Unity In Times of DisagreementToday we are beginning a study of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. There are 66 books in the Bible and yet I would say that more revivals of the soul can be traced to the book of Romans than to any other single book in God’s Word. Throughout history people like St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Calvin, and John Bunyan have been transformed by the powerful message of Paul’s letter. It was scripture from the book of Romans, “The Roman Road of Salvation,” that was shared with me, and pierced my heart, while I was still a teenager and sitting in the rain at a FCA retreat in Ardmore, OK. The letter to the Romans has been used by God to change hearts and educate God’s people about the predicament of sin, the sufficiency of grace, the righteousness of God, and so much more.
The book of Romans is too deep for any of the greatest thinkers of history to plumb its depths and yet it has been used by God to touch the hearts of the most simple minded. John MacArthur wrote these words in his great commentary on Paul’s letter.
It has been said that Romans will delight the greatest logician and captivate the mind of the consummate genius, yet it will bring tears to the humblest soul and refreshment to the simplest mind. It will knock you down and then lift you up. It will strip you naked and then clothe you with eternal elegance. The book of Romans took a Bedford tinker like John Bunyan and turned him into the spiritual giant and literary master who wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Holy War. (MacArthur, John. MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary: Romans 1-8. The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.)
This morning we will begin a line-by-line and verse-by-verse study of this powerful letter written by the Apostle Paul to a church that he had never visited before he wrote the letter to the church in Rome. I pray that you will join us each and every week, that you will get the notes and study them for yourselves, and then watch God begin to reshape, transform, your mind and heart.
This morning I want to give you the background to the letter. I want to familiarize you with the man who wrote the letter, the Apostle Paul, the people to whom he was writing, and the relevance of the letter for our day. Let’s get started. In the very first verse of Romans we read,
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God. (Romans 1:1 NIV)
Paul is the author of the letter to the church in Rome. Throughout history there have been some who have tried to dispute the authorship of Paul, but each and every time their theories have fallen apart. There is no question that the Apostle Paul penned the letter, or rather Paul’s secretary, Tertius, wrote as Paul dictated the letter to him. In Romans 16:22 we read,
22 I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord. (Romans 16:22 NIV)
You don’t have to visit a church very many times before you hear the name, “Paul,” and yet most people don’t know the amazing history of this man who wrote more books of the New Testament than any other author. Let me tell you his story. Paul, was actually named Saul, by his parents. Saul’s Hebrew name means, “desired.” It wasn’t until his conversion that the Lord changed his name from Saul to Paul, a name that means, “little or small.”
We find out in Acts 9:11 that Saul was born in Tarsus, a city in the province of Cilicia, which is modern-day Turkey, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem. Tarsus was one of the great centers of education; it was home to one of the three great universities in the Roman Empire. Saul received the best secular education possible growing up in Tarsus, but his religious education came from one of the most famous rabbis in history, Gamaliel. Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel. Gamaliel was a Pharisee and one of the leaders of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish body, during the time of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, who ruled at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, as well as Emperor Caligula and Claudius. Gamaliel died about 52 A.D. Gamaliel is most remembered by Christians for defending the followers of Jesus in Acts 5 when they were arrested for preaching the Gospel.
While Saul was out persecuting Christians, Peter and the other followers of Jesus were busy sharing the Good News. They were arrested and told to keep quiet about Jesus, but they couldn’t, their hearts burned with love for their Savior. When the members of the Sanhedrin heard that the followers of Jesus were still spreading the word about Jesus they had them brought in again. When Peter was quizzed he said, “We have to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) This didn’t go over too well with the members of the Sanhedrin. The members of the Sanhedrin wanted to have the followers of Jesus put to death. Then we read about Gamaliel. Look at Acts 5:34 with me.
34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed them: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. 38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” 40 His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. (Acts 5:34-40 NIV)
While Gamaliel was teaching tolerance of the followers of Jesus to his associates, Gamaliel’s protege, his student, Saul, was tracking down the followers of Jesus. When Stephen was stoned to death by an angry crowd for preaching the Good News about Jesus, Saul was there. We read in Acts 8:1-3.
1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8:1-3 NIV)
Saul was an equal opportunity persecutor: both men and women were tracked down by Saul. By the end of Acts 8 we see two parallel histories being formed: the followers of Jesus continue to proclaim the hope and salvation found in Jesus alone, and Saul is continuing to try and stop them. In Acts 8:40 we read that Phillip was preaching the Good News about Jesus and then, in the very next verse, the opening of Acts 9, we read,
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2 NIV)
Saul found those who were following Jesus and he had every intention to eliminate what he saw as the primary threat to the true faith of Judaism. Saul was on his way to Damascus when he was stopped dead in his tracks. In Acts 9:3-9 we read,
3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. (Acts 9:3-9 NIV)
The Lord went ahead of Saul and called a man named Ananias to go to Saul and lay his hands on him so that Saul might recover his sight. Ananias had heard of Saul and he wasn’t real excited about making contact with enemy number one of the followers of Jesus. In Acts 9:13-16 we read,
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:13-16 NIV)
The Lord said that Saul was His “chosen” instrument. “God’s choosing” is a theme that we will see run throughout Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Paul didn’t ask to be used by God, but he was chosen. Paul was vehemently opposed to the cause of Christ, but he was chosen. God’s choosing is never in vain.
By the time we come to the period of Paul’s life where he writes Romans he has been preaching the Gospel for almost twenty years. F.F. Bruce, in his commentary on Romans, writes,
Paul spent the ten years from AD 47-57 in intensive evangelization of the territories east and west of the Aegean Sea. During those years he concentrated in succession on the Roman provinces of Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia–His first great plan of campaign was concluded. The churches he had planted in Iconium, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, Ephesus, and many another cities in those four provinces could be left to the care of their spiritual leaders, under the overruling direction of the Holy Spirit. But Paul’s task was by no means finished. (F.F. Bruce, Romans, William B. Erdman’s Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, MI. pg. 13)
Paul had finished his third missionary journey over the course of about ten years. For ten years he had traveled from city to city proclaiming the Gospel, standing up to adversaries who wanted to silence him, and he had been faithful to the call upon his life to bear witness to the saving work of God in Jesus Christ. At the end of his ten years of ministry, Paul spent three months in Greece, probably Corinth, where Gaius was his host (Romans 16:23). It was during this time that many Bible teachers believe Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome.
As you read Paul’s letter to the church in Rome you have to remember that Paul had never visited the church at the time he wrote the letter. We don’t know who established the church in Rome, but we know that it was an influential church and that Paul longed to visit the brothers and sisters there. In Romans 1:11-13 we read about Paul’s great desire to visit the church.
11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong– 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. (Romans 1:11-13 NIV)
Paul had a love for the brothers and sisters in Rome. He remembered them in his prayers constantly and he prayed that the Lord would open a door for him to visit the church at some point. (Romans 1:9-10) As I mentioned, we don’t know who or how the church in Rome was started, but we do know that there were citizens from Rome in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. In Acts 2:10-11, where Luke lists the various countries represented by the people present on the Day of Pentecost, he says that there were “visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism).” You have to imagine that some of the Jews who were present on the Day of Pentecost were some of the three thousand who were converted to Jesus that day. Those new believers in Jesus went home and the seeds of the church began to grow and multiply in Rome.
We may not know who established the church in Rome, but we do know that there were many Jews in Rome as early as the 2nd century B.C. In 59 B.C. Cicero writes about the size and influence of the Jewish community in Rome. Almost eighty years later, in 19 A.D. the Jews in Rome were ushered out of the city by an edict by Emperor Tiberius. In just a few years the Jews were allowed to come back to the city. Thirty years later, in 49 A.D., under the leadership of Emperor Claudius, it appears that Jewish Christians and Jews were driven from the city because of the tension surrounding Jesus as the Messiah. This expulsion is referred to in Acts 18:1-2 where Luke writes about Paul meeting the husband/wife team of Aquila and Priscilla, both were Jewish Christians. Luke writes,
1 After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. (Acts 18:1-2 NIV)
Emperor Claudius died in 54 A.D. and his edict expired with his life. The Jews and Jewish Christians were allowed to return to Rome and when the Jewish Christians came back to their church they found that it was dominated by Gentile Christians. Paul addresses this later in his letter.
If you will remember, Paul wrote to the church in Rome in 57 A.D., just three years after Emperor Claudius died, and he writes about how the faith of the Romans was known all over the world. Paul writes in Romans 1:8.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. (Romans 1:8 NIV)
How can such a thing be possible? How can a persecuted church be a model church? How can those who were being driven from their city be highly esteemed in the eyes of other Christians around the world? How can different ethnic groups with such deep, long standing tensions, work together side-by-side as they work through their differences? How can a church which was not founded by one of the pillars of early Christianity be so strong, so influential, and so faithful? God’s ways are not the world’s ways my friends. He takes that which seems to be insignificant and makes it significant. He took a handful of no-name converts who were in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost and He sent them back to Rome with their hearts on fire for the Savior. He took Jews and Gentiles and molded them into one people, one body, for the cause of the Kingdom. What God did in the early days of the church of Rome He is still doing today. This is God’s agenda. This is God’s heart. This is God’s purpose for His people around the world even today.
Three years after Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome he did, finally, get to visit the church that he loved. Paul’s visit to Rome was not as he had envisioned. He walked into Rome in chains, as a prisoner. Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem for sins against the Temple. His trial was a mess so Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship and asked to be transferred to Rome to gain a hearing before the Emperor. Paul arrived in Rome, after being shipwrecked and wintering in Malta, in 60 A.D. In Acts 28:15-16, Luke writes about the day when the guards finally arrived with Paul.
15 The brothers there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these men Paul thanked God and was encouraged. 16 When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him. (Acts 28:15-16 NIV)
Christians in Rome, who had gotten word that Paul was coming to their city, walked 30-40 miles outside of the city to greet Paul and walk with him as he approached Rome. Is it any wonder Paul “thanked God and was encouraged?” The people who took the time to go out of their way to greet Paul didn’t do any huge act of service, they simply took the time to greet Paul and walk with him while he was in chains. What an encouragement to ordinary folks like you and me. We don’t have to be Bible scholars to be used by God. We don’t have to be great speakers or teachers. If we will just go to those who are in need when we learn of their need then God will use us to encourage them.
Paul was put under house arrest, but he was given freedom to minister while he was under arrest. During this time he wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Isn’t it amazing that while Paul was at, what could have been a low point in his life, he saw his imprisonment as no obstacle to continue being a blessing to others? Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. While Paul was imprisoned one of the leaders of the church in Colosse was with him. Epaphras was concerned about the false teaching that was spreading in Colosse and as a result of this Paul wrote his letter to the church in Colosse urging them to cling to the truth and to avoid false teaching. Paul’s life was not his own. Whether he was free or in prison he lived for the cause of Christ. I marvel when I read the description of Paul’s imprisonment in Acts 28:30-31.
30 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28:30-31 NIV)
What a great opportunity for you and me to learn from this godly man. Who among us has not gone through tough times and yet in the midst of our troubles we turned inward? We became consumed with trying to figure out a way to get out of our troubles. We lost sight of the many opportunities that God placed right before us to share the Good News of Jesus, the hope of the Gospel with someone else. Paul doesn’t seem to do this at all.
I told you earlier that Paul wrote Philippians while he was in prison in Rome. We can get some insight into Paul’s “prison ministry” by reading the opening chapter of Philippians. Read along with me beginning in verse 12.
12 Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. (Philippians 1:12-14 NIV)
Those who served the Emperor were being told about the Good News of Jesus Christ. Those who were on duty, guarding Paul, were wore slick with hearing about the grace of Almighty God. Those who were in Rome, who were followers of Jesus, were being encouraged to live their faith with boldness and passion. I pray that God will etch upon our hearts and minds this model of dealing with difficulties.
Paul was released from prison. He went on ministering and even went on a fourth missionary journey that impacted many cities. After Paul’s fourth missionary journey, he was once again arrested and taken to Rome where he was executed about 67 A.D. under Emperor Nero.
Before we close out our study for today the question has to be asked, “How can a letter, written to a church more than 1950 years ago, have any relevance for us today?” That’s a fair question and I would like to address it. The letter to the church in Rome speaks to you and me and the most fundamental questions of humanity. John MacArthur writes in his commentary,
Romans answers many questions concerning man and God. Some of the more significant questions it answers are: What is the good news of God? Is Jesus really God? What is God like? How can God send people to hell? Why do men reject God and His Son, Jesus Christ? Why are there false religions and idols? What is man’s biggest sin? Why are there sex perversions, hatred, crime, dishonesty, and all the other evils in the world, and why are they so pervasive and rampant? What is the standard by which God condemns people? How can a person who has never heard the gospel be held spiritually responsible? Do Jews have a greater responsibility to believe than Gentiles? Who is a true Jew? Is there any spiritual advantage to being Jewish? How good is man in himself? How evil is man in himself? Can any person keep God’s laws perfectly? How can a person know he is a sinner? How can a sinner be forgiven and justified by God? How is a Christian related to Abraham? What is the importance of Christ’s death? What is the importance of His resurrection? What is the importance of His present life in heaven? For whom did Christ die? Where can men find real peace and hope? How are all men related spiritually to Adam, and how are believers related spiritually to Jesus Christ? What is grace and what does it do? How are God’s grace and God’s law related? How does a person die spiritually and become reborn? What is the Christian’s relation to sin? How important is obedience in the Christian life? Why is living a faithful Christian life such a struggle? How many natures does a Christian have? Still more questions are: What does the Holy Spirit do for a believer? How intimate is a Christian’s relationship to God? Why is there suffering? Will the world ever be different? What are election and predestination? How can Christians pray properly? How secure is a believer’s salvation? What is God’s present plan for Israel? What is His future plan for Israel? Why and for what have the Gentiles been chosen by God? What is the Christian’s responsibility to Jews and to Israel? What is true spiritual commitment? What is the Christian’s relationship to the world in general, to the unsaved, to other Christians, and to human government? What is genuine love and how does it work? How do Christians deal with issues that are neither right nor wrong in themselves? What is true freedom? How important is unity in the church? (MacArthur, John. MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary: Romans 1-8. The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.)
I hope that you will join me over the next many weeks as we study this powerful letter written to a church like ours. A church that needs to hear about the deadly destructive nature of sin, the abounding grace of Almighty God, the sacrifice of Jesus, God’s Son, on our behalf, the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers, the purpose of troubles and trials in our lives, and the plan of God for history.
I want to urge you today to surrender your life to Jesus Christ. Apart from a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ this life simply will not make any sense, but if you will surrender your life to Jesus and allow Him to take control of your every decision, your every move, then you will begin to see the hand of God at work in the good times and the troubles that each of us will encounter in life. Won’t you invite Him in this morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114