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Romans 1:1-7 Biblical Commentary:
ROMANS 1:1-7. OVERVIEW
Paul’s opening to this letter to the church in Rome follows standard letter-writing conventions of the day with certain modifications. It was common for letters to begin with the name of the person writing the letter and the name of the person for whom it was intended. It was also common to include a brief prayer.
Paul could have satisfied these conventions by saying simply, “Paul to the church at Rome, Grace to you and peace.” However, he expands considerably on that short greeting to establish who he is (v. 1), where he gets his authority (vv. 1, 5), the nature of his mission (v. 5), and the fact that the Christians in Rome are called (v. 6) and are saints (v. 7). He also crams a good deal of theology into this greeting. We are tempted to pass quickly over this salutation quickly to get to the body of the letter, but this tightly packed greeting will yield a great deal of meaning if we take the time to study it phrase by phrase.
This salutation differs from the salutations of other Pauline epistles, in part because his relationship with the church at Rome differs from his relationship with churches that he established. He has not been to Rome and is not personally acquainted with the Christians there, so he takes more care than usual to establish who he is and what he is about. He hopes to visit Rome on his way to Spain, and hopes “to be helped on my way there by you, if first I may enjoy your company for a while” (15:24). He clearly hopes for their support for his mission to Spain.
In other epistles to churches, Paul includes others with himself in his greetings. His omission of co-senders here makes him solely responsible for the content of this letter and makes this letter more personal than most.
ROMANS 1:1: A SERVANT APOSTLE
1 Paul, a servant (Greek: doulos) of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Good News of God,
“Paul.” Until his conversion, Paul was known by his Hebrew name, Saul. The Latin name, Paul, means “small.” Paul may have adopted the Latin name as a mark of humility, but probably did so to facilitate his travels throughout the empire.
“a servant” (doulos). There are two Greek words for servant, doulos and diakanos (the latter being where we get our word “deacon”). Both imply humble service, but doulos is the more humble of the two. It can be translated “slave,” an appropriate translation here. Paul is establishing that he does not set his own agenda, but is acting under orders.
For Roman Christians, the phrase, “doulos of Jesus Christ” would bring to mind “doulos of Caesar.” Slaves of Caesar, serving in the imperial household, enjoy substantial prestige. Even though slaves, their association with the emperor confers on them a good deal of respect. Some of them wield a good deal of clout.
For Jewish Christians (and there were surely Jewish Christians in Rome), the phrase “doulos of Jesus Christ” would bring to mind the Old Testament identification of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets as God’s doulos (Genesis 26:24; Joshua 1:2; Isaiah 20:3; Amos 3:7) in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament.
“called to be an apostle.” Having established his humble status as a doulos, Paul now tells the other side of the story. God has called him, just as God called Abraham (Genesis 12:1), Moses (Exodus 3), Isaiah (Isaiah 6), and other prophets—thus allying Paul with the great icons of Jewish history. God called Paul to be an apostle—a message-bearer—one of a select group privileged to see Jesus and chosen by Jesus to carry on his work.
“set apart for the Good News of God.” Paul is a Pharisee, and Pharisees are known as separated people—separate and holy. However, for many Pharisees, separateness occasions spiritual pride.
It is worthy of note that the Pharisees set themselves apart—separated themselves from common people—a separateness that became an occasion for spiritual pride. However, Paul, called to be an apostle, has been set apart, not because of his own choosing, but by the will of God. Elsewhere, Paul says that God set him apart before he was born (Galatians 1:15).
ROMANS 1:2. PROMISED BEFORE THROUGH HIS PROPHETS
2 which he promised before through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,
While many, perhaps most, Roman Christians are Gentiles, Paul includes this verse for the sake of Jewish Christians. He makes it clear that the Gospel that he preaches is not his invention, but was promised by Old Testament scriptures. “God had spoken persistently through type, symbol, and figure of the blessing to be made available through the One who would come” (Briscoe). “The words of the prophets, long fastened under lock and key, are now set free…. Now we can see and understand what is written, for we have an ‘entrance into the Old Testament’ (Luther)” (Barth, 28).
“promised.” “Paul does not speak of prediction in advance by the prophets, but rather of promise in advance” (Witherington, 32). The promise began with the call of Abram, where God promised to make a great nation of Abram and also promised, “All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:1-3).
“his prophets.” By “prophets,” Paul most likely includes people such as Moses (see Acts 3:21-22), and David (see Acts 2:29-31) who are not authors of Old Testament books that we usually label as prophetic.
ROMANS 1:3-4: DECLARED TO BE THE SON OF GOD WITH POWER
3 concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, 4 who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead (Greek: nekron—plural—dead ones), Jesus Christ our Lord (Greek: kurion—from kurios)
Jesus was “born of the seed of David” (v. 3)—is the Son of David, a member of a royal family. Paul could have mentioned the promise of the holy scriptures (v. 2) again here, because the scriptures promised that the Messiah would be descended from David (Isaiah 11:1, 10; Jeremiah 23:5-6).
Jesus is also “Son of God” (v. 4). He was David’s son “according to the flesh” (v. 3) and God’s Son “according to the Spirit of holiness” (v. 4).
“with power” (v. 4). Jesus demonstrated great power even prior to the resurrection—over demons, physical ailments, storms, and even death itself (John 11). However, his ultimate demonstration of power was the resurrection. That power is multiplied infinitely as his resurrection, the first fruits of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20), confers the promise of resurrection on his disciples.
“according to the Spirit of holiness” (v. 4). Does Paul intend the “Spirit of holiness” to mean Jesus’ spirit or the Holy Spirit? Probably the latter.
“by the resurrection from the dead“ (v. 4). This verse could be interpreted to mean that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God at his resurrection. Scholars agree, however, that this could not be Paul’s intent. Paul clearly believed that Christ possessed Godly qualities from the beginning (Philippians 2:5-11).
The word for “dead” (Greek: nekron) is plural. Paul sees Jesus’ resurrection as “the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).
“Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 4).
• “Jesus” is his human name.
• “Christ” is the Greek word for “anointed,” and is the equivalent of the Jewish word “Messiah,” which also means “anointed.”
• “Lord” (kurios) refers to Jesus’ exalted status as Lord and Master of all. Jewish Christians would know that kurios was also used frequently in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament used by many Jews as their primary version of the scriptures) to translate YHWH (Yahweh)—God’s name. “Lord,” then, hints strongly at Christ’s Godly status.
ROMANS 1:5-6: THROUGH WHOM WE HAVE RECEIVED GRACE
5 through whom we received grace and apostleship, for obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name’s sake; 6 among whom you are also called to belong to Jesus Christ;
“through whom we received grace and apostleship” (v. 5). It is Jesus Christ (v. 4) through whom Paul has received grace and apostleship. We should probably read the “we” in this phrase as a “royal we”—referring solely to Paul. While Roman Christians have received grace, they have not received apostleship.
Grace is unearned favor—a gift from God. Paul was a recipient of grace, beginning with his experience on the road to Damascus. He had been guilty of persecuting Christians, which should have disqualified him for Christian service—but Christ showed him grace by choosing him to be an apostle—a “sent person”—a man chosen for a particular mission, in this case a mission to the Gentiles. Christ showed him grace, not only by choosing him, but also by empowering him for his mission. Without grace, no called person has any hope of fulfilling his/her calling.
“for obedience of faith” (v. 5). It seems odd to see this phrase in this epistle—particularly in these early verses where Paul is establishing the scope of the entire letter. We rightly think of this epistle as a treatise on faith and grace. Obedience would seem to be something altogether different—if not opposed to grace, then at least rendered unnecessary by it. Paul, however, reminds us that obedience is inextricably linked to faith—is a component of faith—an outgrowth of faith. That becomes clearer when we consider the significance of Paul’s language throughout this pericope.
• Paul spoke about being “a slave (doulos) of Jesus Christ” (v. 1). A slave is obligated to obey his master.
• He spoke of being “called to be an apostle” (v. 1). A call falls flat—has no meaning—unless the called person responds to the call—unless he/she obeys.
• He spoke of Jesus Christ as Lord (v. 4), and a Lord expects obedience from subjects.
• He says here that his call to the Gentiles is a call from Christ “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles. To be obedient to his calling, Paul must also help the Gentiles to be obedient to theirs.
“for his name’s sake” (v. 5). Many people today consider their name to be no more than a label. More perceptive people recognize, however, that their name equates to their reputation—and a good reputation is, indeed, more valuable as gold.
Our lives bring honor or shame to those close to us. A parent whose reputation in the community is good brings honor to his/her family, while a drunken parent brings them embarrassment and shame. A young person who is a good student brings honor to his/her parents, while a young person who hangs out with the wrong crowd brings them shame. In like manner, we who wear Christ’s name bring him honor by our obedience or shame by our disobedience.
“among whom you” (v. 6). Christ called Paul “for obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name’s sake”—literally, “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations, on behalf of His name” (v. 5). Now Paul reminds the Romans that they are among the Gentiles that he has been called to serve. While he was not the founder of the church at Rome, he nevertheless speaks with authority because he is obeying his Christ-given call.
“are also called to belong to Jesus Christ” (v. 6). In verse 1, Paul mentioned being called by Christ to be an apostle. Now he tells these Roman Christians that they, too, have been called—”called to belong to Jesus Christ” (v. 6). Such a call involves both privilege and responsibility—very much like being born to a royal family. While the Roman Christians are free to obey or disobey, we can imagine all the hosts of heaven sitting on the edge of their seats to see how they will do—cheering those who obey their call and weeping over those who fail to respond.
ROMANS 1:7. CALLED TO BE SAINTS
7 to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints (Greek: pasin tois ousin en Rhome agapetois theou kletois hagiois—literally “To all the ones being in Rome, loved ones of God, called holy ones, saints):
Grace (Greek: charis) to you and peace (Greek: eirene) from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“to all who are in Rome, beloved of God” This surely includes Jewish Christians as well as Gentiles.
“called to be saints” (hagiois). Note that “saints” is plural. The New Testament uses this word quite differently than we use it today. We typically use it in its singular form to speak of St. Peter or St. Paul or a person “who is a saint”—by which we mean a person who has done a generous deed or has exhibited some other “saintly” quality.
In the New Testament, the word is plural in 56 of its 57 occurrences, and the one exception implies more than one saint (Philippians 4:21—”Greet every saint in Christ Jesus”). “Saints” always brings to mind a community of saints—a community of believers. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that hagiois also means “holy ones”—”separated”—”set apart”—”dedicated to God.” “Saints” therefore speaks to the quality of life to which believers are called as well as to the community to which they belong.
“Grace (charis) to you.” The typical Greek greeting is chaire—”joy”—although by Paul’s time it has devolved into a word of greeting that has lost specific meaning. Paul does not use chaire here, but charis, a word with a similar sound but one invested with substantial meaning. Grace (charis) is central to this epistle. Grace is the gift of God that justifies us (3:24). Grace is that on which the promise rests (4:16). Sin is abundant, but grace abounds even more (5:20). We are not under law but under grace (6:14). We are no longer dependent on good works, but on grace (11:5).
“and peace” (eirene). The typical Jewish greeting is shalom, which the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) usually translates eirene. Thus Paul incorporates both a variation of the usual Greek greeting and the usual Jewish greeting into the blessing that he offers these Roman Christians.
Both eirene (Greek) and shalom (Hebrew) can refer to an inner kind of peace––the kind of well-being that is derived from a deep relationship with God––the kind of wholeness that comes from having the image of God, once shattered by sin, restored in the believer.
Elsewhere, Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)–in other words, “If God is for us, who cares who might be against us?” or “If God is for us, what does it matter who might be against us?” A close relationship with God confers on the believer a confidence that cannot be shaken by any opponent or any danger. It would be appropriate to call that state of mind “peace”–eirene (Greek)–shalom (Hebrew).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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