A Commentary by John Stott
So, Paul continues, what Chris has accomplished through him is this: from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ (19b). This is Paul’s succinct and modest summary of ten years of strenuous apostolic labour, including his three heroic missionary journeys. The expression all the way around (kyklo) should probably be translated ‘in a circle’ or ‘in a circuit’. Then one can visualize, or trace on a map, the arc of Pauline evangelism encircling the Eastern Mediterranean. From Jerusalem it goes north to Syrian Antioch, then further north and west through the provinces of Asia Minor, and across the Aegean Sea to Macedonia. From there it leads sough to Achaia, then east across the Aegean Sea again, and via Ephesus back to Antioch and Jerusalem.
But two questions arise. First, did no Paul begin from Antioch, rather than from Jerusalem? Yes and no. Although the first missionary journey was indeed launched from Antioch, the Christian mission itself began in Jerusalem, and after his conversion and commissioning Paul certainly preached in Jerusalem, albeit to Jews. Secondly, did Paul ever evangelize Illyricum? It is situated on the western, Adriatic seaboard of Macedonia, and corresponds approximately to Albania and the southern part of former Yugoslavia today. Certainly Luke gives us in the Acts no account of a Pauline visit to Illyricum. But he leaves room for it, since there is a gap in his narrative of the best part of two years between his leaving Ephesus and his embarking for Jerusalem. While in Macedonia at that time he may well have walked west along the Egnatian Way from Thessalonica, at least to the borders of Illyricum.
This reconstruction would justify Paul’s claim to have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ, or better, to have ‘completed the preaching of the gospel of Christ’ (REB) within this arc. This does not of course mean that Paul had ‘saturated’ the whole area with the gospel, as we might say today. His strategy was to evangelize the populous and influential cities, and plant churches there, and then leave to others the radiation of the gospel into the surrounding villages. So ‘we understand this claim to have completed that trail-blazing, pioneer preaching of it, which he believed it was his own special apostolic mission to accomplish’.
Having plotted on the map the sweeping arc, which represented his ten years of missionary outreach, Paul goes on to explain the consistent pioneer policy, which lay behind it. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known (literally ‘not named’, i.e. ‘not honoured’), so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation (20). Paul was quite clear, as is evident from his teaching about charismata (e.g. 12:3ff.), that Christ calls different disciples to different tasks, and endows them with different gifts to equip them. His own calling and gift as apostle to the Gentiles were to pioneer the evangelization of the Gentile world, and then leave to others, especially to local, residential prebyters, the pastoral care of the churches. He used two metaphors, agricultural and architectural, to illustrate this division of labour, especially as it related to himself and Appolos in Corinth. ‘I plant the seed, Appolos watered it.’ Again, “I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it.’ It was in keeping with this policy that, positively he would evangelize only where Christ was not known, and negatively, he would avoid building on someone else’s foundation.
Rather, that is, instead of departing from his policy, he found that Scripture itself validates it, as it is written:
‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those
who have not heard will understand.’
The prophet was writing about the mission of the Servant of the Lord to ‘sprinkle many nations’, so that they would see and understand what had not so far been told them. Paul sees the prophecy fulfilled in Christ, the true Servant, whom he is proclaiming to the unevangelized.
Paul concludes: This is why I have often (‘all this time’, REB) been hindered from coming to you (22). In the first chapter Paul wrote that he had ‘many times’ planned to visit them, but had so far ‘been prevented’ (1:13), although he did not divulge what had stopped him. Now he does. It had to do with his mission policy. On the one hand, because he was concentrating on pioneer evangelism elsewhere, he was not free to come to them. On the other hand, because the Roman church had not been founded by him, he did not feel at liberty to come and stay. Soon, however, as he is about to explain, he will visit them, since he will only be ‘passing through’ (24) on his way to the unevangelized field of Spain.