Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The book of Romans begins with one word, Paul (v. 1). From the book of Acts we are familiar with the trials and missionary activity of the apostle Paul. He is well known to us. We consider him our mentor and friend. At the beginning of this letter he follows a custom practiced regularly in his day. In antiquity the author of an epistle usually identified himself by name at the beginning. Today we read “Dear Bill,” or “Dear John,” or “Dear Mary,” then wait to the end of the letter to find out who wrote it. Paul does not depart from the old custom and identifies himself as the author of the epistle in the first word.
Paul starts by giving his name, but he then seeks to define who he understands himself to be. This self-identification is not just Paul’s introspection or self-evaluation; the Holy Spirit superintends the apostle’s writing, which is how we know that this is a true and accurate description of the author of the epistle.
Paul identifies himself as a bondservant of Jesus Christ (v. 1). I have never been satisfied with that English translation of this second phrase. Some translations have, “Paul, a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Bondservant is an improvement, but I think the proper translation should read, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.” The Greek word Paul used here is doulos. A doulos was not a hired servant who could come and go as he pleased. A doulos was a person who had been purchased, and once purchased he became his master’s possession.
This idea of the doulos in Scripture is always connected to another descriptive word, kurios. If you have a Roman Catholic background or if you know something of sacred music in church history and high church liturgy, you have heard of the Kyrie. “Kyrie eleison, Christus eleison, Kyrie eleison.” It means “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy,” because the supreme title given to Jesus by the Father in the New Testament is the title Kurios. Kurios translates the Old Testament Adon or Adonai, which means “the sovereign one,” a name in the Old Testament that was reserved for God.
In the New Testament the title lord or kurios is used in three ways. There is a simple, common usage, where calling someone kurios is like addressing him as “sir,” a polite form of address. The supreme use of kurios refers to the sovereign God, who rules all things. Kurios, “the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:9), is the name given to Jesus, whom the Father calls the King of kings and the Lord of lords. There is yet a middle usage of the term kurios in the New Testament. It is used to describe a slave owner, which is an apt description of Jesus, and it is from this that Paul describes himself. He is not just a servant but a slave.
Paul, in addressing believers, said, “You are not your own. For you were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19). We have been purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ (Acts 20:28). There is a paradox here: when the New Testament describes our condition by nature, as fallen people, it describes us as slaves to sin. We are by nature in bondage to sin, bondservants of the flesh, and the only remedy for that, according to the New Testament, is to be liberated by the work of the Holy Spirit. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). Everyone born of the Spirit is set free from slavery to sin.
There is also irony here: when Christ sets us free from slavery to the flesh, he calls us to the royal liberty of slavery to him. That is why we call him Master. We acknowledge that it is from him that we get our marching orders. He is the Lord of our lives. We are not our own. We are not autonomous or independent. Unless people understand their relationship to Christ in these terms, they remain unconverted.
Paul makes a significant affirmation about himself and his mission: called to be an apostle (v. 1). In the early chapters of Acts, the church gathered to elect a new apostle, and it set forth the criteria for apostleship. The first criterion was having been a disciple of Jesus during his earthly ministry; the second was having been an eyewitness of the resurrection; and the third and most important criterion was having been directly and immediately called by Jesus (Acts 1:20-26).
On one occasion Jesus sent out seventy disciples. There were far more disciples than the Twelve. Not all those who were disciples became apostles. We tend to use these words interchangeably, as if twelve disciples and twelve apostles must mean the same thing, but a disciple is simply a learner or a student. Jesus was the Rabbi and enrolled in his school were many disciples. From out of that group he chose twelve to be elevated to the rank of apostle, those who were commissioned to speak for the Master. In the ancient world an apostle was like an ambassador who spoke on behalf of the king. The ambassador’s message carried with it the authority of the one who sent him. The word apostolos in Greek means simply “one who is sent.” “He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me” (Luke 10:16).
People often say, “I like to know what Jesus says; it is Paul I do not want to listen to.” Almost all we know about Jesus is that which comes through apostolic authority, so such remarks set Paul against Matthew, or Paul against John. That may not be done with impunity because all of the apostolic writings carry the delegated authority of Jesus himself. That is what it means to be an apostle. That is why the New Testament church is built on the foundation of the apostles.
In the three criteria for apostleship, Paul fails the first two tests: he had not been a disciple of Jesus during Jesus’ tenure on earth, nor had he been an eyewitness of the resurrection of Christ. That is why there were some in the early church who seriously challenged the apostolic authority of Paul. The supreme qualification for apostolic authority was a direct and immediate call by Jesus. I believe that is why, in the book of Acts, the account of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where Christ called him to be his apostle, is repeated three times. It is to remind the people that Paul is an authentic agent of revelation. He speaks with the authority of Jesus.
The next thing we learn about Paul is that he had been separated to the gospel of God (v. 1). In Latin separated means “segregated,” set apart from the multitude to a specific, sacred, consecrated task. The phrase Paul uses involves a part of speech in the Greek language called the genitive, which indicates possession. He is not saying, “I have been commissioned to announce a message or good news about God.” Rather, he is saying that the gospel he has been separated and called to proclaim is God’s gospel. God is the author and owner of it. Paul is simply the messenger whom God has called and set apart to proclaim to people a message that comes from God himself.
If I said, “I have some great news for you,” it would pique your interest. If I added, “This great news comes from God himself,” you may think that I am unhinged, but if you thought for a moment that I was sober in such a statement and that I did have a message from God himself—some good news—you would want to hear it. That is what Paul is saying before he spells out the doctrines of grace. He says, “I have been commissioned to proclaim God’s gospel, the gospel that belongs to him. It is his possession, and I am going to communicate it to you.”
Paul has been separated for the gospel which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures (v. 2). Sometimes we make an artificial separation or distinction between the Old and New Testaments. We talk about the Old Testament as law and the New Testament as gospel, as if there were no law in the New Testament and no gospel in the Old Testament. Paul says at the very beginning that the gospel is not a novelty; it is the same gospel that was promised numerous times before.
The first time the gospel was promised in the Old Testament was in the context of a curse. As a result of the fall, God cursed Adam and Eve as well as the serpent. God said that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, and in the process the seed of the serpent would bruise the man’s heel. Centuries before Christ was delivered to the cross, where he crushed the head of Satan while being bruised for our iniquities, the gospel of Christ was given in the promise of the curse of the enemy. That is the protoeuangelion, the first proclamation of the gospel (Gen. 3:14-19).
Paul, an expert student of the Old Testament, was aware of that, which is why he said that this gospel is what God “promised before through His prophets in the holy Scriptures.” The “sacred writings” is the actual phrase he uses here. Billy Graham successfully carried out crusades throughout the world in which he held up the Bible and said, “The Bible says ...” He quoted the Bible and used it as the authority from which he called people to repent from their sins and to embrace Christ.
A few years ago I heard a professor say that the time is over when people can say, “The Bible says ...” and expect to have any credibility, because the criticism of academicians has been so severe. People have lost confidence in the trustworthiness of sacred Scripture. God has not lost confidence in the power of the sacred Scriptures. He has invested the Scriptures with the power of the Holy Spirit. He declared to Isaiah, “My word ... shall not return to Me void” (Isa. 55:11). When God utters words, the earth melts. One poet put it this way:
Hammer away, ye hostile hands;
your hammers fail, God’s anvil stands.
Paul is not reticent about where his authority lies with respect to the gospel God “promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures.”
To my mind there is no greater source than the Word of God. No other source gives me more confidence or possesses more credibility. I am impressed by rational arguments on certain points and by the power of logic and the formal truth of mathematics. I am impressed when empirical science verifies hypotheses in amazing ways. However, nothing moves my soul and my mind to acquiesce in its certainty like finding it in the pages of sacred Scripture.
It annoys me when I see the bumper sticker that says: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” We must get rid of that middle term. If God says it, it is settled, whether we believe it or not. There is no higher court of appeal than the voice of God. So it is perfectly appropriate for the apostle Paul, when defending the gospel he has been commissioned to proclaim, to say, “It is found in Scripture.”
Our Lord himself, as he walked with people on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection, “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27) opened up the Old Testament text to them, showing that they should not have been surprised by his resurrection. Jesus’ identity was still hidden from these people. When they sat down to break bread together, Jesus left them, and they then realized who he was. Their response was, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). It is good for our hearts to burn when we see the power of sacred Scripture authenticating God’s truth.
This gospel, Paul continues, is that concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord (v. 3). In this brief passage Paul calls Jesus the Son of God, and he calls him the Messiah of Israel, which is what the term Christ means. Jesus Christ is not his name. Jesus is his name. His full name would be Jesus bar Joseph or Jesus of Nazareth. The word Christ is his title, and the title Jesus Christ means “Jesus Christos,” or “Jesus Messiah.” God’s Son is the Christ, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh (v. 3). This is important to the Jew, because the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah said he would be from the lineage of David. Luke spends much time on the nativity of Jesus, bringing us to Bethlehem, the city of David, because the Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be born from the loins of David. He was to be David’s son yet at the same time David’s Lord.
Paul reminds the recipients of this epistle that Jesus Christ was descended from David kata sarka, “according to the flesh.” This is another important phrase in the New Testament. The Greek language uses two different words to refer to the physical nature of our humanity, words that are sometimes, but not always, used interchangeably. The more common word for body, or the physical makeup of people, is the word sōma. When psychiatrists and psychologists talk about psychosomatic illnesses, they are referring to illnesses that have their genesis in some aspect of one’s psychology. It is not that the illnesses are not real—they are real, and they affect the sōma, the body.
In addition to the term sōma, there is the word sarx, which also refers to the physical dimension of human life. Paul says elsewhere that he did not meet Jesus in the flesh. He met him in the power of his resurrection on the road to Damascus, but he never met him personally during his incarnation in this world. That is what Paul is getting at here. Elsewhere the term sarx is loaded with theological content. It is used to describe our fallen, corrupt nature. When Jesus said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6), or, “The flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63), he was talking about our fallen condition, not about our skin and bones. He was talking about our corrupt nature, which Scripture frequently sets in contrast to the spirit.
There is a war in the Christian life between flesh and spirit. We still battle with the flesh, but the battle is not with our physical body. It may include that, but the battle between the flesh and the spirit is the battle between the old man, who is fallen and corrupt, and the regenerated person, who is now living by the Spirit of God. Paul will talk about that later in the epistle, but now he is saying that “according to the flesh,” in his physical humanity, Jesus was “born of the seed of David.”
Paul is not denying the virgin birth. Christ did not receive his deity from Mary or from Joseph. He brought his deity with him from heaven. The virgin birth bypassed the normal human reproductive process; nevertheless, concerning his human nature, he descended from David. With respect to his divine nature, of course, he came from the Logos of heaven. He was born of the seed of David according to the flesh and declared to be the Son of God. Paul summarizes the whole life and work of Jesus here: he is “born of the seed of David” and declared to be the Son of God with power (v. 4).
Paul makes clear in his next breath the way in which the declaration was made: by the resurrection from the dead (v. 4). When God the Holy Spirit raised the corpse of Jesus from the tomb, God was announcing to the world the sonship of Jesus. By what evidence do we believe that Jesus is the Son of God? By the testimony of God, who has declared him to be his Son through the power of the resurrection. Paul debated with the philosophers on Mars Hill at the Areopagus, where a monument was erected to an unknown god: “These times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
As we will see later in Romans 1, Paul labors the point that God has manifested himself so clearly to every human being that nobody has an excuse for denying him. When Jesus is declared to be God’s Son through the power of the resurrection, that declaration may be all we ever get. We might be like Thomas and say, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). We do not want to say that to God on judgment day, because he has manifested the reality of Jesus through the power of the resurrection. That is the appeal Paul is making here. He is saying, “I’m not the one declaring to you that Jesus is the Son of God. God has declared that to you by the Holy Spirit in the power of the resurrection.”
Through Him we have received grace and apostleship (v. 5). Paul says that Jesus is the source of his apostleship, but he does not stop there: the apostles had received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ (vv. 5-6). Paul moves quickly from his own call as an apostle to the call shared by every Christian in the church at Rome and by every Christian in every church in every age. The Bible calls them elect, “the called out ones.” The church is the ekklesia, a Greek word that comes from the verb kaleo, meaning “to call,” and the prefix ek-, meaning “out of.” Every Christian is called out of the world, out of bondage, out of death, and out of sin, and into Christ and into his body. Paul is not the only one who has been called. All who are truly part of the church have been called out, separated by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What are you called to be? To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints (v. 7). That is your vocation.
“What are you studying?”
“I’m studying to be a saint. Do you think it will ever happen?”
“It has already happened if you are in Christ Jesus.”
You are already numbered among the saints. The word for saint in the New Testament is the word that means “sanctified one,” one who has been set apart by the Holy Spirit and called inwardly by Christ to himself. If you put your trust in Christ, you are right now a saint. You are set apart. You are part of the invisible church, which is beloved of God.
Finally in this section Paul expresses his traditional greeting: grace to you and peace (v. 7). In Old Testament times the Jews greeted one another the same way they do today: Shalom aleichem, “Peace be unto you.” The response to the greeting was Aleichem shalom, “Peace also to you.” Our Jewish friends say prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, and the Jewish benediction for centuries has been this: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26). This peace is “not as the world gives,” said Jesus in his final will and testament before leaving the world (John 14:27). He left us his peace, a peace that transcends earthly peace, a peace that is permanent and eternal, one in which the warfare between the sinner and God is over.
Isaiah was directed by God to say:
“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!”
Says your God.
“Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her,
That her warfare is ended,
That her iniquity is pardoned;
For she has received from the Lord’s hand
Double for all her sins.” (Isa. 40:1-2).
That cry is pronounced for every Christian, which is why Jesus is the consolation of Israel. He is our Paraclete because he is the one who comforts us; he gives us the peace of God that cannot be revoked. It is not an uneasy truce. God does not rattle the sword every time he is distressed with our behavior.
Having been reconciled, justified, we possess that peace right now—and forevermore—which is integral to the apostolic greeting, “Grace and peace.” They go together because the peace of God is not something we can ever earn or merit or deserve. The peace that comes from God is by his grace. Paul wishes that his friends in the church at Rome would receive the grace of God.
It is my deepest prayer for each of you that you will know the grace of God and the power of the resurrection of Jesus, and that you will know his peace today and forevermore.