1 – Background to Romans

Home Learning Hub Reflections in Romans 1 – Background to Romans
We can draw out many things from reading old letters in the New Testament, things that encourage us in the issues we are facing in our own lives at various times. But what were the issues these letters were originally addressing? How did the words the letters used fit into the situation of the early church, when the Holy Spirit was gathering people of different races and classes together as one new family? This sudden shift in religious matters was something of a crisis to Jewish culture and to the values of the Roman empire, and this crisis had to be addressed head-on by Paul. This is the issue that dominates the letter to the Romans, as it dominates Paul’s other letters: how the new multi-racial/ multi-class family fulfils God’s promises to the Hebrew people on the renewal of creation.

It is necessary to see how Paul wrote Romans. It wasn’t written in a doctrinal format. Paul didn’t sit down to write out the doctrines of the faith. He wrote in story format. Paul was telling a story that was very common in his day among the Jews. It was the story of Israel, about their calling from God to set the world right. All the Jews told this story, by tracing Israel’s history and promises from God, and speculating how these would be fulfilled. Speculations of this kind were widespread in Paul’s day. Jews of that time often thought the fulfilment would come through a military or political victory over their enemies.

Romans is essentially the story of Israel and how Jesus Christ was inserted into that story to fulfil it in a way that nobody had expected. The way Jesus Christ did this subverted all the nationalistic hopes of the day. He ignored all the powerhungry hopes of those involved. The way he fulfilled the story was to call us all to serve our enemies. This is “the scandal of the gospel.” It shakes our human desires to their core. But the point here is that if we don’t read Paul’s writing as a story of Israel pointing us to Christ, we will not understand how Romans is to be interpreted. Exegesis here (meaning an objective analysis of the text) is useless if we don’t see what is behind the text.

 

THE OCCASION

Western tradition often holds that there was no occasion to why Paul wrote to the Roman church. By this, it is meant that there was no particular problem Paul was addressing. The problems of the Corinthian church are clear, and Paul spells them out and deals with them one after the other. But Romans doesn’t seem to so clearly deal with pressing problems in the church. So, it has been assumed, Paul was merely writing to Rome to lay out his gospel in detail, ahead of his first ministry visit to the region.

The tradition continues to explain that this gospel Paul was laying out in Romans was essentially a gospel of personal salvation. Here, the tradition betrays itself. It is because the gospel is seen in this truncated way, this reductionist view of the gospel, that the problem Paul was addressing in the Roman church isn’t clearly seen. But when we see the gospel in its broader Hebrew sense of Paul’s day, as the good news of community renewal, then the issues Paul was addressing in Romans become far more obvious.

Paul was planning to shift his gospel outreach to the west of Europe. His years up until that point had concentrated on ministry in the eastern realms. His headquarters, so to speak, was in the church at Antioch. From there, Paul launched out into Asia Minor and as far west as Greece. But now, Paul wanted to concentrate on regions further west. So, Rome would be an appropriate new base for him.

Therefore, in preparing the Roman church, and striking the right footing for the future churches in western areas, Paul wants to nip in the bud the number one issue that bedevilled the churches in the east; namely, Jew and gentile relations.

We see it in Antioch, Galatia, Philippi, Ephesus and Colossi.

Everywhere Paul preached; the hostility, antagonism and rivalry between Jews and gentiles rose up to tear apart the new churches. Healing this rivalry was possibly the main reason why God gave us the gospel. But in our personalised understanding of the gospel we won’t see this.

 

A COMMUNITY STORY

In getting our reading of Romans right, the background picture or worldview of Paul must be seen. In modern western culture, which has influenced evangelical theology and missions, the worldview is individualism. The “good news” is seen on chiefly a personalised basis. That is, the “good news” is that we escape hell when we die and instead go to heaven.

Before then we enjoy the blessings of God by faith and triumph over our enemies. Romans outlines, according to this view, our personal legal fall into sin, cutting us off from God’s favour, but our personal rescue through the penalty Christ paid on the cross, and our glorification in heaven if we continue in personal sanctification. Added onto that maybe a last-days revival of Israel before Jesus comes.

This is getting the story of the Hebrew people entirely wrong.

And it is the Hebrew story that Paul is writing about when he speaks of Jesus. It is understanding the whole Adam to Christ story in the right light. In the western lens, we see this in a legal way: Adam fell legally and then Christ restores us in order that God’s anger doesn’t fall on us in hell. This isn’t the Hebrew view. They saw the fall of Adam as bringing down the creation. They saw God’s call to them in Abraham as restoring Adam’s vocation and healing the creation. This has little to do with a personalised gospel, though ironically it is the gospel that is most personally transforming.

If Adam’s vocation revived in Israel is Paul’s first background story, then God’s program through Abraham is the second story in Paul’s mind when writing Romans. Again, in western theology we see the promises of God to Abraham chiefly about God bringing personal salvation to people of all nations, primarily to save people from hell to take them to heaven.

This is not how the Hebrew people saw God’s promises to Abraham. In promising to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham, God was speaking about bringing people from all these nations into one new family. He was speaking about the unity of these people in the kingdom of God, a new kingdom that would revive and heal the creation through healing the hostility between the peoples of the nations.

In other words, and I emphasise this here, this is the “good news” that Paul was thinking about. When we use the term the “good news” we should be talking about the news that Adam’s dominion over the creation is restored, through a new people of love and service towards each other, healing the sinfulness of the world, restoring the communities of the world and restoring the cosmos itself. The good news is that God is forming us from our diverse backgrounds into one new family.

The good news is about the new community which heals the creation. This is what Paul is addressing in Romans.

In these notes we are speaking a lot about the Jews and the gentiles, because this was the issue of that day. Today, this could refer to all our tribal divisions and nationalism and to all our religious groups within Christianity. Please remember, that when we are speaking here of Jews and gentiles, we are also speaking of our own relationships with others today.