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. Paul deviated from this pattern once in awhile; in Galatians for instance, 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 profound 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.