1 Chronicles 12:19-14:17; Romans 1:1-17; Psalm 9:13-20; Proverbs 19:4-5
Today we begin Romans. When I was in seminary, I took an entire course just on Romans. Can you believe that? A whole 16 weeks, dedicated to just one book. And you know what I discovered? It could have been a yearlong course! Romans is so rich and full and complex. I’m excited for us all as we begin our journey into Romans.
Since there is so much depth in this book, I thought a few words of background might help us gain some good footing as we begin to wade in the waters of this book. Romans was written by Paul, as you probably know, and most historians place its writing around the end of Paul’s 3rd missionary journey, probably around AD 57. As we see in Romans 1:10-11, Paul has never been to Rome and has been longing to come (so clearly, this book was written before Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, the details of which we just finished reading in Acts). Paul has been longing to come to the church in Rome, to impart to them “some spiritual gift to strengthen [them]” (Rom. 1:12). There are lots of theories about how the church in Rome got started but the best one is probably that Roman Jews were converted on the day of Pentecost and brought this new faith back to their synagogues in Rome (see Acts 2:10). So this church has been growing steadily, but without the guidance of one of the apostles, and therefore Paul seeks to come to them to teach and encourage them; since he’s been tied up in other areas of ministry and hasn’t yet been able to get to Rome, he decides to write them a lengthy letter.
Just as there are many theories about the how the church in Rome got started, there are also many theories about the main purpose of Romans. I could write pages and pages about this (and, in fact, did so in my seminary class), but I’ll try to boil it down to just a few major points. I believe, at its root, the book of Romans is actually a book about race. Does that surprise you? It did me, when I was first coming to this conclusion. But if you’re willing to read with an open mind, I think you’ll find there is lots of support for this idea. As we read our way through, particularly in chapters 9-11 and 14-15, we’ll see that Paul spends lots of time in addressing issues of race. The Jewish Christians in Rome were using the Law as a leveraging point over the Gentile Christians; the Gentile Christians were arrogant in their belief that God had passed over the Jews in favor of the Gentiles. Paul writes to the Romans to teach them how to think about the law and faith – that our faith in Jesus saves us, but not just for our own personal gain, but for the benefit of all of humanity, as we spread God’s kingdom here on earth. As one commentator puts it, “Paul wrote to correct the Gentiles’ indifference, even arrogance, toward the Jewish minority at the same time that he tries to show the Jews that they must not insist on the law as normative factor in the church” (Moo, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans, 19).
Given then, that this is predominantly a book about race and is motivated by Paul’s desire to see the Christians in Rome, whether Jew or Gentile, be unified, what relevance does it have for us today? A great deal, I’d say. In the past years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the conflict between races, not just in America but all over the world. Violence has increased as we cannot seem to sort out our differences. Other differences, not just race relations, have also driven wedges between believers, and Paul’s call to the Romans more than 2,000 years ago is still just as poignant to us today: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcome you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:5-7).
So as we’re reading through Romans in the next couple of weeks, I challenge you to be on the lookout to see new ways of reading Paul. And let us know what you think by posting comments below!
PS – For those interested in a more in-depth look at some of the theories about Romans, we are sending a second post out today, which will contain a paper that summarizes a theory called “The New Perspective,” which has been gaining in popularity in the last 40 years. This paper dissects the pros and cons of the theory. I found this when I was looking back through my old notes. In a nutshell, the New Perspective advocates a different idea on Paul’s hopes for the church in Rome. Traditionally, theologians (such as Martin Luther), have taught that Paul’s big push is to teach the Jews in Rome that justification (salvation) is through faith, rather than works. But according to the New Perspective, Paul was actually just questioning the observances of circumcision, food laws and Sabbath rules. According to the New Perspective, the thought is that Paul realized that the Jews were using these markers as a way to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles and claim salvation because they were God’s chosen people. They didn’t necessarily think the Law saved them, but rather being Jewish, and Paul wants to correct that belief, teaching that regardless of whether someone is Jew or Gentile, the thing that saves us is Jesus. Again, if you want more info on the New Perspective, check out the next post. One more quick note – the author of the paper writes from the PCA denomination, which stands for Presbyterian Church in America. That’s why you’ll see several references to that group.
- Esther McCurry
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