Letter to the church in Rome
From Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles
Rome was the center of the known world; it was the cradle of civilization, commerce, culture—and home to a military machine under the command of Caesar, the most powerful man in the world. The most influential city on the planet was on the frontier of the Jesus movement, a place where God was bringing together Jews and non-Jews into one community to follow Jesus’ teachings.
A group of believers was gathering, and a church of great importance was forming from ragamuffin believers who had been touched by the power of the gospel. But they do not appear to have had the leadership of the Lord’s emissaries—those who had walked with and had been handpicked by Jesus.
This church would become the seedbed for the spread of the gospel across the known world, so Paul recognized the importance of articulating the whole gospel to this body of believers and preparing them for their missional calling in the world.
Instructions to Other Churches
This letter from Paul, the emissary of Jesus, breaks all the previous molds. He is writing to many people he does not know, is instructing a church he did not plant, and is challenging them to embrace their role in bringing the gospel to the people of Italy and Spain, despite the fact that he has not been able to model the work of missions and church planting in Rome as he had in other places.
What would Paul have to say to believers he had never met?
How would he proclaim the gospel in a letter?
In planting other churches, Paul surely told how the risen Jesus appeared to him. Paul must have preached to them for untold hours (he was known for being quite verbose) about sin, redemption, justification, the cross, adoption, grace, love, life in the Spirit, and the power of the Anointed One to redeem all things.
Persuasive View of the Power of the Gospel
This letter set the church in Rome on a firm foundation and ultimately became one of the most important pieces of literature ever written. It has influenced some of the greatest minds and agents of change the world has known: Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Martin Luther King Jr., and Desmond Tutu, just to name a few.
It was one of the primary inspirations for the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. But most importantly, this letter written to Christians in an ancient city penetrates our hearts and minds today with a beautiful and persuasive view of the power of the gospel!
According to Paul, in and by itself, the gospel is power — God’s power. The simple message of Jesus brings healing and rescue to all people. It starts with God’s people, the Jews, but does not end until all people hear and respond to its call. The gospel reveals how right and faithful God has been all along. It begins with God’s faithfulness to His creation and His covenant people. Then God acts, finally and decisively, in the cross of Jesus.
For Paul the cross, more than any other event, displays Jesus’ faithfulness to God the Father. As the Gospels tell us, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus entrusts Himself completely to God’s will. As a result, this good news brings faith and hope to those who hear and respond to its elegant message. Because God is faithful, He acts in a most extraordinary way. Somehow in the scandal of the cross, He offers His own Son in order to redeem the fallen world.
The prophets express God’s mind and will in the world. Sometimes their messages are a word-on-target to the people and powers of their day; at other times, they see and speak about the future. Their words not only predict the future — they speak the word of the Lord, which creates reality and shapes the future.
Paul describes the gospel of Jesus by bringing in the good news on two levels: On a human level, the good news is about God’s Son, David’s descendant, entering the world to begin the task of restoring it from the damage sin and death have left behind. But the resurrection of Jesus from the dead takes Jesus’ sonship to a new level. Now He is the Son-of-God-in-Power, the One called Lord and Master.
Paul sounds a sober warning. God’s wrath is here; it is not some far-off future event. Paul says that God’s wrath is already at work in the world in what is effectively God’s “hands-off” policy. God, he says, steps aside and gives us over to idolatry, sexual sins, and depraved minds.
Human sin and depravity are both its cause and effect. You see, we are not only punished for our sins, but we are punished by our sins. If God’s salvation consists essentially of His presence with us, then His wrath consists of His absence or separation from us. The bad news is this: God’s wrath is real. Without the good news of Jesus, no hope exists.
When God’s people — or people who claim to be God’s people — are hypocrites, then God is the one who gets the bad name.
How often do we say one thing and do another?
How often have we set a standard for others only to break it ourselves?
The saying is true: we practice every day what we believe; all the rest is religious talk. There is a lot of religious talk out there, a lot of smugness and self-satisfaction. But every day people readily violate their consciences and the Lord’s reasonable teachings. For faith to matter, it has to get under your skin.
Sin is more than just wrong choices, bad decisions, and willful acts of disobedience that violate God’s Word and are contrary to His will. It is that and much more. Paul knows sin is missing the mark or deliberately stepping over the line, but he also knows that sin is a power at work in him and every child of Adam.
As strange as it may sound, sin seems to have a will of its own. Like an addiction, sin takes hold of us and causes us to act in ways we never wanted. For Paul the cross of Jesus deals finally and definitively with the dual reality of sin. Not only are we forgiven of our sins — our willful acts of disobedience — but we are also liberated from the power of sin.
In the incarnation and sacrificial death of Jesus, God is at work to extend salvation to those who fall under sin’s addiction. They are liberated from its power, cleansed of its stain. By “God’s restorative justice,” Paul means first the justice that belongs to God and reflects His character.
God is just, fair, or in a word, righteous. But character is dynamic, not static. This means that God’s justice must express itself in some way. So it is in the nature of God’s justice that He acts to restore and repair a world that is not the way it should be. Above all, it is God’s saving actions through Jesus that constitute the gift of God’s restorative justice.
In God’s plan to restore a fallen and disfigured world, Abraham became the father of all of us, the agent of blessing to everyone. Jesus completes what God started centuries before when He established Abraham’s covenant family. Those who put faith in Jesus and call Him “Lord” become part of Abraham’s faith family. Because God is gracious, loving, and merciful, men and women from every corner of the earth are not only declared right, but ultimately are made right as well.
It happens through God’s actions — not our efforts — in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus who was crucified for our misdeeds and raised to repair what has been wrong all along. So the promises of God made long years ago are being realized in men and women who hear the call of faith and answer “yes” to it.
God’s gift of grace and salvation is amazing. Paul struggles to find the words to describe it. He looks everywhere around him to find a metaphor, an image, a word to put into language one aspect of this awesome gift. One of those is “reconciliation.” There is hardly anything more beautiful than to see two people who have been enemies or estranged or separated coming back together.
When Paul reflects on what God has done through Jesus, he thinks about reconciliation. Before we receive God’s blessing through His Son, we are enemies of God, sinners of the worst sort. But God makes the first move to restore us to a right relationship with Him.
We arrive here, children of a common ancestor, Adam. As such, we have inherited his traits, physically and spiritually. Although our sin may be of a different sort than his, we sin no less than Adam. The proof of that is death. Adam opens the way for sin and death to pursue us and run rampant across the earth. But from the beginning,
God has a plan to reverse the curse. At just the right moment in human history, Jesus arrives, a son of Adam and the Son of God. Through His faithful obedience to His Father, He challenges the twin powers of sin and death and defeats them. Sin no longer reigns unchecked. Death no longer has the last word.
Grace is no license to sin. As creatures, we are made to serve our Creator. In the absence of truth, we will serve somebody or something. It’s an essential part of our nature. Our only choice is this: whom will we serve? At one time, we all served sin and grew weak under its deadly power over us.
Now, through God’s grace, we have become servants of obedience that sets us right with God, each other, and ourselves. We must daily decide whose servant we are and offer Him our hands, our feet, our hearts, our eyes.
God gives Israel the law as part of His covenant promises. The law does a great deal for His people; mainly it sets them apart from all other nations of the world and gives them a blueprint for God’s will.
But, according to Paul, the law cannot fix everything that is wrong with this broken world. Although the law is perfectly suited for bringing sin to the surface and exposing it, the law cannot free people from the power of sin and its evil twin, death.
The power of sin and death has been eclipsed by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit breathes life into our mortal, sin-infested bodies — thanks to what Jesus has done for us.
By sending His Son in “the likeness of sinful flesh,” God judges sin finally and completely. The sins of the world are concentrated and condemned in the flesh of Jesus as He hangs on the cross. So now there is no condemnation remaining for those who’ve entered into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
As Paul ponders the story of redemption, he finds in the family unit a beautiful image of what salvation means. Those who enter into God’s salvation are adopted into God’s family. Before we receive the gift of God’s grace, we are homeless orphans searching for some place to belong. But now all that has changed. The Father reaches out through His Son to all those orphaned by sin and death, and He brings them into His family. We are adopted into His forever family and fully enfranchised as His heirs.
In all of Paul’s letters, there is no more triumphant note than in this declaration. He has reached the climax of what it means to live em powered by God’s Spirit. We are champions, one and all. We will taste victory and sweet success made possible by His love and gifts to us.
We may fear the harsh judgment of the majority. We may bristle under the scowls of others. We may even be unsettled by thoughts of death, persecution, and dark spiritual powers. But Paul celebrates the absolute assurance that no one and nothing can come between us and the love of God.
For Paul, the astonishing truth of the gospel has to do with what God is now doing with the non-Jews. Apparently God’s plan all along is to make those who are not His people into His people. All those who never experienced God’s love are now experiencing it as they enter into the life of the Spirit through faith.
But what does this mean for Israel? Israel, too, is included in the people of God; but again, this does not mean all of Israel. Pedigree is not what counts; faith is. As it was in the days of the prophets, so it is again. Divine judgment is falling on disobedience, but a remnant of faithful Jews — a fraction of the whole — is being saved.
God’s plan to restore the world disfigured by sin and death reaches its climax with the resurrection of Jesus. When the King enters, all the prophecies, all the hopes, all the longings find in Him their true fulfillment. There may have been earlier fulfillments; but these are only partial fulfillments, signposts along the way to God’s true goal.
The goal has been the restoration of people to a holy God. With Jesus, we find the only perfect man with right standing before God. He comes to blaze a path defined by God’s justice, not by our own sense of right and wrong. All men, women, and children who commit their lives to Him will be made right with God and will begin new lives defined by faith and God’s new covenant.
In every generation, God makes sure a few survive the onslaught of judgment. The prophets call these the “remnant.” Paul sees himself living in a critical moment as fewer and fewer Jews pledge obedience to Jesus. But the Anointed’s emissary finds comfort in realizing how God’s faithfulness is playing out in his day. If you ever think that you alone are faithful to God, that somehow God has forgotten His covenant promises, think again. He always has a remnant.
The cultivated olive tree provides Paul with a beautiful image of how believing Jews and non-Jews were organically connected in the plan of God. Life flows from the earth to the branches — some natural, some grafted in — through the rootstock.
Paul wants to make sure the grafted branches know they have not arrived on their own; their spiritual life and vitality flow from the root, Israel. God is the Farmer who has tenderly grafted them into the sturdy stock on the basis of faith. So pride and arrogance are completely out of place for those grafted branches. They will bear fruit only as they remain connected by faith to the stock.
Paul says that God’s mysterious plan for the ages is being revealed as the number of outsiders swells in the churches and as a part of Israel is hardened, at least for a time. But let’s not forget that hardening is not God’s unilateral action. Whatever hardening takes place happens first on our side before God reluctantly agrees.
That part of Israel now hardened has already rejected God’s Anointed. Yet when the full complement of non-Jewish outsiders enters God’s kingdom, “all Israel will be saved.” But clearly “all Israel” can’t mean every last Jew, because Paul has already shown that not every son or daughter of Abraham is an heir to the promise.
Paul urges those who read and hear his letter to respond to the good news by offering their bodies — eyes, ears, mouths, hands, feet — to God as a “living sacrifice.” Paul knows well enough that sacrifices end in death, not life. But the sacrifice of Jesus changes everything.
His resurrection steals life from death and makes it possible for those who trust in Him to become a sacrifice and yet live. But how do we live? We do not live as before, wrapping ourselves in the world and its bankrupt values. We live in constant renewal and transformation of our minds.
At the time, Christians are a tiny minority within Judaism, a minor religion in the largest empire the world has ever seen. Minorities are often the subjects of rumors, suspicions, and innuendos. Christians don’t need to add to the problem by developing a reputation as lawbreakers and rebels.
So Kingdom citizens are not to dodge taxes or cheat on fees imposed by legitimate governing authorities. They are to show the proper respect for officials in power.
Ultimately those who follow the truth of the gospel under the banner of the Anointed One may find themselves at odds with the powers that be. But Paul’s counsel here is not a blanket approval of any and every government that may arise in a broken world.
Believers are not to have any obligation of any kind. Borrowed money and granted favors always come with strings attached. How many lives and families have been ruined by debts and deals made in haste! There is only one obligation Paul allows, and that is love. When we share God’s care and compassion with others, we fulfill His law whether we realize it or not. Fundamentally, God’s law has always been about love.
Paul says he is free to eat, but he is not free to injure another in what he eats. Personal freedom must always give way to corporate responsibility. To put it another way, the gospel of love demands that we surrender individual liberties for the sake of our brothers and sisters.
We see this demonstrated powerfully in the example of Jesus who gave up His life and freedom for the sake of the world. When we live by this ethic, we create a community marked by warmth and hospitality. Food, drink, and holidays may well be personal options within the Kingdom. But justice, peace, and joy are communal essentials for life in the Kingdom.
Before Paul treks west to Rome, he must complete an important mission he started years earlier. He must carry to Jerusalem an offering for the poor collected from the outsider churches.
Paul, the emissary, hopes not only that the offering will alleviate the human need and suffering brought on by years of famine, but that it will also build a bridge between his mainly non-Jewish churches and the Jewish mother church in Jerusalem.
But when he arrives in Jerusalem, Paul’s enemies trump up charges against him that ultimately land him in jail. So Paul makes it to Rome, but not as he planned. Several years later, after a lengthy confinement in Caesarea and a perilous journey at sea, he is led into Rome as a prisoner of the empire.