Romans (Part 02) – Paul’s Mission
We have discussed who wrote this letter. There is not much debate out there. That Paul wrote it is the general consensus. We have discussed when he wrote it, which was in the late 50s, toward the end of his last (third) missionary journey. And we know why he wrote it rather than wait until he got to Rome to just preach it. He knew he was going as a prisoner and may not have been able to preach as freely as he otherwise would have as a free man.
But there are a couple of more whys that we should discuss. Why write to Rome as opposed to writing this letter elsewhere. Why not write to Milan or Florence or Genoa? The answer seems obvious: Rome was the capital of the known world. Where better to deliver his message? And that answer is pretty much correct. Paul’s focus had always been on cities and people of influence. It was not that Paul was concerned about numbers or prestige or any self-promoting reason we regularly accuse evangelists of in our day. Paul focused on the cities of influence because he was truly on a mission from God.
We can look back at his mission work and see something of a pattern. When he first arrived in Cyprus with Barnabas and John Mark for that first stop on their first missionary journey, they landed at Salamis on the far eastern end of the island. The next mention of their activity is on the far western edge of the island in the capital city of Paphos. They had scurried across the whole island, through town and fishing village, to get to Paphos, and upon arriving are summoned by the person in charge, proconsul Sergius Paulus. So the first person recorded being saved in the journey is the person governing Cyprus in its capital city. Immediately thereafter Paul has had enough of Cyprus and wants to head to Antioch of Pisidia, which happens to be the hometown of Sergius Paulus. No doubt the proconsul had given Paul letters of recommendation to influential family and acquaintances there. The abruptness of Paul’s movements toward major centers and people of influence may very well have been the reason John Mark left the group right after Cyprus. John Mark surely had the idea that Barnabas was supposed to be in charge and they had hardly spent any time in Cyprus, the land of John Mark’s (and Barnabas’s) relatives. This demanding, insistent Paul was now directing their travels. But what John Mark did not realize is that it was not Paul’s whim or fancy that moved him. It was the Holy Spirit leading, and Paul was an insistent slave to him. The same focus on the influential city occurred on the next missionary journey, although Paul’s desire to get to Ephesus (and from there possibly to Rome) was, this time, thwarted rather than encouraged by the Spirit.
The point is that Paul, perhaps more than any other of the 12 called-by-Jesus-himself Apostles, defined the apostolic period precisely because Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles. His entire adult Christian life spanned the entire apostolic age, being converted within a couple of years after the first Christian Pentecost and being martyred just prior to the AD 70 destruction of the temple that ended the apostolic age. More importantly, as Apostle of (not merely preacher to) the Gentiles, his mission was to introduce the gospel to the Gentiles, which meant introducing it to the world outside Palestine. Of course, Peter was responsible for preaching the first sermon to a non-Jewish assembly (that of the household of Cornelius) and seeing the Gentile Cornelius saved, but from a historically backward perspective, that seemed merely to ensure the other Apostles came on board with the direction of the gospel to the world rather than as the beginning of their own ministries to Gentiles. It was Paul who, as he says at the beginning of Romans, was singled out and set apart for this work of proclaiming the gospel in its initial form to the Gentile world. And, again, what better place was there to do that than in the cities of influence, especially Rome. So Paul was intent on preaching—proclaiming—in Rome through his own sure understanding of the Holy Spirit’s direction. And he begins this proclamation through this letter to Rome, presaging his coming.
But what exactly was it that Paul wanted to tell the Romans. Of course, we know his mission was to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles, but what does that mean? As we come to grips with this expression, we must be certain of what it means so that we can be certain of Paul’s intent, perspective, and direction as we examine his arguments in Romans. Paul’s mission was not to see souls saved. Did he want to see souls saved? Well, of course, absolutely. We can tell that from his and Luke’s writings. And Paul did in fact lead people to Christ. But we are talking about his mission and intent behind his letter to the Romans. In that letter we find his mission to proclaim the gospel.
You may wonder whether my insistence is something of a hair-splitting distinction. Isn’t proclaiming the gospel just about the same thing as seeing souls saved? Just about the same is not good enough here. It is that vague and fuzzy confluence (of yet slightly different perspective) that has started preachers, commentators, scholars, and other interpreters off on seemingly the same footing but yielding vastly different understandings of the nature and conclusion of Paul’s arguments. And of those 10,000 or more commentaries written on Romans you have widespread (and often heated) disagreement precisely because they are not so precise at the beginning. There is a difference in saying that someone proclaims the gospel because he or she wants to see souls saved from someone proclaims the gospel and as a result souls are saved. It colors exactly what the gospel is. The gospel is not that you or I can go to heaven. Now, the word gospel means good news. And I consider it especially good and wonderful news that I am able to go to heaven (Heaven, of course, as shorthand for meaning that I will forever be with God and his people in everlasting love relationship). But gospel from a biblical perspective means something quite a bit larger than that personal perspective.
To understand the gospel we must go back to the beginning. Two important words focus our efforts in this discussion. Those words are creation and covenant. God created for relationship. Relationship is dependent on who God is—his essence. And we know that God, in his essence, is truth, goodness, and beauty. For creatures to be in relationship with God, they had to be created as image bearers so as to understand truth, goodness, and beauty (TGB), they have to assent to TGB, and then in relationship they share or communicate that TGB. So God made us able to understand, assent to (in faith and hope), and communicate (in love) regarding TGB. And of course, God made his image bearers with a desire for this TGB. Furthermore, since these image bearers craved TGB, and God was its only source, God covenanted with his image bearers to provide TGB for them as they in turn would look to him in trusting dependence to receive it. And thus a relationship between God and image bearers would be truly and completely satisfying.
Of course, sin got in the way. Those image bearers, craving TGB, chose to seek it and attempt to be satisfied in it away from God, breaking their covenant and resulting in death (the severing of relationship with God). Now, God was not surprised by this twist of events. From before creation God knew that creatures of uncoerced ability to love could (and without immediate complete knowledge, would) turn away from that initial covenant. And so it was in that pre-creation resolve that God covenanted with himself (Trinities can do that) to redeem that fallen humankind so as to restore his creation purpose of a people for himself in everlasting love relationship. Thus, before creation ever came about, God’s plan for redemption was already determined so that his purpose in creation would be satisfied.
God’s plan of redemption was necessarily fashioned highlighting an appointed one—a Messiah—to recreate or give rebirth to severed humankind through his own rebirth (or newness of life). That Messiah would come from a faith heritage (Abraham), be the perfect fulfillment of creation intent, fulfill the Law’s demands, necessarily die undeservedly (qualifying his death as a substitute for those whose deaths were deserved), and rise (because of his still maintained holiness) to new life. Through this all, that Messiah would accomplish creation’s redemption.
And that day on the road to Damascus as the bright light blinded Saul of Tarsus, he suddenly became aware of the cataclysmic change in the world’s history in Jesus. Jesus accomplished all that of God’s redemptive plan. Jesus was the Messiah. Creation was redeemed. And THAT was the Good News—the gospel—that Jews had been hoping and waiting for based on the directed writings of Moses and the other prophets. Sin no longer reigned. Jesus reigned because of his Messianic accomplishments. Jesus is Lord!
That phrase—Jesus is Lord—was a direct rebuttal of the world’s helpless and hopeless state. The phrase—Caesar is Lord—was already commonly spoken in the Roman world by clueless masses still looking for TGB and hoping to be satisfied in it through the world’s means. The gospel was a direct counter to that statement. In the gospel’s Jesus is Lord, the full scope of God’s redemptive plan is summed up.
And it is this gospel that defined Paul’s mission. He was to proclaim Jesus as Lord to the Gentile world. And it is this claim that is the focus of Paul’s masterpiece—his letter to the Romans.
That claim—the theme of Romans—is found in verses 16 and 17 of chapter 1. Paul begins in those two verses by saying that he is not ashamed of the gospel. Jesus had died by the intended-to-be-shameful method of execution—crucifixion. But the real shame was not in Jesus’s death; rather, it is our deaths that are shameful, being the result of our broken covenant with God. So Paul declares there is no shame in Jesus’s death because that death, Paul says, satisfies the gospel message: it is the power of God for salvation. Specifically, in it God’s righteousness is revealed.
How is it that God’s righteousness is revealed? We must understand what God’s righteousness is. Righteousness, to the Jew of that time, was a somewhat complicated amalgamation of faithfulness. There are three areas that include ideas of righteousness: covenant, law court, and apocalyptic.
We have discussed elsewhere many times that in a covenant, righteousness referred to a covenant party’s keeping of obligations. One who was faithful to his or her covenant obligations was said to be righteous. Adam and Eve (and from them all others of humankind) are unrighteous because we have all failed to keep our obligations of that original covenant with God—to trust him alone for TGB. But God has always been righteous in regard to every covenant in which he engaged because he always keeps his obligations.
The law court idea of righteousness is complicated only because there are a couple of applications for the word. First, all Jewish trials of that time were civil trials, not criminal. They were trials between two parties. The judge deciding between the accuser and accused would decide which party was in the right—maintained right status with the law—and which party failed. Whichever (accuser or accused) party was determined as in the right was deemed righteous. But the judge himself also held a duty of righteousness. As the judge determined justly between the parties based on the evidence, that judge fulfilled his own righteous obligation.
Apocalyptic literature was at its height among Jews of this time. Apocalyptic expression was a revealing of that which was hidden in its imagery. Old Testament apocalyptic phrases, like the sun and moon being darkened as a phrase portending a nation’s destruction and four beasts being seen by Daniel relating to four empires, expressed hidden realities to be revealed.
Taking all this together, in regard to God, righteousness was a difficult matter. From the covenant aspect, God was obligated to provide his care for his covenant partner Israel. Yet as judge of the whole world, he had to be righteous in judging justly between Israel and other nations of the world. And since Israel at times behaved badly, the difficulty was in judging justly against Israel while, as covenant partner, acting righteously in caring for Israel. The Jews’ hope was in the revealing of the righteousness of God. That was an apocalyptic phrase of the cataclysmic activity of God in bringing everything to right. The Jews expected the Messiah to be king of Israel with Israel as leading nation in the world. But what Paul discovered on the road to Damascus and what he writes about in Romans is the righteousness of God being revealed through the cataclysmic change in the world created in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah that accomplishes the redemption of creation for everlasting relationship with God. That is the gospel. And that is the righteousness of God.