The cosmic resolve of Paul’s travel plans.
Perhaps one of the more curious aspects of Paul’s letter to the Romans is its ending. The apostle’s monolithic doctrinal and devotional treatise concludes not in rousing anthemic chorus of God’s glory but in relaying logistical details of upcoming travel plans. “I have strongly desired for many years to come to you,” writes the apostle, “whenever I travel to Spain. For I hope to see you when I pass through and to be assisted by you for my journey there, once I have first enjoyed your company for a while.” (Rom 15:23–24) The tenor of this paragraph is made all the more peculiar when one reckons with the ambiguity of whether or not Paul actually stepped foot in Spain.
There is a dearth of scriptural evidence to affirm or deny that Paul ever fulfilled his objective to proclaim the gospel in Spain. Even still, historical attestation points to a missionary journey to Spain by the apostle (though establishing a timeline for this is equally as speculative). Perhaps the most insightful comment to this point comes extra-biblically from Bishop Clement of Rome. Writing approximately two decades following Paul’s letter to the Romans, Clement asserts that “after he [Paul] had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned and had preached in the East and in the West, he won the genuine glory for his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West.”“The farthest limits,” is, therefore, to be understood as Spain. Similarly, early church fathers Cyril, Chrysostom, and Jerome, though writing several centuries later, all indicate positively Paul’s visit and spread of the gospel in Spanish territories.
But notwithstanding whether Paul’s intentions to evangelize Spain were fulfilled or failed, it is his understanding of that as his mission that is most riveting. As the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul was adamantine in his missiological resolve. (Rom 10:10–13; 15:15–16) Immediately preceding the declaration of his itinerary, though, he clarifies his evangelistic purpose: “My aim,” he says, “is to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named, so that I will not build on someone else’s foundation, but, as it is written, Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” (Rom 15:20–21) The studious reader will notice Paul’s citation of Isaiah 52:15 entwined in his mission statement. He, therefore, understood his role in the furtherance of the gospel to be that which succeeded in carrying out God’s redemptive assignment to all the nations and “to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
What’s more, Paul was intimately aware that a chapter was closing on his ministerial work in Asia Minor. “I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum,” he explains. (Rom 15:19) In his mind, what he was called to do there had, for all intents and purposes, been effectively discharged. And, as J. D. G. Dunn asserts, an “in-between-the-lines” purpose of Paul’s letter was a desire to establish a new base of operations in Rome from which to launch a new phase in gospel ministry.
In that case the letter would be Paul’s attempt to set out the gospel which he had preached to successfully so far and which he intended to preach in Spain (Rom 1:16–17). At the end of the first (or preceding) phase of his great missionary strategy (Rom 15:19, 23) he uses the opportunity to set out in complete terms the theology of the gospel on the basis of which he would be asking the Roman Christians for support.
For Paul, then, the axiomatic impact of the gospel was its inherently paradigmatic influence. Namely, that the declaration of Christ Jesus as the Fulfiller of the Word and the Savior of the world was a momentous declaration of salvation for “everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4; cf. 3:22–24) — yes, for the entire world. (Jn 3:16–17) Wrapped around Jesus’s bloody passion and death is the connective tissue of the good news which affirms the eschatological dominion of Jesus the Christ. “Repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21), to be sure, includes individual absolution and remission of sins, but it is also an indelible message that underscores God’s answer to the cosmic groaning for redemption and sin’s fracturing of the created order. (Rom 8:18–23) Such was Paul’s motive as a representative of King Jesus, appointed thereby to declare the faith, hope, and grace of God intrinsic in his eschatological movement against darkness. And such, too, is the assignment of every preacher: to place those to whom one is called to shepherd within the larger story of God’s cosmic salvation.
Bishop Clement of Rome, in Charles L. Quarles, The Illustrated Life of Paul (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2014), 255.
J. D. G. Dunn, “Letter to the Romans,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 840.