First in a series on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
In the central Forum of Rome, there once stood a monument, erected by Caesar Augustus around the year 20BC, that marked the center and beginning of all the roads leading to and from Rome. All that’s left of the monument, the Millarium Aureum, today is the stone base, and scholars debate what the bronze monument actually said. Some believe it marked all of the distances from Rome to the outer flung cities of the empire. Others believe it was simply a milestone marker for Augustus. Most everyone, however, believes that the stone marked a very important truth in the first century world: “All roads lead to Rome.”
The roads throughout the Roman empire were a marvel of engineering, with many of those road beds still in use today. Romans roads allowed for the safe passage of people from one province to another. The “Pax Romana” or the peace of Rome was made possible by these roads—the stones marking the way to the center of the empire.
Interestingly, we might think the same way about the letter that Paul wrote to the fledgling Christian church in Rome sometime in the middle to late 50s AD. In many ways, all the roads of Christian thought and theology go through Romans, which is arguably the most comprehensive look at Christian theology in the whole New Testament.
Martin Luther, the great 16th century reformer, in his preface to a commentary on Romans, said, “This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorise it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.” William Tyndale, who first translated the Bible into English, said, “This epistle is the principal and most excellent part of the new testament, and most pure evangelion, that is to say glad tidings and what we call the gospel, and also a light and a way in unto the whole scripture.”
John Wesley would hear Luther’s preface to Romans read at a meeting in London on May 24, 1738 and find his heart “strangely warmed.” For millions of Christians over two thousand years, Romans has stood as an important primer for the faith which we hold.
But Romans isn’t an easy read, nor is it easy to interpret. NT Wright, who is considered by many to be the most pre-eminent scholar on the epistle, says at the beginning of his commentary, “Perhaps not surprisingly, it remains the case that anyone who claims to understand Romans fully is, almost by definition, mistaken.” Studying Romans is less like identifying bullet points and more like engaging on a great journey, a road to understanding that takes a lifetime. It’s a road that encompasses the whole story of Scripture, from Genesis onward, thus to study Romans is to keep the whole biblical narrative in mind. When we engage that journey, however, we will discover the depth of the gospel in ways we may not have imagined. This series is thus an attempt to give you an overview of the whole map of Romans, it’s major themes, it’s theological underpinnings, and the destination to which Paul wants to take us.
This is a different approach than many of us learned in looking at Romans. Interestingly, many of us learned to approach Romans using what we call the “Romans Road” method—six verses from the letter that, when put together, propose to outline the whole gospel in a few verses—an easy method for evangelism; a short cut, if you will. The problem with short cuts, however—be it in traveling or reading–is that we can miss the most important parts of the journey or the story. The Romans Road contains some great truths, of course, but it’s not the long road that Paul intends for us to take in understanding the gospel. Pulling six verses out of sixteen chapters is like pulling six stones out of the roadbed, lining them up, and calling it a highway. It will only take you so far. If we’re willing to take the long road of studying Romans, engaging its twists and turns, its detours and way markers, we discover at the end the milestone of a Christian faith that isn’t just about me and my salvation—but rather God’s saving plan for the whole creation.
We begin the journey today by looking at Romans through the eyes of those who first opened the scroll—those who would have known the Millarium Aureum, and walked those first Roman roads. Paul likely wrote this letter from Corinth in Greece as he was getting ready to return to Jerusalem to bring a collection to the church there. When it arrived in Rome, it did not come to a church that was housed in its own building, but to a series of small house churches meeting throughout the city. The first hearers of the letter weren’t those in the imperial palace or the halls of the Senate, but little groups of 30 or so people crammed into workshops or tenement apartments to hear what the apostle had to say.
I just finished a marvelous book by a British scholar, Peter Oakes, titled Reading Romans in Pompeii. As you might know, the Roman city of Pompeii was buried almost instantly by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, leaving the town well preserved under the ash and providing archaeologists with a treasure trove of learning about life in the Roman empire. Roman towns were pretty much the same everywhere, reflecting life in the main city of the empire (the old adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is more accurately rendered historically as “When everywhere, do as the Romans do.”). Oakes looks at the lifestyle and housing in Pompeii and extrapolates that to life in Rome itself and his findings are very revealing.
It’s likely, for example, that the people who met in Roman house churches were almost universally in the lower classes of society. Three quarters of the population of Rome, for example, would have been slaves. The next class would have been free workers, like shopkeepers and subsistence workers whose lives, in many ways, were more tenuous than slaves, whose masters were concerned with keeping their investment alive and well. Some lower middle class householders would have been part of the mix as well, perhaps hosting the church gathering in their shops or small apartments (most people in Rome lived in apartments—but unlike our buildings, the best spaces were on the ground floor. If you lived in the penthouse then you were the poorest of the poor).
Most of the first readers of Paul’s letter were likely Gentiles, with a very few, if any, Jews. The Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome in the early 40s because, as the Roman historian Suetonius put it, “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.” Could this have been arguing about the disciples’ preaching about “Christ?” Many scholars think so. The book of Acts tells us that Priscilla and Aquila, who Paul lived with in Corinth, were Roman Jews who were caught up in that expulsion. The Jews were allowed to return by Nero, who came to power in the year 54. No doubt this strained relationships between Jewish and Gentile Christians, of which there were likely far more of the latter.
And yet, when you read Romans, you see that Paul is using a lot of Jewish imagery, theology, and story in making his case. Notice how Paul begins the letter: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh” (v. 1-3). That’s a curious way to begin a letter to Gentiles. For Paul, however, the gospel always begins with Judaism, and he takes rudimentary knowledge of the Old Testament for granted. Some of his first readers might have heard the stories from the missionaries who brought it to Rome (like Peter, for example), or they would have picked it up from their Jewish neighbors. But Paul always begins the story of the gospel with Israel—which is actually the way God intended it from the beginning.
Indeed, as we begin our study of Romans it’s important to look at Paul’s worldview if we’re going to understand the context of the letter. A worldview is like a lens through which we view the world, and Paul always views the world through the story of Scripture. We might think of that story as an overlapping, concentric circle of stories.
For Paul, the overarching story of Scripture is God and creation. God creates the world and calls it good, and creates humans in his own image. That the second layer of the story: God and humanity. Humans rebelled through sin, and God provides a rescuing solution through the third layer of the story—the story of God and Israel. The promise to Abraham in Genesis is that God would use his family to bless and save the world. And it’s through Abraham’s family that the ultimate solution—the fourth layer of the story—comes into play—the story of God in Jesus the Christ. In Jesus, God and Israel, God and humanity, and God and creation are all fused together. As Paul puts it in Colossians 1:17 – “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” All of this is made known by his resurrection from the dead. Look again at Paul’s introduction to Romans, v. 4 – “[He was] declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” It’s because of Jesus that Paul has received “grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves [you Gentile Romans] who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (v. 5-6).
Paul wants to further the call of Christ with these little Roman house churches, who are communities of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ right under the nose of Caesar, who proclaims himself as Lord of the world. Paul’s prayer in verses 8-15 reflects his joy that there is a faithful church in Rome, small as it may be, and he wants to come and encourage their faith—a faith that was no doubt tested every day by neighbors who misunderstood them and officials who were suspicious of them. If the Roman church was largely made up of slaves, it’s no coincidence that Paul begins the letter by identifying with them as a “slave of Jesus Christ.” They are all in this together, and the message they are all proclaiming is a dangerous one. To be in Rome, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus, was to announce that there was a new king even greater than Caesar, which is why Paul begins the thesis statement of the letter (1:16-17) with these words:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” This is a very dense statement that will take the rest of the letter to unpack, but it does introduce us to some terms that we need to relearn if we’re going to understand what Paul is talking about as we journey with him on the Romans road.
Gospel = the good news found in the whole story of Scripture, climaxing in Jesus Christ risen from the dead.
First, the word “gospel.” This is a loaded term in much of modern Christianity, but when we use it we always assume that people know what it means. For some, the “gospel” is about how Jesus helps us to get to heaven when we die. For others, “gospel” is about social justice and helping people. But while there is some truth to both of those understandings of the word, they are not the full biblical definition. When Paul uses the word “gospel” or “good news,” he is referring to the good news about Jesus Christ risen from the dead, the world’s true Lord. Look back at verses 1-7 and you see Paul defining it right there at the beginning of the letter: “The gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 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.” Paul says something very similar in I Corinthians 15—the “good news” that Paul proclaimed was that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures (that is the Old Testament Scriptures), and that he was buried and raised on the third day, again according to the Scriptures.
For Paul, the “gospel” is the whole story of Scripture, which finds its climax in Jesus. Many have tried to shortcut the gospel into four spiritual laws or a few verses from John and Romans, but the gospel Paul is talking about is not a set of propositions but a story—a story that requires living into and becoming part of in order to understand. And it’s a gospel that’s good news not just for me as an individual, it’s good news for the whole world. It’s a gospel that reveals the “power of God,” the redemptive, creative power of God who rules the world and will restore it.
Salvation = God’s saving plan for the whole creation.
That leads us to the next term, “salvation.” Again, we tend to think of that only in individual terms, but the biblical definition is much greater than that. “Salvation” is God’s saving plan for the whole world. It is God putting the world right. “Salvation” encompasses all that God has been doing since he called Abraham, and “salvation” means, as we will learn in Romans 8, that all of creation will be healed. Yes, “salvation” is for us, but we’re not only saved “from” sin and death, we’re saved “for” participation in God’s saving plan for the world.
Righteousness = covenant faithfulness, right standing and subsequent right behavior.
“Righteousness” is another misunderstood term. We tend to think of that as “goodness,” but biblical speaking it’s a word that’s connected to covenant. God’s “righteousness” is also his “justice” (another way of translating the word dikaisoune) and God’s faithfulness to the covenant he made with Abraham to rescue the world. To understand “righteousness,” we have to understand it in Jewish terms, which Paul will help us do in chapter 4 when he looks back to the righteousness of Abraham, which was credited to him by God.
Faith = belief, trust, and obedience.
And connected to righteousness is faith. Again, as modern people we tend to think of faith as cognitive assent, intellectual belief, or praying a prayer. That’s certainly part of faith, but the biblical definition goes much deeper. For Paul, “faith” is connected to trust and belief, but also to obedience. Look back at verse 5 – Paul wants to bring about “the obedience of faith” in the Gentiles. Faith is our response to God, not just with our minds but with our whole lives. It’s a response to God’s covenant faithfulness and righteousness. Look again at verse 17: “For in it [the gospel, the story of God’s saving work climaxing in Jesus] the righteousness [the covenant faithfulness] of God is revealed through faith [through trusting God] for faith [for faithful obedience to God and working for his kingdom].” We will unpack this more as we move through the series.
To sum up what Paul means by all this, I like how NT Wright put it in a lecture I heard from him recently. Here is the good news.
“God intends to put the world right, so God puts people right, so that they might be his right-putting people.”
Paul wants these little house churches to be an alternative community in the midst of a larger society, pointing out through their life together that the world’s true Lord is Jesus; that God is putting the world right, and that, almost unbelievably, God is going to do it through people like this collection of slaves and shopkeepers—people who are nobodies in the Roman empire, but glorious saints in the kingdom of God.
A few years back I read a book by Loren Mead titled The Once and Future Church, where he argued that the state of the church in the 21st century will be a lot like that of the first century. Christians, Mead proposed, would become more and more marginalized as the century goes on, becoming more and more of a minority—very much like those first Christians in Rome. The secular centers of power will dominate. In Rome it was the emperor—today it is politics, Hollywood, and consumerism that are the dominant religions of our society. Like those Christians gathering in Rome, our gathering in a church will be more a subversive act—a statement of an alternate worldview.
But, says Mead, that diminished status in the culture gives the church an opportunity that it hasn’t had since the first centuries of Christianity—a chance to be different again. Since the fourth century, Christianity has been a dominant, socially approved religion and the more dominant it became the more it fused with the culture. At that point, it also began waning. Christianity grew fastest when it was a marginalized movement; and that’s because it offered an alternative—a view of hope for the world, not merely a reflection of it.
In the Tri-Lakes area, 80% of the population aren’t practicing Christians, aren’t disciples of Jesus. And like those first Christians in Rome, Paul offers us an opportunity to become a community like no other—one that invites people into a whole new world. For Paul, the church is a new human race where class and race and origin don’t matter—all that matters is faith in Christ. It’s a community that has good news to bring in a world where there is mostly bad news. This is a great time for us to be the church!
This is the destination Paul wants to take us to as we follow his Romans road. When we follow this way of thinking and being, we will truly become disciples of Jesus and build other followers of Jesus Christ who love and serve God and neighbor. If Romans is a marker on the road, then at the end of it we will find Jesus. Indeed, all roads will eventually lead to him!
I hope you’ll join us on the journey for the next eight weeks!
Mead, Loren. The Once and Future Church. Alban Institute, 2011.
Oakes, Peter. Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level. Fortress Press, 2010.
Wright, N.T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Fortress Press, 2013.