The Apostle Paul in Rome
It is important for a student of the book of Romans to understand the book’s historical background. Context is always crucial when seeking to understand the Word of God. We need to know and understand the issues that were being addressed. Paul was writing to a specific group of Christians at a specific time and for a specific reason; knowing that reason as much as possible will benefit us greatly in our study.
Thus, let’s go back in time. Let’s transport ourselves back to first-century Rome, become members of the congregation there, and then, as first-century church members, let us listen to Paul and the words that the Holy Spirit gave him to deliver to the believers in Rome.
And yet however localized the immediate issues that Paul was addressing, the principles behind them—in this case the question how is a person saved?—are universal. Yes, Paul was speaking to a specific group of people; and yes, he had a specific issue in mind when he wrote the letter. But as we know, many centuries later in a totally different time and context, the words he wrote were as relevant to Martin Luther as they were to Paul when he first wrote them. And they are relevant to us as well today.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 7.
Romans 16:1, 2 indicates that Paul probably wrote Romans in the Greek city of Cenchreae, which was near Corinth. Paul’s mention of Phoebe, a resident of greater Corinth, establishes that place as the likely background for the letter to the Romans.
One of the purposes of establishing the city of origin of the New Testament epistle is to ascertain the date of writing. Because Paul traveled a lot, knowing his location at a particular time gives us a clue to the date.
Paul established the church at Corinth on his second missionary journey, a.d. 49–52 (see Acts 18:1–18). On his third journey, a.d. 53–58, he visited Greece again (Acts 20:2, 3) and received an offering for the saints in Jerusalem near the end of his journey (Rom. 15:25, 26). Therefore the Epistle to the Romans probably was written in the early months of a.d. 58.
Visiting the Galatian churches, Paul discovered that during his absence false teachers had convinced the members to submit to circumcision and to keep to other precepts of the law of Moses. Fearing that his opponents might reach Rome before he arrived, Paul wrote a letter (Romans) to forestall the same tragedy from happening in Rome. It is believed that the Epistle to the Galatians also was written from Corinth during Paul’s three months there on his third missionary journey, perhaps shortly after his arrival.
“In his epistle to the Romans, Paul set forth the great principles of the gospel. He stated his position on the questions which were agitating the Jewish and the Gentile churches, and showed that the hopes and promises which had once belonged especially to the Jews were now offered to the Gentiles also.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 373. As we said, it is important in the study of any book of the Bible to know why it was written; that is, what situation it was addressing. Hence, it is important for our understanding of the Epistle to the Romans to know which questions were agitating the Jewish and Gentile churches. Next week’s lesson will address these questions.
There’s no question that the personal touch is the best way to communicate in most cases. We can phone, e-mail, text, and even Skype, but face to face, flesh to flesh, is the best way to communicate. That’s why Paul announced in his letter to the Romans that he intended to see them in person. He wanted them to know that he was coming, and why.
The great missionary to the Gentiles constantly felt impelled to take the gospel to new areas, leaving others to labor in places where the gospel had been established. In the days when Christianity was young and the laborers few, it would have been a waste of valuable missionary power for Paul to work in already-entered areas. He said, “So have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation,” so that “they that have not heard shall understand” (Rom. 15:20, 21).
It was not Paul’s purpose to settle down in Rome. It was his aim to evangelize Spain. He hoped to get the support of the Christians in Rome for this venture.
Yes, Paul eventually got to Rome, even if it was as a prisoner. How often our plans don’t come out as we anticipated and hoped for, even the ones formulated with the best of intentions.
Paul reached Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey with his offering for the poor, which he had collected from the congregations of Europe and Asia Minor. But unexpected events awaited him. He was arrested and chained. After being held prisoner for two years in Caesarea, he appealed to Caesar. Some three years after his arrest, he arrived in Rome, probably not in the manner that he had intended to when he first wrote years before to the Roman church about his intention to visit the church there.
“Not by Paul’s sermons, but by his bonds, was the attention of the court attracted to Christianity. It was as a captive that he broke from so many souls the bonds that held them in the slavery of sin. Nor was this all. He declared: ‘Many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.’ Philippians 1:14.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 464.
Beloved of God. While it is true that God loves the world, in a special sense God loves those who have chosen Him, those who have responded to His love.
We see this in the human sphere. We love in a special way those who love us; with them there is a mutual exchange of affection. Love demands response. When the response is not forthcoming, love is limited in its fullest expression.
Called to be saints. In some translations the phrase “to be” is in italics, which means that the translators have supplied the words. But these two words can be left out, and the meaning will still be intact. When they are omitted, we get the expression “called saints”; that is, “designated saints.”
“Saints” is the translation of the Greek hagioi, which literally means “holy ones.” Holy means “dedicated.” A saint is one who has been “set apart” by God. He or she still may have a long way to go in sanctification, but the fact that this person has chosen Christ as the Lord is what designates him or her as a saint, in the Bible’s meaning of the term.
The great news of the gospel is that Christ’s death was universal; it was for all human beings. All have been called to be saved in Him, “called to be saints” even before the foundation of the world. God’s original intention was for all humanity to find salvation in Jesus. The final fire of hell was meant only for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). That some folk don’t avail themselves of that which was offered doesn’t take away from the wonder of the gift any more than someone who goes on a hunger strike in a marketplace takes away from the wonderful bounties found there.
It is not known how the congregation in Rome was established. The tradition that Peter or Paul founded the church is without historical foundation. Perhaps laypersons established it, converts on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2) who then visited or moved to Rome. Or perhaps at some later period converts moving to Rome witnessed to their faith in that world capital.
It is surprising that in just a few decades from Pentecost a congregation that apparently had received no apostolic visit should be so widely known. “Notwithstanding the opposition, twenty years after the crucifixion of Christ there was a live, earnest church in Rome. This church was strong and zealous, and the Lord worked for it.”—Ellen G. White Comments, The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1067.
“Faith” here probably includes the broader sense of faithfulness; that is, faithfulness to the new way of life they had discovered in Christ.
Here are three items that Paul selects as worthy of note in the Roman Christians’ experience:
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “The Mysteries of the Bible,” p. 706, in Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5; “Salvation to the Jews,” pp. 372– 374, in The Acts of the Apostles. Read also The SDA Bible Dictionary, p. 922; and The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, pp. 467, 468.
“The salvation of humankind does not result from a divine afterthought or improvisation made necessary because of an unexpected turn of events after sin arose. Rather, it issues from a divine plan for man’s redemption formulated before the founding of this world (1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 1:3, 14; 2 Thess. 2:13, 14) and rooted in God’s everlasting love for humanity (Jer. 31:3).
“This plan encompasses eternity past, the historical present, and eternity future. It includes such realities and blessings as election and predestination to be God’s holy people and bear likeness to Christ, redemption and forgiveness, the unity of all things in Christ, sealing with the Holy Spirit, reception of the eternal inheritance, and glorification (Eph. 1:3–14). Central to the plan is the suffering and death of Jesus, which was not an accident of history nor the product of merely human decision, but was rooted in God’s redemptive purpose (Acts 4:27, 28). Jesus was in truth ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’ (Rev. 13:8, KJV).”—The Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald® Publishing Association, 2000), pp. 275, 276.