I don’t know about you, but I’m tempted to skip over the introductions to Paul’s epistles and go right to what seems like the real meat. I recently noticed that in the Book of Common Prayer, one such introduction, Romans 1:1-7 is one of the appointed readings for the Sundays in Advent. It seems good to pay closer attention.
Paul had never been to Rome when he decided to write a letter to the Roman church. Therefore, he needed to introduce himself in greater detail than in the letters to churches he himself had founded.
On the other hand, he was too humble a man to write about himself more than absolutely necessary. He opened by calling himself a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, and separated for the gospel of God. The rest of the introduction concerns Jesus.
The gospel of God
The gospel of God is the good news concerning Jesus. Now, in our modern news media, much of the news is something the reporters could not have anticipated. The basic outlines of the major news stories seem predictable enough, but only because of fairly recent history.
In contrast, Paul points out that God had promised the gospel through prophets, and the prophetic writings had long been acknowledged as Holy Scripture. Anyone who had paid attention to Scripture over the course of hundreds of years had to know that God planned a major redemptive act through the lineage of King David.
The Israelites kept careful genealogies. The family into which Jesus was born knew it was descended from David. Probably plenty of other people did, too. They lived in Nazareth, but another scripture said that the promised deliverer would be born in Bethlehem, David’s home town. And it happened that Jesus’ parents had to travel to Bethlehem when his mother was pregnant.
Paul points out, therefore, that Jesus was David’s heir according to the flesh. In many ways, he was a perfectly ordinary man, but not in all ways. Scripture foretold that this heir of David would be an unusual person, made for a little while lower than God and acknowledged as Lord by David himself.
After this mostly ordinary man died on the cross, the Spirit of God raised him from the dead. Jesus the Son of David could die. Jesus the Son of God could not stay dead.
Why it’s good news, and to whom
Through the Holy Spirit, Paul says, he received the grace of being an apostle, with a commission to bring all nations to obedience to the faith for Jesus’ name’s sake. Nowadays, the whole concept of obedience seems more than a little suspect. And obedience to faith? Required of all nations?
The modern mind has several other problems here. We find it hard to imagine that anything that happened a long time ago really has any bearing on our life today. We distrust accounts of events that we can’t relate to from our own experience—such as reports of resurrection from the dead.
Some who consider themselves intellectuals even express doubt that Jesus even existed. So far as I know, none of them doubt the existence of Socrates, and there is far more documentary evidence for Jesus than Socrates.
So how is this account of Jesus birth and resurrection good news? The best answer to that question comes from reading the rest of Romans, but there are some other details in this introduction worth bearing in mind.
- Paul has spoken of Scripture (meaning specifically what we know as the Old Testament), and Scripture identifies God, and this promised heir of David, as a redeemer. In the Israelite tradition, a redeemer was a relative that bought someone out of a jam when all of his own resources were exhausted.
- Scripture begins with the creation and fall of the human race. The fall involves humanity’s choice to disobey God and obey the devil instead. That is the jam we all need to be redeemed from. The law of Moses made sure that every Israelite was conscious of sin by requiring constant ritual washings and sacrifices. At the same time, they had a special relationship with God, the creator of the universe, which no other people had.
- Israelites were quite proud of their status as God’s chosen people and looked down on everyone else as inferior. At several points, their scriptures clearly said that God did not share the same viewpoint.
When Paul speaks of the obedience of faith, therefore, he means a decision to obey God and repudiate Adam’s fatal choice in the Garden of Eden. And when he speaks of obedience to faith among all nations (or among the Gentiles), he means that redemption is not limited to the Jews. They have a special part in it, but the good news of the gospel is available to anyone.
This church in Rome had plenty of Jews in it, but it had plenty of Romans, too, not to mention all the other nationalities some of whose people lived in Rome. God loved everyone in the Roman church. Everyone, regardless of nationality, had an invitation to become holy people for God.
That’s good news. Because God has continued to extend the same invitation to everyone in the world from that day until the world ends. And it’s never too late until the day you die. But why wait that long? Grace and peace to all from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.