An Introduction to the Book of Romans
St Paul wrote many letters. I’m sure he did not think that they would become Holy Scripture. Nevertheless, Paul’s letters reveal his innermost thoughts and feelings about the world, himself and Jesus Christ whom he knew from personal encounter to be alive as the living Lord of all. None of the other apostles wrote as much as did St Paul. He did not write a biography of Jesus as did Matthew and John and also Mark and Luke. His concerns were pastoral and theological. He wanted to help people find their feet in Christ in Christianity and he wanted to clarify the claims that Christians were making for Jesus Christ in distinction from other religious and philosophical ideas.
Paul’s letters conformed to the accepted pattern of writing letters in the ancient Greek-Roman world. i) The Greeting ii) The Prayer iii) The Thanksgiving iv) The Main Subject v) The Personal Greetings. Paul used scribes or secretaries to whom he dictated his letters. He would stride up and down a room thinking on his feet. It was a slow business though, using ancient ink and papyrus leaves. The opposite of e-mail. One who helped write Romans was called Tertius (16:22). But Paul signed his letters personally to avoid fraud or misunderstanding.
The Book of Romans is Paul’s best work. It is his most clearly articulated presentation of his understanding of Christianity. He had not been to Rome at that point. He did not know the people in the Christian Church in Rome personally. He was not responding to issues or crises in the congregations he himself had founded as he was in Corinthians and other letters. Romans really is Paul saying “This is what I understand, believe and know about Jesus Christ. This is my testimony.”
Paul had always wanted to visit Rome but at the time of writing Romans this ambition had not been fulfilled. In Acts 19:21, Paul is quoted “I must also see Rome”. In Acts 23: 11, it is recorded that Paul is told by the Lord Jesus that he will have to bear witness also in Rome. Later in his life Paul visited Rome as a prisoner of the Romans and it is believed that he died during Nero’s persecution of Christians around 64-68 AD.
Scholars think that Romans was written about 58AD when Paul was in Corinth in Greece. He was about to return to Jerusalem carrying financial support for the Jerusalem Christian Church. He knew that he was taking his life in his hands by returning to Jerusalem. So he wrote his letter to Rome in the expectation of giving up his life in Jerusalem. As it transpired He was nearly torn to pieces by the hostile mob who regarded him as a traitor and turncoat. It was his Roman citizenship which saved him. Unlike Jesus, Paul was entitled to a fair trial in the highest court of the Roman Empire which of course was at Rome. And that is what happened to Paul eventually.
Chapters 1-8 deal with having a right relationship with God, 9-11 deal with the problem of what happened to the Jewish people, the Chosen people, 12-15 deal with more practical issues such as relating to the state and 16 offers a list of personal greetings in the standard manner of letter-writing of the time.
Paul’s own spiritual journey made him very democratic in his thinking. The only way to be right with God was to rely exclusively on God’s love and mercy. This was a great contrast to his Jewish upbringing with its stress on human activity and moral achievement. The same conflict occurred in the mediaeval Church when Martin Luther discovered that it was living faith which made him right with God, not the fulfilment of a monastic way of life. It was Jesus Christ who made people right with God not pilgrimages, Hail Marys, Our Fathers, bought certificates of forgiveness known as indulgences or penances of a psychologically damaging nature, e.g., bondage and flagellation. Today the same issue is present. New Age offers a spurious, extravagant series of opportunities for personal health and well being, inner peace and spiritual realisation and accomplishment. Political Christianity says that having a political viewpoint and involvement is all that matters. This is a new form of spiritual slavery. Christianity says today the same thing that Luther discovered and that Paul preached – it is Jesus Christ who mediates between us and God and makes atonement or unity and communication possible. We just accept that – accept Him – and that is the beginning of our salvation. Simples.
Paul knew more than most that moral perfection is not possible in human life, in the human condition. Moral perfection cannot therefore bring a human being into good relationship with God. It is spiritual surrender to Jesus Christ that takes us forward. It is in being born again into His life that we are transformed for the better while here on earth. These were realities in Paul’s life. He was the most significant convert in the ancient world. A former persecutor of Christians, he relied on God’s forgiving Grace for everything. That is the heart of his Christianity.
Don’t think you can escape the same journey. You can’t be in control of your Christian life. The living Lord Jesus can and must be. The measure of surrender is the measure of faith and understanding. You may not like it or want it. Dependence on Jesus Christ is the hardest of lessons for us self-sufficient human beings to learn.
Paul begins by describing himself as a ‘servant’ or ‘slave’ of Jesus Christ. He was a freeman and a Roman citizen but he gave himself the most menial of titles. Perhaps he wished to impress upon the sophisticated people of the Christian congregation in the greatest city of the ancient world at the time, that he was not a person of social distinction or achievement; neither had he any power, money or influence. Above all, he states clearly that he is devoted to Jesus Christ whom he calls his Lord. We live in a time which emphasises human rights. People want to be free and in control, on top if possible in everything. It is very much against the spirit of the times to surrender your soul and life and have a one-to-one relationship with Jesus Christ, trusting in him for everything and being willing to serve him in the way you manage your life. Paul’s commitment was absolute and he began his letter by making that point, plainly and simply. Within both Judaism and Christianity, the description ‘servant’ has always been a compliment, not an insult. It has always indicated a special calling by God. Moses and Jeremiah, for example, were pleased to call themselves ‘servants’ of God. It is not a term that diminishes a human life; it enhances a human life. There is no greater calling, task or status to be found than in serving your Maker.
Paul also calls himself an ‘apostle’ which means he has been sent on a special mission with a specific purpose – he has something to do for God and he is doing it. Every sincere Christian must have something to do for God. There’s no such thing as an unemployed Christian, a retired Christian or even a Christian on invalidity. There is always something you can do and you must do it. It is not meant to be a burden but an inspiration and a joy – but it must be an important part of your life. We are always needing people to do things in congregations, so, if you have an interest or skill, it may be of use and help.
Paul’s job is to preach the reconciling good news of Jesus Christ. Paul says clearly that Jesus was promised to the Jewish people in their Bible, that He was so possessed by the Holy Spirit in His life that He could be recognised and accepted as the Messiah and that He rose from the dead as final and conclusive proof of His true nature and status as the Mediator between God and the human community. Paul was not talking through a hole in his head. He was not confused. He had nothing to gain personally by speaking in this manner. It is wrong of people like Richard Holloway to dismiss Paul and others so close to the action at the time as people who were only speaking poetically about psychological and emotional experiences. Paul knew Jesus was alive. He had met Him. His life had been transformed. He served a living person not a dead, failed prophet of the Jews. This same Jesus is of course alive for us, for 2000 years in eternity is not much. Christianity is about Christ’s resurrected Lordship. Everything else follows.
Grace and peace fill Paul’s life and soul and enable him to live as he would not have chosen to live, without home or family to call his own, dependent on charity, in fear of his life, living for a spiritual invisible hope. Grace and peace filled his soul and changed him from a hate-filled persecutor to a man of love and reconciliation. Has this risen Jesus so worked in your life? Have you asked him to do so?
Christians, says Paul, are people ‘loved by God’. We are God’s sons and daughters. We are grown up children of our Maker. We can talk to God in prayer in a responsible manner. We do not need to grovel. There is dignity in the relationship. But – we are not equals and we have to love and honour our Maker. Very few humans have ever had a perfect relationship with God. Even the greatest saints have had times of difficulty and estrangement. Many lose faith from time to time. None of us live on the cloud tops for long. Many doubt God’s love for them and use the events of their personal lives to suggest that God is far from generous towards them. The bravest Christians are sometimes those who continue to rejoice and believe in adverse circumstances. When things have gone wrong. It can seem that God is God most truly when he does not answer our prayers for then we are humbled. Even Jesus had unanswered prayers “My God, my God – why have you forsaken me?” He hadn’t of course. He was just about to raise Jesus from the dead forever. We all know prayers like that, however, and we do not need to minimise this fact. What we need to look for is God’s higher purpose. But – Christians have also said the opposite – that God delights to answer prayers, genuinely loves us and is intent on blessing us throughout our lives.
Paul says he serves God with his whole heart. He was not a half-measures kind of person. Whatever he was doing – he gave it everything he had. You can’t buy commitment and enthusiasm. It stands out from the crowd. If everyone in the churches was as enthusiastic as Paul, they would be much livelier and more successful than they are.
Prayer was the basis and mainstay of Paul’s life and of everything he did as a Christian servant and apostle. Becoming a praying person demands a complete change of lifestyle. It can be difficult in family life to get any time and privacy for personal prayer. Over the years it builds up to something special and effective. Many people pray once in a while; if it doesn’t seem to work, they give up. Prayer is part of the personal relationship and commitment of a true Christian life. Without recourse to prayer, our Christianity is shallow and inconclusive. Personal and collective prayer has not been sufficiently at the heart of congregational life in the Church of Scotland and it will need to be more so in the future, if congregations are to survive.
Paul says he wants to be a blessing to the members of the Christian congregation at Rome. Then he corrects himself. He wants also to share in the blessings they already have. These were what we would call ‘lay’ people, yet Paul recognised that God had poured out His Holy Spirit on them. The future of the Church of Scotland lies in harnassing, releasing and directing the potential of its members. It is the lay people who provide the ministers, missionaries and full-time workers for the Church. This also means that lay people will accept a more pro-active role and be less passive and dependent.
Paul envisages a great revival – a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit if he, the especially chosen apostle can get to Rome’s Christian congregation. He looks forward to a great preaching ministry in the capital city of the ancient world. It never happened. Paul did get to Rome - but as a prisoner. He did testify on behalf of Jesus Christ – but under house arrest and in a court of law.
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” – so says Paul – who also felt the intellectual embarrassment of preaching reconciliation between God and humanity through the Cross of Calvary and Jesus’ resurrection. This was no sophisticated philosophy. It was different from just arguing about some abstract point of view. It also demanded a change of lifestyle. Paul could have been but was not ashamed of the Gospel. Sometimes we are ashamed to be Christians. It can be very hard in the work place with the kind of language and humours that non-Christian people offer. Life has been become more and more crude. Women and men are equal in this. It’s a temptation to keep quiet and run for cover. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Jesus Christ is worth our allegiance. He has much to offer and the world needs Him more than ever.
Being reconciled with God is a matter of faith, concludes Paul in this part of his letter. “the righteous will live by faith”. Faith is not blind faith or hoping against hope. Faith is the dynamic basis of your Christian life and mine. It is the content of what we know to be true. So Paul’s letter to the Romans begins in as powerful a way as you could imagine. It is something very special and deserves to be part of the Bible. It is worthy of our time and study.