The Author and His Identity (v 1)
Paul begins his epistle to the Romans by identifying himself in three particular, yet related ways. He writes as the bondservant of His Master – ‘Jesus Christ’ and as such, he fulfils his calling as ‘an apostle’ in a life dedicated to ‘the gospel of God’. Apprehended by the exalted Christ on the Damascus road as the light of His glory shone around him, the raging persecutor humbly submitted to Jesus as Lord and was gloriously saved to serve Him. Called by God’s grace this ‘chosen vessel’ (Acts 9:15) was commissioned and sent forth by the Lord Jesus as ‘the apostle to the Gentiles’ (Rom 11:13; Acts 26:16-18) to live and preach the gospel of God in order [as he states in v 5] ‘to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of His name among all the nations’ (v 5 ESV). It is concerning this gospel, which Paul summaries here in his opening words so powerfully, that he is going to write to the saints in Rome.
The Gospel and its Theme (vs 2-4)
The gospel of God is all about a person – none other than the Son of God, ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’ (v 3). God had promised His coming ‘through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures’ (v 2). This indicates that the gospel of God was ever in God’s mind and purpose. He promised it through His prophets who recorded these many promises concerning the coming Messiah on the pages of Holy Scripture.
Paul’s point is not merely that prophecy predicted the coming of the Christ, rather, he is stressing how God specifically promised that He would come and the fact of His promises made and fulfilled demonstrate not only the unchanging character of God and His absolute faithfulness, but also the accuracy, authenticity and authority of Scripture. God keeps His word.
Paul makes two statements concerning the divine Son - He ‘was descended from David according to the flesh’ (v 3 ESV), and in the flesh He was ‘declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead’ (v 4). Paul emphasis the royal lineage by which the Son came in His humanity. This proves He is the promised Messiah. God assured David that his house, kingdom and throne would be established forever (2 Sam 7:16; Psa 89:35-36) and that from his descendants would come a mighty deliver and ruler (Isa 9:6-7; 11:1-5; Jer 23:5-6). The great wonder of the gospel message is the incarnation. He who is eternally the Son of God became the Son of David as the Old Testament promised. The New Testament opens with the story of how God fulfilled His promise. The gospel of Matthew begins with these words: ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham’ (Matt 1:1). Matthew records the genealogy from Abraham to David the king and then from David he traces the royal line right to Joseph the carpenter, ‘the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ’ (Matt 1:16). Matthew shows that He who was uniquely born of the virgin, Mary - herself a descendant of David - was given the legal status of the firstborn son in the house and family of Joseph, Mary’s husband. Thus was established His place not only in the royal line, but as the final and rightful heir to the throne of David. Jesus had no physical progeny, the line ends with Him (Matt 1:18-25). But, not only is the Davidic descent of Jesus vital to the gospel promises of God so also is His divine identity as David’s Son. On this very issue, Jesus confronted the Jews a few days before the Cross:
“What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?”
They said to Him, “The Son of David.”
He said to them, “How then does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying:
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at My right hand,
Till I make Your enemies Your footstool” ’?
If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his Son?” (Matt 23:42-45)
They couldn’t answer nor would they’re unbelief let them answer. The implication was clear; the Messiah must be far more than the Son of David if He is David’s Lord and indeed He is. This is why Paul asserts that He was ‘declared to be the Son of God with power’ by His resurrection. Just as His birth identified Him as the Son of David, His resurrection identified Him as the Son of God. Moreover, He became Son of David ‘according’, or in relation ‘to the flesh’ and He was declared Son of God with power ‘according’, or in relation ‘to the spirit of holiness’. The ‘spirit of holiness’ either refers to His own spirit or the Holy Spirit. If His own spirit, it highlights the sinless and holy life lived by Jesus. He ever walked and served in the full consciousness of undefiled intimacy and unbroken fellowship with His Father and the only possible outcome of such a life of perfect holiness and obedience even in death was His glorious resurrection (Phil 2:8-9). Alternatively, if the reference is to the Holy Spirit who particularly came upon Jesus at His baptism (Matt 3:16) anointing Him for the fulfillment of His ministry (Luke 4:18) and through whom He ‘offered Himself without spot to God’ (Heb 9:14), then just as the fullness of the Spirit operated in that perfect life of holiness and obedience, so it was in His death, He was raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit of God. The Messiah’s expectation was realized in resurrection: ‘For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; neither wilt thou suffer thine holy one to see corruption. (Psa 16:10).
It is fitting that in the Greek Text His threefold title - ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’ comes at the end of v 4 rather than at the beginning of v 3. He truly is God’s Saviour, Anointed Sovereign and Exalted Lord.
The Recipients and their Standing (vs 5-7)
The Roman believers had responded to the gospel call and were among the saved of the nations through, and for the glory of the name of Jesus Christ. As with all who honour the Son of God by acknowledging Him as Lord, they were specially loved of God and as they lived in Rome and moved among its people they fulfilled their calling as saints; a status and identification which is the lot of everyone who obeys by faith the gospel. There is no waiting for merited sainthood to be conferred after death by some ecclesiastical authority, rather Christianity is about living a holy life in a sinful world not to merit divine favour, but because of it.
And so, Paul finally brings to these believers the beautiful greeting of divine grace and ‘shalom’ - peace from the Father and the Son and so completes his extended salutation.
PAUL'S INTEREST IN THE SAINTS AT ROME (1:8-15)
His Desire to Visit (1:8-12)
Paul was a man of prayer. It was his native air. He lived in the atmosphere of heaven on earth being continually in communion with God. This is evident as we read his epistles. Most of them begin with either thanksgiving or prayer or both and are interspersed with references to prayer and expressions of praise (Rom 10:1; 11:33-36; 15:30-33; 16:25-27….). Like Paul, every servant of God should be a prayer warrior and a vessel of praise. Paul thanked God for every Roman believer and for the far reaching testimony of their Christian faith (v 8) and affirmed before God his unceasing remembrance of them in his prayers and unabated request that in God’s will, he may eventually and successfully make it to Rome (v 10) for he longed to see and serve them in order to build them up spiritually and benefit from the encouragement of their fellowship (vs 11-12).
Paul refers to how he served God in his spirit in the gospel of God’s Son (v 8). The gospel for Paul was a sacred service done with devotion and worship. He fulfilled his ministry in communion with God conscious of the privilege of preaching and making known the Son of God. Moreover, Paul’s ministry was a priestly ministry. He was ‘a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 15:16 ESV). Paul never performed his service mechanically or ritualistically, but in adoration and for the glory of God. What a contrast to the ‘deadwood’ of so called religious leaders today who don’t even have the conviction to believe and preach what the Bible says never mind appreciate the wonder of the gospel concerning the Son of God.
His Reason for Visiting (1:13-15)
Up to this point, Paul had been hindered from coming to Rome even though he oftentimes purposed to visit. His workload in the East had prevented him moving west (Rom 15:19-23), but now with his ministry fulfilled in the East he wanted to fulfil a desire of many years and have a fruitful visit with the saints at Rome by edifying them and evangelizing with them. Paul saw himself as a debtor to all people whatever their culture background or social status (v 14). He was entrusted with and commissioned to preach the gospel (Acts 26:16-18; 1 Cor 9:17) and therefore considered himself under obligation to fulfil his God given ministry. He owed men the good news and was eager to discharge that responsibility everywhere he went.
PAUL'S CONFIDENCE IN THE GOSPEL OF GOD (1:16-17)
The Message of God’s Transforming Power (1:16)
Paul had no embarrassment or felt no disgrace concerning the gospel (Cp Mark 8:38; Rom 6:21; 2 Tim 1:8). He would visit Rome with its lawyers, statesmen and orators bringing God’s message. What Paul preached had a power far greater than the might of Rome. It transformed lives, delivered souls and imparted righteousness. Paul would stand among the Romans with humility to declare with authority the greatest news ever heard by man.
The Message of God’s Revealed Righteousness (1:17)
When Paul speaks about a righteousness of God being revealed in the gospel he is referring to the fact that sinners can be brought into right and harmonious relationship with God against whom all men have sinned. He will give or impute to the believing soul righteousness in the sense of a right standing before Him – they will be justified. God’s righteousness is declarative righteousness. That is, the man or woman reconciled to God by Christ’s death, is declared, or accounted righteous before Him being fully acquitted, fully forgiven, and fully accepted – justified. The bestowal of righteousness therefore has to do with our judicial standing before God in contrast to our moral regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul expounds this essential gospel truth in his letter both as to the means of justification and the life of sanctification that follows. In these beginning chapters he proves the guilt of humanity, Gentile and Jew, and how all stand condemned as unrighteous before God (3:19).
The gospel then addresses the issue of our status before God, our Creator and Judge, and answers the problem of how we who are alienated by sin and guilty of sinning can be find acceptance with Him and be declared righteous before Him. Moreover, just as God’s saving power is experienced by the sinner who believes the gospel (v 16), so His righteousness is bestowed ‘altogether’ by faith – out of faith unto faith. It commences with faith in Christ and continues with faithfulness to Him. J B Phillips translation captures the idea: ‘A process begun and continued by their faith.’ This is not a new concept. It has always been so as God’s word to Habakkuk shows: ‘the just shall live by his faith’ (Hab. 2:4). This is Paul’s text and his letter to the Romans his exposition of it.
Paul, having expressed his reasons for visiting Rome now goes on to explain why people need the gospel. The summary statement that ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23) is clearly demonstrated by what Paul writes from chap 1:18 through to chap 3:20.
Verse 18 is the Headline Statement of this section: ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.’ Having stated the reality, he goes on to expound why and how it is so. It is important to stress at this point what Paul is specifically saying - God’s wrath is presently being revealed from heaven even as he writes. Not that it was or will be revealed, but that it is evident in Roman society. God’s displeasure with the attitudes and actions of men is ever current. He is never indifferent to their sin. Paul describes how He responds to their rebellion by displaying His displeasure and disapproval of their sin through abandoning them to the consequences of their deliberately chosen path of folly as vs 24, 26, 28 show. God’s righteous justice still operates today against ‘all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’ who wilfully and arrogantly deny, denounce, and dismiss God from their society and His world.
GOD REJECTED (1:19-23)
God’s Natural Revelation (1:19-20)
God holds men accountable for their wilful denial of His person and for their deliberate practice of unrighteousness. They cannot plead ignorant of God’s existence nor can they avoid responsibility for their choices and actions ‘because’ (vs 19-20) God has given to humans, who are made in His image, the capacity to understand the testimony of Creation as well as a conscience to discern the difference between right and wrong as Paul states in Rom 2:14-15. Creation is therefore the evidence that demonstrates God’s existence. It is the abundant and eloquent testimony to an Almighty Creator who is the Divine Designer of the universe. In the midst of such overwhelming proof people have two options. They either respond to the Creator by seeking Him or rejecting Him. Sadly, as Paul explains, the Gentiles did and continued to do the latter.
That the invisible God has made Himself known via natural revelation is foundational to relationship with Him. Creation demonstrates the fact that God is there, that He exists apart from this world and yet is relevant to it for its existence and continuation depends upon Him. Creation imparts knowledge as to what God is like in terms of His power and wisdom. That He is an infinite being transcending the limitations of men and deserving of worship ought to be obvious. We do not seek God in natural things, but through them. This was ever His purpose for the nations. Paul, while preaching in Athens in the midst of an idolatrous society, said this:
"God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being" Acts 17:24-28 (Italics mine).
The tragedy is that men did the opposite. Instead of responding to God who revealed Himself through nature, they rejected Him completely and turned from what they already knew to falsehood. The concern about those who have never heard the gospel is often raised - sometimes sincerely and sometimes skeptically. Paul, in writing this letter is certainly establishing the need for the gospel as the ‘guilt’ of the Gentile peoples and indeed the Jews demonstrate, but what Paul makes clear here is that everyone has heard from God through Creation and how they respond to its message is their responsibility. The universal ‘voice’ of creation is ever there as Psalm 19:1-4 states:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
This does not mean that creation imparts sufficient knowledge to ‘save’ a sinner, but the knowledge it does communicate is sufficient to cause someone to ‘seek’ the Creator who is really there. Those who have ever done so have discovered that He is not a distant Creator, but a near, loving, and saving God. As the American scientist and Inventor, George Washington Carver, said:
"I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in".
Man’s Wilful Rejection (1:21-23)
Paul, after stating why God’s wrath is revealed now moves to explain how this situation came to be among the Gentile peoples of his first century world. The cause for the righteous anger of God upon them lay with themselves ‘because when they knew God they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things’ (vs 21-23). History demonstrates that men have ever rejected God. The spirit of Babel lives on (Gen 11:1-9). About one hundred years after the flood with earth’s population still together and perhaps numbering 30,000 people they set out under the leadership of Nimrod (Gen 10:8-10 [See Leupold]) to build a city and tower on the plains of Shinar. This building project was in itself an act of rebellion against the Creator. They sought to organize themselves against His expressed will, centralize their power base and elevate themselves closer to the heavens by their own effort. None of what they did was to honour God, but to ‘make a name for themselves.’ They no doubt thought the way modern man thinks – they wanted to be remembered and honoured by subsequent generations for their boldness and defiance of God. God dispersed earth’s people in judgment as a result, but they took with them the ‘spirit’ of Babel. As they had sought in rebellion to elevate themselves higher with their brick tower, in the same spirit of rebellion, they brought God lower in their thinking, right down to the very brutish level of men and animals as described by Paul (v 23). Such thinking and practice continued through the generations with each living out the legacy handed to them by their ancestors. Yet, according to Paul, each generation is confronted with the same evidence of God through Creation. He does not allow that the legacy of the past excuses people in the present. Rather, each generation and each individual is responsible for how they respond to the knowledge of God which they have. Each is ‘without excuse.’ This is true whether it’s the first, or twenty first century.
Religiously the Gentiles failed. They refused to obey and worship God. The Jews, with greater revelation, did the same. This is always were the downward spiral of sin begins. The refusal to acknowledge the one true God is the starting point of ruin whether among the ancient peoples of the world or a chosen people like Israel or in a modern, so called, secular society. The outcome is the same. When men deliberately turn from the light of reason through revelation, whether in Creation or through the word of God they become empty headed in their thinking and stupefied in the darkness of their desires. Those of whom Paul writes embraced the folly of idolatry and ‘exchanged the truth of God for the lie’ that God was nothing more than a creature which ‘they worshipped and served … rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen’ (v 25). It’s no different to today. The abandonment of God for the idols of materialism, celebritism, intellectualism abounds and many other forms of idolatry besides.
WRATH REVEALED (1:24-32)
As they debased God in their thinking they debased themselves in their behaviour. They did not act according to God’s natural or moral order. Rather, in the folly of their idolatry they followed the passions of sin to the dishonour and unnatural use of their bodies (vs 24-27). Indeed, it was to practice their chosen idolatrous and immoral lifestyle that they suppressed and denied the truth about God their Creator. Their chosen lifestyle was an affront to God who gave to them ‘life and breath and all things.’ Therefore it met with His disapproval and displeasure and He actively and righteously judged these people by giving them up to their ‘uncleanness’ (v 24) and ‘vile passions’ (v 26). That is, to display His wrath He removed His restraint upon them and handed them over to the power of their sinful lusts leaving them to indulge their passions to their utter ruin. Moreover, as they deliberately abandoned God because they did not think Him worth considering, they become empty headed and debased without Him and were instead ‘filled’ with the unliveable characteristics listed by Paul (vs 29-31) which are the marks, not of a civilized society, but of one that is intolerably wicked. This state of affairs is the result of what Paul calls a ‘reprobate’ or ‘debased’ mind (v 28), a mind void of spiritual and moral understanding that has lost the ability or willingness to know the difference between right and wrong and is fixed on its own way even though that way is the way hell. Such a mindset is so far off the Creator’s purpose, it is rejected by Him.
Yet, men sin with their eyes wide open. ‘Who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them’ (v 32). Men know intuitively that such behavior is wrong and will be deservedly judged by God. Still, they don’t and won’t change and worse, they applaud others as they join them in practice these same things. Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them stand along with the nations of Canaan as examples in history of the solemn truth of which Paul writes and the accompanying consequences of divine judgment.
In Psalm 11:3 the question is asked: ‘If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ The natural, moral and spiritual foundations of society are in the process of being destroyed today particularly in the Western world. And, like they have ever done, the truth is being suppressed with those who speak it the targets of slander and hate from those who claim to promote love and tolerance. Such conditions cannot continue indefinitely. Soon the Creator will intervene in judgment. And yet, just as there was in the first century, there is still hope and that hope is the gospel of God. It is what all men need to hear and experience.
Thanks for reading.