Sermon preached on Romans 15:22-33 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/09/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
The Fellowship of the Saints
I’ve had the privilege of serving on a committee for our presbytery that has been working to get the General Assembly of our denomination here in Northern California. And it was a little over a week ago that my wife said to me, “It’s finally here.” General Assembly is finally here in Northern California. Of course, she said that, because she knew that this was something literally years in the making. Our presbytery committee had been working for years with the denomination’s arrangements committee. We’ve desired for this time together for so long, and it’s finally here. And so I could relate a bit to Paul here. He had wanted so long to visit Rome, but for various reasons had been hindered from coming. And yet here we read of his continued desire. And we know from the book of Acts that he finally did make it to Rome.
Well, the General Assembly has finally made it to Northern California. And we have the honor and privilege to have some of the commissioners here with us this morning. In the name of Christ, I welcome you, and I thank the Lord for the mutual encouragement that will surely take place today as you are here. And in God’s providence, what a wonderful and fitting passage for us to consider today. We’ve been going through Romans, and in God’s timing, here is the passage we are up to today. And it’s a passage about the fellowship of the saints. It’s all about the saints from different places, visiting one another, and ministering to one another, both in person, and from afar. It’s about the unity we have in Christ even though we belong to different local congregations, and there are ways to express that unity. So then today we’ll think about this fellowship of the saints seen in this passage. We’ll consider first the reality of this fellowship. Second, we’ll look at some ways we can express this fellowship, as seen in this passage. And third, we’ll reflect on our perspective and attitude about this fellowship — in other words, what is our heart and mind toward this fellowship?
And so let’s begin first by affirming the reality of this fellowship of the saints. What I am particularly highlighting today is how Christ has one church, one united people, one group known as saints. And yet, this one church is made up of many local congregations, literally throughout the world. Lots of local churches that together make up one united church. This is something we see here in this passage and earlier in chapter 15 as well. Paul, as a missionary, had been going around planting local churches where there were none before. Today we see him mention local congregations of believers in places like Macedonia, and Achaia, and of course Jerusalem. Paul is writing to Rome, where there is also a local congregation of believers. Among these and the other local congregations that had formed, they were all united together. They all had a fellowship together, despite geographical distance, and certainly despite social and cultural differences.
Part of the background to this is what we saw in last week’s passage. That God was bringing the nations into his church. In days past, you could have expected to see the followers of God in Israel among the Jews. Now, as the gospel of Jesus Christ goes out to the nations, churches were popping up everywhere. This was the prophesied Gentile inclusion according to verses 8-12 of this chapter. The gospel promise was not to be something ingrown, but something that is expanding. The promise was not just for the existing church and their children, but also for all who are fall off, whomever the Lord God would call. The separation that happened at the Tower of Babel was beginning to be reversed through the gospel and the advance of Christ’s kingdom through the work of the church.
And that is what is the basis of this fellowship. The reason why all these diverse peoples, and nations, and cultures can have fellowship with one another is because of Christ and the gospel. This has been Paul’s point and it continues to run through this passage. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. Jews and Gentiles alike are brought into communion with Christ by grace through faith in his name. Together, in Christ, we experience the same love of the Spirit and the peace of God, verses 30 and 32. We all have one God, one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we all have trusted in the one gospel, and all have the same Holy Spirit living inside us. This is our fundamental reality. It’s what we find confessed in the Apostle’s Creed — the communion of the saints. This communion, this fellowship, its reality is in Christ. We are united with all true believers throughout the world. We have fellowship with them through the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit. In our common hope and salvation.
Okay, that’s our first brief point to set the context for our further exposition of this passage. Our reality is we have fellowship with all believers in Christ throughout the world. How then can we express this fellowship? Well, this passage highlights several wonderful ways. First, the saints can come and visit one another, and minister to one another. This is what we see Paul has done and is talking about doing more of. Now, this is especially a fitting thing for a missionary to do, obviously. But this is something that goes beyond just missionaries. To clarify, this isn’t saying that a Christian has a requirement to travel around and visit other churches either. Rather, we are talking about one expression of the fellowship of the saints. One expression of the fellowship of the saints is that sometimes Christians will move around and travel to other churches. This might be for just one Sunday, or it might be for a time, or for a permanent relocation. Someone might visit another church while on vacation, or as a part of some work of ministry. When such fellow Christians come through we receive them in the Lord. We show Christian hospitality to them. And it’s a chance to exercise our spiritual gifts to bless one another. It’s the fellowship of the saints that receives visiting brethren in this way.
As a missionary, surely Paul’s life is a good example of this. Even after he went around planting churches where no one else had been before, he then went back around visiting those churches again. He did that to strengthen those churches. This is described in Acts 15:36-41, for example. And now here in this passage we see that he has plans now to go to Jerusalem. In verse 25, he says that he’s going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. And of course, this is what he’s been saying with regard to Rome. He says it here multiple times, and he had said it back in chapter 1 too, of his intentions to visit Rome. In chapter 1 he said he wanted to come to Rome so that they could mutually encourage one another through the use of their spiritual gifts. Now as a missionary, a big thing Paul did when he visited these various churches was to preach. On the other hand, when he gets to Rome, they would also bless him. For example, Paul mentions how they can help send him on his way to do more mission work in Spain. Surely, they would bless him in others ways too. The bottom line is that the fellowship of the saints means that there will be times for differing reasons that other Christians from elsewhere will visit our church or when you might visit another church. In the fellowship of the saints, we are to use such times to bless and build up our fellow believers.
A second expression of the fellowship of the saints is seen here in verses 30-32. There Paul asks for the church at Rome to be praying for him. We just talked about how the fellowship of the saints can be expressed in person through the visiting of out of town brethren. Now we see a way a “long distance” way that the fellowship of the saints can be expressed! Through praying for the saints, even those from afar. Here you have someone like Paul who is a recognized apostle in the church, but granted he’s never visited the church at Rome yet and surely hasn’t met most of the members at that church. But yet he can rightly ask for their prayers. And the unity those Romans Christians have for Paul whom they haven’t even met is expressed and experienced through such prayer. Notice how verse 30 describes this. Paul asks that they would strive together with him through their prayers. Strive together with him. That strikes me as so personal and so invested. The idea of striving here in the Greek is about fighting together on the same side. Paul can ask that of them because of the fellowship of the saints.
A third expression of the fellowship of the saints seen here is the financial support Christians give to one another. Two different examples of this are actually mentioned here — one for some material concerns and another for spiritual concerns. On the one hand you have the example in verses 25-28 of the Macedonians and Achaeans. These Gentile Christians in Asia Minor are sending financial aid to help the poor Christians in Jerusalem — poor Jewish Christians, by the way. Given the past tensions between Jews and Gentiles, this certainly is an expression of unity and fellowship for these Gentiles to send money to help out these Jewish Christians in need. Paul twice refers to this act as an act of ministry — the Greek word in verse 25 for this ministry is where we get the word for deacon even. What’s especially noteworthy here is verse 26. It says that they are making some contribution to these poor saints in Jerusalem. The word “contribution” is the Greek word koinonia. That’s a word we usually translate as fellowship — the very subject we are talking about today — the fellowship of the saints. That word for fellowship can sometimes be used to refer to a financial contribution, as it does here. But the sense of fellowship is still in the background when this word is being used. Look it up in a Greek lexicon, and you’ll find that these are not two different usages of the same word, but various senses of the same usage. You see, the idea of koinonia in the Greek is about mutual sharing as you recognize your close relationship and interest in one another. So this kind of financial contribution is a sharing with those that you have this close interest. So the very language Paul uses to describe their financial gift to these poor Jewish saints emphasizes and expresses the fellowship they have with these saints.
The other example of financial support mentioned in this passage is that of how Paul is hoping that the church at Rome will help him send him to Spain for the purpose of evangelism and church planting. This is verse 24. Paul had talked earlier in this chapter of how he loves to preach Christ at places where Christ has not yet been preached. In other words, he loves to go to unreached places and plant Christians churches there. He’s done that throughout Asia Minor. Now he has his eyes set on Spain — literally the end of the earth for them! And so in verse 24 he tells them of his desire to go to Spain and to stop in Rome along the way for some fellowship. And in verse 24 he expressly says that he hopes for them to help him on his way to Spain. Surely this has at least some aspect of financial support in mind here. And so the two examples listed here of how the saints financially support each other are very different. But they represent two primary ways that we support our fellow Christians. We help the material needs of the saints struggling with poverty. And we help support the evangelism and discipleship work of the church, financially supporting missionaries and pastors, etc. And what I love about the two examples seen here, is that the financial support is being directed outside of the local church. Yes, we need to especially support the local poor Christians right here in the church. And yes, we need to especially support the local pastor so he can devote himself to the work of ministry. But because of the fellowship of the saints, we also will have times to support beyond the local church. And, again, the reason why we’ll send money outside of the local church is because we recognize the fellowship of the saints.
So, our second point today has been to observe some ways in this passage in which we find expressions of the fellowship of the saints, even beyond local church borders. We will have opportunities to express this fellowship through the travels, prayers, and financial support of the saints. Realize these go both ways. The fellowship is expressed and experienced when you are the one traveling to visit another church, but also when you are the hosts receiving such out of town brethren. The fellowship of the saints is expressed and experienced when you pray for some far away brethren, but also when you are the one being prayed for. This fellowship is expressed and experienced when you give to those with financial needs, but also when you are one who receives those financial gifts. That’s the beauty of this fellowship — we’re all connected as Christians, and that connection and interest extends beyond our local congregations. And it’s a blessing to be expressing and experiencing that fellowship in tangible ways such as these, regardless of which side of the experience you are on.
Now in our last main point for today, I’d like to turn to the attitude and thinking we must have about this fellowship of the saints. In other words, how do we think and even feel about this fellowship? What’s our mind and heart about it? This passage too has a number of things to say in answer to that question. First, this is a fellowship we ought to accept and embrace. This is seen in a subtle way here in verse 31. There you find an interesting prayer request by Paul. Paul asks that the Roman church prays that when he goes to Jerusalem to deliver this financial aid, that it would be acceptable there to the saints. In other words, that the gift would be well-received by the Jewish Christians there. That might at first seem like a strange prayer request by Paul. Why would the poor saints in Jerusalem not be happy to receive such a gift? Well, remember the historical context. There was some tension in the early church with regard to Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles. Questions had come up about how these Gentile converts should handle the law of Moses. The council in Acts 15 had addressed that, for example. But when you get to Acts 21 and Paul arrives back in Jerusalem, the very trip he talks about here, you find that there are still tensions among many of the Jewish Christians here about this issue. And so Paul surely has some legitimate concern if the Jewish Christians will want to receive a financial gift from some Gentile Christians. The fellowship of the saints says they should. Human sinfulness threatened against it. My point for today is simply to say that we should acknowledge and accept and receive well this fellowship of the saints; just as the poor Christians in Jerusalem should well-receive the financial gift from these Gentile Christians. We should welcome and embrace the reality of the fellowship of the saints, even if it challenges existing prejudices or social conventions.
A second point about how we think about this fellowship of the saints is to see that it puts certain obligations upon us. Not only must we accept and acknowledge this fellowship. We must see that certain obligations and requirements come upon us because of this fellowship. One example in our passage is in verse 27. There Paul basically says that the Gentile Christians had a debt to the Jewish Christians. That’s the language of verse 27. They are debtors. The verse goes on to explain saying, “For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things.” Paul is basically acknowledging how the work of Christ and the gospel ministry originated from the Jewish people and from Jerusalem. Jesus was of course a son of Abraham and David. He came and primarily ministered to the Jews, spending a lot of time especially teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. He died on the cross just outside Jerusalem. The gospel witness began in full strength in Jerusalem where the Holy Spirit was poured out. From all this heritage, missionaries like Paul then went out and proclaimed Christ. The Gentile converts were spiritual benefactors of the rich religious heritage of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. And so Paul says that the way these Gentile converts benefited from these Jewish believers left them indebted to them. If the Gentiles had benefited spiritually from these Jews in that way, then the least they could do is help the Jews materially in their hour of physical need. And so the point to be made here is simply that our fellowship of the saints will put various obligations upon us. Think of our duties to support our missionaries that we have called as a denomination, as just one obvious example. And so we must seek to recognize those various obligations and fulfill them as part of the fellowship of the saints.
A third point about our mind and heart with regard to the fellowship of the saints is that it should be something that we really want. It’s true that we just mentioned that there are obligations and duties and responsibilities that come upon us because of this fellowship. But this passage shows us that we should fulfill those duties not strictly out of obligation. Rather, it should be our pleasure to do so. Just take that example I just mentioned from verse 27. Though Paul mentions there of this duty of the Gentiles to provide this financial support, he goes out of his way to make it clear that these Gentile believers were happy to do so. Twice Paul says how pleased these brothers were to provide the financial gift. This then is an important complement to how we said there are obligations that come upon us in this fellowship. Yes, there are duties to do. But it should be our joy to do them.
All the fellowship that we talk about here. It should be our delight to experience it. We shouldn’t live it out as a burden, just because we know it’s our duty. We should look to live it out because we are so pleased to do so. That’s the spirit we see here. Besides the example I just mentioned in verse 27, look at verse 23. Paul has a great desire for so many years to visit the Roman church. In verse 24, Paul says that he anticipates how he will enjoy the time with the Romans Christians. In verse 32, he says he expects to be refreshed by that time together and that he’s going to come to them with joy. Or see how Paul asks for their prayers in verse 30. He begs them for the prayers. It’s an expression of fellowship that Paul so craves that he begs them for it! The point is that as much as we have various obligations to express our fellowship, they are not to be expressed out of compulsion or as a burden. Our heart is to be one that takes great joy and sees how good this fellowship is.
A last point then about our heart and mind concerning this fellowship: we must acknowledge that it’s all according to God’s timing and plan. I’m talking about the specific ways we’ll express and experience this fellowship. We might set our hearts on certain ways we want to express and experience this fellowship of the saints. But it’s up to God’s will ultimately in how that actually is lived out. Paul in verses 22-23 talks about how he’s been hindered for years in coming to Rome for this time of fellowship. Our presbyter committee had wanted General Assembly to happen here earlier as well. But such was not God’s will. And that is why in verse 32 Paul asks them to pray that it be God’s will for them yet to come together. It seems that’s in mind for Paul as he says in verse 29 that when he does come, it will be in the fullness of the blessings of Christ. In other words, whenever it finally does happen, we know that it was according to God’s perfect timing and plan. And so as we endeavor as Christians to live out the fellowship we talked about today, we acknowledge our limitations. We can endeavor to express this fellowship in certain ways, but God may limit that. I love how this even acknowledges how we can’t do everything. We may be so busy with the local matters at hand, that for a time we won’t be able to be as involved in larger church-wide matters as much as we’d like. That was why Paul couldn’t come yet to Rome — he had been busy with other ministry tasks. We can’t be in two places at one, neither could Paul. And yet the desire was still there to experience this fellowship. And so this passage reminds us to say with regards to our fellowship plans, if the Lord wills, we will do this or that.
Brothers and sisters, as we close today, be refreshed in the gospel of Jesus Christ that has brought us all together today. As verse 30 says, it’s by Christ and by the Spirit that the fellowship of the saints is lived out. Because each of us by grace have been forgiven of our sins and made a part of God’s family. That is why we have fellowship with one another. Our judicial standing before God is secured in Christ. Our familial standing with God is experienced by the Spirit of Adoption in each of us. We do have fellowship. With those in our local church. And with all true believers throughout the world. This passage today has reminded us that there are times and ways to live this out. Look for those times. See the obligation to do so. Realize the joy in doing so. Submit to God’s timing for how that will happen.
And so in closing, let me urge us all to more consciously live out this fellowship of the saints — including the larger perspective beyond just what goes on here at Trinity Church in Novato. Today, in God’s will, we have this wonderful opportunity. Embrace the visiting brethren today. Make the most of this time. That we’d be mutually encouraged by the visiting brethren today. Likewise, Missionary Rev. Woody Lauer will be here on the 23rd. Welcome him and make the most of that time too. And whenever traveling saints pass through, or even move here, embrace them with love and Christian hospitality.
In the same spirit, use the resources available to become better informed of the church at large. I think of all the resources the OPC provides for us. We have New Horizons magazine — with a long list of prayer requests in each issue. The OPC publishes regular church planting updates, missions updates, and chaplain updates, which we post in the back and you can get via email.
And there are some real ways you can get involved very quickly. We have many presbytery events right here in our area. We have opportunities for financial giving for both global diaconal needs and worldwide outreach. And in all these matters and more, let us pray. Let us strive in prayer together with our missionaries, and church planters, and the saints who are in various physical needs, and so much more.
Yes, these are things that we already do. May today’s passage encourage us that it is good that we do them. And by the grace of God, let us grow in them all the more. Especially pray that God would grow our hearts in this, that it would our great delight, our joy, to live out this kind of fellowship more. We thank the Lord for the opportunity even today to welcome our visiting brethren from various parts of the OPC. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.