Lenten Reading Challenge: Romans Chapters 1-8
• When and Where
Romans was likely written about 58AD from Corinth, just before Paul’s final journey to Jerusalem and resulting arrest, imprisonment and ultimate execution. Paul did not know this community, thus the letter is focused less on specific situations and more about introducing himself and his theology to a group of Christ-followers he planned to visit and from whom he hoped to receive support.
Note that in the year 49AD, Emperor Claudius had ordered all Jews expelled from Rome, including Jewish Christ-followers. Acts 18:2 tells of Paul meeting Prisca and Aquila, two who had been expelled. A Roman historian named Suetonius also confirms this expulsion. Thus from 49 to 54AD, the Christ-community there would have been entirely gentile, then in 54AD the edict was reversed and Jews and Jewish Christians began to return, with predictable strife. This is the context of Paul’s writing.
• Key Insights
This is admittedly a challenging two days of reading. It would be easy to get bogged down in detail, as this single book is well worth a semester of study alone. Remember we are doing a survey, an overview. A rapid read of the entire NT to make connections, open new insights – we’re not going for mastery of any particular text here. Breath, take your time, let the flow of the texts speak to you. We’ll be into more familiar and narrative Gospel stories soon!
Much of Paul’s letter focuses on the relationship between Jew and Gentile in Christ. It is tempting to cherry pick verses as proofs, but note how Paul is describing, then playing off of, arguments made by two different sides in hopes of finding a common ground and unified community.
In this first half of the letter, Paul makes a magnificent argument for justification by grace through faith, one that has been crucial to Christian thought, especially among Protestant reformers. But note that Paul is not writing about “how to get to heaven” but salvation, which for Paul is a transformed life here and now, living in loyalty to and trust of the good news of the risen Christ (not just a list of “beliefs”)!
• Big Picture
Given its more general focus, Romans is the closest thing we have to a systematic theology from Paul and it has not surprisingly had a tremendous importance in the development of Christian thought. Augustine in the 4th Century reported being converted to faith by one of its passages, Martin Luther found the courage to stand in opposition to the Pope and princes, and John Wesley’s experience of a heart “strangely warmed” came at a gathering where Luther’s introduction to this letter was being read. Paul sees believers as dying and rising with Christ, being transformed in this life, already part of the new creation.
Blessings on your reading!
An Addendum: While I’m inviting us to focus big picture, some specifics beg to be addressed. Paul insists that all fall short; that God’s gift of grace is available to all; and that judgment belongs to God. Ironic then, that an early verse about natural and unnatural is used in our time to exclude and demean.
I referred to this in comments under 1st Corinthians, but I again recommend this article by Mel White of Soulforce: http://www.soulforce.org/resources/what-the-bible-says-and-doesnt-say-about-homosexuality/
It may simply suffice to say that my own commitment as a Pastor is that our understanding of human psychology and the natural world has grown, and that beyond that, Paul was using an example of lustful pagan temple rituals, not committed, mutual relationships. We’ll have more to say later about taking difficult verses seriously without letting them become stumbling blocks (texts on women and authority, for example).