Paul, the Roman citizen wrote this letter to the Roman church. Romans is the perfect biblical book to follow Acts. In the final words of Acts, Paul is in Rome proclaiming the gospel, but as a prisoner. The letter to the Romans was written by Paul before he had ever been to the city of Rome, as far as we know. In fact, chapter 15:30-32 reveals that Paul asked for their prayers before he was arrested in Jerusalem. If you will remember, the end of the book of Acts tells us about how this happened. In Acts 20 Paul told the Ephesian elders that he was going to Rome, not knowing what would happen to him, but that the Holy Spirit kept telling him that prison and hardships awaited him. Paul said, I consider my life worth nothing to me if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me, that is to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.” He did go to Jerusalem and was arrested and imprisoned. About two years later, while still a prisoner, Paul was sent to Rome to appear before Ceaser. That would have been Nero. So, chronologically, the book of Romans predates the events recorded at the end of Acts by about 3 years.
This book of Romans is considered by many biblical scholars to be the greatest Christian theological work of all time, and especially of ancient history. It has shaped and guided Christian understanding for centuries. In a mere 13 pages in my Bible, God’s word in Romans gives us the foundational information to understanding who, when, why and how we are saved by God’s amazing grace through Jesus Christ and how to live out that salvation in relation to others within and without the church.
Romans is referred to by many biblical scholars as the fifth gospel. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give us the gospel events and teachings of Jesus Christ. Romans moves us forward from what Jesus did to the why and how the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ applies to us, with particular interest in the transition from the O.T. Law to the new covenant in Christ. Romans informs us about the workings of the Holy Spirit within the salvation plan of God. Plus, Romans, like Acts, gives us the universal scope of the gospel for all nations.
Today we will only be able to touch on a few highlights this amazing part of God’s word.
Last week we talked about two kingdom tracks: joy and trials. I’d like to keep that paradigm before us as we consider the message of Romans. The word “kingdom” occurs only one time in Romans 14:17 “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,”
Don’t you love that verse? What we are seeking first is the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and Romans reminds us that peace and joy in the Holy Spirit are part of this glorious mission quest. This is the joy track!
But how interesting is it that this verse occurs in the midst of instruction on how to put up with our differences with one another in the church. That must be part of the trial track. Amen?
Romans has a two track theme that encompasses a much larger bulk of the book that we will spend the rest of our lesson on: That is the two kingdom tracks of faith and works and how these two fit into the Christian understanding of salvation through grace.
We need background to understand Paul’s perspective here on just what faith and works mean.
At the time Paul wrote this letter Christian faith was still brand new, the church itself had only been around for about 28 years. The church, which began in Jerusalem had spread throughout the Roman empire, by this time it has within it both Jews and Gentiles. This was a divisive problem. For many years, Jews who were found all over the Roman empire had been gathering in synagogues on Saturdays and these gatherings did not include Gentiles in membership unless these Gentiles converted to Judaism and practiced all the Jewish laws and rituals, especially circumcision. Then we have this amazing Jewish man, Paul.
Paul had travelled through many countries, going to these Jewish synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus and starting churches of Christ. In his preaching, Gentiles had welcomed the gospel of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, often more readily than the Jews did! So, many of these brand new churches had both Jews and Gentiles as members, but this was not without great conflict.
Not only were unbelieving Jews openly attacking Paul, but Christian Jews from the Jerusalem church were also concerned about all these Gentiles being baptized, and said that they should be taught to obey the Law of Moses and basically become Jewish to be saved. Some Christian Jews from Jerusalem even went on campaigns to these new churches Paul had started and attempted to bring the Gentile Christians under the Law of Moses. Look at Acts 15:1,5. As the church grew and more and more Gentiles entered, this became a huge issue.
The book of Galatians was one of Paul’s first letters to these new churches. Paul charged that they were changing the gospel by adding the Jewish laws and customs, particularly circumcision, to a list of works that must be done to be saved. Paul was livid.
The church in Rome also had these problems. The church had started there in Rome, probably from Jews who had been in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost Sunday that we read about in Acts 2. This was a growing church probably meeting all over the city of Rome and they had begun to accept Gentiles into membership. This church would likely have heard of, if not received a copy of the letter to the churches that was sent out from the Jerusalem leadership concerning Gentiles in the church. (We read about that back in Acts 15).
Then this church in Rome experienced a crisis. Acts 18:2 tells us that Claudius, the emperor at that time, expelled all Jews from Rome. Imagine a new church with a mostly Jewish leadership, and suddenly all the Jews have to leave. It was a great blow to the church, but also a major shift in the culture of the church. Imagine it. All the dietary rules are gone. We can have pork and shrimp at our fellowship lunches now! No more putting up with all the Jewish customs and regulations! To illustrate: Picture a multi racial congregation with mostly white elders, teachers and preacher. The whites are all expelled from the region leaving a congregation of mostly black families. They keep meeting, build black leadership, and keep growing. Would the dominant culture change in that church?
The church climate of Rome must have changed. The leadership shifted to the shoulders of Gentiles. They would carry on and keep the faith, but it would have a new accent and different culture to be sure.
Then comes another challenge. Five years pass. Claudius dies. The edict is rescinded. Jews begin to come home to Rome and the Christian Jews come back to church. I’m sure there was a loving reception… at first. But who’s going to set the dominant culture now? The church at Rome was facing a divisive challenge.
Romans was written, at least in part, to address this Jew/Gentile division. Paul comes down heavy on the Gentiles in chapter 1, but then on the Jews in chapters 2-3.
Romans tells us that all of us are sinners. Romans 3:9, 19-20, 23.
Then in chapters 4-5 Romans tells us how the O.T. reveals a righteousness from God that is by faith, and how all of us are saved by God’s grace through faith in the gift and sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. Paul begins to tell us how God’s righteousness is credited to the unrighteous who have faith in God. God loves us and gave His Son for us when we were powerless, sinners, and His enemies. We can’t work our way out of that. God does the saving work for us by sacrificing His Son. We must put our faith in this saving work of God to receive His righteousness and be saved.
Then in chapter 6 Romans tells us how we do this and how in our baptism we are united with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection, where Jesus finished God’s saving work, and how are set free from sin to become servants of His righteousness.
Chapter 7 tells us how the Law of Moses is powerless to save us. It can show us the righteousness and holiness of God, but it can’t empower us to keep it. Under the law I do not do the good I want, but the evil I hate, I do! There is nothing good in me, in my flesh. The Law does nothing to save me, but instead makes my sin more clear and more sinful. Romans 7 closes with the question: Who will rescue me from this body of death? Then answers: Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!
We are rescued and set free from the law of sin and death, not by the O.T. Law, but by the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. Romans 8 explains the saving power of the Holy Spirit who sets us free from the law of sin and death, who helps us in our weakness, who leads us into life and peace, who gives life to our mortal bodies, who cries out “Abba” Father to God and makes us children of God, who testifies with our spirits that we are God’s children, co-heirs with Christ, who intercedes for us in our prayers and assures us of our salvation and relationship with God in Christ.
Then chapter 8 concludes with a doxology of praise to God whose love for us in Christ Jesus is so strong and enduring that nothing can separate us from it.
But the question then arrises: What happened to the Jews that rejected Jesus? Why has this occurred?
Romans 9-11, explains that we serve a sovereign God who has mercy on whom He has mercy, and hardens whom He hardens. Paul shows us that God even uses the hardening of Israel’s hearts to bring in the Gentiles.
God already knew this would happen. His purposes can not be thwarted. God chose to make the Jewish rejection of Jesus into a path of life for the Gentiles and yet God still holds an open door for the Jews to come back to Him.
Chapters 12-15 give us the practical instructions about how to relate with one another and with civil authorities. He gives special attention to accepting one another by practicing the law of love, whether we are weak or strong in the faith. Paul tells us that the entire O.T. Law is summed up in this one rule: “love your neighbor as yourself,” love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Let me conclude by reading chapter 15:5-16.
May we also enjoy the full measure of unity that God desires as we together continue to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.