Commentary on Romans 1:1-7
Paul’s greeting in his letter to the Romans (1:1–7) immediately focusses the audience’s attention on what is of ultimate significance: the gospel of God (verse 1), which is the good news that Jesus Christ is both God’s promised Messiah and resurrected Lord (verses 3–4; see also Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel 7:12–16). The rest of the letter will unpack this snapshot of the gospel (see also Romans 1:16–17).
Framing Paul’s condensed portrait of the gospel in the opening section of Romans are his self-identification as the letter’s sender (verse 1) and his greetings to the recipients of the letter: “all God’s beloved in Rome” (verse 7). These basic features are characteristic of Hellenistic letters of Paul’s time, including Paul’s other letters. But the way Paul expands (or omits) standard epistolary elements indicates his emphasis and aims in a particular letter. In the case of Romans, Paul emphasizes the nature of his own call and ministry (verses 1, 5), but does so in such a way that shows that these arise from the very gospel that he proclaims (verses 2–4).
Right away, Paul identifies himself as a servant or slave of Jesus Christ who has been called to be an apostle, set apart for the sake of spreading the gospel (verse 1). Although Paul does not directly mention God as the one who called and appointed him, this is implied. Indeed, Paul makes God the subject at the beginning of verse 2 as the one who promised the gospel in the Scriptures before the arrival of Christ. And it is God who fulfilled this promise through God’s Son, whose life, death, and resurrection are presented in shorthand in verses 3–4. It is this life-giving gift of God’s Son to a world often turned against God that constitutes the grace that transformed Paul and his co-workers into apostles—ones sent by God to bring this gift to others.
In short, Paul declares that his life and his ministry are not his own. Rather, they are a living testimony to God’s transformative power that turned him from an opponent of the gospel to one of its most fervent proclaimers (see also Galatians 1:13–24).
Showing the interconnectedness of his own call and the gospel serves what is arguably Paul’s main aim in writing Romans: to enlist the financial and spiritual support of the Roman Christians in his proposed evangelistic mission to Spain (for example, Romans 1:11–13; 15:23–24, 28, 32). Unlike the communities to which several of Paul’s other letters are addressed, Paul did not found the Christian communities1 in Rome. In fact, he has not yet visited Rome, although he plans to do so and does have relationships with Roman Christians, including some who support his ministry (for example, Romans 15:22–24; Romans 16:3–15). It is thus crucial for Paul to introduce himself more generally to the Roman Christians as one who is called and commissioned by God to preach the same gospel that has also claimed their lives (verses 5–6). He is inviting them to trust him and God’s work through him. The opening of the letter, therefore, is not simply a greeting but also Paul’s attempt to connect with the recipients by means of what fundamentally unites them: the gospel.
It is this gospel that compels Paul, a Jew, to bring God’s good news to the gentiles (verse 5) within the Roman Christian communities. There are apparently also Jewish believers in Rome (for example, Prisca and Aquila, Romans 16:3; see also Acts 18:2–3; Romans 2:17; 4:1) to whom Paul appeals by citing Israel’s Scriptures as a witness to the gospel (Romans 1:2) and acknowledging Jesus as the promised Davidic messiah (verse 3; see also Samuel 7:12–16). This foreshadows another theme of the letter: the gospel that brings about God’s righteousness is freely and equally offered to both Jews and Gentiles, who all have sinned (for example, Romans 3:21–31). By evoking faith in the God made known in Christ, the gospel unites diverse groups of people in community.
Paul likely draws on earlier Christian tradition in Romans 1:3–4. This might partly account for what some consider to be adoptionism in Paul’s statement that Jesus Christ was declared or appointed Son of God by resurrection (verse 4). But since the human Jesus is already referred to as God’s Son in verse 3, another way to read verse 4 is as a declaration that the resurrection of the crucified messiah is the way in which God exalted him as Lord of the cosmos. This Lord ushers God’s eschatological new creation into the world.
The gospel, therefore, that Paul presents in Romans is not an abstract theological reflection on God. Instead, it is the very power of God to free people from the powers of sin and death that characterize the old age and form in them the new creation that lives to serve God and each other in love.
This passage is full of possibilities for preaching:
- It can stimulate reflection on the common ground that the preacher shares with congregants and on the importance of acknowledging this in the sermon.
- Paul’s presentation of the gospel as an unmerited, divine gift that binds people together amidst their differences can speak a counter-cultural word to the social, political, and ideological divides in the United States, including in the church.
- It is a powerful reminder that God’s gifts and callings are for the sake of something larger than our own lives. The gospel ultimately calls all people to be living proclamations of God’s love in justice in the world. As we await the arrival of Christ during advent, we recognize that the ability to live this way is a gift from God.
- It is possible that there were multiple house churches or local gatherings of Christians in Rome.