Commentary on Romans 1:1-7
The opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans may seem an odd choice for the final Sunday in Advent, but upon further inspection the selection makes sense.
In this richly theological greeting, Paul begins to lay out the main elements of his gospel, declaring that he comes as an apostle not with a Gospel of his own making, but one that was promised beforehand in the holy scriptures and has been fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Given the proximity to Christmas, one might focus on how Paul sets forth the identity of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God descended from David.
Jesus, the Son of God with power
In the Old Testament Israel was called God’s Son (for example, Hosea 11:1) as was Israel’s King (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7). By the Second Temple period, “Son of God” could be used for the coming Messiah. Wesley Hill has drawn attention to the use of this title in the Psalms of Solomon (early Jewish writings not in the current scriptural canon).1 The psalmist envisions a future time when God will raise up a new Davidic leader to judge evil and establish righteousness among God’s people. He calls on God to “raise up for them their king, the son of David, at the time which you chose, O God, to rule over Israel your servant” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21).
As Hill notes, Paul seems to be conversing with these kinds of traditions. He declares that Jesus is of Davidic descent as would be expected of the Messiah. For Paul and the psalmist, the activity of the Messiah is dependent on the working of the Holy Spirit (see also Psalms of Solomon 17:37: “… God has made him strong in the holy spirit.”); and both see the Messiah as appearing in God’s timing to bring about salvation—to establish justice in a world gone wrong. Accordingly, by calling Jesus the davidic “Son of God with power,” Paul “very likely means to say, ‘Jesus is the anointed eschatological agent of God’s final redemption of his people Israel.’”2
But there are differences. For the psalmist, God raises up one as a “son of David” to uphold the line of David. For Paul, the Son who “was declared to be Son of God with power” was already the Son. He does not gain a new identity but is appointed as the Son “with power” in the resurrection. God’s work in raising him from the dead through the activity of the Holy Spirit declares him to be what he truly has always been but would not have always been so evident: the Son whom the prophets prophesied, who lived in humility, suffered, and died as God’s Son, is now risen and reigning in power over all creation.
Jesus the Jewish Son of God — for Jews and Gentiles
To return to the Psalms of Solomon: the “son of David” whom God raises up to rule is meant to purify Jerusalem “from the nations” and to “destroy the lawless nations” (Psalms of Solomon 17:22-24). Indeed, his rule means that Gentiles will “flee from his presence” (17:25). The Gentiles that are brought back in will be “subject to him under his yoke” (17:30).3 Furthermore, he will deal with sinful Jews by “driv[ing] out sinners from the inheritance” (17:23).
Set against this backdrop, Paul’s announcement of the Son of God descended from David seems upside down: Paul the Jew names himself a “servant of Christ Jesus” for the sake of the Gentiles (Romans 1:5-6). Paul’s Son of God does not achieve God’s victory through military triumph or subjugation of the nations, but through death and divine vindication in the resurrection (1:4). The Gentiles are indeed brought under the reign of this Son of God (1:5)—but this Lord gives grace and peace (1:7) and died even—or specifically—for his enemies (5:10). This is not a message of a terrifying new ruler who is coming to quash the nations; this is a message of hope, that these Gentiles “belong” to this Son of God.
Paul ends the opening with an opening wish: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Rather than subjugating you, Paul implies (and will explain later), the Lord Jesus has defeated the true enemies of sin and death in order to liberate all people, Jew and Gentile, to live under his lordship. This is not simple a wish, but a declaration of a reality. Just as Paul was called to be an apostle, the Roman Christians have been called to be saints who belong to a new ruler, Jesus Christ. May our proclamation of the text deliver such grace and peace to our hearers in the name of Christ, the risen Son of God in power, so that they know themselves to be saints who belong to Jesus.
1 Wesley Hill, “Psalms of Solomon and Romans 1:1-17: The ‘Son of God’ and the Identity of Jesus,” in B.C. Blackwell et al (eds.), Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 31–37.
3 Hill, “Psalms of Solomon and Romans 1.1-17,” 35.