We call this book the Bible. Interestingly, the word “Bible” mean “book.” But this is not actually one book but 66 books or 66 writings written by 40 different authors over a 1,500 year time period.
We are beginning a study of one of those writings, the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Romans. But it might be even a bit misleading to call it a letter. Because it is unlike a typical letter that you or I might write. It is more like a sermon, a message to be read aloud, a letter that incorporates the principles of rhetoric (that means public speaking) that were prevalent and comfortable in first century society.
Society back then was similar to societies today in that they had their own particular customs, language, ways of speaking, and ways of relating. One way that first century society was quite different than ours is that only a small percentage of people could read. Today, since almost everyone can read, we have a culture and system of transmitting information that relies heavily of the written word. But this was not so in the first century. Back then rhetoric, the art of gathering your information and arguments and presenting them through public speaking was the queen of the educational disciplines, the most important of them all.
Most certainly, Romans was written as a piece of rhetoric, designed by Paul to be read by someone very familiar with it and able to bring emphasis and use verbal inflections to powerfully communicate the intended message. Unfortunately, we do not have mp3s of Paul or his messenger delivering his message to the church in Rome. Boy, that would be cool if we did! But we don’t. We’ve got to try to figure those inflections and emphases on our own.
Last week, Brad introduced Romans to us, especially looking at the author, the apostle Paul.
This morning, I’d like to look at what we know about the church that Paul was writing to and what we know about their situation at the time of his writing.
Thirdly, I would like to take a stab at a statement of Paul’s purpose for writing the letter. I plan to do this looking primarily at chapter 1 verses 8-17. So, you can turn in your Bibles to Romans 1, page 939 if you are using one of Stonebrook’s bibles. (2)
As you are turning, let me say that Romans is a difficult book. Often I wonder if Peter had the letter to the Romans in mind when he said that (3) “There are some things in Paul’s letters that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16).
And such has certainly been the case with the book of Romans, it has been twisted and distorted by many people and religious groups. So, we need to be very careful when looking at this book, not to read into it our own preferred theology or to read in to it the theology of our particular church or tradition, but, rather, to read out of it Paul’s intended message to his original hearers. Only then should we consider how it applies to us today.
(4) When I think of Romans, I think of the word “dense.” Not “dense” in the sense of someone who is stupid, but dense in the sense of thoughts closely packed together and condensed. As we will see, it can take a lot of thought to figure them out, but when you do, they are really, really sweet, nourishing, and life-giving. Maybe it’s a bit like the difference between rice crispy bars, light an airy, and baklava, dense with honey and butter-soaked, unleavened pastry. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the baklava.
Your pastors have been studying in preparation for this series for almost a year. And part of our challenge is that there are several of us teaching the series, and we sometimes don’t share the same opinion on every passage. It would probably be easier if one of us taught the entire book, as so many, many pastors and Bible scholars have done. But it is our hope that by sharing the teaching and talking through our varying perspectives we will end up with a much more accurate and balanced understanding of the book. I guess if you keep coming back over the next few months, you’ll see if that ends up being the case or not.
So, what do we know about the church in Roman? Before we look too deep at this, let’s read our passage, since we learn several things about the Romans from it.
Thoughts on the passage:
Vs. 8 — The church was evidently already an influential church, since people all over the world had heard of their faith.
Vs. 9-10 — Paul had never visited the church in Rome. Most of the people he is addressing he did not know personally. He probably had little knowledge of their personal struggles. Yet, we see in chapter 16 that he did know quite a few people in the church and some of them very well, so he probably had considerable information about the general condition of the church
Vs. 11-12 — Paul wanted to bless them with a spiritual gift, or grace. Yet, in obvious humility, he also hoped to be encouraged by their faith.
Vs. 13 — Paul wanted to have a harvest amongst them, which probably refers to fruit of his apostolic labors, both through evangelism and strengthening and the faith of the Roman Christians.
Vs. 14 —As God’s spokesman to the nations, Paul felt he had and obligation. “Obligation” is a strong word. It means to be in debt. He owed the gospel to people.
Greeks would be those who belong to the Greek-speaking world and barbarians everyone else. It would be similar to us saying, both to westerners and every other culture group.
We might translate “Wise and foolish” as “educated and illiterate.”
As the primary apostle to the Gentiles, Paul’s felt an obligation to all people of every nation.
Vs. 15 — Paul was eager to preach, excited for the opportunity.
Some of the things historian tell us about Rome might help us to better appreciate why Paul was particularly excited to preach in Rome.
(5) Roman was the largest city in the first-century world with a population at least 1.3 million. The second largest was Alexandria in Egypt at 900,000 and the third largest was Antioch in Syria.
(6) Rome was not only the largest, but the most cosmopolitan city of the first-century world, with a mingling of many races and economic classes. It is estimated that more than half of the people who lived in Rome were slaves. But it was not uncommon for slaves to earn or be given their freedom, and freedmen were a large and important class. In Rome there were soldiers recruited from all over the empire. There were traders, travelers, and adventurers of every kind visiting Rome. So did the preachers and teachers of the many different philosophies, religions, and cults.
(7) The Jewish population of Rome is estimated to be 30 and 50,000 at the time Paul wrote his letter. In addition to these Jews, there were a significant number of proselytes to Judaism and an even larger number of God-fearers—people who adopted Jewish monotheism, attended the synagogue services, and observed the Sabbath, but had not fully converted to Judaism. Because of their faith and the customs of the law, the Jews largely held themselves apart and were generally looked down upon by the general population. Discrimination was alive and well back then just as it is today.
(8) Christianity most likely spread to Rome very early. It is likely that some of the Jewish pilgrims who had traveled to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost in 33 AD were from Rome and some of them may have been among the 3,000 who were baptized that day. It’s likely that some of these returned home to spread the gospel at least among their Jewish friends and relatives in Rome.
Church tradition tells us that Peter settled in Rome for a time and there is debate as to whether he had yet come to Rome at the time Paul wrote his letter. I think it highly unlikely, as in Chapter 16, Paul greets those he knew in Rome and Peter is not on the list. So it is likely that the church was made up of many house churches without a central unifying apostolic figure. (9) If this is true, these house churches may have been somewhat diverse in doctrine, practice, and emphasis.
(10) Now, Paul’s letter to Rome was most likely written, within a year or so of 57 AD while Paul was at Ephesus for three months, toward the end of his third missionary journey.
The historian Suetonius tells us that eight years prior to this, in 49 AD, a significant thing happened that surely would have affected the church: (11) “The Jews who were continually rioting at the instigation of Chrestus, the emperor Claudius expelled from Rome.” It is likely that Chrestus is a variant spelling of Christ. If this is so, then friction because of the Christian message was evidently part of the reason for the dispersion. (12) We also read of this Imperial order in Acts 18. When Paul was in Corinth, he stayed with a Jew named Aquilla, who had recently come from Italy because of this expulsion of Jews from Rome. The edict didn’t last too long, however and the Jews were allowed to return sometime after Claudius’s death in AD 54.
It’s unlikely that all the Jews in Rome were actually expelled, but many were, and this expulsion probably included other Jewish leaders in the Church besides Aquilla. Losing their Jewish leaders, the Gentile element of the church would have had to step forward into church leadership. In addition, those Jews who had just returned two or three years before Paul wrote, may have still been finding or regaining places of leadership and influence in the church.
So, why did Paul write the Romans?
(13) We just read one probably reason — Paul wanted to visit them to impart a spiritual gift or grace to them. If we assume that Paul’s purpose in writing, at least in some ways, mirrors his reason for wanting to visit them, he is probably writing for this purpose.
We see another purpose at the end of the letter, in chapter 15.
(14) He informs them that he plans to visit them on his way to Spain, presumably to bless them as we just saw, but also to be helped by them on his way.
(15) In the same passage he also asks for their prayers, that God would deliver him from evil men in Judea, where he was going first.
So, we see some reasons for his writing in the more personal parts of the epistle. (16) But to catch the main theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we should look at his thesis statement, which is almost uniformly agreed to be verses 16-17.
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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16–17, ESV)
This statement serves as a header to his sermon that is then unpacked in the rest of the letter. Later, in chapter 3:21-26, this same statement is repeated and expanded.
So, according to this thesis statement, what is the theme of the sermon? “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Paul’s theme is the gospel. In this letter he presents the gospel that he preached to the world.
What is the gospel? As Brad introduced last week in verses 1-7, it is (17) the work that God has done in Jesus the Messiah—including his incarnation; his life and ministry; his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven; and His promise to return to reign. This was Paul’s gospel.
But the thesis statement goes on, not just to talk about the gospel, but to tell of its effects—(18) in it is the power of God to save forever all who believe, both Jew and Gentile. Here we see one of the main themes of the letter—It is through the work that God has done in Jesus that people can become right with God and be saved from sin and death.
But there is more in the thesis: (19) In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. Now what is the righteousness of God? This phrase had generated some controversy.
Three main possibilities have been advanced. (20) The first is that the “righteousness of God” refers to a characteristic of God — God’s righteousness, including His faithfulness to fulfill His promises.
(21) The second option is that “the righteousness of God” refers to a status that God gives to those who believe. What the gospel reveals is that God declares men righteous when they have faith—a truth that is, indeed, taught later in the letter. Now if you are reading the New International Version or several others, the translators make the decision for you, choosing this second option. They translate it “a righteousness from God is revealed.” They think that it is referring to a righteousness granted to us by God. But the original Greek language doesn’t say a righteousness from God, it says, “The righteousness of God.”
(22) A third option is that “the righteousness of God” refers to the activity of God in bringing righteousness to men and to the world. With this meaning, the phrase would be saying, “the righteous working of God,” is revealed.
Based on the predominate use of the term “the righteousness of God” in the Old Testament, I lean toward the third option.
The righteousness of God refers to the work of God to reconcile the world to Himself, to make things right in the world.
Actually, the third option essentially includes the others as well. God’s work to make things right through Christ highlights His righteous character, which was option 1. And it also brings the status of righteousness to all who believe, which is option 2.
But how does this righteous working of God in Christ become effective? (23) Paul goes on to say that it is from faith to faith. Then he quotes Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
But why does Paul mention faith twice, from faith to faith? There have been many possible explanations of what Paul means by his double use. The one that I lean slightly toward is that Paul uses the word “faith” twice for intensity. In other words he is saying something like “Faith from first to last,” or “faith and only faith.”
Either way, the work that God has done in Christ that is proclaimed in the gospel is activated by faith. Faith is the switch that turns on the power of what God has done in Christ to each individual. They find life by faith.
So, we see in Paul’s thesis statement that His purpose is to present the good news that he preached. He was not ashamed of the news about Christ because it had power to save all who believe, God’s righteousness working is revealed in it, and it is activated in the life of anyone who believes it.
I’d like to conclude today by looking at a basic outline of Romans. But first, I would like us to think a bit more about Paul’s life, particularly the theological angst that he must have gone through after being confronted by a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. (24)
I hope that putting ourselves in Paul’s shoes like this will open up a perspective on the book of Romans that we might otherwise miss.
Unquestionably, Paul’s vision of Jesus shook his life to it’s very core and required a radical change in his theology. Paul was not a theological lightweight when he was converted, but was a Pharisee, deeply ingrained in the theology of the Pharisees. And he was a man thoroughly familiar with the law and the prophets and the wisdom literature of Israel.
Prior to seeing Jesus, he shared the hope of every faithful Jew, a hope founded firstly on the promises of God to Abraham, secondly on the covenant that God gave to Israel through Moses, and thirdly on God’s promises to David.
(25) As a Jew, he understood that God had entered into a covenant with his people to be God’s special people and through them to bless all the nations on the earth. God had promised and given them a land, the land of Palestine. He had given them laws as a nation that set them apart from all the other nations. And He had given them a system of worship that revolved around the temple and sacrifices that God required of the people.
Yet, he also knew that his ancestors had not obeyed God but had turned to other gods and to such a degree that God exiled them from their land for nearly a century. In a way, this was not unexpected. The threat of exile was also part of the covenant. The covenant contained not only promises of blessing, but fearful warnings if the nation turned from God. Yet in the prophets, there were also clear promises that after the exile, God would bring Israel back to its land and re-establish them as a nation and raise up again a king in the line of David. But in the 500 years since the end of the exile, this had not happened. In Paul’s day, Israel was enslaved to a foreign power (The Roman Empire), there was no king sitting on David’s throne. Instead, they were ruled by Herod, an Edomite, one of Israel’s most despised historic enemies, And the temple was controlled by a corrupt bunch of priests, the Sadducees, who didn’t interpret the scriptures literally and tended to compromise with their oppressing rulers.
So, the question in Paul and every faithful Jew’s mind was “When?” When would God fulfill His promises to Abraham? When would he restore Israel to its place of prominence so that He could be glorified in them and salvation could spread out from Israel to the entire world?
And the second question was “What must we do?” What must every faithful Jew do to regain the blessing of God so that He would fulfill His promises to Israel, to King David, and to the world?
(26) For Paul, as a Pharisee, the answer focused on the law of Moses. What had gotten Israel into this mess was violating the covenant and its laws. So the way to get out of it was to zealously keep the law so that God might restore the nation, free it from oppression, and fulfill His promises.
(27) Now Paul was so zealous for the law that he persecuted Jews who had become Christians and violently tried to destroy the church. He saw them as a cult, turning Israel against the law of God and therefore they had to be opposed and even destroyed.
So, when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, it shook his theology to the very core. Undoubtedly, over the next few months and years, Paul had to answer some tough theological questions:
- (28) How does the coming of a suffering Messiah who returns to heave fit in to the promises that God gave to Abraham that God would bless Israel and eventually the entire world?
- (29) How does the coming of Jesus and His death and resurrection relate to the Mosaic Covenant and its law? Was the law still applicable now that the Messiah has come?
- (30) Who, now, are the people of God? Before the Messiah, they were the physical descendants of Jacob. Is faith in Jesus now the new factor in determining who belongs to the people of God.
- (31) What about Israel? Has God rejected the Jews? What about God’s promises to Israel? Have they been made null and void?
These are the questions that Paul had to struggle with and these are the major questions that the New Testament church had to struggle with in Paul’s day
Interestingly, as we shall see, these are the very questions that Paul addresses in the epistle to the Romans. The book of Romans has many themes, but one major theme that it would be easy to miss is that the book presents the answers to the theological questions that Paul and really the entire church of his day had to answer.
Now, let’s take look at an outline of the letter.
- (32) Romans 1:1-15 — Introduction
- (33) Romans 1:16-17 — Thesis statement
- (34) Romans 1:18-4:25 — People are justified by God through the Messiah by faith apart from the law
- First he establishes that all people have sinned and that the Jew has no advantage in this regard over the Gentile
- Second he establishes that both Jews and Gentiles are justified, not by keeping the law of Moses, but by simply believing in Jesus the Messiah
- Third, he looks back at Abraham and shows that even Abraham was not justified by keeping the law, but by faith
- Then he declares that the true children of Abraham are not the physical descendants, but those who follow in his footsteps of faith.
- (35) Romans 5:1-8:39 — Believers in Christ have a sure hope of glory through union with Christ & the indwelling of the Spirit
- As the foundation of this section, Paul presents a theological argument that all humans are represented by Adam and have followed Adam’s example of rebelling against God. But Jesus the Messiah came as the second Adam and by His death and resurrection, he set believers free from the bondage to sin that they had in Adam.
- And, in an amazing turn around for Paul, he now says that the law of Moses came, not to save men, but to actually increase transgression in order to expose that sin is a way deeper problem than anyone thought so that sin could be condemned by the death of Christ.
- Now believers can walk in freedom, not through the law of Moses, but through the power of the Spirit, whom God sent to live in the church on the day of Pentecost.
- (36) Romans 9:1-11:36 — God’s promises to Israel have not failed
- Paul establishes that, although God chose Abraham’s descendants, not every physical descendant of Abraham or Isaac, or Jacob was chosen.
- Throughout Israel’s history, it was often only a small remnant of Israel that was saved. The vast majority rebelled, were rejected and judged by God
- The same was true in Paul’s day. Only a small remnant of Israelites, only those who believing in Jesus the Messiah were chosen. The rest were rejected.
- And Paul points out that the prophets predicted that this would happen, that the Jews would by and large reject the Messiah.
- (37) Romans 12:1-15:13 — Live in light of God’s mercy to you in Christ
- Paul gives some general exhortations to the church
- Then he gives some instructions to the church not to divide or judge one another because some followed Jewish food laws and observed Jewish holidays, while others did not. His goal was to promote unity within the one people of God—all who believe in Jesus the Messiah, whether or not they ate certain foods or celebrated certain holidays.
- (38) Romans 15:22-16:23 — Paul’s plans, personal greetings and final words.
(39) In conclusion: I hope that I have given us some background by looking a little close at the church in Rome, the thesis statement of the letter and the theological issues that the author and his readers were struggling with in their first-century world, so that as we study the letter, we can grasp the correct meaning of Paul’s difficult and dense, but delightfully nourishing presentation of the good news.
(40) SENDING (AFTER THE SONG)