Anyone who reads the book of Acts comes away with the realization that Paul lived to evangelize the world. This is especially true, because Jesus himself appointed him to this task. When the risen Jesus appeared to Paul on the Damascus road, his life was forever changed. The Book of Acts recounts this event three times, with each retelling highlighting Jesus’ commissioning of Paul to evangelize the Gentiles (Acts 9:15, 22:21, 26:16–18). Because of Paul’s apostolic mission, his greatest desire was to go Rome to preach the Gospel, and then use Rome as a home base his missionary work in Spain (Rom 1:13; 15:24, 28).
This is why it so surprising that he chooses to strengthen the church in Jerusalem instead of taking advantage of evangelistic opportunities in Rome and beyond. Listen to what Paul says in 15:25–27.
At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.
Paul chooses to go to Jerusalem, help the poor there, and to strengthen the unity between the Gentile church in Macedonia and Achaia and the Jewish church in Jerusalem. For a man controlled by his evangelistic mission this seems contrary to his life’s purpose. However, the reason Paul delayed evangelistic opportunities was because he knew that it is through a healthy and united church that the Gospel is made known to the nations (cf. Eph 3:10).
PAUL’S PRIORY OF SUBMITTING TO ELDERS
The reason why Paul so diligently collected aid from the Gentile churches in Macedonia is because he submitted to the church’s leadership. The elders in Jerusalem James, Peter and John gave Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship with one provision—that they remember the poor, the very thing Paul was eager to do (Gal 2:10). This why Paul delays his missionary work to strengthen the church in Jerusalem with a financial gift in Romans 15. For Paul, submission to leadership was as prerequisite for his evangelistic work.
PAUL’S PRIORITY OF CHURCH UNITY
Paul knew that there would be some animosity between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Both the book Galatians and Acts 15 show that tension existed in the early church between Jewish believers and Gentiles over how much of the Old Testament was normative for Gentiles. This is probably why Paul asks for prayer as he brings the money to Jerusalem for protection from unbelievers and that his service to Jerusalem would be acceptable to the saints (Rom 15:31).
It may seem strange that Paul feared that his gift would not be acceptable to the saints, but this is because we have not experienced the racial tension between Jews and Gentiles like Paul did. He feared that Jewish believers would not accept a gift from unclean Gentiles! And sure enough, when he came to Jerusalem some of the Jewish believers immediately accused him of instructing others to forsake Moses (Acts 21:21). In response, James—the leader of the Jerusalem church and the brother of Jesus—tells Paul to take four believers into the temple and to pay their expenses (Acts 21:24). This probably had to do with a Nazarite vow. In any case, Paul may have used some of the money that he brought with him to pay their expenses.
Tragically, Paul is arrested and taken away in chains. But this was no surprise to Paul, because he previously said that “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me” (Acts 20:23). Still, Paul went to city, though he greatly desired to go to Rome, and to make her his home base for his Spanish mission (Rom 1:13; 15:24, 28).
For Paul, uniting Jewish and Gentile believers through loving one another both spiritually and physically was paramount.
PAUL’S CHURCH PRIORITY WAS A GOSPEL PRIORITY
I think Paul the reason why Paul thought this way is because he embraced Jesus’ words in John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love and unity are the basis for missions. Think about what Paul says In Ephesians 3:8–10:
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
Paul’s vision for the Gospel is to be spread through the church. A few implications for evangelism follow:
(1) Submitting to elders is a means for further the Gospel. It is a contradiction in terms to be an evangelistist who is not submitting to the regular preaching of the word and oversight of a pastor. Hence, Paul submitted to James by bringing money to the poor in Jerusalem instead of launching his new western missionary work.
(2) Fellowshipping with believers in the church is also a means for furthering the Gospel. It is not wasted time to fellowship with people, to share spiritual insight, and even to help each other out physically. These are all signs of unity that the world sees and glorify your father who is in heaven (Matt 5:16). Lone ranger evangelism divorced from the local church is contrary to the Gospel and actually hurts your evangelistic witness. On the other hand, fellowshipping more with believers actually increases your evangelistic witness.
(3) We need to balance a love for the church and love for the lost. These two concepts are not contradictory but complimentary. By lovingly submitting to elders and serving each other, we are actually establishing the basis for Gospel preaching.