[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church titled "Greatness as a Disciple of Jesus". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]
The gospel of Mark points us to "Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (1:1). In the first 7 1/2 chapters, we see mounting evidence of Christ's power over nature, demons, disease, and death. In chapters 8, 9, and 10, we see Jesus turn to His disciples and teach them about what it will mean to be His follower...to be a disciple...to be a Christian. Studying Mark 8:31-38, we hear of things like (1) denying ourselves, (2) preparing to share in Jesus' rejection and suffering, (3) losing our lives so we will gain them, and (4) standing with Christ rather than being ashamed of Him.
When we come to Mark 9:30-42, we read of the disciples' foolish quest to be known as great. In response, Jesus tells them what it means to be truly great as His disciple. Apparently, Jesus was not interested in half-hearted mediocrity in those who were following Him. He wanted committed, ambitious, great disciples...so committed that they would deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow Him...so ambitious for life that they would lose their lives for it...so great that when they stand before the Father, Christ would not be ashamed of them. They would not be great in the sense that they had hoped...with throngs of people adoring them, wanting them to autograph their synagogue scrolls. However, they were to strive for greatness.
As we follow the story of these men and of the first church, we read of their commitment, we read of their ambition, and we read of their greatness. Jesus said that greatness would mean being humble and willing to serve indiscriminately...even serving a child. If you think serving a child brings humility, it's nothing compared to a Jew humbling himself to include the Gentiles in the same congregation...yet, that's what happens as the gospel goes forward. The disciples of Jesus were so committed that they wound up in jail, so ambitious that they would not stop looking for ways to expand the influence of the gospel, and so great that the Gentile dogs would now be known as brothers. It wasn't an easy road, but it was the road to which they were called by Jesus.
Even as we read a letter like Romans, we see Paul's ambition come through. In giving a series of lectures on the book of Romans, Dick Lucas tells a fictional story (based on real experiences) that I want to relate as best as I can remember. He speaks of going to a Bible college/seminary and talking with the president. The president of the institution goes on and on about how they have a brilliant group of young men writing various doctoral dissertations on Romans, and they're really making breakthroughs in some of Paul's grammatical usage. Then, Dick Lucas asks, "So, how many will you be sending into mission work?" Puzzled, the president looks at him and says, "Mr. Lucas, this is a theological institution." His point was that despite what many ivory-towered theologians may think, Paul did not write the letter simply to be a theological treatise.
We know that Paul does not know this congregation of believers in Rome, and part of what he is doing in this letter is seeking to establish a connection with them in the gospel. He wants them to know it and love it and live in light of it...but why? Is there more than just that? Is there a another purpose for this connection? When we read Romans 15, we see something that may answer these questions. If you look at verse 24, Paul indicates that he wants to come and see them and preach the gospel among them (the preaching is mentioned back in 1:15) as he goes on to Spain.
He's going to deliver money that was collected for the poor in Jerusalem...money collected from Gentile believers (v. 25-27). Once that's finished he wants to go to Spain by way of Rome (v. 28), and that stopping in Rome, he wants to be refreshed by them (v. 32). In other words, Paul's goal is Spain...Rome is just a launching pad for reaching the pagans in Spain. Romans 15:20 indicates that Paul does not see his mission as preaching where the gospel is already established. He has written letters where the gospel has been established (Corinth, for example), but he does not want to "build on someone else's foundation" (v. 20). However, in this massively theological letter, Paul wants to establish commonality in the gospel with these believers so that they will refresh and support him as he goes on to virgin territory.
If we miss this fact, we miss a major part of why Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. He is not writing a systematic theology...He is writing a missionary letter. His ambitious heart is driving him to Spain, and Rome is the best, most strategic place from which Paul can launch his ministry to that part of the world. He is not interested in being known as great, for to live is Christ (Phil. 1:21). Rather, he wants to actually be great. He doesn't want to stay in places where churches are established and be a gospel celebrity...rather, he wants to be last of all and servant of all...even to the Spaniards.
As Paul was ambitious to be great in humbly serving those he had never seen, so we too must remain ambitious in our gospel efforts. We must live with our eyes open to gospel opportunities. We must pray for God to grant us this kind of Pauline spirit to seek unreached places for the gospel seed to be planted and watered. Jesus is not interested in half-hearted, mediocre disciples, so we...author included...must not settle for half-hearted mediocrity.