Paul is writing to the Roman Christians while on his way to Jerusalem with the collection and after having visited Macedonia and Achaia (Romans 15:25-27 and travel narratives of Acts 19:21, Acts 20, 21). Having never been to Rome he gives an introduction to the Roman Christians that is exceptionally long for a traditional Greek letter (see previous post for the parts of the letter and how Romans fits).
Authority issues in Paul’s introduction:
Notice the first word Paul uses to describe himself. He could have said apostle or disciple but instead he wrote – SLAVE of Christ Jesus. The NIV and other translations use “servant” but the word doulos means slave. The term slave would be detestable to the Gentiles but to someone who understood the heritage of God’s people they would understand that being a slave to God would be on par with Moses, the prophets, and many other in the Old Testament who were proud to be called slaves of God. So it is hard to tell if Paul means one, the other, or both. A slave of the king going out to give the message of the king inherently carried with him authority on loan from the king. That may be part of what Paul is referring to here is that yes he is God’s slave and because of that he is doing what God wants him to do – write to the Roman Christians. So he is a “slave of Christ Jesus.” Jesus has authority because he has risen from the dead (1:4) and lived a life that was prophesied in the holy scriptures (1:2). It is easy to read right over that but hear it the way they heard it – “Jesus the anointed” = Jesus the messiah. Jesus came with a purpose and he has fulfilled that purpose which is what the Gospel is all about. It is a challenge worth taking while reading Romans to insert the word “messiah” or “anointed” when we come across “Christ” to get the full impact of the word rather than basically treating it like Jesus’ last name.
What is also interesting about Paul’s establishing the authority of the Gospel and thus of his letter to the Romans is that many of the terms he uses in his introduction were terms typically associated with Caesar. N.T. Wright has a nice article on that which lays it out way better than I am able. Here are a couple of examples that show Paul saying Christ is the real kind with the real authority. What makes this even more significant is that he is writing to those Christians living in the city Caesar lives in:
- God’s Son (1:2) – A title given to Caesar that spoke of his divinity.
- Gospel (1:2) – “good news” – this was a term that was used to describe Caesar’s birth as well as significant deeds done during his reign. The real good news is of a kingdom not of this world…the kingdom of God.
- Lord (1:7) – A term meaning “master” that was used for Caesar.
Another piece of the authority puzzle comes in Paul saying Jesus is a descendant of David – a rule that precedes that of the Romans.
The message is clear – the Gospel of Jesus the anointed one of God is superior to anything this world has to offer and it demands a response from our lives. That response is called faith. N.T. Wright says it well in his book Romans for Everyone: Part 1 – ““[The Gospel] is more like a command from an authority we would be foolish to resist. Caesar’s messengers didn’t go round the world saying, ‘Caesar is lord, so if you feel you need to have a roman-empire kind of experience, you might want to submit to him.’” The Gospel demands a response.
In Romans 1:8 Paul begins his thanksgiving/prayer statement which again was typical of the letters of his day. It is a powerful prayer considering he has never met these Christians. How many times have you prayed continuously for someone you have never even met? How much stronger would the church be if people were praying for congregations they may never visit? He is talking about mutual encouragement, enriching them through spiritual gifts, and making plans to see them. Paul has a clear sense of mission and he intends to carry it out. (For notes on 1:14 see this previous post.)
1:16-17 are powerful and as complex as what is being said really speak for themselves with little need for explanation – “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
The word for revealed here is the word apokalupto where we get the word apocalypse. Apocalyptic literature (like the book of Revelation) is a writing that is trying to reveal something deeper to us than what is on the surface. On the surface Jesus appears to be crucified like a common criminal but the Gospel is the Gospel because there was more to the story than what was on the surface. In God’s anointed, Jesus, God was revealing something about himself and about the kingdom…that even death could not withstand God’s onslaught to redeem and restore a world that is full of power structures like Caesar or the Jewish leaders who had tried to bring it to an end. Those who have been made righteous will live by faith (a quote from Habakkuk 2:4 which we will spend more time on later).