The proverb “Make a good beginning, and you’re half the way to winning” held true for Paul as he faced the task of writing a letter to some churches he had never visited, and it holds true for us when we attempt to understand what Paul meant to say in that letter. The beginning of Paul’s letter to Rome presents us with an interesting mixture of the conventional and the innovative, and an understanding of that mixture will set us off on the right track for understanding his message.
Faithful to the letter-writing conventions of his day, Paul begins this letter by identifying himself as sender (1:1–6), greets the receivers (1:7), and expresses a prayer on their behalf (1: 8-10) before he begins his message. Yet in each case he expands on the customary formula for beginning a letter, and those expansions tell us much about him and his message. For that reason, we must look at them carefully.
The first thing to notice is that Romans is a letter from Paul, period. Contrary to his usual practice (in those letters whose authenticity is not disputed), he mentions no one else at the beginning of this letter. Even in his letter to the Galatians, where his apostleship was at issue, he mentioned in addition to himself “all the brethren who are with me” (Gal. 1:2). That makes the omission of any mention of co-senders for this letter all the more significant. To be sure, the naming of co-senders implies that they share with Paul responsibility for the content of the letter. Such a letter should therefore be understood as a formulation of the commonly-held Christian tradition. Omission of co-senders in the letter to Rome may very well be intended to make clear that in this letter we confront what Paul intended to be a statement of his own understanding of the gospel of Christ.
If that is the case, then we have in this epistle a unique insight into Paul’s theology. Here we see, in its clearest form, the theology he had developed as he carried out his task of preaching the gospel to the eastern Mediterranean world. Here is the theology for which Paul is willing to take sole responsibility, something he did not do, for whatever reason, in any of his other letters. But why in this letter?
Paul had now completed that task of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in the area in which he had been traveling (15:19, 23a), and he was now ready to undertake its proclamation in the western half of that world (15:24). If Rome is to support Paul in this enterprise, as he obviously hopes they will, they need to know more about his understanding of the gospel than they have been able to glean from those of Paul’s acquaintance who have settled there. This letter is therefore very likely intended to lay the theological groundwork for Rome’s support of his mission to the western part of their world. It is this theology, this understanding of the ways of a righteous and merciful God with his creation that Paul now sets about expounding.
If this letter is different because of the omission of cosenders,it is also different because Paul expands on his normal self-identification as sender. To be sure, Paul normally includes more by way of identification than simply his name, but even that customary “more” is expanded in Romans. Into the midst of this self-identification (1:1, 5–6), Paul has inserted what may well have been a traditional statement about Jesus, which he has then shaped for his own purposes. What results is a sweeping christological statement about the significance of that Jesus. It is just this christological insertion, as we shall see, which sets the tone and the substance of the discussion which follows. In those three verses (1:2–4), we have summarized for us the entire sweep of God’s relation to us and to his whole creation: The chosen people, to whom a messiah (Christ) was promised (v. 2), the birth of messiah to that people (v. 3), and the resurrection of that messiah which established messiah as Lord of all the peoples (v. 4; cf. Phil. 2:9–11). It is precisely that sweep which Paul explicates in the remainder of his letter. The “theme” for Paul’s letter is thus announced here in its very opening verses.
Although Paul’s self-identification as sender of this letter shows a development on the customary Hellenistic form, unique even for the other letters of Paul, his expansion on the greeting is the one he is accustomed to use: “grace” (charis), a word play on the normal Greek greeting (chairein, greetings), is combined with “peace” (Heb., shalom), the normal Hebrew greeting. Yet even here there is a symbolism which ought not to be missed, for that combination of greetings signals what is also one of Paul’s chief concerns in this letter, as it was in his mission as a whole; namely, the universal applicability of the gospel. As in this greeting, so in the gospel, Hebrew and Greek (i.e., gentile) lose their absolute distinction, and without either disappearing, both are combined in the gospel message of God’s caring and redeeming love. Indeed, it is just that universality which, as we will see, is the theme of Romans; and Paul turns to it (v. 14) as soon as the formalities of the customary letter are concluded.
While the “prayer” in the customary Hellenistic letter normally confined itself to a vague sort of wish for the recipient’s well-being, Paul usually expanded it to include the concerns which had motivated that particular letter. He does the same thing here. In this instance, his expansion on the prayer of good wishes introduces his apology for neglecting to visit the Christians in Rome. In addition, Paul’s respect for the maturity of thefaith of the Christians in Rome is evident in the care he takes in stating what his impending visit there will mean: not only what he has to offer to them (vv. 11, 13) but also what they have to offer to him (v. 12). Good preaching is never a one-way street. Only those who listen are also able to preach or teach.
The prayer which stated Paul’s concern over his neglect of the churches in Rome and his impending visit there has in its turn moved into the primary concern of his letter, namely, a statement of the gospel as he understands it (beginning with v. 14).
That is the way Paul has made the “good beginning” of his letter to the churches in Rome. If in making that beginning Paul has used a combination of the conventional and the innovative, there is every reason to think he will continue in that vein in the remainder of the letter. There was surely much that the first readers of this letter found conventional, just as there were surely parts they found innovative and startling. The same is true of contemporary readers. Much that we shall find in the pages of this epistle will conform to our normal understanding of the faith, and of Paul’s theology. But a careful study of Romans will also show that Paul’s innovative power is as strong in our day as it was in his own and many surprises lie in wait. The surprises are both exciting and instructive, and Paul through this letter to the churches in Rome extends to us, as he did to its first readers, the invitation to undertake with him such a voyage of discovery.
There is much in these opening verses which is useful for the proclamation of the gospel and for teaching its significance. Paul’s opening verses, which clearly show the Messiah, Jesus, as the fulfillment (vv. 3–4) of God’s promise to his chosen people, echoes a theme which is prominent throughout the whole of the Bible. The conviction that God fulfills his promises lies not only at the heart of the story of the chosen people, occuring as fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (see Gen. 12:1–3), it also underlies the Christian conviction that Jesus is the one promised as fulfillment of the promises of a final redemption made to that chosen people. That Jesus is God’s anointed one (Christ means “anointed” in Greek; Messiah means “anointed” in Hebrew) is therefore to be understood against the background of God’s history with his chosen people, or it will not be understood at all.
When Paul begins with the announcement that in JesusGod has fulfilled his promises of redemption, he announces a theme which is also prominent in the Gospels. Matthew, for example, finds the very birth of Jesus (1:18–25) to be the fulfillment of a deliverance promised by God through the prophet Isaiah (7:5–17). That way of beginning the story of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises recorded in the Old Testament is also found in the other Gospels.
Yet God’s promise was fulfilled in Jesus in a way not wholly expected by that chosen people. As Matthew shows in the use and interpretation of the passage from Isaiah 7, fulfillment is also a new and startling beginning. That is why these passages would be appropriate to Advent: The fulfillment found in Jesus as the Anointed of God is also God’s new beginning with his creation. If redemption is the fulfillment of a promise, it is also the announcement of a new stage in God’s dealing with his creation. The old taken up, fulfilled, and made new is thus appropriate for Advent, as it was appropriate for the way Paul chose to begin his letter to the Christians in Rome.
The passage from Isaiah which Matthew finds fulfilled in Jesus’, birth, when linked to the opening verses of Romans, lets us see the point Paul is making from yet another perspective. The reluctance of Ahaz to accept a sign from God (Isa. 7:10–12), a reluctance which cannot hinder the giving of the sign, points to the fact that that relationship between God and humanity is finally God’s doing, and not our earning. That is of course also the point of the birth of Jesus from the virgin: Human activity, whether religious or biological, is finally unable to accomplish the birth of the deliverer. God’s grace is based on his mercy, not our merit. That is also the point of Paul’s emphasis on our being righteous by faith, rather than by our own accomplishments (“works of the law”). It is because it is God who promises, and God who fulfills in his own time and in his own way, that we have confidence that that promise will in fact be fulfilled. It is God’s mercy that is reliable, not our response to it, or our acts in earning it. Finally, Paul’s gospel calls us to trust in God, not in ourselves, a call echoed in the sign given to the reluctant Ahaz and in the astonishing birth of Jesus in a way beyond normal expectations.
Another perspective on the new element which regularly accompanies God’s fulfillment of his promises lies in Paul’s emphasis in these opening verses on his own call to win the obedience of the gentiles. The blessing God had promised to hischosen people is, with the resurrection of Christ, extended to the whole of creation. The promised blessing is no longer limited by birth, it is opened by new birth (Paul will discuss that more fully in chap. 6). In what is likely to be an echo of the convictions that came to Paul with his conversion, he tells the Roman Christians that grace is now offered to all in Christ; and he, Paul, has been charged to be the agent of that offering (see II Cor. 5:17–20). The very message of grace is a part of that grace. That is what gives the gospel its power, a point Paul will turn to in the next verses (esp. v. 16). That of course is why Paul feels compelled to visit Rome, lest they be denied some fuller understanding of the power of God’s grace given in Jesus Christ.
It is thus the very message of grace to gentiles that shows the newness of what God has done in fulfilling his promise to the chosen people through Jesus. The fulfillment of that promise has opened the gate of “chosen people” to any who accept and trust the news of God’s grace. What had been promised to Abraham is therefore now also our heritage, and Abraham is now also our forefather in the faith (Paul will make this explicit in chap. 4). The whole history of the chosen people is thus now to be rethought and appropriated as the personal history of each one who finds in Jesus Christ God’s gift of grace to all peoples. We are to appropriate the Old Testament as our own history, we gentiles who have accepted Christ, the seed of David, as God’s Son, anointed with power through his rising from the dead.
If this passage is appropriate for Advent, it would also thus be appropriate for Easter. It is precisely through his resurrection that Jesus opens the way to God for all peoples. That is a note to be struck in Advent as well, when sentimentality at the birth of a baby may not be allowed to overcome knowledge of the violent death—death for our sake—awaiting that babe. As the virgin birth marks off the beginning of Jesus’ life as having its origin and meaning beyond the normal bounds of human experience and activity, so the resurrection marks the end of Jesus’ earthly life as beyond that same activity and experience. Virgin birth and resurrection thus bracket the life of Jesus, reminding us that while Jesus was fully human, his life finds a meaning beyond the realm of normal human possibilities. If it did not, it could not be the source of a power which breaks the hold of sin on that humanity. Jesus Christ, risen from the deadin the full power of God’s own mighty Spirit, is the one to whom we look for our redemption, or we look in vain.
These themes, then, expressed and implied in the opening verses of Paul’s letter to Roman Christians, will be explored in the following chapters of that letter. In them is contained what Paul understands to be the correct appropriation of God’s promised blessing upon humankind. Christ is the key to a new beginning in the history of God with his creation, a new beginning that fulfills and recreates the promise made by the God of grace that he will be a blessing to us all, because in Christ God’s gracious lordship, even over his rebellious creation, becomes visible.