A Roman Lesson

RT 5-2015 127-LP

If you happened to catch yesterday’s “Bonus Post” about Rome, you might have noticed a couple of things that give us insight into God’s workings in our world. Two of these, I thought would make an interesting little discussion for a Sunday.

The first of these is the fact that Paul employed a strategy in the way he spread the Gospel to the Gentiles; he was intentional in his efforts. He first travelled to the areas of the Eastern Mediterranean closest to Judea, and then when he had finished with that region; he turned his eyes farther west to Spain and Italy. He knew that the ultimate key for the spread of the Gospel was Rome itself, since it was the center point, the most powerful and influential city and the very heart of the known world at the time, so when the time came for him to write down his most fundamental teachings, he sent it to the church in Rome, from whence it would go everywhere else. Maybe we should be more intentional as well. He sent the essay to Rome, but he still ran into difficulties in getting there, but in the end he succeeded in travelling to Rome at the expense of the Roman Government itself and found himself in a position to share the Gospel with members of Caesar’s household before he was called home; my, how our Lord gets things done when a person is willing to serve Him!

The other thing I wanted to reflect upon was the way the church in Rome actually appears to have been started. Visitors from Rome who were attending Pentecost when Peter taught on that first day became Christians and took their faith home with them. People visiting other places where Paul was teaching came to faith and took their new beliefs home with them, and in both cases, they told their friends and others in the community around them about Jesus.

The church in Rome began when new Christians told others about their faith; they put faith into action.

If you are reading this, then most likely you are a Christian who is also a blogger. Like Peter and Paul, we have an opportunity to reach people from all over the world here on the net, and if we tell the story of Jesus Christ in a compelling way, who knows how our efforts might be used by God for His purpose. In fact, we might even be the catalyst for a whole chain of events that make a major difference for the Body of Christ, and never even know about.

How can we make a difference for Christ through our blogs?

This is a question that all of us should be asking, clearly Peter and Paul asked such questions in their times.

Of course, we can also share face to face with those around us, as the Romans obviously did with no help from the “professionals” because God seems to do His very best work through regular people like you and me. As this new week begins, I pray we all reflect on these things.

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Bonus Post: The Significance of Rome in Paul’s Day

Many commentators have asserted that since the end of the Second World War, New York City has been the world center of finance and culture, and while this can be argued, it is surely the media capital of much of the world; its influence is great indeed. Imagine if this cultural center used its media influence to promote the Gospel; just imagine the impact that could have…

In Paul’s day, Rome was the capital of the greatest Empire the world had yet seen; it was the very center of power, economics, culture and religion, and yes, all roads led there. Since Paul was the main guy called to take the Good News to the Gentiles, it is easy to see his thinking when it came to evangelizing Rome. With this in mind, is it any wonder that he wrote his great “doctrinal essay” to the Roman church?

Even more interesting is the unique nature of the Roman church itself that appears to have started organically without an Apostle’s visit or deliberate missionaries being present. Yes, I am aware of the tradition that Peter had gone to Rome to start the church there, but there isn’t any historical evidence to support the assertion, and it seems unlikely at best. You might even notice Paul’s remark in Romans 15:20 that he prefers “to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” which is followed by his long held wish to visit Rome as an indication that no one had previously made a “missionary” visit there.  This of course leaves us with the question of how the church started…

The short answer is that nobody knows for sure.

The long answer is that we have quite a few clues giving us a number of dots we can connect, and the amazing part of this is that it will give us insight into God’s workings in this world.

According to Acts 2:10, there were visitors in Jerusalem who were present when the Gospel was first proclaimed at Pentecost. Since 3,000 came to believe and were baptized, it stands to reason that some of the visitors from Rome would have been included in that number, most likely Jews and other interested Gentiles who would have taken their new faith home with them. Another possibility is that people from Rome were reached by Paul (and others) when he preached in other Gentile locations and returned home after conversion from paganism. Remember, Rome was the center of things, and people were constantly travelling to and from Rome to destinations all over the known world. An additional bit of evince to this is the fact that in Romans 16 Paul greeted by name no fewer than 25 people in Rome that he had met on his travels; mostly Gentiles.  In the process, he makes reference to at least 2 home churches in Rome, and various others whose names he doesn’t state specifically.

If we consider these clues, it would appear that there is a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome who have probably taken the Gospel throughout the city, a city of around a million people, including 16 synagogues that history has recorded. At this juncture, we have another question: If we know so much about the presence of Jewish synagogues, why don’t we have better information about churches in the city?

On that question, we do have solid information. In about  49 AD, the Emperor Claudius issued a decree exiling all Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2). According to the Roman historian Suetonius this was done because “the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Christus (sic).” So, you ask ‘how it is that Christ instigated disturbances among the Jews of the city?’ If the church in Rome began when Romans on their travels observed others, such as Paul, preaching the gospel in various places, it stands to reason that they would have taken the Gospel first to the Jewish synagogues, and then to the Gentiles with similar results: Some Jews accept the Gospel and others riot. Roman leaders don’t like riots!

We know from other accounts in the New Testament that the Roman authorities seldom made distinctions between believing and unbelieving Jews, so all were sent away from the city. By 54 AD, Claudius had died and the decree was no longer enforced and the people were free to return to the city, but were hesitant to resume public assemblies. Some scholars say that such assemblies were prohibited, and maybe this is so, but I haven’t been able to verify this, yet we do know that the Christians kept a lower profile than before and met in homes during this period. In any case, when those Jewish Christians returned to Rome, they found a church that was now dominated by Gentiles, since they had not been kicked out of the city.

By the time of Paul’s writing, we can be certain that the church in Rome was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, a fact that Romans confirms. Some parts are specifically written to Jews, others to Gentiles, but the message is clear: They are to act as One. Clearly, this caused Paul to write a universal message that is relevant to all Christians of whatever background or ethnicity in any period of time.

The Wrath of God: Jews (1)

Romans 2:1-16

In the last post, I mentioned that we entered the first main section of Romans (1:18 – 3:20) and that this section is divided into 3 subsections, the first of which deals with the condition of the Gentiles. Here we begin the second subsection that deals with God’s wrath and the Jews. For the sake of clarity, I’ve decided to split this part into two posts, this being the first. As of the time of this writing, I haven’t received any feedback from the previous post (it’s still Friday morning) so I don’t yet know if anyone has questioned why I went so “soft” on sin when I had the chance to point fingers, but this is why:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

Romans 2:1-4

(Believe it or not, not even I am so dense that I would point fingers at other people when I know this is coming next…)

Paul originally wrote this for Jewish Christians to consider, and while that was the situation in the first century, in the 21st century I think all Christians would be well advised to take this section to heart and do some soul searching.

This need not be a very long post, for once again, Paul’s text is elegant in its simplicity, and one needs to be proud indeed to miss his point, which is that none of us is qualified to pass judgment on anyone else, for this is the sole purview of God Himself.

Is this to say that we turn a blind eye to unrighteousness?

Of course not!

If our brother or sister stumbles, the loving thing to do is to offer them a hand so they can get up again, but there is a huge difference between a helping hand and a kick in the butt while they’re down! We have received God’s mercy and kindness; all of us. Why must so many repay God’s mercy and kindness by thinking they can push God aside and take His place as the Judge over others?

I hope that each of us will reflect on these things today, and as we each ask God for His forgiveness, may we also ask Him for His guidance as we move forward in our journey with Him.

We’ll pick up where we left off on Monday morning….

Programming Note: Be looking for the first Romans “Bonus Post” later today that will provide some background on Rome and its significance in both the first century and on Paul’s strategy for spreading the Good News worldwide.

The Wrath of God: Gentiles

Romans 1:18-32

After the transition of verses 16-17, we enter the first major section of the book of Romans with verse 18. This first main section of the book extends from 1:18 – 3:20, and it contains three subsections. In our passage Paul is describing the sinfulness of the Gentiles. In the next passage, 2:1 – 3:8, Paul describes the sinfulness of the Jews, and finally in 3:9-20 he describes the utter futility of finding salvation in the Law. Bearing in mind that Romans is a persuasive piece, you can easily see the case Paul is building here, and at the same time, we can see that by breaking this argument into subsections as he has done, he avoids either Gentile or Jewish Christians asserting, as they liked to do, that one group of Christians is somehow superior to the other.

If you read this passage, as I hope you already have done, I cannot honestly imagine anyone doing so without feeling a little convicted at least once, for what Paul describes is the world we are living in. Over the centuries it has been popular in many circles to use the occasion of this text to preach hellfire and damnation, but in so doing, those good brothers of ours have taken it quite out of its context, for we have already discovered that Romans isn’t about hell; it’s about Jesus. I’ve also been careful to point out that this is a subsection in the first section of a persuasive piece, which means that it is being used to make one point which will be combined with other points to demonstrate something larger; it doesn’t just stand on its own.

Having said that, I also want to be clear that I’m not interested in anyone’s attempt to explain away anything Paul has mentioned in this passage, as so many on the opposite extreme seek to do these days. Neither of these approaches is valid, at least in my view.

I seriously doubt that you need me to explain much about this passage; it is entirely obvious what Paul is taking about. People will make their decisions to reject God and go their own ways; they will ignore what is in front of their faces to deny Him. They will concoct the most flimsy nonsense to explain Him away so they can do what they want to do; they have even invented things like political correctness to silence any opposition to their folly, and even some Christians will allow themselves to be fooled: Amazing! At some point God will simply step back and let them go, but there will be a day of reckoning.

The point Paul is leading up is that the Law can do nothing to end this cycle of rebellion and folly.

Prologue

Romans 1:8-17

Paul’s personal observations are contained in verses 8-15, and are followed by a transitional section in verses 16-17. The personal remarks fall into three sections as he tells them of his prayers for them, his desire to visit them, and of his desire to preach in their midst.

Paul’s prayers for the Romans can be found in verses 8-10, and follow more or less the typical Pauline pattern. Paul’s prayers take on the form of thanksgiving for their faith as he mentions that their faith has been reported all over the world by the time of his writing. A secondary emphasis is his desire to visit them, which transitions into the next section which is comprised of verses 11-13.

While the first two parts of this passage are fairly self explanatory, verses 14-15 reveal a great deal about Paul’s mindset:

I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.

In the previous section, verses 1-7, Paul made it clear that he was Jesus’ slave, called to apostleship and that as such, his mission was to call the Gentiles to faith in Christ. Thus, in verse 14 he says that he is obligated to preach in the midst of the Romans. When you take Paul’s use of the word “obligated” here in verse 14 and pair it up with his use of the term “servant” (slave) in verse 1, Paul’s attitude flies in the face of our modern perspectives on faith.

What? Me someone’s servant or slave? Me being obligated to do something? Outrageous! How dare you!

I can almost hear someone objecting on the basis of the old Faith versus Works argument, yet as I have pointed out so many times, there is no conflict whatever between faith and works. If you are new to this blog, here is why there is no conflict between faith and works: Salvation is by grace through faith; we could not earn it by working for it no matter what we do because it has nothing to do with works. Having received salvation by the blood of Christ shed on the cross, mandated by God’s love for us, our response is the expression of God’s love in us to the world around us. Paul uses the word obligation because he has been called to make disciples, just as we have been; he is answering God’s call. Yet his motivation is in the fact that he loves God and all of God’s children, and there is no greater act of love than sharing God’s love with others, and to share that love, he needs to do something.

In that, we find fellowship between Man and God when our relationship with God brings about the response to do our part in achieving God’s purpose, which is the reason God created Man in the first place.

Paul sums this up in verses 16-17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Greetings

Romans 1:1-7

The custom in the first century was to begin a letter with a greeting that set forth the identity of the author, the recipient and a few words of greeting. In most of Paul’s letters, those few words of greeting were comprised of a prayer and thanksgiving that expressed Paul’s regard for his recipients. We saw just recently in Galatians that Paul deviated from this pattern once in awhile, since in that letter, he identified himself and then launched in to quite a lecture about their error: He was writing to correct them.

Romans is another case when Paul deviates somewhat from the usual pattern.  Some have suggested that he did so to better introduce himself to a church he had not yet met in person, others that he was in a hurry, but it appears to me that something else was on his mind. Thus, while I often fly past the introductory parts of his letters, I think it might be interesting to take a closer look here in Romans, because it helps us to understand the letter’s context.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— (1:1)

Paul identifies himself immediately as a servant (slave) of Jesus Christ, the implication of which is that he is not writing on his own behalf, but as Christ’s representative. This is amplified in the second half of the verse as he says that he has been called to be an apostle, which means “one sent” and then tells his readers he has been “set apart” for the gospel of God. Of course we know that to be set apart is another way of saying to be “holy”. Thus, Paul’s first line tells his recipients that he is Jesus’ slave who has been sent to represent the Lord and the gospel which, if you think about it, is quite a statement: He has the authority of his Master.

In the next verse, he continues by pointing out that the gospel he represents is the very one promised in the Scriptures. The sentence continues in verse 3 as Paul points out that this gospel that was foretold by the Scriptures is all about God’s Son, who was a descendant of David, the king as the Scriptures promised. This brings us to verse 4:

and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Make no mistake about it, Paul is setting forth his authority as a teacher when he reminds his readers that he is the representative of Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, whose authority and position was confirmed by His resurrection from the dead, which, if I may say so, was no mean feat.

Many years ago, I had the honor of reading a message from the president to a group of people. When you do that, there is a certain form of address, so you begin by saying, “I bring you a message from the President of the United States of America” before you start reading. I couldn’t help notice that at the precise second that I said that, the silence in the room was deafening, even though everyone knew what I was doing up there beforehand. After you read the message, you say “signed, give the president’s name, and then say, “President of the United States of America.” To be honest with you, I thought this whole procedure was a little silly as the protocol people were briefing me on how to do this, but since it was a very nice honor, I followed instructions (for once). After I did it, I understood why it is done, for even in our cynical times, this has a big effect on an audience.

What Paul has just done in verses 1-4 is the first century equivalent of this; he’s telling them that they had best pay attention, for this is Official God Business.

What it also tells us is that what follows will be persuasive in nature.

I mentioned in the last post that Romans is a “doctrinal essay” but what I didn’t mention is that a doctrinal essay is a persuasive piece… He continues:

Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (1:5-6)

Verses 2-4 set forth Jesus’ Jewish credentials; verses 5-6 set forth the credentials of Paul and the Gentile believers. This Jesus who is the fulfillment of Jewish prophetic Scriptures is the One, who called Paul to apostleship, and by His authority, Paul has called the Gentiles to faith in Christ; by this authority, no Jew may challenge the validity of a Gentile’s position in Christ or his status in God’s sight, a revolutionary concept from the Jewish perspective. Pay careful attention to verse 6: The Gentile believers in Rome are among those Gentiles who have been called to belong to Christ. This harmonizes nicely with Paul’s status expressed in verse 1, that of being Christ’s servant (slave is a better rendering in my view) for not only did Jesus pay the price to redeem the Jews; He also paid the price for the Gentiles.

Verse 7 makes it abundantly clear that this is being written to ALL Christians, both Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, for the word “all” bars no one. Paul extends his greetings and is ready to move on to the next section which is a prologue containing some personal observations.

Before I wrap up for now, I would like to point out one more thing: Paul has revealed in this passage what the letter will be about, actually who the letter is about: Jesus. As we continue to go through Romans, we must keep in mind that the letter is about Jesus.

Thus we have the overall context of the letter.

A Brief Introduction to Romans

The letter to the Romans was written by the Apostle Paul while he was in Corinth shortly before his departure to Jerusalem in early 56, 57 or 58 AD. Unfortunately, it is just about impossible to tie down an exact year, but it would have been one of these. His recipients were the believers in Rome, both of Gentile and Jewish background as you will see as we go through the book.

Paul gives us some insight into what occasioned his letter in chapters 1 and 15. It seems that he was about to leave Corinth and go to Jerusalem with the offering they had collected for the needs within the church in Jerusalem, and he asks the Roman Christians to pray for his journey since he was very much aware that his enemies in Jerusalem were interested in killing him. He also wasn’t entirely sure how the offering from gentile Corinth would be received by the Jewish Christians, as there was still a great deal of mistrust and confusion between the two groups, especially related to the role that the Law should play within the church. As you will discover, there is a great deal of discussion on this subject in the letter itself.

It is also clear, as we shall see, that Paul believed at that time that his work was about finished in the Eastern Mediterranean area, and he was already planning to venture to the western Mediterranean after his mission in Jerusalem was accomplished. In all likelihood, Paul would travel from Spain to Rome on this next journey.

Paul’s purpose for writing the letter to Rome isn’t as easy to discern as with most of his letters. Certainly he wanted to give clear instruction about the Gospel, and he also wanted to provide instruction about the role of the Law, and teach about the two covenants (Law of Moses and New Covenant) and how they relate to each other. It is also clear that he desired to teach unity within the church between Jew and Gentile: For these reasons, the letter to the Romans is a doctrinal essay. (Now dear reader, don’t be turned off by “doctrinal” here, for that simply means “teaching.” )

As we consider these things, another interesting point concerning Paul’s purpose begins to emerge: Paul is sending this letter to Rome, but his audience is far greater than that, for this letter is really written to all believers in all times; it is just as relevant today as it was when it was read for the first time. Today it is beloved by millions, a comfort and an encouragement, yet our loudest doctrinal arguments swirl through its pages. Even though there may be a controversy or two, and even though there are a few passages that are rather deep, and yes, even though Paul’s writing style can be a little hard to follow, I am confident that we can study this book together and come away with a clear understanding of it without raising our voices about this or that teaching by simply keeping the context straight.

In any event, it will surely be a fun adventure, so grab a chair and a cup of coffee, and we’ll set out when we get together next time!