This week, we'll look at the opening and background of the letter. Below is the complete text, with all paragraph markers removed. It is often interesting to read into the text your own paragraph markers, since this was originally a written letter without verse markers or titles.
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name's sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other's faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (Romans 1:1-15 NASB)
The first sentence makes it clear that the author is Paul. In fact, his authorship was never called into question as the writer of Romans. Both the historical references and the content of the book are consistent with Paul's life and ministry (1). In this first sentence, he restates his calling as an apostle, which Luke describes in Acts 9:1-20.
Paul then discusses briefly the gospel. Where are these promises of the messiah? In the "holy scriptures," he's not talking about the New Testament or the Christian bible, but about the Jewish texts we have in the Old Testament. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were likely not written until a few years after this letter, with the gospel of John coming later. So, where does Paul refer? Lets look at a few. Micah 5 foretells the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. "From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity... he will arise and shepherd Hs flock in the strength of the LORD" (Micah 5:2,4) We see this in Jesus' life, as He was born in Bethlehem, called disciples and apostles, described the Kingdom of Heaven to the crowds, and died to save the world from judgment in their sins. In Isaiah 53, we see this description of the suffering servant, the Aaronic messiah that will save the world from its sins: a role that Jesus fills in His death on the cross and resurrection. This is a servant who will come to be despised and rejected, who will bear our sorrows and grief, be pierced for our transgressions. "The LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him... Yet He himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:6,12).
At the end of his long run-on sentence, he tells the reader that he's writing this letter to the Christians in Rome. So, the question remains: who are the Christians in Rome? What was the church like? Adam Clarke describes the church in Rome as "partly of heathens converted to Christianity, and partly of Jews, who had, with many remaining prejudices, believed in Jesus as the true Messiah, and that many contentions arose from the claims of the Gentiles to equal privileges with the Jews, and from absolute refusal of the Jews to admit these claims, unless the Gentile converts become circumcised" (2). The history of this church stems from Jews who had believed in Jesus Christ as the messiah, who argued with the Jews that did not believe the messiah had come, resulting in an edict by Claudius in 49 CE to expel the Jews from Rome. The Gentiles had come to faith in this air of contention and then are struggling to be equal Christians with their formerly Jewish counterparts (2).
Paul is clearly speaking to both groups in Rome, as he says, "I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish." He also says that he is eager to be with them, and that he has been earnestly praying for them. This is the beginning of a lengthy letter that he will find the common ground of all mankind: we're all sinners, both Jew and Gentile. As we proceed through the rest of the letter, we will see how he calls us to unity in salvation and to work out our faith in practical ways.
So, to conclude, let's make this applicable to us. In our world of differing Christian denominations and faiths, are there places where need to be "encouraged together... each of us by the other's faith?" How can we join Jew and Gentile, wise and fool, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and so on? Remember what Paul says, in light of what was going on in the Roman church, "I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world."
- Barker, Kenneth. NASB Study Bible. Zondervan Publishing House, 1995.
- Epistle to the Romans. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Romans. Accessed 29 Aug 2012.
All biblical quotes are from the New American Standard Bible, unless otherwise stated.