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Let me say just a word concerning Paul the apostle. With his writings we actually come now to a different method of revelation. God has used many ways to communicate to man. He gave the Pentateuch—the Law—through Moses. He gave history, He gave poetry, and He gave prophecy. He gave the Gospels, and now we come to a new section: the Epistles, the majority of which were written by Paul.
Adolf Deissmann tried to make a distinction between epistles and letters. Having examined the papyri that were found at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, he made a decision between literary and nonliterary documents, placing the epistles of Paul in the latter category, thereby making them letters rather than epistles. However, a great many scholars today think this is an entirely false division.
These letters that we have—these epistles—are so warm and so personal that, as far as you and I are concerned, it is just as if they came by special delivery mail to us today. The Lord is speaking to us personally in each one of these very wonderful letters that Paul and the other apostles wrote to the churches. Nevertheless, Romans contains the great gospel manifesto for the world. To Paul the gospel was the great ecumenical movement and Rome was the center of that world for which Christ died. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is both an epistle and a letter.
Paul made this statement in Romans 15:15–16, “Nevertheless, brethren, I have written the more boldly unto you in some sort, as putting you in mind, because of the grace that is given to me of God, that I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost.” Paul made it very clear here that he was the apostle to the Gentiles. He also made it clear that Simon Peter was the apostle to the nation Israel. For instance, in Galatians he said, “(For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision” (Gal. 2:8–9). Therefore you see that Paul was peculiarly the apostle to the Gentiles. When you read the last chapter of Romans and see all those people that Paul knew, you will find that most of them were Gentiles. The church in Rome was largely a gentile church.
Paul also made the point that, if somebody else had founded the church in Rome, he would never have gone there. Instead, he said that he was eager to go there. “So as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the Gospel to you that are at Rome also” (Rom. 1:15). He wanted to go to Rome to preach the gospel. In Acts 26 Paul recounted to Agrippa the message the Lord gave to him when He appeared to him: “Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:17–18).
Further, Paul would never have gone to Rome, although he was eager to go, if anyone else had preached the gospel there ahead of him. In Romans 15:20 he said, “Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation.” Paul, my friend, just didn’t go where another apostle had been. We can conclude, therefore, that no other apostle had been to Rome.
Now that leads me to say a word about Rome, and the question is: Who founded the church in Rome? I am going to make a rather unusual statement here: Paul is the one who founded the church in Rome, and he founded it, as it were, by “long distance” and used the “remote control” of an apostle to write and guide its course.
Let me make this very clear. You see, Rome was a tremendous city. Paul had never been there, no other apostle had been there, and yet a church came into existence. How did it come into existence? Well, Paul, as he moved throughout the Roman Empire, won men and women to Christ. Rome had a strong drawing power, and many people were in Rome who had met Paul throughout the Roman Empire. You might ask, “Do you know that?” Oh, yes, we have a very striking example of that in Acts where we find Paul going to Corinth. “After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth; and found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them. And because he was of the same craft, he abode with them, and wrought: for by their occupation they were tentmakers” (Acts 18:1–3). Paul had met Aquila and Priscilla—their home was in Rome, but there had been a wave of anti–Semitism; Claudius the emperor had persecuted them, and this couple had left Rome. They went to Corinth. We find later that they went with Paul to Ephesus and became real witnesses for Christ. Then, when Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans, they had returned to Rome, and Paul sent greetings to them. We do have this very personal word in Acts concerning this couple. What about the others? Well, Paul did know them. That means he had also met them somewhere and had led them to Christ. Paul was the founder of the church at Rome by “long distance”—by leading folk to Christ who later gravitated to Rome.
Paul knew Rome although he had not been inside her city limits at the time of the writing of the Roman epistle. Rome was like a great ship passing in the night, casting up waves that broke on distant shores. Her influence was like a radio broadcast, penetrating every corner and crevice of the empire. Paul had visited Roman colonies such as Philippi and Thessalonica, and there he had seen Roman customs, laws, languages, styles, and culture on exhibit. He had walked on Roman roads, had met Roman soldiers on the highways and in the marketplaces, and he had slept in Roman jails. Paul had appeared before Roman magistrates, and he had enjoyed the benefits of Roman citizenship. You see, Paul knew all about Rome although he was yet to visit there. From the vantage point of the world’s capital, he was to preach the global gospel to a lost world that God loved so much that He gave His Son to die, that whosoever believed on Him might not perish but have eternal life.
Rome was like a great magnet: It drew men and women from the ends of the then–known world to its center. As Paul and the other apostles crisscrossed in the hinterland of this colossal empire, they brought multitudes to the foot of the Cross. Churches were established in most of the great cities of this empire. In the course of time, many Christians were drawn to the center of this great juggernaut. The saying that “all roads lead to Rome” was more than just a bromide. As Christians congregated in this great metropolis, a visible church came into existence. Probably no individual man established the church in Rome. Converts of Paul and the other apostles from the fringe of the empire went to Rome, and a local church was established by them. Certainly, Peter did not establish the church or have anything to do with it, as his sermon on Pentecost and following sermons were directed to Israelites only. Not until the conversion of Cornelius was Peter convinced that Gentiles were included in the body of believers.
Summarizing, we have found that Paul is the one writing to the Romans. He was to visit Rome later, although he knew it very well already. And Paul was the founder of the church in Rome.
As we approach this great epistle, I feel totally inadequate because of its great theme, which is the righteousness of God. It is a message that I have attempted over the years to proclaim. And it is the message, by the way, that the world today as a whole does not want to hear, nor does it want to accept it. The world likes to hear, friend, about the glory of mankind. It likes to have mankind rather than God exalted. Now I am convinced in my own mind that any ministry today that attempts to teach the glory of man—which does not present the total depravity of the human family and does not reveal that man is totally corrupt and is a ruined creature, any teaching that does not deal with this great truth—will not lift mankind, nor will it offer a remedy. The only remedy for man’s sin is the perfect remedy that we have in Christ, that which God has provided for a lost race. This is the great message of Romans.
Friend, may I say to you that the thief on the cross had been declared unfit to live in the Roman Empire and was being executed. But the Lord Jesus said that He was going to make him fit for heaven and told him, “… Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). God takes lost sinners—like I am, like you are—and He brings them into the family of God and makes them sons of God. And He does it because of Christ’s death upon the Cross—not because there is any merit in us whatsoever. This is the great message of Romans.
It was Godet, the Swiss commentator, who said that the Reformation was certainly the work of the Epistle to the Romans (and that of Galatians also) and that it is probable that every great spiritual renovation in the church will always be linked both in cause and in effect to a deeper knowledge of this book. It was Martin Luther who wrote that the Epistle to the Romans is “the true masterpiece of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, which is well worthy and deserving that a Christian man should not only learn it by heart, word for word, but also that he should daily deal with it as the daily bread of men’s souls. It can never be too much or too well read or studied; and the more it is handled, the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.”
Chrysostom, one of the early church fathers, had the epistle read to him twice a week. And it was Coleridge who said that the Epistle to the Romans was the most profound writing that exists. Further, we find that one of the great scientists turned to this book, and he found that it gave a real faith. This man, Michael Faraday, was asked on his deathbed by a reporter, “What are your speculations now?” Faraday said, “I have no speculations. My faith is firmly fixed in Christ my Savior who died for me, and who has made a way for me to go to heaven.”
May I say to you, this is the epistle that transformed that Bedford tinker by the name of John Bunyan. A few years ago I walked through the cemetery where he is buried, and I thought of what that man had done and said. You know, he was no intellectual giant, nor was he a poet, but he wrote a book that has been exceeded in sales by only one other, the Bible. That book is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It is a story of a sinner saved by grace, and that sinner was John Bunyan. And the record of history is that this man read and studied the Epistle to the Romans, and he told its profound story in his own life’s story, the story of Pilgrim—that he came to the Cross, that the burden of sin rolled off, and that he began that journey to the Celestial City.
Let me urge you to do something that will pay you amazing dividends: read the Book of Romans, and read it regularly. This epistle requires all the mental make–up we have, and in addition, it must be bathed in prayer and supplication so that the Holy Spirit can teach us. Yet every Christian should make an effort to know Romans, for this book will ground the believer in the faith.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 42: Romans (Chs. 1-8). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)