Updated: Mar 16, 2022
It starts with one step, the beginning of a long journey. We plan the route for efficiency and time, bypassing cities and attractions for wide highways and expressways. We hope for clear skies and open roads so we can maintain the highest speeds and stop only for gasoline. As humans, we like the nearest point, the bottom line, the path of least resistance and we react badly when those things are impeded with traffic jams, construction or folks who take too long. How we react when our path is obstructed may be the clearest view into our character. Perhaps it is only natural that we want to get where we are going so that we can do whatever we have planned at the destination. In fact, it’s all about the destination, right? For us, the journey is just the time it takes until we land the plane, park the car, or reach the train station. The vacation, business trip or family visit doesn’t begin until we have arrived.
In all the rush we can’t tell one vehicle from the other. Like cattle stampeding out of control, we begin to resemble the world around us and it’s hard to tell who we are. The world becomes a blur and our reality is the bubble of metal and glass that surrounds us. What about the scenery along the way? What about the people we don’t meet and things we don’t do because we are in such a hurry to get somewhere else? The question is, how did Paul get to Rome?
We tend to think the purpose of a trip is the destination, but what if it isn’t? What if the purpose is the journey? In his letter to the Romans, Paul states it is his desire to get to Rome for a visit, to preach and mentor the church there. Romans 1:9-12 says, “…Without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers, making request if, by some means, now at last I may find a way in the will of God to come to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established – that is, that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.”
Romans 15:22-24 says, “For this reason I also have been much hindered from coming to you. But now no longer having a place in these parts, and having a great desire these many years to come to you, whenever I journey to Spain, I shall come to you. For I hope to see you on my journey, and to be helped on my way there by you, if first I may enjoy your company for a while.”
Yet, in all the years Paul served the Lord as a missionary, traveling to Asia, Europe and back to Israel, he never made it to Rome. Why not? Why wouldn’t God accommodate such a noble, selfless desire? Wasn’t it in God’s purpose for Paul to visit Rome? Of course we know the answer is yes. God did send Paul to Rome, but not the way Paul anticipated. Acts Chapters 21-27 chronicle Paul’s journey from Jerusalem to Rome, where he addressed Caesar himself. What Paul did not know is that he would address Rome in chains, as a prisoner and eventually be executed by Caesar. After being arrested in Jerusalem God spoke to Paul and said, “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome.” So what was the purpose? Why did God give Paul the longing to visit Rome, only to send him there to die? Why was that something for Paul to be of good cheer about?
The answer is simple but not easy – God’s ways are not our ways. God does not take us where we want to go by the road we choose, but by the road which best serves His divine purpose, and we are invited to participate in the adventure, to sacrifice our plans in order to share in what God is doing in the lives of others. God’s purpose is a Kingdom purpose and always the same, to conform us to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ, so that through us the world will see Him. Romans 8:28-29 says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” Only God knows how to conform us to the image of Christ, how to change us from the inside out to reflect His own glory, and His methods usually involve death of our selfish will.
It is a hard thing for us to understand, how hardship and trials work to make us more obedient, tenderhearted and compassionate. On his way to Rome, Paul was shipwrecked and stranded on the island of Malta for three months. During that time he ministered to the people there who had never heard of Jesus and many were saved. After reaching Rome he spoke before several courts and preached to anyone who came to visit him. While in prison Paul wrote what are now five books of the Bible; Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, II Timothy and Phileman. What God knows that we do not, is who needs to hear what only we can share, our testimony. God knew who Paul was providentially destined to meet along the way. Paul’s road to Rome was anything but straight, filled with obstacles, delays and hardship. Yet each turn in the path brought someone into contact with Paul, and subsequently God, including Caesar himself.
Like Paul, every Christian is traveling down our own road and our destination might be a family, a promotion, a house or car, or just a better situation. It could be a ministry placed in our heart, which has not come to fruition. Perhaps God has allowed a shipwreck to delay us, or our destination to change right when we think we have arrived. When all seems lost or we face our bleakest moment, it’s then that God is there, using circumstances to shape us into vessels that see the world through His eyes. Eyes that see the setbacks, delays and obstacles, not as disappointments or failures, but as divine appointments with those who are watching. And make no mistake. People are watching. Our coworkers see our response when we don’t get that promotion. Our children see how we pray for deliverance. Our unsaved friends and family watch to see if we are living what we say we believe. Every step we take has a direct impact on how the people in our lives view God.
Paul knew that his life had meaning, not because it was a success in the eyes of the world, but because every person he met was impacted for Christ. “Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” (II Timothy 2:10) To Paul, it was an honor to sacrifice for the sake of one person coming to Christ and his last days, although to the world should have been filled with despair, were instead filled with peace. “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.” (II Timothy 4:6-8)
The question was how did Paul get to Rome? The answer is, in chains. The reality is that we all suffer tragedy and loss. We lose jobs. We lose homes. We lose people we love, and we face deep disappointments from many sources. The trials and tragedies of life happen to us all, and if we lose sight of why we’re here, and where we’re going, these hardships can destroy our faith. What Paul understood is that his final destination was death, and knowing that he was able to make each step count. Who has God placed in your path today? Who is watching your response to circumstances? Perhaps God has placed you on the road you are on, not to reach the end, but to meet one person along the way. If so, are they worth the price? Is your faith revealed in your response to your struggles, or are you showing another character? Paul’s life gives us hope, not that we will avoid hardship and pain, but that God’s purpose, His Kingdom purpose, is in them. Our hope is that He will use us to reflect His glory along the less traveled road, where so many are waiting to hear what we alone have to say, and to be changed by our example.