At the beginning of the book of Romans, the apostle Paul wrote: “I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also” (Rom. 1:14-15). He has been telling them of his desire to be with them and be encouraged by them. However, he says he has been hindered from going to them because he is a debtor to both Greeks and non-Greeks (Barbarians), wise and unwise.
With this admission, Paul is not saying that he owes money or that he is under the control of these groups. The word translated “debtor” is from the Greek term opheiletes meaning: “one who owes another, one who is bound by obligation or duty.” Paul does not owe these groups physically; he is obligated to them as a proclaimer of the Gospel and an apostle. His duties as an apostle have kept him from being able to make it to Rome to this point, even though that has been one of his great desires. As a debtor, there are some things that are required to come first and the apostle recognizes his responsibilities.
In our society it has become a cultural benchmark for many people to become “debt free,” to not owe anyone for anything financially. While from a physical perspective this is certainly a worthwhile objective, are you still a debtor? Is there anyone to whom you are indebted beyond the physical things of this world? As Christians, there is always someone to whom we are obligated; consider a few of them with me.
I am a debtor to my family. The foremost obligation of any individual is to provide for the needs of one’s family. Paul wrote to Timothy, “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8). As a father, I have the obligation to bring my children up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). The mother in the home is obligated to teach from the time of infancy “the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). On more than one occasion an individual has gone out to convert the world and neglected the salvation of his own family; such an attitude denotes a failure to acknowledge and accept the obligation God has given to provide for the needs (especially from a spiritual perspective) of the family.
I am a debtor to my congregation. It has become far too commonplace for people to believe that, beyond the command to assemble together on the first day of the week, Christians have no obligation to one another; such could not be further from the truth. Paul admonished the Philippians, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phi. 2:3-4 ESV). We have an obligation to look out for one another. The early church took care of any needs within it because they were more focused on others than self (Acts 4:32-37). How often do needs of members within our congregations go unfulfilled because we have not recognized our obligations to one another as we should? Hence, we find the necessity to be Christians who are focused on “submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (Eph. 5:21).
I am a debtor to my community. We live in an age of “activism.” The term denotes vigorous action on behalf of a particular goal or belief. Christians of the first century were certainly guilty of this form of action; we find them in the public square on a daily basis proclaiming the Gospel and seeking out those who are willing to hear the truth (Acts 2:46-47; 19:8). At times Christians of today have become so enamored with the means available through mass media, the internet, and other mediums to fulfill the great commission (Mat. 28:19-20) that they have neglected the place where their greatest influence lies: their own community. Part of the issue the apostle Paul had in getting to the Roman brethren is that the need was so great in the areas around him, he had to delay the fulfillment of his desire to go see them (Rom. 1:13-15; 15:24-26). Let us be sure that we are first meeting our obligations in our own communities. This does not mean getting so wrapped up in community events that we have no time to preach the Gospel; but instead that we make our first priority proclaiming the Gospel in the area wherein we have the greatest influence.
No matter what our financial situation, as Christians we must understand that we are never truly “debt-free.” Our indebtedness to the Lord and the proclamation of the Gospel always leaves us with obligations and duties that bind us and our works. We are all debtors.