Week 1 – Romans 1:1-17
Let’s go back in time to the 1970s and 80’s. Anyone remember the exclusive warehouse stores like Pace Warehouse or GEX? If I am remembering correctly, both of these were located in Forest Park. These were the predecessors for places such as Sam’s Club and Costco. What was different, though, was that not everyone could be a member. In order to join, you had to meet certain requirements based on your military history or your occupation if I recall. I was very young at that time, so I don’t know all of the specifics. But I do know that it was a big deal to be able to shop there. It’s funny to think about it now but friends at school would be a bit envious of those of us whose parents were members. I have to admit to feeling a little superior about it at the time. This is so laughable as I think about it now because anyone can have a membership to Sam’s or Costco or other warehouses alike. Warehouse memberships are open to anyone who wants to join.
The Old Testament, including the books of Ezra and Nehemiah which we just finished studying, is a little reminiscent of those old exclusive warehouse days. God’s chosen people were the Jews. They were set apart by God. There were traditions, customs and beliefs that were theirs and theirs alone. They had laws that were specific to them. As we have discussed while going through Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jews were admonished for intermarrying outside of their heritage. Quite simply, you were either a Jew or you weren’t. But then Jesus. The familiar John 3:16 is the game changer. “For God so loved the WORLD that He gave His only begotten Son so that WHOEVER believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Membership to God’s club, so to speak, is now open to anyone who wants to join.
Obviously, there’s resistance. The Pharisees were one group that scripture tells us questioned and tested Jesus over and over again. They didn’t like what He had to say. They didn’t like the way that people responded to Him. One of these was Saul from Tarsus. We tend to think of Saul (before he became Paul) as a bad guy. We know that he witnessed Stephen being stoned. Saul was responsible for the arrest and torture of many followers of Jesus. But we tend to forget that Saul was a zealous Jew who loved God so much that he was very defensive of the Jewish faith, laws and covenants that God had given them. So when Jesus shows up on the scene and purports to be the Son of God, starts healing people and preaching things that were baffling to the Pharisees, He becomes a threat to the Pharisees, including Saul.
We often see, hear or even participate in debates in which a Christian is anchored to the Word of God and defends it even to the point of possibly offending someone with different beliefs. Homosexuality, abortion and the death penalty are all hot topics in which Christians oftentimes find themselves relying on the Bible to support their beliefs. Saul, in a sense, was like that. He was very well-educated in the Torah and adhered to it with a passion.
But, of course, we know that while traveling on the road to Damascus, Saul is suddenly blinded by a great light. Acts 9: 4- 9: He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” Saul said, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice answered, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. 6 Get up now and go into the city. Someone there will tell you what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul just stood there, unable to speak. They heard the voice, but they saw no one. Saul got up from the ground and opened his eyes, but he could not see. So the men with him held his hand and led him into Damascus. For three days, Saul could not see; he did not eat or drink.
In the meantime, Jesus comes to Ananias in a vision and instructs him to go find Saul. Ananias knows who Saul is because his reputation for torturing the followers of Jesus was well known. But Jesus says to Ananias in Acts 9:15 “Go! I have chosen Saul for an important work. I want him to tell other nations, their rulers, and the people of Israel about me. 16 I will show him all that he must suffer for me.”
Ananias does as Jesus instructed and went to Saul. He laid his hands on Saul and told him what Jesus had said and immediately Saul was able to see once again. He was able to see not only physically, but spiritually and the realization that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God became clear to him.
Paul as he’s later known, became a pivotal aspect of the spreading of the gospel. Out of the 27 books in the New Testament, he’s credited with thirteen, possibly fourteen of those. Hebrews is the one book that is assumed to be written by Paul, but the authorship is not documented. It’s safe to say, though, that God used Paul alone to write half of the New Testament. Jesus wasn’t kidding around when He told Ananias that Saul had been chosen for an important work!
Like with any other thing in which Jesus is involved, there are no coincidences. Paul was a Jew, very educated. He was also a Roman citizen which would have given him strong ties to the Romans. As a result, Paul would have been acquainted with both Jewish and Gentile cultures. Paul had been a very spirited and strong defender for God. You mix those ingredients together, add a whopping dash of spiritual enlightenment from Jesus Himself and now he’s a force to be reckoned with! Don’t you love how God uses our very nature, experiences and backgrounds and molds them into a new creation?
As Paul sits down to write this letter to the Romans, it’s actually many years past his conversion. The most popular suggested time line is that his conversion took place roughly four to five years after the resurrection of Jesus. The book of Romans was written somewhere around 20 to 25 years after Paul’s encounter with Jesus on his way to Damascus. So by the time he writes to them, he’s been doing this for a while. He was a major player in inviting the Gentiles to join the exclusive club that had once been available to Jews only.
Are you familiar with the Dummies books? There are countless Dummies books out there. “Crocheting for Dummies”. “Bird Watching for Dummies”. There’s even one that’s titled “Raising Smart Kids for Dummies”. The idea of these books is to simply what may be confusing or complicated so that anyone can understand. The book of Romans might be considered Christianity for Dummies. Paul simplifies, but also thoroughly explains what it means to be called to God’s purpose.
This was written in reference to the book of Romans. “About a quarter before nine, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” [i] This quote was written by John Wesley who was a missionary at that time. He had attended a meeting at which Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans had been discussed. In the closing of that commentary are these words from Martin Luther: “We find in this letter, then, the richest possible teaching about what a Christian should know: the meaning of law, Gospel, sin, punishment, grace, faith, justice, Christ, God, good works, love, hope and the cross.”[ii]
The book of Romans greatly influenced these two men who later went on to greatly influence our religion today. The Protestant Reformation was spearheaded by Martin Luther and John Wesley is known for the foundation of the Methodist Church. I’m thinking that if these two spiritual giants could learn from Paul’s letter to the Romans, surely we will as well!
Now that the history of Paul and Romans has been, let’s dive right in.
“Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God 2 which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who [a]was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, 4 and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. 5 Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name, 6 among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; 7 To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 1:1-7
If I were to point to you and ask you to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about you, what would you say? Most of us would give our name. Some might add in if they’re a mother or a wife. Some may even throw in their occupation or hobbies. When we introduce ourselves, we are making a declaration of who we are. That’s what Paul is doing. He characterizes himself in several ways.
- Bondservant of Jesus Christ
- The Greek words used is doulos which meant slave. The use of this word would have been significant because the Romans had an abundance of slaves.
- In identifying himself as a slave or bondservant of Jesus, Paul is professing his unwavering allegiance to Jesus and all that he’s called to do no matter the costs.
- Called Apostle
- Earlier we discussed the directions given to Ananias by Jesus in Acts.
- Jesus says that He had important work for Paul.
- Paul ties the Gospel of God given to the prophets in the Old Testament to Jesus Christ who is declared to be the Son of God which separates him from the thinking of the Pharisees.
- This would have been the movement of Gentiles coming into a relationship with God through the blood of Jesus.
Now that Paul has identified himself, he continues to build a rapport with the readers of this letter.
“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve [b]with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers, 10 making request if, by some means, now at last I may find a way in the will of God to come to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established— 12 that is, that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.
13 Now I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that I often planned to come to you (but was hindered until now), that I might have some fruit among you also, just as among the other Gentiles. 14 I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. 15 So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also.” Romans 1: 8-15
At this time, there would have been several clusters of believers scattered throughout Rome. Quite possibly, these clusters would have been birthed from those at Pentecost. Most likely, Paul had heard of the spiritual movement that was occurring there and even though he wasn’t a direct part of it, he offers encouragement and interest in them.
- He thanks God for them and for the fact that their steps of faith are being talked about in all areas.
- He also prays for them.
- He wants to see them and to be encouraged with them by their mutual faith.
- He feels indebted and obligated to them and others. (Several translations refer to the others as “non-Greek” or “barbarians”. Greeks thought of all non-Greeks as being barbarians.) However, Paul wants to share the gospel with everyone regardless of their heritage.
- He is eager to preach to them.
In these verses, we get the true sense of Paul’s intense emotion regarding the Gospel of God. He’s invested in something that he truly believes in, something that gives him purpose, something that is completely unequal to anything else he’s known and he wants to share it. Without sounding too simplistic, when you hear good news, what do you do? You call someone! When it’s really good news, you call several people! When we hear good news, we can’t help but share it.
If someone says to you, “I’ve got great news!” do you have the same response I do? This will sound awfully selfish but my first thought is that the person has great news that somehow benefits me. But in reality, most of the time it doesn’t have anything to do with me. It doesn’t diminish my excitement and thankfulness for whatever has happened to someone else, but “great news” that directly affects me becomes something different.
If I came in here and said, “I’ve got great news! I won the lottery and I’m getting $700 million dollars!” I would imagine you’d be excited for me. But if I came in here and said, “I’ve got great news! I won the lottery and I’m getting $700 million dollars AND…..I’m sharing it with each of you!” would that not make it personal to you?
This is the mindset of Paul. He knows of the Good News that God has given. He also knows that this Good News means the difference between life and death, not just for him, but for all. And he just can’t wait to tell it. Since he can’t be there in person and his internet connection wasn’t working so they couldn’t do a Zoom meeting, the next best thing is to write it in a letter.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel [c]of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16-17
I love that Paul starts this off with the fact that he’s not ashamed. That’s perhaps something that seems odd to us since we live in the Bible Belt and it’s certainly more common to have basic acceptance of Christian beliefs than not in our area. But this theology wasn’t as popular in Paul’s days as it is now. Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire at this time. The empire had amassed a large territory and Christianity and the followers of Jesus weren’t of the majority. In fact as a general rule, polytheism (worship of multiple gods) was practiced. The Roman Empire, as a whole, would have been resistant to the idea of one God as well that God’s Son coming as a human in the form of a Jewish carpenter who was later put to death. That would have been too big of a gamble for them.
But Paul starts off, right out of the gate, saying, “Look, I’m not ashamed.” And then he briefly, but concisely tells them why.
- He identifies Christ as being the root of it all.
- Paul had worshipped God, but having that encounter with Jesus made all the difference in the world.
- Knowing Jesus made it personal. Paul went from having a religion to having a relationship.
- He recognizes the power of God for it all.
- Power was obviously a theme with which they would have been familiar. The Roman Empire was created by and for power.
- By attributing the power to God was a bold statement.
- Paul speaks of salvation for everyone.
- At a time when a person’s ethnicity determined their beliefs and cultures, all of a sudden the seams of restraints are ripped.
- Paul is clear that everyone is invited.
- And then Paul delivers the key to it all. The International Children’s Bible translation puts it just as simply as can be in verse 17 of chapter 1.
- “The Good News shows how God makes people right with Himself. God’s way of making people right with Him begins and ends with faith. As the Scripture says, “The person who is made right with God by faith will live forever.”
The main theme to the book of Romans is “Be right”. As we study this book and read Paul’s words of encouragement and instruction to the Romans, I feel as if we consciously take in His Word and make application to our own lives as Paul was desiring for the Romans, these next few months may very well bring about some change in our lives. I want to share with you one of the things that has stuck in my thoughts. The theme is “be right”. God wants us to “be right”, to live right, act right. But in order for us to “be right with God, we’re going to have to be right with God”. In other words, close proximity. Constant communication.
I want to end each week asking you this. What was something God revealed to you today?
“We find everywhere in this world the traces of a revealed God and of a hidden God; revealed enough to strengthen our faith, concealed enough to try our faith.”Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church
This week’s insights:
~We all have a story to tell.
~Be attentive. Do what God’s leading you to do.
~Don’t be ashamed.
[i] Be Right by Warren W. Wiersbe