Romans – Part One and Two (Chapter 1, Verses 1-17)

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PART ONE

Introduction of the Letter

(Romans chapter 1, verses 1-15)

Greetings and personal introduction

Romans chapter 1, verses 1-7
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Commentary

In ancient times the standard form used for beginning a letter differed somewhat from what we’re accustomed to. We place the author’s signature at the end of the letter; the ancients put it up front. The letter to the Romans opens with the first word of the first verse identifying Paul as the author.

A second item always stated up front in ancient letters was an indication of whom the letter was intended for. That comes in verse 7 of Paul’s letter, where the recipients are identified as “all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.”

The third standard item in every ancient letter was a greeting. Here in Romans the greeting, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ,” is very similar to the phrase that opens virtually all of Paul’s New Testament letters.

What is unusual about the letter to the Romans is the extensive treatment given the first item, namely, the author describing himself and his message. That description occupies verses 1 to 5. In it Paul calls himself “a servant of Christ Jesus.” Literally, he says he is a slave, a person who doesn’t follow his own will but who takes orders. Paul was in the service of Christ Jesus. His particular task had been shaped by his having been “called to be an apostle.” An apostle, by definition, is one who has been sent out. Paul was “called to be an apostle.” On his own he never would have chosen to be one. Recall that formerly he was Saul, the great persecutor of Christians. This Saul was so opposed to Christians that he not only persecuted Christians in Jerusalem, but he even went out looking for them in the outlying areas. In the course of Saul’s trip to Damascus to arrest Christians there, Jesus met Saul on the road, struck him blind, and brusquely confronted him with the stern rebuke, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts chapter 9, verse 4).

Paul did not choose to become a Christian. Rather, God called him and “set [him] apart for the gospel” (chapter 1, verse 1). When Ananias, the pious Christian whom the Lord sent to minister to Paul in his blindness, objected to going near this flagrant persecutor, God told him, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts chapter 9, verse 15). Paul truly was chosen by God and set apart for the gospel.

Mention of the gospel sets Paul off in a different direction, moving from the description of himself to an extended description of the gospel of which he is a privileged servant and apostle.

He describes this message as “the gospel he [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (chapter 1, verses 2 through 4).

When Paul calls himself God’s “servant,” he is using a term that was a standard description for Old Testament prophets (Ezra chapter 9, verse 10 and 11; Jeremiah chapter 7, verse 25; Daniel chapter 9, verse 6; Amos chapter 3, verse 7). And it is with good reason that Paul identifies himself with God’s Old Testament servants, the prophets. The gospel he is preaching is really the same message they already had proclaimed. They had pointed to the Messiah, the promised Christ, who was to come into the world as Savior and Redeemer. Paul’s gospel message proclaims and extols that same Christ, who now has come. Paul can claim that his gospel is one that God proclaimed “beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son” (chapter 1, verse 2 and 3). Paul tells the Romans at the outset of his letter that he really is saying nothing new. His message is in line with what God’s servants, the prophets, had foretold.

And what was that message? At its core it is the claim that true God and true man are united in one and the same person in Christ. Paul expresses that truth in a set of parallel expressions (verses 3 and 4). That parallel, however, is better reflected in the rendering the NIV translators have put into their footnote than in what they have chosen for the text. The footnote reads “who as to his spirit” of holiness rather than their first choice, “who through the Spirit of holiness.”

Note the difference. In the footnote spirit is lowercased and refers to Christ’s “spirit of holiness,” in distinction to the uppercase Spirit, which would refer to the Holy Spirit. Literally, Paul says that his gospel is a message about God’s Son:

who, in relation to his flesh, was born of the seed of David
and
who, in relation to his spirit of holiness, was declared to be the Son of God.

He became true man, the seed of David, when he was born of Mary, but from eternity he always was true God. He didn’t become the Son of God; rather, he was declared, he was powerfully shown as such by his resurrection.

Of the many miracles the God-man did while here on earth, the crowning miracle was his resurrection after he had died as our substitute. His perfect life earned righteousness for us. His innocent death paid for our many sins and misdeeds. The Father’s raising him from the dead proves that he is indeed the Savior, totally acceptable to his heavenly Father.

Paul calls this God-man “Jesus Christ our Lord.” We have come to understand that combination as a simple title, which is all well and good, but in a greater sense, every word of that four-word expression is individually significant. The name Jesus means “Savior” and was given to the Son of Mary born in Bethlehem. Christ means “the Anointed One,” the Messiah, God’s Son, who deigned to take on human flesh so that he could die as the sinner’s substitute. In so doing he redeemed sinners—he bought them back—at the price of his lifeblood so that they are now his. He is their owner, their lord and master. But the key word that personalizes the whole expression is the possessive adjective our. By faith we receive all the benefits he came to bring. By faith he is our Lord, as he was Paul’s Lord. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Paul had come to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord, and he now proclaims Christ as the heart of the gospel message that he is about to share with his Roman readers.

Paul calls this God-man “Jesus Christ our Lord.” We have come to understand that combination as a simple title, which is all well and good, but in a greater sense, every word of that four-word expression is individually significant. The name Jesus means “Savior” and was given to the Son of Mary born in Bethlehem. Christ means “the Anointed One,” the Messiah, God’s Son, who deigned to take on human flesh so that he could die as the sinner’s substitute. In so doing he redeemed sinners—he bought them back—at the price of his lifeblood so that they are now his. He is their owner, their lord and master. But the key word that personalizes the whole expression is the possessive adjective our. By faith we receive all the benefits he came to bring. By faith he is our Lord, as he was Paul’s Lord. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Paul had come to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord, and he now proclaims Christ as the heart of the gospel message that he is about to share with his Roman readers.

The recipients of Paul’s letter are “all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (verse 7). Although Paul has not been to Rome, as he will be informing us shortly (chapter 1, verse 13), he does know a considerable number of people in Rome. In the closing chapter of this letter, he will be sending personal greetings to some two dozen people. The real bond between them, however, is that, like Paul, they are loved by God, who has called them to be saints. As Paul uses the term, saints are people who are holy by faith in Christ Jesus. Call them believers, if you will.

On the basis of their common faith in Christ, Paul can extend the following greeting: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 7). “Grace” was the common greeting in the Greek speaking world. “Peace” (Shalom) was, and is, the standard greeting in the Jewish world. Since this letter was written to an ethnically mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles, both of these greetings are appropriate. Coming from Paul’s pen, however, these two terms are far more than just a commonplace secular greeting. In Paul’s Christian vocabulary, grace is the quality that makes God willing, even eager, to give good gifts to believers. And God’s gifts—such as forgiveness of sins, a good conscience, and the certainty of heaven—bring peace to those who are the objects of God’s grace. Thus grace and peace go together as cause and effect.

Romans chapter 1, verses 8-10
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.

Commentary

We have noted the standard form Paul uses to open his letters. Another feature that is standard with Paul’s letters is the “laudatory” sentence he includes as the second paragraph of virtually every letter. In that sentence Paul regularly commends the faith and spiritual growth of his readers. (For examples of laudatory sentences in other letters of Paul, see 1 Corinthians chapter 1, verse 4; Ephesians chapter 1, verse 3; Philippians chapter 1, verse 3; 1 Thessalonians chapter 1, verse 2; 2 Thessalonians chapter 1, verse 3.)

Here Paul thanks God for the growth and maturity in faith that have become evident in the lives of the Roman Christians. In fact, so prominent is their faith that Paul can say it is “being reported all over the world.” With this hyperbole, or intentional overstatement, Paul calls attention to the significant growth in the Romans’ faith-life, and thanks God for them, as he does regularly. Paul asserts that he “constantly” remembers them in his prayer “at all times.”

What catches our attention, however, is the strength of Paul’s assertion. He calls on God as a witness to the fact that he has thought of the Romans regularly. Also of note is the careful wording he uses when he says, “and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.”

Recall that this letter is being written from Corinth. As Paul indicates in his second epistle to the Corinthians, written shortly before this letter to the Romans, it had been necessary for him to clear up a major misunderstanding with the Corinthians. A change in Paul’s travel plans had resulted in his not coming to them as early or as often as they were expecting—and the Corinthians took offense at this! Paul doesn’t want to let a similar misunderstanding arise in his dealings with the Romans. That he has not yet come to visit them is not because of a lack of interest on his part. Under oath Paul assures them that he remembers them constantly and prays that “now at last by God’s will the way may be opened” for him to come to them. Paul will return to this thought shortly (chapter 1, verse 13), but first he explains his reasons for wanting to come to them.

Paul’s motive for wanting to visit the Roman Christians

Romans chapter 1, verses 11-15
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.

Commentary

Paul has absolutely the noblest of motives for wanting to come to Rome and visit the Roman Christians. He wants to come so that he may impart “some spiritual gift” to them for the strengthening of their faith. Faith grows through the use of the means of grace, and it is these means that Paul intends to share with them. But at this point there’s an intriguing break in Paul’s sentence. After telling them that he longs to see them so that he might strengthen them, he adjusts his line of thought to head off a misunderstanding that might arise in the minds of his readers, namely that the upcoming visit will be a one-way street with Paul dispensing all the good things. Actually, Paul envisions the visit as a two-way street. He will be strengthened too. He’s coming so that the Roman Christians and he himself “may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” Their faith will strengthen him! Paul’s laudatory sentences in verses 8 through 10 weren’t just a formality. He really does treasure the faith of his fellow believers. A moment’s reflection will reveal an engaging picture here: Paul, the great missionary, being strengthened and encouraged by the faith of the people to whom he’s ministering. But there’s a lesson here too. We all might learn to treasure more fully the fellowship of the believers the Lord lets us associate with.

In line with his previously expressed concern for the Romans, Paul now returns once more to the matter of his not having visited them previously. The double negative he uses actually becomes a strong positive: “I do not want you to be unaware [meaning: I want you to be very sure] . . . that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now).”

No doubt many things might have kept Paul from going to Rome earlier. He himself identifies the major cause later in the letter (chapter 15, verses 19-22) when he tells us that unfinished mission work in the Eastern Mediterranean region (“from Jerusalem . . . to Illyricum”) was the main reason for his not being able to go earlier. Now, however, that work is finished, and he can go to Rome “in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles” (verse 13).

We noted in the introduction to Romans that the Christian church (or churches) in Rome was a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles. Although a small number of Jews, well versed in the Old Testament Scriptures, might have provided much of the leadership, the majority of the Roman Christians was most likely of gentile background. Hence Paul can say that he is looking forward to having a gospel “harvest” among them just as he had among the other Gentiles.

Paul, however, did not feel restricted in the scope of his ministry. Although primarily a missionary to the Gentiles, Paul never hesitated to go first to the Jewish synagogue when he came to a new mission field. Paul alludes to the broad scope of ministry when he says, “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.”

PART TWO

Theme of the Letter: Righteousness from God

Romans chapter 1, verses 16 and 17
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Commentary

Although the text of Romans is inspired by God, the chapter and verse divisions are not. Division into chapters seems to date back to the 12th century, while numbered verses did not appear until the 16th century, when printed editions of the Bible became common. The point is that Paul did not intend for a division between what we have come to designate as verses 15 and 16. In fact, in the Greek text, verses 15 through 21 are all connected with causal conjunctions such as our because, since, and for. These causal conjunctions regularly connect a key concept from the preceding statement with a following reason or rationale.

Therefore, verse 16 provides the rationale for what was said in verse 15. There Paul said, “I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.” Verse 16 adds the reason: because “I am not ashamed of the gospel.”

Being ashamed of the gospel would imply that Paul was hesitant about proclaiming it, that he was afraid of making claims and promises from it that might go unfulfilled. If such unreliability was the case, when all is said and done, Paul would end up embarrassed and discredited for making false claims and promises that he couldn’t keep.

But Paul isn’t hesitant at all about proclaiming the gospel, because “it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” When Paul calls the gospel a power, he uses the Greek word dynamis, a basis for the English word dynamite. The gospel has that kind of power not because it originated with Paul—remember, he’s just a “servant” (chapter 1, verse 1)—but because it is the power of God. It brings the greatest possible blessing, eternal salvation. Even more amazing, that salvation is for everyone.

When Paul says the gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (verse 16), he is not limiting the power of the gospel, as though salvation were intended only for some and not for others. When he speaks of the salvation “of everyone who believes,” he’s talking about the how of salvation, not the who. Paul will be saying more about this shortly.

In verse 14 Paul had indicated that as a gospel preacher, he was obligated “both to Greeks and non-Greeks,” in other words, to everyone. Here in verse 16 he uses a slightly different designation in speaking of the universal scope of the gospel. The gospel is the power of God for everyone, “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”

Historically and chronologically, one could make a case for the priority of the Jewish nation in God’s plan of salvation. God chose Abraham from all the families of the earth and made of him a special nation from whom the Savior was born. Jesus’ earthly ministry was largely limited to his Jewish compatriots, as he explained to the Canaanite woman (Matthew chapter 15, verse 24). To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, Jesus said, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John chapter 4, verse 22). One could therefore say that God’s plan of salvation was “first for the Jew.”

But salvation was never intended only for the Jewish nation. Inclusion of Gentiles was always in God’s plan (Isaiah chapter 60, verses 1 through 9; Acts chapter 15, verses 13 through 18). Wholesale conversion of Gentiles, however, did not happen until the arrival of the New Testament Christian church and the apostles’ carrying out Christ’s commission to preach the gospel to all nations (Mark chapter 16, verse 15). The gospel was “first for the Jew,” but then also “for the Gentile.” The same gospel works for all.

Why can it work for all? Because “in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (chapter 1, verse 17).

In the original Greek, the expression translated “a righteousness from God” has simply the possessive form of God. It might therefore be translated “God’s righteousness.” But that translation is ambiguous. It could allow for two meanings: the righteousness God has whereby he himself is holy, or the righteousness he demands from every person. It was this second understanding of God’s righteousness that caused Luther so much trouble early in his life. He became angry with God for demanding a righteousness that even the best human effort could not provide.

Only when Luther learned another meaning of “God’s righteousness” did his troubled soul find peace. That other meaning is the righteousness that God gives. The NIV is interpretive but correct when it translates the phrase as “a righteousness from God.”

The gospel can bring salvation for everybody who believes because God is the one providing the righteousness everybody needs. Sinful human beings produce nothing useful. God in Christ has done it all! By his perfect life as the sinner’s substitute, Christ earned the righteousness that all people owe to a just and holy God. By his innocent death on the cross, Christ paid for the many things we and a world of sinners have done wrong.

In the gospel God now invites the sinner to accept Christ’s righteousness as his own. And when sinners in faith accept Christ’s merit, God looks at them as though they were just and holy. God declares the sinner innocent of all wrongdoing. It’s like a judge in a courtroom pardoning a convicted offender. This marvelous exchange whereby Christ takes our sin on himself and gives us his righteousness is called justification. As Paul tells us, this way of receiving righteousness from God is “by faith from first to last.” It’s purely by grace, without any merit on the sinner’s part. The prophet Habakkuk indicated this already centuries earlier when he said, “The righteous will live by his faith” (chapter 2, verse 4).