Romans 1:8-10; 15:30-33
In these studies on the references to prayer in the Pauline letters, we turn now to the letter to the Romans, that veritable compendium of Paul’s theology and teaching, in which he touches on virtually every important area of early Christian thought.
By contrast with Galatians (cf. the previous study), Romans follows the epistolary pattern of the Pauline letters, with positive references to prayer, occurring primarily in the introduction (thanksgiving) and closing exhortation sections. As we have seen, such references tend to emphasize two important aspects of Paul’s relationship to the congregations to which he is writing: (1) he prays for them, that they will continue growing in faith and virtue, in response to the Gospel; and (2) that they would pray for him, that he would be strengthened and continue to find success in his mission of proclaiming the Gospel.
The introduction (exordium) sections of Paul’s letters typically contain a thanksgiving portion, in which he publicly mentions giving thanks to God on behalf of his audience (in this case, the Christians in Rome). The situation in Romans is somewhat different, in that Paul did not play a key missionary (apostolic) role in founding the Christian congregations there. Even so, he addresses them in the thanksgiving section much as he does in the other letters:
“First, I give (thanks) to my God for (His) good favor, through Yeshua (the) Anointed, over all of you, that the news (of) your trust is given (all) around in the whole world.” (v. 8)
The positive prayer-references in the thanksgiving sections tend to be expressed in terms of praise for the faithfulness of his readers, with such praise being intended, in large part, to encourage them to continue acting and behaving in a faithful manner. Also typical is a statement by Paul that he repeatedly makes mention of the believers (and congregations), to whom he is writing, in his prayers to God:
“For God is my witness, to whom I perform service in my spirit in (proclaiming) the good message of His Son, how, without any interruption [a)dialei/ptw$], I make mention of you always, upon [i.e. at/during] my (time)s of speaking out toward (God)” (v. 9)
The noun proseuxh/ is, of course, the common noun for prayer (rel. to the verb proseu/xomai, “speak out toward [God]”), while the adverb a)dialei/ptw$ (“without any gap throughout”, i.e., without interruption, without ceasing) was used by Paul, in a similar context, in 1 Thessalonians (1:2; 2:13; 5:17). The focus of Paul’s prayers regarding the Roman Christians is unique, and reflects the fact that he was not a founding missionary (apostle) of those congregations. As verse 10 makes clear, Paul prays to God for the opportunity to visit those congregations in Rome, seeing them for the first time:
“…making request if, (some)how, sometime now I will be set well on the way, in [i.e. by] the wish of God, to come to you. For I long to see you…”
Even though Paul does not hold the same position (as an apostle) to the Roman Christians, he still wishes to extend to them something of that ministry, giving forth to them as well a “spiritual gift” (xa/risma pneumatiko/n). There is a special kind of poignancy in the humble way Paul states this wish of his in Romans.
At the close of the letter, Paul mentions again his desire to come to Rome, framing it in the wider context of his missionary work (15:22-29). A visit to Rome would, in his mind, be a fitting climax to his missionary labors (throughout much of the Roman empire). He mentions it specifically in connection with his intended journey to Jerusalem (vv. 25-26ff), to deliver the money for the poor that he has been collecting, through a major relief effort, among the churches of Greece and Macedonia (2 Cor 8-9, etc). This mission to Jerusalem informs Paul’s wider teaching on Jewish-Gentile unity throughout the body of the letter, and there can be no question that he saw the ‘collection for the saints’ as a concrete and symbolic expression of that unity. Once Paul has delivered the money, on his way for a possible missionary journey into Spain, he plans to stop at Rome to visit the Christians there (v. 28). Because of the significance (and spiritual value) of his relief effort, Paul is confident that he (and his fellow missionaries) will receive a special blessing on their way to Rome (v. 29).
In verse 30, Paul asks the Christians in Rome to pray for him regarding this journey:
“I call you alongside, [brothers,] through our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, and through the love of the Spirit, to struggle together with me in (your moment)s of speaking out toward God over me.”
His wording echoes that of 1:9 earlier (cf. above), only instead of his prayers to God (on behalf of the Romans), he asks for their prayers on his behalf. Even though Paul does not share the same kind of apostolic relationship with the Romans that he does with other Christians elsewhere the Empire, he and they still share the basic bond of unity as believers, which he expresses as twofold: (1) “through our Lord Jesus Christ”, and (2) “through the love of the Spirit”. On the important association of love and the Spirit, cf. 5:5 and the ethical teaching in 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 14:15 (in light of Gal 5:6, 13-15, 16ff).
Paul makes use of a rare compound verb (used only here in the New Testament), sunagwni/zomai, “struggle together with”. It expresses an important aspect of the role of prayer in missionary work. Believers across a wide geographic area (even around the entire world) are united together with missionaries, at a spiritual level, through prayer. Even when not physically present on the mission field, those praying labor together with the missionaries, and play no less an active and vital role in the work. Paul realized this keenly, and it is an important part of why he frames the prayer-references in his letters as he does (cf. above).
Believers praying to God contribute, in a real sense, to God’s response in aiding and helping the missionaries (in this case, Paul and his co-workers). This is part of a key New Testament teaching (and principle) regarding prayer: when one prays selflessly, for the needs of others (rather than focusing on one’s own needs), such prayer is certain to be answered by God. Paul recognized the danger he faced on his journeys—especially this last journey to Jerusalem (cf. Acts 20:22ff)—and so he calls on the Roman Christians to assist him (and his fellow missionaries) through their prayers:
“…that I might be rescued from the (one)s being without trust in Yehudah, and (that) my service to Yerushalaim would come to be well-received by the holy (one)s” (v. 31)
A successful completion of this mission will result in the opportunity for him to travel to Rome in joy and blessing (v. 32). As it happened, Paul’s journey to Rome turned out much different than he might have imagined, yet his prayer-wish was fulfilled, and he was able to visit the Christians in Rome, and to impart from his inspired gifts and experience, teaching and encouragement to them (Acts 28:15, 30-31).