Romans (Part 03) – From Faith to Faith (1:17, 1)
Recapping the theme of Romans found in chapter 1 verses 16 and 17, we find that Paul is not ashamed of the good news which comes about from Jesus’s death because that death (and resurrection)—and therefore, the good news—is the power of God for salvation. And it is good news to everyone who believes, leading us immediately to an important support point for Paul’s theme: faith/faithfulness is the glue that holds all of this together. But Paul goes on to point out that the salvation that comes to everyone who believes comes to the Jew first and also to the Gentile. Why the Jew first?
This statement, of course, is not to set the Jews up as innately more deserving than others. It is to the Jew first because that is how God conducted the flow of redemptive history. Paul will explain that more as we continue into the mid-section of Romans, but he points it out here, possibly, to ensure that the Roman Christians understand where Christianity comes from. It is not a new religion made up to counter other religions, including the ancient Jewish one. Paul intends to draw the Roman Christians into the redemptive plan that came first to the Jews.
We need to remember that the church in Rome started differently from the other churches that we saw popping up in Acts through Paul’s travels. In all those churches (in those of Galatia, in Thessalonica, in Berea, in Philippi, in Corinth, in Ephesus, etc.), Paul would enter the city and then enter the synagogue to preach. Therefore, Jews were usually always the first converts in a city and the first to establish Christian churches in a city.
But Rome was different. Back sometime in the 40s, the emperor Claudius, for some reason expelled Jews from Rome. Mention is made in Acts 18 of this event. In our initial discussion of Romans, we talked about Paul’s timetable in mission and realized this apostle to the Gentiles began his first missionary journey in around AD 48. Therefore, by the time the gospel was only first reaching the far eastern portions of the Mediterranean world, Jews had exited Rome. Claudius died in AD 54, and apparently nothing then prevented Jews from coming back to Rome. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in around AD 56–57 to an already established church in the city. All this history leads us to the conclusion that the church in Rome (conversion of people to Christianity) began while the Jews were expelled. In other words, unlike all those other cities, the first converts and first members of the church in Rome were Gentiles, not Jews.
We know a little about American pride from our current age. Somehow many Americans—Christians included—subconsciously believe in the superiority of Americans in everything. God has blessed America. We are the strongest nation on earth, showcasing what a free, just, and peaceful society can be. We are astounded when other countries may look down on Americans. Obviously, they are jealous, we think. And American Christians, we also seem to think, understand Scriptural matters much better than the rest of the world. For example, European Christianity is colored by the broken history of Europe, whereas we in American can think clearly of doctrinal matters. Or so we…subconsciously…think.
I’m not wanting to argue the degree to which that attitude exists among us, but we all know that while it may not be universal, there is an underlying attitude in many Americans who think this way. Take that and multiply it a dozen or so times and we’ll approach the attitude of first century Romans. Many similarities exist. They were conquerors of the world. The gods smiled on Rome more than on any other people. They had the riches, the art, the political means, and the armed forces to rise above every other nation. The empire stretched for thousands of miles. They showcased to the world what it was to have a society of liberty and justice for all!
So these Romans converting to Christianity perhaps ostensibly or possibly unthinkingly did not highlight the fact that Jesus was a Jew or that this religion that they held was dependent on these low-society Jews from some backward country in the desert. However much that attitude really affected them, it is clear from Paul’s letter that he believes it necessary that the Roman Christians understand exactly how God’s redemptive plan for the world came to them—it came through Israel. And so the power of God for salvation is to the Jew first—the assigned bearers of that redemptive mission—and through them it reaches the Gentiles.
Of course, Paul will also make clear that the Jews by and large failed in their mission to be a light to the world—except in the fact that Jesus would come from Israel, through the covenant promise, to fulfill all that was intended. And that story will be told by Paul in this organized discussion of the fullness of the gospel.
So Paul is not ashamed of the gospel FOR the gospel is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile—FOR this powerful salvation reveals the righteousness of God. We have already discussed what righteousness is. Basically, righteousness is faithfulness to covenant obligations. We see the importance of that in the Jewish understanding of being faithful to the Mosaic covenant, faithful to the law in the court system, and even in their settled hope—the apocalyptic viewpoint of the righteousness of God—that he would make all things in the world right. But Paul’s point is that God makes it right through Jesus, highlighting faith/faithfulness. Paul says God’s righteousness is revealed “from faith to faith.” What does that mean?
First, the biblical idea of faith is not separate from faithfulness. We can tell this by the OT translation of the Hebrew emuwnah and aman as faithfulness and faithful (almost nowhere translated as faith) and the NT translation of the Greek pistis and pistos as faith and faithful (never faithfulness). Of course as discussed, righteousness means faithfulness to covenant obligation. We can also say this in NT language as having faith. The point is that it is the whole attitude that is important in God’s understanding. It is never good enough to perform duty without the wholehearted enjoinment of belief and conviction in what the duty means (see Isaiah 1:10–15). Thus, to be faithful and to act in faithfulness does NOT mean simply to perform a duty. It means to have faith in the covenant as you meet its obligations.
Carrying this idea along to Romans 1, we find Paul’s statement of God’s righteousness revealed from faith to faith meaning that God’s faith in accomplishing his covenant obligation to care for his image bearers through granting them his truth, goodness, and beauty by redeeming them is matched by both the Messiah’s faith in fulfilling his covenant obligations as representative for humankind and then beyond to our faith/faithfulness in belief in Jesus and God’s faithful gift of himself.
Notice that the “faith to faith” idea is supported on the back end by a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4: “The righteous will live by faith.” In that passage, Habakkuk complained of the oppression of Israel by its enemies and pleaded with God for his care. God’s replies refocused Habakkuk’s understanding of what God’s care involved. First, God’s righteousness as the world’s judge (faithfulness to his covenant duty as judge) would be satisfied in his justice in dealing with the sin of Israel. Yet, God’s righteousness as Israel’s protector (faithfulness to his covenant to bless Abraham's offspring) would be satisfied because, like Abraham, “the righteous [the faithful] will live by faith [by their faithfulness to their covenant obligation of trust in God].” God would provide his TGB to those who continued to embrace him in faith throughout the time until God made all things right through God’s righteousness in faithfully bringing forward the Messiah.
Turning now to the letter itself, we find Paul begin with an introduction of himself. He calls himself doulos—servant or slave. For our purposes, we should probably understand this as slave, because the first century idea for servant was of one who gave up everything in the service of another. The servant had no possessions, no personal ownership even of himself. The master owned the slave, and thus, Paul is insisting that he is coming to the Romans not for himself, but solely because he belongs to God and God is directing him to write. Paul continues by calling himself an Apostle. But even this is not to lift his stature in their eyes. He is telling the Romans, these Christians who had a tendency to look down on others (particularly Jews) that he is an apostle (a commissioned messenger) owned by God, bringing the message to them not from his own glory, authority, or wisdom, but from God himself. He is bringing them this full explanation of the gospel—the good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Lord of the world.
Immediately, Paul draws connection with the Jewish Scripture. This gospel, as we have already briefly discussed, is rooted in God’s redemptive plan that began with the Jews—with Abraham, the father of the Jews. In these Scriptures, which the Jews were called to hold and to present to the world, are written the words that found their salvation. In them are the promises of God.