NB this post is a simple distillation of my thoughts concerning Romans – I will allow my experts, Douglas Moo, Thomas Schreiner, NT Wright, Watchman Nee, and others to have their say in a following post but for now you’re stuck with me!
The letter is written by Paul, the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ and highlights how the gospel intersects with local circumstances in the church in Rome – not an end in itself; it was not written as a theological deposit for future generations though it fulfils that brief extraordinarily well.
The mission to gentiles stems from the covenant promises to bless the whole world through Abraham and it seems to be important to Paul that the believers in Rome get a grip on this.
Paul was a walking ‘Israel’, an embodiment, in himself, of the purposes of God bringing ‘light to the gentiles’; Paul ‘goes to work’ providing a theological foundation for the call for unity between Jewish and Gentile believers as a necessity for the glory of God:
‘therefore receive one another just as Christ has received us to the glory of God’…’that the gentiles might glorify God’ 15v7 and v9
Is it truly possible to enter the mind and thinking of a first century apostle and claim to understand his motives for writing an epistle to the church in Rome? It sounds a little far-fetched at the outset. A quest, perhaps, based more on instinct than evidence? In fact we find that it is Paul himself that provides the evidence.
Before we look at the direct evidence in the epistle it would be good to immerse ourselves in Rome itself which had become a vibrant and ethnically diverse city comprising of slaves and freemen from conquered regions from the Empire. Jews were permitted to live in Rome, allowed to build synagogues, and to worship according to their customs. At the time of writing the epistle it is likely that the Jewish believers were in the process of returning to Rome having been banished by Emperor Claudius in approximately AD49.
‘And (Paul) found (in Corinth) a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome’ Acts 18 v 2
Claudius died in AD 54 and it may be that the Jews were permitted to return after his death. The church, therefore, comprised of Jewish and Gentile believers and had witnessed the racial tension between Jews and Greeks, the expulsion of the Jews and then the return of Jewish believers. Paul wrote a letter specifically to contrast the unity brought about by Roman conquest and rule with the unity brought about through the gospel; through the death of Jesus and his resurrection.
(1) Paul’s impending visit to Rome – in chapter one Paul writes ‘I long to see you…I often planned to come to you but was hindered until now’ v11-13
(2) Paul wanted to preach the gospel in Rome and bear fruit – ‘…that I might have some fruit among you also, just as among the other Gentiles…I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also’ v13-15
(3) Paul had Spain in his sights – ‘whenever I journey to Spain, I shall come to see you…to be helped on my way there by you…I shall go by way of you to Spain’ 14 v 24-28
(4) Paul was anticipating mutual blessing – ‘I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift so that you may be established that is that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me’ 1 v 11,12 ‘I know that when I come to you I shall come in the full blessing of the gospel of Christ…with joy by the will of God, and maybe refreshed together with you’ 14 v 29-33
(5) To tackle important issues arising in the church – ‘I myself am confident concerning you…that you are filled with all knowledge…nevertheless I have written more boldly to you on some points…’ 14 v 14,15 ‘Now I urge you, brethren, note those whom cause divisions…and avoid them’
If we attempt to arrange these themes into a coherent paragraph it could read like this:
My dear brothers in Christ in Rome. I’m on my way to Jerusalem to deliver a contribution from the Gentile churches in Macedonia and Achaia to the poor among the members of the church there. After that I have two aims. One is to come to you and the other is to push on to Spain. How I have longed to see you all in Rome and to preach the gospel and have some fruit among you. Your faith is spoken about everywhere I go and I am confident you know the gospel well. I’ve written to you on some points quite boldly as a reminder to keep in the grace of God and to note those who are divisive. I look forward at last to seeing you. I’ll arrive in the full blessing of the gospel and am sure that I can impart a spiritual gift to you as you will also encourage me. After that Spain. And I hope you’ll be able to help me on my way’
Read like this one could be forgiven for not anticipating such an outpouring of theology and teaching as we encounter in the rest of letter. It is unexpected. Perhaps Paul was simply caught up in moments, maybe hours, of clarity of thought that he felt compelled to record and include in his letter to the church in Rome? Maybe. But we must remember that Paul, by this time, had been an apostle to the Gentiles for nearly twenty years. I think we can safely dismiss this extraordinary letter as anything other than purposeful and designed to fit into the life of the believers in Rome.
In which case, of the aims above, two stand out as inextricably linked; his planned visit to Rome and the future plans to take the gospel to Spain with the help of the church in Rome.
Paul detected a problem in the church. Division. There were two sets of divisions. One was over attitudes towards Jewish believers from the Gentile believers. The other, which may also had exacerbated the Jew/Gentile division, was to do with varying practices such as whether to hold particular days in honour of the Lord or to treat all days the same (14v5). So Paul goes to work providing a sound theological foundation showing how the gospel has brought about a deep unity between Jews and Gentiles in Christ. And how that two believers can express their love and faith for Christ differently and yet remain united with each other. This, I believe, is the ‘spiritual gift’ that Paul is seeking to bring. Unity. ‘Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity! For there the Lord commands the blessing’ Ps 133 v1,2. In chapter 11 Paul brings revelation and a prophetic warning. He shows the Gentile believers that whilst they are theologically correct in believing that the Jews had rejected the gospel so that they could be included, they had become boastful and arrogant towards their Jewish brethren. He warns them if they continue they, like the unbelieving Jews, will be cut off 11v22.
To uproot these damaging attitudes Paul does not simply instruct the Gentile believers to repent and love their Jewish brethren; he digs a comprehensive theological foundation sustained over 16 chapters. We will be looking at how this argument unfolds later.
It is with his dual purpose in mind that Paul develops his argument. I have no doubt that Paul would have been anticipating gaining financial help towards his ambition to take the gospel to Spain but I suspect, too, that he was after good travelling companions. He wanted to ensure that those who would travel with him, Jewish or Gentile believers, would be filled with the same fullness of the gospel and joy that Paul possessed so that they could dig good foundations for the emerging church in Spain, full of unity and joy in Christ, in the Messiah.
In summary then Paul was reminding the believers in Rome that the gospel and Christ, not political power or Caesar, had brought about true unity between Jews and Gentiles and that the prevailing culture should not invade and spoil the church. Indeed Paul warned that the church would be cut off if it did.
The teaching included in the epistle was with this in mind culminating in one verse:
‘Therefore receive one another, just as Christ has received us, to the glory of God’ 15v7
Paul takes fifteen chapters to build to this point. And the verses that follow on from 15v7 are gripping in the light of the foundations laid earlier. His argument is developed on many fronts and it is to this persuasive argument that we must now turn.
John Stevens is the author of When Rabbis Cry