Romans 1:1–7. The Gospel of God in Christ Through Paul

Big Idea

Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, was divinely chosen to preach the gospel of God in Christ, the end-time fulfillment of the twofold Old Testament promise of the restoration of Israel and the conversion of the Gentiles.

Key Themes of Romans 1:1–7

Understanding the Text

The Text in Context

Romans 1:1–7 forms the first half of Paul’s introduction to Romans (1:8–15 is the second half). The introduction, or prescript, to ancient letters consisted of three parts: identification of the author, identification of the recipients, and a salutation or greeting to the recipients. Thus, these are the three parts for Romans 1:1–7:

  1. Sender: Paul (1:1–6)
  2. Recipient: To those in Rome (1:7a)
  3. Greeting: Grace and peace (1:7b)

The sender/author component in 1:1–6 is probably so extensive because Paul is introducing himself to the Christians at Rome for the first time.

There is an inclusio—an opening idea of a text that is stated, developed, and then returned to at the conclusion—for the whole book of Romans centering on the “gospel” (compare 1:1, 2, 9, 15 with 15:16, 19; 16:25–27). Indeed, “gospel” receives pride of place, occurring in the letter’s thematic statement in 1:16–17. Thus, Paul from the beginning alerts the readers to the letter’s theme: the gospel of God through Jesus Christ.

Finally, 1:1–7, along with 1:8–15, corresponds with the preamble section of the covenant format that is so visible in Deuteronomy. The preamble section of the Old Testament covenant structure introduced Yahweh as Israel’s covenant-keeping God. So does 1:1–15, except that Paul equates Jesus Christ with God, whose new-covenant gospel now impacts not only Jews but also Gentiles.

The following outline will guide the examination of Romans 1:1–7:

  1. Paul is called to be an apostle of the gospel of God in Christ, which is the fulfillment of the twofold Old Testament end-time promise (1:1)
  2. The restoration of Israel (1:2–4)
  3. The conversion of Gentiles (1:5–7)

Historical and Cultural Background

1. Ancient Greek letters contained three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. The New Testament letters, including Paul’s, do the same.

2. The “Holy Scriptures” that Paul refers to in 1:2 are the Old Testament, which, in its Hebrew form, is divided into three sections: Torah (Law), Nebiim (Prophets), and Ketubim (Writings). That Paul and the other New Testament authors followed this threefold division of the Old Testament is clear (see Luke 24:27, 44; cf. in other ancient Jewish literature the prologue of Sirach; 4 Ezra 14.37–48; Josephus, Ag. Ap. 1.37–42).

This is a letter written between AD 97 and 103, which was found in the remains of a Roman fort at ancient Vindolanda (modern Chesterholm, Northumberland, England). Written on a thin piece of wood, it starts, “Claudia Severa [sender] to her Lepidina [recipient] greetings.” The body of the letter is an invitation to a birthday celebration, and it ends with the greeting section, “Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail” (Klauck, Ancient Letter, 107). Two different styles of handwriting are evident, indicating that the majority of the letter was dictated to a scribe and the last two lines were penned by the sender herself.

3. Although the primary source for Paul’s gospel is the Old Testament, his Roman audience would not have missed that the word “gospel” conjured up praise for Caesar Augustus and the pax Romana, the peace that his rule brought to the Mediterranean world. This study of Romans will show that just as Paul shows the inadequacy of the Old Testament law for salvation, so does he undermine any misplaced confidence in Caesar. Indeed, if Paul has his way, his upcoming mission to Spain at the hands of Roman Christianity will result in the second coming of Christ and the overthrow of the Roman Empire!

4. In 1:1–7 Paul seems to cast himself in the role of the Suffering Servant from the book of Isaiah. Note the following possible connections:

Interpretive Insights

1:1 Paul, a servant . . . an apostle . . . set apart for the gospel of God. Paul provides three descriptions of himself. First, he is a servant or slave (doulos) of Jesus Christ. Besides the demeaning connotation of doulos, Paul also may have intended a positive allusion to the Old Testament “servant of Yahweh” tradition that was applied to Israel (Neh. 1:6; Isa. 43:10), the prophets (2 Kings 9:7; 17:23), Moses (Josh. 14:7; 2 Kings 18:12), Joshua (Josh. 24:29), and especially the Suffering Servant in Isaiah (Isa. 42:1–9; 49:1–13; 50:4–11; 52:13–53:12). Paul’s usage of the less common title “Christ Jesus,” instead of the more common “Jesus Christ,” may allude to his mystic encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul tends to use “Christ Jesus” when alluding to his dramatic conversion experience. Second, Paul is called to be an apostle, which means that he has been accorded the same status as the original twelve disciples. This is true even if Paul never knew the historical Jesus. What mattered was that Paul had met the resurrected Jesus (e.g., Gal. 1:15–18; 1 Cor. 15:8). Third, Paul was set apart for the gospel of God. “Set apart” probably refers to Paul’s divine call from birth to be an apostle of Christ, a call that was actualized on the Damascus road (see Gal. 1:15–18). As noted earlier, the term “gospel” has its taproot in the promise of the good news of the end-time restoration of Israel (see esp. Isa. 40:9; 52:7; 61:1 [cf. Luke 4:18]; also Isa. 60:6; Joel 2:32; Nah. 1:15). Such a message of good news also included the conversion of the Gentiles (see Isa. 2:2–4; Mic. 4:1–3; Rom. 9:25–27; 15:16–33). This is the gospel of “God” in Christ because it originated in the Old Testament as the divine promise to Israel and is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

1:2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets. Commentators agree that “prophets” here refers to the whole of the Old Testament. Thus, Paul is saying that the Old Testament prophetically witnesses to the gospel of God. This can be seen already in Genesis 12:1–3, where God promises to bless Abraham’s descendants (Jews) as well as the nations of the world (Gentiles). Indeed, this is how Paul read Genesis 12:1–3 (see Rom. 4:9–12; cf. Gal. 3:6–9). And that twofold promise of God’s blessing on Jews (the restoration of Israel) and Gentiles (conversion of the nations) receives eschatological status in Isaiah 40–66. This twofold promise is spelled out in Romans 1:3–4 concerning Israel and in 1:5–7 concerning Gentiles. Jesus Christ is the one ordained by God to bring about the fulfillment of those promises.

1:3–4 descendant of David . . . Son of God. First, many interpreters believe that these two verses consist of a pre-Pauline hymn or creed about Jesus because of the un-Pauline words here (“descendant/seed of David,” “Spirit of holiness”) and the parallelism inherent in the verses. The parallelism, seen more clearly in the Greek text, is as follows:

who has come who was appointed
from the seed of David Son of God in power
according to the flesh according to the Spirit of holiness
(from the resurrection of the dead)

Second, the key to interpreting 1:3–4 is to grasp the meaning of the contrast of “flesh” (NIV mg.) versus “Spirit of holiness.” Although the issue is debated, the best view interprets flesh/Spirit as the contrast between the present age and the age to come. To the former belongs the flesh, in this case Jesus, the human descendant of David; to the latter pertains the age to come, the age of the Spirit. Paul later will make clear that Jesus’ humanity is only in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). Although the meaning of the phrase “Spirit of holiness” is uncertain (it appears only here in the New Testament), the Greek phrase most likely reflects a Semitic construction referring to the Holy Spirit.

Third, in light of the first two points, we may conclude that “Son” / “Son of God” in 1:3–4 forms an inclusio, signifying that the eternal, preexistent Son of God became human in the form of the seed of David, and, at his resurrection, the Son (Jesus Christ) was raised to a new status: the powerfully exalted, heavenly Son of God.

Fourth, the message of this christological piece is that in Jesus Christ the promised restoration of Israel is beginning to be fulfilled. Note the following four connections between 1:3–4 and the promise in the Old Testament and Second Temple Jewish literature of the restoration of Israel, laid out in table 1.

Table 1: Jesus Christ in Romans 1:3–4 and the Restoration of Israel
Restoration of Israel Romans 1:3–4: Jesus is the . . .
The good news of the restoration of Israel (Isa. 40–66) “gospel” (Rom. 1:1–7)
The Davidic Messiah will restore Israel in the age to come (2 Sam. 7:12–16; Isa. 11:1, 10; Jer. 23:5–6; 30:9; 33:14–18; Ezek. 34:23–24; 37:24–25; Pss. Sol. 17.21; 4Q174) Davidic Messiah (compare Rom. 1:3 with Matt. 1:1–16; Luke 1:27, 32, 69; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 5:5; 22:16)
Israel is the Son of God (Exod. 4:22–23; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 11:1; Wis. 9:7; 18:13; Jub. 1.24–25; Pss. Sol. 17.30; 18.4) Son of God, the true/restored Israel (compare Rom. 1:3–4 with Matt. 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13)
The future restoration of Israel is likened to the resurrection of the dead (Isa. 26:19; Ezek. 37:1–14) one raised from the dead (Rom. 1:4)

1:5 Through him we received grace and apostleship . . . obedience that comes from faith. Paul’s description of his calling as that of “grace and apostleship” suggests that his encounter on the Damascus road with the risen Jesus was both his conversion to Christ and his call to be the apostle to the Gentiles. We should not eliminate the former of these from the equation, as some interpreters do. The meaning of the phrase “obedience of faith” or “obedience that comes from faith” (NIV) is debated and may mean that obedience is the expression of faith (“obedience that is faith”), or that obedience results from faith. In either case, this faith/obedience refers to the Old Testament end-time promise that Gentiles will convert to the true God upon the restoration of Israel (see Isa. 2:2–4; Mic. 4:1–3; Rom. 9:25–27; 15:16–33), except that Paul reverses that order in Romans 11:24–27. Indeed, the eschatological conversion of the Gentiles is the theme of 1:5–7 as a whole.

1:6 And you also. Paul implies two things here. First, Gentile Christians are the dominant group over the minority Jewish Christians in the Roman congregations; hence, this is his comment to them (cf. 11:11–24). Second, they are under Paul’s apostolic authority as the premier apostle to the Gentiles.

1:7 To all in Rome. Although the words “in Rome” are absent from a few ancient manuscripts, certainly they belong to the original text, providing the name of the recipients of the letter. Paul applies three Old Testament labels for Israel to the Gentile Christians at Rome: “called” (cf. Deut. 4:37; 10:15; Isa. 41:9; 48:12), “beloved” (cf. Deut. 4:37; 10:15; see also Deut. 7:8; 23:5), and “saints” (cf. Exod. 19:5–6; Lev. 19:2; Deut. 7:6). The apostle to the Gentiles thereby communicates that they are as much a part of the people of God as is Israel.

Too much should not be made of the fact that Paul does not address the Christians in Rome as “the church in Rome,” since he omits that title in the greeting of some of his other letters (Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians).

Paul offers the Christian salutation to the Roman church: “grace” and “peace.” “Grace” (charis) is an adaptation of the typical Greek greeting (which uses the verb chairō), in that Paul roots God’s grace in Christ, and “peace” is an adaptation of the Jewish greeting shalom, and also comes from Christ.

Theological Insights

At least four theological insights surface in Romans 1:1–7: (1) The themes of promise and fulfillment undergird these opening verses and, for that matter, the whole letter. (2) Paul is careful to suggest that there is only one people of God: believing Jews and believing Gentiles. (3) Paul reads his Old Testament messianically (as did the other New Testament authors): Christ is its climax. (4) Later church creeds about the two natures of Jesus Christ and the Trinity are implicit here.

Teaching the Text

Three applications regarding the gospel for all audiences emerge from Romans 1:1–7. First, the theological orientation of the gospel is the Old Testament. Thus, the gospel is rooted in the Old Testament, fulfilled in Jesus Christ the promised Messiah, and articulated by Paul the Jewish Christian. To lose this orientation is to follow the path of the heretic Marcion, who claimed that the Bible presents two different gods, the Old Testament god of wrath and the New Testament god of love. One of my professors used to say that to be a strong Christian, one had to know the Old Testament. He was right. The Old Testament demonstrates the one God’s love and justice, while the New Testament does the same.

Second, the personal benefits of the gospel are breathtaking: peace, love, and holiness from God through Christ. Romans will fill out the details regarding these blessings, but suffice it to say here that the love of God in Christ provides sinners with peace with God when they accept by faith that Christ died for their sins and arose for their justification.

Third, the evangelistic scope of the gospel is cosmic. Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, is Savior of the world and Lord of the universe. The message of Jesus Christ knows no boundaries. It spread from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the uttermost parts of the world, thanks to the ministries of the thirteen apostles, including the apostle Paul.

Illustrating the Text

The theological orientation of the gospel is the Old Testament.

Education: A number of years ago, a Harvard faculty committee declared that “the aim of a liberal education” was “to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.” This implied a holistic way of living that emphasized independent thinking with a certain amount of skepticism for what has been done before, including one’s upbringing. Such a perspective is in keeping with modern individualistic culture with its focus on questioning, self-discovery, and personal satisfaction. A more traditional approach to living is discussed in a book called On Thinking Institutionally, by the political scientist Hugh Heclo, who emphasizes not what we want from life but what it wants from us. Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

The scope of the gospel is universal, reaching out to Jews and Gentiles.

Hymn Text: “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” by Edward Perronet. Particularly relevant in this text by Perronet (1726–92) are “Ye chosen seed of Israel’s race, / Ye ransomed from the fall, / Hail Him who saves you by his grace, / And crown Him Lord of all” (stanza 2); “Let every kindred, every tribe / On this terrestrial ball, / To Him all majesty ascribe” (stanza 4); and “Extol the Stem of Jesse’s Rod” (stanza 5).

Obedience of faith means justification and sanctification should not be separated.

Apologetics: All of Grace, by Charles Haddon Spurgeon. In this work (1894), Spurgeon illustrates the concept of obedience of faith by noting that justification without sanctification is not salvation at all. “It would call the leper clean and leave him to die of his disease; it would forgive the rebellion and allow the rebel to remain an enemy to his king. . . . It would stop the stream for a time but leave an open fountain of defilement which would sooner or later break forth with increased power.”

Quote: Seneca. The Roman philosopher Seneca (ca. AD 4–65), whose life coincided with Paul’s, said that all people were looking toward salvation. What we need, he said, is “a hand let down to lift us up.”

Bust of Seneca, one side of a double-headed herm (first to third century AD)