Introduction to Romans
Pastor KC Liu / Romans 1:1 / Jan 10, 2016
1 This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News. 2 God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. 3 The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, 4 and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit.He is Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name. 6 And you are included among those Gentiles who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. 7 I am writing to all of you in Rome who are loved by God and are called to be his own holy people. May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.
Praise God, Hallelujah! I am very excited for the New Year 2016 because we are going dig deep to preach through the book of Romans. I can say I am excited now, but I couldn’t have said that 2 months ago. To prepare for this Romans series, I started research about two months ago, reading commentaries and listening to sermons on Romans. It didn’t help much because it was so complex it confused me even more!
Then in a sermon, I heard renowned theologian John Piper say that he didn’t dare to preach through Romans for nearly 20 years because it was too deep and complex! When I heard that, FEAR came upon me! If John Piper hesitated to preach Romans, then who am I to tackle such a great challenge?? A preacher trying to preach Romans is like an engineer trying to build a space rocket. It’s not impossible, but good luck, you need a miracle to get through it.
Well, my miracle came upon me when I went to Kansas City for the IHOP One Thing Conference. My one prayer for going there was, “God, help me to become a good pastor. Help me to lead this congregation.” Interesting enough, my biggest take away wasn’t from anointed preachers. Rather, I found a hidden treasure when I was walking around the book store, and saw a small little book called “A Commentary on Romans” by David Pawson. It intrigued me to find this book at a One Thing Conference, so I picked it up to read the first two pages. Something amazing happened. It was as if the kindness and goodness of God descended upon me. I actually understood what the commentary was saying, and it was like sweet honey to my soul!
I felt like God was saying to me, “My son, I know you are not smart enough to understand the depth of Romans, so I’ve given you a simple, easy to understand book, so you WILL understand, and my words WILL nourish your soul. And you, in turn, will NOURISH the souls of your congregation through my Word.” I was elated! It was like finding a great pearl hidden in a field.
Therefore, I can honestly say, I am more excited than EVER to dig in the Word of God through Romans with you this year. Shall we begin with prayer?
Now, we will look at the BIG PICTURE, the background, context and influence of Romans. This is quite important if we want to dig deep into Romans.
Imagine if you’ve never seen Star Wars, and then you watch episode 7, the Force Awakens, with your friends. You would probably enjoy the movie, but not anywhere near the friend next to you who just watched all 6 episodes for the 5th time. He is enjoying episode 7 on a whole other level because he is caught up in the epic story leading up to this. For example, when a newbie sees this mask, he will think, that’s a ugly mask, why are we looking at this?
But the hard core fans, when they sees this mask, they start weeping!! And they start to recite movie lines, “Oh my poor Anakin! you were the chosen one! You were my brother, I loved you!!” “Luke, I am your Father.” “Noooooo!!!”
And the newbie is like, “what did I miss? Why is everyone crying?”
My point is, it’s important to know the background of a story. It will make you cry….sometimes…
Let’s get started. First, let’s look at how the Book of Romans made tremendous impact throughout church history.
In the summer of 386 AD, there was a North African man, a public speaking professor, he was 32 years old, and he sat weeping in the garden of his friend. While he was extremely smart, he was living an immoral life of fornication. While he sat there weeping because he felt too weak to break his bondage of fornication, he heard a child in a neighbor’s garden singing, “Take up and read, take up and read.”
Lying by his side was a scroll his friend had been reading. He picked it up and read. It happened to be Paul’s letter to the Romans, and this is what he read from that letter, “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” (Rom 13:13).
Augustine wrote in his journal, “No further would I read, nor had I any need. Instantly, at the end of this sentence a clear light flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”
Who was he? He was Saint Augustine, one of the greatest Christians there has ever been. He became a great man of God because he read two verses out of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and it revolutionized his life.
In November 1515, an Augustinian Monk, Martin Luther, who had been appointed Professor of higher Theology in the University of Wittenberg, Germany, began a series of lectures on Paul’s letter to the Romans, but he could not understand it fully.
There was one phrase especially he could not comprehend: “The Righteousness of God.”
He wrote, “I greatly longed to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, the righteousness of God, because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and deals righteously in punishing the unrighteous.”
Luther hated that phrase because it crushed him. He wasn’t good enough for God’s righteousness. He felt like nothing he did or prayed could satisfy God, and that unbearable burden caused him to be angry with God. Night and day he wrestled with that phrase. Until one day he received revelation from above what that phrase really meant, and it relieved him of his burden and anger, and it was like he was re-born and have gone through open doors into paradise.
Do you want to know what his revelation was about the ‘righteousness of God’? Do you? Sorry, I cannot reveal it to you until next week!
Tell your neighbor, don’t miss next week!
From Martin Luther, giving those lectures on the Letter to the Romans, resulted in the birth of all the Protestant churches of the Reformation.
In 1738, John Wesley of England was an Anglican pastor who tried to be an overseas missionary to the native people of America. He tried to convert the Indians, but he failed miserably. As a result, he went back home to England. He ran into a little society of German refugees called the Moravians, meeting in London, and recorded what happened in his journal:
“About a quarter before 9PM, while one was reading Luther’s introduction of Romans and describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ…. I felt my heart strangely warmed…. I felt I did trust in Christ…Christ alone…for my salvation. An assurance was given me, that he had taken my sins away, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Some scholars say that this was his true conversion experience. After that, he became a powerful open air evangelist and won tens of thousands of souls for God, and founded the Methodist Church that brought revival to America.
It was this letter to the Romans, more than any other book in scripture, that marked the history of the church and had profound influence on person after another. I have mentioned Augustine, Luther, and Wesley, arguably the most influential figures of the western church. But it has also touched and transformed the lives of ordinary people. I don’t know what Romans will do for you in 2016, but you will get as much out of it as you put into it. If you are playing with your cell phone, if your mind is pre-occupied with other things, you are bound to get nothing out of it.
But… If you work at it, read it and study it, pray it through, wrestle with it, and submit to it, this book could revolutionize your Christian life.
It is an amazing book - some called Romans the greatest book in the New Testament, and others call it the greatest book in the entire Bible. I pray for mercy that my teachings of Romans will do this book justice.
The first question is, “When was Romans written?” It was written around 57AD in the city of Corinth, which was in Greece. No, he didn’t write Romans in Rome, he wrote it in Corinth. That’s why it is in a form of a letter, so it can be sent to them. Paul wrote this letter after he had been a missionary for over 20 years. He preached the gospel and had seen it work in town after town, and village after village. He has seen so much transformation in peoples' lives. So he had much to say about the power of the Gospel.
In those days there were no postal office or email, so they had to use a runner for important mail. So how did Paul deliver his letters to a church? He had to send them by an individual, in this case it was Phoebe, a wealthy widow who had been a deacon in the church at Corinth. She would have carried the wrapped papyrus sheets of Paul’s letter 1500 miles to the church in Rome.
This is what 1500 miles looks like from Corinth to Rome.
I wonder if she realized what she had in her hand – that she was carrying the most important part of the Bible; a letter that was to have more influence on the history of the West than any other writing. Just think what might have happened if she lost it.
The next important question is: who started the church at Rome? The answer is: nobody really knows for sure. The Roman Catholic Church says the apostle Peter did; that’s why they crowned him as the first pope. However, there is no biblical evidence for that. Paul never mentioned Peter in his letters, so it’s not likely. But if we read between the lines in Acts 2, we might get an answer.
On the day of Pentecost, when 120 people were praying and praising God in new tongues, in the crowd there were people from Crete, Cyrene, Cappadocia, and Arabia, and visitors from Rome. Do you notice that? The first day of the church, there were visitors from Rome. Already by the day of the Pentecost 40,000 Jews were living in the city of Rome, and every time there was a feast at Jerusalem those who could afford it went to Jerusalem for the feast.
On the Jewish feast day of Pentecost there were some Roman Jews there, and no doubt some of them got converted through Peter’s sermon. They were among the 3000 that got saved, but they had to go back to Rome. So they probably met in someone’s house in Rome. They read their Old Testament through Christian eyes. They were thrilled, they now believed in Jesus, they had been converted, and that is probably how the church in Rome started.
So shortly after Pentecost, right around 30AD, the church in Rome must have been largely a Jewish Christian church for a few years. There were some Gentile believers here and there, but it was largely Jewish believers. Both Jewish believers and Gentile believers were Christians.
Then a new emperor named Claudius came to the throne. It seems that at that time there was a lot of trouble stirred by the Jews in Rome. The Jews who believed in Jesus and Jews who didn’t were fighting. Claudius got fed up with the Jews and he made an edict: every Jew must leave Rome and go live somewhere else. So around 54AD, the 40,000 Jews in Rome had to leave (Acts 18:2).
The Jews have always been mistreated like this. They left and scattered to different regions. Notice that this would affect not only the Jews but the Jewish Christians in the church of Rome. Every Jewish Christian had to leave Rome. So the church left behind was only made up of Gentile believers. From having been a largely Jewish church it became a Gentile church, which would be quite different in character and culture.
Then, when Claudius died, two years before this letter was written, the next emperor came to power. His name was Nero. In his first year he had been a decent emperor, and invited the Jews to return. Back they came hundreds at a time. Back came the Jewish Christians who had started the church. But when they returned, of course, the Gentile Christians were running it. Now here is the beginning of the new crisis.
The tension in the church at Rome was between the Jewish and Gentile believers. The Jews had started the church. Then they were thrown out of Rome. So the Gentiles had to take it over. But now the Jews were coming back to resume leadership again, and it created tension. We are here touching on the PRIMARY reason why Paul wrote this, his longest letter; in fact, the longest letter ever recovered from the ancient world. In the absence of Jews from Rome and Jewish believers from the Roman church, there was a new attitude among the Gentile believers toward the Jews. There was even a very dangerous teaching about the Jews.
The expulsion of the Jews was interpreted as a symptom of divine rejection. They thought it was the will of God that Jews got exiled. So Gentiles thought they replaced Israel as the people of God on earth. So now the Church, which was largely Gentile, thought they were the “new Israel”, the new chosen people.
The practical result of this new thinking was that when the Jews were invited back into Rome, they were not warmly welcomed back. The church had become a Gentile fellowship, in leadership and in membership. Here is an imaginary scenario on how the conversation went down:
Jewish Christians: “Hello my gentile brothers and sisters! We are back!! The Emperor allowed us to be back! Can you believe it? We are so glad to be back. We’ve been serving and leading at this church for 20 years, and we miss it very much. I was an elder at this church 5 years ago. I would very much like to resume my elder position to lead this church again.”
Gentile Christians: “Hey guys, I am glad that Nero allowed you guys back to Rome again. I really am. But things are different now. The Gentiles are leading the church now. We’ve filled all the Elder and Deacon positions. We have new Pastors already. In fact, he will be getting officially installed this afternoon! God has chosen new leaders to lead this church forward. We don’t need anymore Jewish Elders and Deacons now. You can just sit and relax. We will take care of everything.”
Jewish Christians: “That’s not right. This church belongs to us! We built this church for 20 years with blood and tears! Our people have sacrificed and died for this church. How can you just steal it from us? We are going to go and start our own church now down the street!”
Gentile Christians: “Don’t you be stealing any of our sheep!”
Jewish Christians, “They were our sheep before you stole them!”
You see, things probably got heated pretty quickly. These returning exiles, many of whom were Paul’s friends, probably informed Paul of this crisis and asked him to do something about it. Paul was horrified as he heard the terrible split of the church as a whole into two denominations, one Jewish and the other Gentile.
There is a saying that “all roads lead to Rome”. As you can see on this map, Rome is in the center, and all roads were built to get to Rome, and vice versa. That mean what happens in the capital would quickly spread to the rest of the empire. If there was a crisis in the church in Rome, it will spread also to other churches in the nation. It was a major crisis!
But Paul could not make a personal visit, even though he really wanted to. He was on his way to Jerusalem. He was taking money that he fundraised to the Jews suffering from food shortages due to famine. And this money was given by Gentiles in Antioch for Jews in Jerusalem. If Paul didn’t go to Jerusalem, the Jews might die there. So the only thing he could do was write a letter.
However, he did not have any influence or leverage over the Roman church. He was not their founding father; he had never even been there. So he must approach the problem gently and delicately. People in Rome didn’t really know Paul. So in Romans 1:1-7, he had to write down his resume first. Paul is saying, "here are my qualifications."
Verse 1 says, I am “Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God.” See, God has called me to be an apostle. I have witnessed Christ firsthand. God has given me authority to speak into your lives. Now, please, listen to me.
As we can see, his letter is mainly to bring reconciliation to the Jews and the Gentiles. But he couldn’t just write, “Hey guys, be nice to each other! Can’t we just all get along?!” No, it’s not that simple. If is was that simple, the letter would be quite short. The problem of the tension goes much deeper than common courtesy. At the root of it was a theological problem.
The burning question was: who are God’s chosen people at this hour in history? Jews or Gentile? Who should be in charge of the church of Jesus Christ? Jews or Gentile?
Paul has to answer these questions with solid theological answers. That’s why the letter had to be super long. His theme all throughout Romans is that both Jews and Gentiles are on an equal spiritual footing. I will lay the entire book out right now:
Paul says, don’t fight, you are both equal in Christ. The Gospel is for both Jews and Gentiles (1:17). Both groups have sinned; the Gentiles blatantly, the Jews in secret (Chapter 2). Consequently, all have sinned (Chapter 3). Furthermore, both groups are justified by Christ's atoning death (Chapter 3). Both groups have several similarities including being sons of Abraham (Chapter 4) and being dead in Adam while made alive in Christ (Chapter 5). While the Gentiles are capable of backsliding into a license to sin (Chapter 6), Jews are likewise prone to falling to sin through legalism (Chapter 7). The answer to both is life and liberty in the spirit (Chapter 8). The Jews are not finished with (Chapter 11:1), and Gentiles are rebuked threefold for their arrogance (Chapter 11:18). The salvation of both groups is interwoven, as both are entirely dependent on God's mercy (Chapter 11:30). Both groups are reminded to not think too highly of themselves (Chapter 12) and to remember that they live in the political center (Chapter 13). Both groups must coexist in spite of the differences in cultures and customs (Chapters 14-15) and must greet Paul's many Jewish friends with a holy kiss (Chapter 16).
In conclusion, now we know the primary reason that Paul wrote this letter was to bring reconciliation between two different Christian groups, with different cultures and backgrounds. They interpret scripture differently from one another. They had different practices and traditions. They even disagreed on major theological doctrines. And they wanted to fight over it. They couldn’t close the gap between them. Paul says no, you are all equal. Don’t be prideful, humble yourselves.
As we look at our own lives, does Paul’s letter speak to us? Are we arguing and quarreling with other Christian believers over theological differences? Do we look down upon other believers for some of the things they do? Perhaps we’ve said some sharp words to others that might have hurt them. Perhaps some have said sharp words to hurt you. Perhaps there is a person that you need to forgive right now? Or is there a person that you need to ask for forgiveness right now? Let’s take a moment and ask the Holy Spirit to search our hearts.
Let’s pray: “Lord, reveal to us the pride in our hearts. Humble us to be able to forgive and be reconciled. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”