Reaping the Harvest of Mutual Encouragement
Paul now shares with the Christians in Rome how much he longs to see them. Indeed, he had wanted to come to them on several occasions but was unable. At the present time, he was in Corinth planning his trip to Jerusalem to deliver the love gift collected from the Gentile churches to relieve the Jewish Christians suffering in Judea. After doing that, he would visit Rome with the hope that they would then send him off to Spain for another missionary journey (Acts 20:1-2; Romans 15:22-29). But until then, he could only express his deep affection for them, praying that at last God would answer his prayers and allow him to visit them.
Scholars work hard to discover why a certain writer of a New Testament book or letter wrote what he wrote. This requires reading the material carefully for clues. Romans is one of those letters that seems to suggest multiple reasons for why Paul wrote it: 1) There seems to be some quarreling between the Jews and Gentiles in the church which is hinted at throughout the letter; 2) Paul wanted to use the church of Rome as a new base of mission support to reach Spain with the gospel (15:28), and so wrote the letter to express that. 3) But one way to earn that support was to record for them the message of the gospel which he preached, which is why of all of Paul’s letters, Romans seems to be the most “theologically-driven.”
There is truth in each of these proposals. But I also think we should pay close attention to what Paul says at the beginning of the letter right here: Paul wanted to “impart … some spiritual gift to strengthen” them, and he wanted to be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” Yes, Paul does say that he wanted to “reap some harvest” among them, but I do not think we are required to assume he means evangelistically; after all, Paul made it his policy to not plant where others had already done so (15:20). May we not simply assume that Paul wanted to meet his brothers and sisters in Christ in Rome, that he wanted to preach and encourage them in the faith, and that he desired likewise to be built up in the faith by them as well? “Harvest” need not always refer to saving souls but might also refer to the receiving of mutual edification. And as we have been savingly healed by our Lord, we are obligated to offer healing by edifying and encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of their intelligence, sophistication, or culture (Greeks or Barbarians). Indeed, one of the primary reasons the church meets is “encouraging one another, and all the more as [we] see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).