Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire, from which the Romans ruled, but the Apostle Paul did not visit until the end of his life, when he was under house arrest, awaiting trial. From details in the book of Acts we can guess that this Letter is written before then, between 56 and 57AD and before he had visited the church. He clearly knew many of the church members (see his greetings to named believers in Romans 16). We know from 15:26-28 that Paul has just completed collecting money from Macedonia and Achaia for the poor believers in Jerusalem, and we can calculate that date from what we know of Gallus, in Acts 20:1-2. This is after Paul left Ephesus on his third missionary journey.
Paul was probably in Greece when he wrote the Letter, most likely in Corinth. We know that Phoebe of the town of Cenchrea was the letter-bearer (16:1-2), which is close to Corinth. We also know that Gaius, who is Paul’s host (16:23), was a prominent Christian leader at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:14). According to some details in Romans 16, Christians in Rome were probably in at least three small ‘house’ churches, in the city. Although mostly Gentiles, there were Christians from a Jewish background there, who had possibly returned to Rome. They had been asked to leave by Emperor Claudius, some time in the 40s AD.
Paul has done a lot of church planting in Asia and is now hoping to head for the west, especially Spain. He needed a base for that travel and hoped that the Roman Christians would welcome him. It was important that he explain to them what he believed. Many think that Paul’s Letter to the Romans provides the clearest explanation of how he understood the Gospel of Jesus.
At the same time, it is likely that Paul needed to unite the Jews and Gentiles in the congregation, perhaps because Jews had just returned to Rome. He explains to Gentiles that they needed to value the way God had worked in the Old Testament.
It is possible too that there were some in Rome who questioned whether Paul’s insistence on good moral behaviour was necessary. Paul makes it clear that godly behaviour flows from God’s goodness in Jesus.
Why read it?
Sin is not a popular idea, but it’s one that is covered in some depth in Romans. Sin has ‘i’ in the centre and comes easily to us. The Letter explains that sin separates everyone from God, including you. But thankfully God has a wonderful solution through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He pays the penalty for sin, that you may go free.
In this letter Paul addresses what happens to those who did not have God’s law. He explains that people’s own conscience can tell them what is right and what is wrong. It doesn’t mean they will make the right choice, but it helps us understand that God is at work outside the people of Israel throughout the Old Testament and in the world today.
Around 500 years ago, a monk named Martin Luther found that however much he tried to be good and do the right thing, he felt guilt and shame. It was while reading Romans, and understanding the free gift of God through Jesus, that he realised that salvation could not come through works but only by faith. As you read you can gain that fresh sense of the goodness and love of God too, as Paul explains why this is possible.
Jew and Gentile together
If you are puzzled about what happens to God’s concern for the Jews, from the Old Testament, Paul explains what God is doing in chapters 9-11, explaining that Gentiles are grafted into the vine that has its roots in the Old Testament.
If life walking with God is tough, it’s good to remember that God is with us in it. This Letter has some wonderful passages reminding us that nothing can separate us from His love, even if we sometimes feel He is far away. We learn to focus on the Word of God and not on what we feel about it.
Paul is trying to make Rome his base, but it’s still interesting to see how he commends people who work with him, and work in the Gospel. He seems to know at least 12 people. The people you know in your church are special to God and should be special to you.
|1-3||The problem of sin|
|4-5||The provision of grace|
|6-8||The pursuit of godliness|
|9-11||The programme for Israel|
|12-16||The practices of the kingdom|