Studies in the Epistles of Paul
In the year A.D. 57, Paul was on his third missionary journey, getting ready to go back to Jerusalem with an offering from the churches in Greece. Although he knew he had enemies in Jerusalem, he was already thinking about his fourth missionary trip. He wanted to go to Spain, and the best travel route would take him through Rome. This could work out well, Paul thought. There are already Christians in Rome, and they might be willing to support my trip to Spain, just as the Antioch church supported my earlier missionary journeys and the Macedonian churches supported me while I was in southern Greece.
So Paul decided to write to the Roman Christians to let them know that he planned to come to Rome and then go to Spain — and that he would appreciate some support. However, Paul had a problem: the Roman Christians had heard some erroneous rumors about what Paul preached. To prevent misunderstanding, Paul explains what the gospel is, so they will know what they are being asked to support.
But that is only the first half of Romans. In the second half, Paul deals with some problems that existed in the Roman churches — especially the tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Paul uses part of his letter to discuss Jew-Gentile relationships in God’s plan, and Christian conduct and love for others. He tries to give these Christians some doctrinal foundation for unity.
We do not know whether Paul made it to Spain, but his letter was a tremendous success in other ways. It has been valued throughout church history as the most doctrinally complete letter that Paul wrote. It is the letter that sparked the Reformation. It influenced Martin Luther and John Wesley and countless others. It provides the benchmark for all studies of Paul’s theology, and because of that, it is a cornerstone for understanding the doctrines of the early church.
Introduction to the gospel
Paul begins, as Greek letters normally did, by identifying himself: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…” (verse 1, New Revised Standard Version used in chapters 1-4). Paul identifies himself as a slave who has been commanded to spend his time on the gospel. He is sent by the master with the message of God.
Greek letters normally began by naming the sender, and then the recipients. But Paul is so focused on the gospel that, before he names the readers, he goes into a five-verse digression about the gospel. In effect, he puts his message at the top, before he even gets to the Dear so-and-so line. This makes it clear that his letter is about the gospel: “Which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures” (verse 2). Paul begins by linking the gospel to the Old Testament promises (as he also does in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). This provides a point of stability for Gentile readers, and some reassurance for Jewish readers.
God’s message is “concerning his Son.” It is about the Son of God; the promises found in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, “who was descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3). The gospel is again connected with the Old Testament past; Paul’s words will appeal to his Jewish readers and remind the Gentile readers of their Jewish roots.
The Son is a descendant of King David. However, by saying “according to the flesh,” Paul implies that something more than flesh is also involved. This person at the center of the gospel is not merely a human; he is also the Son of God in a way that other people are not.
Verse 4: “and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus was powerfully demonstrated to be God’s Son by his resurrection from the dead. Jesus, although a human descendant of David, was shown to be more than human by his resurrection into glory.
But the gospel does not stop with Jesus. It also includes us: “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name” (verse 5). Paul will say more about grace and obedience later in his letter. But he says here that “we” have not only received grace, but also apostleship. Paul is referring to his commission to take the gospel to the non-Jewish peoples, and by “we” he means the small number of people who were working with him in this special mission, such as Timothy. They have received the grace, the divine gift, of spreading the gospel.
He connects the gospel to the readers in verse 6: “including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” The gospel says that believers belong to Christ, and that is good news.
After this introductory description of the gospel, Paul gets back to the normal letter format by stating the recipients of the letter: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 7). Paul does not greet “the church of God that is at Rome.” He does not speak of it as a unity. (Chapter 16 suggests that there were several house churches.) Nor does he write to any particular church leaders. Instead, perhaps because he is not sure how this letter will be delivered, he addresses it directly to the believers.