To all God's beloved
1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Throughout the year, millions of letters pour into Washington, D.C. Some go to Congress, some go to the White House, some go to the governmental agencies best known by an alphabet soup of acronyms: HUD, DOD, NIH, IRS, FBI. These epistles complain, plead, and cry out for help, and they are directed to Washington because the city is a center of power. It is a city that has power to make things happen, for good or ill, across this country and around the world.
How can this power be defined? It is surely more than a set of duties and responsibilities described by the U.S. Constitution. As much as anything, it is seen in the "power people" within the beltway that fill the federal buildings and law firms of the nation's capital. "Power people" push legislation and pull strings to make things happen; "power people" trade opinions and favors and access to people even more powerful than themselves.
When the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he addressed it to the center of power in the ancient world. Rome was the city that had power to make things happen, for good or ill, across the Italian peninsula and around the known world.
Paul sent his letter to “power people” but they were not the kind of people we ordinarily think of as having power. He did not address the Emperor or the senate, nor did he seek the attention of the various advisors and counselors who control what we ordinarily think of as the levers of power. We suspect that the church at Rome consisted mostly of what some would call lower class folks: slaves and freed slaves, day laborers and petty craftspeople--those on the bottom rung of Roman society. They were not “power people” in the material sense. But they were power people. They were God’s beloved. Think about it. If you want position and status, there is no greater position, no greater status, than to be loved by the Lord God almighty.
But let us begin at the beginning with our scripture today. Paul follows the letter writings conventions of the ancient world. In that time, the first thing you put in a letter was who the letter was from and the second thing was to whom the letter was sent. Thus, the letter begins, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle.” Paul is a genius, but he is not rejoicing in his own genius. He is speaking as an emissary, bound to perform his duty. He is speaking as a servant, not a master. Now Paul was a giant of the faith. Indeed, we cannot imagine Christianity without him. But the essential theme he is expounding in Romans is not from Paul, but from another world altogether.
As we study the scripture, we are always working with this paradox. The people of the scriptures were people who lived in a time and place. They were part of a culture, they had, to some extent, the limitations and expectations that we find in every human culture. And this is the kind of thing we study when we study the background of the scripture. For example, when we study Paul we note that he was a Greek speaker, and he used the Greek OT, the Septuagint, and he was a traveler, a merchant, urbane, sophisticated, very much a part of Greco-Roman culture. And that kind of thing is good to know and helps us to interpret the Bible, but ultimately the Bible goes utterly beyond all that, and Paul speaks the word of God to all people of all time.
Paul is aware of this mission. That is why he calls himself a servant. He is fashioned of the same stuff as all other people, yet in his relationship to God, he is unique. He is in human society, but as an apostle of Jesus Christ he speaks to us almost from outside that society. He approaches us and demands a hearing, not to exalt Paul, but to deliver a message.
He tells us what the message is. He writes that he is “set apart for the gospel of God.” He is commissioned to hand over to us something new and unprecedented, something joyful and good, the truth of God. The gospel is not a religious message to tell us how good we are or how much like God we are, nor does the gospel tell us how to become more godlike. The gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from us. God is not like us, and unless God revealed himself to us, we would be unable to know much about God.
If we did not have the Bible, and the only knowledge of God we had was from nature, we might well conclude that God is evil and cruel. Ask the people of Myanmar, after the cyclone, about God. Ask the people in China, after the earthquake, about God. If all that we had was the book of nature, we would never know that God is love. We only know that because God chose to reveal his love through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So get this if you don’t get anything else. We can never know God and we had no right to expect anything from God, but God chose to reveal himself to us in the gospel. Thus, the gospel is not a religious theory among other religious theories. The gospel is that which eye has not seen and ear has not heard. It is a divine communication to us that demands not just notice, not just understanding but demands a response.
Paul tells us a little more about this gospel v2: “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures.” Again, we return to the paradox mentioned earlier. The gospel is rooted in the history of Israel. It did not suddenly fall from heaven. It was something that was prepared for. God does not suddenly break into history to achieve his plans. God works in and through history, but having said that God and God’s purposes are also beyond and above history.
In v3, Paul tells us that this gospel is about God’s son who is also David’s son. Once again the paradox. Jesus had a human genealogy. He was of the line of David. So he is in history. But he is also God incarnate. He is beyond history. How can that be? These things are not understood by reason and logic. They are only understood by faith.
It is almost like Paul is saying, in Jesus two worlds meet. We have one world; we might call it our ordinary world, a world of people and time and things, a world in need of redemption. In the gospel, this ordinary world is intersected by another world, the world of God and heaven, and the point of intersection is Jesus Christ. So our only connection to God is through Christ. Jesus was of this world, born of the seed of David. He lived in a specific time and place. The time and place in which he lived marks where the unknown world of God cuts through this world. The first half of the first century in Palestine was a time and place of divine revelation. Now most of the people of that time did not know that. They were just people, like people of every time, trying to make a living. Many people who met Jesus did not see anything special in Jesus—because what God was doing in Christ was apprehended by faith.
What was God doing? Paul tells us in v4, Jesus “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” Jesus was in a sense very much of this world, but here Paul goes beyond this world and the powers of this world. Paul says that the resurrection and the power behind the resurrection take us beyond the ordinary into the divine.
If you like geometry you might think of our ordinary world as like a horizontal plane going along in time and space. Then, around A.D. 30, our horizontal plane was intersected by the vertical plane of God. You see already that this intersection of the horizontal and vertical makes a cross, the cross of Jesus.
Most of the time when people talk about Jesus, they talk about the Jesus of history--how he was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, was baptized by John the Baptist, preached the sermon on the mount. All of that is true. That is the Jesus of history, the Jesus of the flesh, but the resurrection is that moment of transformation when we leap beyond history into divinity. The resurrection reveals Christ as God.
In a sense we can say the resurrection happened as a moment in history, around A.D. 30 outside Jerusalem, but in another sense, the resurrection is not a historical event at all. It was something that occurred on that unknown divine vertical plane that we only apprehend by faith.
Paul says that Jesus was declared to be son of God by his resurrection. Whenever we have faith in the resurrection, we declare Jesus to be son of God. This is what Jesus is about, and other than this, Jesus has no significance at all. Now that is a pretty radical statement. Let me say what I mean by that. In 2CR5:16, Paul says, “even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more.” This is a controversial verse. Paul might be saying that he knew Jesus before the crucifixion and resurrection, or he might not, but he goes on to say that is not important anyway. The historical Jesus is not important. “Now we know him so no more.” What Paul is saying here is that the resurrection changes everything. So what is really important is what the resurrection says about Jesus. The resurrection declares Jesus of Nazareth to be son of God.
Continuing in our scripture, Paul says in v5 that the basis for his apostleship is the resurrected one, through whom he has received the grace of God, and been called to a mission. The mission is “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name.”
Today when we talk about the gospel, we say that the purpose of the gospel is to save souls, and Paul is saying that but maybe not exactly, and I wonder if we have not missed something here. Paul is saying that he is called to bear witness to the faithfulness of God which we encounter in Christ. God is faithful. That is the first point, that is the major point. But God’s faithfulness in Christ demands a response from us. We must also be faithful. We are obedient to God in that we have faith in the resurrection and thus we declare that Jesus is son of God.
In v6 Paul speaks of the obedient faithful as those “who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” First century society was a slave society, and Paul uses master-slave terminology. But what he says reaches from the first century into our hearts today. If we respond in faith to the gospel, then we belong to Jesus. He is master, we are slaves. He has called us to be his slaves. How do we know that? How do we know we belong to Jesus? We have faith in the resurrection. Thus we declare that Jesus is Lord. The same God who made Paul an apostle has also called us into the service of his kingdom. We are called to be saints, so v7 says. A saint is not a super-christian. A saint is someone who declares Jesus to be Son of God by faith in the resurrection. We are called into holiness because we no longer belong to the old world which is already passing away. We belong to him who has called us. That makes us beloved of God. Our faith in Christ makes us God’s people, God’s beloved. Have faith then. Have faith in the Lord.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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