It’s hard to believe that any Christian would oppose the apostle Paul, but there were believers in Rome doing just that. The churches in Rome seemed to be divided into two groups.
I. THE TWO GROUPS (verses 15-17)
The first group of Christians that Paul mentions, in verses 15 and 16, preached Christ insincerely out of envy and strife. Those two words go together, just as love and unity go together. They were jealous of Paul, and therefore they wanted to cause trouble for him. Verse 17 tells us that this group “preached Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives”. They envied Paul’s reputation and the following he had among Christians. Their goal was to make Paul miserable and upset. They wanted him to become afraid of losing his reputation and his followers. They thought that what would worry Paul the most would be for him to hear about the success of their ministry. The apostle James said it well in James 3:16, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”
These Christians that Paul is talking about, in verses 15 and 17, had the aim of promoting themselves and winning a following of their own. Instead of asking, “Have you trusted in Christ”, they may have been asking, “Whose side are you on, ours or Paul’s?” Sadly, this kind of religious politics is sometimes practiced today. We are always going to be living around, or dealing with, ungrateful people. But we should not become offended or stop doing good because of a lack of gratitude.
There is also another group of Christians in this passage of Scripture. They are proclaiming Christ out of love for Him and for others, following the example of the apostle Paul. In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul acknowledges this group of faithful believers in Rome in order that they might be an encouragement to his readers in Philippi.
II. PAUL’S RESPONSE (verses 18-20)
How does the apostle Paul respond to the divisive group in the church at Rome? Paul was encouraged by the fact that Jesus Christ was being proclaimed, whether the motivation was true of not. In verse 18 Paul says, “in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice”. Paul found something to rejoice in, even though the motives of many of the Christians in Rome were wrong.
ILLUSTRATION: It’s a historical fact that the two great British evangelists , John Wesley and George Whitefield, disagreed on some doctrinal matters. Both of them were very successful, preaching to thousands of people, and seeing multitudes come to Christ. It’s reported that someone asked Wesley if he expected to see Whitefield in heaven, and Wesley replied, “No, I do not”. “Then do you think that Whitefield is a converted man?” “Of course He’s a converted man”, Wesley said, “but I do not expect to see him in heaven because he will be so close to the throne of God and I will be so far away that I will not be able to see him”. Though he differed from his brother in Christ in some matters, Wesley did not have any envy in his heart, nor did he seek to oppose Whitefield’s ministry.
Criticism is usually hard to accept, isn’t it? How was the apostle Paul able to rejoice, even in the face of criticism? Paul was single-minded, and saw his critics as another opportunity for the furtherance of the Gospel. He rejoiced, not in the selfishness of his critics, but in the fact that Christ was being preached. His attitude toward such people was to look for the good in their actions. As Paul said in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”.
Verse 19 indicates that Paul expected his case to turn out victoriously because of the prayers of his friends and the provision of the Holy Spirit. From the Greek word for “provision” we get our English word “chorus”. Whenever a Greek city was going to have a special festival, someone had to pay for the singers and dancers. The donation had to be a very large one, so this word came to mean, “to provide generously and lavishly.” Paul was depending on the generous resources of God, given by the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s desire, his hope, and his goal in verse 20 was that Christ might be magnified in his body, whether it be by life or by death. Does Christ need to be magnified? How can a mere man magnify God? Well, the stars are much bigger than the telescope, and yet the telescope magnifies them and brings them closer. The Christian’s body is to be a telescope that brings Jesus Christ close to people. To the average person, Christ is a mysterious person in history who lived centuries ago. But as the unsaved watch a believer go through a crisis, they can see Jesus magnified and brought much closer. A microscope makes tiny things look big. To the unbeliever, Jesus is not very big. Other people and other things are far more important. But as the unbeliever watches the Christian go through a difficult and painful experience, he ought to be able to see how big Jesus really is. The Christian’s life is a “lens” that makes a “little Christ” look very big, and a “distant Christ” come very close.
We might ask ourselves these questions. Are the things we are living for worth dying for? As people get to know us, are they also getting to know Christ better?
When William Carey, the great missionary to India, was dying, many of his close friends and acquaintances visited him. Among them was Alexander Duff, who deeply admired the great missionary statesman. Because of his appreciation for him, he talked at length with Carey about his active life of service to the Lord. Finally the dying man said “pray”. He did so; then he bid farewell to that valiant soldier of the cross, not knowing if he’d ever see him again in this life. He no sooner closed the door than he heard someone call his name. It was Carey, wanting one last word with him. “Duff”, he said, “when I am gone, say nothing about me – speak only about my Savior “. These words remind us of the desire of Paul’s heart expressed in this passage of Scripture. May the aspirations of the apostle Paul and William Carey become the pattern for our lives. May the motivation to exalt our living Savior so dominate our lives and our service that we would seek no praise for ourselves, but only desire that Christ would be magnified. As the hymn writer put it:
O to be like Thee, blessed Redeemer; This is my constant longing and prayer. Gladly I’ll forfeit all of earth’s treasures, Jesus Thy perfect likeness to wear.