An Introduction to Romans

I am writing a small group discussion guide for my church to use as small group curriculum. I will be posting the commentary sections on the blog. If you or your small group wishes to do the 8 week study in its entirety, please message or email me. Enjoy!

An Introduction to Romans

One of the more fascinating things about God is that He meets us where we are in our understanding, in our knowledge, in our social customs and teaches us within that context. He does not teach us the truth as he knows it, because with our limited knowledge, we couldn’t understand his revelations. For example, when people believed the world to be flat, God didn’t come to them and reveal that world was indeed a globe; he simply met them there and began to reveal himself within their understanding. Therefore, when we read the Bible as it was written 2000 years ago, we absolutely must understand that it was written to people who do not see the world as we do, nor did they have our same social customs or writing styles. Consequently, it is imperative that we read the Bible within the context it was written.

In order to fully understand the message of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we must first identify the context into which it was penned. What that means for you is that you are going to do some learning today! As we begin this incredible journey through Paul’s theological masterpiece, we are going to delve into the Christian history of Rome during the first century. I pray that God brings this church to life as you rejoice in their victories and you mourn their failures with Paul, even as you look to your own church and your own actions and let God rejoice with you in your victories and refine you in your own failings.

I have already mentioned that the letter to the Romans was written by the apostle Paul, a fact which has never seriously been contested. Following ancient custom of the day, Paul used an amanuensis (scribe) to put the words he spoke onto the parchment.[1] Most likely, Paul wrote this letter around 55-57AD during his imprisonment in Corinth.[2]

During this time, there was a massive division between the Roman Gentile and Jewish Christians due to the history of the Christian church in Rome. There are no clues as to how the Christian faith was spread to Rome, but the fact remains that the Christian community was thriving under Jewish Christian leadership.[3] Therefore, when the strict non-believing Jews heard the Christian Jews proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Messiah, massive riots broke out in the city of Rome and caused the reigning emperor, Claudius, to expel the Jews from Rome in 49AD. [4] As the Jewish Christian leaders left with the other Jews, the Gentile Christians took up leadership within the church and continued to grow and thrive within the city. Consequently, when Nero became emperor of Rome in 54AD and lifted the edict that expelled the Jews, the Jewish Christian leaders returned to a mostly Gentile church that has “drawn some erroneous conclusions about Jews and Jewish Christians.”[5] As such, Paul is writing to a church who is dealing with major division between the Jewish and Gentile Christians; thus he writes with hopes to bridge the divide and unite the church under the one Christ they profess as Savior.

Through our study of Paul’s letter to the divided Roman church, we will seek to understand and learn to become unified as a church, within our families, and spread that unity into our communities.

 Who was Paul?

We first meet Paul, the self-professed author of the letter to the Romans, in Acts as a Jewish man named Saul. According to the author of Acts, Saul is introduced as an overseer of the stoning of the Greek Christian, Stephen in Acts 7. More so, “Saul approved of his execution.”[6] Saul was a zealous Shammaite Pharisee who studied under Gamaliel, a very well-known and respected Pharisee teacher.[7] The Shammaite Pharisees fiercely debated with the other sects of Judaism; namely, the Sadducees, and the Hillelite Pharisees.[8] This sect of Judaism was the strictest sect regarding interpretation and keeping of Torah; it was as political as it was theological, focusing on the agenda for Israel, for its people, land, and Temple.[9] The difference between the Hillelite and the Shammaite Pharisees is that the Hillelites had a “live and let live” policy – if you wanted to break Torah, that was your prerogative and you will reap the consequences. The Shammaites, however, believed that the Torah “demanded that Israel be free from the Gentile yoke, free to serve God in peace” and had the “right, and the duty, to put zeal into operation with the use of violence. ‘Zeal’ thus comes close to holy war: a war to be fought (initially, at any rate) guerrilla-style, by individuals committed to the cause.”[10] This zeal was realized through the belief that the Messiah would not return until Israel was rid of corruption, and was therefore the job as God’s agent to rid Israel of the aforementioned corruption and “help God” along in his agenda for Israel’s salvation.[11]

Saul, later renamed Paul by Jesus Christ, proclaimed to be this kind of zealous, guerrilla-war mongering Pharisee.[12] Acts 9:1 reintroduces us to Saul as he is still “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He is hunting down these followers of “the Way” and has gained permission to throw them in prison to await trial for blaspheme, for which the punishment was death. As Saul is on his way to Damascus to find these Christ-followers, he meets the very one whom he is persecuting – Christ himself. Saul meets Jesus, who promptly asks why Saul is persecuting him. Saul is blinded by the encounter and must go to Damascus and await for one the Lord will send to him. Saul goes and fasts for three days until a man named Ananias lays hands on him and Saul’s eyes are opened. Saul immediately is baptized and begins proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues. The zeal the man Saul once put toward persecuting those he believed were subverting Judaism is now turned to spreading the very same message of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

As we begin our journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans, we will see the zeal which followed Saul into his new life under the name of Paul as he ministers to the Christ-followers in Rome. In love, he does not mince words and instead uses cultural rhetoric to teach and convict the divided church of Rome to see each follower of Christ as a child of God, a beloved brother or sister, no matter their roots or ethnicity. How I pray that you will learn from Paul and be convicted of the same, that this study would teach us how to come together as a church and as a community of believers. I pray that as we study Romans, church denomination or affiliation, theological differences, ethnicities, gender, political ideologies, and any other dividing factor would be eclipsed by the love we have for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Instead of seeing the differences, we would embrace each other because we share the same Spirit of God and are brothers and sisters in him; I pray the differences would be cause for celebration and instead of polarization and we will learn from each other and the myriad of theological ideas would only help us grow in our beliefs. How I praise the God who loves diversity and created us differently so we would be iron who sharpens the iron of others. God, hear our prayer! In his holy name, Amen.

[1] Romans 16:22 identifies Paul’s amanuensis as Tertius.

[2] C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, Revised Edition, (London, England: A & C Black Publishers Ltd, 1991), 3.

[3] Barrett, 5.

[4] Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 13.

[5] Witherington, 12.

[6] Acts 8:1

[7] Acts 22:3

[8] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 21.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 22.

[11] If you are interesting in learning about modern examples of Shammaite Pharisaism, look up Yigal Amir’s attack upon Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv on November 4, 1995.

[12] Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:6

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