Why Romans? - Romans 1:1-17
Well as we start this new series, I want to tell you about a church. A church that has been highly blessed by God; blessed financially but in lots of other ways too, not least spiritually. A church that has experienced [some] growth and has huge opportunities for mission and evangelism on its doorstep. A church that has a superficial unity, but below the surface is deeply divided. Deeply divided by the different people groups that make up the church. And, in particular, deeply divided between those who’d been around longer and those who’d joined the church more recently. But divided about the leadership too. Because, in this church there’d been a transition of leadership and some of the more established members were not happy with the new leadership. Some were unhappy with the new leader’s style; others disagreed with his theology; some of those differences were over secondary matters; but other differences went to the heart of the Gospel. A portrait then of a blessed, but divided church.
And of course, I’m talking about the church in Rome. So, if you’re not already there, turn back with me if you would to Rom 1 on p[ 1047/ 1746].
Whether you’ve been a Christian for many years or only recently come to faith, I hope that the book of Romans is one of your favourite parts of Scripture. Because Romans is full of individual verses that sum up the heart of the Gospel. Verses like 3:23-24
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Verse that are so good, they’re worth memorising and calling to mind every day. But that’s what Romans remains for many Christians. A treasurer chest of key verses, or a doctrinal reference book. But if we look at chapter 1, then we immediately notice that it’s a letter.
When we write a letter, we follow the standard format our day don’t we. We start off by addressing the person we’re writing to: “Dear Mrs Smith”; we often start with some thanks, “thank you for your letter of whenever”, or “thanks for the chocolate or whatever”. And we finish our letters by saying who the letter’s from: yours sincerely, Malcolm Peters.
And in these first 17 verse of Romans, Paul’s following the standard letter format of his day. He starts in v1 by saying who the letter’s from, Paul. Then in v7, he states who he’s writing to: the Christians in Rome; and then in v8-10, we have a section of thanksgiving and prayers.
And just in case we were in any doubt, at the end of the ltr in chapter 16, as we saw in our second reading, Paul signs off his ltr by listing over 30 people he wishes to send personal greeting to. Not a theological textbook; but a personal ltr written by a real person, to other real people, at a particular time and place for a specific reason. And the letter to the Romans is going to make much more sense to us if we’ve got some idea of that background. And so my prayer for this series is that we won’t be filling our heads with a load of dry theology. No; my prayer is that as we see the connections and similarities between their situation and ours, we’ll hear the Lord speaking to us powerfully and practically. Because if we really get to grips with the letter to the Romans, then it will affect the way we lives our lives day by day, even hour by hour.
And that’s why in these opening verses, were going to focus on who was writing to who, and why?
What was Paul?
So first of all then, who wrote this letter? Who was Paul? Well look with me at v1:
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God”
Literally it’s a slave of CJ; Paul was ‘called’ and set apart for some special purpose. When God calls us to do something, he doesn’t just leave us to get on with it, he equips us to do the job he’s got in mind. As Christians, the NT constantly reminds us that we’re no longer our own; we were bought at a price; and so if we’re Christians, then we’re all slaves of J; ready to do his will.
But Paul was more than just an ordinary Christian; yes he was J's slave like all Christians, but he was called to be an Apostle and set apart in a special way for the Gospel of God. And Paul was no ordinary apostle either; because alone of all the other Apostles, Paul was specially commissioned to be the Apostle to the Gentiles; to the non-Jews that is.
And in line with that calling and specific prophetic commission, Paul had always had a passion to preach Gospel in Rome.
But sometimes God’s ways are not our ways. Before Paul was even converted, there were Christians in Rome. They still went to their synagogues, but probably started up Christian HBGs, which became house churches. Although these houses churches were mainly Jewish, some gentiles were converted and joined them as well.
But among the Jewish community, the message of Jesus proved to be divisive. Many Jews rejected their Messiah and this led to civil unrest. In fact the uproar got so bad, that in the year 49, the Emperor Claudius chucked all the Jews out of Rome. The Christian Jews and the non-Christian Jews. I’m not having you wreaking the civil stability of my capital city with your stupid religious arguments. Get out all of you.
And so the church in Rome lost those who’d been Christians for longest; it lost those who knew their Bibles best; it lost its leaders and key members. Maybe they’d lost one of their key pianist and certainly the Sunday School had been depleted. All that was left were the young Gentiles Christians who were known associates of those who’d caused a civil disturbance and been expelled from the Imperial City.
Imagine how weak the church was. How timid it must have been in continuing to proclaim the Gospel. But the church did continue to grow. But, now it was entirely Gentile; no Jews in town remember. For 5 years, the church in Rome was 100% gentile and so it had to grow new leaders; new house churches. But then after 5 years, Claudius died and his successor allowed the Jews to return. And so back came all the Jewish Christians who thought they could carry on where they’d left off; they were the church leaders right? Wrong; so what happened? Fireworks. Fireworks made worse by the endemic culture of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia in Roman culture. Even though the new Emperor has allowed the Jews back, popular Roman culture was deeply anti-Semitic: you know the jokes about pork sausages and all that. And it wasn’t just the Jews: the culturally sophisticated Romans looked down on what they called the Barbarians – which the NIV tones down to ‘non-Greeks’ in v14: those from outside the Roman empire who spoke in guttural languages: the Germans in other words: uncouth unsophisticated barbarians. And these anti-Semitic racist attitudes affected the church. And so when the Jews returned and the fireworks went off, there was deep division.
This ltr was written 3 years after the Jews came back. But what you notice from that long list of house churches in Rom 16, was that all those churches were either Gentile or Jewish. In other words, in Rome, there was a form of Christian apartheid. If you were Jewish you went to one of these churches. And if you were civilised Roman or Greek Gentile, then you went to one of those. And if you were German, then forget it. We’re not bothered with the scum of the earth like you.
And Paul remember was a Jew. So he’d been banished from Rome as well. But ever since the Jews had been allowed back, Paul’d been desperate to visit Rome. As he puts in v13:
13I 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)
And back in v11, he says that he’d been longing to see them. He hadn’t planted the church in Rome and he’d never visited them. And yet in an age long before, phones, e-mails and text messages, we know from that long list of personal greeting in chapter 16, that Paul knew all about the Christians in Rome - personally; more than 30 people are personally named and many of them represent mini-house churches.
And so back in chapter 1:9, when he says he constantly remembers them in his prayers at all times, he’s not exaggerating; and he’s not just praying ‘God bless America’ kind of prayers; you know the sort, when we pray for God to bless Mrs Smith, Mr Jones and Aunt flow. No Paul knew the Romans Christians intimately even though he’d never met them. And he prayed for them by name. He knew that Mrs Smith's husband died of cancer. He knew that Mr Jones' kids had fallen away from the Lord. And he knew that Aunt Flow was struggling in her faith and that noone at work knew she was a Christian. And most importantly he knew about the problems and spiritual condition of the church on Rome.
In v7, he addresses the letter not to the church in Rome as usually did; you know like to the church of God in Corinth or Ephesus and so on. No he writes to all in Rome who are loved by God. It’s a subtle way of saying that he know all about the splits and divisions. He knows they’re not a united church but rather a disparate collection of separate house churches. He knows that there are deep theological and pastoral issues among these Romans Christians. That’s why in v11, he longs to visit them; to impart some spiritual gift to them; to teach them, train them, and if necessary to rebuke them. Again, it’s a pastorally sensitive way of reminding them that he knows about their issues.
And yet despite all that, he opens in v8 with a note of praise and thanksgiving. Despite all their problems, Paul thanks God because the Romans’ faith is being reported all over the world. All roads lead to Rome remember; because Rome was the centre of the universe in those days. And so people from all over the Empire were bumping into Christians in Rome. And some of them were becoming Christians and taking the Gospel back to the far corners of the earth.
And Paul’s pastoral sensitivity and humility becomes ever clearer in v11-12:
11I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith.
Notice in vc12, there’s 3 separate expressions of mutuality: you and I; mutually encouraged; each other’s faith.
Yes Paul is the great Apostle to the Gentiles; yes he needs to teach and pastor them and this might include some tough actions. But he expects that his faith would be built up as he spends time with them and ministers to them.
When I was visiting Glenys, I used to read her parts of this letter and pray with her, and one of my key aims was to strengthen her in the faith so she could face death with absolute confidence and assurance of her place in heaven. But as I was driving home from those visits, despite the sadness of watching a friend slowly die, my heart was usually singing and praising God because of what Glenys had said to me. Because of how she’d been coping and praising the Lord despite all she was going though.
So as I’ve been preparing this sermon, I’ve been deeply challenged by Paul. Paul the great apostle who was commissioned to travel the world on a mission to the Gentiles. The Paul who’s writings made up the majority of the NT; the Paul whose prayer list contains dozens and dozens of people, and families and churches that he knew intimately; the Paul who has didn’t shrink from the theological and pastoral issues that needed addressing. But the Paul whose understanding of the Gospel, gave him a deep humility in his dealings with people.
What a model for me as a pastor. But it’s not just for pastors. If you’ve come to know the power of the Gospel in your life, the power of sins forgiven that is, then let me encourage to you imitate Paul; to imitate his passion for truth, growth & maturity; but a passion for people that works for a unity in the truth and is rooted in the humility of the Gospel.
Who was written to?
So that was Paul. And the second big issue we’re focusing on this morning is this: who was Paul writing to. And in a sense we’re already covered that as we’ve looked at Paul. He was writing to the Christians in Rome. Not a united church, but a disparate group of house churches. Churches that needed some theological and pastoral input from a gifted leader. But churches that were already blessed and known for getting the Gospel out.
And that’s why Paul wrote this letter. To prepare the church for his forthcoming visit. And perhaps the reason he wrote such a detailed letter was because of what we discovered in chapter 15; that he was only planning a fleeting visit. A short visit on his way to Spain. A new missionary venture that he hoped the Roman church would support him in. Support him in prayer and financially.
3. What was he writing about
Which brings us to the 3rd main heading. What was Paul writing about? What’s the main point of this long letter? Well come back with me to 1:1:
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God “
beginning to end, the letter to the Romans is all about the Gospel; the
Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in these opening verses,
Paul introduces the key elements of the Gospel he’s going to spend the
rest of the letter unpacking:
a. The gospel is about who Jesus is
b. The Gospel is about what Jesus achieved by his death on the cross
c. And the Gospel is about how we can benefit from what Jesus achieved.
So first of all then the Gospel is about who Jesus is. In v2, we learn that it’s not something that Paul made up in the bath. No, as we saw last term in our series in Malachi, the Gospel was promised beforehand through His prophets and in the rest of the OT. God promised to send a special descendent of David; the Messiah, the Christ; the king in David’s line. But as we leant in Malachi, the Lord also promised to visit His people in person. And what v3 &4 are saying is that these 2 promises come together in Jesus. Jesus was both fully God and full human as we sometimes say in the creed. In his human nature he was a descendent of David; the promised Messiah or Christ. But he was also God the Son. The second person of the eternal Trinity. Because there’s one God in three Persons: F, Son and HS. And God the Son came to earth by taking on frail human flesh; he became a baby. The baby in the manger. Fully God and fully human. That’s what Jesus claimed in word and deed all through the Gospels. But for those who rejected the claim, it was blasphemous. How can a mere man claim to be God?
Well lots of people throughout history have claimed to be god. The Pharaohs; the Roman Emperors; David Ike. But Jesus not only claimed to be God, but he said: kill me and 3 days later I’ll come back to life: and he did. As v4 puts reminds us: it was his resurrection from the dead that proves Jesus was who he really said he was. Not just the Messiah. But God himself. Fully God and fully human. Who was J: God in human flesh.
But secondly, what did Jesus achieve? Well a year in advance, there’s already a lot of stuff being written about Margaret Thatcher’s 20th anniversary of coming to power back in 1979. She’s now and old and frail lady; it’s 18 years since she left Downing Street. But, love her or hate her, the focus of attention is on what she achieved on those 11 years in Downing Street. When she eventually dies, there probably won’t be much written on the exact nature of her death and on what happened in her last week. And yet the Gospels of JC reserve about half their material for J's last week; their main focus is on J's death. On his death and subsequent resurrection as we’ve already seen in v4. And that’s the main focus of Romans too: the heart of the Gospel is on what J’s death achieved. Salvation . The salvation we read about in v16.
So what does Salvation mean? Well last summer on holiday, Daniel was making a bee-line for the open lake that was near our log cabin. So Bethan went off to save him by dragging him away from the lake. Unfortunately, Bethan’s salvation came at the cost of breaking Daniel’s arm, but that’s another story. But the point is, that for salvation to have any meaning, there must be something that we need to be saved from. Like drowning in a lake. And accordingly to both Paul and Jesus the danger we’re all facing is God’s wrath; God’s righteous punishment of our sins in hell. That’s what Jesus came to save people from: Hell.
And so thirdly, how can we benefit from that salvation Jesus died to achieve? Well look again at v16:
16I 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. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,[c] just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."[d]
And the key point is that the salvation Jesus achieved on the cross isn’t automatic. The true people of God, whether Jew or Gentile or any other type of person, are those who’ve come to believe in J; those who believe in who Jesus is and what His death achieved on the cross. People who aren't ashamed of the Gospel and truly believe it’s powerful to save them from God's wrath against them.
And that’s why Paul wrote this letter and that’s why we’re studying it this term: to make sure we were rock solid on the Gospel. The Gospel of a our Lord Jesus Christ; the gospel of sins forgiven through faith in J’s death for us on the cross. And when we’re crystal clear on the gospel, it solve many issues and problems in the church, and others are put into their proper perspective. Because as forgiven sinners at the foot of the cross, our petty differences and argument pale into insignificance. What does it matter whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile: rich & sophisticated or poor and struggling: we’re Christians together. What does it matter that one of us has been in the church for ages and another has just joined: if we both believe the Gospel, then we’re fellow Christians; brothers and sisters together in the Lord.
And so do you see how practical this ltr is going to be for us as we study it together. If we take onboard the message of the Gospel it contains, then it will bind us together in a sort if unnatural unity; and it will be unnatural, because it will be a Gospel unity; a unity created in our common salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.
16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; people like me and people like you. Amen.
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