To begin to understand the text of this letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome, we first must understand a bit of context and background. Not just that, in any letter, it is easier to understand the contents if you also know the motivation of the writer. In this brief introduction, we are going to take a small look at the various styles of the letters written by Paul. By doing so, we will identify the uniqueness of this particular letter. As in any commentary, we are going to attempt to establish a historical context. Therefore, when we begin to delve into chapter one, you will be aware of important historical details that may render helpful in you understanding Paul more adequately. At times, it helps in our studies if we understand not only the writer, but the recipients of the letter. With that being said, we will try to bring clarity to the church in Rome. What would this church have looked like? Not the building, but the people. What kind of people were they? What were their backgrounds? Did they have any religious ties? These all play a part in helping us understand why Paul wrote what he wrote. Finally, it is important to try to put ourselves in the mind of Paul and ponder his motivation to write this letter. There must have been reason; Paul was careful with every action, with every church visited, and with his letter writing. I believe this letter was written with careful thought and with special purpose and for good reason. As we go through this introduction, I hope to bring these to light. And when we begin to later open to chapter one, we will be ready to move forward.
The Nature of Paul’s Letter Writing
As most of us have written or received a letter in our time, we can all agree that letters have various styles. I am sorry if you have gotten a Dear John letter. They are not the most pleasant to receive, but they get a clear point acrost. On the other hand, most of us might remember those mushy love letters you wrote to your girlfriend or boyfriend. Some of the better men I know still write such letters to their wives. I would congratulate you if you received an acceptance letter from a college you were trying to get into. Or perhaps you had to write a letter of resignation. There are many more styles that can be listed. But the point is obvious, letters can come in different forms, motive, and intent. The same is true with the letters written by Paul.
I find primarily three genres you could categorize the letters of Paul. The first are letters of personal intent. What I mean is the letter is not necessarily written to a congregation, but to an individual. Examples of these letters is First and Second Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. We learn that Paul met Timothy on his second journey. We gather that Timothy became a young preacher and likely worked mostly in Ephesus. Paul, as Timothy’s spiritual father, wrote Timothy encouraging words any young preacher would need to read. The same is true of Titus, another young man that Paul had trained and even called a true son in the faith. Titus was caring for the work in Crete that Paul had previously visited. Paul wrote a letter to encourage and strengthen the work. The personal letter Paul wrote to Philemon was much different than the ones written to Timothy and Titus. Philemon was not a minister, but a friend of Paul’s. While Paul was in a jail cell, he met Onesimus, a run-a-way slave of Philemon’s. Paul led Onesimus to Christ and wrote a letter to Philemon suggesting that he receive him back, not as a slave, but as a brother. Each of these letters are special and personal to Paul. A one-on-one ministry. This is not the case with all the other letters of Paul.
The second style of letter you find Paul to have written is what I call ministerial follow-up. Paul went on several missionary journeys as we will see in a few pages. However, after having left a particular church, he would often write to the churches for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, he would hear reports of praise from a church he had visited. Such letters were the ones he wrote to the Thessalonians and to the church in Philippi. In these letters, you will not find hardly any reproof to speak of, but mostly words of praise and encouragement. Other follow-up letters Paul wrote were more instructive and even a form of reprimand. These types of letters are what we see when Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia and both letters written to the Corinthians. Paul did not enjoy writing these styles of letters, but he thought it necessary to give instruction to the wayward churches when needed. Not all the letters were praise or reprimand; some were words of encouragement in due time for the struggling churches. We see this form of letter when Paul wrote to the Ephesians and to the Colossians. These letters might also be fitting to be in the letters of praise, but they also have a heavy content of encouraging material to strengthen the church. Regardless of the reason, each of these letters were written to churches Paul had visited, and he wants to continue to strengthen them in whatever ways he can.
One final form of letter writing we see from Paul is a letter written to a church Paul had not yet visited but hopes to visit soon. This may seem like a lengthy description, but it best describes what we see concerning the letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome. As we survey his journeys, we learn that Paul had never been as far west as Rome. As we learn from his letter, he feels he has done all he can in the regions he has worked for the past few years, and he hoped to go to Spain. His plan was stop by Rome on his way. As history shows, Paul does get to Rome, but under quite different circumstances than expected. Paul writes this letter to the church in Rome to inform them that he would be coming soon. He also wants to give some instruction on matters pertaining to salvation. We will see these unfold as we get into the letter.
Paul took three journeys as we see detailed in the book of Acts. The purpose of this portion of the introduction is to help plot the letter written to Rome on a timeline. Understanding this brief timeline will help give a fully idea of the context of the letter. The three journeys of Paul began about 47 AD and ended in 57 AD. The first journey of Paul was from 47 AD to 48 AD. We read about this journey in Acts 12:25–14:28.
Paul’s second journey spanned from 49 AD to 52 AD. We read about this journey in Acts 15:36–18:22.
Paul’s third journey began about 53 AD and ended in Jerusalem in 57 AD. We read about this journey in Acts 18:23–21:16.
It was during Paul’s third journey that he wrote his letter to the church in Rome. In Acts 20:1–3, learn that near the latter part of Paul’s third journey, he traveled to Greece, Corinth, where he stayed for three months. Furthermore, in Romans 15:19–33, Paul wrote to the church in Rome that he soon planned to go to Jerusalem to deliver the contribution, then he was going to leave for Spain, stopping by Rome on the way. It seems most fitting that Paul was in Rome during the winter of 56–57 AD. It was during this time that he wrote to the church in Rome. He seems that he had all intentions to arrive in Rome later in 58 AD. We know from the book of Acts that this would not happen as planned. Nonetheless, we now have maps and a date to which we can place the letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome.
The Church in Rome
As you read through the letters of Paul, we not only learn the theology and doctrines of Paul, but you also learn a lot about the churches to which he wrote. For instance, the Galatians struggled with works of the law. The Corinthians struggled with immorality. The church in Thessalonica was praised for their behavior and for becoming examples to all believers. I know we are not supposed to pick favorites, but based on Paul’s letters, if he were to have a favorite church, it would have been Ephesus. What do we know about the church in Rome from both history and the letter Paul wrote?
There is no strong evidence to help us understand the church’s origin. However, Ambrosiaster, a Latin church father of the fourth century, said the Romans “had embraced the faith of Christ, albeit according to the Jewish rite, without seeing any signs of mighty works or any of the apostles.” As we get into the letter, we will find this statement to prove itself; Paul made great effort to show that salvation was not through the law, but through Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Paul made mention a few times of how there was no difference between Jew and Gentile while in Christ. What we are going to see when we read through the letter to the Romans is that they did believe in Jesus, but their theology had a lot of Judaism mixed into it that Paul felt he needed to address.
The expulsion by Claudius in 49 AD becomes a big part of our discussion. Prior, to 49 AD, the church in Rome likely consisted of a variety of people, both Jew and Gentile. They likely struggled with their differences, especially those matters pertaining to the law. However, in 49 AD, Claudius commands all Jews and Christians to leave Rome. This would have left only the Gentile Christians (those who fell just under the government radar) to maintain the church. There is a likely hood that the church did not meet during those few years, but I suspect some did meet, although being very few in number. During this time, Christians like Aquilla and Priscilla leave Rome and go to Corinth. This is when Paul meets them and they join his ministry; this story is recorded in Acts 18:1–4. The expulsion would have ended at the death of Claudius, which was only a few years later. It is right to assume that when the expulsion ended, many or most of the Jews and Christians would have returned. When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he asked the church to greet Aquilla and Priscilla. There is also quite of number of other Christians Paul mentioned and asks the church to greet.
With all this being said, we come back to the question as to the people in the church in Rome. Paul was a minister to the Gentiles. We also see clearly in the letter that Gentiles are addressed. However, the letter is noticeably clear to address Judaism as well. The church in Rome is a beautifully diverse group of both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. However, none of them have a deep understanding of salvation. Furthermore, both groups are stuck in some ideologies from their roots. Paul wrote this letter to unite this diverse church, not in their differences in which some did not matter, but in Christ. Paul wanted them to know, that although, some had a Jewish background, and some a Gentile background, in Christ they could be united.
Why Write a Letter?
I want to return to the basic idea of letter writing and take a moment to look at motive. Why did Paul write this letter? The first reason Paul would write this letter to the church in Rome is the personal connection. When we get to Romans 16, it is made clear that Paul knew many of the people now in Rome. In fact, many of them he worked with in some way or another. So, Paul would have motive to write this this church to greet many of his co-workers in ministry.
The second reason Paul would write this letter is made evident when considering the zeal Paul had for ministry and changing lives. Paul was very intentional with his visits, where he set up churches, and to whom he wrote letters. Furthermore, with every fiber in his being, he was trying to make the greatest impact possible in the short amount of time he had. With Rome being the center of world power, if Paul could strengthen the church there, the lasting repercussions would be phenomenal. Paul wanted to take advantage of this amazing ministerial opportunity.
The final reason Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome was to share his intent to visit them soon. As we are going to see in chapter 15, Paul planned to travel to Spain. His plans were to stop at Rome on his way. His reason to visit would be to see once again his fellow-workers. He world also be able to preach the gospel and strengthen the churches as he did in many other cities. But also, he was hoping to raise funds for his trip, and he was confident that church in Rome would help.
As a final note, the simple and clear picture is that Paul sent a letter to the church in Rome in the springtime of 57 AD. He wrote and sent this letter from the church in Corinth, where he stayed the winter. When he left Corinth in spring, his plans were to finish his third missionary journey by going to Jerusalem where he would hand over the funds raised from his campaign. After a quick stop in Jerusalem, Paul planned to head to Rome and embark on a whole new journey to a new part of the world. However, Paul is soon arrested and ends up staying in Jerusalem and Caesarea for about two years. After a couple years of unresolved debate, Paul appeals to Caesar, and soon after is put on a ship headed to Rome. Paul would get to Rome, but it would be by a quite different plan than his own. The following letter is what Paul wrote to the church prior to his arrival. This letter was life giving to the Romans the now some two-thousand years later, there is still life for us if we read with open hearts.
I present to you, the letter that Paul wrote to the church in Rome.