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Introduction to Romans

May 22, 2022 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Romans

Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 1:7

 

Introduction

This morning, we are beginning a series through the Book of Romans. I get excited about every series I preach; otherwise, I wouldn’t do it, but I am especially excited about Romans because it doesn’t get any better than Romans.

Romans first began to really impact my heart in an undergrad class on the book. In grad school I had an opportunity to teach Romans as a block class at Northland’s extension site in Denver. I spent my entire Christmas break writing a syllabus and then teaching it. It was an exhausting break, but it was a transformative experience.

Therefore, I made Romans 5–8 part of my 4-year youth curriculum, and I preached it 3 times with the teens. So, I’ve spent a lot of time in Romans, yet I learn so much, and I am profoundly impacted by every study because Romans is so deep and powerful.

I love how Martin Luther put it in the preface to his Romans commentary, “This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.”

That’s a strong quote (Luther never said anything softly), and it certainly reflects Luther’s experience. God used Romans to change Luther and then to change the world. But it also reflects my experience, especially the last sentence, “It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.” I pray this will be your experience too, that you will come to love everything about Romans and that it will transform your life and your ministry.

This morning I want to introduce our series, and I especially want to emphasize that Romans is not merely a book of theology or wisdom; rather, it is an occasional letter that was born out of human stories—Paul’s story and the Roman church’s story. This story is important to understanding the details of Romans and how they fit together.

So, this morning, I want to introduce us to the story that, from a human perspective, inspired Paul to write this letter, and I want to give you a broad overview of the message of Romans and what it means for us. I hope it will make the book come to life and give important perspective for understanding the details (read Romans 1:1–7). Verse 7 says this book was written for “all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints.” Let’s begin by talking about…

I.  The Audience: The Roman Church

The NT doesn’t say much about Roman church’s origin. The Catholic Church has long argued that Peter started the Roman church and then became the first pope. The early church fathers say that Peter eventually ministered in Rome, but it’s very unlikely that he started this church.

I say this because we know that the Roman church was started early in church history, but in Acts 15, Peter was still living in Jerusalem. And Paul never mentions Peter in Romans. If he had started the church, you’d expect Paul to at least mention him.

Paul also states in 1:13–15 that he had never preached the gospel in Rome; therefore, we know that he did not start the church. So, how did this church get started? The best theory from the evidence we have is that…

Early Jewish converts to Christianity carried the gospel to Rome and founded the church. The history of this church may go all the way back to Pentecost because Acts 2:10 says that Jews from Rome were present when Peter preached the first Christian sermon.

It’s likely that some of them got saved, returned home, and began evangelizing the other Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. As a result, the early Roman church was very Jewish. This what the early church father Ambrosiaster says happened.

And the secular historian Suetonius confirms this. Writing around A.D. 120, Suetonius states that the Roman Caesar Claudius, who reigned from A.D. 41-54 “expelled the Jews from Rome because they were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” Pretty much everyone agrees that he confused Chrestus for Christos, and that this decree took place around A.D. 49.

You can imagine what happened. Some Roman Jews got saved at Pentecost, and they came home preaching the gospel. Some embraced Christ, and others got hostile. The conflict within the Jewish community got so heated, that Claudius kicked all the Jews out of Rome

Acts 18:1–2 confirm that this is exactly what happened. “After these things he (Paul) left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.”

All of that is fascinating confirmation of the Bible’s historical accuracy and of the gospel’s swift impact. Think about the fact that less than 20 years after Jesus’ ascension, the gospel was making such an impact in Rome that Caesar was already hearing about Jesus and feeling the effects of the church. It’s incredible. But we can imagine that Claudius’s decree devastated and then dramatically altered the shape of the Roman church.

The decree of Claudius shifted the Roman church from a Jewish majority to a Gentile majority. When the Jews had to leave, the gospel didn’t stop working. It just began to spread among Gentiles, and many of them got saved.

That’s awesome, but all of this dramatically changed the culture of the church. In the early years it was dominated by Jewish Christians who followed Jewish scruples. But the new Gentile majority didn’t have same scruples. Before long, the Roman church was serving ham at the church potlucks and playing softball on Jewish Sabbaths.

Then in AD 54, Claudius died and with him his edict. The Jewish Christians came home. Romans 16:3 says that Aquilla and Priscilla were among them. But they came home to a very different church from the one they started and then left. We know the Jews were outnumbered because Paul considered this to be a Gentile church.

You can imagine how this would cause conflict. And this conflict played a major role in shaping Romans. The church had big questions about the relationship of law and grace. How are we made right with God and how do we grow in godliness? What does the gospel mean for the future of Israel?

If the Law is not there to create a unified culture, how do we love each other, and how do we get along in the church? How should the church fulfill its new mission to take the gospel to all nations? These are important and practical questions that really affect the life of the church. So, that’s what was going on in Rome. Let’s talk next about…

II.  The Author: Apostle Paul

Verse 1 clearly identifies Paul as the author of the letter, and it’s worth emphasizing that no serious scholars whether conservative or liberal questions that claim. The evidence within the letter and the evidence from the early church fathers all strongly affirms Paul’s authorship. That said, what was Paul’s going on in Paul’s life when he wrote this book?

III.  The Date and Place of Writing

In answer to this, we are fairly certain that…

Paul wrote from Corinth at the end of his 3rd missionary journey (15:22–29). (Map) Acts makes a big deal of the offering Paul collected during his 3rd missionary journey and of his trip to Jerusalem with the offering. These verses clearly place Paul in this stage of his travels.

Even more specifically, some of the people Paul mentions in Romans 16 indicates that he wrote from Corinth. Verse 1 mentions Phoebe of Cenchrea. Cenchrea was a port city a short distance from Corinth.

As well, v. 23 says that Paul was staying in the home of Gaius, and 1 Corinthians 1:14 says that Gaius was from Corinth. Verse 23 also mentions Erastus, and 2 Timothy 4:20 says, “Erastus remained at Corinth,” which probably means that was his home.

Together, this is strong evidence that Paul wrote Romans from Corinth at the end of his 3rd missionary journey. And this fits well with the fact that Acts 20:3 says that right around this time, Paul stayed in Greece (i.e., Corinth) for 3 months, maybe primarily to write Romans.

Based on all of this, we can date Romans to in the range of D. 56-57.

Therefore, by the time Paul wrote Romans he was a seasoned apostle who had seen incredible fruit (15:19–20). (Map) Illyricum is northwest of Macedonia, so that’s a massive area.

Of course, Paul does not mean that he had evangelized every person in this region; instead, he means that he and his associates had started gospel preaching churches throughout this entire area so that all these people had access to the gospel. It’s quite impressive. Paul did more in one lifetime than most people could accomplish in many lifetimes.

And by ancient standards, especially considering the hardships he had endured, Paul was now a relatively old man. But Paul wasn’t about to retire and rest on his laurels. Instead…

Paul intended to visit Rome on his way to a Spanish mission. First, he planned to deliver the offering to the Jerusalem church. Then, he intended to visit the Roman church (1:13–15). From there Romans 15:20 says he wanted to continue “preach(ing) the gospel, not where Christ was already named,” by taking the gospel further west to Spain.

We know from the book of Acts that Paul did make it to Rome, though not the way he originally planned. Instead, he was arrested, and he got a free escort by the Roman military, though he almost died in a shipwreck.

And once he reached Rome, he was stuck on house arrest for 2 years, though Acts 28:30–31 say that he was able to have a marvelous home ministry to many people during those years. We are pretty confident that he was ultimately released, though we don’t know if he ever made it to Spain.

Regardless, Paul’s zeal to take his Gentile mission as far as he possibly could is powerful. It’s an aspect of Romans that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Very often we get so caught up with the theology of Romans and even the practical relational help that we miss the missionary zeal which is at the heart of this this book.

We must see that Paul wasn’t passionate about theology merely because he loved nerdy debate. He was passionate about theology because he was passionate about evangelism. He really cared that people heard and believed the true gospel and then lived it out. So, Paul’s missionary zeal is an important aspect of Romans that we must not miss.

With that said, I’d like to spend the rest of our time giving a broad perspective of the contents of the book. This perspective is very important for understanding the smaller sections and how they fit together. First, let’s talk about…

IV.  The Purpose of Romans

I see 3 central concerns (i.e., purposes) that drove Paul to write Romans.

Prepare the way for Paul’s visit and his Spanish mission. 1:8 says, “Your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” So, the Roman church was well known as a strong and healthy church. And chapter 16 says that Paul knew many people in the church even though he had never visited.

Therefore, the apostle to the Gentiles was extremely motivated to visit this significant Gentile church, “to obtain some fruit among (them).” Paul wanted to make an impact in Rome, which was the center of the Gentile world.

Beyond that, we saw in chapter 15 that Paul felt that he had completed his work in the Eastern Roman Empire. Now, he hoped to go west; and he hoped that the Romans would be a new sending church just as the Antioch church supported his Eastern mission.

In particular, he says in 15:24 that he hopes the Romans will financially support his Western mission. So, there’s clearly a fundraising aspect to Romans. There’s nothing greedy about that because Paul is raising money for the spread of the gospel, not for his personal comfort.

In sum, an important purpose of Romans is to build a strong connection with the Roman church that will prepare the way for a fruitful ministry in Rome and that will lead to a long-term partnership as Paul takes the gospel to new places. A second purpose of Romans is to…

Clarify Paul’s theology. Paul had many opponents, and not all of them represented Paul accurately. For example, he says in 3:8 that some of them “slanderously reported” that Paul taught we should sin more to create a greater contrast with God’s holiness. It’s ridiculous, but plenty of people today also build and tear down strawmen instead of their true opponent.

So, Paul alludes several times to the fact that rumors were circulating about the gospel he preached and about the Christian ethic that flowed out of it. These things really matter. There’s nothing more important than getting the gospel right because eternity depends on it.

This church also needed a strong understanding of what holiness looks like in a world without the Mosaic law and how we rightly pursue this holiness. Therefore, Paul takes a lot of time in Romans to carefully articulate these issues and others surrounding the transition from law to grace.

Of course, we are forever indebted to Paul for how he articulates these truths in Romans. There is so much in this book that we must believe and practice. It’s hard to imagine our Bibles or the Christian church without the doctrine of Romans. A third purpose of Romans is to…

Address concerns within the church, especially disunity. Even though Paul had never visited Rome, he clearly had a good sense of what was going on there. Of course, Aquilla and Priscilla were some of his best friends, so you can imagine how Paul may have heard about some of the issues.

Specifically, it seems that the Jewish and Gentile factions of the church were debating the role of the law, how to pursue spiritual growth, the future of Israel and many other things. And these theological debates had real life consequences. They were struggling to function together and be unified amidst all their differences.

So, Paul walks carefully through his theology in chapters 1–9 and then through the application of that theology in chapters 12–16. Chapters 12–16 get especially practical regarding how to love each other well and how to live as Christians in a dark perverted world.

These chapters have a wealth of insight that flows out of the previous theology. It’s going to be a while until we get there, but I’m excited for what God will teach us. Next, let’s talk about…

V.  The Theme of Romans: The Gospel

There are several very important themes in Romans such as justification by faith, the transition from law to grace, and the uniting of Jews and Gentiles into a new people of God. I’m really looking forward to developing all these important themes.

But all these themes and every other theme in Romans centers in the gospel (1:16–17). Sometimes, we assume that the gospel and justification by faith are synonymous, but v. 17 says that justification is only a portion of the gospel.

The gospel is the good news that Jesus died for our sin and rose in victory. And that we can be saved through faith. But Romans teaches that this is only the beginning what the gospel’s work.

Through the gospel, I am united with Christ, and I am made an heir of God. The gospel gives me security about where I will spend eternity and about my ability to overcome every challenge. The gospel also changes my heart and sets me on a radically different course. I am able to defeat sin and pursue godliness. I don’t do so by merely trying to live up to the standard of the OT Law; instead, I pursue God from the heart.

And the gospel has also radically changed how God’s people relate to each other and to the world. We no longer isolate ourselves from the world by creating a monolithic culture; instead, through the gospel we love each other across racial and cultural boundaries, and we go to the nations with evangelistic zeal.

The gospel changes everything. Romans is going to draw all these threads together, and it’s going to challenge us about the fact that we must center our entire Christian experience around the gospel.

It’s not enough to believe in God and live a moral, meaningful, and happy life. It’s not even enough to be busy in ministry—always at church, always serving, and always sharing the gospel, though obviously, those are good things. No, I must live a truly gospel-centered life every single day where the gospel anchors my thoughts and my passions and where I live in its strength at all times.

I hope that resonates with you, that you love the gospel, you want to go deeper into the gospel, and that you want to better live the gospel with those around you. If so, you probably already love Romans, but you surely will as you become familiar with it. So, the gospel is the center of Romans, and then notice finally how Romans builds out the structure.

VI.  The Structure of Romans

As you can see on the screen, there are four major sections of Romans that are bracketed by an introduction and a conclusion.

Introduction (1:1–17)

The Heart of the Gospel: Justification by Faith (1:18–4:25)

The Benefits of the Gospel (5:1–8:39)

Israel’s Relationship to the Gospel (9:1–11:36)

The Implications of the Gospel (12:1–15:13)

Conclusion (15:14–16:27)

Of course, the introduction and conclusion of Romans are massively important and full of truth. But in the heart of the letter, Paul begins by explaining how we are made right with God by justification, not by law.

Then, the best part of Romans is chapters 5–8 where we see all the wonderful blessings of the gospel that we enjoy today and for all eternity.

But if the grace has replaced law, what does that mean for Israel? Paul answers with a difficult section in Romans 9 –11 but also one of massive importance. Finally, he gets really practical in Romans 12–16 about how we live all of this out.

Conclusion

I’m excited to see what God will do among us through this study. I hope you will read Romans on  your own and develop a heart to really understand what God had said. As you do, God will greatly minister to your heart. He’ll change you, he’ll change us, and he’ll use us to reach others with the glorious gospel of Christ.

More in Romans

September 25, 2022

Implications of the Gospel

September 18, 2022

God’s Justice in Justifying Sinners

September 11, 2022

Alien Righteousness