The Roman Church at the Time of Paul’s writing
Romans along with Hebrews is perhaps Paul’s finest theological work. Although some would argue that Hebrews is not written by Paul, it seems logical in my estimation that it was. Only one who had a deep understanding of the Jewish system of worship and deeply grounded in the atoning sacrifice of Christ could create such a document as Hebrews. But our study is not of Hebrews, rather it is on the book of Romans.
Romans is obviously a great theological document that expands on so many of the principles that Paul brought out in his letter to the church in Galatia. Therefore, it is helpful to have already studied Galatians before beginning a study of Romans. Romans is also a letter of significance in the history of the early Christian church. But we can’t appreciate the theology that Paul is teaching in Romans unless we continually remind ourselves that Romans is a letter that Paul is writing to address particular circumstances to a particular group of Christians.
It is clear Paul is writing this letter while on his third missionary journey in about CE (AD) 57. So, let’s begin by looking at Paul’s situation and that of the Roman Christians. Romans 15:14-33 actually gives us a fair amount of information regarding Paul. Paul feels that during his three missionary journeys he has carried the gospel message about as far as it can be carried in Asia and Asia Minor. He has established converts, reaffirmed believers and set up churches both in synagogues and home churches in numerous cities and regions throughout the Western Mediterranean area. Therefore, Paul is looking forward to the next stage of ministry that God has for him. Paul mentions three places he wishes to witness to next. As he writes to the Romans Paul is in Corinth. First on Paul’s agenda is to visit Jerusalem and while visiting them bring the collection from the gentile church to the believers in Jerusalem.
During Paul’s third missionary journey, Paul was actively collecting money from the gentile churches to help the needs of the Jewish Christians in and around Jerusalem. These Jewish Christians were having a difficult time financially. It was during this time that Judea suffered from a famine, and many Jewish Christians had lost their financial security and jobs because of their Christian beliefs. Paul hopes that this offering from the Gentile believers will soften the hearts of the Jewish believers in Jerusalem and Judea building a bridge of friend between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile believers, thus strengthen the believer’s faith.
Paul’s next step was to visit the Church in Rome. As mentioned, Paul felt he had done all he could in the regions he had visited, therefore he hoped to expand the mission field. So he wrote this letter to the Romans in hope of uniting the church there in preparation for his planned visit.
Paul’s ultimate goal was to start the work in Spain and in so doing hoped to use Rome as a home base, a place to plan and recruit people to help in the work.
The Situation in Rome
Paul has now been preaching the gospel message for about 25 years. His years of service gives him the ability to reflect on the Gospel and its fullness as he has come to understand it through prayer, careful Bible study and divine revelation.
At the time the Holy Spirit was given to the Apostles on the day of Pentecost there were Jews from Italy that heard the message of Peter and the others. They in turn brought this message of the Messiah back to the believers in Rome. We understand this because of the writings of a fourth-century church father called Ambrosiaster. Ambrosiaster points outs that Christians in Rome began in the context of the synagogue. Acts chapter two confirms the fact that there were Jews present from Italy.
From this we can see that the Christian church in Rome had mainly been Jewish Christians. But this all changed in CE (AD) 49 when the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews and Jewish Christians from Rome. There was a great deal of unrest in Rome caused by the Jews. Some of it justified while some was not. The result of this unrest was the Emperor Claudius expelling all the Jews, Christians and non-Christians alike from Rome. Quite naturally, these contentions spilt over to bring unrest between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
Before the edict to expel the Jews, the Jews were the leaders among the Christian church in Rome. After the edict, this created a leadership vacuum which was quickly filled by the Gentile believers. This is why Paul had met Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth as the author and historian Doctor Luke details in Acts 18:2. Ultimately, the church in Rome continued to grow, the edict of Claudius was rescinded, and the Jews begin to move back to Rome. But things had changed. When the Jews were the majority, they were leaders in the Christian church. Now, the Gentile believers made up the greater number of Christians and quite naturally assumed the leadership roles in the Roman Christian Church. Remember, it was Jews that started the Christian church in Rome, but now they find little room for them to resume the leadership positions held before the edict of Claudius.
This helps explain why the Roman Christian community that Paul addresses in Romans is divided. While the Jews were away, the Gentile Christians were freer to practice Christianity similar to the way Paul had taught others. Now with the Jews return, formalism and adherence to traditional Jewish views again resurfaced within the Christian Church. This naturally brought tension among the believers as the Jews would insist the Gentiles had to conform to their form of Christianity mixed with Judaism. This we see as Paul addresses both groups in Romans chapters 14 and 15. To not single any one group out, Paul refers to them as the strong and the weak allowing for each to draw their own conclusion into what Paul has written.
This is why, Romans focusses so much attention on the question regarding the relationship of Jew and Gentile in the early Christian church. Paul also explained to the Jewish believers the background of the Gentile believers so that both groups could better understand each other. This was important part of Paul effort in Romans, after all, if these two groups cannot get along, what hope is there in using this has a home base for the proposed outreach in Spain.
But for both groups to understand each other, there needs to be a focus on the Old Testaments because it explains Christ purpose for coming as the Messiah. The focus on the Old Testament would also help explain to the Jewish converts how many prophecies from the Old Testament were misapplied and misunderstood. In reality, by Paul focusing on the Old Testament he was attempting to give the Roman Christian and us today a better and clearer understanding of God, and in a sense that Christ of the New Testament and God of the Old Testament are speaking in one voice. Therefore, both Jew and Gentile can come together with a better understanding of each other, supporting Paul proposed effort in Spain whole heartily.
Over the years, Bible scholars have debated who the book was really authored for, with some saying Jew, while others stating it was mainly for the Gentiles. There is no dispute in my mind that Paul was writing to both audiences, Jew and Gentile alike. Perhaps more importantly, Paul is speaking to the Christian of today. As it was in Paul’s day, the debate of law verses grace continues to resurface in each generation along with the debate of manmade traditions verses the true teaching of the Bible. Paul skillfully weaves through his letter the issue of law verses grace and true Biblical teaching verses the traditions of mankind. He further points us to the fact that without Christ, without God’s love, grace and mercy, there would be no hope for fallen mankind, for there every thought, every deed is bent toward evil. Yet through Christ, there is hope that the hearts of mankind can be regenerated and be renewed.
It is unfortunate that Paul’s endeavor to be a missionary to Spain never materialized, but yet through his letters, especially the letter to the Romans, Paul is still pushing the work of the Gospel message forward.
Whether you believe Paul wrote his letter as a theologian or a pastor, the theologian, pastor and church member can be blessed by a careful study of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul was a deep thinker, for even Peter admitted Paul could be difficult to understand (II Peter 3:15, 16). As we study Romans together, we will find this to be true. Yet in Philemon Paul was kind and compassionate, in Ephesians he built up the faith of the believers. When he wrote to the Thessalonians, the Colossians, the Philippians, and the Corinthians, he was quick to point out error. When he wrote to Timothy and Titus, they were letters of encouragement and admonishing them to remain true to God pointing out the life that makes one the temple of the living God and a true leader in the Christian church thus fulfilling the commission of spreading the gospel to all the world. But in Galatians, and again in Roman’s along with Hebrews it was written to point us to Christ, the place or role the law has in our lives, along with God’s grace coupled with our faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice which assures us of the salvation that Christ purchased for us at the cost of His life. All Paul’s writings fit together like a well-worn glove fits upon a hand. His writings edify and expand upon the words spoken by Christ, reaffirming the Christian and strengthening the faith of the Christians of his day and in our day as well.
Therefore, I am looking forward to learning, studying and sharing the truths found within the book of Romans as we explore together what God has given to us through his humble servant Paul.