Introduction to the Book of Romans

Introduction to the Book of Romans

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At the outset of Paul’s letter to the Romans we have a mixture of epistolary (letter) and rhetorical elements. Ancient letters would normally begin with the name of the addresser rather than the addressee, and then the name of the audience of the letter. In addition, there was normally a brief, perfunctory greeting, and possibly a brief health wish (i.e., “hope you are doing well”) followed by the main substance of the letter. Paul has modified this format to suit his rhetorical and theological purposes. It is an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the various openings of Paul’s letters not only with other ancient letters, but more particularly with Paul’s other letters. In fact, there are various things that are salient when one makes such a comparison, as we shall see.

Opening remarks are always important for understanding a crucial communication and this is certainly true when it comes to as complex a discourse as Romans. Here Paul will: (1) introduce himself to a largely new audience as both a servant and an apostle; (2) indicate who Jesus is both in the flesh and by the Spirit; (3) indicate he has been praying for them and intends to come to see them; (4) indicate what the essence of the gospel of God is; and (5) indicate the benefits of embracing such good news. All of this comes by way of preparation for Paul finally visiting Rome. This is something he has often longed to do, and even planned to do, but his plans heretofore had been thwarted. In a sense then, this discourse is the wake-up call to the audience that Paul is finally coming, and they need to get ready. Partly, Paul wants them to begin to prepare not merely to receive him, but as Romans 15:24 will make clear, to “have [them] assist [him] on [his] journey there.” This is a technical phrase, which means to provide material and monetary resources for his journey to his next mission field—Spain. While we know Paul got to Rome, we honestly do not know if he ever made it to Spain.

How Paul Introduces Himself

1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—2the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. 6And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
(Romans 1:1–7 NIV)

In the first place, Paul does not lead with the fact that he is an apostle, much less that he is this audience’s apostle. He leads with the affirmation that he is a servant of God. This term “servant” is, in fact, what the prophets of old were often called (see Jeremiah 44:4) and, of course, we have the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. The term, then, is not randomly chosen by Paul. Notice, as well, that Paul does not say, “I am your apostle.” While Paul was not famous for his subtlety, here he is being careful at the outset of the document so that he might establish good rapport with the audience—an audience he had not visited or converted and mostly did not know. Furthermore, verse 2 shows that Paul was thinking about the prophets here at the outset as he says that the “gospel [good news] of God” was promised beforehand through the prophets.

Usually Paul refers to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but here he refers to the gospel of God, and perhaps with good reason. Paul believes, as he will say in Romans 4, that the gospel was pre-preached to Abraham—the good news of how, if one trusted the true God, one’s faith could be reckoned as righteousness, or in other words, could give one right standing with God. But, of course, Paul also knew that Jesus, God’s Son, did not come on the human stage until “the time had fully come” (see Galatians 4:4). Hence, in Paul’s view it was God’s gospel, before it became more specifically the gospel about Jesus. The reason for stressing this is because Paul will go on to say that this good news was for the Jew first, long before it was for Gentiles like those in Rome.

Notice, as well, that Paul goes on to stress that Jesus was of Davidic descent, something that elsewhere in his letters he barely mentions. The emphasis is on the Jewishness of Jesus (see also Romans 9) for the very good reason that he must go on and argue in Romans 9–11 that God has not forsaken his first chosen people. This is perhaps what many anti-Semitic Gentiles might have assumed if they had swallowed the rhetoric of the emperor about the Romans now being the favored people of the gods.

Verse 4 is important and needs to be translated carefully as Paul does not think that Jesus became the Son of God at the resurrection. The proper translation of the Greek would be something like “indicated” or “vindicated” “the Son of God in power.” Paul clearly believes (see Galatians 4:4) that Jesus was God’s Son when he was born of a woman. Indeed, he believes Jesus was God’s Son from before the creation of the universe (see Philippians 2:5–11)! The resurrection, however, did two things: (1) it indicated and vindicated that Jesus was indeed the Son of God despite being crucified; and (2) it was at the resurrection that Jesus became the Son of God in power, became the risen Lord. Previously he had been the Son of God in weakness and vulnerability, but after the resurrection he was immune to disease, decay, and death, suffering and sin.

Paul then indicates that it was through this same Jesus that he was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles unto the aim of producing “the obedience that comes from faith.” He also reminds the audience they are among those Gentiles whom God has called to this high calling to belong to Jesus. Scholars have long debated what the phrase “obedience that comes from faith” means. Does it suggest faith is a form of obedience? Well, of course, trusting in God is a form of doing what God wants, to be sure. But it is more likely he is talking about an obedience that flows from faith, as we shall see. The Gentiles in Rome are loved by God and called to belong to him, and be his holy people, along with Jewish followers of Jesus. All of this is much more elaborate than any opening salvo one finds in a contemporary ancient secular letter, but that is because Paul is not just following epistolary conventions, he also has rhetorical purposes here to set up the discourse which follows.

In the second half of verse 7 we finally have the proper greeting, and it is a typical Pauline one. By that I mean it involves two terms—“grace and peace.” The typical ancient opening Greek greeting was simply the word “greeting.” Interestingly, the term charis, which we translate “grace,” is a variant of the Greek word for greeting. And, of course, “peace” or “shalom” is the standard Jewish greeting, so Paul is greeting his audience in ways that would suit first Gentiles and then Jews in his audience. Perhaps the “grace” greeting comes first because Paul, speaking as the apostle to the Gentiles, is mainly addressing Gentiles.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why is he less direct in asserting his authority in this letter than inother Pauline letters?
  2. What is the point of stressing both Jesus’ Jewish descent and his new role as risen Lord since his death and resurrection?
  3. Paul introduces himself to his audience as “servant of God” rather than “apostle.” If you were to introduce yourself without a title (more at the level of identity), how would you do it? (i.e., Who are you?)

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