set apart for the gospel of God,
2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,
The uniqueness of Romans is evident even in the way it begins. The typical letter in Paul’s day opened with a brief identification of sender and recipients followed by a few words of greeting. Romans—the longest of Paul’s letters—also has the longest salutation. No other extant first-century letter, biblical or secular, appears to match its length. Not until verse 7 does Paul greet the recipients in Rome.
Paul crafted this salutation to suit his purpose, not conform to literary convention. In terse and solemn language, he highlights themes he will address in the body of the letter. Topics include Scripture’s promises and fulfillment, the roles of Jesus Christ and (possibly) the Holy Spirit, resurrection, faith/obedience, grace, and the gospel’s universal outreach.Scholarly help for the journey ahead
In addition to signaling these themes, the salutation introduces us to the complexity of Paul’s thought—and the consequent challenge of interpreting what he says. The first seven verses are a single sentence packed with some of “the weightiest theological statements in all of Paul’s letters,” says Richard Longenecker. He points out that in recent years scholars have written more extensively on these seven verses than on any other New Testament passage.
Helped on our Romans journey by Longenecker and the other able scholars in my bibliography, we will seek to understand all that Paul has to offer in the salutation, body, and conclusion of this letter to help us grow in faith and righteousness.
This is an exposition. My goal is to seek understanding, without diving too deeply into the details of how we get there. This is not a devotional. But if the truth discerned is met with faith and obedience, the outcome will be purity of heart and love (1 Peter 1:22–23).Servant of the Lord
In presenting his credentials to a church he had not yet visited, Paul identifies himself as foremost a “servant.” The word is literally slave, not a role cherished by freedom-loving Romans. Nevertheless, this term of absolute submission and humility enjoys exalted status in God’s kingdom. Every believer is a “slave of God” (6:22), and Jesus humbled himself to take on the role of a servant in his death (Philippians 2:7).
Because “servant of the Lord” is an horrific title applied to Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, and David. Paul may imply continuity with those Old Testament figures. In line with that idea, he seems to highlight that title by placing “Christ” before “Jesus.” Paul is a servant of Christos, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word for Messiah, who is Lord. But in calling himself a servant of the Lord, Paul is not exalting himself: “By beginning in this fashion, the writer is putting himself on the same plane as his readers. He does not seek to dominate them” (Everett Harrison).Called to be an apostle
After defining his identity in service to his Master, Paul names his office—apostle. Literally he is a “called apostle,” having been called or appointed to the position by God. Charles Cranfield says, “The word points away from the apostle’s person to Him whose apostle he is. It is thus both a very humble word and also at the same time expressive of the most august authority.”
In Galatians 1:15–16 Paul says God set him apart for this office before he was born. Remarkable it is that before his call was made effective on the road to Damascus Paul was persecuting the very church over which he had already been called to serve as apostle. How illustrative of God’s intention by his grace to love and reconcile his enemies! To this point, see 5:8 and 5:10.
Paul’s authoritative call means that we are reading the authoritative word of God (2 Timothy 3:16–17). As Douglas Moo states, Paul’s “words bear the authority of God himself. Any reading of this great theological treatise that ignores this claim to authority will fail to come to grips with the ultimate purpose of its writing.”“Set apart for the gospel of God”
This is Paul’s mission—to receive, comprehend, and preach God’s gospel, especially to Gentiles. The Greek word for gospel is a compound of “good” (eu) and “message” (angellos), hence, “good news” about the person and work of Jesus Christ to save people from their sins so they might enjoy everlasting life. As God’s appointed ambassador, Paul proclaimed this message around the Middle East and wrote about it in his epistles for our benefit.
Paul does use the term gospel in varying ways, however, as Moo points out. Sometimes Paul refers to the act of preaching the gospel and other times to the message of the gospel. In some contexts, Moo says, gospel takes on so general a meaning as to stand for the events the message describes. In this case, he says, gospel becomes the functional equivalent of Christ or of God’s intervention in human history through Christ.
There is good reason to see this general meaning here, according to Moo. He thinks “Paul is claiming that his life is totally dedicated to God’s act of salvation in Christ—a dedication that involves both his own belief in, and obedience to, that message as well as his apostolic proclamation of it.”Gospel in the Scriptures
Romans has more OT quotations than all the other letters of Paul combined. In 4:3, for example, he locates justification by faith in a seminal OT passage that he also uses to counter Jewish complaints that he was inventing something new and contrary to the Scriptures. Not hesitating to reinterpret Scriptures for his own purpose, Paul finds the gospel in passages both relatively obvious (as in 10:13) and seemingly obscure (as in 10:6–8).
Martin Luther said about Paul’s perspective, “Scripture is completely prophetical” (cited by Moo). Paul puts into practice what Jesus said about the Scriptures—that they are about him (John 5:39; Luke 24:27, 44), and this conviction Paul received directly from the Lord:
As R. C. Sproul expresses, “even though there is a new element in the proclamation, the basic theme of the gospel (albeit in a very brief and summary form) was preached by Adam, by Abel, by Abraham, by Moses and by the prophets.”
Only here in Paul’s epistles does he refer to the Scriptures as the Holy Scriptures. Paraphrasing Luther, Cranfield says, “There is no doubt that he who has this epistle in his heart is possessed of the light and power of the OT.”