Have you ever received a letter in the mail that you just didn’t want to read? Maybe you pretty much knew what was in it: an insurance claim denial, a letter from the IRS? Or maybe you weren’t certain what was in it—it could be good, it could be bad—like a letter from a relative or friend from whom you had been estranged.
I’ve felt this way regarding the book of Romans for 11 years now! I took an undergrad course in Romans years ago. I’ve read the letter, and I’ve used texts from Romans. But I have put off presenting a study on the book of Romans for a long time. While there are several reasons for it, the primary reason is sheer intimidation. Romans is considered to be one of the most complex New Testament documents. It is filled with lofty themes, deep theology, paradox and complexity. Frankly, the book of Revelation is an easier book to approach for me. But I had it on my schedule for over a year now. I had determined last year, I would go through the book this Fall. And so, here we are!
Just because I'm intimidated, I don’t want you to be! As I began digging this week—reading the book, listening to it being read aloud, brainstorming and taking notes I began to see patterns emerging and I became excited. This is a letter worth sinking your teeth into! It will make you think—but it is not so difficult to prevent anyone willing to do the work to understand. So let’s begin.
Because of the sheer volume of material and the complexity of the letter itself, we are going to spend a couple of weeks in background introduction. After a couple of weeks we’ll start digging into individual texts.
Somebody asks, “Why do we need to do background stuff? Why don’t we just read it?” The question is fair enough. Quite simply, this is an ancient document, written in an ancient language(Koine Greek), to a group of people who lived in a different culture nearly 2,000 years ago. If we do not examine their point of reference and Paul’s intent in writing this letter, we could totally misinterpret the book. We often talk about taking a verse or paragraph out of context. We also run the risk of taking an entire book out of context!
So let’s start our investigation of Romans. First we need to start with general historical background. The early church in Rome started off Jewish and probably worshipped in synagogues. However, in AD 41 the Emperor Claudius prohibited Jewish synagogue assemblies and in AD 49 expelled all Jews—which would include Jewish Christians—from Rome. Acts 18 mentions this expulsion. Aquila and Priscilla (Jewish Christians) were victims of the explusion. Acts 18 tells us they team up with the Apostle Paul in Ephesus.
The historian, Seutonius says the expulsion was carried out due to disputes instigated by one Chrestus. We assume he means Christ--but there is room for debate. In AD 54 the Jews were allowed back in—although they were still prohibited from worshiping in synagogues.
The Jewish Christians upon their return discovered a changed church—the church was made up of house churches. It was now in function, form, and flavor Gentile. Many Jewish Christians still observed Sabbath, Jewish festivals, and dietary customs. For Jews this was a matter of identity and faith. The Romans, on the other hand, viewed the Jewish customs as silly, barbaric, and backwards. Romans in general viewed Jews as lazy for not working on the Sabbath and they totally misunderstood many of the Jewish rituals and ideals. Anti-Semitism existed in the ancient world in a variety of places—it was especially prevelant in the city of Rome. So we have the potential for some major problems in the church.
Now, let’s look at the letter itself. As is the case in any piece of literature it is always a good practice to read the introduction of the book and the conclusion of the book. In doing so, you discover common elements and themes, which can be traced throughout the entire document. This gives you some insight into the intent of the author. We also will wish to examine what I call the “hinge” of the book—a place, which could be described as the center of the book, where you discover a major shift in the writer’s tone and direction. Another clue to the intent of the author can be found in any worded prayers or blessings . Finally, in letters written in ancient Greek there are certain words indicating central information. The Greeks followed a form for their letters as we do today. The word used in personal letters is a word we translate: I urge, I beseech, or I beg. By the way, I recommend this method for anyone wishing to study any letter in the New Testament.
The introduction of the book seems to be Romans 1:1-17 and the conclusion appears to be 15:7-33. Some words stick out here. We notice the words and thoughts: grace and peace, power, Holy Spirit, Son of God, Descendant of David/Root of Jesse, LORD, gospel, resurrection, Jew and Gentile, discussions focusing on mutual encouragement and mutual obligation, a desire to visit Rome, and the command to accept one another. Do you see how these two texts tie together? The same themes are merging together. This is the point “from which” and the point “to which”.
Now we want quickly to look at the prayers and blessings. In Romans 1:7-10 we see grace and peace, gospel, Paul’s desire to visit Rome. In 10:1 Paul prays for the salvation of the Jews. In 15:5 he prays the Romans will have a spirit of unity as they follow Christ Jesus and glorify the Father of our LORD Jesus Christ.
The hinge or middle of the book is a section, which starts in Romans 5:1 and ends in 8:39. We notice the ideas of grace and peace, power and Spirit, gospel, and Torah (law of Moses) are prevalent. While not specifically stated, when you speak of Law or Torah you are dealing with Jews and Gentiles.
Finally we examine the “I urge” statements found in Romans. In 12:1-4 Paul urges these Christ followers to present their bodies as living sacrifices—he explains what that means in the following section: not thinking of oneself more highly than one ought and he then launches into the concept of the church being one body with all parts working in harmony together, loving each other, being accepting of each other. In 15:30 Paul urges them to pray he will be rescued from unbelievers and that the Jewish Christians will accept the financial support he has been collecting from the Gentile churches. In 16:7 he urges them to watch out for false teachers who try to divide them.
So, what do we make of this and what is his point? Paul is writing to a divided church. It is a church divided between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. The Gentile Christians seem to have the upper hand. The Jews are being looked down on and yet the Jews are acting judmental toward the Gentiles. Both groups feel superior to each other.
Paul focuses upon the concept of grace and peace. No one can boast of their personal holiness or standing before God. All have sinned. We all need God’s grace through the gospel. Peace is not to be understood as inward peace, but as peace with God and between people: reconciliation.
Paul speaks of how salvation has come first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. He points out the Gentiles have received spiritual blessings through the Jews and how they should share physical blessings with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. He reminds them of their common ancestor, Abraham, and common LORD: Jesus Christ. He points out they have been transformed through the Holy Spirit and by the power of the gospel to live lives honoring Christ. Paul also focuses upon a common mission. He wants to be outfitted in Rome so he can go on to the farthest reaches of the empire and proclaim the gospel to Gentiles. But he is concerned the Gentile Christians might forget their obligation to proclaim gospel to the Jews as well.
In brief, this is a letter, not so much concerned with ivory tower theology, but with a divided church that needs to recognize their common ground.
Have you ever been afraid to open a letter? You might be afraid to open this one for more than one reason. Is it good news or is it bad? Will I read something that will challenge me? Rebuke me? Affirm me? Let me encourage you to read it. It is gospel: good news. It is useful news. Paul’s message of reconciliation has a powerful application to our own lives today and in this church. Most importantly, it’s God’s message to us.
So, may you grasp Paul’s message of grace and peace. May you experience the transforming power of the gospel, which brings reconciliation. May you embrace God’s message to you as you embrace your brother and sister in Christ. May you recognize we all are followers of the same Lord Jesus Christ, the son of God.