To dwell above with saints we love, That will be grace and glory. To live below with saints we know; Now, that's another story!
We are not told how the church in Rome was established. Perhaps Jews from the Imperial City, who had been in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost, returned home with the knowledge that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Their conversion caused a stir among their fellow Jews. There was unrest between those who proclaimed Jesus as the Christ and those who denied he was the Christ. This unrest became such a problem that, in A. D. 49, the emperor Claudius expelled, from Rome, all Jews (including those Jews who were now Christians). For the next few years the church in Rome would be dominated by Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians.
After the death of Claudius, Jews were allowed back to Rome. Now Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians had to learn to get along with each other. People from different cultures can find that difficult. Their issues were bigger than the fact that some cultures are more rigid about time-keeping than others, or that some cultures are more expressive than others. Add into the mix the fact that every church has to unite people of differing temperaments and you can see how relevant this letter is for us.
So what does Paul do to bring together this diverse collection of Christians in Rome? He unites them by teaching the core truths of the gospel. There is no such thing as real Christian unity where the gospel, which is so wonderfully explained in Paul's letter to the church at Rome, is not preached. Christians need to be united on these truths. The letter of Romans teaches us that God draws rebellious people to himself, forgives our sin on the basis of Jesus' death on the cross, and accepts us as dearly loved children. These truths are the condition on which we fellowship with other Christians, not because they are some lowest common denominator of Christian doctrine, but because they form the epicentre of all we believe.
What do these opening verses in Romans tell us about the a gospel Paul wants to unite them around? They tell us who the gospel is about and what the gospel has achieved for us.
1. Who is this gospel about? (2-4)
I'm doing an Old Testament overview in Cafe Church and the key thing I want people to see is that the Old Testament is all about Jesus. This is what the Apostle Paul teaches. He speaks of the gospel 'promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son' (2-3a).
Go back to Genesis (3:15) and you see that God promised a descendent of Eve would crush the serpent's head. Moses spoke of a prophet who would come after him (Deuteronomy 18:15). Turn to Micah and you will read of the child to be born in Bethlehem (5:2). Isaiah say that this child will be born to a virgin (7:14) and describes the nature of his death (53). Zechariah tells of the king who would enter Jerusalem on a donkey (9:9) and that he would be sold for pieces of silver. The Psalms prophesied that people would cast lots for his garments and the Psalms also looked forward to his resurrection (22).
The apostle Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that in his flesh Jesus was descended from king David - David who had been promised an descendent who would rule forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16) - 'and through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to the he Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord' (4).
Jesus was not made the Son of God through his resurrection, he was declared to be the Son of God through his resurrection. The resurrection proved who Jesus is. He was the eternal Son of God who had reigned with the Father and Holy Spirit forever; but when he was raised from the dead, through the Holy Spirit, his reign as Messiah began. He had come into the world as a helpless baby, he had been subject to human weakness, but through the resurrection he is declared to be Son of God with power. Now he rules as God's promised, heavenly Messiah.
2. What is this gospel about? (5-7)
So the gospel centres on the person of Jesus, but what is the gospel about? In his opening greeting Paul introduces some key words that will play a central role in his letter. He writes of grace (mentioned twice), call/called (mentioned four times), loved, peace, obedience, holy, faith and belonging.
What the apostle Paul is going to teach us is that becoming a Christian begins with God's effectual call (we don't find God so much as he finds us and draws us to himself). The amazing thing about this is that we were enemies with God, hostile to his rule over our lives and subject to his righteous anger at our sin. But God has chosen to make peace with us. This is an act of grace (free, unmerited and undeserved favour). This grace is the result of the fact that Jesus paid the price for our guilt on the cross. Having being reconciled to God we now belong to Christ. We are the objects of his special love. As his chosen people we are called to live a live of obedience and strive to be a holy people. From our side all this comes through faith (actively depending on God from first to last).
Now, remember the context of this letter. Paul is seeking to unite diverse Christians together in love.
Eighty thousand people go to Croke Park for a U2 concert. They come from all sorts of backgrounds. But for a couple of hours they are united in their enjoyment of the band. Twenty-six thousand people pack into Thomond Park for a European rugby cup match. They come from all sorts of backgrounds. But for a couple of hours they are united in support of the Munster team. Focusing on a common love brings unity. It is the same with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Of course the unity we have through the gospel should surpass anything that a music or sports fan knows. We are to be united in Christ through the message of the gospel. As one preacher points out, 'as forgiven sinners at the foot of the cross, our petty differences and arguments pale into insignificance. What does it matter whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile; rich & sophisticated or poor and struggling; we’re Christians together? What does it matter that one of us has been in the church for ages and another has just joined; if we both believe the Gospel, then we’re fellow Christians; brothers and sisters together in The Lord?'
In the last part of this letter (chapter twelve on) the apostle Paul will show the Christians in Rome how to put the truths of the gospel into practice. Included in this are some 'one another' commands. What we experience in Jesus must effect our relationships with one another.
'Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves' (12:10).
'Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited' (12:16).
'Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another', over disputable matters (14:13).
'Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God' (15:7).