These days we all face a great deal of pressure from political correctness, media prejudice or tuck shop opinions... Some community groups get on well by an unwritten agreement never to speak about religion or politics. We avoid the controversial or the unpopular, even if it is critically important to us. None of us wants to be found out to be wrong - or even to be thought silly.
On the other hand, some people are so committed to their cause, so convinced of its truth and its universal relevance... They cut right across the unwritten protocols and unashamedly talk about it at every opportunity.
Saul, the zealous persecutor of Christians had become Paul, the zealous Christian missionary.
In the opening verses of Romans, he describes himself as a "servant (or slave) of Christ Jesus." He was so deeply indebted to the one who had stopped him in his tracks when he was on his way to Damascus many years before. He was also "set apart for the gospel of God" (v. 1).
This gospel was the fulfilment of all God's promises in Old Testament times and focuses on his Son, Jesus Christ, whose physical descent comes from the royal line of David, but who was clearly and powerfully demonstrated to be the Son of God "by his resurrection from the dead" (vv. 2-4).
This Jesus Christ had commissioned Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles to "to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith." So he was glad to write to the believers in Rome.
Paul was most likely writing his letter from Corinth. He was making a collection among the Christian Churches for the poor saints in Jerusalem. He would be taking it there personally. After that, he had plans for further outreach in the cause of the gospel.
This new missionary venture, he expected, would take him, not only to Rome, but hopefully as far as Spain (15.28). He wrote to the Roman church because he had wanted to be going there for a long time. He had many friends in Rome whom he had frequently planned to visit, but had been prevented by other circumstances (v. 13). Now, on this occasion, he hoped to receive encouragement and support for this wider missionary journey.
The Scriptures tell us nothing about the founding of the church in Rome. It seems to have been mainly a church of Gentiles. When Paul arrived there at the end of Acts, the Jews whom he met knew very little about Christianity. That may have been because Claudius Caesar had expelled all the Jews from Rome "because of arguments going on about a certain Chrestus" - so we are told by the secular historian Suetonius. Luke refers to this incident in Acts 18 to explain why Aquila and Priscilla came to Corinth. It's widely believed that these arguments were about Christus (Christ) - and Claudius got rid of the lot. So the Jews who were there at the end of Acts must have been newcomers.
On the day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2, there were visitors from Rome in the crowd. These could well have formed the nucleus of a church on their return home. Neither Peter nor Paul had anything to do with the founding of this church and neither of them visited Rome until a much later date.
There were several reasons why Paul was interested in visiting this church. He desired the fellowship and mutual encouragement of the Christians there. He was planning to go to Spain and wanted their support. He had an obligation to preach the gospel wherever he possibly could. While he preached "to the Jew first", he was under a special commission to the non-Jews.
There was another reason. Rome was the centre of the Empire. It was said that "all roads lead to Rome." This meant that it was relatively easy to get to Rome. It also meant that, from Rome, the gospel could be easily spread to other parts of the Empire. If all roads lead to Rome, then all roads also lead from Rome. And those well-constructed Roman roads were made safe by the Roman armies.
Mostly Paul wrote to churches where he had been. He often had to address specific needs or problems. But his letter to the Romans is unique. There were no specific problems. He was thankful that "your faith is being reported all over the world." And he sets out to explain the gospel in detail.
The letter has a broad sweep. By way of introduction, Paul sets out his desire to go to Rome and the fact that he is not ashamed of the gospel. He moves on to the great need for salvation because of the universality of sin and therefore "the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men " (1.18).
He explains the significance of what God has done in putting us right with himself in Christ until the end of chapter 8.
He then goes on to a particular problem - how does God's salvation relate to the Jewish people? God was preparing them for the coming Messiah, but they seemed to have rejected the very purpose of their calling to be God's chosen people. Paul considers this from chapters 9 to 11.
In the remaining chapters Paul goes on to apply the significance of salvation to our life as Christians.
Paul says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel..." Paul didn't know, when he wrote this, that he would be going to Rome as a prisoner. A good prisoner - allowed to live in his own house at his own expense.
Paul was not ashamed of the gospel. He had been to many out-of-the way places with it. He had preached it in Athens - the intellectual centre of the world - though the intellectuals of his day laughed at the thought of a crucified Messiah. He was prepared to go right to the heart of the Roman Empire, to Rome itself, whose instrumentalities had carried out the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. There he would declare that through this miscarriage of Roman justice - through this crucifying of Jesus Christ - God had done a mighty thing, a powerful thing, more powerful than the power of life and death that Pilate claimed to have received from the Emperor. It is this Jesus who died on that Roman cross who has the power of life and death over all the emissaries of Caesar - even over Caesar himself.
Paul was not ashamed of the gospel. He was not afraid to come to Rome, because he knew that, for everyone who believes, whether that person was brought up with a Jewish background, knowing the Old Testament Scriptures, or whether a Gentile, brought up on pagan beliefs - it is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone, who brings salvation. It is Jesus Christ alone who brings forgiveness, who brings hope, who brings healing and a whole new life.
And this is true today. There is no person in our community who has no need of Christ or who has passed beyond help of the gospel, God's power for salvation - if they will only believe. It is through Jesus Christ, through faith in him, that we are made right with God. The gospel is all about what God has done to make us right with himself. We can't make ourselves right. But God has acted to make us right - this is the Good News, the gospel of Jesus Christ, powerful to save and to redeem all who come to him by faith.
So let us unashamedly believe and live as Christians, allowing the gospel to transform us powerfully. Let us live with confidence in God. And let us act with boldness to reach out with this gospel to others in the community about us.
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