The expression “for Christ’s sake” occurs four times in the Authorized Version of the New Testament. Three instances occur in the authentic Pauline letters (Rom 15:30-31, 1 Cor 4:10, and 2 Cor 12:10), while one is in Eph 4:32. Very similar expressions such as “for Jesus’ sake,” or “for his name’s sake,” or “for the gospel’s sake” may also be found. For the moment, let’s look at the expression in Romans:
30 Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me; 31 That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints; 32 That I may come unto you with joy by the will of God, and may with you be refreshed. 33 Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.
This passage lies toward the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and asks the Roman saints to pray with Paul for two items: delivery from unbelievers in Jerusalem, and that “my service” be accepted. If these two petitions are granted, Paul will then be able to visit the Romans in person.
“My Service” and the Unbelievers
The expression “my service” is a reference to a collection Paul had taken up among the saints in Achaia and Macedonia. Perhaps this effort was the culmination of an obligation, that “we should remember the poor,” laid on Paul about 10 years previously in the trip to Jerusalem narrated in Gal 2:1-10.”
Because Jerusalem was not a rich city, Diaspora Jews regularly sent money. Destitute Christians, however, would have received none of this aid. Moreover, if Acts is correct, it would seem that early in formation of the church, the saints in Jerusalem disposed of their property and gave the proceeds to the poor, making them the poorest of the poor.
The possibility that the church in Jerusalem might reject Paul’s collection suggests some tension between the Paul’s Gentile mission and the Jewish-Christian community. If this offering were refused, the agreement worked out in Gal 2:9-10 might have been repudiated. Paul’s anxiety and personal interest in the delivery are understandable.
Paul also faced another threat: the Jews in Jerusalem were not fans of his approach to the Law. We are talking fanatics here, forty of whom will eventually take an oath to neither eat nor drink until they have murdered Paul (Acts 23:12-14). Paul had good reason to pray, and to ask others to pray with him!
Paul’s Request for Prayer
Requests for prayer are common in the Pauline letters, but this one stands out for two reasons. First, Paul asks them to synagōnisasthai, or “strive” together. The simple verb in the center is related to agōnia, which is the word used to describe Jesus’ extremity in Luke’s account of the Gethsemane prayer. The “prefix” syn means “with.” So Paul asks the Roman saints to join his struggle by getting very serious (earnest, urgent, and persistent) about praying with him for his success.
This request for prayer also stands out because of the unprecedented expression “for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake and for the love of the Spirit.” The first part, “for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake” is probably an appeal to Christ’s authority, an obligation to respond to a moral debt. The second, “for the love of the Spirit,” is probably best read as grounds for the appeal, that is, the love between Christians which characterizes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
And How Did Things Turn Out?
Paul’s prayers were answered, but not quite in the way he might have imagined it. The church leadership in Jerusalem welcomed him, but expressed concern about his image with the rank-and-file, so Paul agreed to pay for the cost of releasing four men from their vows. This plan went awry, a riot ensued, and Paul was rescued from the unbelievers – by the tribune Claudius Lysias and his men (Acts 21 – 22).
After two years in prison and various trials and examinations before the Jewish religious leadership, Herod Agrippa and his wife…er… uh…I mean sister, and the Romans Festus and Felix, Paul finally appealed to Caesar and was sent in chains to Rome. There is no record of what happened to the money Paul brought, and no record that Paul received any assistance from the saints during his two-year imprisonment among them.
Perhaps Paul’s intention was to demonstrate that the Gentile churches were part of the “one church,” not a secondary or parallel organization. Paul’s enemies, Jewish and Jewish-Christian alike, may have thought him silenced. If so, the irony is exquisite, for Paul’s legacy of inclusion has survived and blossomed over the millennia, while the Jerusalem church is one of Christianity’s mysteries.
Then again, we don’t have all the details. Who really knows?
Anyway, the story of Paul’s arrest and imprisonment is told in Acts 21 – 28. It’s a great story, and well worth your time. If you like, you can skip the speeches and just follow the action: treachery, bravery, shipwreck, snakebite…