Romans – Introduction and background

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is divided into 16 chapters.

In order to be familiar with the text that we will be studying, may I exhort you to carefully read the whole book of Romans once through – and then read through the appropriate chapters prior to each study, formulating any questions which arise.

By way of introduction I would like to draw attention to some of the background of this letter and also to what the apostle Peter wrote in which he made reference to Paul’s teaching.

The apostle Peter wrote: Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. 14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:11-16).

Earlier in the same letter, the apostle Peter warned the church that: …there were also false prophets among the people [of Israel], just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them–bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping (2 Peter 2:1-3).

Concerning heresies, the apostle Paul wrote the following to the church at Corinth:

I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions (schisms) among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences (heresies [KJV]) among you to show which of you have God’s approval (1 Corinthians 11:18-19).

The church is split into many denominations usually along the lines of differences in doctrine and the interpretation and understanding of the Scriptures.

The word translated as “differences” in the NIV, is from the Greek word from which we get the word “heresy” – which literally means “to make a choice” or “choose”.

With the differences which we are confronted with concerning the interpretation of doctrine, we need to pray and trust that the Lord will lead us into spiritual wisdom and sound doctrine.

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding (Colossians 1:9).

Unfortunately, people may often, perhaps even unwittingly at times, distort the word of God by quoting verses out of context or selectively in order to support a particular point of view or their perception of what is sound doctrine. Once we have been influenced by a particular emphasis we may be unaware of any bias.

As Peter warned, through a lack of spiritual understanding and because Paul’s letters contain some things that are hard to understand, this is precisely what has indeed happened as far as the book of Romans is concerned: …ignorant and unstable people have distorted it, as they do the other Scriptures, [often to the extent of] their own destruction.

We are all familiar with the account of the temptation of Jesus:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:5-7).

Someone said to me that the devil is probably one of the best theologians in that he knows the Scriptures better that most of us, but he deliberately distorts God’s word in order to confuse, deceive and lead people astray.

Note that the devil quoted from the Scriptures, Psalm 91, but Jesus demonstrated the balance by refuting the devil’s distortion of the word, by saying, “It is also written:…”

Scripture is understood through the leading of the Holy Spirit – in context to what is written elsewhere in Scripture, so that Scripture interprets Scripture.

Before the making of the new covenant and the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as Jesus himself noted, the Jews preached about Moses and many Gentiles either converted to Judaism and were circumcised – or they became what was known as “God-fearers” in that they believed in – and even worshipped – the God of Israel, but did not fully convert through being circumcised.

As the apostle James is recorded as having said in the book of Acts 15:21, “Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

There were many Jews living in Rome and they had built many synagogues as places of worship and for learning the Scriptures etc. In fact, so large was the Jewish population, that the Roman emperor, Claudius, at one stage became suspicious of them and their growing numbers that he had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome (as was recorded by Luke in Acts 18:1).

The words “synagogue” and “church” have almost the identical meaning, but now the word “synagogue” is generally used to describe the “Jewish” place and community or worshippers according to old covenant Judaism with disregard and rejection of Jesus and the new covenant – and the word “church” is generally used to describe the “Christian” place and community of worshippers according, of course, to faith in Jesus and the teaching of the new covenant.

After the Holy Spirit was given on the Day of Pentecost and the gospel was first proclaimed in Jerusalem, it says in the book of Acts that those who accepted the message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:41).

The following is also recorded in the book of Acts:

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own languages!” (Acts 2:5-11).

At the time of writing his letter to the church at Rome, Paul had not actually visited the church there – and some teachers have suggested that the church in Rome was the result of those first believers who were from Rome but who had gone up to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost where they heard the gospel and were filled with the Holy Spirit.

They were formerly Jews and converts to Judaism and had returned to Rome after their experience in Jerusalem where they formed themselves into a new covenant assembly (church) as distinct from the synagogue in Rome – and it was to them that Paul addressed this letter.

The book of Acts also describes many incidents in which the new covenant church needed to clarify their doctrine distinctly from the unbelieving Jews and the synagogue and Judaism. The new covenant teaching needed to be understood in context to the Law of Moses. There was a transition from the old covenant Law of Moses to the new covenant teaching of Jesus Christ.

The question was raised as to whether gentile concerts to Christianity, defined by the new covenant, the work of the Holy Spirit and faith in Jesus the Messiah, were required to still be circumcised and also observe the Law and other Jewish customs.

When James explained that: Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath – it was in context to the question raised concerning gentile converts to Christianity and was preceded by these words:

“It is my judgment, therefore, (in that: God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to the Jewish believers and that God had made no distinction between Jewish believers and gentile believers, for he also purified their hearts by faith [see Acts 15:8-12]) that no one should try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither “we nor our fathers have been able to bear” (Acts 15:19; 9-10).

James went on to say, “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we [as Jews] are saved, just as they [as gentile believers] are.

And : …that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

It is to this assembly of worshippers in Rome, who were justified through faith in Jesus and filled with the Holy Spirit according to the new covenant (as distinct from the old covenant assembly of Jews which rejected the righteousness which is by faith), that Paul addressed his letter.

The church was comprised of Jewish and gentile believers with whom there was no longer to be any distinction for they were made into one new man through the sanctifying and unifying work of the Holy Spirit.

The means of conversion had changed from that under the old covenant – from a circumcision in the flesh to a circumcision in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.

There is a record in the book of Acts, describing the kind of dispute which arose concerning Gentile converts to Christianity – in consideration of the truth that they had become partakers in the new covenant through which the promises made to Abraham were now finding their fulfillment in Christ’s redeeming work:

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

The Lord Jesus called Paul to his unique ministry to be an apostle of Christ, because Paul was, before his conversion, a very zealous Pharisee, who even persecuted the church because he perceived it to be a threat to the faithfulness of the Jews in their worship of the God of Israel.

If anyone could defend the faith against the Jewish teachers of the Law who failed to understand how it was meant to lead sinners to Jesus Christ to be filled with the Holy Spirit in order to be set free from sin, it was the apostle Paul who, as a student of Rabbi Gamaliel, had been advancing in Judaism beyond most men of his own age.

At first, Christians were suspicious of Paul on account of his reputation for persecuting the church of Jesus Christ, and the Lord called Ananias to go pray for the apostle Paul:

Ananias said to the Lord, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

To illustrate just how the church was being transformed from being predominantly, even regarded by many as being exclusively – Jewish, to that of being universal and inclusive of people from every language and nation, we have the example of the apostle Peter who was called to take the gospel to a gentile:

While Peter was still speaking these words (in the house of Cornelius the Roman centurion), the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we (Jews) have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. 11:1 The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 10:44 – 11:3).

Peter later spoke of this experience of how the former barrier between Jew and gentile under the old covenant was now being broken down through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” 18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” 19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord (Acts 11:15-21).

As already noted, the church in Rome was probably started by Jews and converts to Judaism who had gone up to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost – and while there, they heard the gospel, received the promised Holy Spirit and returned to Rome where they formed themselves into a new covenant assembly (church).

There was destined to be rivalry between the synagogue and the Jews who tried to preserve their exclusivity under the old covenant – and the new covenant church in which there was no longer any distinction between Jew and gentile – and it was indeed in this context that Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome.

Only the redeemed of Israel – to which many believing gentiles have been engrafted under the new covenant, will be completely justified – or vindicated by God through their faith in Jesus the Anointed King of kings – all others, whether formerly Jew or Gentile by birth, will be called to give account and if they refuse to repent of their rebellion, will be eternally cut off from the presence of the Lord.

This is the essential background which is very important to understand Romans in it proper context.

Consider the following example of the tension which arose between the synagogue and the church, the following incident was in Antioch where the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians – and also bear in mind the irony of the suspicion of Claudius concerning the growing Jewish population in Rome:

On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. 46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first [i.e. first to the Jew]. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,   that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” 48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. 49 The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. 51 So they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. AC 14:1 At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. 4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them (Acts 13:44 – 14:5).

“Then the Lord said to me (Paul), ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” 22 The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!” 23 As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the commander ordered Paul to be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and questioned in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this (Acts 22:21-23).

The reputation of the church and its rapid growth spread throughout the world – the new covenant church, which was founded in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, was planted in Rome at an early stage – and Paul’s letter to the church in Rome has become an integral part of the apostolic foundation upon which very important Christian doctrines are established for the whole church throughout the present age.

It is the exposition of the call of the nations to the obedience to Jesus Christ the king – the obedience that comes from faith – Paul’s letter to the Romans sets forth the good news of the kingdom of God and the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.

The kingdom of God did not only come for the Jew first – as the message went forth from Jerusalem, but the church became established in Rome and the message challenged even the whole Roman Empire – stating that Jesus Christ, and not Caesar, is God – and Lord of lords.

As Paul said of the church in Rome:

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world (Romans 1:8).