This commentary was prepared for Kairos Publications in Buenos Aires. It was composed specifically for the Latin American church. In some cases I have retained the words “Latin America,” at other times I have substituted “the Americas.” The bibliography reflects what is available to the Spanish-speaking church. We will publish it a section at a time, and eventually as an entire pdf file. The reader will notice that its purpose is to explain and apply this wonderful epistle to the church of today. Blessings! Gary Shogren
NOTE: Search for Romans Commentary on our Home page to find the other sections. Over the next few months we will publish the rest of this short book and bind them together in one pdf file.
Introduction to the Epistle (1:1-17)
It is the style of Paul in his letters that the introduction is a road map, to show where the apostle is going. A sermon is not like that! The pastor gives some announcements, he asks why the projector isn’t working, he has to change the batteries in his lapel mike, he tells a story, funny in its way, but having nothing to do with his message. And finally, he launches his sermon into the deep.
An epistle has another nature, or to use the technical term, it is in the epistolary genre. In this case, Paul indicates from the first word where he is going to take us. That is why, if we compare Romans 1 with 1 Corinthians 1 or Galatians 1, it will be evident to which epistle belongs which introduction, since they are not interchangeable parts.
Years ago, in a class dedicated to the Pauline letters, the professor told us: The introduction of an epistle is simply a way of saying Hello, there is no substance in it. So we can jump over the first two or four or six verses and move directly to the “body” of the letter. With all due respect to the teacher, this idea is indefensible, and in fact many scholars have written about the introductions to Paul’s epistles, showing that each one has its own agenda and also tone, and that they merit our full attention.
In 1:1-17, Paul drops several clues to show where we are going. One might speak of “foreshadowing”, a literary figure in which something that happens early in the story hints at what will happen later on. One example in Romans: once we arrive at chapter 3, Paul will have proved that the Jews and the gentiles have a desperate need for the gospel. And in that moment, we will see that his references to the Jews and the Gentiles (or Greeks) in 1:16 was no casual observation, but a foreshadowing of a vital part of the message to Rome.
Other foreshadowings in the introduction include:
- 2 – the Old Testament prophesied the gospel
- 3 – Jesus Christ is the descendant of David
- 4 – God declared him Son of God by the resurrection, and the Spirit of God is who gives him life
- 5, 14-16 – the gospel is for the Jews and for all the nations
- 5, 8, 12, 16-17 – one receives the gospel by faith
And others too; the reader will gain much by tracing these themes throughout the book.
A. Greetings (1:1-7)
Imagine that in a narrow apartment in Rome, you and your companions in the faith are seated shoulder to shoulder. When the time comes, you close their eyes to hear the words written on a scroll, read by Deacon Phoebe of Cenchrea (see Introduction). To recall Genesis 27, The voice is the voice of Phoebe, but the words, these are from the Apostle: “Paul, servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle…”
Epistles in the ancient world began with a formula in which the author identifies himself, then greets the recipient and offers some sort of blessing or prayer. A typical letter would thus start off with something general: Paul, to the Romans, may God grant you grace and peace. The fact that Paul takes seven verses to begin his epistle reinforces what we seen above, that he is adding extra material in order that his listeners might know from the very beginning which direction he is taking.
For example, he links the gospel of Christ with the Old Testament – the Savior is not some new unexpected figure; the prophets long ago predicted his coming as the Son of David (see 15:12; 1 Cor 15:3). That is one of the titles found in the gospels (for example, Mark 10:48; 12:35-37). It was vitally important to the gospel that Jesus be truly human and not just some spirit taking human form, as was a common motif in pagan mythology. In Romans 4 Paul will show how Abraham and David, two ancestors of Jesus, were accepted by God for their faith, not for obeying the Law, that is, the Torah.
Special Note: The Name of Jesus. Because of teachings that are being widely circulated these years it is necessary to say a few words about the name “Jesus”, which is based on the Greek form of Yeshua, that is Iēsous. One hears bold conspiracy theories, for example, that the name “Jesus” was invented to insult the Messiah, to “paganize” his name.
What are the data? Simply, Yeshua is the Hebrew and also the Aramaic form of the Hebrew name Yehoshua o Hoshua (Joshua) in the Old Testament. The short form found in Matthew 1:21 means “he [that is, Yeshua] will save.” The Lord in general or perhaps always spoke Aramaic (see our comments on 8:15), he knew the Hebrew of the Bible and the synagogue liturgy, and perhaps Greek as well, in order to speak with Gentiles (e.g., Mattt 8:5-13; 15:21-28) or with Pontius Pilate. For that reason, I believe that during his ministry, some would have called him by the Greek form of his name, Iēsous. After his resurrection and exaltation, the apostles went forth proclaiming him, consistently using the Greek form Iēsous. The first sermon of Peter contained that form. There is no evidence of anyone using the form Yeshua in the New Testament or in the history of the early church. And I have searched firsthand the TLG database of all the Greek texts of that period, and clearly, only Jewish males used the name Iēsous, beginning with the references to Joshua in the Greek version of the Bible, the Septuagint (see for example, the Jewish Christian Jesus Justo in Col 4:11). The reason for the change from the sh in the Hebrew to s in the Greek is that there was no sh sound in Greek. Plus, one would add a final s to the name, because Greek men’s names usually ended with that sound. All this to say that Iēsous is the authentic and ancient Jewish version of Yeshua, and that Jesus in English too is correct and inferior in nothing. Nor is Messiah a cheapened version of the Hebrew Mashiach – the basis for the change of pronunciation in this case is that English does not have a final ch sound, whereas Hebrew does.
The Holy Spirit is the one who resurrects and gives new life – this theme will be important in Romans 6 and 8 (also 1 Pet 3:18). When he raised him from the dead, Jesus was either “appointed” or something similar (CSB, NET, NIV) or “declared” the Son of God (see KJV, ESV, NASB, NRSV). The verb is also used in Acts 10:42, that Jesus “he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.” Some have taken this to teach a so-called “adoptionist Christology”, that is that Jesus was merely human who only became the Son of God at his resurrection. Although grammatically that is possible, it contradicts other texts: for example, that he was already God’s Son during his earthly ministry (Matt 3:17; 17:5); and that he was “in very nature God” before his incarnation (Phil 2:6). The best way to understand v. 4 is not that he was made Son of God, but that he was visibly revealed as “Son-of-God-in-power”, that is, in the glorious resurrection (Cranfield, p. 62).
“Jesus Christ is Lord” is one of the earliest and briefest of all creeds, and was probably “confessed” by the new converts at their baptism (as shown in 10:9-10). The original Aramaic-speaking church acclaimed Jesus as Lord from the very beginning, as shown in the formula Maranatha (1 Cor 16:22). Paul knew Jesus as Lord directly upon his conversion (Acts 9:10, 17, 27; Gal 1:19). He preached Christ as Lord on his first missionary journey, and he sometimes referred to him simple as “the Lord.” In fact, he quoted the Jewish Scriptures, verses in which references to Yahweh (“Lord” or kurios) in the Greek version, the Septuagint, are applied direction to Jesus. Calling on the name of Yahweh for salvation (Joel 2:32) thus becomes calling on the Lord Jesus (Rom 10:13); and the Day of Yahweh becomes the Day of the Lord Jesus or Lord Jesus Christ (e.g., 2 Cor 1:14; 1 Cor 1:8). A major assumption of Paul’s teaching is that Christ does what God does and deserves the honor God does. It should be noted that the Jews knew that the Messiah would be the Son of God (Ps 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14), but did not infer from their Scriptures that he would be deity (as teaches Ps 45:6-7; Mic 5:2). That is why, if Christ be not God, then Paul is a blasphemer.
Paul’s call to the Gentiles, or “to the nations”, was part of his first encounter with Christ (Acts 22:21; 26:17-18; also Gal 1:16; 2:2; 2:9; Rom 15:12 among others). The modern reader might not realize that the mere possibility of the existence of a “Gentile Christian” was a hot topic of debate in the first century. Paul’s gospel was that all people who believe in Jesus are registered in God’s eyes as children of Abraham, branches of the olive tree of God’s people, and that they are full acceptable without circumcision, Torah observance, Sabbath-keeping (14:5-6), or even the cultural trappings of Judaism. They are equal to a messianic Jewish believer in Jesus, and together they join the “choir” of God’s people in singing praises to him as non-Jews – “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.” (15:11, quoting Ps 117:1). In v. 7a all are beloved and his saints.
Paul will say much in this document about God’s “grace and peace”, which are relationship words to describe that God has taken the initiative to save people by his grace and to establish peaceful relation between him and his former spiritual enemies. As he will sum up later on, “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).
It should be noted that in these beginning verses of Romans and also in 1:8-15, Paul takes care to make sure that his entire letter is aligned with the truths of the gospel. A modern preacher might take a lesson from the apostle, since much of preaching today is strong on a gospel of health and success, with a few nuggets about Jesus Christ thrown into the mix. The truth is, that if our message is not Christ in all and above all, then we are not preaching Christ at all.
B. Paul connects personally with the Roman Church (1:8-15)
Another method that Paul uses in his epistles, is that he will spend a few verses in the introduction to connect or re-connect with his readers. Despite the relative ease of communication – only 2 weeks to take a letter from Corinth to Rome! – the Christians he knows there hadn’t seen him for some years, and the rest knew him only second-hand. He mentions that the church has a widespread good reputation, and also that he prays regularly for them (compare 1 Thess 1:2-3; Col 4:2). To pray without ceasing means regular, strenuous prayer, the type found in Psalm 88:1-2 – “Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry.”
A century after Paul, Polycarp was another example of a true intercessor: even while he was fleeing persecution he did “nothing else night and day except praying for everyone and for the churches throughout the world, for this was his constant habit” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 5.1, Holmes). The apostle thus signaled to the Romans that he was not simply using them for his own ends, but truly sought for them to experience God’s blessings.
Paul wanted to spend time in Rome, even though there was already a church there. This is hardly unusual, since any apostle would want to know how the gospel was growing in the imperial capital. And he wanted to be able to bless them and to be blessed in return (vv. 10-12) and also to make converts while there (v. 13). Paul does not mention that any apostle had gotten to Rome before he did, as runs the Catholic tradition that Peter evangelized Rome some time around the year 42. Nothing in the New Testament nor in the earliest tradition supports this. Yes, the best interpretation of 1 Peter 5:13 is that Peter wrote from spiritual “Babylon”, which was a name applied to Rome in that era; but this would put him in the capital only in the early 60s. It leaves room for the tradition that he and Paul were martyred in Rome under Nero; and in fact, recent excavation in the 21st century under the altar of the Basilica of Saint Paul Without the Walls (“without”, that is, “outside” the city walls), the traditional site of his burial, indicates that Paul’s remains might well be there.
The difficulty that Paul was facing in the year 58 is that he was running out of places where he could do pioneer church-planting among the non-Jews – in a little more than a decade, he had preached the gospel in the entire north-eastern arc of the Mediterranean, and once he evangelized Illyricum (15:19) he could only go further to the north-west or to some other new region. He was certainly not averse to evangelizing non-Greek speakers (v. 14), so there are huge areas to the north he could have gone to. Nonetheless, for some reason we are not told, he planned to go to Spain, where he would work with people who spoke Latin and Greek; from there he could indirectly reach out those who spoke local dialects.
When he says that “I am obligated” to all, he does not simply mean that he would like to feel the blessing of evangelizing them, or that it would be spiritually profitable – rather, he knows that he must take the gospel to them: “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).
Practical Thought: It is all too easy to direct our attention to people who have the resources and influence to do things for us or for the church. In that case we feel obligated to help the ministry of Christ along by allotting them more of ourselves and rationalizing that after all it will come back to the rest of the church in tangible blessings. What is more, those with few resources or family or connections might come to be regarded as “charity cases” rather than people to whom we are obligated. It is hardly the first time and place where that has been the case, and not nearly as bad as the situation in imperial Rome. Like Christians before us we must renounce and subvert structures which are after all part of the “pattern of the world” which we must escape (Rom 12:2).
C. Theme of the Epistle: The gospel is powerful to save all; therefore, Paul is bold to preach the saving message (1:16-17)
In some of his letters Paul uses another typical element of letter-writers of his day: the purpose statement (Latin propositio) is the declaration of the theme of the letter helps his readers to understand where he was going in his teaching, for example: “that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you” (1 Cor 1:10; also Gal 1:6; 1 Tim 1:3). Like most of these articulations, 1:16 is densely packed with various aspects of the Christian message.
To examine the parts of v. 16 let us begin with “I am not ashamed.” Paul lived in two cultures, the Jewish and the Greco-Roman. In both, the concept of honor and shame was a key paradigm to guide one’s behavior. For example, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the sin of the young man did not primarily consist in wild living, but in the fact that he brought shame to his father and also to his older brother. This made his brother’s attitude more understandable – if mistaken – and the reconciliation that the father offered the prodigal was that much more overwhelming in its mercy. Paul taught that God had chosen the people of no reputation to bring shame to the wise and powerful (1 Cor 1:26-31). The person who has cause for confidence and reason to boast (1 Cor 1:31) is the one who lives to glorify the Lord Christ – “Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’” (quoting Jer 9:24).
Later in Romans 9:33, Paul quotes Isaiah 28:16 y 8:14 as messianic prophecy: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.” All who stumble over this stone, because they think the gospel is for fools, will fall, but those with faith will never be “put to shame.” Paul’s confidence has little to do with his ability to speak well or propose a strategic plan – it rests on the fact that God will never let him down.
The next truth of 1:16 is that of the “why.” That is, Paul had good reason to be confident in the gospel, because it is powerful to save. His confidence lies in the fact that the gospel, in the eyes of the world a poor and weak philosophy, is powerful, because Almighty God has chosen to work through it. This text too has a parallel elsewhere – “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18).
Thousands of Jews were crucified in the first century, but in only one case was a man resurrected and declared to be God’s Son and the Savior (1:4). “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life” (2 Pet 1:3), beginning with the new birth and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is why the apostle will not be muzzled – despite the opposition to the gospel, he has seen so many people be transformed, beginning with himself, that he loses any discomfort in sharing the message. He will keep evangelizing, despite the hostility he will inevitably face in Jerusalem, in Rome, and in Spain.
The next element is the “to what end” of this statement, the conclusion that salvation comes through faith. When the Philippian jailor, a non-Jew, wanted to know what he should do to be saved, the simple message was “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” – not get circumcised, not take long years of instruction in Torah observance, not to give up eating pork and shellfish. “Believe” is a verb, it is an action that people take when they come to Christ (1:5; also 1:8). Paul will spend much of Romans teaching what it means to have faith in Christ: in short it means having confidence in the crucified and risen Jesus, to the extent that we leave all other underpinnings, helps, supplement, and Plan Bs behind. For Gentile Christians that means that they will not try to achieve salvation or to retain it, not even by a tiny fraction, through a fruitless attempt to observe the commandments of Torah.
It is no casual reference that the gospel saves “to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. “Everyone” is a key word in this letter (see 2:9, 10, 12; 3:12, 19, 22, 23, etc.), with the surprising element being that people can become believers while remaining non-Jewish. (Paul literally uses the word “Greeks” in 1:16, not gentiles, since most of the gentiles he encountered were saturated in Greek culture and language). To be sure, the gospel went to the Jews first, since the Lord is the Son of David, but it is for the Gentiles too – “The Root of Jesse [father of David, hence ancestor of Jesus] will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.” (Paul quotes Isa 11:10 in Rom 15:12). Paul had a special call to evangelize non-Jews. Nevertheless, he conscientiously preached the gospel first to Jews of each new town, giving them a chance to receive or reject; be it in a town with no formal synagogue (Acts 16:13-15), or with one (Acts 13:14-48; 17:2-4). He continued onward, even when he occasionally was beaten by the synagogue authorities (2 Cor 11:24).
Let us be careful to gain a precise understanding of Paul’s “purpose.” If we put all these elements of Romans 1:16 together, we see that Paul is not affirming three or four separate ideas, but is putting together a case for how the Roman Christians themselves should act. This is what he did for Timothy – and by extension the members of the church where he was ministering – “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.” (2 Tim 1:7-8). Hence, we may paraphrase 1:16 in this way – “I, Paul, am not ashamed of the gospel, thus I go on preaching it. And you believers in Rome, are you ashamed of the gospel that you have received and enjoyed? Really no? Then, are you likewise proclaiming it?” And to take it further, “And are you committed to support me in the mission to Spain?
This understanding of 1:16 helps us to interpret the rest of the epistle: Paul is not simply telling them about the gospel of Christ, the message that all of them know and understand more or less. Every reference to sin, to salvation, to God’s call to faith, to justification, to sanctification at the same time serves a parallel purpose: to clarify what the Roman believers can and must tell their relatives, people they meet at work, members of the same household, people in the street.
In 1:17a Paul develops further his point by the revelation of the justice of God. “Is revealed” in 1:17 and 1:18 are grammatically identical verbs, based on the root from which we get “apocalypse”, one of the names of the book of Revelation. They refer to supernatural disclosures from heaven, one a blessing for the believer but one a curse for the unbeliever. John Wesley gives a broad definition of “the righteousness of God” to means “the whole benefit of God through Christ for the salvation of a sinner” (Wesley, p. 496); but it is possible to give further definition to the phrase. Some interpret la righteousness/justice of God to mean the fact that God shows himself to be just when he powerfully intervenes to save his people; it is synonymous with “the power of God that brings salvation” in 1:16 (see Dunn, pp. 40-42). The traditional Protestant view, which we take here, is that it is the righteousness that comes from God, that is, “God makes us right in his sight” (NLT). As said Martin Luther: “For God does not want to save us but by an extraneous righteousness, one that does not originate in ourselves but comes to us from beyond ourselves, which does not originate on earth but comes from heaven.” (cited in Hendriksen, pp. 1:62; see also Stott, pp. 63-64). This means that 1:17a has its parallel in the verb “justify”, the term that is so decisive for this epistle and that we will examine beginning in 2:13, meaning that God as judge will declare a person “just” or “wicked.” In that case, believers experience the justifying grace of God despite the fact that they are not in themselves just.
A strictly literal translation of what follows makes little sense in English, for example, “from faith to faith.” We would have to unpack this further, and would probably say that it is “by faith from first to last” (NIV) or “a way that starts from faith and ends in faith.” (NEB) Paul is expressing in other terms what he has already said, that salvation is by faith – here in 1:17a, it can be only be by faith, and by faith alone.
If 1:16 is the purpose statement of Romans, then 1:17b is Paul’s proof text; in 1:2 he has already promised the reader that the prophets of old had foreseen the gospel, and Romans is unusually rich in texts from the Scriptures. Here he quotes a relatively obscure verse from Habakkuk 2:4 – “The righteous shall live by faith.” It should be noted that Paul is giving the text a meaning that would not have been obvious to other Jews in the first century, nor is it the only way to read the Hebrew, which could be made to say “the righteous person shall live by his faithfulness”, that is, by his faithful observance of what God requires of him (the sect at Qumran used the same text, but had an entirely different interpretation than did Paul or mainstream Judaism). In that case, Jews everywhere might retort that Paul didn’t understand the Scriptures, that he was pulling the verse out of context. Paul approaches the text with the awareness that the Scriptures as a whole prove that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” or the Torah (3:20), that is the “faithfulness” interpretation leads to nowhere. What Paul emphasizes then, is that God will give life – yes, even eternal life in the final resurrection! (6:23) – to the one who trusts in Christ.
Practical Thought: We hardly ever have to worry about whether we are understandable to Jews and Greeks. We do however have to attend to various people groups, be they divided by class, race, language, social structure. Those who believe that they are called to represent Christ to the world must communicate the good news in a holistic way: that is, explaining the gospel plainly and simply, and perhaps modifying the presentation depending on the group. And in a religious atmosphere where jokes and stage theatrics are used to capture a larger audience, we must take care that every word we utter and action we take, whether on the platform or not, be useful to present Christ to the audience and the audience to Christ.
- Paul said that he was obligated to all people (1:14-15), that is he did not neglect one part of his audience in order to favor another. Try to evaluate how Christians today might wrongly concentrate on one group or another, and what motivate them to do so.
- The gospel is by faith from beginning to end (1:17). What are some of the ways we need to renounce our own efforts and simply trust in God’s salvation?
- The gospel is the message that God acts through in power (1:16). Think about how people you know need God’s power to break through their sin in order to transform their lives.
“Romans Commentary, Romans 1:1-17,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica