A Masterly and Moving Introduction – Romans 1:1-4
By: Alistair Brown
The world the Apostle Paul knew was well defined. If you pictured that known world as a wheel, the outer rim would touch the southern edge of Britain and the Atlantic Ocean off to the west, Asia Minor and Judea to the east, the Arabian countries and north Africa to the south, and the Black Sea, part of Germany and Belgium to the north. That’s where the outer rim of the empire rested.
Where was the hub of that wheel? All the spokes tapered down to one place: Rome! From that city in north Italy, Caesar ruled by fear and by conquest. He had a vast empire. To rule with any kind of peace meant he had to have compliance with his will. Refusal to submit was to be subdued with brutal force. There was no iron fist within a velvet glove, just the iron fist. Caesar’s decisions in Rome directly affected the lives of 85 million people scattered through the empire. Rome was the world capital of its day.
And there were Christians in Rome. Paul had not founded the church there and he had never visited. But he knew about the church and he wanted to go to them. In political and military terms, Rome was easily the most significant city of the time. Paul wanted to strengthen the young church in Rome.
A visit was not possible yet, so Paul wrote to them. And the beginning of his letter to the Romans is our Bible study today.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.
In this introduction, Paul says something about who he is and something about what his gospel is.
- About Paul
Paul did not have a social media presence. There was nowhere for him to post his profile and his credentials for public inspection. The Roman Christians had no easy way to know who he was and what right he had to teach them about God. Therefore he begins his letter by introducing himself. Who is this Paul? Answer: he is a servant of Jesus; he is called to be an apostle; and his life is set apart for the gospel.
For the first of these – being a “servant of Jesus” – he uses the Greek word doulos which literally means a slave. In his day that was a very potent word. Everyone in Rome knew what life as a slave meant. The slave – man or woman – was usually bought in a market, captured in war or taken prisoner at sea by pirates.
From that moment on, every part of the slave’s life was owned. Work was what the master said it would be. If he wanted his male slave to dig dirt all day, that’s what he did. If he wanted his female slave to earn money for him by being a prostitute, that’s what she did. If the master wanted to beat or brand his slaves, he could.
Not all slaves were miserable. Some had very respectable trades, and the best kept slaves might live a better life than a poor free person. But slaves were always property and the master’s rights over his slaves were absolute. No slave was in control of their own life.
When Paul calls himself a ‘slave’ he’s using a metaphor and not everything about literal slave life was in his mind. But it was a powerful and significant metaphor, and he uses it because, like a slave, his life was not his own. To the Galatians he would write: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Paul’s life belonged to Jesus Christ.
He is also someone “called to be an apostle.” The word apostolos means an ambassador or messenger, but in this introduction Paul is less interested in defining his role as explaining who appointed him to that role. In particular, he is making it clear he did not appoint himself. He does what he does because he was “called.”
Maybe the people in Rome had heard about how Jesus met with Paul when he was on the way to Damascus to persecute Christians there (Acts 9:1-19). Maybe they knew he had been appointed by God as an evangelist to the Gentiles (Acts 13:47; Gal. 2:7-9). Whatever they already knew, Paul wants them to understand that his work as an apostle is God’s doing. He did not elevate himself to a position of authority. Everything he said and everything he did was because God had made him an apostle.
For a few years early in my adult life I was a journalist with The Scotsman, Scotland’s national newspaper. I attended government briefings, got access to top stars of the entertainment world, went to concerts and movies to write reviews without buying tickets, and I was allowed to get through police lines at accidents to see what had happened. And so on. Why? Because I had press credentials, and in particular I came to events and met with people with the authority and privilege of my newspaper behind me.
Paul had authority behind him too. He was God’s appointee, and whatever he taught could not be dismissed as the ramblings of a converted Jewish Pharisee but the words of an apostle of God. His stature was defined by God.
The third way Paul describes himself is as someone “set apart for the gospel of God.” That was his destiny from when he was in his mother’s womb (Gal. 1:15). His God-given and life-long purpose was to preach the good news. From all the other things he might have done with his life, God had designated him to evangelize the Mediterranean world. And that is exactly what he was doing. Nothing more and nothing less.
Keith lived in the same street as me when I was a boy. He was an amazingly talented rugby player, and I thought: “He’ll play at international level one day.” But he didn’t.
Susan went to my school, and she was an extraordinary actress, and I was sure she’d make it to the top on stage or screen. But she didn’t.
John was in my class and stunningly gifted at science. I knew he’d win a Nobel peace prize. But he didn’t.
Why not? Keith the rugby star… Susan’s name in lights… John towering over the scientific world… Why not? I don’t know the whole story, but I know one reason: none of them were wholly given over to the thing at which they excelled. Not one of them gave up everything else to dedicate everything to success in rugby, or drama, or science. None were single-minded.
Paul was single-minded. He was a servant of Jesus Christ. He was called to be an apostle. His life was set apart for the gospel. From the day he came to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord, he had no ambition except to dedicate his life to the work God had given him.
William Barclay writes:
“Paul never thought of himself as a man who had aspired to an honour; he thought of himself as a man who had been given a task… Paul did not think of life in terms of what he wanted to do, but in terms of what God meant him to do.”
That is who Paul was.
- About the gospel
In the opening verses of his letter Paul says several things about the gospel.
– It is the gospel of God.
– It has been promised through the prophets in the Scriptures.
– It is centered on God’s Son.
– It is about the one who is God’s Son but who is also a descendant of King David.
– It is about the one shown to be the Son of God in great power by his resurrection from the dead.
– It is about Jesus Christ, the Lord.
Let me rephrase those six points about the gospel.
1) It is God’s good news, not Paul’s invention. Paul is the messenger but not the originator of the message.
2) It has always been God’s plan, which is why the prophets of old promised it. In other words, the gospel is not a recent creation but the culmination of everything God has been doing through the centuries.
3) It is one hundred per cent about Jesus, God’s Son. Everything centers on him.
4) This Jesus was born not only from God but also from a human mother, and through her and his legal father Joseph, he stands in the line of David. He is God and he is man.
5) This Jesus was mostly seen in weakness in his manhood but his resurrection revealed him as Son of God with power to defeat even death.
6) This Jesus is the one God has sent – the Messiah, the Christ, and our Lord.
There is much more Paul will say later in his letter. But these six points in the first four verses of chapter one are a remarkable introduction. His powerful statement about the gospel must have made the church in Rome gasp with amazement when his words were read out. This is a letter like no other they ever received.
And from this introduction they will have recognized that Paul’s gospel is their gospel. It all revolves around Jesus, God’s Messiah for the world, both God and man, the one who commands our love and our life-long loyalty for (as Paul says) he is our Lord.
Paul is a Jew, probably writing from Corinth, and he is writing to Romans – a connection of three nations including a vast empire. But the spotlight firmly centers on the same Jesus. He is the one Lord for all people (Rom. 10:11-13).
Who is Paul? He is the servant of God, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.
What is his gospel? Well, it’s not his but God’s, and it is no modern invention but a story which has unfolded from ancient times, and it centers on Jesus who is the Lord.
So Paul wrote a masterly and moving introduction to his letter to the Romans.
He dictated this letter to a scribe, and chapter 16 even includes a greeting from the scribe whose name was Tertius (16:22). But as Paul spoke these words, and paused before getting to all the many things he wanted to say to the young Christians in Rome, I wonder if he needed a particularly deep breath before he continued?
– I wonder if he was tired, maybe weary with journeying through many countries and cultures to tell the good news?
– I wonder if he was frustrated, for his message of God’s Son raised from the dead was not welcome in many places? He was laughed at, rejected and sometimes physically beaten and driven out of town.
– I wonder if he was disappointed when believers gave up on their faith under persecution from Jews or Romans, or companions left him, tempted for an easier life?
– I wonder if he wondered if this letter would ever reach the Roman Christians, and whether they would value it, and if it would make a difference in their lives?
I have no idea if he thought any of these things. I do know what he did. He plowed forward. He kept going and he wrote a letter that was transformational in Rome and has been through two thousand years across the whole world for many, many Christians.
And he did that because it was his calling. It was what God had set him apart to do. And whether his body was strong or weak, whether people believed or scoffed, whether believers kept the faith or abandoned it, whether his work would be valued or dismissed, he would do what God had given him to do. His life was no longer his own, and this work, this apostleship for the gospel, was his calling no matter what.
Stuart Briscoe sums up Paul:
“Times without number his circumstances dictated that he should think of his own safety and well-being, yet he pressed on with phenomenal determination and total disregard for himself for no other reason than that he was not his own master – he was a servant of One who had never drawn back, even from a cross.”
May Paul’s life and his commitment be a model for our response to our calling from God.
 Of course they knew there were also people in other lands, but relatively little was understood about them and they were often thought of as barbarians. A helpful map of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ can be found at http://www.bible-history.com/maps/roman_empire.html
 William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1972) 2.
 D. Stuart Briscoe, Romans (London: Word Publishing, 1982) 25.