Verses 17–21

The apostle here gives some account of himself and of his own affairs. Having mentioned his ministry and apostleship, he goes on further to magnify his office in the efficacy of it, and to mention to the glory of God the great success of his ministry and the wonderful things that God had done by him, for encouragement to the Christian church at Rome, that they were not alone in the profession of Christianity, but though, compared with the multitude of their idolatrous neighbours, they were but a little flock, yet, up and down the country, there were many that were their companions in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ. It was likewise a great confirmation of the truth of the Christian doctrine that it had such strange success, and was so far propagated by such weak and unlikely means, such multitudes captivated to the obedience of Christ by the foolishness of preaching. Therefore Paul gives them this account, which he makes the matter of his glorying; not vain glory, but holy gracious glorying, which appears by the limitations; it is through Jesus Christ. Thus does he centre all his glorying in Christ; he teaches us so to do, 1 Cor. 1:31. Not unto us, Ps. 115:1. And it is in those things which pertain to God. The conversion of souls is one of those things that pertain to God, and therefore is the matter of Paul’s glorying; not the things of the flesh. Whereof I may glory, echo oun kauchesin en Christo Iesou ta pros Theon. I would rather read it thus: Therefore I have a rejoicing in Christ Jesus (it is the same word that is used, 2 Cor. 1:12; Phil. 3:3; where it is the character of the circumcision that they rejoicekauchomenoi, in Christ Jesus) concerning the things of God; or those things that are offered to God—the living sacrifices of the Gentiles, Rom. 15:16. Paul would have them to rejoice with him in the extent and efficacy of his ministry, of which he speaks not only with the greatest deference possible to the power of Christ, and the effectual working of the Spirit as all in all; but with a protestation of the truth of what he said (Rom. 15:18): I will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ hath not wrought by me. He would not boast of things without his line, nor take the praise of another man’s work, as he might have done when he was writing to distant strangers, who perhaps could not contradict him; but (says he) I dare not do it: a faithful man dares not lie, however he be tempted, dares be true, however he be terrified. Now, in this account of himself, we may observe,

I. His unwearied diligence and industry in his work. He was one that laboured more abundantly than they all.

1. He preached in many places: From Jerusalem, whence the law went forth as a lamp that shineth, and round about unto Illyricum, many hundred miles distant from Jerusalem. We have in the book of the Acts an account of Paul’s travels. There we find him, after he was sent forth to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-52), labouring in that blessed work in Seleucia, Cyprus, Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Lycaonia (Acts 13:1-14:28), afterwards travelling through Syria and Cilicia, Phrygia, Galatia, Mysia, Troas, and thence called over to Macedonia, and so into Europe, Acts 15:1-16:40. Then we find him very busy at Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, and the parts adjacent. Those that know the extent and distance of these countries will conclude Paul an active man, rejoicing as a strong man to run a race. Illyricum is the country now called Sclavonia, bordering upon Hungary. Some take it for the same with Bulgaria; others for the lower Pannonia: however, it was a great way from Jerusalem. Now it might be suspected that if Paul undertook so much work, surely he did it by the halves. “No,” says he, “I have fully preached the Gospel of Christ—have given them a full account of the truth and terms of the gospel, have not shunned to declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), have kept back nothing that was necessary for them to know.” Filled the gospel, so the word is; peplerokenai to euangelion, filled it as the net is filled with fishes in a large draught; or filled the gospel, that is, filled them with the gospel. Such a change does the gospel make that, when it comes in power to any place, it fills the place. Other knowledge is airy, and leaves souls empty, but he knowledge of the gospel is filling.

2. He preached in places that had not heard the gospel before, Rom. 15:20, 21. He broke up the fallow ground, laid the first stone in many places, and introduced Christianity where nothing had reigned for many ages but idolatry and witchcraft, and all sorts of diabolism. Paul broke the ice, and therefore must needs meet with the more difficulties and discouragements in his work. Those who preached in Judea had upon this account a much easier task than Paul, who was the apostle of the Gentiles; for they entered into the labours of others, John 4:38. Paul, being a hardy man, was called out to the hardest work; there were many instructors, but Paul was the great father—many that watered, but Paul was the great planter. Well, he was a bold man that made the first attack upon the palace of the strong man armed in the Gentile world, that first assaulted Satan’s interest there, and Paul was that man who ventured the first onset in many places, and suffered greatly for it. He mentions this as a proof of his apostleship; for the office of the apostles was especially to bring in those that were without, and to lay the foundations of the new Jerusalem; see Rev. 21:14. Not but that Paul preached in many places where others had been at work before him; but he principally and mainly laid himself out for the good of those that sat in darkness. He was in care not to build upon another man’s foundation, lest he should thereby disprove his apostleship, and give occasion to those who sought occasion to reflect upon him. He quotes a scripture for this out of Isa. 52:15; To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see. That which had not been told them, shall they see; so the prophet has it, much to the same purport. This made the success of Paul’s preaching the more remarkable. The transition from darkness to light is more sensible than the after-growth and increase of that light. And commonly the greatest success of the gospel is at its first coming to a place; afterwards people become sermon-proof.

II. The great and wonderful success that he had in his work: It was effectual to make the Gentiles obedient. The design of the gospel is to bring people to be obedient; it is not only a truth to be believed, but a law to be obeyed. This Paul aimed at in all his travels; not his own wealth and honour (if he had, he had sadly missed his aim), but the conversion and salvation of souls: this his heart was upon, and for this he travailed in birth again. Now how was this great work wrought? 1. Christ was the principal agent. He does not say, “which I worked,” but “which Christ wrought by me,” Rom. 15:18. Whatever good we do, it is not we, but Christ by us, that does it; the work is his, the strength his; he is all in all, he works all our works, Phil. 2:13; Isa. 26:12. Paul takes all occasions to own this, that the whole praise might be transmitted to Christ. 2. Paul was a very active instrument: By word and deed, that is, by his preaching, and by the miracles he wrought to confirm his doctrine; or his preaching and his living. Those ministers are likely to win souls that preach both by word and deed, by their conversation showing forth the power of the truths they preach. This is according to Christ’s example, who began both to do and teach, Acts 1:1.—Through mighty signs and wonders: en dynamei semeionby the power, or in the strength, of signs and wonders. These made the preaching of the word so effectual, being the appointed means of conviction, and the divine seal affixed to the gospel-charter, Mark 16:17, 18. 3. The power of the Spirit of God made this effectual, and crowned all with the desired success, Rom. 15:19. (1.) The power of the Spirit in Paul, as in the other apostles, for the working of those miracles. Miracles were wrought by the power of the Holy Ghost (Acts 1:8), therefore reproaching the miracles is called the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. Or, (2.) The power of the Spirit in the hearts of those to whom the word was preached, and who saw the miracles, making these means effectual to some and not to others. It is the Spirit’s operation that makes the difference. Paul himself, as great a preacher as he was, with all his might signs and wonders, could not make one soul obedient further than the power of the Spirit of God accompanied his labours. It was the Spirit of the Lord of hosts that made those great mountains plain before this Zerubbabel. This is an encouragement to faithful ministers, who labour under the sense of great weakness and infirmity, that it is all one to the blessed Spirit to work by many, or by those that have on power. The same almighty Spirit that wrought with Paul often perfects strength in weakness, and ordains praise out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. This success which he had in preaching is that which he here rejoices in; for the converted nations were his joy and crown of rejoicing: and he tells them of it, not only that they might rejoice with him, but that they might be the more ready to receive the truths which he had written to them, and to own him whom Christ had thus signally owned.