In Ecclesiastes 7:2 the preacher tells us that “it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go into the house of feasting.” That is, it is better, according to that text, to go to a funeral than to a wedding, birthday party, or graduation celebration. But I don’t know anyone who says, “I’m so excited that I’m attending a funeral this weekend.” I mean, by so many standards of measurement, we would say that it’s better to go a celebration that calls for feasting instead of a funeral, wouldn’t we?
But the author of Ecclesiastes isn’t using numerous standards of measure; he is using one. He says that it’s better to go to the house of mourning than to go into the house of feasting “for this is the end of all mankind, and the living lay it to heart.” That is, a funeral is better than a wedding or birthday party in the sense that it causes us to pause, consider death, and consider how we’re living.
In the last four weeks, I’ve been to a couple of funerals, and I can testify that it has indeed had a great impact on me. In fact, it caused me to reflect on many other funerals I’ve been to, many funeral messages I’ve listened to, and ask why these provide the opportunity to have such a powerful impact. And I think I’ve finally landed on the answer (at least as it pertains to me). It is this: a funeral provides us an opportunity to hear about and reflect on the details of how someone lived his or her life.
I mean, think how rare that is. I can’t remember many conversations I’ve had about people who were still living in the way that we converse about a brother or sister who has gone to be with the Lord. Concerning those who have died, we sit around and reminisce about powerful conversations that were had, perhaps scattered over dozens of relationships, but now we get to bring them all together in one place and begin to place together a picture of that person’s life.
Again, we don’t do that with our brothers and sisters who are still alive, do we? I never find myself in a conversation with someone in which I’m speaking of a grace of God in a dear brother, the person with whom I’m conversing testifies to the grace of God in that individual as well, and one of us says, “Hey, let’s get a bunch of people together and discuss stories, sharing anecdotes that communicate the clear grace of God in this brother’s life.” That happens after we die, typically not before.
But it’s that element of exposing someone’s life that I find is so powerful about funerals. After all, if the person lived a godly life, not only do we discuss it in conversations with others who loved him, but we hear these details held up in the funeral message itself. And there’s something powerful about hearing a testimony about how someone lived out his or her life in accord with the Lord’s commands. It’s one thing to be told what the Christian life should be composed of, and it’s another to see a model of what it looks like, to see someone actually giving his life to it. Those testimonies impact me. I think it’s a reminder to me that some things may be better caught than taught. That is, sometimes are more easily learned through imitation than lectures.
That truth wasn’t lost on the apostle Paul. And he wasn’t shy about calling believers to imitate him. He wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 4:16, “I urge you . . . be imitators of me,” something he repeated about in 11:1. He wrote to the Philippians in 3:17, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” before adding one chapter later, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things” (4:9). In 1 Thessalonians he commended them for imitating him (1:6), and in his next letter to them noted that he and those who labored with him gave “you in ourselves an example to imitate” (3:9).
Paul understood the power of seeing a model of faithful Christian living that could be imitated. It was a necessary element of discipleship in his mind. And it’s why, I believe, he often has sections in his letters that are highly autobiographical, where he begins to unveil his heart, thoughts, actions, and motivations to those who would have received his letters. I think he wants his readers to hear his heart, see his heart, and be moved in their own hearts to more thoroughly conform their lives to Christ.
I think that is specifically what’s going on in our text this morning (Rom. 1:8-15), which is one of those autobiographical sections in Paul’s letters. Again and again and again, Paul share what he does, what he wants to do, and why he does certain things. He’s giving them a model to imitate.
Do you remember how I argued last week that Paul’s desire, I’ve concluded, in the book of Romans is to transform the hearts of all who hear/read this letters to become driven to seek the honor of Christ and glory of God? That’s why Paul begins by telling them that his apostleship was given to him to bring about the “obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (v. 5) and ends the letter on that same note (16:25-27). And I argued that there is a logical progression that leads to that kind of heart. We’ll work backwards to see it. A heart that longs for Christ’s name to be honored is a heart that loves the Lord, which is the greatest commandment God has given us—to love him. But, we only love him when we realize that he has first loved us and given himself for us. So, we might lay it out as follows: we see his love for us, we love him, and we long for others to honor the one we love. I think that describes Paul’s heart.
So, where do you start, then, if you long for others to have this heart? First, you let them see what God has done to show his love for us, which is what Paul is going to unfold in a glorious way over these first few chapters of the book. Then, you’ll show how we are to demonstrate our love for God in obedience, which Paul will do in a latter part of this book. But right here, right off the bat, in condensed form, he gives us each of these elements. He first simply states to his Roman hearers that they are “loved by God” (v. 7). And then, he gives them a picture of what it looks like to have a heart that loves God and seeks his honor among the nations by doing exactly what we’d expect Paul to do, namely, by giving them a glimpse of his own heart which they can strive to imitate. And it’s precisely this that I want us to see this morning: what does a heart that longs to see Christ honored among all men look like? Let me answer it by pointing to four elements that we see Paul holding up for us to imitate. First, a heart that seeks to see Christ honored among all men is:
A heart that is thankful to the Lord
Paul begins this section by noting in verse 1, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.” That is, Paul (and believers all over the world) had gotten news that the gospel has reached Rome, and there are believers there. And that news has moved Paul to give thanks to God for these believers and their presence in this major city.
But what I want us to see is that this is standard for Paul. He is thankful to God, and expresses it again and again. Simply listen to how he opens many of his letters:
1 Cor. 1:4 – “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.”
Eph. 1:16 – “I do not cease to give thanks for you.”
Phil. 1:3 – “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you.”
Col. 1:3 – “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.”
1 Thess. 1:2 – “We give thanks to God always for all of you.”
2 Thess. 1:3 – “We ought always to give thanks to you for you, brothers, as is right.”
2 Tim. 1:3 – “I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.”
Philemon 4 – “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers.”
Moreover, he specifically commands us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
In other words, I hope to show that this isn’t some one-off for Paul as if he gives thanks to God that there are believers in Rome but really isn’t characterized by thankfulness. He absolutely is characterized by thankfulness, and so should we who have been made right before God through faith in his crucified and risen Son be characterized by thankfulness.
So, it’s good for us to ask if our hearts are characterized by thankfulness. Do we find ourselves looking around and seeing cause for thanksgiving all around us? Perhaps a better way to ask this is if we find ourselves often filled and overflowing with covetousness and complaining? After all, isn’t this the opposite of being thankful? If you see that you’re characterized by covetousness and complaining and would like to turn from that, pray that the Lord would give you a heart of thankfulness, and then take the step of cultivating it by seeing what the Lord has done, taking note of it, and giving thanks for it. Flee sin by pursuing righteousness.
D. A. Carson tells the story of a student of his who had been on the mission field when his mission sending organization were so impressed with his abilities that they said that if he’d come back to the states and work toward a Ph.D., they’d fund it. So, he and his wife and young children came back to the states and wound up at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where Carson teaches. The guy began the program only to soon be diagnosed with cancer in the region of his intestines. He stopped his studies, went through treatment, and sure enough beat it. So, he began his studies again, only to find out after sometime that the cancer had returned. This time, in order to move past it, they had to remove a good portion of his intestines so that for the rest of his life, he’d only be able to eat small meals, and even then his food would pass through him quickly.
Nonetheless, he got passed it, dove into his studies again, and then his wife got cancer, and died. So, now this gifted young man who’d given his life in service to the church was left with much of his body ravaged by cancer, without his wife, raising his young children on his own. And Carson tells that he went to the church where Carson was a member to give a report shortly after his wife’s death, and for thirty minutes, he stood and gave thanks to the Lord. He thanked the Lord for giving him such a blessing in allowing him to have his wife for the time he had her, thanked the Lord that his children were healthy, thanked the Lord that he’d been able to continue his studies, thanked the Lord that the doctors had been able to remove cancer from him body, and on and on.
Now, brothers and sisters, from what I read in the Scriptures, I don’t think that response should be exceptional for a Christian. I think that’s just called Christianity. The heart of one who’s been made right through faith in the gospel is a heart that is full of thanksgiving to the Lord. Second, the heart that seeks Christ’s honor among all men is:
A heart that treasures prayer
Paul writes in verses 9-10, “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.”
Now, I could show you that prayer was a consistent part of Paul’s life, but for the sake of time, let me just assert that this is true and ask you to validate this by reading through his letters later. I can say that all of those references that I showed you about Paul giving thanks to God was done in the context of Paul praying. When Paul says that he mentions the Roman believers “always in my prayers,” he means that he has a regular pattern of praying in his life. I don’t know if it was the same time each day or what, but I do know that Paul had a pattern of prayer in his life, in addition to the spontaneous prayers that he would pray.
Notice a few things about Paul’s praying. First, he saw it as service to the Lord. When he says that he serves with his spirit that might sound like odd language, but I think what Paul is saying is that the service he’s about to testify to isn’t physical labor that involves his hands and feet. It is work that involves his spirit. He serves the Lord by praying.
Second, he serves God in prayer “in the gospel of his Son.” In other words, every time he came before the Lord in prayer, he came in full recognition of the gospel benefits that were his in Christ. That is, he came knowing that he could approach the Lord in boldness, knowing that he was accepted by God, knowing that he was loved by God, and on and on. And he knew these things because this is what the gospel taught him.
Finally, he prayed for things that he was working toward. He wanted to go to Rome, but that didn’t mean for Paul that he simply started planning his trip, figuring out how to do it, etc. He may well have done these things, but he also prayed.
This is instructive for us, isn’t it? So many times in my life I’m given to figuring. I’m given to solving problems, or at least trying to do so. The heart of one captured by Christ, however, should be characterized by prayer. This should be our default. Let me pray and ask the Lord to give wisdom here and provide a means there. Prayer shows that we understand that we need God and that he is good. That’s why God delights in putting us in places where we know we must pray. May prayer, then, be our response.
Also, we see in Paul:
A heart that loves the church
Paul wanted to come to the believers in Rome not simply so that he could say he visited them. He wanted to edify them and be edified by them. He writes, “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (vv. 11-13).
When Paul found out there were believers in Rome, it created a longing in him to be with them, encourage them, help them, preach the gospel to them, and be encouraged by them. Like someone who loves playing basketball and hears that there is a basketball game going on around the corner wants to get involved in that game, Paul is someone who loves the church, and when he hears of believers in an area, he wants to be there. He longs to be used of the Lord to bless the Lord’s people.
Simply put, a heart that longs for Christ to be honored must be a heart that loves Christ’s church. After all, it is Paul who writes to the Ephesians, “To [God] be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (3:21). God has deemed to be glorified in the church, and therefore a heart that is moved to love God and seek his glory is necessarily a heart that is moved to love the church.
Brothers and sisters, part of our prayers, even as we look forward to gathering on Sunday mornings should be, “Lord, use me to edify my brothers and sisters today (and use them to edify me) because I love these people and want their good.”
But Paul also mentioned strengthening them with some spiritual gift. How does that work? Well, I think what Paul was praying for was a chance to visit them in hopes that the Spirit would equip and gift him in a way to minister to them exactly as they needed. That’s how Paul envisions this working. You love people, want to minister to them, know they need more than you have in your own means, and so you pray for the Spirit to give you exactly what they need. This is why Paul tells the Corinthians, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire spiritual gifts” (1 Cor. 14:1). That was Paul’s prayer because he loved the church. And finally, we see:
A heart that understands the glory of the gospel
Now, let me show you why I’m saying that. Paul longed to get to these Roman believers and preach the gospel to them as a means of strengthening him. And then he adds why. He writes, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to the foolish” (v. 14).
First, understand that by these two categories of Greeks and barbarians or wise and foolish, is simply referring to all the Gentile world. There were some Gentiles who’d taken on Greek culture, learned the Greek language, etc. They were (of course) the Greeks. Other Gentiles hadn’t. They were the barbarians. Paul says that he’s obligated to preach to all of them.
But “obligated” feels like a dirty word, doesn’t it? Typically, when we talk about our obligations, we don’t talk about things we’re excited to do. My kids are obligated to do chores around the house, but I doubt they’re ever waking up going, “Man, I’m excited to do my share in upholding the Tankersley household.”
But Paul adds something in verse 15 that tells us we shouldn’t understand “obligated” in this way. Paul says, “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.”
So, the question is this: What creates an obligation that one is eager to do? How do we bring eagerness and obligation together? Here’s how I think it works. If you ever find something that is glorious, that you’re excited about, and that you want others to know, are you eager to share this with others or obligated to share this with others? The answer is both, right? You’re eager because you want them to know something glorious you’ve found. But you’re obligated because when you’ve found something glorious that could bless others, you feel compelled to share it with others, right? It’s like finding a fresh spring in the middle of an area where all those around you are dying of thirst. You see its glory, know it’ll bless others, know you must tell them about it, and are excitedly eager to do so.
That’s Paul with the gospel. There’s a reason he writes so passionately to the Galatians, wanting them not to go back and enslave themselves to all kinds of tasks and rituals to be right with God. There’s a reason Paul so passionately tells them that it is for freedom that Christ had set them free from condemnation and from a path that thinks we must do more and more to be right before God. It’s because Paul know that freedom. He knew the joy of knowing God didn’t condemn him, but accepted him, approved of him, was pleased with him, and loved him. And he longed for others to know that as well. It was like a fresh stream he’d found in the desert that could quench the thirst of others.
Brothers and sisters, this is what I long for all of us to know—the glory of the gospel. If we could all be gripped with the reality that if our faith is in Christ, who lived, died, and was raised for us, then we are secure in him, having everything we need in him and, therefore, we can quit always working so hard to get his approval and freedom from condemnation, knowing we are secure in the gospel, then it would provide us a foundation from which to rejoice with our brothers instead of envy them, boast about the grace of God in their lives instead of covet what they have, draw attention to their blessings instead of gossip about them, and to want them to walk in the gospel security that we know.
So, let’s pray this morning that the Lord would make our hearts full of thanksgiving, characterized by prayer, in love with God’s people, and captured by the glory of the gospel so that we might be a people who long for the Lord to be honored among all men. Let’s pray that even as we come to the table. Amen.