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TEXT: Romans 1:1-7
SUBJECT: Romans #1: Greeting
Today, with God's blessing, we will begin a study of Paul's Epistle to the Church of Rome. No book in the Bible has been praised more lavishly than Romans, and with good reason. The Puritan Thomas Draxe called it-
The essence and perfection of saving doctrine.
If you know the story of Martin Luther, you know it was the study of Romans that brought him to faith in Christ, and sparked the Reformation of the Church to which we owe a great debt of gratitude. Luther called it-
The purest Gospel,
And he was right: that's what it is. Can a man go to heaven without reading Romans? Sure he can. But why would he want to?
The theme of Romans has been hotly debated for some time. Martin Luther thought it answered the question, 'How is a sinner saved?' Is it through works of the Law or faith in Christ? His schooling in the Medieval Church said it was both, with an emphasis on 'works'. But one day, he learned better. While sitting on the toilet-of all places-he found what Paul had said fifteen hundred years before, and Habakkuk centuries earlier-
The just shall live by faith!
God declares us 'righteous', not because we try harder than others, but because we trust His Son, Jesus Christ, for our salvation.
Was Luther right on the doctrine? He was. But, as important as 'justification by faith is', I don't think it's what Romans is about. It's in the Book, of course, but the Book is bigger than that one great truth.
More recently, scholars have said Romans is not so much about 'how a sinner is saved', but, 'Who are God's People?' Are they the ones who believe in Christ and are loyal to the Mosaic Law and traditions of Israel? Or, are they people who believe in Christ only, and don't care about circumcision or the dietary laws and holidays of Israel?
Are the scholars on to something? They are. The Jewish-Gentile divide was the issue in the First Century Church, and though some were more troubled by it than others, every one of them was affected. No one spoke more clearly on the issue than Paul. The people of God are not Jews only or Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism, but everyone who believes in Christ and no one who doesn't believe in Christ. What Paul says in Philippians could have been said just as well in Romans-
We are the circumcision who worship God in the Spirit,
And rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.
The Epistles of Paul have to be read in context, and this was the context of all of his whole ministry, both preaching and writing. But, as important as this is, it is not big enough to explain the whole Book of Romans.
A third view of Romans is the one I held to for many years, and have only given up recently, and only because I had to. Some say the theme of the Book is, well, no theme at all. It is a personal letter, and like the letters you and I write, it's about several things-how a sinner is saved, who belongs to the Church, whether we should follow the Mosaic Law, how we should live under pagan rulers, what we should do with our spiritual gifts, even personal greetings.
This view is attractive to me because it allows me to read the Epistle and not read into it. There is a lot to be said for this; people who say they believe 'the Bible only' often believe 'the Bible only' as read through their doctrinal assumptions. Because-to their reading-the Bible has to say thus and so, it does say thus and so. Whether it does or not.
The fourth view is the one I hold. What is Romans about? It is about the Gospel. Paul himself says so in the first verse. He is
Called to be an Apostle,
He says, but not to preach the Law or self-esteem or niceness, but-
The Gospel of God.
This is the man's calling, and he knew it from the beginning of his Christian life. Three days after he was saved, Paul learned what he was saved for-
To bear my name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.
To bear Christ's name is another way of saying, 'to preach the Gospel'. That's what he was called to do, and-Romans is Paul's preaching with ink and paper. He says so in 1:10-11-
Making request if, by some means, now at last I may find a way in the will of God to come to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, that you may be established.
Paul wanted to preach the Gospel to them in person, but he wasn't able to get there, so he did the next best thing: he wrote the Gospel to them. This is what the Book is about, and unlike the other options, it is big enough to contain everything in Romans.
THE CHARACTER OF THE STUDY
With God's blessing, therefore, our study of Romans will be Gospel-centered, and not consumed with doctrinal hair-splitting, prophetic speculations, or legalism. Some things will rebuke us for sure, others will challenge us, but all in the context of God's eternal love for us manifested by the atoning death of His Son, and borne witness to by the Holy Spirit who lives in us and guarantees our salvation.
Our letters start with a greeting and end with a signature. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not the way people wrote in the First Century. They started with the signature and closed with the greeting. This is what Paul does in the first half of v.1-
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle.
Most of the Romans did not know Paul personally, but they all knew who he was. Had he given his name only, he would have got a polite hearing. But he wants more than that. Paul is an ordinary man, but his calling is not.
He is a servant (or slave) of Jesus Christ.
Isn't every believer a 'servant' of Christ? Yes he is, but Paul is not using it in that way. Servant of the Lord has a technical meaning in the Old Testament: it means a prophet, a man whom God has chosen to speak for Him. This is what Paul is doing here: not giving his opinions, however insightful they may be, but speaking for God: Paul's words are God's Word.
But you notice, he breaks with the Old Testament formula. He doesn't say, 'A servant of the Lord (or Jehovah or YHWH), but rather, of Jesus Christ. Paul replaces, YHWH with Jesus, and He does it for a good reason: Jesus is YHWH! The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has come into the world and joined His Divine Nature to the human nature of Jesus of Nazareth!
This must have boggled Paul's mind, for God is not a man, and No man has (ever) seen God.
Until now. In Christ, God has put on a human face; He has become one of us so that we might know Him. In another place, Paul calls Jesus-
The Image of the Invisible God.
And John, whose poetry is unmatched, wrote-
We beheld His glory,
The glory of the only-begotten
Of the Father,
Full of grace and truth.
Paul wants the Romans to know he's not just 'another guy' sharing his thoughts about God. He is the minister of the King of Glory, and he's passing along what he heard in the Divine Council.
Why are the Romans so privileged? Because Paul is not only the servant of Christ, but also-
This means one who is sent, either a servant sent on an errand by his master, or more likely, an Ambassador sent on the King's Business. This is what Paul is: an Ambassador-not hammering out a consensus or polling opinion-but announcing the Word of the King.
Can you feel the tingle down the spines of the first readers? They lived in Rome, where the mightiest king in history ruled the known world, and wielded such power he was called a god. But Caesar is not Lord!
Jesus is Lord!
Paul has sent the King's message to His subjects.
Before we go on, let me ask you: Do you read the Bible this way? Or, listen to true sermons as though they're Royal Decrees? I suspect most of us don't, and we have to wonder why. Has the Bible become so familiar to us that we've forgotten what it is? Have we heard so many sermons that we forget they are the Word of Christ?
God save us from ourselves! Let us resolve to read and hear the Word as the saints did in the days of Isaiah-
With poor and contrite spirits,
After telling the Romans who he is, Paul tells them his purpose for writing them. Paper was expensive in those days, and people didn't fire off letters the way we do email. He is writing on, or for-
The Gospel of God.
We know what 'the Gospel' is (I hope!), but what does he mean by the Gospel of God? He doesn't mean 'the Gospel about God' (though it is that), but, rather, the Gospel that comes from God.
In other words, Paul is not preaching his own Gospel, or the Gospel of some other man or school of thought or church. It is God's Gospel, the Gospel He Himself revealed to Paul. The importance of this cannot be overstated-then or now.
The Roman Empire, like the United States was a pluralistic society. People were generally free to believe whatever they wanted to. What they weren't free to do back then is to publicly insist that they were right and everyone else was wrong. The rulers believed this was bad social policy. If they let the worshipers of Diana, let's say, claim she is the one and only god, and Jupiter was only a dead image, the worshipers of Jupiter would get mad and make the same claim for their god, then others would follow suit, and the Empire would fall into chaos.
This old way of thinking has been revived in our day. Most people don't care what you believe as long as you keep it to yourself, and say things like, 'Jesus works for me: maybe He'll work for you too'. But they mind very much if you say, 'Nobody but Jesus works for nobody!'
Now you're intolerant, narrow-minded, insensitive, bigoted. They would be right in their assessment if something or someone else worked. But they don't. Only the Gospel saves sinners and God has only one of them!
Neither is there salvation in any other,
For there is no other name under heaven,
Given among men, whereby we must be saved.
What is the Gospel?
It is a story rooted in the Old Testament, but the roots are mostly underground and not seen as clearly as the tree itself. It was first preached by God Himself, just after Adam and Eve fell into sin.
He told the woman that she would bear children, and that the devil would fight all her sons and hurt them badly, but One of them would strike back, and crush the Serpent's Head. Who was this son? Adam and Eve didn't know, because they didn't need to know: what they needed to do was believe God's Word.
The Gospel was renewed with the call of Abraham. He, too, was promised a son in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed. Was it Isaac who brought this blessing? Sort of. But not quite. He only anticipated what God would do in His own good time.
The Gospel was woven into the whole life of Israel under the Old Covenant, from the laws that commanded holiness to the sacrifices that atoned for sin to the washings that purified the priests to meet God and more.
Then there's Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, passages that describe the Suffering Servant who rises from death to bring Life to His people.
In one way, the Gospel was a new thing, but in another way, it was as old as sin, and, in the mind of God, an eternal thing.
St. Augustine said-
The Gospel is latent in the Old Testament.
And patent in the New.
The centerpiece of the Gospel is Jesus Christ. No one can say more things in fewer words than Paul, and in vv.3-4, he has outdone himself.
Jesus is called God's Son, which I think means, The King. Did He assume the title Himself? He did not! He was born into it-
He was born of the seed of David according to the flesh.
And not only born into it, as Solomon was, or Hezekiah, or Josiah, or the other lawful kings of Judah, but re-born into it-
Declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.
Jesus was born King, and that's why angels, shepherds, and wise men bowed to Him in the cradle. But He did not take the throne at birth; He rose to it at His Resurrection, where He was proven to be-not just a seed of David, but the Seed of David, the King David himself submitted to, when he wrote-
The LORD said to my Lord,
'Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool'.
The Gospel is all about Jesus: about His divinity and His humanity and His suffering and His Resurrection, and His Lordship.
This is what Paul came to preach, and like other men worthy of that office, he preached with purpose-not to fill time or earn a living or even to reveal true things. He preached to win the nations to faith in Christ and obedience to His Rule.
Let me be honest: in the hustle and bustle of life, preachers can forget what we're doing and what our goals are. Paul didn't forget. The goal of preaching is to see God's People living in faith and obedience.
Paul wants this for the Romans, whom he says are-
Beloved of God, and called to be saints.
Paul was a giant theologian, but he didn't just sit around thinking great thoughts. He was a go-getter, a man of action, who did more than any other Apostle (and they all did a lot). For such people, there is a tendency to link what they do to God's love, as though, God will love them if they do enough or do enough well enough.
Paul will have none of this! The Romans hadn't done a fraction of what he did, yet he says God loves them. Of course he would say this, because he was a true Israelite, and knew God did not love His People because they were the biggest or the best of the brightest of peoples, but-
Because the Lord loves you.
If most Christians are lazy, others are hyper-active; they're on a treadmill, running all out to win God's favor. You don't get it that way. God loves you because He loves you and you get His favor because of what Christ did, not what you do.
Paradoxically, knowing God loves you before you lift a finger for Him will make you serve Him from the heart and with fervor and consistency.
The God who loved the Romans, called them-and us-to be saints. Which means, 'set apart for Him'.
Paul closes the greeting with a blessing-
Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
By putting 'our Father' with 'the Lord' Paul is saying, in effect, they are one and the same God. As the Shorter Catechism says-
The same in essence, equal in power and glory.
What practical thing do we learn from all this history and theology? The most important thing of all: Christians need the Gospel every bit as much as the unsaved.
Do you know what the Gospel is? It is 'good news', the announcement of what God is doing in Christ to bring Prodigal Sons back to Himself. Do you live in this Gospel? Or have you found more 'comfort' in the Rules, rules you don't keep, but hang on to them anyway? Why not get off the treadmill of personal performance, and get in the Gospel?
God help you to do so. And me too. For Christ's sake. Amen.
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