“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. (Romans 1:8-10 NIV).”
“…and my ministry.”
This is where Paul gets personal in his letter to the Romans. He demonstrates his close relationship with God whenever he opens up his life to others. He isn’t merely thankful, he is thankful to God. He doesn’t just want to visit them, he prays “constantly” and “at all times” for their spiritual well-being and for his desire to travel to Rome and do ministry with and among them. Prayer is always at the heart of Paul’s spiritual conversation and that, more than his doctrine and intelligence, is the mark of his walk with God. And it isn’t religious praying, either. Paul serves his God “with his whole heart.” That is a mark of a true disciple.
But aren’t you blown away by the reason Paul is thankful for the Roman church? Wouldn’t it be incredible if Paul felt this way about our church as well? Paul is thankful to God “because your faith is being reported all over the world.” Wow. Of course, Rome was at the heart of the Roman Empire and people from all over the world were coming and going all the time. But that is merely the communication system that God was using. Nothing more than the internet or the telephone or the newspapers today. The issue is that there is something to report.
Things weren’t easy in Rome those days. A lot was going on. As we said in an earlier post, the Jews were evicted from Rome under the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) a few years previously. This event is mentioned by Luke in Acts 18:1,2 where he says, “After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome.” Remember that Paul probably wrote the letter to the Romans from Corinth in AD 57, a couple of years into the new Emperor Nero’s reign (AD 54-68).
Nero, of course, is infamous for playing the fiddle during the great fire in Rome which was blamed on the Christians and his persecution of believers was particularly gruesome and bloody (to the point of using believers as human torches during his nighttime parties). How much of this has already happened early in Nero’s reign is hard to say but it was certainly going to get much worse. According to some early reports, even Paul was beheaded by Nero somewhere within the next five to ten years of writing this letter to the Romans.
But getting back to the immediate context, Paul was no doubt very much aware of the situation in Rome and the role of the church there. After all, he had long conversations with Aquila and Priscilla who had first hand testimony of the situation. Even Suetonius, an early historian who was a contemporary of these historical events, mentions the expulsion of the Jews from Rome. Claudius expulsed the Jews, he says, because of their (the Jews) “continual tumults instigated by Chrestus (Claudius 25).” The name “Chrestus” was a common misspelling of “Christ” but obviously the “tumults” weren’t led by Christ but were “about” Christ.
Now, that is interesting. For the Romans, the distinction between Jews and Christian Jews was lost on them. They just expelled all the Jews (Christian Jews and Traditional Jews alike). The ones who were left in the Roman church were the Gentiles. But let’s take a closer look at this “constant tumult” that was so great that it got the attention of the Emperor and led him to simply expel everyone involved (from his point of view). He just got rid of this infighting among a people who were incredibly stubborn about their religion.
The Jews in Palestine (not only in Rome) were always a problem and their nationalism and religion were hardly distinguishable. We know that near the end of Nero’s reign in AD 66 the Jews in Palestine rose up against the Romans and Nero sent general Vespasian to deal with the Jewish problem once and for all. It took four years, of course, and during that time Nero committed suicide and general Vespasian left for Rome to become the new Emperor (after two years of “tumult” with three others trying to sieze power as well, namely, Galba, Otho and Vitellius). Vespasian’s second-in-command, General Titus, would finish the job and both Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70 AD (as per the prophecy of Jesus in Mark 13:2). The great fire in Rome had already happened in AD 64 and the persecution of the Christians was happening during it all. These were indeed tumultous times but mostly after Paul’s letter to the Romans.
But still, a “constant tumult” between Jews and Christian Jews about “Chrestus” that was such a big deal that the Emperor had to step in and send everyone away? That is newsworthy, especially if the Christian Jews held on to their faith in the face of that kind of persecution from their own people. Of course, the Jews have always been politically savvy and they had some power and influence in the Emperor’s inner circle but so did the Christians. In Philippians 4:22 Paul mentions that there were believers “in the household of Ceasar.” How long they had been there and who they were exactly isn’t clear but there was apparently some influence in high places.
And in the middle of that controversy, the church (both Christian Jews and Gentiles alike) became known all over the world for their faith. That is why Paul goes to such lengths to talk about the relationship between the Jewish faith and the Christian faith – one having its roots in the other but becoming something quite distinct in the process.
But not only is there controversy outside the church between the Jews and the Christians (Jews and Gentiles alike) but also within the church. The early church was quite divided over the issue of whether a Gentile believer had to become a Jew (and be circumcised) first in order to become a Christian. It was a logical conclusion to come to but Paul considered it the worst of heresies. He even got into a public fight with Peter about it (which we will look at later). So, you can well imagine that the issue of the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles and how both become something new in the church is so much a part of Paul’s discussion in this letter to the Romans.
Now, you and I may not be able to relate so much to this discussion about Jews and Gentiles. It obviously isn’t an issue today. Most of us are Gentiles and that is that. But in this discussion about Jews and Gentiles, what is Paul really doing? He is talking about our identity in Christ. Even more, he is talking about the real, heartfelt difference between believers and non-believers and what crucial difference a relationship with God through Christ can have in our lives. He is talking about the transformational power of the gospel in the lives of people who are justified by faith. The specific cultural context may be a bit foreign to us but the struggle of law vs. grace and unbelief vs. faith is still very much a part of our lives.
We may be surprised to find out that the letter of Romans is so relevant to modern life that it can literally change lives today. It was the letter to the Romans that changed the life of Martin Luther and his commentary (especially the introduction) is still considered to be a classic. John Wesley, the father of Methodism, tells us that his heart “was strangely warmed” when he heard Martin Luther’s introduction to the Book of Romans read aloud and counted that as his true conversion experience. Many, many others would say the same. The Book of Romans is alive and well today and the power of the gospel is still at work. Has it changed your life as well? We shall see….
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, we want to be changed by the gospel today. When we hear that your word has power to change and transform lives today, our hearts are also “strangely warmed.” But in our experience it isn’t always so. We don’t see much transformation in our lives or in our churches. O Lord, give us insight into your gospel so that we might not miss the true power that comes when our identity is truly in Christ. Don’t allow us to be merely religious people but rather that we serve you with our whole hearts like Paul did. That is our prayer for every day of our lives that you would make a real difference in the real world in my life. In your name I pray. Amen.