As Paul neared the end of his long stay at Ephesus and anticipated the completion of his third missionary journey he ‘purposed in the Spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome”’ Acts 19:21. Jerusalem was home to Paul for in that capital of the Jewish world he had been ‘educated at the feet’ of a famous Rabbi called ‘Gamaliel’ (Acts 22:3; 5:34). As for Rome, Paul had never yet visited the imperial city even though himself a Roman citizen. So, after leaving Ephesus he came to Macedonia and eventually to Greece in A.D. 57 where he spent three months according to Acts 20:1-2. It was during this time that he wrote from the city of Corinth his longest and greatest epistle to the saints at Rome in which he informed them of his intended visit.
LIFE IN ANCIENT ROME
The mention of ancient Rome invokes the mind to think of the power and glory of that historic city and the vast empire over which it ruled. Rome grew from ‘a small Italian market town by a ford on the river Tiber,’ to be the metropolis of the ancient world as her empire stretched from west to east across the Mediterranean. Unequalled in her brutality and lust for power she conquered while her structure of government, administrative prowess and legal system along with her military might made her ‘the greatest empire the world has ever seen.’ The maxim: ‘All roads lead to Rome’ was true
for with their engineering skills the Romans built them. Their social, political and moral values still influence society to this day for as the author, Antony Everitt says in the Preface to his book The Rise of Rome: ‘We live in the world they made.’
The transitional struggle from Republic to Empire was finally decided with the battle of Actium - 31 B.C. when Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, defeated Marc Antony along with Cleopatra to become ‘Imperator (im-p-rä-tr) Augustus Caesar.’ Already a cosmopolitan city and the centre of culture, trade and industry by the middle of the second century B.C., Rome continued to expand so that by the first century A.D. it had ‘a population of about one million.’ People came to the ‘eternal city’ from all across the empire and beyond its borders and by the time of Paul’s epistle the emperor was the eccentric, extravagant and evil Nero (54 - 68 A.D.).
Roman society was separated by class. Divided along economic lines there was ‘an enormous gap’ between the upper and lower classes. For the upper classes it was, according to law, the privilege of birth and the possession of wealth that determined their status and right at the top of the class structure were the ruling elite, ‘the Senatorial Order.’ The vast majority of the population, both in Rome itself and across the empire, were found among the lower classes. The ‘owners of small farms and businesses’ formed the top division of the lower classes and were relatively well off compared to those below them. Interestingly, in Rome the homes of the rich and poor were not segregated into separate neighbourhoods. Rather, the overcrowded tenement dwellings and slums of the poor were found amid the homes of the wealthy and important. And of course, danger, corruption and hardship, according to the Roman Satirical poet - Juvenal in his third Satire, were part of daily life for multitudes of people in Rome.
Everywhere in first century Rome there were the reminders of the Roman pantheon, the shrines and temples to the gods they worshipped. Participation in religious ritual was a way of life for Romans and its practice, they believed, formed a legal contract with the gods assuring a person of their peace. A distinct group within the city were the Jews. They had a population of around 40,000 in first century Rome. There numbers had been greatly increased in 63 B.C. when the Roman General and Statesman Pompey brought back with him from Judea many Jews as slaves. Their presence in the city was not always without problems and it was somewhere around A.D. 49 that the emperor ‘Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome’ according to Acts 18:1-2 (ESV).
It was, however, most likely that through the Jewish population the gospel reached Rome and took root in the city. Acts 2:10 records how there were ‘visitors from Rome’ in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit descended and Peter preached his first sermon. Perhaps it was they who returned to Rome with the truth of the gospel in their hearts and its message on their lips in those early days of Christian witness.
Most Jews and Christians, it seems, lived in the region across the Tiber from the central part of Rome which was apparently a low rent district noted for its ‘insulae’ [in-su-lay] which is Latin for ‘islands’ and refers to tenement housing or city apartment blocks. These buildings housed most of the lower class urban population in ancient Rome and were up to six or seven stories in height with the higher apartments being the smallest, cheapest and most basic whereas the larger, more expensive and well ‘to do’ apartments would have been on the bottom floors. Aquila and Pricilla, who were in the trade of tent making according to Acts 18:3, evidently had in Rome a home large enough to accommodate church or assembly meetings as Rom 16:5 indicates. Perhaps they ran their business from the ground floor shop of an ‘insula’ with spacious living quarters above.
Finally, it would appear, based on the identity of those greeted by Paul in chap 16, that the majority of the believers in Rome were from a Gentile background being either slaves or of slave origin. The makeup of the Christian community in Rome has often been discussed, particularly as to whether it was predominantly Jewish or Gentile. While such a discussion is relevant to the study of this epistle the important thing is, that whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free they were all ‘the called of Jesus Christ’ (1:6) and they all shared the same status before God. Thus, Paul opens his epistle with this greeting: ‘To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:7).
THE REASONS WHY PAUL WROTE ROMANS
To the reader it is evident that there are a number of reasons why Paul wrote this epistle. In the introductory section (1:8-15) Paul gives his first reason for writing. He wants to inform the believers of his purposed visit. He had often desired to be with them (1:13) and now in ‘the will of God’ he hoped to finally fulfil that desire (1:10). Particularly, he longed to see them in order to spiritually bless and strengthen them as well as derive personal encouragement from them (1:11) and he wanted to have a fruitful season of gospel ministry at Rome, the capital of the empire and the heart of the Gentile world (1:13).
Then, in the concluding part of the epistle, he takes the opportunity to add further detail concerning his purposed visit by informing the saints of his travel plans (15:22-23). Having completed his pioneer gospel work in the east which had prevented him from visiting Rome sooner (15:22), he would travel to Jerusalem with the collection for the poor saints there (15:25-26) after which, and when on his way to Spain, he would stop off at Rome to enjoy their company and experience their help in his onward travels (15:24, 28). We know, of course, from Paul’s subsequent history that these plans didn’t work out for him.
Clearly though, these two reasons, are not the sum of why Paul wrote this epistle. Obviously he wanted to inform them of far more than his visit and travel plans. The body of his epistle tells us that his primary purpose was to expound in writing to the saints in Rome the essential truths of the gospel of God. There is no question that the gospel of God is the epistle’s focus and while Paul intended to come unto them ‘in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ’ (15:29) he evidently thought it prudent being, no doubt, guided by the Holy Spirit to expound in detail what the gospel is all about in order to develop the believers in knowledge and understanding before he himself arrived to teach and preach. The development of their knowledge and understanding of the gospel was not only vital for a solid foundation to faith and the assurance of salvation it also governed life and relationships. Therefore, the matters Paul deals with in the final section of the epistle (12:1-15:13) suggest that there were some practical issues needing to be addressed among the Roman saints of which Paul had personal knowledge and, while all that Paul states in these chapters is of equal importance, perhaps two matters were of primary concern having to do with both external and internal relationships. One was about their subjection to the governing authorities (13:1-10) and the other dealing with relationships between strong and weak believers which probably had to do with differences between those from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds (14:1-15:13). These were very important practical matters relevant to the gospel and they would only be rectified by understanding its teaching.
These above reasons then focus on why Paul wrote particularly to the Romans, but was there perhaps a bigger influence and a broader motivation behind what he wrote that was not only relevant to the believers in Rome but necessary for all believers across the empire and beyond? I think the answer to that question is yes.
Ever since Paul took his first missionary journey with Barnabas and John Mark, his footsteps had been dogged, and his ministry opposed by Jews, who, says Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians: ‘killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved’ (1 Thess 2:14-16). After he and Barnabas returned to Antioch from their first missionary journey Jews arrived from Judea saying: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas strongly opposed these men (Acts 15:2). Then the ‘Jerusalem conference’ considered this matter and sent its decision to the Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of disassociation with the Judizers, commendation of genuine brethren and prohibition concerning four particular things relevant to Gentiles (Acts 15:23-29). Paul also wrote against the Judizers and their influence in the strongest of terms in his epistle to the Galatians (Gal 1:6-10) and exposed them in his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 11:12-33), written not long before he arrived there himself in A.D. 57. Soon he would be in Jerusalem well aware of the problems he would face from the many thousands of Jews which claimed to believe the gospel yet were still zealous for the law (Acts 21:20). Therefore, with the Jewish opposition to Paul increasing rather than diminishing and a suitable period being afforded to him the time had come to definitively, comprehensively and absolutely state the universal truth and application of the gospel of God, while showing the reason for, and implications of Israel’s failure to believe it. Moreover, the wider impact and the lasting legacy of Paul’s epistle is that it established for all time and for all saints in all places the absolute ‘benchmark’ of gospel theology. The divine design and wisdom of this becomes apparent as we read church history and look at the state of professing Christianity today.
These various reasons then ‘intersected’ in Paul’s ministry and his stay at Corinth afforded him the opportunity to write to the saints in Rome. Also, at the commencement of the closing part of his epistle - 15:14-16, Paul informs them that while he was ‘fully convinced about’ their goodness, knowledge and ability to ‘instruct one another’ he did feel the need to write ‘boldly’ on ‘some points so as to remind’ them of the truth of the gospel ‘because of the grace given to’ him ‘by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles’ (NET). And while Christianity had flourished in Rome without an apostolic presence Paul wrote with the authority of the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (11:13) and in so doing confirmed and established in their hearts the indisputable foundations of their faith and the faith of all God’s saints.
A SIMPLE ANALYSIS OF THE LETTER
Finally, the theme of this epistle is, as already stated, the gospel of God (1:1) which communicates how righteousness from God is revealed through Jesus Christ. Paul demonstrates how sinners can be justified freely by God because of the Cross and His grace (1:17; 3:21-22, 24). He takes for his text the OT statement spoken by God to the prophet Habakkuk – ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Hab. 2:4; Rom 1:17) and expounds its meaning by explaining both how a person is justified and how a justified person lives. Paul having clearly stated his theme and focus in the introduction of his letter - chap. 1:1-17 then proves in chaps. 1:18-4:25 the need for the gospel. All are sinners under condemnation and only by justification by faith apart from the works of the law can acceptance with God be known. In chaps. 5:1-8:39 he deals with freedom through the gospel. By the abundant grace of God the justified are freed from sin’s power to serve God and live life in the power of the Holy Spirit. Chaps. 9:1-11:36 are about Israel and the gospel. Their past election, their present situation and their future salvation. Chaps. 12:1-15:13 are concerned with living out the gospel. Lives dedicated to God and submitted to the Lordship of Christ are the response to the ‘mercies of God.’ Finally, chaps. 15:14-16:27 it is the work of the gospel. Paul writes of his plans, sends greetings and warns against those who ‘cause divisions and offences’ (16:17).
In conclusion I can do no better than quote James Stifler who in his commentary on Romans writes:
The whole epistle is marked by a sustained elevation of thought and sentiment. This universalism and eloquence befit an epistle to the
world’s capital – an epistle that deals with the world’s destiny through its two divisions of men, Jew and Gentile. In its style the epistle is
marked by great energy, but not with vehemence. It is the resistless flow of a broad, deep river, noiseless, but ever onward … The epistle
is the masterpiece of the apostle, in which the gospel in its strictest sense is methodically unfolded and shown in its widest connection.
All men, Jew and Gentile, are lost, “being justified freely by His [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24) (The
Epistle to the Romans James Stifler, ‘Introduction’ p 16).
Thank you for reading.