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The Epistle to the Romans

The letter to the Romans was written by St Paul while staying at the house of Gaius (16:23) in Corinth[16 p.62]. This suggests that it was written while Paul was imprisoned there, a little before Festus became governor, perhaps in 58 CE [17 p.232, 234]. The letter is a balanced statement addressed to a mixed group of gentile and diaspora Jew converts. It mentions the names of twenty men and nine women there; the names show a mixture of Roman, Greek and Hebrew descent[17 p.236].

The amount of Jewish influence and the number of references to the Old Testament are surprising; perhaps there were a lot of Jews in Rome at this time. Paul makes many of the same points as he did in Galatians but, probably following criticism of that rather hastily-written letter, he expresses himself more carefully this time. He omits what they already knew well: the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the second coming and our eternal life in heaven.

The traditional way of thinking about Paul was to ask "does he believe in rules or relationships"? Augustine[14] and Luther[15] found he believed in Justification by Faith. This could flow naturally from his own experience of having been a persecutor of the church who received forgiveness and a new mission — a walking illustration of God's power to save and transform sinners. A recent alternative that seems productive is to view his writings as discussion of our mystical union with Christ.[1] One certainly shouldn't regard Paul as rule-bound for his day; he was astonishingly radical and he fought for religious freedom with all his energy, even challenging Peter to his face in what seems to have been a bitter row.

John Drane[2] says of this book:

a) it can best be regarded as a careful re-statement of the issues dealt with in Galatians, which had been written hastily and had proved capable of being misread, and reviewed in the light of lessons learned at Corinth. In particularly, he explains clearly in writing why our "freedom in Christ" is not an excuse for loose living. By the time he wrote the letter to the Romans he knew that it would probably be circulated widely and read in the other churches he had founded and, particularly critically, in Jerusalem.

b) the letter comprises:

  1. How Christians know God (chapters 1–8);
  2. Israel and salvation (chapters 9–11);
  3. How Christians should behave (chapters 12–15), especially "love is the fulfilling of the Law" (Romans 13:10).

c) the letter is noteworthy in that despite dating from 20 odd years after the resurrection it contains no sign of any hierarchy or structure within the church[2 p.395].

Commentary

1:1

is remarkably similar to Wisdom 14 in the Apocrypha; it probably rehearses a standard Jewish argument.

1:5

cf. Romans 16:26.

1:7

The letter emphasises unity between Jews and Greeks; cf. 15:5.

1:11

cf. Jeremiah 31:34: God's Holy Spirit leads every Christian to understand God better, but since God is beyond our understanding, none of us has a monopoly of understanding. We can all learn from each other.

1:16

The Roman christians might well have been ashamed of the Gospel, because they worshipped Jesus who had been executed as a criminal, and denied that the Emperor was a god. They were secretive about their worship, perhaps encouraged the thinking evident in passages such as 1 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 1:9 and 1 Timothy 3:16. The consequence was that their holy communions were widely believed to involve cannibalism, and Christianity was regarded as a debauched religion.

1:18

The reformed Paul reverted momentarily to the pharisee Saul in this rant against the debauchery of the gentiles. It seems that the gentiles he had in mind were those who were opposing the Gospel. His argument is that they, not the Christians, were debauched.

1:26

This verse is the only reference in canonical scripture to lesbianism.

1:27

The Jews regarded the Gentiles as steeped in all types of immorality. Certainly Paul's letters sometimes show his horror at what Christians are doing (1 Corinthians 5:1 and 1 Corinthians 6:8f). See also Leviticus 18:22, Deuteronomy 22:5–6, 1 Timothy 1:10.

2:12

People sometimes ask what happened to the people who lived before the law was given; were they disadvantaged before God? We are not told the answer to this question; we know that those who believe are saved, but not that those who do not believe are lost.[3 p.62] However, Swete[4] thinks that the parable of the Sheep and the Goats answers the question — see comment on Luke 19:12.

The arguments of Romans 2:12f and Amos 1–2 show that God will judge everyone righteously. Those who lived before the law was given are in the same position as those who lived in gentile countries and never heard it. Romans 4 cites Abraham as one example of a person who received righteousness, and with it, one supposes, salvation, as an unmerited gift from God, as a result of good qualities that God, who knows what is in people's hearts, saw in him.

Romans 4:16 is careful to say that such salvation is available not just to descendants of Abraham, but to all who share his faith. See also Romans 5:13, but note that Romans 5:16 indicates it does not let us off the hook.

See also Luke 2:12.

2:17

This verse contains an important clarification: when Paul talks about "the law" he means the Old Covenant, the Jewish Torah, through which they hoped to obtain salvation. He does not mean civil law. That means the we who are "not under the law" are still to be good citizens by obeying the civil law.

3:1

This verse appears to present a paradox when compared with Romans 3:9, but the answer lies in Hebrews 4:2, and understanding the concept of the Mercy Seat. Those who read God's word do not automatically establish contact with him. They Jews had access to God, but operated as if he was remote. They had expiation for sins through the Mercy Seat (the area of the lid of the Ark that was between the Cherubim, representing God sitting in heaven with Cherubim around him).

3:9

See Romans 3:1.

3:10–18

cf. Psalm 14:3, Psalm 53:3.

3:20

The Law was to give us knowledge of sin; as repeated in Romans 5:20 and Hebrews 10:4. The Sermon on the Mount developed it from relating to external things to internal things. No-one can fully obey Jesus's enhanced Law, so we must all confess to sin and seek God's mercy. See comment on Psalm 1:2.

3:23

See 1 Kings 8:46, Daniel 7:10, Revelation 20:12 and Appendix 2 Sin.

3:24

See Appendix 2 Heaven.

3:28

See James concerning the risk of misinterpreting this verse. cf. Galatians 2:16.

4:1

Paul cites Abraham as one example of a person who received righteousness (Genesis 15:6), and with it, one supposes, salvation, as an unmerited gift from God, as a result of good qualities that God, who knows what is in people's hearts, saw in him. Romans 4:16 is careful to say that such salvation is available not just to descendants of Abraham, but to all who share his faith. See also Romans 5:13, but note that verse 5:16 indicates it does not let us off the hook.

4:3

The writer of James 2:21 seems to think this verse is open to misinterpretation.

4:4

cf. Leviticus 19:13, Matthew 20:1–16 (the parable of the workers in the vineyard), Luke 10:7.

4:16

Abraham preceded the Law given at Sinai so the promises given to him were independent of it.

4:17

"things that are not" refers to Abraham's offspring — he had none, and he was very old, "as good as dead" (:19)!

4:19

What is impossible ordinarily is often possible with God.

4:22

Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness because at the end of the day, faith is all that God requires of us. Righteous behaviour is a sign of salvation, not a pre-requisite. But we should also take account of the requirements that the Apostles decided to lay upon gentiles: "to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood" (Acts 15:19–20).

4:25

Sometimes people argue about whether Jesus achieved salvation by paying a debt we owe, or opening a door God's resources, or whatever. This verse shoes that these are both factors: he paid a debt by his death, and made restoration available by his resurrection. cf. Isaiah 53.

5:1

Romans chapters 5–6 expand the idea of inheritance hinted at in 1 Peter 1:4. Our natural inheritance is weakness, slavery to sin, and death, but in Baptism we identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus (Colossians 2:12) through whom we are raised to a new life, whose inheritance is freedom, access to God's power, and eternal life.

5:1

Reconciliation with God is prerequisite to access to him. This truth is behind the priestly function of mediation between God and creation; somebody who is reconciled to God has access to him, and can mediate for somebody who is not reconciled. Thus everybody who is "in Christ" is part of the "kingdom of priests".

5:3

There are two possible reactions to suffering: Paul is describing a positive reaction, which should be the result in Christians because we trust God for our futures and because he will not test us beyond our strength. However, suffering (or fear of it) can lead to negative reactions like bitterness, withdrawal, resignation, despair.

Paul was writing to Christians whose experience of suffering was extreme, as it was during much of the time of the early church, from when Jesus commissioned the Disciples to be suffering Apostles (Matthew 10:17) up to the persecution under Nero. There must have been considerable temptation to slip into negative reactions; otherwise 1 Peter 1:6 would not have been written.

It would be ridiculous to allow passages like this one, Matthew 10:17 and 1 Peter 1:6 to feed our fears. Since Satan would doubtless want to do that, it should be regarded as a temptation and resisted with the Armour of God — Ephesians 6:11–18. Christians in the West are unlikely to suffer physically for their faith, so we should be no less zealous than those early Christians who faced far higher obstacles than we do. And Matthew 10:17 shows that when our mission does involve physical danger the Lord warns us beforehand, and Matthew 10:23 allows us to escape.

5:3–5

A comparable sequence of graces can be found in 2 Peter 1:6–7.

5:5

This verse clarifies how we are saved through grace and faith. When we have faith the Holy Spirit indwells us, and he brings God's grace.

5:8

The sudden jump to the present tense in this verse is significant.[5]

5:12

This verse is used to support the doctrine of Original Sin, though Carr[6 p.231] says it is ambiguous, and Paul's objective seems to be to link the ideas of sin occurring at both the individual and social level; an individual is affected by living in a sinful society, and society is affected by the sinful individuals within it.

A person can only grasp the concept of sin once they have received the message of salvation. "Original Sin means that all of us, in all our actions, participate in sin. But it doesn't follow that all of us are equally to blame for sin and its effects; so the doctrine should not be used for assigning blame. The confession that Jesus is the saviour of the world means we all need saving — we're all caught up in the dynamics of sin. That's the root of the doctrine: it teaches fundamental human solidarity before God, in which we're all equally in need of grace."[18]

5:13

This verse may appear to let gentiles off the hook, but verse 5:16 indicates it does not. It is not that there is no sin without the law, just that it cannot be measured.

5:17

Paul is saying that God wants to give us not just one free gift but two: reconciliation to God through the removal of our sins, and a new order in which the death and scheming that fill the Old Testament are no longer inevitable (though manay still choose them rather than new life). We should promote God's kingdom by working for peace and health ("Shalom") for all.

5:20

The Law was to give us knowledge of sin; see Romans 3:20, Hebrews 10:4. See comment on Psalm 1:2.

6:2

The meaning of the phrase "dead to sin" is explained in verses 3 and 4, and the results in 5 onwards.

6:3

cf. Galatians 3:27. The meaning of the phrase "baptised into Christ" is clarified by comparing it with "baptised into Moses" (1 Corinthians 10:2) — see baptism in the Appendix.

6:4

Christians should be "dead to sin" because they have received a very peculiar gift: death by proxy!

6:12

The plural word "their" seems to relate the passions to the bodies; in other words, Paul is saying that this weakness is associated with our flesh so when we die we will leave it behind.

6:15

Cf. James 2:17.

6:22

The fundamental feature of our salvation is redemption from slavery to sin; the other benefits flow from that.

7:8

There have been calls for the AV word "concupiscence" to be replaced with the more familiar "lust".[1 p.124]

7:15

These verses are the key to understanding that spiritual warfare is occurring within us. The very fact that we regret our actions is the sign of our repentance, and the first step along the road to salvation.

8:1

Throughout the chapter we see that we should do good because we are beginning to reflect the nature of our heavenly father, and not because we are subject to law. Verses 4, 5, 12, 15, an 29 refer. cf. Psalm 146; God keeps his own laws because those laws describe his nature, and as we grow in likeness to him they become our nature too. The chapter addresses three basic needs, which correspond to three basic fears, from which the Spirit seeks to set us free:

  1. need for acceptance; fear of rejection
  2. need for significance; fear of loss of life or of identity
  3. need for achievement; fear of failure and fate

On account of the Fall into Sin we have fallen into fear. A fallen person says "I am surrounded by threats, and doomed to die anyway. I am afraid of being blamed for things. I am afraid of losing what I have". And fear can lead a person to do dreadful things like murder. A Christian should have a very different attitude: "God who owns everything surrounds me. God waits to welcome me into heaven. God will give me what I need until then, and when I die I will be vindicated and inherit everything [Philippians 2:9]." God's love and power should free us to love people. See also Matthew 13:24.

Freedom from fear of Condemnation

8:1

There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (see John 15:5 for an explanation of that phrase). However, Christians are aware of their sin ("convicted"); the differences between condemnation and conviction are as follows:

Condemnation is the work of the Enemy and points out general weakness, so that we feel bad, and feel that we are separated from God and unworthy to do anything for him.

Conviction is the work of the Spirit and points out specific sins so that we can let God deal with them, restoring fellowship with God so that we can minister confidently.[7 p.51]

8:2

The vicious circle of sin and death; cf. Romans 7:18–19. The tension between an eternal spirit and a dying body is painful, and we "groan in travail" as a result (but see also Revelation 18).

Freedom from fear of failure

8:3

The law is ineffective, but Christ is our sin offering. The Old Testament sacrifices dealt with specific sins, but not the fundamental tendency to sin. Christ's sacrifice has far greater power, being able to tackle the problem at source by remaking the sinner. In so doing it expels sin so that the law's demands are met at last. The sinner, being remade, has a new nature. The old nature is powerless to control our lives and so is as good as dead. Our old nature does in fact die when our body dies, leaving the new nature which God can accept into heaven (v 10). By identifying with the new nature that the Spirit is giving him the sinner ensures his salvation to eternal life.

8:4

But liberty is not the same as licence; we have an obligation to God's Holy Spirit.

Freedom from fear of death

8:10

Why do we need bodies? Because the Spirit indwells them — see 1 Corinthians 6:15f.

8:11

We see that our mortal bodies will be resurrected too. This sequence mirrors what happened to Jesus, dying on the cross and the resurrected to glory (see also v 18). The promise of resurrection does not make bodily pain any less painful. Are our bodies will be raised by power the of Holy Spirit within. See 1 Corinthians 15.

Freedom from fear of rejection (vv. 14–17)

8:14–16

The word "sons" in verse 14 is a traditional phrase which might seem politically incorrect; Paul changes it to "children" in verse 16f to make it absolutely clear that all Christians, not just male ones, will inherit with Christ "suffering as well as glory".[17 p.297]

8:17

We share everything given to Christ (also see Romans 8:32); not spiritual poverty, nor triumphalism, but even Jesus's relationship with the Father, as explained in Romans 8:22. See also Matthew 6:9.

8:19

See Animals.

8:21

The words "bondage to decay" give a spiritual dimension to the second "law" of thermodynamics. This bondage is not evident in Genesis chapter 1 which describes events before the Fall.

8:22

(continued from :17) There is a balance between now and not yet. Jesus used the same analogy of labour in John 16:21.

8:26

cf. Exodus 2:23.

8:28

cf. Jeremiah 29:11. This is the reason why we should give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

8:29

People discuss this verse as if the word predestined meant that some people are doomed to become Christians, and others not, regardless of what they want. I do not think that is what Paul means. God is outside time and sees the beginning and end of a process as simultaneous things, like the words at the beginning and end of this line. He sees already what choices we will make. Jesus's redeeming work makes additional choices open to us, and God knew in advance who would take those choices. None of that diminishes our freedom of choice one iota.

Becoming "like his son" is not as straightforward a concept as one might think, because the bible contains descriptions of him as a man, as a resurrected man, and as God, and in the form of a man (Revelation 1). Which one does it mean? Perhaps we will reflect each of these at different stages in our lives; at the moment we walk the earth in human form; we will be resurrected; we will share Christ's glory.

Freedom from fear of fate vv. 31–39.

8:31

cf. Psalm 27:1.

8:32

"By virtue of the creation and, still more, of the incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see"[8]cf. Ephesians 1:22.

8:33

Paul seems to be linking an apparently Messianic idea in Isaiah 50:8–9a with the fate of all Christians.

8:36

Paul quotes Psalm 44:22, which seems to be about the suffering of God's people. Yet death is not the end for a Christian; it is scarecely something to be feared or regretted, when compared with God's glory.

9:5

The lack of punctuation in the original text makes this verse ambiguous. It might confirm categorically that Jesus is God, but can be interpreted otherwise.[9]

9:8

Perhaps the key difference is between natural and spiritual inheritance. Natural heirs inherit looks, language, and perhaps wealth and land. Spiritual heirs inherit a special relationship with God and creation.

9:15

Paul quotes Exodus 33:19.

9:19

cf. Job 38:2, Job 40:2.

9:21

The imagery of potter and clay also appears in Isaiah 29:16, Isaiah 41:25, Isaiah 45:9, Isaiah 64:8, and Jeremiah 18:1–11.

9:25

"Osee" in the Authorized Version means Hosea, probably indicating fulfilment of Hosea 1:10 and Hosea 2:23; cf. Galatians 3:6–9.

10:4

Though "Christ is the end of the Law" so we are no longer under the law, we should be deeply suspicious of any logic that appears to justify breaking the law. Jesus said "I no longer call you servants but friends". The change is not in what we do but why we do it. Jesus also said that he had not come to abolish the Law, so the house rules have not changed, but now we should be able to understand why they are so. We obey because we love the Father, and we understand his reasoning, rather than out of blind obedience. See also Galatians 3:10.

10:9

This verse summarises the whole gospel.

10:10

This verse puts salvation by faith clearly.

10:13

See comments in Appendix 2 Judgment.

10:15

cf. Isaiah 52:7.

11:9

This verse quotes Psalm 69:22–23.

11:21

See Appendix 2 Judgement.

11:23

The restoration of the Jews is conditional on repentance.

12:1

Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 emphasize our union with Christ, while in Ephesians and Colossians Paul emphasizes Christ's headship over the church.[10 p.46] cf. 1 Corinthians 12:6–11, 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11–16, 1 Peter 4:10.

If we accept that God is omnipotent, it follows that we are totally subject to him. Wilful disobedience is an insult to God's greatness, because it makes our will as important as his. Men and women receive God's mercy equally and are both totally under God's rule and should both respond whole-heartedly.

12:2

The natural mind of a fallen person cannot perceive God. Paul talks of transforming minds in the same way as we do when we say "I changed my mind" (literally "repented"): it includes a change of heart, affecting beliefs, values, thoughts words and actions. The result of our transformation is right judgement so that we agree with God what is best, and our will matches his.

12:3

The renewal of our mind leads not only to new insights about God but also to a new view of ourselves.

12:4

"No amount of prayer will give sight to an ear, but the ear is part of a body and the eye of that body means that the whole body can see".[11]

12:6

The gifts in this list are not just spiritual, or just intellectual, or just practical; they all involve our whole being. This passage follows the challenge to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, implying that we should "approach the whole subject in an attitude of prayerful expectancy. Dedication always precedes revelation. When you dedicate your body to God as a living sacrifice then you will discover where you fit into His Body."[12 p.31–2] The list does not include evangelism, because these are gifts for building up God's people.[12 p.54] See also Appendix 2 Body of Christ.

12:10

Honour one another above yourselves: cf. Jesus washing his disciples' feet in John 13:1–17.

12:13

Hospitality: cf. the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:29.

12:16

The contrast between dancing and mourning is clear in Matthew 11:16–17.

12:19

cf. Matthew 5:39f. Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35, but the same idea appears in Leviticus 19:18.

12:20

See comment on Proverbs 25:21–22 which may be Paul's source. There is no point in urging them to do things that make for peace because their hunger affects the abilty of the brain to perceive the most sensible course of action.[13]

13:1

We are citizens both of our earthly countries and of Heaven. We have duties to each (Mark 12:13–17), cf. 2 Samuel 1:14. However if the civil authorities try to contradict God then we must obey God rather than men (Acts 4:18–20, Acts 5:29).

13:8

This may refer to avoiding debt, though in 1 Corinthians 6:7 this is achieved in the New Testament economy by telling the lender not to impose any obligation on the borrower to repay, rather than telling the needy not to borrow.

13:9–10

These verses make an important connection between the detailed commandments of the Old Testament and the simplicity of Jesus's "love God and neighbour" (Matthew 22:37–40); see Appendix 2:Law.

13:12

See comment on Exodus 27:1. See also Ephesians 6, Colossians 3:10.

13:14

God wants us to be Christ-like (cf. Luke 6:40). A good way of encouraging a person to grow into something is to treat them as if they were already there. That is how God treats us.[3 p.163]

14:1

The thrust of this chapter is not that we shouldn't judge; we should be clear in our minds who are our fellow Christians. Presumably we should make this judgment on membership of a recognised church and assent to the creeds. But having decided that, we should regard them as our equals in other judgments such as Sunday observance, eating fish on Fridays, or whatever. See also 1 Corinthians 8:7f.

14:2

Although Paul speaks in terms of weaker and stronger individuals, some see evidence of two strands of Christiainity[19]. The church was becoming divided as one group scorned the attitudes of another; Paul urged mutual respect. cf. Daniel 1:8–16, Matthew 6:33, Mark 7:18–19, John 4:32, Romans 14:17–22.

14:11

The quotation is from Isaiah 45:23.

14:17

cf. Mark 7:18–19, Romans 14:2.

15:13

Paul prays that the Holy Spirit will give joy and hope, so these things do not come naturally.

15:25

As Paul goes to Jerusalem bearing the gift from churches, and knowing that trouble may lie in store for him there, he follows in the footsteps of Jesus who went up to Jerusalem with his face "set like a flint" to make his sacrifice on the cross.

16:1–2

Cenchrea: see 1 Corinthians "Context". The words used in the request that the Roman Christians should welcome Phoebe suggest that she carried the letter from Corinth to Rome, and the Gaius described as Paul's host in verse 23 is the one from Corinth in 1 Corinthians 1:14, making it highly likely that the letter was written in Corinth [17 p.232, 234].

16:3–4

Priscilla and Aquila: see Appendix 1 People: Prisca.

16:5f

Gooder[17 p.241] sees five separate churches identified in verses 5, 10, 11, 14 and 15.

16:7

The mention of Junia as an Apostle is interesting because it is thought to be a woman's name.

16:23

Gaius: see comments on 16:1–2.

16:26

The ending returns to the theme of the opening in Romans 1:5.

References:

  1. Campbell, Gordon Bible: the Story of the King James Version (Oxford: OUP, 2010)
  2. Drane, David Introduction to the New Testament Oxford: Lion, 1986 & 1999
  3. C S Lewis Mere Christianity Glasgow: Fontana 1952/London: Fount, 1977
  4. Swete, Dr H B The Parables of the Kingdom Glasgow University Press, 1920
  5. Scripture Union Closer to God Bible reading notes for 21 October 2003
  6. Carr, E. Handbook of Pastoral Studies London: SPCK, 1997
  7. Leach, John Leading Worship that Connects
  8. Pierre Tielhard de Chardin
  9. Mounce Basics of Biblical Greek Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993
  10. Dulles, Avery Models of the Church New York: Doubleday, 1974
  11. Watchman Nee The Normal Christian Life Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1963 edn
  12. Hughes, Selwyn Discovering your place in the Body of Christ Basingstoke: Marshalls, 1982
  13. "Psychiatrist Bruce Perry" quoted in New Scientist 10 February 2007 p42–43
  14. Augustine of Hippo
  15. Luther, M
  16. Fee, G D The First Epistle to the Corinthians Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987
  17. Paula Gooder Phoebe London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018
  18. Professor Ian McFarland interviewed on the back page (p.56) of Church Times 20 April 2019
  19. Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB in Gospel according to Phoebe? reviewing Scott McKnight "Reading Romans backwards: A gospel in search of peace in the midst of the empire" (SCM 2019) Church Times 8 November 2019 p.29

© David Billin 2002–2020