A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF ROMANS
Of all Paul’s writings, Romans “is the longest and most theologically significant” of them all (Carson, 391). Understanding its contents, along with Paul’s reasons for its writing help us better understand this giant of New Testament Times. Why he wrote it and who was the audience will be the focus of this brief look at Romans.
Occasion and Purpose of Romans
Paul is the undisputed author of Romans (Lea and Black, 391). It was probably written in Corinth during Paul’s third missionary journey. At the time of the writing, he was headed toward Jerusalem to visit believers there and deliver an offering to them he had collected from the cities he had recently visited. Christians in Jerusalem were struggling financially (Carson, 393) and Paul had collected funds for them to help support their ministries. He is concerned how the Jerusalem believers will react to his offer of financial assistance and one of the things he asked the church in Rome to pray for is his time in Jerusalem. But Paul is also planning ahead. He plans to stop in Rome after Jerusalem, visit with the church there and then move on to Spain. Paul views the initial church planting in the Mediterranean to be completed and is looking past Jerusalem and Rome now to this new territory for Christ (Carson, 394). Of course, now we know that Paul will be imprisoned in Jerusalem and Spain will never be a destination he will visit. He will visit and minister in Rome, but not in the way he anticipates. He will be a prisoner of the Roman authorities while in Rome and will minister to believers there but will not be moving freely or speaking publicly as he has previously done.
The founding of the church in Rome is a topic of much discussion. Early church fathers have traditionally claimed it was founded by both Peter and Paul but that tradition does not match available data (Lea and Black, 390). It is likely that neither them had anything to do with its early days. There are really no verifiable facts about the Roman church’s founding and some good evidence that neither Peter nor Paul was involved at all. In A.D. 180, Irenaeus wrote that these two together founded the church. This is the belief held generally by Catholics today. Paul’s letter to the Romans makes it clear that this is not the case.
Paul makes it clear that he has never visited the church in Rome in several places in Romans. In 1:10 Paul hopes that now “at last” he can come to them (NASB, 1659). Again in verse 13, he states that he never been there before by describing that he has previously been prevented from visiting. In 15:22 he again speaks of being prevented from visiting them. It is clear that Paul has never visited the church in Rome and was not involved in its founding. There is indirect evidence in Romans that Peter was also not involved in the church in Rome. In Paul’s greeting at the beginning of the book, he does not mention Peter. Due to Peter’s prominence with believers, as well as Paul’s friendship with him based on time they spent together at the beginning of Paul’s ministry, it is likely Paul would have mentioned him. This is not as firm as the evidence in Romans of Paul’s lack of involvement in the founding of the church at Rome but an indicator that Peter was also not involved.
Paul was writing Romans to the believers at Rome who were currently involved in the ministry there. While the founders of the church originally may or may not have been there at the time, Romans was written to prepare them for Paul’s visit and to let them know of his planned visit to Spain.
Composition of the Church in Rome
Who were these believers to whom Paul was writing? In previous stops, Paul was likely to be ministering to groups that were either Jewish or Gentile. The composition of the church in Rome was the same but Paul carefully chose his words in this letter to include both. The church in Rome was somewhat unique in its composition due to recent Roman history.
Romans is generally accepted to have been written around A.D 57 (Lea and Black, 391). In A.D. 49, Jewish Christians had been expelled from Rome because of the disruptions their debates over the claims of Jesus to have been the Christ and the validity of his resurrection (Carson, 395). By the time of this writing, Jews had begun to gradually come back to Rome. Due to the years with no Jews in the church, Gentiles probably dominated church activities and beliefs, with more reliance on faith than on the law. By the time of the writing of Romans, the church there was likely made up of Christians from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. Paul spoke to both.
In early chapters of the book, Paul speaks directly to Jews and their objections to reliance more on faith than on the law. He also refers to Abraham in an illustration. This would have been written with a Jewish audience in mind. He greets prominent Jewish Christians by name in chapter sixteen. But Paul also balances his messages carefully to include Gentiles, who probably made up the majority of the church at this time (Lea and Black, 392).
He speaks to specific Gentile issues and also names directly prominent Gentiles in the church just as he did individual Jews. He also speaks to an issue between Jews and Gentiles in chapter eleven, referring to Jews as “they” and Gentiles as “you” (NASB, 1682). He points out that both Jew and Gentile were once disobedient to God and now were under his saving grace.
Both history and the words of Paul indicate a church made up of both Jews and Gentiles in Rome at this time. It is very similar to many churches today in many parts of the world! Made up of different peoples from different backgrounds, likely meeting in the houses of believers, searching for identity in their common belief in Christ (Carson, 396), there are many differences to be sure but also many similarities.
Paul’s letter to Romans was written at a time in his life when he was looking ahead. He had completed three major missionary journeys and was looking past Jerusalem and Rome to Spain, a new territory for Christ. He would never get there but his zeal and enthusiasm for this mission are evident in this writing.
He writes to a cosmopolitan group of Jews and Gentiles, encouraging them to support each other as well as the new ministry he soon hopes to start. He views them all a Christians, neither Jew nor Gentile. How far this strictly orthodox educated Pharisee has come on his journey with Christ! Just as his life so far had been a series of terrific and dramatic events, unpredicted but leading to unprecedented accomplishments, the days before him now were not what he was expecting but would lead to great accomplishment in the cause of Christ.