Who Wrote Romans?
Romans 1:1 says, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an Apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” It is undisputed that the Apostle Paul is, indeed, the author of this letter. But who was Paul? How did his background and experiences affect what he had to say in the book of Romans?
We learn a lot about Paul throughout his writings and in the book of Acts. In Acts 22:1-4 we learn that from a young age Paul was a star pupil of Gamaliel, the most respected Hebrew scholar of the time. Practically, this means that Paul knew the Old Testament better than most of his Jewish peers. Yet when Paul began to follow Jesus, he was primarily called to bring the good news to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Most of Paul’s ministry was to those who were not familiar with the Old Testament. He had to help different churches work through their issues in order to be healthy and minister to the world.
The Main Problem in the Church
Romans was written to the church in Rome. (I know, shocking right?) But more importantly than where the church was located was what the church had recently endured. Knowing this will help us unlock Paul’s main goal for writing this letter.
As the good news of Jesus spread through the Roman Empire, some Jews believed that He was indeed the foretold Messiah. However, this was not universally accepted and many other Jews refused to believe. The debate on the identity of Jesus caused a lot of tension, and often arguments would become violent. In 49 AD, Roman Emperor Claudius noticed contentions over Jesus arising among Jews in the capital city. Desiring peace, Claudius demanded that all ethnic Jews be displaced from the city.
While some of the Chistians in the Roman church were of Jewish descent, many were Gentiles and, therefore, not forced to flee. For the next five years, the church in Rome would be run and attended exclusively by Gentile Christians. All that would change in 54 AD, when the new Emperor, Nero, welcomed all of the Jews back to Rome. As the Jewish Christians returned home, several problems began to arise.
Jews and Gentiles had radically different approaches to religious practices. Jewish Christians deeply valued Jewish customs – such as dietary restrictions – which they viewed as part of their religion, whereas Gentiles left their previous religions in order to follow Jesus. The Jews were well versed in the scriptures, many having memorized large portions of the Old Testament. The Gentiles experienced God mainly through the calling of the Holy Spirit, and were learning the scriptures for the first time. The Jews had been God’s chosen people for thousands of years, while the Gentiles had been welcomed into the Kingdom recently.
As the Jews returned to the city, they were expecting both to lead within the church, and to have the church follow Jewish customs. But the Gentiles had been leading the church just fine for the past five years. These were not small arguments, like fights over what color the carpet should be. They were arguing over what was right and wrong to eat, what was the proper way to worship, and who was in charge of leading the church.
Division and the Cure: The Unifying Gospel
Let’s put this into perspective. Imagine if your church merged with a different church down the street. Wouldn’t you have a lot of questions? Like, who will be the pastor? Will the style of worship change? What times and days will services be held? What if the church had a vastly different way of expressing worship – how would that play out?
Paul sees the problem in the church of Rome – division. Who is Paul going to side with? His Jewish brothers and sisters, or the Gentiles to whom he has been called to minister? Instead of choosing sides or dissecting arguments over the right and wrong ways to run a church, Paul shows them a better picture. Paul spends most of the letter unpacking how the gospel unifies all believers under Christ. Paul shows the Roman church that all people, both Jew and Gentile, are in need of God’s salvation (Romans 3:9-20). He teaches that all are “justified by grace as a gift” and not through works of the law (Romans 3:24).
Romans is not just an impressive book of theology. It’s a book that forces us to consider that we have been saved in the same manner as our brothers and sisters in Christ. The more we focus on how God has saved us from our sin, the more our differences shrink out of focus. Ultimately, Romans is a picture of the unending, unifying power of the gospel, which stretches from Eden to eternity.