Orienting Data for Romans
Since we are at the beginning of another one of Paul’s Epistle’s (Letter), I like to start with some information. Below is the information compiled by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart from their book, “How to Read the Bible Book by Book:”
- Content: a letter of instruction and exhortation setting forth Paul’s understanding of the gospel—that Jew and Gentile together form one people of God, based on God’s righteousness received through faith in Jesus Christ and on the gift of the Spirit
- Author: the apostle Paul
- Recipients: the church in Rome, which was neither founded by Paul nor under his jurisdiction—although he greets at least twenty-six people known to him (16:3–16)
- Occasion: a combination of three factors: (1) Phoebe’s proposed visit to Rome (16:1–2; which would begin in the house church of old friends Priscilla and Aquila, 16:3–5), (2) Paul’s own anticipated visit to Rome and desire that they help him with his proposed mission to Spain (15:17–29), and (3) information (apparently brought by visitors) about tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers there
- Emphases: Jews and Gentiles together as the one people of God; the role of the Jews in God’s salvation through Christ; salvation by grace alone, received through faith in Christ Jesus and effected by the Spirit; the failure of the law and success of the Spirit in producing true righteousness; the need to be transformed in mind (by the Spirit) so as to live in unity as God’s people in the present
Overview of Romans
This letter is arguably the most influential book in Christian history, perhaps in the history of Western civilization. But that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to read! While theologically minded people love it, others steer away from it (except for a few favorite passages), thinking it is too deep for them. But the overall argument and the reasons for it can be uncovered with a little work.
At issue is tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome, who probably meet in separate house churches and who appear to be at odds regarding Gentile adherence to the Jewish law—especially over the three basic means of Jewish identity in the Diaspora: circumcision (2:25–3:1; 4:9–12), Sabbath observance, and food laws (14:1–23). What is at stake practically is whether Gentiles must observe the Jewish law on these points. What is at stake theologically is the gospel itself—whether “God’s righteousness” (= his righteous salvation that issues in right standing with God) comes by way of “doing” the law or by faith in Christ Jesus and the gift of the Spirit.
Advice for Reading Romans
The key to a good reading of Romans is not to get bogged down over the many bits of detail that beg for an answer. Rather, use “A Walk through Romans” to get the big picture, and then perhaps come back and try to discover answers to its many pieces.
Knowing two things may help you as you read. First, the argumentation Paul employs in this letter is patterned after a form of ancient rhetoric known as the diatribe, in which a teacher tried to persuade students of the truth of a given philosophy through imagined dialogue, usually in the form of questions and answers. Very often an imagined debate partner would raise objections or false conclusions, which, after a vigorous “By no means!” the teacher would take pains to correct. You will notice that Paul will often use the diatribe method of argumentation.
Example: (2:1–5, 17–24; 8:2; 9:19–21; 11:17–24; 14:4, 10). Paul debates first with a Jew (2:1–5, 17–24), with whom he dialogues in most of the argument that follows, as he raises and answers questions and responds to anticipated objections (2:26; 3:1–9, 27–31; 4:1–3;6:1–3, 15–16; 7:1, 7, 13; 8:31–35; 9:19; etc.).
So lets dive-in to this incredible letter to the people of Rome!