Commentary on Romans 1:1-17
Paul’s Letter to the Romans is his gospel proclamation for both Jewish and gentile believers in Rome, written in preparation for his upcoming visit there. The first 17 verses of the letter are a roadmap for what follows, inviting us into the dynamic interaction between Paul’s textualized gospel and the world that needs the gospel, then and now.
The first and the last parts of this letter give us a clue to some historical circumstances. In this letter probably performed by “our sister Phoebe,” whom Paul commends to the recipient (Romans 16:1), Paul expresses his “eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (1:15)—the Christian community (or communities) in Rome that Paul has not visited. Paul earnestly wanted to go to Rome (1:13, 15:23) and to “share with [them] some spiritual gift” (1:11). Paul was mindful of tensions among certain groups in Rome (Romans 14–15). It is Paul’s hope that “all God’s beloved in Rome” (1:7), regardless of their differences, will be transformed through his gospel and participating in his mission to the west (for example, Spain, 15:24, 28), glorifying God with one voice (15:6).
So what is the gospel according to Paul? This is the question I focus on.
The word “gospel,” or good news (Greek euangelion), has multiple associations in the first century. To Jews and Christians who knew the Jewish scriptures in Greek (“the Septuagint” or “LXX”), the term good news probably resonated with Isaiah 52:6–7, in which the word is used as a verb (euangelizomai; see underlined phrases).
“Therefore, my people shall know my name in that day, because I myself am the one who speaks: I am here like season upon the mountains, like the feet of one bringing glad tidings of a report of peace, like one bringing glad tidings of good things, because I will make your salvation heard, saying to Sion, ‘Your God shall reign’” (Isaiah 52:6–7, NETS).1
God has given the promise of restoration to God’s people. The proclamation of God’s salvation—“Your God shall reign”—is the good news. Paul was aware of this passage (see Romans 10:15), and many among Paul’s audience may also have been familiar with it. Note how Paul defines his gospel from the outset: it is “the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Paul declares God’s reign and salvation, echoing Isaiah’s vision.
That is not all, of course, since the term gospel is multi-layered. The word gospel is also well known in the wider Roman imperial context (and ideology) where Paul and his audience lived. For example, a late first century BCE inscription called the Priene Calendar Inscription celebrates the birth of Caesar Augustus, calling it “the beginning of the good tidings.”2 Augustus is a “savior” sent by divine Providence for the benefit of all humankind.
In this context, Romans would sound quite provocative. Paul was writing this letter to Christian communit(ies) in the imperial center and proclaiming that his good news concerning Jesus, the son of Israel’s God (Romans 1:1, 1:9), is the real gospel. By implication, this is not the good news of Augustus, the son of the deified Julius Caesar. Paul was “not ashamed of” this gospel because he firmly believed that this is truly “the power of God for salvation” (1:16).
Thus, the gospel Paul proclaims is a message that has both ethnic particularities and universal implications—it is a Jewish gospel intended for both Jews and gentiles. This gospel’s Jewishness is clear: it was “promised beforehand” in the Jewish scriptures (1:2), and its focus, Jesus, is David’s descendant (1:3). To Paul, it is the gospel of Israel’s God, focused on the Jewish Messiah, inviting the nations into the divine purpose rooted in Israel’s scriptures.
Some recent interpreters see Paul’s gospel as a Jewish gospel that only applies to gentiles—Paul is an apostle to gentiles, not Jews. Indeed, Paul’s primary Roman audience is gentile, as implied in Romans 1:5–6, 1:13, and 11:13. Paul articulates his hope to proclaim the gospel among the gentiles in Rome, to “bring about the obedience of faith” (1:5) and to “reap some harvest” (1:13).
Nevertheless, Paul’s gospel explicitly extends beyond the “gentile problem.” The gospel mediates “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16). The gospel equalizes: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (10:12). The logic of Paul’s gospel retains ethnic priority, and at the same time, goes beyond human boundaries. It is a universal gospel.
Finally, the gospel effectively creates trust (“faith” in Romans 1:16–17 or “the obedience of faith” in 1:5) with its divine, righteous initiative. Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, “The one who is righteous will live by faith” (1:17). Again, the effectiveness of the gospel stems from God; the well-known concept of “justification/righteousness by faith” has more to do with God’s power, than human status. Paul uses “God’s righteousness” as the shorthand for God’s powerful, salvific action toward God’s creatures.3 Humans do not make things right, God does. Just as the gospel is “the gospel of God” (1:1), this righteousness found in the gospel is “the righteousness of God” (1:17).
With these points in mind, one could make a good sermon about Romans 1:1–17, but this passage is really an invitation to the entire letter. It propels the reader to raise a series of questions, which can only be answered gradually throughout the letter. For example,
- If the gospel of God promised in the Jewish scriptures is about God’s reign, what will this divine reign look like individually, communally, and cosmically?
- If the gospel concerning God’s son who was crucified (shamefully, from a Roman perspective) counters the gospel-claim of Caesar, how should Roman believers conduct themselves in everyday life?
- If the gospel is for everyone who trusts it, regardless of ethnicity, how should Jewish and gentile believers in Rome treat each other?
These questions faced “all God’s beloved in Rome” (1:7), and versions of them will be asked by God’s beloved in today’s world when you preach on this text.
- NETS: New English Translation of the Septuagint. https://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/
- For a photo of the inscription, visit: http://www.smb-digital.de/eMuseumPlus
- Ernst Käsemann, “‘The Righteousness of God’ in Paul,” in New Testament Questions of Today (London: SCM, 1969), 168–182.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of all humanity, you welcomed all—sinners and saints—into your kingdom. Help us to be as welcoming and accepting as you. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Immortal, invisible, God only wise ELW 834
Lord, take my hand and lead me ELW 767
Salvation unto us has come ELW 570
Salvation is created, Pavel Tchesnokov
May 7, 2023