Paul’s letter to the Romans (1:1-18)

Generative AI summary:

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.

Read time: 6 minutes

Romans 1:1-18

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)

Richard Blakesley | Thu, 10/05/2023 - 16:54 | Permalink

I am pleased that you are going to be doing a series in Romans as I am interested in your take on this. I know I could have read your book but your blog posts will help!!

I get it that you are going to be giving conclusions rather than arguments but I think these will be informed by how you see the purpose of what Paul was doing and the reason he wrote Romans. 

I am looking to see, given that we are likely to fundamentally disagree on the purpose, how much that affects our different understanding moving through the text. Although I am wondering about your tantalising references to the community formation and whether this might bring us closer  

You appear (happy to be corrected) to have a couple of presuppositions that are informing your interpretation beyond your narrative historical understanding:

1.Paul is primarily writing theologically. This would assume that Paul’s theology is the primary purpose of the letter.

2. He needs his communities to understand the escahtological moment. 

I understand that many interpreters over  hundreds of years think this is a letter with theology ON the surface. I just don’t buy this. It seems to me that the purpose of the letter is not theological, rather it is pastoral. Paul wasn’t primarily an announcer of the theology of the eschatological good news (including judgement) and only secondarily interested in the communities he formed. For him the communities were the concrete expression of the good news. They were the embodiment of the gospel, we could even go as far as to say looked at in one way they WERE the gospel. So for him the pastoral issue was that this community was being torn apart by two (or maybe four!) groups who were at odds with each other. Who, in fact were looking down on each other, perhaps even despising each other. The strong and the weak as Paul will call them are the reason for the letter. 

If this is true then when we come to Paul’s theology (which he uses in spades in Romans), is theology UNDER the surface not ON the surface. It is theology deployed for this specific situation. It is therefore dangerous for us to assume that what we read in Romans IS Paul’s theology. It isn’t. It is Paul’s theology in use for a very specific (Roman) task. As such it will have emphases and nuances which only apply there and specifically Paul would not say in a different context. 

It also means that if we have any chance of understanding the theology underneath it we need a more fundamental commitment to firstly focusing hard on the pastoral situation, secondly working out how the theology is deployed in this pastoral context and only then thirdly starting the hard work of working back to the various possibilities of what the underlying theology might be which are being pastorally deployed. It seems to me that starting with the idea that we know what Paul’s theology is (whether that be classical, escahtological etc) or starting by thinking we can discern Paul’s theology as our first step and then saying how this can be applied is to get it completely the wrong way around (certainlyin Romans).  That assumes that Paul had the purpose of communicating his theological understanding and then gets round later in the letters to applying it. Theology first then ethics is a road to nowhere for understanding Paul. 

You suggest:

“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”

I suggest it isn’t that “theological “. The pastorally complex situation envisaged throughout the letter is how a hybrid community of Jews and Gentiles will demonstrate their salvation by welcoming one another as those who are bound together in their identity, as Paul unites them in sin and then unites them in Christ. 

The reason I think this is important is that your students at LST (I am a former student and wish I was back sometimes) are more likely to come across the pastoral situation of churches going through disunity than they are having to wrestle with what does two-stage wrath look like. 

Anyway, rant over!! Looking forward to where your series goes.

Thanks again for prompting thoughts and discussions. 


@Richard Blakesley:

I’m not sure I’d say that Paul is primarily writing theologically. He is writing to engage with the believers in Rome on a number of fronts, perhaps primarily with a view to extending his mission westward, ultimately to Spain. So as I see it, his leading purpose is apostolic. That’s where he begins and ends the letter. He is writing apostolically—that is, as one who has been given the responsibility of bringing the name of the Lord Jesus to the nations.

His apostolic vocation already entails the eschatological perspective. His message or “gospel” is that the God of Israel has made Jesus Christ judge and ruler both of Israel and of the nations of the Greek-Roman world and that this will have far-reaching repercussions for both Jews and gentiles.

That vocation shapes everything that he says in Romans—indeed, in all his writings. But I completely agree that the churches were understood to be the “concrete embodiment” of that message. They were a sign of the regime change to come, and he spends a lot of time teaching them what that means in practice. The need for unity is certainly a key component of his parenesis, but I rather think that his overriding concern is that these communities should have the resources and resilience to endure suffering.

That said, I would still maintain that the letter, indeed Paul’s thought generally, begins and ends not with community but with eschatological expectation: this is what is going on in the world, this is what God is going to do; therefore, the churches should be formed accordingly.

And your final point, Richard, rather gives the game away. I fully appreciate the fact that churches today, on the face of it, are dealing mainly with pastoral rather than theological or eschatological problems.

My response is two-fold. First, we have to read Paul on his terms, not ours. Secondly, I think that the church today is facing its own “eschatological” or end-of-age crisis and could learn from Paul’s eschatological outlook. So we ask first: how do we see the road ahead of us, particularly in the western context? Then we form communities that will embody and serve the “prophetic” vision. That was the point of reading Romans before and after Western Christendom.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks Andrew, that’s a helpful clarification of where you are coming from. I think we agree that different emphases are there, and both agree that eschatological and community formation are key elements.  We just may have a different one front and centre when we try to understand what Paul is trying to do in Romans. 

Just for clarification, my point wasn’t that we should start with the church and then grab bits from Paul which help our current situation.  It’s that because when we read Paul on his own terms the letter to Romans is fundamentally a pastoral one, then that will inform how it impacts on church life today. 

I am with you that it shouldn’t be the other way round. 

Looking forward to the next blogs. 

Tim Peebles | Thu, 10/05/2023 - 18:57 | Permalink

I’m sympathetic with the ways in which your reading of Romans differs from that of later dogmatic theology. The shift from theology to history, for individual to political, rupture to rapture, etc.—all that seems right to me. But I continue to wrestle with exactly how, within your shift of perspective, “the righteous” are “saved,” according to Paul. If “saved” means “saved from historical/political consequences”, then are we to think Paul is claiming such salvation for of each gospel-believing person (a possible return to an individual paradigm)? Or is that salvation for a gospel-believing community/polis (and not necessarily each person)? The latter seems more consistent with your move away from traditional theological presuppositions but it might leave a lot of dead believers, which allows for some kind of hope, but not one our theological expectations might anticipate. Perhaps the promise of resurrection addresses this? I’m also curious about what socio-political wrath against the Greeks looks like, in your narrative-historical reading. Such wrath against Israel/the Jews is evident in the scriptural texts and subsequent history. But where do we see such wrath against the Greeks, textually or historically? Do “the Greeks” get off with a milder punishment than “the Jews”?  As always, thinking along with you to see where it goes (or could go).

@Tim Peebles:

I would argue that Paul is thinking or perhaps theologising mainly at the historical-political level—that’s where he gets his coordinates from. But in practical terms, that has implications for any Jew, any Greek, any believer who comes within his sphere of influence.

So, for example, if an individual man is found to have had a sexual relationship with his father’s wife, he should be handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Cor. 5:1-5). That illustrates the connection between community and individual rather well, don’t you think?

I have argued before that personal resurrection is a hope presented specifically to the martyrs. Paul is principally concerned that a community should survive or be saved through to the day when Jesus is acknowledged as Lord by the nations, but I assume he expected faithful individuals who died in the meantime to have a share in the rule of Christ and the martyrs from heaven.

I would hesitate to try and fill in the details of Paul’s expectation that “wrath” would come upon the Greek world. I think we can be quite confident about the end: a whole civilisation would abandon its gods and idols to serve/worship the living God (cf. 1 These. 1:9-10) and confess his Son as supreme ruler above all things. But I’m not sure that we can say anything more about the concrete means than that the persistent witnessing presence of the churches would be a critical part of the process. The end of polytheism does not have to be violently conceived:

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity. (Is. 46:1-2)

@Andrew Perriman:

My questions come from two vantage points which are different but (presumably) related. One is simply trying to descriptively understand what Paul is saying in his own time and place (with a presumption that this is likely different than what the “theological interpretations” of tradition have taken Paul to be saying); the other is trying to performatively figure out what to do with what Paul says in our own time and place (with a recognition that such “performance” could range from copying, to adapting, to departing). In this light, your example from 1 Cor. 5 helps a bit more with the descriptive question; I see the general connection between individual and community. But what does “handing over to Satan” and “destruction of the flesh” look like for Paul, in concrete terms? Without that, it is difficult to know what we might do with that in our contemporary performance of missional peoplehood. Perhaps what you’ve said is the best we can do with what we have available from Paul.

I think something similar is going on with “wrath” for the Greeks. My question emerged in response to this paragraph:

  • The “wrath” of God is an uncomfortable notion to have to deal with, and it gets sidelined in much modern theological discourse, both popular and scholarly. But the New Testament makes little sense without it. The critical point to grasp is that it belongs to the horizontal dimension of biblical thought. The wrath of God is nearly always experienced as a social or national crisis, threatening the well-being and perhaps the existence of a city or people.

I take your point about being cautious with the details of Paul’s expectation. But an abandonment of idols/polytheism via nonviolent witness, while attractive in some respects, just doesn’t seem to be particularly wrathful—it doesn’t seem to be a threat to the existence of a city or people”—in general or in comparison with what “the Jews” were to undergo. And again, this makes it harder to know what to do with this for our own witness in our time and place.

@Tim Peebles:

I agree that reading historically may not help us directly with application today. In fact, it is likely to make it harder—the “handing over to Satan” (does the Roman magistrate get involved?) passage is a case in point.

Could we not argue, though, that in principle church formation should be in keeping with the contextually relevant prophetic-eschatological vision? That seems to me what we derive from the teaching about a day of fire in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15: Paul foresaw severe persecution for the churches, therefore fire-resistance needed to be built into communities built on the foundation of Christ who suffered, died, and was raised from death.

Paul’s strict prohibition of homosexuality, I think, in a similar way, presupposes a narrative of heightened moral conflict with Greece (see my book on the subject).

So the first task is to identify the “narrative,” and then do what Paul did and form churches that are fit specifically for that purpose. Our future is not the same as Paul’s.

On the matter of a not-very-wrathful wrath against the Greeks, Paul sort of got it right, didn’t he? Jesus was spot on with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Paul was right that God’s “anger” against the Greek-Roman religious system would be expressed non-violently through the faithful witness of the churches and the willing repudiation of idolatry.

I think of his proposed missional journey from Jerusalem to Spain as a symbolic or proleptic annexation of the empire for the God of Israel, not as a proclamation of judgment as violent destruction. How else would the annexation be achieved? Not by force of arms, which was out of keeping with the way of Jesus and practically impossible anyway.

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