In Romans 1:1-18, Paul introduces himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ and discusses the gospel as the proclamation of good news about a royal figure, the Son of God. He emphasizes the importance of obedience and faith among believers, particularly the Gentiles. Paul expresses his desire to visit the Roman community and discusses the power of the gospel for salvation. He also mentions the revelation of God’s wrath against ungodliness and unrighteousness.
Paul, apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1-7)
Paul introduces himself to those in Rome who are “called to be saints” as a slave of Christ and an apostle, “set apart for the gospel of God.”
The “gospel” is the proclamation of good news, anticipated in the Jewish scriptures, concerning a pre-eminent royal figure: a Son who was of the seed of David, now “appointed (horisthentos) Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness from resurrection of the dead” (1:4*).
- The verb horizō is used in a couple of passages in Acts for the “appointment” of Jesus as judge:
“And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed (hōrismenos) by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:42)
“… [God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed (hōrisen); and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)
- The Son has existed in two “states,” so to speak: first, “from (ek) seed of David according (kata) to flesh”, then “according (kata) to the Spirit of holiness from (ex) resurrection from the dead.” The parallelism presumably accounts for the fact that Jesus is now Son of God “in power.” Seated at the right hand of God, he exercises an enduring and unassailable authority that he could not have had as a descendant of David according to the flesh.
The thought here is not of Jesus as the one who will judge the pagan world. Rather, he is the Davidic king in whom the nations are beginning to “hope” (Rom. 15:12-13).
The risen Christ has commissioned the apostles to “bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations”—including, of course, the saints in Rome (1:5-6). Paul will develop this theme in 15:14-21.
But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 15:15-16)
This argument about apostolic responsibility frames the body of the letter. Jesus has been raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God as Lord. By now, many Gentiles have come to believe the extraordinary claims made by the apostles—not least because they have experienced the power of the Spirit given by Jesus. But it is essential that they be formed as obedient, disciplined, priestly communities, fit for purpose, for reasons which will become evident as we work through the letter. That is the reason for Paul writing and for his planned visit.
Paul’s reason for writing (1:8-15)
The customary thanksgiving is brief: Paul is thankful that the faith of the Roman believers is “proclaimed in all the world.” What is really on his mind, though, as he begins the letter is his intense desire to visit this community and “reap some harvest” among them.
Now to business… (1:16-18)
We now get to what is arguably the premise for the whole letter. There are no trumpets or clouds or angels involved (contrast, e.g., 1 Thess. 1:9-10; 4:15-17), but I will argue that this opening statement is underpinned by a cogent and thoroughly eschatological narrative of crisis and transformation that will account for all that follows.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Rom. 1:16-18)
The argument proceeds in three stages: 1) the wrath of God is revealed, implicitly against both Jew and Greek (cf. 2:8-9); 2) the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel; 3) those who believe the gospel, whether Jews or Greeks, will be saved and live.
The quotation from Habakkuk 2:4 no doubt stands alone well enough as a biblical principle, but the context from which it is taken gives us an important insight into Paul’s thought here.
Habakkuk asks God why he does nothing about violence and injustice in Israel (Hab. 1:2-4). He is told that God will raise up the Chaldeans—“that bitter and hasty nation”—and they will be instruments of a dreadful judgment against unrighteous Israel (1:5-11).
Habakkuk gets that: “O LORD, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof” (Hab. 1:12). But it creates another ground for complaint. Invasion and war are indiscriminate and inordinate means of punishment. The Chaldeans won’t be checking who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Why should the righteous be destroyed along with the unrighteous?
The answer he is given is that the foreseen catastrophe will certainly come, but the righteous person “shall live by his faith” (2:4). Moreover, the powerful belligerent nation by which God will judge his people will in turn be overthrown: “Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you” (2:8).
This scenario of divine judgment and salvation under the difficult and really quite untheological conditions of history underlies Paul’s argument in Romans.
There will be wrath against the Jew. Paul does not say how this will come about, but Jesus had been very clear that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome would be the central or climactic moment in the eschatological drama, at least from the perspective of Israel in Roman occupied Palestine.
It is one aspect of Paul’s good news, therefore, that the righteous will survive this destruction by virtue of their faith. The revelation of the righteousness of God is perhaps equivalent to the answer given to Habakkuk’s second complaint. God is justified or found to be in the right by the fact that the righteous who believe in the future rule of Jesus will be saved from the coming wrath.
But it has become clear, as we have seen, that the “appointment” of Jesus will also entail a subsequent day of “wrath” against the Greek—against the idolatrous civilisation that has for so long opposed the God of Israel and his people.
So the complex situation envisaged right at the start of the letter is that a hybrid community of Jews and Gentiles will be saved from a two-phase “wrath” against the Jew first and then the Greek. The final historical outcome is captured in a brief letter by the desert father Isidore of Pelusium (370-449):
For Hellenism, kept dominant by so many people for so long—by labours and by resources and by arms and by words—has vanished from the earth. But our religion, demanded by the plebeians and the illiterate, and the poor and outcasts, in a short space of time spread like lightning through all the nations, enlightening not only the eyes and the sight, but also the minds, since the former was evidently made up of fables: but the latter was composed of heavenly dogmas. (Letter 270, Migne PG 78, 341D-344A)