Romans 15:20-21, “and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written,
“Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand.”
Our Creator has deemed it wise to grow His church not by giving every believer the same gift and calling but by granting each of us a different role in the body of Christ. Paul gives us some of the clearest and most direct teaching on this point in the New Testament in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12, but he also provides indirect confirmation of it when he describes his own ministry. We see this in today’s passage.
As we saw in our last study, Paul understood that his work in the eastern part of the Roman Empire was completed by the time he wrote his letter to the Roman Christians (Rom. 15:17-19). This does not mean, however, that there was no work left for the church to do in those regions. What Paul accomplished in the east was to preach the gospel everywhere Christ had not been preached before the Apostle did his work there. Romans 15:20 reveals that Paul’s calling was to proclaim the gospel not where Jesus was known but where Jesus was unknown, that the Apostle was not tasked primarily with caring for churches he had not planted but with establishing new churches and ministering to them. This is clear from the canon of the New Testament itself, as most of Paul’s letters are addressed to churches that he planted. Romans is the notable exception to this pattern, as the Apostle did not plant the church in that city; therefore, Paul gives his ambition to preach Christ where no one had heard of Him more as a general rule than an absolute principle for his ministry. As an Apostle of Jesus Christ, he would be called upon to instruct all believers, even those who were not converted under his ministry. However, the primary thrust of his work was to proclaim the gospel to those who had not heard it.
Paul’s calling was foreseen by the prophets, and the Apostle quotes Isaiah 52:15 as justification for his particular ministry emphasis. Isaiah foresaw a day in which foreigners to God’s covenant with Israel would hear of the Servant of the Lord—the Messiah—and be struck with awe. Under the ministry of Paul in particular, and the rest of the Apostles generally, this took place as the gospel went forth into pagan lands and the Gentiles came to faith in the one true God for the first time. Today, Isaiah’s prophecy continues to be fulfilled as unreached people groups the world over hear the gospel and churches are planted among them. Moreover, this fulfillment will continue until every tribe and tongue is represented in the great company of believers (Rev. 7:9-12).
John Calvin comments on today’s passage, “Paul then was a preacher of Christ, yet unknown to foreign nations, for this end—that after his departure the same doctrine should be daily proclaimed in every place by the mouth of the pastors.” Paul’s calling was to plant churches and move on, but he and the other Apostles never truly left them behind. Instead, the Apostolic doctrine was the foundation for all subsequent ministry. May it continue to be so in our local churches.