Post last updated on July 11, 2022
Image credit: Nationalmuseum Sweden via Wikimedia Commons
In the opening lines of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, we have a wonderful correspondence, the kind that ideally lies between friends and family members. It doesn’t deny frustrations: Paul had hoped to visit Rome for many years, but was prevented from doing so. But this all the more convinces us of his deep desire to see everyone there; and so, his letter also begins with a sense of hope—at long last (and by the will of God), he would travel to Rome.
We learn from the last chapter of Romans the names of some of those people who lay on his heart. Aquila and Priscilla were there (Romans 16:3), his companions in Corinth. He also mentions Andronicus and Junia, as well as Herodion—all who seemed to bear some natural relation to Paul (16:4, 11). These and others were in Rome. He writes of them as being “beloved” and also his helpers in the gospel.
But there is, of course, more to Paul’s design than a reunion of friends. He hoped to further establish the believers in Rome, even as he also expected to find comfort among them (Romans 1:11-12). This, he knew, would come by way of a spiritual gift. Their mutual faith would effect their mutual comfort by the Holy Spirit.
These are sentiments that one might expect to decorate any letter. They recall the past and look toward the future. Nor is it surprising that Paul’s anticipation is founded upon personal and spiritual interests. Even so, there is another idea that frequents this first section of the letter, and it regards the gospel itself. This opening part of Paul’s epistle records his salutation to the Roman believers, but his subject is the gospel itself.
If we take Romans 1:1-16 as a kind of salutation, we see that the mention of the gospel begins and ends the section. In verse one Paul writes that he is separated unto the gospel of God. He later declares his plan to preach the gospel in Rome (verse 16). At this point, we might well wonder whether Paul is merely visiting Rome, or whether the gospel is carrying him there.
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Of course, this question is an exaggeration of a kind, yet it does highlight something that is in the text itself. Paul’s ministry contained a kind of irrepressible inevitability. There would be places, indeed, that Paul must go, even as there were other places that he was kept from going. He had long hoped to visit Rome and, finally, he would visit the imperial city. But here we must refrain from assigning this triumph to the power of Paul’s persistence. It is, indeed, impossible to doubt that; but it is more true, still, to consider Paul’s journeys in light of the gospel itself—that there were places that the gospel must reach.
Sometimes Paul revisited places in which he had already ministered, if only to strengthen the believers there. His second missionary journey began just this way, as we read in Acts 15:36. Other times, persecution in one city was the cause for which he and his companions traveled to another city. This, for instance, was the reason that he and Barnabas left Antioch in Pisidia for Iconium (Acts 13:51). Famously, the Holy Spirit prevented their entrance into Asia, eventually directing them to preach the gospel in Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). The point here is only that Paul’s travels were always associated with the advance of the gospel.
This returns us to the substance of Paul’s letter. He writes in verse one that he is separated unto the gospel of God. He then proceeds to state what he means by that well-worn word. He writes in verse 3 that the gospel is,
Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.Romans 1:3-4
Paul, here, writes about the gospel as that which concerns his Son Jesus Christ the Lord. This is not an incidental string of words. It regards both deity and royalty—for us, life and his rule—associating them both with the man Jesus Christ. To put it succinctly, the promised seed of David is now declared to be the Son of God (verses 3-4). Importantly, that declaration is not merely verbal; the resurrection itself became the declaration. All verbal proclamation of the gospel is good news, for it announces a fact. But we might say that the gospel merely announces what God has already openly declared when he raised Jesus Christ from the dead. The one declaration made our proclamation a necessary errand.
But again, there is something more here than the salvation of men. Acts 17:29-31 regards the resurrection as the event of history that reorders all disorders. The resurrection makes repentance a reasonable proposition, for the offspring of God, who has turned to idols, is given cause for hope in the risen Savior. The resurrection becomes the ground of his knowledge and the reason for his repentance:
Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.Acts 17:29-31
That new order obtained by the resurrection will be eventually and universally observed in the new heavens and new earth; but the resurrection itself has become cause for the immediate repentance of the corrupted and sinful order that began with the Fall.
This is evident in the scripture’s presentation of idolatry in the present age. That practice, always sinful, now carries the additional guilt that it obtained after the resurrection. Before Jesus was raised from the dead, idolatry was the sinful counterfeit to worship; after the resurrection, its sinfulness is heightened. It becomes the public denial of God’s public revelation. When Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, man’s guilt is confirmed by the resurrection itself. Acts 17:31 is helpful in this consideration: “Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.” In other words, the resurrection takes on the character of revelation against which stone idols stand in sad and despicable contrast. God has made a declaration, and man’s confession and proclamation must follow.
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The gospel, of course, is the public announcement of the Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). That said, Romans 1:3-4 remind us that the gospel is associated with a man who possesses certain identities. In other words, the resurrection obtains its importance in the fact that a certain man was resurrected rather than others. Had other men of history been raised from the dead, history would have taken another course altogether. Insofar that it was the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who was raised from the dead, history necessarily will take the course of former prophecies. But more than this, history must eventually record the irrepressible future that Christ’s own character and position require—whether that future was foretold to us or not. Regardless of that, Jesus is the seed of David, and he is the Son of God. The future will be what it will become because of who Jesus Christ already is.
First, Jesus’ humanity is confirmed in verse three: “Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh.” His ancestry is stated in the genealogies of the Bible, and that ancestry entitled him to a throne in Jerusalem. When Paul here writes that Jesus is of the seed of David, he merely confirms that the Lord is the answer to God’s covenant promise to Jesse’s son. That promise regarded a king and kingdom that would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16). In Paul’s immediate present, that promise appeared to fail. The resurrection, however, announced its certainty.
We understand this by the fact that the son of David, according to the flesh, was also the Son of God. This is what verse four tells us. This is also what the Lord Jesus himself was getting at when he recalled the first part of the 110th psalm to the Pharisees (Matthew 12:35-37). What Jesus inferred by a question, the Father confirmed by the resurrection: The son of David was the Son of God. Improbable to some, it was nevertheless declared to the world.
In this way, the resurrection became the confirmation of Jesus’ authority where the Romans presently ruled. It also proclaimed Jesus’ authority to give life where death now ruled. In other words, the gospel became something more than even the announcement that sins can be forgiven; it announced the power of God in realms where both men and death now usurp God’s authority.
The sphere of Paul’s labors
It then becomes interesting to consider the course and shape of Paul’s ministry. One must not draw too definite a correlation where one can only be surmised. That said, Paul himself is eventually carried to the very places where the gospel must go—in other words, to the very places where God’s authority was denied.1N.T. Wright suggests the possibility that Paul’s various destinations communicated political considerations, not only practical or ministerial priorities. See N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (San Francisco: Harper One, 2018), 111-12. Paul, then, would visit many places—provincial cities and ports spread throughout the Roman empire. Nevertheless, the scripture portrays his ministry as beginning and ending in two significant places—Jerusalem and Rome.
To be clear, Paul first preached Christ Jesus in Damascus and not Jerusalem (Acts 9:20). Paul had been converted on the road to Damascus and was taken there for a time. His first Christian labors, accordingly, took place in that city (Acts 9:19-25). It is probable that Paul then journeyed from Damascus to Arabia, before he traveled to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:17-18). That said, he eventually made his way to Jerusalem and, importantly, it is upon his return to Jerusalem that Paul visits the temple there. And, to the point, it is in the temple in the city of Jerusalem that Paul is sent forth by the Spirit to the Gentiles, long before he receives his commission in Antioch (Acts 22:17-21).
Significantly, the Book of Acts later closes with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:16-31). Indeed, Paul may very well have visited other places after he left that city; but the Bible’s narrative ends with his visit to Rome. He had begun in Jerusalem—the city of David—and the record ends in Rome. Interestingly, Acts 23:11 includes these two cities together as necessary places of Paul’s witness: “And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.” There were some places that Paul must go, for there were some places that the gospel must reach.
When Paul was separated unto the gospel (Romans 1:5), he became the herald of God’s good news in Christ. That gospel would effect the salvation of sinners who believe, but it also was the open declaration and demonstration of God’s power in a world that refuses his authority, both Jew and Greek (Romans 1:16). From the moment that Jesus Christ was entombed, the resurrection was inevitable; but the resurrection made the gospel likewise inevitable in the centers of power.
From its beginning, then, this epistle relates not only the salvation of God, but that salvation as a part of God’s own revelation of himself. In the pages that follow, the reader learns of God’s mercy in Christ, but also the surprising manner of that revelation.
Notes & References
|N.T. Wright suggests the possibility that Paul’s various destinations communicated political considerations, not only practical or ministerial priorities. See N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (San Francisco: Harper One, 2018), 111-12.