by Ed Gallagher
Therefore, accept one another just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.Romans 15:7
How do you suppose this letter got from Paul to the church in Rome? There was a very limited Roman postal system, used mostly for imperial correspondence. Paul’s introduction of Phoebe at the end of the letter (16:1–2) makes it probable that she was carrying the letter.
Paul was probably in Corinth when he wrote this letter (Acts 20:2, “Greece”). This supposition is based on Paul’s mention of Gaius (16:23), probably the same Gaius that was a member of the Corinthian church (1 Cor 1:14). Phoebe was from Cenchreae (modern Kechries), near Corinth.
Had Paul ever been to Rome when he wrote this letter? Apparently not, judging from Romans 15:17–29. Paul knew a lot of Roman Christians (ch. 16), whom he met while they were away from Rome, such as Priscilla and Aquila (16:3; see Acts 18:2). Perhaps such people established the Roman church, or maybe it was people who had heard Peter’s first sermon (note Acts 2:10).
What were Paul’s travel plans (according to 15:17–29)? He wrote this letter at a time when he considered his ministry complete in the eastern Mediterranean (from Jerusalem to Illyricum, 15:19) so that he desired to head West, first to Rome and then to Spain (15:17–24). But first he had to go to Jerusalem to deliver the money he had been collecting (15:25–29; cf. 1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8–9; more here and here). Since he delivered this gift to the poor saints in Jerusalem in AD 58, he is probably writing this letter in 57, more than twenty years after seeing Jesus near Damascus.
His plans to visit Rome (15:22–24) probably provides some of the motivation for Paul to write this letter: he had never been to Rome, and he wanted to send a letter ahead of his visit to explain the gospel he preached (partly because he wanted Roman financial assistance for his ministry, 15:24). What was the main controversial issue associated with Paul’s gospel message? Paul downplayed the importance of the Mosaic legislation for Gentile believers, especially in terms of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws. This teaching created controversy (as we saw in our study of Acts). What disturbing implications did some people draw from Paul’s teaching about the Law? Apparently some people thought Paul was teaching that (a) God had abandoned his covenant with Israel, and (b) God does not have any ethical requirements. Paul raises these issues at 3:1–8 and strongly asserts that God is faithful to Israel and morality is important. Much of the letter expands on these issues.
The letter probably also addresses tension between Roman Jews and Gentiles that had become acute because Jewish Christians (who had been expelled from Rome some years earlier by the emperor Claudius) had started to return in the wake of Claudius’s death in AD 54. How do you imagine these Jews felt when they found that Gentile Christians had taken over the leadership of their home church? How did the Gentiles feel when the Jews returned? Both Jew and Gentile were having difficulty figuring out how to be one integrated body, so Paul here reminds them about how the gospel affects our relationships (esp. 14:1–15:7).
The opening of the letter (1:1–7) provides a preview of some of the themes to be addressed (almost like a movie trailer). The basic facts about Jesus (vv. 3–4) were proclaimed by the prophets (v. 2) and now form the gospel message which Paul preaches (v. 1). In fact, Paul’s task is “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (v. 5). Far from preaching moral license, Paul preaches “obedience of faith,” a phrase repeated at the end of the letter (16:26). What do you think Paul means by this phrase, “obedience of faith”?
Read Romans 1:16–17. Some people perhaps thought Paul should be ashamed of his gospel, but Paul insists otherwise. Why does Paul say “to the Jew first and also to the Greek”? Jews are better prepared to receive the gospel because they have been God’s people; as Paul will say, Jews have great advantages, primarily being entrusted with the oracles of God (3:1–2).
How does the gospel reveal the righteousness of God (1:17)? There are several aspects to this point.
- Paul immediately talks about the revelation of God’s wrath against unrighteousness (1:18–3:20), which is itself an element of God’s own righteousness.
- When Paul stops talking about the problem and turns to the solution (3:21–26), he again expresses it in terms of God’s righteousness (3:21, 22, 25, 26), now “demonstrated” through Jesus’s blood (3:25), which allows God to be just (righteous) and the justifier of people with faith (3:26), even though no one is righteous, we are all guilty, as Paul so amply demonstrated in the earlier part of the letter. The gospel allows God to declare righteous those who are not righteous, while still demonstrating his own righteousness.
- It is important to note that according to Paul, this gospel plan for the revelation of God’s righteousness apart from the Law is itself attested (prophesied) by the Law and the prophets (3:21). That is, God is not turning his back on anything that he had previously revealed. His continuing faithfulness to his ancient promises and to Israel is another element of his righteousness as demonstrated through the gospel.
Paul relates several other issues to this discussion, including Abraham’s faith (ch. 4), Adam’s sin (ch. 5), baptism (ch. 6), the Law (ch. 7), life in the Spirit (ch. 8), and, again, God’s faithfulness to Israel (chs. 9–11). This extended treatment of the gospel leads to the practical point that Christians should present themselves as sacrifices (12:1), should be transformed (12:2), should be humble and think about others (12:3–5). This is the gospel in action.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the apostle’s richest discussion of the gospel, much too deep for a summary treatment, deep enough to repay a lifetime of study. His main point is clear enough: the death of Jesus provides a new way to relate to God, anticipated by the prophets, which not only ensures that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (8:1), but also calls on Christ’s followers to imitate their Savior (12:1).
Additional Questions for Discussion
At the beginning of the letter, Paul writes an unusually long greeting (1:1–7). What themes does he address in these verses?
How does Paul feel about the Roman church, according to Romans 1:8–15? See also Romans 15:17–29.
How does life in the Spirit guide the behavior of the Christian, as indicated in Romans 8:1–16?
How does Paul want the Christians in Rome to think about opposition to their faith that they face, according to Romans 8:31–39?
Paul begins talking about the practical consequences of the gospel in Romans 12:1–13. Based on this passage, how should the gospel shape Christian relationships?
There are two Bible Project videos on Romans.
Here is an article on the origins of the church in Rome, which Paul did not found.
Phoebe has become somewhat of a popular figure in modern scholarship. This 2020 Christianity Today article (to which you might not have access) tries to imagine what her role was as the letter-carrier for Romans. There’s even a novel about Phoebe. Since we know very little about Phoebe specifically, these works are obviously speculative, often with an agenda to re-imagine the roles that women played in ancient churches under the influence of Paul, and what roles they might play in modern churches.