Romans 1:13-15 ESV
13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.
14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.
15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
Have you ever told a joke about something you really know a lot about, and had it fall flat when telling that same joke to people who don’t know much about such things? Being the gadget geek that I am, I can joke with my peers using technical jargon and such, and I can be sure they get the joke. When I am around my kids, we can chuckle over references to TV shows we watch together, and I know they’ll get it. With my pastor and others in my Bible study, we can get a chuckle or two from sly references to the Gospels or Moses or whatever is in the Bible. It reminds me of an article I read thirty years ago about an anthropologist who was trying to retell the story of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to a tribe in the African bush country. He got in trouble right away because the tribe’s belief system didn’t allow for ghosts in the sense we normally think of them. By the time he was finished trying to shoehorn Hamlet into the local language, the tribal elders looked at him and said, “You need to go home and learn the story again. You plainly got some things wrong.” Whether it’s a joke or Shakespeare, it’s the language and culture that make the difference about whether or not people “get it.”
But the same is not true of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news of salvation through Christ is for everyone, and it is something that can and should be told in every language and culture on earth.
In his letter to those early believers in Rome, Paul tells them he has been wanting to visit them for a long time. For the previous couple of decades, Paul has wandered the eastern Mediterranean Sea—through Asia Minor, Greece, Macedonia, Cyprus, Syria, and Judea—preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has made return visits to places like Philippi, Corinth, and Antioch, and he has already started writing epistles to some of those churches, to build and encourage them as they grow in this new faith. But Paul’s calling is to be the apostle to the Gentiles—i.e. those who are not Jews, which is pretty much everyone outside of Judea—and in that role he has set his sights on Rome and even Spain. That’s a pretty bold goal for someone who is mostly travelling on foot and occasionally by coast-hugging boats. But Paul knows that Jesus was quite serious when He said about him “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.” (Acts 9:15) And so go he must, travelling all the known world speaking the name of Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior.
This is why, in our verse above, Paul speaks about wanting so much to see the believers in Rome. Paul had travelled a lot, and his own disciples had continued on in many of the places where he had established churches, but none of the Apostles had yet made it to Rome itself. We may ask, “Well, why didn’t Jesus Himself just start in Rome, thus bringing the whole Empire into the fold?” That’s a nice idea, but as Paul himself reiterates here, the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16) The promise of salvation was spoken to Abraham and later to Israel and then the Jews, and so the gospel started in Jerusalem because that is where the Jews were, and then it spread as it did because faithful disciples preached the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul’s desire is to visit Rome and share the gospel in deeper fellowship with the Roman believers, bearing fruit with them just as he had already started in other churches across the Mediterranean.
Looking at verses 13 and 14 above, we can see that Paul doesn’t want to visit Rome to speak to believing Jews—some of whom may have been among that crowd on Pentecost years before when so many Jews visiting Jerusalem were saved. Paul’s goal is to include everyone in his evangelism. Note how Paul says that his obligation—i.e. his commission to preach the gospel—includes both Greeks and barbarians, the wise and the foolish. In our modern culture, we think of barbarians as being savage people with primitive ways and questionable morals. There is no clear etymology for the Greek word “barbaros”, but from the context used in other writings before and after Paul, the meaning is clearly “someone who doesn’t speak Greek.” So in Paul’s time, calling someone a barbarian simply meant he or she was someone who didn’t speak your common language. Paul is not talking about savages, he’s talking about people of other cultures and languages. He’s talking about people who might not “get it” if he recites a joke from a Greek play, but people who most certainly WILL understand when he speaks of sin and salvation.
Acts 2:4-11 ESV
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.
And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians–we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
After being in Jerusalem in those early days, knowing how the Holy Spirit empowers us to speak in languages not our own, reaching people who come from different places and even cultures, Paul could easily include both Greeks (whose language he already knew) and non-Greeks (whose languages he did not know). Paul didn’t worry about HOW he would address the very cosmopolitan populace of Rome, only that he wanted the chance to get there and do so.
Paul also singles out the “wise and the foolish.” As in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is speaking of those who know—or THINK they know—about God and the world, and also those whose cultures are so different, they seem like unthinking beasts. Paul uses two very different words here. We translate “sophos” as “wise”, and that is the way the word has worked its way into the English language in words like philosophy, sophisticated, and sophistry. But the word translated as “foolish” is “anoetoi”, which literally means the “un-thinking ones.” The one time Jesus uses that word, it is when he calls the two men on the road to Emmaus fools for being slow of heart to believe that He had indeed risen from the dead. (Luke 24:25) He is basically saying they were foolish to trust only what they heard from others or had seen themselves and not trust what they knew in their spirit and from His own teachings. And what did they not know, not think about?
Luke 24:25-27 ESV
And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Jesus then TAUGHT the “foolish ones”, the ones who had seen and not believed, the ones who had heard and still were skeptical, the ones who’d had the evidence in front of them the whole time and yet had not thought about it.
Paul is telling the Roman believers that he is obligated to share the gospel with those who speak his same language and those who don’t, those who know the Scriptures and those who don’t, those who think they know everything and those who haven’t got a clue, those who are believers already and need encouragement and those who do not believe yet. In short, the gospel message is for EVERYONE.
As we consider this passage today, we need to ask ourselves “Who are the barbarians and fools in my life?” Who are the ones who may not speak my language or come from my same background, but who still need to hear the message of Jesus Christ? Who are the ones who haven’t even given much thought to salvation and eternity because they have been too caught up in the worries and pains of this world? Who are the ones who have ignored Christ or never been exposed to Him as WE have? We must all remember that somewhere along our own ways, someone spoke the gospel to us—perhaps just once, perhaps repeatedly over a number of years. (Thanks, Mom!) SOMEONE preached the good news to us.
Romans 10:14-15 ESV
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
We are ALL obligated to speak the name of Jesus Christ to ALL humanity, not just to the ones we think might “get it.” Honestly, we cannot know whether or not someone will understand until we have spoken to them. They cannot say “Yes” or “No” if you never give them the chance!
Our commission is to make disciples of all nations, to preach the gospel to all creation. So let’s get out there and preach the gospel to those barbarians and fools in Christ’s name!