As you begin reading Paul’s letter to the house churches in Rome you clearly see Paul’s heart for the church and for the Kingdom of God now in place in this most cosmopolitan of cities:
“This letter comes to all in Rome who love God, all who are called to be his holy people. Grace and peace to you from God our father, and King Jesus, the Lord.”
Paul’s letter is tactful, spirited, full of information and pastoral. He is excited and “not ashamed about the gospel” even though many outside the church are not eager to receive Good News of the Kingdom of God. Paul knew that Rome was the dominion of the “rulers of this age.”
Paul clearly understood that by calling Jesus “King Jesus, the Lord,” that he was promoting another ruler above the Emperor. This was seditious and dangerous for Paul. But Paul knew the power of the Gospel. Paul knew what God’s Good News had done in his own life and in the lives of others. He knew the cost of God’s mercy.
Prior to Paul’s letter, Rome had gone through sweeping changes. Pagan Rome didn’t much care for Jews and their purifying religious rituals. They also didn’t very much care for the new “religion” in town, Christianity, which some of the Jews embraced. Emperor Claudius had the Jews expelled from Rome. The Jewish Christians left behind Gentile house churches. Some believe that these churches in Rome began with Gentile believers who were converted during Pentecost, while they were in Jerusalem.
After Claudius died in AD 54 Nero became Emperor. Under a new Emperor the Jews and with them the Jewish believers returned to Rome. It is then that Paul writes his letter, circa AD 58, describing the sweeping changes brought about by the Kingdom of God on earth. He writes about God’s justification of all those who believe that God would keep His Covenant promise. That promise was completely fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul was deeply concerned for Christ’s church at Rome. His “masterpiece” letter hopes to resolve conflicts between Gentile believers and Jews now returning to Rome. And, more importantly, he writes to give the church an overarching vision of God’s Covenant plan to save the world from itself.
As you read Romans you sense that the church and the world system at that time are not so different from that of our world and our own times.
At the beginning of the letter Paul writes that he was under obligation to barbarians as well as to Greeks, that he was obliged to the uncultured and the cultured. He was obliged to speak the Gospel to the wise and to the foolish. These kinds of people are with us today, are they not?
Paul begins God’s creation salvation story with the problem: man’s brokenness and man’s unwillingness to turn from his sin. To make the point, within the first paragraphs of his letter the phrase “So God gave them up” occurs three times:
“So God gave them up to uncleaness in the desires of their hearts, with the result that they dishonored their bodies among themselves. They swapped God’s truth for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed for ever, Amen.
So God gave them up to shameful desires. Even the women, you see swapped natural sexual practice for unnatural; and men, too, abandoned natural sexual relations with women, and were inflamed with their lust for one another. Men performed shameless acts with men, and received in themselves the appropriate repayment for their mistaken ways.
Moreover, just as they did not see fit to hold on to knowledge of God, God gave them up to an unfit mind, so that they would behave inappropriately.”
Keep in mind that Paul knew the Jewish canon. He knew about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – God’s righteous anger poured out on the sexual perversion within those cities. Those cities had been warned. Paul was again warning the new Christians in pagan Rome about God’s Righteousness and Justice and man’s hardheartedness. Is not homosexuality worshipping the creature rather than the Creator? But Paul was revealing a way out – a path made straight by the One Jew who fulfilled all of God’s desires for His rebellious people – Jesus.
And lest we read Paul’s words and become smug and judge others keep in mind Paul’s words in his letter to the Corinthians: “Some of you were once like that.”
“Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people–none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God
Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Cor 6:9-11)
I don’t have to tell you that in our time the main stream media pours out filth and degeneration into our homes. Our lives are constantly bombarded with TV programs, movies and advertisements that use sex or by political party advocates who call homosexuality a “right.” Yet, a “right” does confer righteousness to the owner, only license and worse, in the case of homosexuality, licentiousness.
The perversion and antinomianism now seems even more pervasive in our age than in Paul’s because of the ever-present media. What can Christians do to heed Paul’s words today in our pagan world? It begins with worship. So God will give them up – the people of this age – who follow in the footsteps of the pagan Romans but for us who believe we can give up to God what Paul writes later in Romans:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.”