A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 15:14-22. His apostolic service.
Paul begins by expressing his confidence in his Roman readers. *I myself am convinced, my brothers*, he writes, *that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another* (14). He is of course engaging in a little harmless, diplomatic hyperbole. But it would be unfair to accuse him of insincerity. Nor does it seem right to describe his words as ‘a courteous apology’. He is simply assuring them that he knows and appreciates their qualities – their kindness (as *agathosyne* can be rendered), their extensive Christian knowledge and their proven ability to teach and admonish one another.
If then they are such fine and gifted Christians, why has Paul thought it necessary to write to them as he has done? He supplies two reasons. First, *I have written to you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again* (15a). The apostles attached great importance to their reminding ministry. To them had been entrusted the task of formulating the gospel and thus of laying the foundations of the faith. Consequently, they kept reminding the churches of the original message and calling them back to it (E.g. Rom.6:17; 1 Cor.15:1ff.; Phil.3:1; 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim.1:13f.; 3:14; Heb.2:1; 2 Pet.1:12ff.; 3:1; 1 Jn.2:21ff.; Jude 3). Paul’s second reason for having written had to do with his unique ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles, to which he has already referred three times (1:5; 11:13; 12:3; cf.Gal.2:9; Eph.3:2ff.). *I have written*, he goes on, *because of the grace God gave me* (15b) *to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles…*(16a). Although he did not found the church in Rome, he nevertheless has authority to teach its members on account of his special vocation, by God’s grace alone, to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
For the next seven verses Paul elaborates the nature of his ministry, drawing his readers’ attention to three salient features of it.
1). Paul’s ministry was a priestly ministry (16-17).
He calls himself *a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit* (16). Many readers are taken by surprise that Paul should thus describe his service in priestly terms, but the vocabulary he uses is unambiguous. Although *leitourgos* (*minister*) usually meant a public servant, as in 13:6, yet in the biblical literature both the noun and its cognate verb *leitourgeo* are used ‘exclusively of religious and ritual services’ (BAGD). Thus in the New Testament they are applied both to the Jewish priesthood (Heb.10:11) and to Jesus as our great high priest *Heb.8:2). Next, the verb *hierourgeo (priestly duty*) means to serve as a priest (*hiereus*), especially in relation to the temple sacrifices. And Paul continues the imagery with his reference to *an offering (prosphora), acceptable to God (euprosdektos*, used of sacrifices, E.g. 1 Pet.2:5) and sanctified* (used of consecrating sacrifices, E.g. Ex.29:33ff.) *by the Holy Spirit*. These five terms, directly or indirectly, all have priestly and sacrificial associations.
So what is Paul’s priestly ministry, and what sacrifice does he have to offer? The answer clearly has to do with the gospel and the Gentiles. Paul regards his missionary work as a priestly ministry because he is able to offer his Gentile converts as a living sacrifice to God. It is not that he enables them to offer themselves to God (cf. 12:1), as some commentators suggest. For it is he himself who presents the sacrifice. Although Gentiles were rigorously excluded from the temple in Jerusalem, and were on no account permitted to share in the offering of its sacrifices, now through the gospel they themselves become a holy and acceptable offering to God. This significant development was in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that diaspora Jews (of whom Paul was one) would proclaim God’s glory in distant lands and bring people to Jerusalem from all nations ‘as an offering to the Lord’ (Is.66:20). I wonder if Paul recalled his priestly ministry to Gentiles when less than a year later he was falsely accused of bringing one into the temple areas? (Acts 21:27ff.)
Although Paul’s priestly ministry as apostle to the Gentiles was unique, the principle he enunciates has a vital contemporary application. All evangelists are priests, because they offer their converts to God. Indeed, it is this truth more than any other which effectively unites the church’s two major roles of worship and witness. It is when we worship God, glorying in his holy name, that we are driven out to proclaim his name to the world. And when through our witness people are brought to Christ, we then offer them to God. Further, they themselves join in his worship, until they too go out to witness. Thus worship leads to witness and witness to worship. It is a perpetual cycle. No wonder Paul is grateful for his share in this privileged ministry and breaks out: *Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God* (17)