life partner) has not been revealed in Scripture, so that, in praying for guidance, it is right to add ‘by God’s will’. If Jesus himself did this in the garden of Gethsemane (‘Not my will, but yours be done’ Lk.22:42), and if Paul did it twice in his letter to the Romans, we should do it too. It is not unbelief, but a proper humility (cf. Jas.4:15).
So what happened to Paul’s three prayers, in which he asked the Romans to join him, namely that he might be rescued from unbelievers in Jerusalem, that his gift might be accepted, and that he might succeed in reaching Rome? Were they answered or unanswered? Regarding the middle of the three prayers we do not know, since surprisingly Luke does not refer to the offering in his Acts narrative, although he knows about it, because he accompanied Paul to Jerusalem and records Paul’s statement (when on trial before Felix) that he had come to Jerusalem ‘to bring my people gifts to the poor’ (Acts 24:17). The probability is that the gifts were accepted.
What, then, about the other two petitions? Both received a qualified ‘Yes’: the first ‘yes and No’, the second ‘Yes but’. Was Paul delivered from unbelievers in Jerusalem? ‘No’, in the sense that he was arrested, tried and imprisoned, but also ‘yes’ because three times he was rescued form lynching (Acts 21:30ff.; 22:22ff.; 23:10), once from flogging (Acts 22:25ff.) and once from a plot to kill him (Acts 23:12ff.). Then did he reach Rome? Yes indeed, as Jesus had promised him he would (Acts 23:11), but neither when nor how he had expected, for he arrived about three years later, as a prisoner, and after an almost fatal shipwreck.
So prayer is an essential Christian activity, and it is good to ask people to pray for us and with us, as Paul did. But there is nothing automatic about prayer. Praying is not like using a coin-operated machine or a cash dispenser. The struggle involved in prayer lies in the process of coming to discern God’s will and to desire it above everything else. Then God will work things out providentially according to his will, for which we have prayed. That is why I have called this concluding section ‘The Providence of God in the Ministry of Paul’.
Paul ends this part of his letter with a third benediction, in which, having asked for their prayers, he prays for them again. *The God of peace be with you all. Amen* (33). That he chooses this time to call God *the God of peace* or reconciliation, that peace (shalom) is a central Jewish concern, and that he deliberately writes not ‘with you’ but *with you all* are three suggestive pointers. They seem to indicate that Paul’s mind is preoccupied to the end with Jewish-Gentile unity. As Professor Dunn has aptly put it, ‘Paul the Jew, who is also apostle to the Gentiles, says the Jewish benediction over his Gentile readers’.
Tomorrow: Romans 16:1-16 Paul’s commendation and greetings.