Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Romans 1:1-17 and Introduction to Romans] The Christian life and message is all about Jesus. Our response to Jesus must always be faith. Paul used these truths as the foundation of his letter to the Romans, and in this introductory lesson he shares his personal passion, goal, and focus. It’s catchy, and it should drive us to be carriers of the gospel.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Romans 1:16
[Editor's note: this Bible study series started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
What Is Power?
Perhaps you introduce Romans with a discussion about power. You could bring in a series of batteries of different sizes and ask your class what they can be used for. Then (unless you’re really strong), show a picture of a car battery, then a small and a large generator. In each case, ask your class what that can be used to do. Finally, show a power cord (something that plugs into an outlet) and say that such a cord taps into a huge power generating plant (and perhaps show a picture) that can only be safely used because it’s stepped down through special pieces of equipment that harness the power for home use. Then ask a transition question—”thinking about all of that power, what’s more powerful? A power plant or an unkind word? Or a stern look from your mother?” By definition, “power” is simply the ability to do work. There’s lots of ways for that: arm-power, horse-power, brain-power. For Romans, we’re going to introduce a key category: God-power. There is no limit to God power. We’re going to encourage each other to tap into that power.
Millions of people experience compulsive behaviors; most of them learn to live with it. Some obsess over such behaviors (hence OCD; I have some bizarre OCD tendencies). For this idea, we’re going to tap into the likelihood that someone in your class has compulsive tendencies (hand-washing is a common one) NOT to make fun of but to demonstrate a point. Show something that will prod a compulsive response, like leave an open pair of scissors on a table in the middle of the room (or an open pocket knife if you can trust your class), or put out the letters of the alphabet where people can easily see them when they enter the room except put two of them out of order, or a picture of an open fridge door or open over door, or leave some trash on the tables or chairs. A person with a compulsive reaction will be bothered by that (just looking at the picture to the right is making my skin crawl). If someone in your class doesn’t take it upon themselves to “fix the problem”, ask them their reaction to your illustration. Someone will say something like, “I want to close those scissors—it will be safer for everyone” (etc.). In our passage today, we learn that Paul has a compulsion to share the gospel with a non-Christian. What if we could have that kind of reaction?
This Week's Big Idea: Introduction to Romans
Your leader guide gives you a fine introduction to the book. Here are few things I can think to say:
First, remember the great Bible Project videos!
They give us two videos—one for chapters 1-4, and 5-16. I’d like to elaborate on something they mention (and if you’re into history, you’ll love this article by famous Christian historian F. F. Bruce: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bjrl/claudius_bruce.pdf). In the background of the book of Romans is a critical event involving the Jews. As you know, Jews tended to be rebellious and did not like the Romans. That, in turn, made the Romans not like them. The spread of Christianity (starting around 30 AD) disrupted many Jewish communities. Think about all of the riots described in Acts (and Rome did not like riots)! In 38 AD, one such riot led to violence between Jews and Greeks in Alexandria, resulting in a delegation of Jews traveling to Emperor Gaius (Caligula). Gaius responded by trying to set up emperor-worship in Jerusalem (a disaster in the making). He backed down and was succeeded by Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD). Claudius tried to make peace between all parties. Unfortunately for him, this was just at the time Christianity began spreading in earnest around the empire.
Understand this: Romans did not understand the distinction between Christians and Jews. From their perspective, Christianity was just a troublesome sect of Judaism. So, Jews were blamed for anything involving them or Christians. One city that got caught up in the unrest was Rome. Claudius was not about to allow such a thing in the imperial capital, so in 49 AD he expelled all Jews from Rome (including Jewish Christians). The Bible confirms this because when Paul went to Corinth in 50-51 AD, he found Priscilla and Aquila already there, recent refugees from Rome. But Gentile Christians, because they were not Jews, were allowed to stay. When Claudius died in 54 AD, his edict was revoked and all Jews were allowed to return to Rome (note: he was succeeded by Nero, so that didn’t ultimately turn out well for anyone). But here’s the point: for 5 critical years of the church’s “adolescence”, the church in Rome was populated entirely by Gentile Christians.
Let that soak in for a while. The church was founded by Jewish Christians. Like every other such church, they would have had Jewish leanings. But the era in which Paul most vehemently spoke against the Judaizing of Christianity (the “Jerusalem Council” in which they clarified that Christians did not have to become Jews occurred in 48 AD, and Paul would have been delivering its edict when Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome) was the era that only Gentile Christians existed in their church. By the time the Jews returned years later, the church would have begun to “Hellenize” (to coin a term), or look much less like a Jewish institution and a lot like a Roman/Greek one. This would have been very alarming to the returning Jewish Christians! [One way you could illustrate this: imagine two churches that have just been planted. One consists of both young people and senior adults; the other just has young people. Are those churches going to look anything alike in 5 years?] There would have been huge tension!
Somewhere early in your lesson, I encourage you to ask your class if they could give you a short biography of Paul. Paul is one of those guys whose life story is worth knowing for every Christian. They probably have enough details to make a decent showing. Here’s a quick overview:
Paul was born Saul (named for the most important member of his family tribe, Benjamin), a citizen of Tarsus to a successful family of tentmakers (Acts 22:3, Phil 3:5, Acts 21:39). He grew up in Jerusalem, trained by a key member of the Sanhedrin, the rabbi Gamaliel, and became an important young Pharisee (Acts 22, Gal 1:14, Phil 3). He recognized the threat of Christianity and led a systematic attack on them (Acts 26:9-11). Traveling to Damascus to imprison the Christians there, Jesus confronted Saul with the truth that He really was the Messiah, and Saul’s life was immediately changed. Paul would have been about 35 at the time.
Paul immediately threw himself into evangelism and missionary work. He went to Jerusalem to make peace with the leaders of the church (Acts 9:22-25), traveled to Antioch where he was a part of building an important church (and developing his understanding of the truth of the gospel), and then realized that he should spread the gospel to other areas. He took three “missionary journeys”—to Galatia (47-48), to Macedonia/Greece (50-52), and to the rest of Asia Minor (53-57). He was arrested in Jerusalem in 57 and spent two years in prison in Rome. Tradition has it that Paul was released from prison in 63, spent several years evangelizing in Spain, only to be reimprisoned and executed by Nero in 67.
Your class can read Paul’s version of his own testimony in Acts 22 and Acts 26, tailored to meet his audience.
Romans: What You Need to Know
Some things about Romans are pretty simple. First, no one disputes that it was written by Paul the apostle. In 15:25, he said that he was traveling to Jerusalem to deliver the offering taken in Macedonia. The most likely stop on which he would have written this letter was his time in Corinth (winter of 57 AD). In other words, the Roman church was about 2 years into their very tense reunion.
Just as Claudius didn’t want unrest in his capital city, Paul knew that the Christian church in the most important city in the world needed to have its act together (see the back page for a discussion idea on this). Their opportunity to make a difference in the empire was unparalleled; so was their chance to make a huge mess. Consequently, Paul wanted to teach them well on the basics of the gospel. Finally, church tradition says that Paul, after he was released from his Roman imprisonment, went on further missionary travels into Spain. Many scholars believe that Paul was planning that trip before he got arrested, and the Christians in Rome would have been a big part of that plan—strategically located between Greece and Spain, they could have been his “home base” for a major missionary trip west. But for that to work, he needed to explain his methods and message to ensure that they would be firm and dependable supporters.
Promise of the Gospel (1-4)
· Our Need (1:18-3:20)
· God’s Provision (3:21-4:25)
Benefits of the Gospel (5-8)
· Peace with God (5:1-11)
· Freedom from Bondage (5:12-7:25)
· Power of the Spirit (8:1-39)
Israel’s Rejection of the Gospel (9-11)
Implications of the Gospel (12-15)
· Transformed Life (12:1-2)
· Transformed Relationships (12:3-15:13)
The outline of Romans makes a lot more sense with that information in the background. Paul usually started his letters with a section on right doctrine, and ended with a section on right behavior. In Romans, he simply beefs both up and includes a section on how Christians should think of Jews (and how Jewish Christians should think of their lost brethren). Two items that receive more attention here than elsewhere—the fallenness of all humans, and the need to obey the government—should make a lot of sense considering the city to which Paul was writing. Finally, the heavy emphasis on Christian relationships reflects the messy mashup of cultures and classes that the church possessed (and should have handled well).
The Introduction to Romans. As usual, Paul introduced the themes of his letter in the opening lines. The key difference in this letter is that Paul had not been to Rome before, and he didn’t know the members of the church. As a result, he put some heavy lifting into his personal introduction. One exercise you could try with your class is this: let’s say that you were asking a group of total strangers to support you in an expensive mission project, but you had to do it by letter. What would you say? What would be most important? That’s basically what Paul is doing here. Note that Paul spends more time talking about Jesus, and Paul’s mission than himself. I think that’s a good idea, but remember that Paul had a reputation that would have preceded him. What would you think to say about yourself in this letter?
Part 1: The Gospel Described (Romans 1:1-7)
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures— concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and was appointed to be the powerful Son of God according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead. Through him we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the Gentiles, including you who are also called by Jesus Christ. To all who are in Rome, loved by God, called as saints. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I never get tired of reading Paul’s introductions. Let your class struggle through some of the strange wording, but make sure they realize that the key to this section is Paul’s main point to the letter, that the Roman Christians clearly understand the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul defines himself by his relationship to Jesus: a slave and an apostle. (Because “slave” has developed an ugly connotation in our culture, most translations substitute “servant”; in that day, most slaves were what we would think of as indentured servants, so the meaning is close). As much as half (!) of the population of Rome at this time was actual slaves, so this introduction would have gotten the attention of his Roman audience. They would have clearly understood his relationship with Jesus by that term. Jesus owned all of Paul’s rights. Paul could do nothing outside the will of Jesus. “Apostle” is fairly similar to what we think of as ambassadors today (slaves were commonly used as ambassadors, particularly if the place they were going was very dangerous). The twelve disciples were called apostles; Paul—because of his encounter with Jesus—believed himself equally an apostle, except to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15, Rom 11:13).
It’s amazing how concisely Paul introduces the concept of the “gospel” (“gospel” just means “good news”). First, it is not a new invention. God planned for this good news a long time ago, and the proof is how it lines up with the message of the prophets in the Old Testament. Second, it is about Jesus. Jesus was the One spoken of in those aforementioned prophecies, ass summarized by His descent from David. But the reference to resurrection is something different. Yes, the prophecies implied that the Messiah would not remain in the grave, but Paul’s primary point is that one does not have to be a Jew to believe in and understand the importance of the resurrection of Jesus. If you believed that Jesus rose from the dead, it really doesn’t matter how well you know the Old Testament! You’re going to take notice of this Jesus.
Finally, Paul highlights his mission to the Gentiles. The Jewish Christians would quickly see Paul’s strong Jewish heritage shine through in this letter, so pointing out his affinity for the Gentile Christians would have helped draw both groups in. Paul’s purpose? For people to obey . . . not some law code, but faith (in other words, not “the faith” as a new religion, but “faith” as a personal relationship with God). But faith in what? The sake of what? Paul will answer those questions in detail throughout the letter.
And the final theme established in this introduction: God loves all of His children, regardless of their heritage. All of His true followers are “saints”, which basically means “set-apart ones” (Christians are not “holy” by nature in the sense that we are fully sanctified, but rather God has called us to be set apart from the wickedness of the world and pursuing holiness, just a He is holy). Jewish Christians would have abhorred some of the Gentile Christian behaviors, but Paul immediately calls them all saints. But that calling is not by Paul! Rather, it’s by God! God is the one who has called them, and so it’s ridiculous to try to ague with Paul here. (Note that the nature of this calling will also be described in detail in the letter. Paul is a really good writer, is he not?)
My thought is that if your class can come away from this opening section with a pretty good idea of the things Paul will talk about in the letter, you can feel good. For discussion, ask your class to imagine receiving this letter themselves, as if they were members of this church.
Aside: Proof of Messiah
At the very beginning of this letter, Paul defines Jesus as “Christ our Lord”, “descendant of David”, and “Son of God according to the Spirit”. Those are really important things to say at this juncture because they speak to all of the potential recipients. “Christ” and “David” speak to the Jewish audience; they define Jesus in terms the Jews would clearly understand. “Lord” “Son” and “Spirit” would connect with the Gentile audience; those are terms that the Roman culture would have been familiar with (used of emperor and in philosophy). While that wouldn’t have been as clear in meaning as for Jews, it still would have resonated in some way.
So this becomes a necessary question for us: how would we define Jesus to our audience today? They don’t believe in the Jewish Scriptures, so we can’t really rely on them at the start. We know that Jesus is the Son of God, the only way to the Father. But how do we explain and “prove” that to our skeptical world? I think we have to follow the same approach that Paul does in this letter. We know and can more or less “prove” that the human condition is broken. We are not right. And if there is a God, then we are certainly separated from Him. But if our God is at all worth knowing, then He must have prepared a way to repair the damage. And if that is true, then God must have also made it clear how He has done so. But He has—the Bible is the most well-attested ancient text in history, and the number of people who share the name of Jesus is significant. We will never be able to “convince” a skeptic that Jesus is the Messiah. We don’t have to; we simply share the truth and let the Spirit of God do the convicting and convincing.
Part 2: Gospel Debt (Romans 1:13-15)
Now I don’t want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I often planned to come to you (but was prevented until now) in order that I might have a fruitful ministry among you, just as I have had among the rest of the Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
[ANNIE ARMSTRONG TIE-IN] If your church shows the Annie Armstrong video today (“It’s All About the Gospel”), you’ll see church planters talking about how God broke their hearts for the cities in which they serve, long before they actually got there. I personally find that important—it gives credibility to the people who live there that you really care about them and aren’t using them as a stepping stone to somewhere else. Paul explains here that he has long wanted to come to Rome to serve with them and just hasn’t been able to. But his “resume” is one of success in many other Gentile cities, including important ones like Corinth and Ephesus.
In fact, Paul sees his ministry to the Gentiles as an obligation. He can’t not do it (this is where I got the idea of a “compulsion” for that icebreaker idea). Paul owes the Gentiles the gospel truth. What a powerful impulse! He must share the gospel with them. There would be no sense in them trying to dissuade Paul from coming because he’s doing this in obedience to God. They’d better just accept it. (Note: you might think as I do that using the word “barbarian” was kind of insulting and a bad idea, but it was actually a common term. “Greek” referred to those who knew Greek language and culture. “Barbarian” referred to those who did not. The term was an onomatopoeia, because the foreign languages were unintelligible, “bar bar”. Hence the stereotype of non-Greek Gentiles as being foolish, because they were not educated like Greeks, nor could they speak the language. In other words, Paul’s obligation was to everyone, despite stereotypes.)
Paul’s understanding of the gospel was twofold: first, it was the message that brought people into the kingdom of God; second, it was he message that helped them grow in their relationship with God. Paul would preach the good news to non-Christians (those in Rome), but also to Christians (those in the church) because it was equally beneficial. There is no point at which the gospel ceases to be lifechanging to us! As your class to consider their “obligation” levels. Do they realize how important their message is? Do they still look forward to learning the gospel today? (Also, please promote the Easter Offering for North American missions in your class!)
Part 3: Gospel Declared (Romans 1:16-17)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.
These are the key verses in Romans. Every Christian should have these memorized. It explains the gospel “process” so very clearly. The gospel, the good news of Jesus, is the only message that can bring a person to salvation because God has chosen to put His power into the gospel (and only this gospel). And what is the necessary response? To believe. A person (no matter where they’re from) must choose to believe, and they will be saved.
Paul uses the word “for” to develop arguments—when he says “for”, he always develops the previous statement. “It” refers to “gospel”. Here, the Greek phrase involving “righteous” could either be translated “it is revealed that God is righteous” or “it is revealed how to be right with God”. Most Bible translations, like this one, choose the former; I tend to lean to the latter because of the subsequent emphasis on faith, but really it could mean both. In Jesus, God has acted in such a way that is right for us and makes us right with Him. (Incidentally, I find this to be a good apologetic for skeptics; God’s plan for salvation is the only one that even makes sense with respect to the characteristics of any Being that could rightly be called God.)
“From faith to faith” is a very difficult Greek phrase. Some understand it to mean that, like with Paul, our faith in God drives us to share that faith so that others will develop that same faith. Others say that it refers to how our faith starts as something very simple but it grows into something very complex. And others think it means that God’s faithfulness leads to man’s faith. I think it most likely that Paul is simply putting the sole emphasis on faith with respect to our salvation (“faith alone in Christ alone”). In other words, salvation is about faith and only faith. That helps us understand the quotation of Habakkuk 2:4, generally taken from a KJV perspective: “the just shall live by faith”. But the phrase could be equally translated to mean “he who is justified by faith shall live”. I think it’s the latter. The whole point of these first four chapters is to establish the nature of justification; the rest of the letter focuses on what that means for living. Also, the point of Romans is that salvation comes by faith, not by right living (right living is a product of right faith). We will have plenty of time to talk about right living in Romans, but for now the emphasis is on faith. Your key for this lesson is to make sure that everyone in your class knows and can share a concise gospel message.
Aside: The Greatest Cities in the World
Somewhere in your introduction of Romans, you might ask your class something like, “If you could reach one city in the world and utterly transform it with the gospel, which one would have the biggest impact on the world?”
There are so many ways your class could go with this. They might pick Washington DC because the US has the largest influence around the world. They might pick New York City because of its financial influence. They might pick London for the same reason. Or Dubai. Or Riyadh.
For me, two cities come to mind: Los Angeles and Beijing. Los Angeles has such influence over the media of the entire world. Can you imagine if a whole bunch of key moviemakers got transformed by the gospel? What kind of an impact would that have? Or Beijing. You know the influence China is trying to wield around the world. As Communists, they fundamentally reject all religion and belief in God. Can you imagine the shock that would be felt around the world if the city of Beijing, the seat of Chinese power, all of a sudden became Christian? Just the possibility alone is mind-boggling.
Anyway, that exercise should help your class members understand why Paul wanted to make sure that the church in Rome was strong and firm. Rome was DC and NYC all in one. Athens still had some cultural sway, and Alexandria was a regional powerhouse, but Rome was the single greatest city in the entire world. There is nothing in our world today to compare with it. And based on the influence the Roman Catholic Church had on the world over the next 1500 years, I’d say that Paul’s instinct was spot-on. (They may have gone off the rails, but that isn’t Paul’s fault.) We need to pray for our missionaries planting churches in all of the cities your class mentioned!