First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you– that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:8-17 ESV)
This has been a hard section to write about because I wanted to try to avoid spending all of my time discussing the most common element in this early portion of Romans: verses 16-17, which state:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV)
For one thing, I really think that everything that can be said about this passage has already been said. Also, I don’t know that the parts of it that have been expounded are necessarily as important as what we have traditionally made them out to be. This is not to say that it isn’t important, but I think we put too much emphasis on this one section and ignore so many of the other gems of wisdom to be found here. On top of that, I do not think that this is necessarily Paul’s “theme” for his letter to the Roman Christians.
Because I think Paul has another, deeper, concern than simply to brag about the Gospel. His other letters seem more fit for that, especially when in them he speaks of his beatings and near-death experiences as a result of his proclamations of the supremacy and resurrection of Christ. You don’t see that so much in Romans.
I do think, though, that Paul’s “theme” is found in these verses, particularly this little, often overlooked statement,
[The gospel] is the power of God for salvation…to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (v. 16b)
When one reads through Romans, you see not just a declaration of what the Gospel is, but, more importantly, how it relates to people of differing ethnicities. Paul, in expounding the Gospel, is not merely showing his theological passion, but rather he is teaching how this new kingdom, inaugurated by the seating of Jesus at the Father’s right hand, is played out in the lives of non-Jews. He is also pointing out how a once primarily Jewish faith is now a faith also for the non-Jew and how the two groups are connected.
In other words, Paul is dispelling the idea that Gentiles are better than Jews or that God is done with ethnic Jews. In fact, as we will see later, in Christ, ethnicity is almost entirely redefined. But, like I said, that is for later.
Something else we notice in these opening paragraphs of this letter, and also as we look at Romans as a whole, is that Romans is not otherworldly. In fact, Romans, as with all of the other letters in the New Testament, follow the common formula of letter writing in Paul’s day. This doesn’t impact interpretation or anything, but it’s just an interesting little fact that is worth keeping in mind when we read the Bible.
The Bible is a very human work. Form and intent matter. One cannot ignore the type of literature of a certain book of the Bible to make a theological, practical, or political point, even though this is done every day by well-meaning armchair theologians and pundits.
One other thing to point out, and this is by far I think the most crucial in the current environment we find ourselves in:
So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (v. 15)
Paul is writing to Christians and yet he is eager to preach the Gospel to them? What gives? Why do Christians need to have the Gospel preached to them? Doesn’t being a Christian mean that they have already heard and accepted the Gospel?
For Paul, “the gospel” is not just a call to initial saving faith, but also a call to continue in a daily walk of faith.
Or so the ESV Study Bible says in regards to verse 15. And I tend to agree. It reminds me of a story I once heard about Martin Luther. One Sunday, as people were leaving and shaking his hands and receiving his blessing as they went out into the world, a parishioner said to him, “Every week I come to church and every week you preach the gospel. Why do you do that?”
Luther responded, “Because every week you forget it. Every Sunday you come in here, hear the gospel, repent of your sin, and go out that door and live like it has had no effect.”
When we look at the church in Rome, we see something of this dynamic playing out. Apparently, as we will see more in depth later, there were some internal struggles taking place in this primarily Gentile congregation between these Gentiles and the Jewish minority. There was probably something of an ego trip going on. Paul took on something similar with the Galatian church, although he dealt with it much more succinctly, when he said,
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 ESV)
The gospel frees, or should free us, from feeling like we are superior to others or believing that anyone is superior to anyone else for that matter. Just as, in Christ, we are all one, apart from Christ we are all equal as well. We’ll see just what that means next time.