It is Monday and the beginning of a new week in our reading thru the New Testament in a year. First of all, congratulations, we have now finished reading the Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke - and the book of Acts. It might seem small to only have 4 out of the 27 New Testament books read, but we’re almost halfway through the total readings. After five and a half months, we begin with the Epistles, and first is the book of Romans. This morning’s reading is short, but there’s a lot to understand as we begin the Epistles. For this morning, read Romans 1:1-16, and come back so we can get some tools for reading the letters.
First, let’s learn a little bit more about the Epistles, or letters of Paul and the other Apostles.
Paul wrote 13 (possibly 14) of the New Testament Epistles. If you ask, “what is an Epistle?” The answer is that an Epistle was a formal letter written to either a specific church, a wide audience of churches, or specific individuals. Paul’s letters occupy the center of the New Testament beginning in Romans and ending in Philemon. They are not organized by chronology - meaning by when they were written - but by size and content. Romans is the longest and considered to be the most important of the letters Paul wrote. 1 & 2 Corinthians are also large, and then letters to churches follow - Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and two letters to the church in Thessalonica. Then Paul’s letters to individuals follow - Two letters to Timothy, one to Titus, and lastly to a man named Onesimus, about a man named Philemon. There are many New Testament scholars who believe Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews, but since there is no author identification in that letter, it’s not conclusive that he did. We can be fairly positive that these 13 Epistles that follow are all Pauline letters.
The rest of the Epistles are mostly written to wide areas of regional churches: Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1 John, Jude. 2 & 3 John are more specific to individuals. Many of the Epistles were written as “circular” letters - that is, they were sent to an individual church but meant to be passed along to other churches in the same region. An example of that is in Colossians 4:16, where Paul instructs the church at the end of the letter: “After this letter has been read to you, see to it that it also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you, in turn, read the letter from Laodicea.” Not only did Paul want them to pass the letter along, but also to read a letter he sent to Laodicea - which we have no record of.
To read the Epistles or Letters is much different than reading the Narratives, or the Stories we have been reading in the Gospel and Acts. The Epistles are written in Classical Greek style where the author first greets the audience receiving it. The greeting is usually short but serves as an introduction of the writer to the church audience. It is then followed by the body of the letter, which is lengthy and contains the overall purpose for why the letter is written. It quite often is purposed according to the need of the church. The letters end with closings that either give details on who is with Paul, where he is and often contain final blessings he conveys to the Church or people.
Romans as a letter is a long theological exposition (treatise) of the Gospel, and its application to the Church. Paul had never met the Romans, but planned on going to them at some point and wanted to explain to them what the message of the Gospel was that he was proclaiming. The body of the letter is filled with profound theological truths, i.e., truths that explain various aspects of the Gospel’s teachings. As Paul writes Romans he sometimes can be quite technical and specific in detail, but as in all of his letters, he gives practical applications that flow from the theological truths. Paul’s use of “I” in his letters indicates that these are things he has received from God by revelation and what he conveys to the Church, therefore, has Apostolic authority in both faith and practice.
A quick note about reading the Epistles differently than reading the Narratives. While Jesus’ words or stories told, are not without their purpose and authority in teaching, it is the Epistles that define, or interpret what Jesus proclaimed. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Epistles fully define the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, they often are meant to both clarify what the message of the Gospel was, as well as what it was not. To that end, Paul’s letters often are written to counter some false teaching that has arisen in the church - an example is his letter to the Galatians. This is why the letters don’t always come across as cozy and quaint - but strong and straightforward.
The Epistles are letters that are meant to convey truth and therefore are often "Prescriptive" rather than "descriptive". In other words, Paul often says, “because this is truth, you must, or need to do this, or that.” The letters prescribe truth to the Church in order to demonstrate correct belief, as well as behavior, or values, or moral actions in the church and in society’s everyday life.
In the end, all of these New Testament Epistles are centered on Jesus Christ, as the Son of God, who is both Savior and Lord of the Church, his body, his bride. He is King of the Kingdom of God, and his rule extends to the Church and every believer who makes up the church. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that is directing and guiding the life of the true believer, and that life is transformational and empowering. We are embarking on a journey of reading - without question - the most important letters we will ever receive in our life.
Introducing the book of Romans:
Romans is called Paul’s “Magnum Opus” - his Greatest work. It was written by Paul during his three-month stay in Corinth, on his third, and final, missionary journey (Acts 20:3-4). In Romans 15:14-33, Paul gives quite of bit information about where his ministry has come from, and where he hoped it would go to,(read it if you have time). He talked of “having fully proclaimed the Gospel from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum” (15:19). In other words, Paul had started in Jerusalem and gone all the way to the furthest northern border of Greece (Illyricum), and now his desire was to go to the other end of the Mediterranean, to Spain, (Rom. 15:24). He wrote to the church in Rome that he first must carry the gift he has for the church in Jerusalem to them before he can travel to Rome, and beyond. Of course, we know that his plans to travel to Rome would not happen the way he thought or hoped it would. He was arrested in Jerusalem, and as we have just finished reading, he lived for several years under Roman custody. He eventually made it to Rome, just not the way he thought he would.
The beginning of the Epistle is his greeting and introduction of himself. Paul had never been to Rome or been involved in the church of Rome’s beginning. Most likely, the church in Rome began after believers returned to Rome from the day of Pentecost and the proclamation of the Gospel and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit occurred (Acts 2:8,10-11). The Roman Catholic Church insists the Roman church began with Peter, but Peter had no contact with Rome until his old age when he also was arrested and martyred in Rome under Nero.
Paul introduces himself to them (1:1), first as a “servant of Christ Jesus” - from the Greek word “doulos”, a household slave. He says that it was Christ Jesus who called him to be an Apostle - again, from “Apostolos”, a messenger. His role is as a servant, and his calling was what “set him apart” to a life’s work of proclaiming the Gospel message.
The Gospel (vs 1) is about Jesus, the Son of God, and the message of the Gospel came from God - “...set apart for the Gospel of God” (vs 1). The Gospel is “good news”, but it is not “Good news” that Paul thought up, or anyone else thought up. The Gospel as a message is not a what, but a Who! God is the author of the Gospel, and Jesus is the substance of the Gospel message. It is not a message of law, works, or directions on how to come to God by religion, but rather it is a message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and how God brings salvation in and through Christ Jesus to all who put their trust in him.
Paul makes it clear, the Gospel didn’t arise from nothing but was heralded and predicted in the Prophets who heard God proclaim that a King would arise from King David’s royal line (vss 2-3). Paul says this message was “...regarding his Son, as to his earthly life, was a descendant of David.” Paul adds that further proof that Jesus was God's son is seen in his holy life, his death, and resurrection (vs 4). Finally, Paul adds, Jesus is the one who gave Paul grace and his calling as a messenger (apostleship) to the Gentiles (1:5), which now is why Paul is writing to them (1:6).
It might seem odd to us to read after all of that, a benediction or blessing (vs 7), but that is also standard in many letters of that period of time. Who are these people Paul is writing to in Rome? Paul, while writing to these believers in Rome, is timelessly also writing these truths to us too: “(we) are loved by God, and called to be his holy people (saints)...a people who have received Grace and Peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7).
The personal greeting aside, Paul now explains that his desire is to visit them - hence the justification for writing this letter to them. Their faith (1:8), and the message of the Gospel (1:9), as well as his prayers (1:10), are the reasons he wants to visit them (1:11-12). He was wintering in Corinth but wanted to get to Jerusalem in time for Passover and Pentecost, and then travel to Rome, in order to eventually go to Spain. He “longs to see them” and says “I (hope) to be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” While Romans may be filled with deep theological truths...wonderful in their message to all saints down through the ages...we would be remiss if we didn’t realize this is a personal letter from Paul, the Apostle, to a people he wants to longs to meet face to face. His visit to them was for “mutual encouragement”. He saw them as partners with him in his apostolic mission to carry the Gospel to the rest of the world.
Now Paul begins to lay out his purposes in traveling with the Gospel message. Paul is “obligated to both the Greeks and the non-Greeks” (vs 14) to carry the Gospel’s message, to “the wise and the foolish”, even to those in Rome, (vs 15).
WHY? Why is Paul so committed to the message of the Gospel?
His answer has changed the hearts of millions of people, including great men like Augustine, Luther, and Wesley. The message of the Gospel is summarized and detailed in 1:16-17, and explains why Paul is so committed to sharing the Gospel with them:
“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 Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (ESV).
The Gospel is a message that we, as Paul also, are not ashamed of, even though it offends many, and confuses others. The message is what Paul will write about to these Christian believers in Rome. He will lay it all out - the ugly, the bad, the good news, and how it leads some to faith and eternal life, while it condemns others. The Gospel is powerful in its proclamation. Anyone who turns to Jesus Christ to believe in him receives “salvation”. It is not a message of “how to get to heaven”, but a message of Christ Jesus who IS the way to heaven.