My husband and I just finished reading the letter to the Christians in Rome written by the apostle Paul somewhere around the middle of the first century AD. It was approximately my umpteenth reading, so I didn’t receive any staggering new insights, but a few things did catch my attention.
In the first half of the book Paul seems to use multiple metaphors (death, slavery, marriage) to talk about essentially the same thing–what it means to be transformed by Christ. He goes to great lengths to express himself in concrete terms; if readers don’t connect with one analogy, maybe another will work for them. Paul says people who have started a new life with Christ are like dead people with regard to sin; sin has no ability to move them. He says we are either slaves to sin, unable to resist it, or slaves to God (and, thus, free from the dominion of sin). He says a person who lives by faith is no longer bound to the religious law, just as a widow is no longer bound to her spouse once he dies.
Paul, as far as we know, was not acquainted with Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime. As a zealous, highly educated Jew, Paul was one of the chief persecutors of the first Christians. But the biblical book of Acts describes how Paul had an encounter with the resurrected Jesus on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus; shortly afterward it was revealed to him that he was to take the message about Jesus to both Jews and Gentiles. In Romans Paul gives a lot of attention to the relationship between Jew and Gentile, the law and faith. His personal interest in this topic is obvious. He makes it clear that he has not abandoned his Jewish identity. However, he also emphasizes that it is not enough just to follow the Jewish law. He spends a fair amount of time on this, but concludes chapter 11 with a poetic outpouring composed both of his own expressions and of quotations from Isaiah and Job, acknowledging that, ultimately, we can never fully fathom the thoughts and actions of God.
Paul follows this with a very practical description in Chapter 12 of the qualities that should characterize followers of Christ. After all the theology, I found this appealing, even though Paul sets a high standard, i.e. “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody” (v. 17, NIV). It’s good that he tempers that in the following verse with, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you ….”
Paul winds up the book urging his readers, essentially, to unity: Accept one another, whether Jew or Gentile, and don’t judge the way your fellow believers choose to practice their faith. The last chapter includes a warning against people who try to create division among them. It is interesting to note that, even though Paul has never been to Rome, he closes with a long list of personal greetings to and from people he has, presumably, encountered in his travels and perhaps some he has never met. The names are primarily Greek, but they include some individuals Paul refers to as his relatives (thus, Jews), men as well as women, and, according to the NIV study Bible, slaves as well as potentially wealthy Roman citizens. The early Roman church appears to have been quite diverse. Paul probably had just cause to be concerned about unity.
Perhaps we could look at the whole of Paul’s letter through this lens; no one has room to boast, we are all fallen, we all need the forgiveness God offers through Jesus.
Click here to find Paul’s letter in multiple versions: BibleGateway.com