Lecture 28: Romans - Occasion
Lecture: Romans: Occasion
As to the occasion of the letter, I’m going to suggest a theory for this, and then we’ll look at the evidence. I don’t know why this is not more evident to some people who write on Romans. I believe Paul wrote Romans because of his unique view of his apostleship. If he was indeed THE apostle to the Gentiles, then here is a church out in Rome that falls under his leadership, his area of responsibility. It’s not Peter’s responsibility; it’s not a Jewish church. No one else is responsible for it. As THE apostle to the Gentiles, therefore, this is Paul’s responsibility. And so he writes as the apostle in charge of that church, even though he had nothing to do in founding it, nor did any of his disciples (like Erastus and others who worked from Ephesus, establishing churches in Laodicea, Colossae, etc.). In Galatians, he has said in 2:7-9 that when he was there [in Jerusalem], nothing was added to him, but that the church itself saw and recognized the gift that was given him. Galatians 2:6,
“And from those who were reputed to be something (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) – those, I say, who were of repute added nothing to me. But on the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for the mission to the circumcised worked also through me also for the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me [Remember that expression, “the grace that was given to me” – the grace of this apostleship], they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they would have us remember the poor, which very thing I was eager to do.”
As to remembering the poor, this is the offering that we just talked about. His mention of the grace of apostleship to the Gentiles refers to the fact that he was to the Gentile church what Peter was to the Jewish church.
If that’s true, then what we have here in Romans is a letter written by Paul to a church that he feels is under his apostolic authority and care. And this becomes fairly evident, even in the opening verses. The first seven verses are very unusual -- this is not the typical introduction. A typical letter would have been something like the first part of the first verse, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, To all God’s beloved in Rome who are called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” That would be very typical, like the Corinthian correspondence, the Thessalonian correspondence, etc. But you have this large section in between. Why? Because he’s writing to a church in which he has to establish his apostleship from the beginning. These are not his converts – he hasn’t been there before. Why is this strange man, Paul, writing to us? Well, he establishes that from the very start.
“Paul a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scripture, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord ….”
Why the reference here to the resurrection of Jesus? He doesn’t mention that in other introductions. He mentions it here because that’s where he gets his apostleship. It’s the risen Christ who has given him his apostleship. The other apostles were called during the ministry of Jesus. Paul was called by the risen Christ. So in this very introduction to a church, he wants to establish the risen Christ and he says in v. 5, “…through whom we have received grace and apostleship [same language is used in Galatians 2 regarding his receiving grace and apostleship] to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations [all the Gentiles], including yourselves, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” Paul an apostle, who has received the gift of apostleship and leadership, in order that he is the apostle to the Gentiles, in order to bring obedience of faith among the Gentiles, which includes, you, because you are a Gentile church. “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Then in the thanksgiving section, v. 8-15, he does the same thing. He establishes his relationship with the church,
“First I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness [he’s trying to build up a relationship here] whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers [I have always been praying for you], asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.”
You don’t say that to Peter’s church, but you say this to a Gentile church which falls under his authoritative leadership. And he goes on, “…that we might be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” But v. 12 is not really what he’s getting at; it’s 11. He’s going to impart some spiritual gift “…that I may establish you….” Verse 13,
“I want you to know, brethren, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented [or as the King James Version translates it, ‘thus far have been let’]), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.”
So in this salutation and thanksgiving, he’s building up his relationship. The reason he writes this letter is that he is their spiritual father, and as their apostle (“God has given me this grace of apostleship”), he wants to establish and help them to be sure that they’re on the right track. In essence, “I rejoice in what’s going on; I just want to help you in this way.” He has a unique view of his apostleship: he’s not just AN apostle, but THE apostle to the Gentiles.
Then, when he gets to chapter 15 he continues along these lines. Beginning at v. 14, “I myself am satisfied about you, brethren, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” Who is he it would matter to them that he’s satisfied? It matters that he’s satisfied because he has the responsibility over this church; he’s the apostle.
“But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God [same expression once again, right?] to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience among the Gentiles in word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Holy Spirit – so that from Jerusalem and as far away as Illyricum [the coast of Yugoslavia, opposite Italy], I have fully preached the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on another man’s foundation, [That’s why I can write you – I’m not building on anyone’s foundation here in Rome] but as it is written, ‘They shall see who have never been told of him, and that shall understand who have never heard of him.’
This is the reason [v. 22] why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while. At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia [Philippi, Thessalonica]and Achaia [Corinth] have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 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 and have 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.”
So, why does Paul write this letter? There are a number of reasons, not just a single one. One reason is that he wants to be assisted by them as he goes to Spain on a mission trip. But above all, he writes as the apostle to the Gentiles because of the grace that has been given to them, to write to establish them, and to make sure things are going well at the church in Rome, because that’s his responsibility. He had a unique view of his apostleship. Either he’s suffering from delusions of grandeur, or else he in fact has a unique calling and apostleship this way, much like Peter had as well.
So, this makes this letter then an unusually wonderful letter, perhaps the best all of Paul’s letters in this sense: here he writes to a church that he has not preached to, that he has not taught in the purpose of establishing them. So Romans is more like an epistle than a letter. It does not so much build on a prior relationship and on prior teachings, but he explains everything as carefully as he can to them. You don’t want to call it a systematic theology of Paul, because there are areas that he doesn’t deal with here. There’s not a lot of Christology, about the pre-existence of Jesus that you find in Colossians and Philippians, etc. But it is the most systematic and organized of Paul’s letters, one that doesn’t build on prior teachings that he has given them. He can build on traditions, and he talks about baptism – he builds on that. He assumes they have been taught many things. But he wants to make sure, and these are the things that are laid out in a more systematic form than any of his letters.
So the occasion of this letter makes Romans far more of an organized, epistle-like letter than the occasional nature of the letters to the Philippians, Thessalonians, and Corinthians. To call it a systematic theology, however, would be too far. It doesn’t cover everything. But it is organized to help establish a church which has not received his theological teachings up to this time (at least not directly).
So that’s what I suggest as a background to the letter, and why it is such a terrific, important letter. He’s organized these things very carefully. After his experiences with fighting in the Galatian churches over issues of justification by faith, he can bring all of that, organize it after reflection even further, and present this to the church.