One of the authors of one of the commentaries I consulted said it best when describing the book of Romans. I will paraphrase what he said to avoid wordiness. Basically, he said that when the ancient readers first heard Paul’s letters being read, they would have had quite a few head scratching moments because the theological arguments and implications were so deep. Today’s readers, the commentator said, are not much different. We, like those ancient readers often scratch our heads in bewilderment as we try to read through the book of Romans and grasp its heady theology and philosophy. It’s not an easy read.
However, on the flip side, this book has been extremely influential throughout history. Many great pillars of faith–those who have managed to wrap their heads around the message of this book–have had their lives completely and totally transformed by the message included in its pages. Not the least of these is the namesake of our church–Martin Luther. I confess to you that there are parts of this book that I still do not fully grasp, so as I begin this sermon series, please know that I will be learning as you learn. Hopefully you and I will experience some of the same awakenings and transformations others have experienced as they encountered the powerful, transformational message included in these pages.
We begin today with the greeting and salutation. These seven verses are jammed packed with a ton of loaded language, and if you gloss over them–as we often tend to do, we miss a whole lot. Paul opens this letter by proclaiming his credentials, offering a brief summary of what this letter will entail, and finally by bestowing grace and peace upon the readers.
Paul is writing to a church that he has never personally encountered. He knows no one there. He does not know the dynamics of the church or who its main leaders are, so he begins the book of Romans by offering up his credentials. Now, I am pretty sure that the people of Rome had heard of Paul by this time. Paul was a monumental figure in the early church ranked right alongside the 12 disciples who were Jesus’ hand-picked followers.
Paul had begun his life as an extraordinary Jew. He was a Pharisee and by his own account, “blameless under the law.” That means, Paul claimed that he had not broken any of the commandments–at least in his understanding. He had been taught under a famous Rabbi, and he had tremendous zeal for following the Jewish faith. His zeal was so consuming for the Jewish faith that when this upstart religion called “Followers of the Way” arose–we know this religion now as Christianity–Paul did everything in his power to squash it. He participated in the arrest, persecution, and even murder of Christians, and he sincerely believed he was doing God’s work in the process.
During one of his forays to arrest and persecute Christians in Damascus, Paul encountered the risen Jesus. The experience struck him blind before he was finally healed by a disciple. And Paul was dramatically transformed. The one who first persecuted the church now became one of its greatest missionaries. Inspired by his encounter with Jesus, Paul traveled throughout the Roman empire starting churches and proclaiming the gospel. The one who used to persecute the church became persecuted, but so deep was his experience of Jesus, he never stopped preaching the Word. As Paul traveled, he often corresponded with the churches he started, and some of the letters of that correspondence were considered so important and noteworthy that they began being shared and passed from congregation to congregation. We have several of these letters included in the New Testament. Hence, as I said before, it is highly probable that the church in Rome knew of Paul, but they did not know him.
Therefore, Paul takes a few moments to establish his credentials before the Roman church, but he does so in a very interesting fashion. He begins with the words, “Paul, a slave or servant of Jesus Christ.” The readers of this book would have taken notice at these words because Paul was also a Roman citizen. As a Roman citizen, he would have had certain rights and freedoms, but Paul claims none of those. Instead, he claims a life of servanthood; a life of bondage; a life of submission to a crucified, Jewish Messiah. By calling himself a servant or slave, Paul shows that he is not here to lord anything over the Roman church. He is speaking as an equal, but an equal with a very, very important calling.
For Paul describes himself as an apostle called by God and set apart for the gospel of God. Paul’s apostleship is not his apostleship, and the message he brings is not his message. The apostleship and the message are from God. Period. This is an astounding claim–a claim of major authority. Paul is not speaking on his own behalf, but on behalf of God. What Paul is about to say in this letter should be understood as coming from God Himself–it is that important. This letter is not primarily about us. It is not primarily about our hopes and dreams. Our hopes and dreams are certainly bound to this letter, but this letter is not about them. It is primarily about God. It is primarily good news.
Paul condenses that good news into the next several verses, and we will unpack all of this as we go through the book of Romans in the coming months. For now, let’s revisit the word, “gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, “
It is important to note that the gospel is about Jesus–‘his Son.’ The gospel isn’t about you. The gospel isn’t advice to be followed. The gospel isn’t about our church, our denomination, our lifestyle. The gospel is about what God has accomplished through Jesus. Sometimes, I think we forget this. Sometimes, I think we get caught up in all the trappings of a society which seems to focus on our actions–the “what have you done for me lately–syndrome. What can your church do for me? What can you do for me? Why should I come be with you? Why should I worship? The tendency is to give a laundry list of all the things that we are doing and how this will help you in your life. The best response you can give to any of these questions is: Jesus. What can your church do for me? Jesus. What can you do for me? Jesus. Why should I come be with you? Jesus. Why should I worship? Jesus. It’s all about Jesus. And if someone asks, “Well, what does Jesus have to do with all of that?” Then, you can say, “Go talk to our pastor.” That’s a joke, by the way. Hopefully, by the end of this sermon series, you will be able to respond to that question because Jesus has everything to do with it.
For the good news of Jesus is deeply rooted in God’s work in the world. Paul announces that as well when he points to what is contained in the Old Testament. Paul says that God has been working up to this moment in history all throughout his engagement with the people of Israel. The promise is rooted deeply in their story, and the revelation of God in the Old Testament is pointing to the revelation of God in Jesus. You cannot separate what God has done in the past from what God has accomplished in Jesus. All the lines merge together in Him.
And Jesus is fully human–descended from the line of David and born of the flesh. Hence, Christianity does not worship a God who is removed from the human experience. Jesus knows what it means to hunger, thirst, laugh, cry, dance, celebrate, suffer, and die. This God knows what it means to be fully human, but He is also fully divine. He is the declared Son of God who was raised from the dead–conquering sin, death, evil, and promising us the transformation eternal life brings.
Through this human and divine Jesus, we have received grace. This is absolutely key to understanding the book of Romans. This is absolutely key in understanding the heart of Christianity. We have received grace. We will elaborate this much more fully as we go through this sermon series, but let me just touch on it here. Grace means that we are forgiven without compromising God’s justice. Grace means that we are sinful beings who deserve punishment and death, but through Christ’s actions in his life and death, we are forgiven. But we are not forgiven without great cost. The forgiveness of our sins, of our rebellion is paid by God–by Jesus in his suffering and death on the cross. Again, we will delve into this deeply in the coming weeks, but it is so central to the understanding of this book. Christ died for us when we were still sinners; unrepentant; and enemies to God. The fact that Christ would die for us while we were and are in such a state is truly amazing and a reason for the pronouncement that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.
Again, to remind, this is good news. It is not advice. It is not something that can be lived out. It can only be told. But this news has an effect. This news does something to those who hear, and that effect is obedience. In a very real way, Paul is announcing to the church at Rome that there is an new Kingdom emerging. The head of this new Kingdom is not Caesar but Jesus. Jesus is the rightful King who has emerged from death to life and is gathering the world unto Himself.
And Jesus seeks our obedience. This is where the rubber hits the road for many in our society today because many do not see Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Many respect Jesus tremendously as a great moral teacher. They admire His call to love everyone including one’s enemies. They admire his admonishments to care for the poor and needy. But they are not willing to submit to Him as King and Lord of their lives. Too often, we are not desiring to submit to Him in our lives. We want to control our own destinies, or we submit to the false gods of wealth, prosperity, property, sex, justice, knowledge, science, technology, race, ethnicity, identity, or what have you. The Christian is called to walk away from all of these things and submit to Jesus. Another way to put this is: the Christian life is lived when you do not put your ultimate trust in anything–even good things–except Jesus.
And through Jesus and Jesus alone, you will receive grace and peace. It is my prayer that as we begin this sermon series traveling through the book of Romans that each and every one of us may hear the Gospel anew; that we may have it touch our hearts deeply and profoundly; that we, like so many before, may be transformed by this message; and that we may become obedient to the true King of kings–Jesus the Christ. Amen.