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The content of Paul's letter to the church in Rome was shaped by the ethnic background of the congregation and the challenges they were facing at that time.
Lesson Twenty-six: Romans
A. Origin of the church
B. Make-up of the church
C. Date of the letter
D. Place of origin
Lecture: Romans: Introduction
The city of Rome and its church here: the church apparently was not established by any particular apostle of note. In 15:20, Paul talks about making it his ambition to “… preach the gospel not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on another man’s foundation.” Paul’s own missionary strategy was not to work where other people had already established the church. And that’s reinforced in what he says in 2 Corinthians 10:15-16, “We do not boast beyond limit in other men’s labors. But our hope is that as your faith increases, our field among you may be greatly enlarged, so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in another man’s field.” So, Paul’s policy was not to work in churches that had been established by others. But he does want to come to Rome. For many years he’s wanted to do that. And now he writes this letter to a church that he had not established.
The tradition that Peter had established the church in Rome is certainly incorrect if the idea is that Peter had traveled to Rome, preached in Rome, and established the church there. Paul would never have gone to Rome to work in the church if Peter had established the church there. There may be however a justification of saying that Peter established the church in Rome, if we think of what happened on the day of Pentecost, where Peter preaches to Jews of the dispersion. In Acts 2:9-10, we read there of “…Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Lybia belonging to Crete, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes ….” So at Pentecost there are present Jews and converts to Judaism, proselytes. These are not God-fearers; they have gone further than that, actually having become circumcised and then converting to Judaism. They were there from Rome. So at Pentecost, this group of Roman Jews heard the gospel. If they were converted and went back, and the establishment of the church starts with this group that at Pentecost heard the gospel, then there is a sense in which Peter established the church in Rome. But he didn’t do it on a missionary journey, when he went out there and established the church as such.
After some six or seven years, the makeup of the church in Rome is once again mixed. There are Jews that have returned after the death of Claudius, who died in AD 54. He expelled the Jews in AD 49 and died in AD 54. His order of expulsion therefore ends with his death, and a couple of years later Paul writes to the church in Rome, and when he does so, he writes to people in the church who were Jewish. Some examples of this include:
• Romans 2:17, “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of relationship to God …,”;
• 2:25, “ …circumcision is of value if you obey the law,”;
• 3:1, “Then what advantage has the Jew?”;
• 4:1, where he addresses this to the Jewish element, “What shall we say about Abraham our forefather according to the flesh?” In other words, “What shall we who are Jewish say with respect to the Abraham situation, our father according to the flesh, of whom we are physical descendants?”;
• 7:1, “Once again, do you not know, brethren – for I am speaking to those who know the law -- that the law is binding ….” This seems to be addressed to those who are more than God-fearers -- to Jews.
• And then, chapters 9-11 talk about the Jewish people, Paul’s brethren for whom he wishes himself that he could be cut off in what is their future.
So there is a strong Jewish element now present when he writes this letter. Claudius has died, probably Jews who had to leave returned back to their home city in that regard.
But it’s also very much a Gentile congregation. With chapter 1, in his salutation, he talks about the grace and apostleship that he has received “…to bring about obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves.” (“The nations” is a synonym for Gentiles.) In v. 13 he says, “I want you to know, brethren, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.” In 9:3, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.” In this passage, he’s certainly talking about the Jewish element there. But he’s contrasting his relationship to the Jews (“my kinsmen”) from the majority of the readers, who do not have that kind of relationship. And you can look up other passages as well, that indicate that what we have here is a mixed church.
So by the time we have here now, this letter is being written, it is about two years after the expulsion -- say AD 56 or so, plus or minus a year. The emperor that had expelled the Jews had died; the Jews had now returned. In the list of names given in chapter 16, which we’ll have to address in just a minute, there are a number of people here who are referred to as kinsmen:
• v. 3, “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” That seems to refer to more than simply joint workers. The word used refers to someone more like a kinsman in the race who are working with me.
• You find that more specifically in v. 7, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen,” (“my fellow Jews”, or kinsmen).
• And finally, in v. 11, “Greet my kinsman Herodion.”
So, if we accept v. 11 as part of this letter, it seems that there has been a return of Jews back to the city of Rome.
The date of the letter is most strongly determined by the reference in chapter 15 to the offering that’s been collected. In 15:25, he says, “At present, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia [the main city in Achaia is Corinth] have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When therefore I have completed this [this relief offering of funds to Jerusalem], and delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.”
Now, in 1 Corinthians 16, that offering is also referred to. It appears to be at an earlier stage of collection, however, because Paul is not talking about bringing it; here it’s still in the stage of being collected. 16:1, “Now concerning the contribution for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of the week [interesting reference to meeting on the first day of the week, which indicates that in Corinth the day of worship was no longer the Sabbath but Sunday. And if you want to say that the Apostle Paul made a mistake by having his churches in Corinth worship on the first day of the week, I’m comfortable being in a mistaken situation] each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.”
In 2 Corinthians, after the harsh letter and the restoration of the church once again, he devotes chapters 8 and 9 to this offering. 8:1, “We want you to know, brethren, about the grace of God that has been shown in the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will ….” And then in chapter 9, “Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the offering to the saints.” So, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans all refer to this offering. They must have been written at around the same time. And since Paul is talking about bringing the offering, and that the collection has already been made in Macedonia, which would mean Thessalonica and Philippi and Achaia (which would be Corinth, the main city); now the Roman church is at the end of this offering and is about to bring it to Jerusalem. After that, he hopes to visit Rome and do a mission on to Spain. So Romans is written after the offering, sometime around AD 56, probably just a year or so one way or the other at most. It’s pretty easy to date this; it’s a fairly distinct time.
As to the place from which it is written, in chapter 16, assuming for a minute that this is part of the letter, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae ….” Remember Cenchreae was on the eastern side of the isthmus; Corinth on the western side – a couple of miles apart from each other. Then he refers to Gaius in 16:23, “Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church greets you.” So he’s writing to the church in Rome, and he’s saying that Gaius, by the way, greets you. Well, we read of Gaius in 1 Corinthians (if it’s the same Gaius), as one of the early converts in 1:14 “I’m grateful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius ….” So Corinth is associated with Gaius there. Erastus in Romans 16:23 is referred to, “Erastus the city treasurer and our brother Quartus greets you.” In 2 Timothy 4:20, which seems to be directed in some ways to that issue, he speaks of Erastus, and he says “Erastus remained at Corinth.” Erastus is there associated with Corinth. And there’s one other possible reference. There is a reference here in 16:13 to Rufus, “Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord; also his mother and mine.” In the Book of Mark, in 15:21, Mark adds a little editorial comment when he says, “They [the Romans] compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.” In other words, he’s saying that he wants his readers to know that Simon of Cyrene was Alexander and Rufus’s father. Alexander and Rufus must be known to the reader. And if, (as I believe and I think that most traditional people do with regard to Mark) Mark was written to the church in Rome, a reference to Rufus at Rome would then go hand in hand with the reference here in Romans 16 to Rufus being in Rome.
So enough about the city, the makeup of the church (Jew and Gentile), date (AD 56, just after the offering has been collected and just before it’s been delivered to the church in Jerusalem), place of origin (Corinth during the 3d missionary journey) of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.