Paul’s letter to the Romans has its place in the New Testament because it is the longest of Paul’s letters. It is the last of Paul’s letters-at least the last of the letters of which there is no disagreement about Paul’s authorship.
Because of the style of Romans, some treat it as if it were a systematic statement of Pauline theology. While Romans has a different ‘feel’ than other NT books, it still arises out of the (future) relationship between Paul and a particular church.
Many of the themes in Romans are found in other Pauline letters, the church as the body of Christ, justification by faith rather than the law and so on. In Romans these themes are given a longer treatment. But other important topics, such as the Lord’s Supper are missing. As is Paul’s personal story- his call, his trials and hardships. Paul does not defend his teaching and his apostolic authority.One distinctive theme in Romans is Paul’s discussion of the past and future of Israel and its relationship to the gospel.
You will notice that this letter is different from the other letters we have read. In the previous letters, Paul is writing to a church that he has founded, but Paul did not found the church in Rome. Previous letters act as Paul’s representative to the church, they, in a sense, stand in for the absent apostle as he responds to questions and crises in a particular church.
While Paul did not found the church in Rome, he does want to visit and strengthen his ties to it. Because Paul seemed to have a policy of not interfering in churches founded by others, Paul’s writing to the church in Rome seems a little odd. But, Paul wants to continue his mission to the Gentiles to the western Mediterranean and Spain and he hopes the church in Rome will help him. In a sense, Romans is Paul’s way of introducing himself to the church in Rome. There is quite a bit of scholarly consensus that Romans was written from Greece, probably Corinth, in 55 or 56 AD. But earlier events in Rome, also cause Paul to write about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles.
Historians believe that in the late 40s following rioting in Rome, much of Rome’s Jewish citizens, presumably including Jewish Christians, were forced to leave.Gentile Christians were not affected by this decree. After the emperor who issues the edict dies, (Claudius in 54) the new emperor, Nero, reverses the decree and the Jews may return. There was substantial anti-Jewish feeling in Rome. Some commentators suspect that Gentile Christians may not have been too upset to see Jewish Christians expelled. Perhaps they thought that God was somehow working through the political actions of Caesar. When the Christian Jews return home, Gentile Christians have to think about what their relationship to Jews and to Jewish Christians ought to be.
In view of all this, part of the letter is about Paul’s explanation of his work as a Jewish Christian in mission to Gentiles along with his view that God intends for Jews to be part of the Christian faith. Related to this is Paul’s concern about the offering he has collected from Gentile churches for the church in Jerusalem. This offering is to further the unity of the church and Paul wants the church in Rome to understand and support the unity.
In addition, Paul is addressing the larger problem of how Jewish and Gentile Christians ought to be in relationship with each other, now that Jewish Christians are returning to Rome. Especially given their differences in cultural practices and traditions.
Commentators divide Romans into three parts.
Chapters 1-8: Paul makes the claim that through Jesus the Messiah, God has been faithful to the covenant God established through Abraham. The covenant includes both Jews and Gentiles. Through the faithfulness of the Messiah, God redeems and saves the creation.
Chapters 9-11: God’s righteousness is worked out in and through the history of both Jews and Gentiles. Even though Israel does not believe in the Messiah, this works for God’s purposes as the means by which salvation includes the entire world.
Chapters 12-15: The Christian community must live together and reflect God’s desire that Jew and Gentile unite as one body in Christ. The Christian community must reflect who God is and what God has done for all God’s people.
It is important to spend some time thinking about the term “righteousness” and particularly “God’s righteousness”. Righteousness is a complex idea and one simple definition will not do it justice. God’s righteousness has to do with God’s covenant faithfulness. God will keep God’s promise to Israel. In the first century, Jews, while not in physical exile, were not a free people nor a free nations. They are still waiting for liberation and restoration. The phrase “God’s righteousness” was a way of affirming their trust that God would act and keep God’s promises.
Righteousness also carried a sense of a court of law. Accuser and defendant both plead their case before a judge. Righteousness was the status of the successful party. Vindicated would carry a similar idea. The idea doesn’t have to do with morality or behavior but rather status as declared by the court. Righteousness is also applicable as and activity of the judge. A righteous judge is impartial, upholds the law, punishes wrong doing, and defends the orphan and the widow- ones who had no one to defend them. The righteousness of a judge is not the same as the righteousness of those involved in the legal case.
The words “justice” and “righteousness” (and their cognates) come from the same word in Greek and Hebrew. So they have to do with covenantal faithfulness and God’s actions to restore the world, to set things right. Also the phrase “God’s righteousness” involved a sense that God would act in the real world to vindicate Israel, to judge, to reveal the truth.
Paul believes that God is acting in his time. The new age has begun through Jesus, God’s Messiah. “Righteousness” is the status of Christians but is also refers to God’s own righteousness. So in Romans, “righteousness” can be “righteousness from God” and also ” the righteousness of God”.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is an important and complex letter. It has been and continues to be a source of much discussion among Biblical scholars and theologians. It is important for us to be careful not to “miss the forest for the trees”. It is easy when reading Romans to get caught up in semantics and phrasing. Paul can write some complex sentences, not to mention entire paragraphs. We hope the outline will help guide us through the forest.
The outline, as it is reasonably detailed, will be a separate post.
Read More About It:
Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, rev. ed. (Minneapolis:Fortress Press) 1999. Chapter 14 “The Letter to the Romans”.
Knox, John, John Reumann “Romans” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Bruce M. Metzger, Roland E. Murphy eds. (New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Meyer, Paul W. “Romans” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, rev. ed.James L Mays, ed. (New York: Society of Bible Literature) 2000.
Wright, N.T. “The Letter to the Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X, Leander E. Keck,ed. (Nashville, Abingdon Press) 2002.