Introduction to Romans
General background to the letter
The letter to the church in Rome was written by the Apostle Paul. This letter was a prelude to his anticipated personal visit to Rome. Paul’s intention was that Rome would become a missionary centre to the west, as Antioch, Ephesus and Philippi were to the east.
Paul was at the end of his third missionary journey, carrying money for poor Christians in Jerusalem. It had been collected from the churches of Macedonia and Achaia (known today as Greece). The letter was probably written in AD57; most likely from Corinth. We know this because Paul was getting ready to visit Jerusalem with the collection (Romans 15:25-27). He also mentions his host Gaius, and Erastus (the city’s Director of Public Works) (Romans 16:23-24), both of whom can be linked with Corinth; and Phoebe who lived in the nearby port of Cenchrea (Romans 16:1).
After visiting Jerusalem, Paul planned to visit Rome before travelling on to Spain (Romans 15:23-24). He had wanted to visit Rome for a long time (Romans 1:13), and he wrote this letter to prepare the Christians there for his visit and all that he would teach, and to alert them to his new missionary plans.
This represented a big change of focus for Paul. He said that his work in the eastern (Greek-speaking) half of the Roman Empire was finished (Romans 15:19), and he was now moving on to the western (Latin-speaking) half to begin again. Paul’s ambition was to preach the gospel where Christ was not known (Romans 15:20), and he wanted to first strengthen the church in Rome, before travelling on to Spain with their help.
The church in Rome
Little is known about the origins of the church in Rome, but it was probably started by Jewish Christians who travelled to Rome from other countries (Acts 2:10). There is no Biblical record that any of the apostles had already been to Rome. Although Paul had never visited the city, he knew some of the church members, for example – Aquila & Priscilla had returned to Rome (Romans 16:3).
Although Jews had started the church, most of the current members were Gentiles. There had been a riot in the city involving Jews in AD49 and so Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. Upon the death of Claudius in AD54 the Jews began to return, and Jewish Christians rejoined the church which had been almost 100% Gentile for over five years. This led to tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers regarding how to be righteousness - by the Old Testament law, or by the grace of Christ.
This church was in a key location, in the capital city of the Roman Empire, and there was great potential for the spread of the gospel. Rome was a city full of politics, power, money and ambition. People travelled from far away to be at the centre of things, and to be ready to take advantage of opportunities that this great city offered for advancement, security and wealth. Rome was full of people seeking their fortune, and it was also full of immorality and depravity, injustice, greed, malice and selfishness. It was to Christians in this situation that Paul wrote the letter to the Romans.
The purpose of the letter
Romans is an ambassadorial letter, written to pave the way for Paul’s visit to Rome. In it he wrote the fullest and most systematic exposition of the gospel in any of his letters. He explained that every human being has been corrupted by sin, and that they are justified by faith in Christ to a lifelong process of sanctification through the Spirit (Romans 1:18-8:39). He also looked at how this salvation should affect the way in which people lived out their lives each day (Romans 12-14).
Paul wrote in this way because he wanted to explain the foundations of the Christian life. This church would be strategically important as the gospel spread across the known world. Perhaps this was why he also appealed to the church to find practical ways to work out its faith, both in the church and in the world around them (Romans 12-14), for they were in a position to make a real difference in the capital city of the Empire.
Although some see chapters 9-11 as a digression about the status of Israel, they were an important part of another reason that Paul wrote this letter. Paul had never visited Rome, but he was obviously aware of the tension in the church between the Jews and Gentiles. Throughout the letter he emphasised the importance of both Jews and Gentiles to the church, and of their being united together within the church, for example: Romans 1:14-16, 2:9-29, 3:9-31, 4:1-25 (especially 11-12, 23-24), chapters 9-11, Romans 14:1-15:22, 16:17-19.
Paul concluded the letter by speaking of his plans and urging them to join him in his struggle to proclaim the gospel (Romans 15:23-32). He hoped that a unified Jewish and Gentile church in the Empires capital city would rally together to support his mission to Spain.
Why should I read this letter?
We need to read this letter because we live in a world which has been completely corrupted by sin. Everything that we experience has been touched by sin, and even though we have been saved from sin through Jesus’ death on the cross, we live in bodies that still naturally enjoy sin and want to respond to its call. Because of this we are easily pulled into this world’s thought patterns, accepting sin as an everyday companion. Naturally, we like to invent our own ways to get right with God. However, we do not understand how holy God is, or the wickedness of our sins.
Romans explains the greatness and holiness of God, and the destructive and damaging nature of our own sin. It explains that the gap between us and God is so great, that we can never cross it on our own. We learn that there is nothing we can do to change our lives, and it is impossible for us to get right with God on our own. Paul reveals God’s character to us, and the extraordinary generosity of His grace. He encourages us to live within that grace as we learn how to serve both God, and those around us, with humble and faithful hearts.
All of us are naturally pulled away from the truth of God, and into the devil's lies. We naturally take pride in ourselves and our achievements, and we naturally lift ourselves up – even if it means putting someone else down. We need to read Romans because this book shows us the extent of our problems, and explains how we can accept the only genuine solution human beings have ever been offered.
Outline1. Introduction and theme 1:1-17 2. The universal sinfulness (unrighteousness) of man 1:18-3:20 3. Righteousness through faith 3:21-5:21 4. Sanctification through the Holy Spirit 6:1-8:39 5. God’s righteousness – The Status of Israel and the Gentiles 9:1-11:36 6. God’s righteousness in everyday life 12:1-15:13 7. Extension of God’s righteousness through Paul’s mission 15:14-33 8. Greetings and closing comments 16:1-27