Paul’s letter to the Romans has three main themes: the creational presuppositions, the religious and moral condition of the Greek world, and the problem of Israel and diaspora Judaism. These themes are interconnected and provide context for understanding the tensions between the believers in Rome and the synagogues. The letter emphasizes Jesus as a servant to the Jews and how his actions bring praise to God among the nations. This development was anticipated in the scriptures.
The way I see it, Paul’s letter to the Romans is like a stage with three vast backdrop cloths hanging one in front of the other.
The largest cloth depicts the creational presuppositions of the letter: God is the creator of all things and cannot be worshipped in the form of created objects; Adam sinned and death entered the world. The letter is often read on the assumption that this largest backdrop explains everything. That is far from the case.
In front of the creational backdrop, and largely obscuring it, hangs a smaller cloth on which is painted the religious and moral condition of the Greek world—a civilisation that took the decision to worship the creature rather than the creator, which has been handed over to sexual and social depravity as evidence of God’s disapproval, and which will face the wrath or judgment of God in a foreseeable future.
Most readings of Romans take this to be an almost transparent layer, through which the outlines of the creational cloth can be clearly seen. Not at all. The historical material is opaque and needs to be taken seriously.
These two hangings, however, are then both largely hidden by a third, presenting in vivid colours and tortured lines the problem of Israel and of diaspora Judaism in particular. Most of what happens on stage must be interpreted against this backdrop, because before God can address the problem of Greek idolatry by a man whom he has appointed (cf. Acts 17:30-31), he must hold his own people accountable. Wrath against the Jew before wrath against the Greek. That is the premise for everything that is said about the Law, justification, the Spirit, the emergence of a remnant community, the possible salvation of “all Israel,” and the teaching on community practice in Romans 12:1-15:7.
I take it, then, that a principle reason for writing the letter was the desire to help a small community of believers in Rome, which still had an essentially Jewish identity despite the influx of Gentiles, understand and cope with the tensions with the synagogues.
Most readings of the letter acknowledge that this third backdrop is relevant but shrink it down to the proportions of Romans 9-11 and hang it over a trestle so that it can be moved aside and ignored. My argument has been, to the contrary, that it is large and dominates, giving coherence, meaning and relevance to almost everything that is acted out on the stage.
In him the Gentiles will hope
So we have finally come back to the example of Christ, who did not please himself, who was hated by many in Israel, who became a stranger to his own brothers because he was true to his divine calling. It could be said of him, therefore, that “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me” (Rom. 15:3; see Ps. 69:9 and context). Here was the pattern or template for the remnant of Israel in Rome, strangers to their brothers, increasingly at odds with the synagogues which had been their religious home for so long, and subjected, no doubt, to abuse and harassment.
In this vein Paul proceeds to explain with precise biblical logic how the story of God and Israel has become a source of hope for the nations.
First, he says that “Christ has become a servant of the circumcision for the sake of the truth of God, in order to confirm the promises of the fathers” (Rom. 15:8*). Jesus’ active role is confined to the Jews—a Son sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel to do the thankless work of a prophet.
He is the solution to a Jewish problem at a critical moment in the history of Israel, when it seemed as though the living God, who made the heavens and the earth, might renege on the promise made to the patriarchs that he would always preserve the descendants of Abraham as a people for his own possession in the midst of the nations.
A remarkable secondary effect of Jesus becoming a servant to the Jews has been that a growing number of Gentiles now praise the God of Israel on account of the mercy that he has shown towards his people (15:9). There is no mention here of the salvation of Gentiles or of their inclusion in the covenant people. The emphasis is entirely on the fact that YHWH is getting credit among the nations for the salvation and renewal of his people. His fame is spreading. His stock is rising.
The development is anticipated in the scriptures. The psalmist praises YHWH among the nations because he has brought great salvation to Israel’s king (Ps. 18:49; cf. 2 Sam. 22:50; Rom. 15:9). The nations are exhorted to rejoice with God’s people when he “avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries” (Deut. 32:43; Rom. 15:10). In a passage that strongly supports Paul’s thought in this passage, the nations are told to praise YHWH because “great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever” (Ps. 117:2; Rom. 15:11).
In these passages the nations are not, so far, beneficiaries of the judgment and deliverance of YHWH, merely impressed onlookers. With the final quotation, however, Paul expresses not their rejoicing and praise but their hope:
And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” (Rom. 15:12)
This is the high point of Paul’s apocalyptic vision: the one who became a servant to the circumcised will in due course rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. The Gentiles do not merely praise the God of Israel for the dramatic mercy that he has shown towards his rebellious people; they begin to imagine a future in which they too will be governed by the Son at YHWH’s right hand.
So when Paul then says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13), it is just this hope for regime change, for a new political-religious order, that he has in mind. The believers in Rome have received the Spirit of God to sustain them through the eschatological transformation that will see the nations bow the knee and confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of the God of Israel.
Paul’s role in all this
Paul says that his own role in this process is “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. 15:16).
The prospect that the root of Jesse will soon rule the nations accounts for the shift of focus away from the Jewish problem to the ongoing role of the Gentiles in the eschatological transformation. They are making a significant contribution to the process by which the God of Israel will annex the Greek-Roman world, and Paul must ensure that they are appropriately qualified for the task, fit for purpose.
His ministry can be seen, in fact, as the active and deliberate heralding of this coming annexation. He has preached the good news of Christ’s future rule from Jerusalem to Illyricum along the Adriatic, and he now intends to visit Rome and go on to Spain—from one end of the empire to the other (15:19, 24, 28).
This is a gospel not of personal salvation, in the first place, but of a far-reaching political-religious alignment of the ancient world around a new Jerusalem. To be saved is to be part of the new future, delivered from either Jewish or pagan obsolescence.
For now, however, Paul is returning to Judea with money raised in Macedonia and Achaia for “the poor among the saints at Jerusalem,” and he asks his readers to pray that he will be “delivered from the unbelievers in Judea” (15:25-27, 31).
Greetings to and from…
It seems very likely that the letter was carried to Rome by “our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae”—presumably a woman of some wealth, who had been a benefactor or patron (prostatis) of Paul and others (16:1-2).
It would be interesting to know the circumstances under which Prisca and Aquila “risked their necks” for Paul’s sake (16:3-4). My guess would be that it had something to do with Jewish intra-communal violence (cf. Acts 18:12-18). It also seems likely that at least Prisca, Aquila, Epaenetus, Andronicus and Junia were part of the original group which founded the church in Rome. Apart from these brief observations, the greetings in 16:3-16 have limited bearing on the main themes of the letter, so I’ll press on.
There is a warning against dissidents and deceivers and the distractions and divisions they may cause. The good news is that the God of peace will “soon crush (syntripsei) Satan under your feet” (16:20). This looks to me like a loose figurative adaptation of the word against the serpent in Genesis 3:15:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise (yeshuf) your head, and you shall bruise (teshuf) his heel.” (Gen. 3:15)
The Septuagint has ektripsēi for the Hebrew shuf (“bruise”) in Job 9:17, so the association does not seem too much of a stretch.
Paul regards such troublemakers as one example of the many seductions or testings or deceptions inspired by Satanic opposition to God’s people, which sooner or later would be suppressed. The serpent-seducer in the garden had many descendants (see also 1 Tim. 2:13-14; 2 Tim. 3:6).
Finally, in the closing doxology we have reference to the “mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (16:25-26). Paul’s “gospel” has been the audacious and startling declaration that Jesus, crucified in the likeness of rebellious Israel (8:3), has been made Son of God in power, judge and ruler not only of Israel but also of the nations, which demands an “obedience of faith” from among the Gentiles in anticipation of the radical political-religious transformation to come. Amen.