The Obligation of Mission to All People – Romans 1:14-15

By: Northern Seminary

For some years I headed up a large missionary society and traveled to dozens of countries around the world.

My father never really liked me doing that. Some of his feelings were natural fear for his son, because I was often in countries with real risk from disease, disaster, or the danger of violence.

But there was another reason my father did not like me going to certain countries. Dad had his prejudices, and he would say: “Why do you bother with these places?” I’d try to get him to explain exactly what he meant, but his prejudices came from deeply embedded ideas. He had been brought up to think of some countries as simply undesirable places to visit, and that the people in these places were not nice, maybe even hostile. There was nothing rational about those ideas. He just didn’t like those places and could not see why I would go there.

My guess is that the apostle Paul heard prejudices exactly like that. The very first Christians were all Jews, and a significant number struggled to believe the gospel was for more than the Jews.[1] They had been brought up to give thanks that they were not born Gentiles. Israel was the people of God. Why then, they would say to Paul, would you take the good news of Jesus to Gentiles?

Paul had no choice. Going to Gentiles was no hobby or whim. It was what he had to do.

That is what he explains in Romans 1:14-15:

14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.

What Paul describes in these two verses is the obligation of mission and the obligation of mission to all people.

1. The obligation of mission.

Paul is explicit here. Why does he preach the gospel to all people? “I am obligated,” he says.

There would be two ways in which Paul believed in that obligation.

a) His obligation to God.

Jesus had died for him, claimed his life, and God had called and commanded him to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

There are three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts.[2] It is very clear that Paul was told to take the gospel to the Gentiles from very early on.

For example, in Acts 22, soon after his conversion, Paul was praying in the temple in Jerusalem, he fell into a trance, and God said to him: “‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles’ ” (Acts 22:21).

In Acts 26 the command came right at the moment of conversion. Here is Paul’s description of that command:

Then I asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the Lord replied. “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to themto open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:15-18)

Paul was thoroughly Jewish. He believed they were the chosen people. He was a Pharisee who kept the law of God scrupulously. By instinct and upbringing he could have shunned any thought of taking the word of God to Gentiles.

But God said ‘go.’ When he surrendered his life to Jesus he surrendered his mind, his heart, his will. To be the evangelist to the Gentiles was never his choice to make, it was God’s command to obey. He was under an obligation to God.

b) His obligation to the Gentiles.

Translated more literally, the actual words of Paul in Romans 1:14 are: “I am a debtor to Greeks and non-Greeks.”

As well as knowing he had an obligation to God, he had an obligation to the Gentiles which was a sacred trust, a sacred debt. There was something he owed to the Gentiles.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he describes how the leaders of the early church saw his ministry. He writes:

…they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. (Gal. 2:7-8)

Paul says there he “had been entrusted” with preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. He had received the gospel, and now he was entrusted with giving it to the Gentiles. In other words, he had been entrusted with the gospel for the Gentiles. His mission from God was to give the good news to those for whom it had always been intended.

Stuart Briscoe explains this with a helpful illustration. He likens Paul to a trustee banker who has been entrusted with securities or stocks by an elderly grandparent for the benefit of minor grandchildren who are too young to handle their own financial affairs. The trustee holds the stocks but they are not his. Whose are they? They belong to the grandchildren, so the trustee who holds them for now has something not his own. They belong to those for whom they were always intended, the grandchildren. The trustee is indebted to those grandchildren to ensure they get the gift their grandparent always intended them to have.[3]

Paul is that trustee banker. He holds the treasure of the gospel for the Gentiles. He cannot rest until he has fulfilled his obligation to give the gospel to them. He does not have the option of refusing. He cannot keep this good news only to himself. He owes it to the Gentiles to give them what is rightfully theirs. That is why Paul describes an obligation to the Gentiles.

Paul, then, had an obligation to God, the God who had commanded him to preach to Gentiles.

Paul also had an obligation to those Gentiles, for the gospel he has is not just for him but was always intended to be given to them.

That obligation to mission coursed through Paul’s veins. What of the church today?

First, today’s church needs a missional compulsion now every bit as strongly as the apostle felt it. Second, too easily we give thanks for what we have in Christ and without caring that others are left without Christ. Briscoe puts it this way: “It is hard to imagine how Paul was able to live with such a constant load of spiritual responsibility; yet, at the same time, it is harder to grasp how many believers are able to live complacently without any sense of obligation.”[4]

There is not even a hint in the New Testament that anyone thought of the gospel as something they could have and hold, something given to grasp, something personal but also private. They had their debates about who they should go to with the gospel, but never about whether they should go.

I sat with a mission leader talking about how numbers were declining in churches and I spoke about the imperative of mission. “Alistair,” she said, “you must understand that ninety percent of churches of my tradition have no sense at all of any need to do mission.” How far that is from the obligation of mission Paul felt.

2. The obligation of mission to all people.

Paul makes it very clear that his mission excludes no one. He uses two sets of opposites to make his point. He is obligated “both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish” (v. 14). And then he adds: “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome” (v. 15).

His reference to Greeks and non-Greeks is his way of describing the cultured and uncultured or the learned and unlearned. By Paul’s day the term “Greeks” no longer referred to a citizen of Greece, but someone who understood and lived out the advanced culture Greece represented.

The word which is translated “non-Greeks” is the word barbaroi – literally ‘barbarians.’ The Greek language was considered very refined. Those who came from other countries or tribes were looked down on for the coarse way they spoke. They were mocked for making noises that sounded like ‘bar-bar,’ and therefore they were called barbarians.[5] But Paul would preach to them or to anyone. Whether people came from the most advantaged or disadvantaged of societies, the gospel was for them.

Paul is making a similar point when he refers to his obligation to the wise and the foolish. Paul was a very well educated man but he would not go only to people like him. He did go to the wise; they needed Jesus like everyone did. But he also went to the so-called foolish, those he met in the market place, or on a ship, or working a trade, or staying in the same inn overnight.

Why? Because Jesus did not die for a select group of society but for all people. Jesus brings us into God’s kingdom by faith, not by education or skill or wisdom or goodness. Paul could not choose to take the gospel only to people with backgrounds like his. Nor could he impose all his cultural expectations on them. Paul would do almost anything and be whatever he needed to be, to win people to Jesus.

He wrote to the Corinthians:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22)

Paul met people in the world in which they lived, and he was the one who adapted so he could reach them.

If Paul is our model, and if we are committed to mission to all people, that will mean at least these three things:

1) We cannot choose to work only with those with whom we are comfortable, in other words, with people like us.

I sat down with denominational leaders in one of Brazil’s largest cities, and in a long conversation I asked them why they did not reach out to the poor who lived in favelas. They seemed surprised by my question, and said they would talk among themselves before answering.

“They are not worried about your question; they’re worried about you,” whispered my mission colleague, Derek. Thankfully he was smiling, but I was curious. “Why?” I whispered back. “They’re trying to decide if you are a communist or an advocate for liberation theology.” “Which is worse?” I asked Derek. “They’re both equally bad,” he said laughing.

After the leaders had conferred for a few minutes, they replied that they reached out to the middle class and affluent because they could give money to build more churches, and surely the benefit of that would eventually reach the poor.

My problem with their ‘trickle down’ logic was that I had seen too much evidence that it did not happen. Large and well-equipped church buildings had been built right beside the poorest of favelas, and the congregation arrived in their cars and, after the service, left in their cars and the poor were unreached and unaffected.

Since those days the church in Brazil has done more to reach out to all people. But, for all of us, the temptation is always there to concentrate on those who are like us. The fact that so many large churches in western nations are in affluent suburbs shows where Christians have invested. All people need the gospel, whether they’re easy or hard to reach, whether we’re comfortable or challenged in their company, whether their language or culture is the same as ours or different.

 2) We must start where people are at with few assumptions of what they already know.

Alison and I were part of a tiny church working in run-down area of Edinburgh. We contacted young people and at least some took seriously what we said about Jesus. A few gave their hearts to Jesus; others were certainly interested. They were aged between ten and fourteen, so they were old enough for us to give them leaflets and booklets to help them move on with their faith.

But they never seemed to read them. We asked why they didn’t. There was a long silence. We pressed the kids for an answer: “Do you not like the booklets? Are they not useful?” Finally, with embarrassment, one of them said, “We can’t read. We don’t know what the words mean.” Then it was our turn to be embarrassed. We had just assumed they could read… Assumptions are dangerous things.

If we do not begin mission with taking time to get alongside people, know their world, understand their thoughts, then we will often make bad assumptions of how to engage them in mission.

3) We must not import our cultural baggage into their lives.

I travelled with missionary friends into the mountains of north Thailand. We climbed off a bus, and walked for about two miles down a steep, dusty track to what I had been told was a ‘Christian village’ of tribal people.

The people I met from the Shan tribe could not have been more welcoming. We sat with them on the floors of their wooden homes – for everyone there sat on the floor – and enjoyed tea and food together.

Eventually, someone asked if we would like to see their church building. Well, of course we would, and we walked up the small hill in the village. In Thailand, the higher something is the more important it is, so their church was at the highest point in their village, right on top of that hill. It wasn’t a grand structure but I was impressed with everything, except one thing. Inside were wooden benches, set in rows, all facing the pulpit. No-one in that village had chairs in their homes. All of them sat on their bamboo floors. But not in church. Somehow they had learned – and I have to presume from their first missionaries – that in a real church building you sit on pews, and so they had built their benches.

There is an enormous temptation to take our cultural baggage wherever we go and even to make it part of the gospel. Benches are not part of the gospel. Nor is a certain way of speaking or dressing or even many of our church activities or programs. Most of these things are not wrong, unless we tell others they are an essential part of the faith. Burdening other people with our ways of doing things only weighs them down.

Paul described the obligation of mission, and the obligation of mission to all people. My father would have struggled to see mission Paul’s way. He never really understood why I bothered with people from countries which were not part of our culture and maybe even hostile to our values. My dad was not unique with that view; maybe only different because he actually said what he was thinking.

In our hearts many of us have our prejudices or preferences, and there is a near irresistible instinct to restrict mission to our comfort zone or to insist that people who are different from us quickly conform to our norms.

Paul took decisive steps to get out of his comfort zone, and was determined to get to Rome to meet Roman Christians.

It was because Jesus had given him the obligation of mission, and the obligation of mission to all people. The same obligation is ours.


[1] Or, they believed that a Gentile who became a Christian also had to become a Jew. The debate about non-Jews is in the background of passages in Acts like Peter baptizing the Roman, Cornelius, and his family and friends (Acts 10-11:18) and the debate at the ‘Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:1-35).

[2] Acts 9, 22, 26

[3] D. Stuart Briscoe, Romans (England: Word, 1982) 35

[4] Briscoe, 35

[5] According to William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1972) 8.

March 18, 2014

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