Our study of Romans begins with the author, Paul the “apostle”, introducing himself, his Roman readers and his message to us. We will discuss these three themes under the following headings:
Our characters for this section look as follows:
3.1 Paul’s Ministry (1:1-6)
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…
Paul introduces himself by highlighting 4 different aspects of his calling in these verses:
He starts off by calling himself “a servant of Christ Jesus”. In the Roman world a servant
was a slave, and slaves were people who existed for the benefit of their masters. This is Paul’s way of saying that he belongs to Jesus Christ and lives to carry out his will.
Romans has much to say about the importance of becoming a servant. In fact, the entire second half of the book (chapters 12 to 16) is devoted to the art of servanthood!
Secondly, he is an apostle. The word “apostle” means “sent one” and referred to an ambassador, a delegate, a commissioner or a representative of the emperor or king. It is derived from the verb “to send out‟, usually on a specific mission. This was Paul’s way of saying that he had been sent by God as an ambassador to the churches.
Note that the word “apostle” is never used in the Bible as a title for a person, such as we do when we say “Doctor” or “Professor”. As mentioned above, the word does not even exist in Greek as a special term. It simply refers to the calling of being “sent” by God for a specific task.
Thirdly, he is set apart for the gospel, which means “the Good News”.
What is this gospel? The passage tells us that the gospel concerns Jesus Christ, who was declared to be God’s Son through his resurrection from the dead (verse 4).
As we will see throughout Romans, the centrality of God’s son Jesus Christ is the key to understanding the gospel. Romans explains in detail how we can also become sons and daughters of God by identifying with Jesus Christ and being found “in him.” Like Christ, this fact will be publically declared by our resurrection from the dead (See Romans 8:18-25).
You may wonder what the resurrection has to do with being declared a son or daughter of God: To be God’s child is to be born again or regenerated by the living, immortal and imperishable seed of God. This identity of a divine nature is invisible to the naked eye but will be revealed through its ultimate triumph over death.
In this sense Jesus was declared to be God’s son through his resurrection from the dead!
The core message of Romans is the life of Christ, and it is introduced in the first few verses. This resurrection life is not restricted only to Jesus Christ, but is also granted to those who “belong to Jesus Christ” (verse 6).
When we belong to Him, His life belongs to us! Herein is the “life exchange” discussed in Part 1: Introduction and Overview.
Paul was called to spread this good news of salvation, and he did so through preaching, teaching and writing to churches and individuals. Thus he also reveals himself to be a preacher and teacher of the gospel.
Finally, Paul was called to take this glorious message to the “nations”. This word was used to refer to gentiles, heathen and foreigners, and it included the Romans. Paul travelled extensively, as is confirmed in the book of Acts. Today we would refer to such a person as a “missionary.”
3.2 Paul’s Mission (1:7-15)
7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
Who were the original recipients of the letter to the Romans? Well, quite obviously, the Romans! In verses 7 to 15 Paul mentions this and provides us with some information about the believers in Rome, as well as his relationship with them. “Paul’s mission” had to do with his motives for writing to them and his desire to impart some spiritual gift to them.
According to legend a horribly wicked king called Amulius ordered that his two cousins, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, be abandoned on the banks of the flooding river Tiber. The waters never reached the brothers and a kind she-wolf rescued and raised them. They eventually built a city at the place where they had been rescued. Romulus later killed Remus and named the city after himself.
The actual history is far less interesting. The earliest people who inhabited the famous Seven Hills of Rome were peasant farmers called “Latins”. Other people in the area were Etruscans and settlers from Greece.
Rome developed like any other city: out of these early settlements and over a long period of time. Rome became a republic in 510 B.C. and an empire 500 years later. It came to a rather nasty end in 476 with the revolt of Germanic mercenaries under their chieftain Odoacer.
The growth of Christianity in Rome was a huge event. Everybody was speaking about it and Paul wanted to tell the Romans how grateful he was for their faith (verse 8).
Secondly, he wanted them to know that he was constantly praying for them (verses 8-10). We can learn a lesson from this. Any form of Christian ministry is powerless without prayer. One of the main characteristics of Paul’s ministry was that he always prayed for all the churches, and the Romans were no exception.
Thirdly, in verse 11 Paul says “I long to see you”. He cared deeply for the Roman believers, and he wanted them to know this. This is confirmed by his farewell at the end of the book, where we see how many people he knew and loved in Rome.
Yet Paul’s intention to visit Rome included much more than a friendly visit. In verse 12 he speaks of his desire for a “mutual encouragement” of one another. He wanted to impart to the Romans “some spiritual gift to strengthen” them (verse 11), and he expected them to minister to him in return.
This confirms one of the central messages of Romans. “Ministry” is not the unique privilege of a select few spiritual professionals, but the responsibility of each and every believer in the body of Christ. As incredible as it may sound, the spiritually astute Paul understood that he was deeply dependent on the rest of the body for his own spiritual strength and development. He saw himself as a mere member amongst other members, and knew nothing of the “super-apostle” syndrome that haunted the Corinthian church (See 2 Corinthians 11) and still haunts much of contemporary Christianity. This issue is discussed in greater depth in Chapter 12.
Lastly, he wanted them to know that he was under an obligation to preach the gospel to them (verse 15), and he anticipated to “reap some harvest” among them as a result (verse 13). Yet he says “I have…thus far been prevented.”
Why? The very existence of the letter to the Romans provides us with the likeliest explanation. Had Paul succeeded in his intention to visit Rome in order to strengthen the believers and preach the gospel there, he may never have felt obligated to write to them. His letter was written to compensate for his absence, and it contained the very preaching of the gospel that he had been prevented to deliver to them in person.
Truly, “for those who love God all things work together for good!”
Most scholars are in agreement that Paul wrote to the church in Rome between 55 and 57, and that he did so from the city of Corinth whilst staying with Gaius. The reasons behind these conclusions are not important for our purposes, and can be easily found online for those who are interested.
3.3 Paul’s Message (1:16-17)
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
In verse 17, Paul makes a statement that runs like a golden thread through Romans: “The righteous shall live by faith.” This is “Paul’s message”, and it is expounded on in the rest of the book.
On 31 October 1517, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It contained ninety-five theses (statements) setting out his views on the selling of indulgences.
An “indulgence” was a type of religious fine that could buy remission of punishment due for any sins committed. A pompous Dominican monk, Johannes Tetzel, was peddling these indulgences shamelessly.
Tetzel even had a neat list handy which listed a price for each type of sin! Like a corrupt medieval televangelist, he went about saying silly things like:
The idea is not a bad one, if you think about it. (Who wouldn’t want to buy time out from purgatory?) The only problem is that the whole thing never originated with God, and so it boiled down to nothing more than a grandiose sham to con guilt ridden souls out of their money and fill the coffers of the Pope in the process.
Luther realized this and so he protested vigorously (which is, by the way, where the word “Protestant” derives its name.)
There was a history behind this dramatic step. Something had happened that prompted Luther to challenge Tetzel. He was a monk himself and had a track record of trying to overcome his own guilt by striving to live up to an impossible ideal of holiness, praying and fasting until he looked like a skeleton.
It is alleged that Martin’s frequent failures made him so miserable that he developed a pathological habit of constantly visiting his confessor to confess his sins. This drove his confessor up the wall, causing him to tell Martin to do something worthy of being confessed, such as killing his father or mother!
Luther once said: “If ever a monk were to get to heaven by this monkery it would be I… I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, recitings, and other work!”
The event that revolutionized Martin’s life took place in 1512. He was sitting in his room (more like a cell) in Wittenberg, reading Paul’s letter to the Romans. When he got to Chapter 1:17, something extraordinary happened to him. This is his account of the event that would lead to the birth of the Protestant Reformation a few years later:
Luther grasped the message of Romans! Righteousness (right standing with God) is not something that can be earned by either a system of good works, or money, or anything else. Rather, it is something that exists in God alone and is freely given by God alone.
The only thing that “unrighteous” people can do, is to put their faith in God’s remedy for sin, turn to him, acknowledge their own sin, and trust him to forgive them for their sins and deliver them from the power of sin.
This is the gospel, the “power of God unto salvation”. It is the message of Romans, summarized very aptly in chapter 1:16-17.
Luther was not the only person changed as a result of his revelation. Two weeks after he nailed his theses on the Church door, his message had spread throughout Germany. Soon, his statements were read in every country in Western Europe, sparking the Protestant Reformation.
To this day Protestants worldwide celebrate 31 October as “Reformation Day”.