A Call, A Gospel And A Task
1:1-7 This is a letter from Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart to serve the good news of God. This good news God promised long ago, through his prophets, in the sacred writings. It is good news about his Son, who in his manhood was born of David's lineage, who, as a result of his Resurrection from the dead, has been proved by the Holy Spirit to be the mighty Son of God. It is of Jesus Christ, our Lord, of whom I am speaking, through whom we have received grace, and an apostleship to awaken a faithful obedience for his sake amongst all the Gentiles. You are included amongst these Gentiles, you who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. This is a letter to all the beloved in Rome who belong to God, those who have been called to be dedicated to him. Grace be to you and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans he was writing to a church which he did not know personally and in which he had never been. He was writing to a church which was situated in the greatest city in the greatest empire in the world. Because of that he chose his words and thoughts with the greatest care.
He begins by giving his own credentials.
(i) He calls himself the slave (doulos, Greek #1401 ) of Jesus Christ. In this word slave there are two backgrounds of thought.
(a) Paul's favourite title for Jesus is Lord (kurios, Greek #2962 ). In Greek the word kurios ( Greek #2962 ) describes someone who has undisputed possession of a person or a thing. It means master or owner in the most absolute sense. The opposite of Lord (kurios, Greek #2962 ) is slave (doulos, Greek #1401 ). Paul thought of himself as the slave of Jesus Christ, his Master and his Lord. Jesus had loved him and given himself for him, and therefore Paul was sure that he no longer belonged to himself, but entirely to Jesus. On the one side slave describes the utter obligation of love.
(b) But slave (doulos, Greek #1401 ) has another side to it. In the Old Testament it is the regular word to describe the great men of God. Moses was the doulos ( Greek #1401 ) of the Lord ( Joshua 1:2 ). Joshua was the doulos ( Greek #1401 ) of God ( Joshua 24:29 ). The proudest title of the prophets, the title which distinguished them from other men, was that they were the slaves of God ( Amos 3:7 ; Jeremiah 7:25 ). When Paul calls himself the slave of Jesus Christ he is setting himself in the succession of the prophets. Their greatness and their glory lay in the fact that they were slaves of God, and so did his.
So then, the slave of Jesus Christ describes at one and the same time the obligation of a great love and the honour of a great office.
(ii) Paul describes himself as called to be an apostle. In the Old Testament the great men were men who heard and answered the call of God. Abraham heard the call of God ( Genesis 12:1-3 ). Moses answered God's call ( Exodus 3:10 ). Jeremiah and Isaiah were prophets because, almost against their will, they were compelled to listen to and to answer the call of God ( Jeremiah 1:4-5 ; Isaiah 6:8-9 ). 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. Jesus said to his men, "You did not choose me, but I chose you" ( John 15:16 ). Paul did not think of life in terms of what he wanted to do, but in terms of what God meant him to do.
(iii) Paul describes himself as set apart to serve the good news of God. He was conscious of a double setting apart in his life. Twice in his life this very same word (aphorizein, Greek #873 ) is used of him.
(a) He was set apart by God. He thought of God as separating him for the task he was to do even before he was born ( Galatians 1:15 ). For every man God has a plan; no man's life is purposeless. God sent him into the world to do some definite thing.
(b) He was set apart by men, when the Holy Spirit told the leaders of the Church at Antioch to separate him and Barnabas for the special mission to the Gentiles ( Acts 13:2 ). Paul was conscious of having a task to do for God and for the Church of God.
(iv) In this setting apart Paul was aware of having received two things. In Romans 1:5 he tells us what these two things were.
(a) He had received grace. Grace always describes some gift which is absolutely free and absolutely unearned. In his pre-Christian days Paul had sought to earn glory in the eyes of men and merit in the sight of God by meticulous observance of the works of the law, and he had found no peace that way. Now he knew that what mattered was not what he could do, but what God had done. It has been put this way, "The law lays down what a man must do; the gospel lays down what God has done." Paul now saw that salvation depended not on what man's effort could do, but on what God's love had done. All was of grace, free and undeserved.
(b) He had received a task. He was set apart to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul knew himself to be chosen not for special honour, but for special responsibility. He knew that God had set him apart, not for glory, but for toil. It may well be that there is a play on words here. Once Paul had been a Pharisee ( Philippians 3:5 ). Pharisee may very well mean The Separated One. It may be that the Pharisees were so called because they had deliberately separated themselves from all ordinary people and would not even let the skirt of their robe brush against an ordinary man. They would have shuddered at the very thought of the offer of God being made to the Gentiles, who to them were "fuel for the fires of hell." Once Paul had been like that. He had felt himself separated in such a way as to have nothing but contempt for all ordinary men. Now he knew himself to be separated in such a way that he must spend all his life to bring the news of God's love to every man of every race. Christianity always separates us, but it separates us not for privilege and self-glory and pride, but for service and humility and love for all men.
Besides giving his own credentials Paul, in this passage, sets out in its most essential outline the gospel which he preached. It was a gospel which centred in Jesus Christ ( Romans 1:3-4 ). In particular it was a gospel of two things.
(a) It was a gospel of the Incarnation. He told of a Jesus who was really and truly a man. One of the great early thinkers of the Church summed it up when he said of Jesus, "He became what we are, to make us what he is." Paul preached of someone who was not a legendary figure in an imaginary story, not a demigod, half god and half man. He preached of one who was really and truly one with the men he came to save.
(b) It was a gospel of the Resurrection. If Jesus had lived a lovely life and died an heroic death, and if that had been the end of him, he might have been numbered with the great and the heroic, but he would simply have been one among many. His uniqueness is guaranteed forever by the fact of the Resurrection. The others are dead and gone, and have left a memory. Jesus lives on and gives us a presence, still mighty with power.
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