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.