Familiarity with the Bible is a good thing. The better we know it the better we know the God whose word it is. But over time, familiarity has its bad side. The same words read repeatedly progressively lose their impact.
So it is with Paul’s self-introduction at the start of Romans. The Roman church doesn’t know him. He’d never visited their city. So his greeting is a bit longer here than in other letters.
What, we might ask, occasioned Paul to write this letter? Yes, the Holy Spirit. But Paul had natural reasons too—the Holy Spirit operating in the human realm. It’s 57 A.D., about 25 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul is in Corinth on his third missionary journey. From there he’ll re-trace his route and take the Gentile churches’ collection money to the poor church in Jerusalem.
Then he plans to visit Rome and hopefully use that church as a base to reach Spain . . .
I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done–by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there (Romans 15:18-25).
With those plans in mind, Paul writes to the Roman church . . .
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God (1:1).
He introduces himself with three descriptive phrases—familiar to the Roman church and to us, but really quite radical. He is, he writes,“a servant of Christ Jesus.” The Greek in which he wrote is doulos—slave, bond-servant, one who gives himself up to the will of another. “Christ” is “Christou”—Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah.”
What’s radical to unfamiliar ears is that this Jesus had been crucified about 25 years earlier. Yet, Paul claims this Jesus is the Hebrew Messiah, and he (Paul) is his servant.
Second, Paul identifies himself as a man “called to be an apostle.” The Greek apostolos refers to one sent on a mission with the full authority of the sender, in this case with the full authority to represent Messiah Jesus. Paul claims to have been called to that mission—and he’s been engaged in that mission now for 2 ½ mission trips which have resulted in churches planted from Asia Minor to Greece.
Third, Paul describes himself as a man “set apart for the gospel of God”. The Greek aphorizo refers to being separated for a special purpose, which we now know is to serve Messiah Jesus by undertaking the mission of making known the gospel (good news) of God. No letter is as theologically-rich as Romans; but Paul is primarily a proclaimer of good news.
Enough of him. This letter to the church at Rome centers in the gospel . . .
. . . which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son . . . (1:2,3a).
This good news (gospel) hasn’t suddenly appeared out of nowhere, like the sun breaking the gray sky peeking over the horizon. Prophets promised it and wrote it in the holy Scriptures. But this gospel spotlights, not so much an event, as a person: the Son of God.
. . . who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord . . . (1:3b4).
Paul doesn’t discuss what has come to be known as the doctrine of the Trinity. What he tells the Romans and us about this Son of God is sufficiently and mysteriously radical as it is . . .
First, the Son (in which this gospel centers) “was descended from David” considering his ancestry from a human point of view. That marked him as a descendent of Israel’s greatest king with the potential of being even greater than his forefather.
Second, the Son “was declared to be the Son of God in power . . . by his resurrection from the dead . . . “ Wait! Don’t rush over those familiar words. He was crucified. But then resurrected. And, according to the witness of the Holy Spirit, that resurrection made a declaration about that Son. It declared him “Son of God in power”.
Third (and this follows closely on the second point about the Son), he is “Jesus Christ (Messiah) our Lord”. No, Caesar, you may claim the title kurios. And you may demand worship as kurios. But you are not kurios. Jesus, the Messiah, is kurios.
. . . through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1:5-7).
Paul’s call to apostleship, he writes wasn’t a reward for merit; it was a call of grace—unmerited favor, undeserved love. And his call to apostleship carries a powerful purpose . . .
“to bring about the obedience of faith . . . among all the nations”. Commentators historically translate that to mean either (1) the obedience that results from faith or (2) faith which is itself obedience. For what it’s worth, I strongly favor the former. Paul wants to call people from among all nations to faith in Messiah Jesus the Lord, but then to the obedience that comes from that faith.
Paul’s mission is breathtakingly broad: to bring about the obedience of faith “among all the nations.” The Jewish Messiah is no parochial deity!
“for the sake of [Christ’s’] name”. For the sake of his reputation. That he might be known and praised. For his glory. That his name might be universally exalted above all. Paul doesn’t preach so his name might be on the lips from all nations, but so Jesus’ name might be.
“ . . . including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” These Roman Christians have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. Their faith in him evidences their call to him. Our faith in him evidences the same: we have been called by the gospel and the power of the Spirit to belong to Jesus Christ.
Paul addresses his letter “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints . . . ” . God loves the world (John 3:16), but he especially loves those whom he calls to be his holy ones (“saints”) . Paul wants them (and us) to know that. And to know from the beginning that his message to them is one of grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. That message he’ll unfold in the rest of this magnificent letter.
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We may be most familiar with Romans. That’s good, because its news is so good. But familiarity may also be bad. It may have taken the radical edge off the letter. We may read it with a ho-hum. I pray we won’t. I pray we’ll be able to read it as if for the first time, so that we will realize how extremely out of the ordinary it is–starting with Paul’s greeting. May it stir our heart with a breath of fresh faith and hope . . .
Grace to you and peace
from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.
And if we want to be a bit more radical, we might personalize it like this . . .
God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ
send you, Allan (insert your name),
grace and peace.