Paul's letter to the Romans is often described as his greatest and most theological epistle, giving a clear exposition of the Gospel. It describes God’s plan of salvation, beginning by demonstrating that all people, whether Jew or Gentile, are condemned and deserve God’s wrath. However the righteousness of God is available to all those who respond to God in faith, trusting that Christ's death is the means by which God can remain righteous and yet can justify those with faith. This faith relationship involves dying to sin, dying to the power of the law and walking in the new life of the Spirit.
Influence of Romans
This letter has had an immeasurable impact on church history. People whose lives have been changed through reading this book have been instrumental in changing the course of church history, particularly by bringing the church back to the pure Gospel at times when it had drifted from it. Some of the most famous church leaders in history were brought to faith in Jesus through this book, including Augustine, Martin Luther and John Wesley. Each of these people had a great influence on the church in their time, and that influence has continued through the centuries to today.
At a time when Augustine wanted to begin a new life, but lacked the final resolution to break with his old life, he heard a child singing in a neighbouring house "Tolle, Lege!" (Take up and read!). He picked up and read, "not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." (Rom 13:13b-14). At the end of this sentence, a clear light flooded his heart, and all the darkness of doubt vanished away (Confessions 8.8).
Martin Luther came to understand that the righteousness of God came through faith, from the quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 (Rom 1:17). Previously, he understood God's righteousness as something to condemn him as a sinner, and not to save him. Finally he grasped the truth that God's righteousness, through his grace and mercy, justifies us by faith. Luther felt himself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning, and the righteousness of God became inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to him a gateway into heaven.
In the evening of 24th May 1738, John Wesley went very unwillingly to a society meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, where one person was reading the Preface of Luther's Commentary on Romans. In his Journal, Wesley described what happened: "About quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I trusted in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken my sins away, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death".
The foundation of the church in Rome
The exact origin of the church in Rome is unknown. It is not mentioned in Acts and there is no other record in the New Testament. The reference to "not building on another mans foundation" (Rom 15:20) shows that Paul had no part in establishing the church. Paul had never visited Rome before he wrote this letter, and did not arrive in Rome until four years later, as a prisoner (Acts 28).
There were around 40,000 Jews living in Rome in the first century. Some of these visited Jerusalem for Pentecost (Acts 2:10), so it is quite likely that some of these were converted and brought the Gospel back to Rome. This would mean that the church started off being very Jewish, like the Jerusalem church. The freedom of travel in the first century made possible by the Roman Empire means that it would be quite likely that some in the Jewish community in Rome honoured Jesus within months after the crucifixion.
The Roman Catholic tradition that Peter started the church, and was there for about 25 years after AD 42, appears to have little basis in history. Peter was in prison in Jerusalem around AD 46 (Acts 12), and in Jerusalem for the Council in AD 49 (Acts 15), and afterwards in Antioch (Gal 2:11). If Peter was the leading member of the church in Rome then Paul would have certainly sent greetings to him, or at least mentioned him in the letter.
Romans is usually dated during Paul's stay in Corinth on his third missionary journey (Acts 20:3). He spent AD 56-57 in Corinth, staying there through the winter months, when sea journeys were especially dangerous. Paul was staying with Gaius, who sent his greetings to the Roman church (16:23). Paul used an amanuensis or secretary, Tertius (16:22). Paul himself probably wrote the last paragraph of the letter by hand, having dictated the rest.
Purpose of the book
At first sight, Romans appears to be a systematic treatment of God's plan of salvation, seeming to be removed from specific problems or instructions. The question is: Why did Paul set out his gospel so thoroughly for the church in Rome?
Paul gives some details of his travel plans (15:22-32). From Corinth, he intended to travel to the west, especially to Spain (v23). He had often intended to come to Rome, but had been prevented from doing so up to this time (v22, 1:10). He was now on his way to Jerusalem with the collection for the saints (v25-27, 2 Cor 8-9). After Jerusalem, he intended to visit Rome on his way to Spain, and to be sent on his way by the church in Rome (v24).
In this letter Paul laid out his gospel completely was so that he could introduce himself and his teaching, so the church would be able to decide if they wanted to support him and "speed" him on his way to Spain. Paul wrote to prepare the Roman church for his visit, so he could use the church as a sending church, as Antioch had been, for his thrust out to the west including Spain. Paul had spent the previous ten years from AD 47 to 56 in intense evangelisation of the Eastern Mediterranean area, and planted churches in many major Roman cities, so he could say that he had fully preached Christ from Jerusalem to Ilyricum (15:18-19), and now was making plans to visit them on his way to Spain (15:24).
Paul intended to travel to the west, but was prevented by trouble in the churches and hindrances to the completion of the collection for the saints. Paul was now on the way to Jerusalem, at the end of the third missionary journey, with the collection and would soon be free to look west, so wrote the Letter to the Romans to prepare the way and ask them to pray for his protection and the reception of the collection in Jerusalem (15:31).
This view does recognise the missionary emphasis (1:13-15) and Paul's ambition to preach in new places (15:20f) and to go to Spain (15:24). His ambition was to bring the gospel to the whole Roman world, Spain being the western limit. He had already evangelised Asia Minor and Greece, where he had planted thriving churches. He hoped that the Roman church would support his ministry to the west in prayer and financially, as well as acting as a link between Spain and Jerusalem to prevent the converts there from being very isolated.
However, this seems to be too weak a purpose of such a powerful letter. It would not really be necessary for Paul to expound his gospel in such detail just to gain their support. This is probably partly the reason for the letter, but not the main reason.
Romans was addressing a concrete situation in Rome
All the others of Paul's letters were written to address specific situations in the churches. They were written primarily from a pastoral perspective, rather than a theological one. In Romans there is very clear pastoral situation being addressed through the all of the letter.
Three times Paul mentions that he is called to bring about the obedience of the Gentiles (1:5, 15:18 16:26). He states clearly that he has addressed them on concerning some specific issues, "on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder" (15:15). Paul is not merely stating his doctrine, but also using rhetorical questions and arguments against an imaginary opponent. The pastoral problem seems to be disunity between the Jewish and Gentile believers.
In the early years, Christianity in Rome would have been strongly Jewish, and probably attached to the synagogue. According to inscriptions found in Jewish cemeteries, there was a synagogue called "The Synagogue of the Olive Tree" in Rome, showing the relevance of the analogy of the olive tree (11:17-24). The Jewish believers in Jesus, forming the nucleus of the church, were probably an offshoot of this and other synagogues.
According the historian, Suetonius, in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, all Jews, whether believers in Jesus or not, were expelled from Rome by Claudius in AD 49 after riots, leaving a Gentile church. "... since the Jews were continually making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, Claudius expelled them from Rome" . The Crestus mentioned by Suetonius was probably meant to be Christus, implying that the Jewish community had probably been fighting and rioting over whether Jesus was the Messiah.
In the early years, Jews and Christians shared the complete toleration that Jews enjoyed under Roman rule. The Roman authorities saw Christianity as merely another sect of Judaism. Therefore when there was trouble with Jews, Claudius did not make distinction, but simply expelled all Jews, whether they believed in Jesus or not. Aquila was a Jewish believer who was expelled along with his wife Priscilla (Acts 18:2).
In AD 54, Claudius was succeeded by Nero, who reversed the edict, or allowed it to lapse. Jews, including believing Jews, then began to return to Rome. The letter to Romans was written from Corinth on Paul's third missionary journey in AD 57/58, by which time most Jews had returned, including Pricilla and Aquila (16:3).
The expulsion of Jews would mean that all Jewish believers left. Therefore all the Christians remaining in Rome would have been Gentile. This means that for a few years the Gentile influence would have grown and the church would have taken on non-Jewish, Gentile characteristics.
When Jewish Christians, who were still committed to the law, Jewish culture and tradition, returned to Rome after the expulsion, they found a very different situation. There were several house churches with no connection with the synagogue, dominated by Gentile Christians who had remained in Rome and had increased in numbers, forming a Gentile majority. This would result in problems and tensions between the two groups and great problems after the period of separation.
One church or many?
For many years, it was assumed that there was only a single congregation in Rome, as in other cities. However, the evidence in the letter would not support this. The letter is not addressed to the "church in Rome" (as in 1 & 2 Cor, 1 & 2 Thess etc.). Instead, the letter is addressed to "all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints" (1:7).
In chapter 16, there appears to be five or six separate house churches: the church in the house of Prisca & Aquila (v3-5), all who belong to the family of Aristobulus (v10), all who belong to the family of Narcissus (v11), all the brethren with Asyncritus (v14), and all the saints with Philologus (v15), possibly more.
Each group had probably come into existence under a different leader at a different time, each would have different conceptions of what is involved in the gospel. The ban on public assembly and disputes between the groups would keep them apart, especially over Jew / Gentile issues, such as holy days and eating or abstaining from particular food.
How Paul dealt with the disunity
Paul sent the letter to deal with the sources of friction and to bring about a new spirit of co-operation and interdependence between the groups, demonstrating the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers before God. At times Paul addresses the Jews specifically: "But if you call yourself a Jew ..." (2:17), "then what advantage has the Jew?" (3:1), "What then? Are we Jews any better off?" (3:9), "... to those under the law ..." (3:19), "I am speaking to those who know the law ..." (7:1). At other times, Paul addresses Gentiles specifically: "... Even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?" (9:24), "Now I am speaking to you Gentiles" (11:13f), "Just as you were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience ..." (11:30).
Paul also addresses both groups together, showing that the distinction is broken: "The Gospel is the power of God for salvation, for the Jew first, then the Greek" (1:16), "... the Jew first and also the Greek ... no partiality" (2:9-11), "... both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin" (3:9), "for there is no distinction, since all have sinned ..." (3:22), "Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also?" (3:29), "Jews and Gentiles are justified by faith" (3:30), Abraham is the ancestor of both Gentiles and Jews who have faith (4:11-12, 16), "No distinction between Jew and Greek" (10:12).
In chapters 14 and 15 Paul addresses this problem specifically. The primary division was between the liberal minded Gentile majority (who Paul refers to as the strong in faith), and the conservative Jewish minority (referred to as the weak in faith). The two groups were condemning and passing judgement on each other. A few Jews may have found their new liberty in Christ and joined the Gentile groups, and a few Gentiles may think that they had to obey the whole law and joined the Jewish groups, but the split would predominantly be ethnic.
The weak in faith (mostly Jews) ate only certain foods (14:1-4), particularly vegetables (v3) and passed judgement on and condemned those who had no scruples about food. They did not regard all days as equally sacred (v5-9), and abstained from wine (v21). Some followed an ascetic form of Judaism, others were scrupulous Jews who would not eat meat with Gentiles, in case it had been offered to an idol, or if it had not been killed to Jewish standards.
The strong in faith (mostly Gentiles) considered all foods acceptable, nothing being unclean in itself (14:2,14), that all days are equally sacred (v5). They despised the more inhibited (v3, 10), and enjoyed disputing with the weak (v1).
Paul identifies himself with the basic position of the strong (15:1), but disassociates himself from their bad points especially when they scorn the weak. He brings the following principles in order to prevent disunity: God has welcomed the other brother (14:3), and only God can judge and vindicate his servants (14:4), therefore welcome each other, as God has welcomed you (14:1,3, 15:7). These principles are denied when the weak (Jews) judged the strong (Gentiles), and when the strong (Gentiles) despised the weak (Jews).
He recognised that both groups eat or abstain out of the best motives - to honour the Lord (14:6), they have a common relationship to Christ (v7-9) and mutual accountability to God (v10-12). Paul brings the two sides together (v13-23) showing what is right in the two positions. Nothing is unclean in itself (the strong), but unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean (the weak) (v14), while everything is clean (the strong), but it is wrong to make others fall by what they eat (the weak) (v20). If a person is forced to eat food he thought was unclean, he would be sinning against his conscience. The strong Gentile Christians were totally lacking in sensitivity: injuring and ruining a brother (v15), causing him to stumble (v13, 21), causing him to sin and be condemned (v23), and being a factor in destroying God's work in his life (v20).
Love is the factor missing in the strong. Paul is trying to get both groups to focus on priorities. The kingdom is not a matter of food or drink, but righteousness, peace and joy (14:17). Therefore keep personal convictions a matter between yourself and God, and concentrate on strengthening your own faith and avoid sin (14:22). His prayer is for joy, peace and abounding in hope by power of Holy Spirit (14:13). Paul wants the strength of the Holy Spirit to produce joy, peace and hope, not the arid disagreements between the weak and strong.
The summary of Paul's goal for the Roman Christians is expressed in these verses, "May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Jesus Christ, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." (15:5-6).
A Letter to the Heart of the Roman Empire
This letter was written to the believers in Rome, the capital of the Empire, and home of the Emperor. The Romans boasted about their military power, and that they had brought peace to their huge empire - the Pax Romana. There was a growing trend towards worship of the emperor, known as the imperial cult. Temples were dedicated to Roma, the goddess of Rome, personified in the emperor. In contrast to this, the Gospel could appear to be weak and feeble, but Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God for salvation ... (1:16). Many of the Christian terms have politically loaded associations. Jesus was declared as the King or Lord, and the divine Son of God, in contrast to the Emperor. He was the Saviour, which was also a title claimed by the Emperor. Paul preached the Gospel, the Good News, which was a word associated with bringing news of new military conquest, the emperor’s birthday, or the accession of a new emperor to the throne. So the good news of a new king would be a highly political statement. Even Paul claiming to be an apostle would have political associations, as it was an apostle, or messenger, who brought the good news of military victory.
Integrity of the letter
Many scholars claim that only the first fifteen chapters and the benediction were in the original letter, and that chapter sixteen was added later, being addressed originally to Ephesus. However, considering that Paul did so much travelling, it is more likely that he would know 26 Christians in Rome, than that he would single them out from the congregation in Ephesus, when he knew the whole congregation, having spent three years there. Many of those greeted in chapter 16 would have been expelled from Rome by Claudius in AD 49, and met Paul in their exile (like Prisca and Aquila). Once the edict was repealed, they had returned to Rome. Paul wrote the letter in AD 57-58 from Corinth, and sent greetings to his friends. There is more evidence for the names in chapter 16 being Roman, than Ephesian. For example, Stachys (v9) was a rare name, but which appears on an inscription of an officer in the imperial court in Rome in Paul's time. Apelles (v10) appears in other inscriptions in Rome, but not in Ephesus.
The textual evidence is best explained that chapter 16 was part of the original letter, which was later cut to make it more general and universal. This chapter gives us clues about the setting and purpose of the letter.
People Mentioned in Romans 16
Paul wrote a brief introduction to commend Phoebe. Such letters of commendation were common if someone was moving to a strange town or in the Christian spheres, visiting a church in another town. Phoebe was a deaconess at the church of Cenchreae, the eastern seaport of Corinth, and was probably the post-woman, taking the letter to Rome. The Roman church was requested to help her. She is spoken well of by Paul as a 'helper'.
Believers in Rome
Paul greets twenty-six people by name in the churches in Rome, giving us a fascinating insight into the composition of the church. There is a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, and including a number of people with connections with the imperial household. He greets nine different women, five of whom are commended for their labour in the Lord. Thirteen of all the names mentioned occur in inscriptions or documents that have connections with the Emperor's palace in Rome. The church had certainly penetrated Caesar's household (Phil 1:13, 4:22).
1 & 2. Prisca &Aquila (v3)
This couple arrived in Corinth because of the edict by Claudius that Jews should leave Rome (Acts 18:2). Aquila was a Jew (Aquila is a Latin name meaning eagle, so he would also have had a Jewish name), but it seems his wife was not. Luke uses the diminutive familiar form Priscilla. When Paul arrived in Corinth, they established a friendship that would continue for many years. They, like Paul, were tent makers.
When Paul left Corinth for Ephesus on the second missionary journey, Priscilla and Aquila travelled with him. He left them there while he visited Jerusalem during which time they ministered to Apollos "... teaching the way of God more accurately" (Acts 18:26). Around AD 55, Priscilla and Aquila were still in Ephesus where they had a church in their house (1 Cor 16:19). By AD 56, they were back in Rome, where Paul's describes them as fellow workers, who risked their necks for my life, to whom many Gentiles gave thanks, and who have a church in their house. By the mid-sixties, they were once again back in Ephesus (2 Tim 4:19).
3. Epaenetus (v5) is otherwise unknown. The fact that he was Paul's first convert in Asia, probably in Ephesus on the third missionary journey, made him special to Paul.
4. Mary (v6) was a common name and no evidence to relate this to any other Mary in the New Testament. Paul describes her as a hard-working lady, indicating that she had been a believer for some time.
5 & 6. Andronicus and Junia (v7) were probably a husband and wife team, who are both referred to as apostles. They would have been saved soon after (if not at) Pentecost. "My relatives" means they were Jews. During their ministry they had shared one of Paul's many imprisonments. They had an outstanding ministry and were well known among those who were called Apostles, perhaps being commended by the apostles in Jerusalem.
7. Ampliatus (v8) is unknown, other than that he was beloved by Paul. Ampliatus was a common slave name, and often used in the imperial household. In the earliest of the Christian catacombs, there is a decorated tomb with a single name Ampliatus. The single name implies that he was a slave, while the fact that his tomb was decorated shows he was of high rank in the church.
8. Urbanus (v9) is unknown fellow-worker in the church. His name means that he belongs to the urbs or city, meaning that he is a citizen of Rome.
9. Stachys (v9) An unknown woman, beloved by Paul. An unusual woman’s name, others of this name have been found in association with the imperial household.
10. Apelles (v10) is a very common Jewish name, meaning approved or tested in Christ. He is otherwise unknown.
11. Those who belong to the family of Aristobulus (v10). Aristobulus may have been one of the seventy disciples sent out by Jesus. He later preached in Britain and become bishop. The "family of Aristobulus" would either mean his household or a church meeting in his house. There was a grandson of Herod the Great called Aristobulus, brother of Herod Agrippa I. He was a quiet man and did not inherit any of Herod's land.
12. Herodian (v11) A Jewish believer in Rome, no more known about him. Described as a kinsman of Paul, perhaps a relative. His name might indicate some link with the family of King Herod.
13. Family of Narcissus (v11) It is not known whether this refers to a family or a church. It is interesting to note that Paul says to greet those "in the Lord". Perhaps not all of the family of Narcissus were Christians. Narcissus was a common name. There was a Tiberius Claudius Narcissus who was a secretary to Claudius. He amassed almost £4,000,000 because he was the way by which letters reached Claudius. Nero compelled Narcissus to commit suicide to get his wealth. This may be referring to the slaves and servants of this man. If so, then Christianity was well established in Caesar's household.
14 & 15. Tryphaena &Tryphosa (v12) These are both women in Rome who were "workers". Their names mean "Dainty" and "Delicate", they were probably sisters, or even twins, as their names have the same root. These names have also been found in the imperial household.
16. Persis (v12) was another Gentile woman in Rome who is beloved and worked hard. Her name means "Persian woman".
17. Rufus (v13) is a very common name meaning "Red or red haired". Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross, is described as the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). Mark wrote his gospel for the Roman Christians and mentioned these three people by name perhaps because they were known to them. His Mother (v13) is otherwise unknown. Paul refers to her as "his mother", indicating that he must have known her personally some time in the past. Paul had not yet been to Rome but there was a Simeon called Niger (black) in the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1). If this was Simon of Cyrene, then Paul could well have known the family there and had Rufus' mother care for him. They could then have moved to Rome, and as Simon is not mentioned, it seems that Simon was not alive when Romans were written.
18 & 19. Asyncritus and Phlegon (v14) are also unknown.
20. Hermes (v14) a common slave name, named after Hermes the god of good luck.
21. Patrobus (v14), an abbreviation of Patrobius, a name of a wealthy freedman of Nero.
22. Hermas (v14) was a very common name. Jerome identifies him as the same Hermas who later wrote The Shepherd of Hermas, a popular Christian allegory. "Hermas whom the apostle Paul mentions in writing to the Romans "Salute Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brethren that are with them" is reputed to be the author of the book which is called Pastor and which is also read publicly in some churches of Greece. It is in fact a useful book and many of the ancient writers quote from it as authority, but among the Latins it is almost unknown." (Lives of Illustrious Men 10).
All five names in v14 are Greek. The brethren with them could be the elders of one of the fellowships in Rome.
23 & 24. Philologus and Julia (v15) are an otherwise unknown and probably a married couple.
25. Nereus (v15) Nothing else is known about him. However, In AD 95 two of the most distinguished people in the city were condemned for being Christians, Flavus Clemens and his wife Domatilla. Nereus was the name of the chamberlain, who was probably a slave, perhaps who had led them to Christ. The father of Flavius Clemens was Flavius Sabinus who was Nero's executioner. Nothing else is known about his unnamed sister (v15).
26. Olympus (v15) nothing else known.
Philologus, Julia, Nereus, his sister, and Olympus were probably members of the same family: father, mother, two sons and a daughter, or otherwise leaders of the church. The saints with them (v15) would be a church that met in their house or under their leadership.
Believers in Corinth
These are the people with Paul in Corinth, who are sending greetings to the believers in Rome:
Timothy (v21), Paul’s loyal co-worker, was also with Paul in Corinth when he wrote Romans.
Lucius (v21). A man named Lucius was one of those praying with Paul and Barnabas when they were set apart for the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1). This may be the same man. If so he is from Cyrene in Libya, North Africa.
Jason (v21) is unknown, unless he is the same Jason who was host to Paul in Thessalonica (Acts 15:5). He house was attacked and he was dragged before city authorities. He could well have been with Paul in Corinth.
Sosipater (v21) is a fellow-Jew. He may be the Sopater of Beroea (Acts 20:4), who was with Paul on his return to Jerusalem.
Tertius (v22) was Paul's scribe in Corinth
Gaius (v23) is a name mentioned in several places in the New Testament (Acts 19:29, 20:4, 3 John 1), but these are unlikely all to be the same person. Paul baptized a man named Gaius (1 Cor 1:14), one of the few people who was baptized by Paul in Corinth, who is likely to be the same man, who was Paul's host in Corinth when this letter was written. The whole church could mean Gaius was leader, or that it met at his house.
Erastus (v23) was the City Treasurer of Corinth. A Latin inscription on a paving block was found in Corinth in 1929, saying "Erastus, in return for his aedileship (appointment as commissioner for public works) laid this pavement at his own expense".
Quartus (v23) is an otherwise unknown believer in Corinth. Quartus (fourth) may have been the younger brother of Tertius (third), indicating that these were both born as slaves.
Quotations from the Old Testament
Paul quotes plentifully from the Old Testament, particularly in the sections addressed to Jews. The quotations are particularly frequent in chapters 9-11, where they mostly come in pairs.
||Ps 14:1c, 2b-3, (Ps 51)
||1 Kg 19:10,14
||1 Kg 19:18
||Is 29:10 / Deut 29:4
||Is 27:9 / Jer 31:33
|| Ex 20:17, Deut 5:21
||Ex 20:13-17, Deut 5:17-21
||Is 10:22a, 23
||Ps 18:49, 2 Sam 22:50
For a deeper study, I have written a book on Romans called Gospel of Power. Details are on the Julian's Books page.