Romans – Introduction

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INTRODUCTION TO ROMANS

The opening verse of Romans—in fact, the opening word—informs us that Paul is the author of this profound epistle. Statements within the letter also support that conclusion, for the author calls himself “the apostle to the Gentiles” (chapter 11, verse 13). Furthermore, the scope of the author’s missionary work, “from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum” (chapter 15, verse 19), accords with what Acts tells us about the apostle Paul’s remarkable ministry.

Date and place

The date of Paul’s writing to the Romans can be determined with relative accuracy by piecing together bits of internal evidence. At the time of his writing of Romans, Paul was about to return to Jerusalem with the collection that gentile Christians had gathered for needy Jewish believers in Jerusalem (chapter 15, verses 25 and 26). From Acts and the Corinthian correspondence, we learn that this gathering of funds took place during Paul’s third missionary journey. That journey is usually dated about A.D. 53–57.

Paul spent a large part of that missionary tour at Ephesus, in Asia Minor. At the end of his three-year stay in Ephesus, Paul set out overland through Macedonia and Greece, intending en route to pick up the funds that had been collected by the various congregations. The last stop on his swing through Macedonia and Greece would have been Corinth. Hence when Paul writes to the Romans, “Now . . . I am on my way to Jerusalem” (chapter 15, verse 25), he most likely is writing from Corinth.

In his correspondence to the Corinthians, Paul had promised to spend some time in Corinth—perhaps even spend the winter with them (1 Corinthians, chapter 16, verse 6). This intention on the apostle’s part seems to have been realized (Acts, chapter 20, verses 2 and 3). Hence Paul is likely to have written his letter to the Romans from Corinth during the winter or early spring of A.D. 57.

Occasion

No doubt Paul would have liked to go directly from Corinth to visit the Romans. For many years he had been wanting to visit them (chapter 1, verse 13), but until now he was prevented from doing so. A complicating factor up until now had been Paul’s God-given assignment to plant the gospel in the major urban centers of Asia Minor and southeastern Europe—cities like Ephesus in Asia Minor, Philippi and Thessalonica in Macedonia, and Corinth in Greece. Now, however, that work had been completed (chapter 15, verses 19 and 22 through 24), and Paul could think of turning his attention to other areas. His immediate interest was to go to the West, to Rome and the regions beyond, including Spain.

Only one other task needed the apostle’s attention before heading west, and that was the delivery of the collection to the poverty-stricken Christians in Jerusalem (chapter 15, verse 25). Because of that delay and in preparation for his eagerly awaited visit to Rome, Paul sent ahead the letter we have come to call Romans.

Another lesser but still important detail contributed to Paul’s sending a letter to the Christians in Rome at this time. Paul had the service of a trusted letter carrier. Recall that in Paul’s day there was no such thing as an international postal system. If you wanted to send a letter to your distant friend, you had to find a traveler willing to carry your letter who was traveling to the place where your friend lived. In the closing chapter of his letter, Paul urged the Romans, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me” (chapter 16, verses 1 and 2). Phoebe was obviously a highly regarded Christian woman who was traveling to Rome for some reason. It seems entirely probable that she served as the carrier of Romans. Incidentally, Phoebe’s hometown of Cenchrea is one of the two seaports serving Corinth, which further reinforces the conclusion that Paul wrote Romans from Corinth.

Purpose

From the fact that Paul had not previously been to Rome, we may safely conclude that he was not the founder of the congregation there. In fact, there is no record of any apostolic activity in connection with the founding of this group. The tradition that Peter served as the bishop of Rome for 25 years is unfounded and highly improbable. Given the somewhat unusual beginning of the group in Rome, it is plausible that Paul sent his letter, at least in part, to give them the benefit of his apostolic teaching.

But the intended edification was by no means to proceed in only one direction, with Paul providing all the good things for the Romans. Rather, Paul envisioned a two-way exchange when he came to them. He not only says, “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong,” but also immediately adds, “that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (chapter 1, verses 11 and 12).

Obviously, Paul’s joy over the faith of the Romans was a major factor in penning a letter to them, but the letter also had a very practical purpose. Paul was looking to the Romans for help and support in connection with the mission work he was contemplating for Spain and the West. Paul is very open in asking for their aid. He writes, “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” (chapter 15, verses 23 and 24).

We need to realize that in Paul’s day there was no world mission board to mobilize the resources of the entire church body in order to support those going to “foreign” fields. Recall that at times Paul provided his own support by tentmaking (Acts chapter 18, verses 2 and 3; 1 Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 9) or received help from private sources and individual congregations (1 Corinthians chapter 16, verses 6,10 and 11; 2 Corinthians chapter 1, verse 16; Titus chapter 3, verse 13; 3 John chapters 5-8). In the current situation, Paul is very candidly asking for help from the Romans. His hope may well have been that Rome would become his base of operation to the West as Syrian Antioch had been in the East.

Recipients

We have already indicated that Paul, who had not yet been to Rome, could not be the founder of the Roman church. We have also discounted a 25-year Roman ministry for Peter. There is insufficient evidence to support the idea that he founded the congregation in Rome, although he later may have sealed his ministry with a martyr’s death there.

How, then, did the Roman congregation get its start? Perhaps the best answer is that we do not know. Some possibilities may be suggested, however. One theory gives credit for that accomplishment to the “visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism)” who were in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost (Acts chapter 2, verses 10 and 11). The assumption is that they returned home to plant the Christian faith in the capital city of the empire. That is entirely possible, and even if they were not the prime movers in actually starting the church, they might have been among the earliest representatives and spokespeople for the Christian faith there.

An unusual feature of the epistle to the Romans is the large number of people whom Paul greets in the final chapter. Paul mentions some two dozen people by name. How could he know that many people in a place he had not yet visited? An answer to that question may also bring with it a possible solution to the mystery of who founded the Roman church. In the ancient world, there was a proverbial saying to the effect of “All roads lead to Rome.” Rome, the capital of a sprawling empire, was the center of a bustling and thriving world community. Traveling considerable distances was common, even if not easy or comfortable. Many people moved around a great deal. Think of the movement of Aquila and Priscilla: from Pontus (near the Black Sea) to Rome, to Corinth (Acts chapter 18, verses 1 and 2), to Ephesus (Acts chapter 18, verses 18 and 19), and back to Rome (Romans chapter 16, verse 3).

It is possible that the people named in Romans chapter 16 were people whom Paul had met in the East and had brought into the church with his gospel message. When these people in the course of business or public life subsequently found their way to Rome, they took their Christianity with them and became prominent members of the Christian community in Rome.

Incidentally, speaking of a Roman Christian community may be a more appropriate use of terminology than speaking of a Roman Christian church, for there does not seem to have been a central organized congregation there. Rather, the readership of Paul’s letter seems to have consisted of a series of smaller groups meeting in private homes. Call them house churches, if you will. A number of such groups seem to be discernible in Paul’s section of greetings (chapter 16, verses 5,10,11,14, and 15).

Another item that has raised some discussion is the ethnic makeup of Paul’s readership in Rome. Were they of gentile or Jewish extraction? The view reflected in this commentary is that the numerical majority of the Christians in Rome at this time was of gentile background.

For support of such a view, note that at the outset of his letter Paul describes himself as an apostle who had received “grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith,” and then immediately adds, “You also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (chapter 1, verses 5 and 6). Later in the same chapter, he gives a reason for his eagerness to visit them by saying it was “in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles” (chapter 1, verse 13). Even in chapters 9 to 11, which deal so directly with the spiritual status of the Jewish nation, Paul says regarding the imagery of wild olive branches being grafted into a domesticated olive tree, “I am talking to you Gentiles” (chapter 11, verse 13).

However, even though Gentiles likely were the majority in number, there still remained a very influential Jewish minority. Strong influence from the Jewish community perhaps should not surprise us. After all, Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John chapter 4, verse 22). Add to that what we also know from Acts regarding the usual pattern in the founding of fledgling Christian congregations. Paul’s first approach regularly was to go to the Jewish synagogue in urban centers and preach there as long as he was tolerated. When the synagogue leaders objected to Paul’s message, as they regularly did, Paul and his little group of Christian followers would find other quarters—often in private homes.

The time available to Paul for giving guidance and training to these young congregations was decidedly limited. Therefore, the grounding in the Old Testament Scriptures that the ex-synagogue people brought was excellent preparation for their taking leadership roles in the new Christian congregation when Paul moved on to the next mission site. In this way, even though the number of Jews may have been relatively small, Jewish leadership was a significant factor in the young Christian congregations whose converts were gained largely from the local gentile population.

Paul does not overlook this Jewish element in the Roman congregation. His incisive preaching of the law, charging all people with lacking the righteousness that avails before God, is directed also at those who call themselves Jews (chapter 2, verses 17-24). At another place he identifies himself with his Jewish readers when he speaks of Abraham as “our forefather” (chapter 4, verse 1). And he introduces the extended three-chapter discourse on Israel with the poignant, Moses-like petition, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race” (chapter 9, verse 3; see also Exodus chapter 32, verses 31 and 32). In conclusion, both Jews and Gentiles are the object of Paul’s loving concern in his letter to the Romans.

Content

Unlike most of the correspondence we have from the apostle Paul’s pen, his letter to the Romans does not seem to have been written to solve any particular problem in the congregation or to settle a theological debate. The letter is calm and dispassionate. In some respects it resembles an essay, setting forth a broad, systematic treatment of God’s plan of salvation. Dominant throughout is the concept of righteousness.

Natural man’s lack of righteousness (chapter 1, verses 18 through chapter 3, verse 20) is offset by the righteousness that comes from God, the righteousness earned by Christ and received by the sinner through faith (chapter 3 verse 21 through chapter 5, verse 21). Having received Christ’s righteousness through faith, the justified sinner is now moved to live a life of righteousness that conforms in ever greater degree to God’s will (chapter 6,verse 1 through chapter 8, verse 39).

After a three-chapter interlude in which he speaks of God’s righteousness in dealing with Israel (chapter 9, verse 1 through chapter 11, verse 36), the apostle addresses specific situations in the faith-lives of the Romans. Included among these is a request for their support in sharing the good news of God’s righteousness with those in the West who still need to hear that saving message.

Outline

I. Introduction of the letter (chapter 1, verses 1-15)

A. Greetings and personal introduction (chapter 1, verses 1-7)

B. Paul’s thankfulness for the faith of his readers (chapter 1, verses 8-10)

C. Paul’s motive for wanting to visit the Roman Christians (chapter 1, verses 11-15)

II. Theme: righteousness from God (chapter 1, Verses 16 and 17)

III. The unrighteousness of all people (chapter 1, verse 18 through chapter 3, verse 20)

A. Gentiles (chapter 1, verses 18-32)

B. Moralists (chapter 2, verses 1-16)

C. Jews (chapter 2, verse 17 through chapter 3, verse 9)

D. Summary: all people (chapter 3, verses 10-20)

IV. Righteousness credited: justification (chapter 3, verse 21 through chapter 5, verse 21)

A. Righteousness through Christ by faith (chapter 3, verse 21 through chapter 4, verse 25)

1. God’s justice demonstrated (chapter 3, verses 21-26)

2. Faith established (chapter 3, verses 27-31)

3. Faith illustrated (chapter 4, verses 1-25)

B. The effects of justification (chapter 5, verses 1-11)

C. Summary: Man’s unrighteousness contrasted with God’s gift of righteousness (chapter 5, verses 12-21)

V. Righteousness in Christian living: sanctification (chapter 6, verse 1 through chapter 8, verse 39)

A. Freedom from the clutches of sin (chapter 6, verses 1-23)

B. Freedom from domination by the law (chapter 7, verses 1-25)

C. Freedom from the fear of death (chapter 8, verses 1-39)

VI. God’s righteousness in dealing with Israel (chapter 9, verse 1 through chapter 11, verse 36)

A. God’s free choice (chapter 9, verses 1-29)

B. Israel’s unbelief (chapter 9, verse 30 through chapter 11, verse 10)

C. God’s grace to Gentiles (chapter 11, verses 11-24)

D. The “mystery” of God’s plan revealed (chapter 11, verses 25-36)

VII. Righteousness practiced (chapter 12, verse 1 through chapter 15, verse 13)

A. Use of gifts and talents (chapter 12, verses 1-21)

B. Obedience to authorities (chapter 13, verses 1-14)

C. Consideration for the weak (chapter 14, verse 1 through chapter 15, verse 13)

VIII. Righteousness shared: nurture and outreach (chapter 15, verses 14-33)

IX. Conclusion (chapter 16, verses 1-27)

A. Commendation and greetings (chapter 16, verses 1-16)

B. Warning against false teachers (chapter 16, verses 17-19)

C. Concluding greetings and doxology (chapter 16, verses 20-27)

Continuing significance

If a person were to settle on one specific reason for Paul’s writing this letter, it might seem that preparing the Romans to be the base of support for future mission work ranked high in Paul’s thinking. To be sure, if the Romans were to anchor the new wave of gospel outreach to the West, then they themselves would need to be firmly grounded in the basic truths of justification and sanctification.

But with the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, we can safely say that God saw fit to serve a larger readership with this letter than just its original recipients in Rome. In his wisdom God has provided and preserved a letter that has edified its readers for nearly two thousand years now. And it will continue to serve as long as there are sinners in need of its message of law and gospel. All of Scripture is useful and profitable to the Last Day, of course, but it is perhaps not an overstatement to say that nothing is more so than Romans. Luther expressed that same evaluation in the preface to his translation of Romans:

This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. We can never read it or ponder over it too much; for the more we deal with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes. (Luther’s Works, American Edition, Volume 35, page 365)

With the prayer that the letter may become ever more precious to the reader, we offer the following commentary on Paul’s masterful epistle.