Introduction to Romans

We have now come to the beginning of what is known as the New Testament Epistles.  These are the letters, mostly written by Paul, to churches throughout the Roman Empire and is a snapshot of the correspondence between the authors and the churches, as well as a picture of what the early church was dealing with.  Interestingly, we continue to deal with many of these things.  The Epistles are divided into two groups, with several sub-groupings: Pauline and General Epistles.  Paul’s letters tend to be a bit more specific in their intended audience while the general epistles, so aptly named, have a more general audience.

The book of Romans, though first in canonical order, is not the first letter that Paul wrote.  It is, however, one of the most theologically significant of his writings, covering the length and breadth of the plan of salvation from creation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and then on to what it means to live into our faith and our identity in Christ.  Romans is the most systematic of Paul’s writings, making it one of the most useful books in helping believers and non-believers alike understand God’s plan for Salvation.

So useful has this book been in the Christian faith that the Heidelberg Catechism was modeled after it’s organizational pattern, “Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude” as well as a number of incredibly popular salvation study tools like “Romans Road.”  Paul, here, is presenting the Gospel in both its simplicity and its complexity.

Paul wrote Romans likely in AD 57, several years before he actually made the journey to Rome.  He probably wrote the letter while he was in Corinth, recorded in Acts 20.  However, even here we see both his longing to go to Rome and also his care for the Church as it was beginning there.



Acts 28 – Journey's End

Read Acts 28

There were so many reasons for Paul not to make it to Rome, and so many opportunities for him to escape from his captors as well.  While we don’t get much information about the other captives that were on this journey but I imagine that they have found this as quite the stroke of good luck.  Being a prisoner often meant certain death in the Roman Empire and surviving a shipwreck would have provided at least an opportunity to escape.

But for Paul, even being marooned on an island was an opportunity to minister and (though we don’t see it directly stated) an opportunity to spread the Gospel.  Paul knew where he was called and stopped at nothing to get there, and he did.  Paul made it to Rome and testified to the Gospel there, just as God had directed him.  He preached in captivity and in freedom there for two years and the Kingdom of God expanded greatly there and throughout the Roman empire.

This is a fitting ending to the book of Acts, bringing its main theme, the expansion of the Gospel from Jerusalem all the way to the ends of the earth, full circle.  However, this theme does not reside in the book of Acts alone, but throughout the whole of Scripture the people of God have always been called to be a light to the world.

Sadly, we often find reasons and ways to move away from this call.  Paul demonstrates in his actions and his life the bold and courageous preaching of the Gospel throughout the world.  His mission, however, and ours will never actually end until Christ returns.  Our mission never ends, no matter what opposition we face as the people of God, we are called to be both disciples and witnesses.



Acts 27 – The Journey to Rome

Read Acts 27

Paul’s journey to Rome is not an easy one.  He traveled as a prisoner, which meant that little care was given to him.  Yet the centurion that was in charge of Paul seems to have some compassion for him, at least at first.

As the journey continues on, things get rougher for Paul and for all who are on board the ship.  Against Paul’s warning, they decide to leave the relative safety of one harbor for another that would be better for the ship.  This turns out to be disastrous.

Yet in the midst of all of this, the prisoner Paul becomes the voice of calm reassurance and salvation for all those on board this ill-fated voyage.   Ironically, this isn’t the first time a prisoner saved his captors.

Paul tells them the angel’s message, an encouragement if there ever was one in that moment, and then beckons them to eat, breaking bread in the same manner Jesus did at the last summer.  Though the situation seems bleak, God is abundantly present, protecting and providing for Paul and those traveling with them.

We are all called to different journeys in life as we follow God and live out our faith.  Some of these journeys are physical, some are spiritual, but all require us to listen and to obey.  Too often, when we run into difficulty, we think that we might be on the wrong track or that God has somehow abandoned us.  Yet it is clear here that Paul was right where God wanted him to be.

In our faith journey, we can take our cues from Paul here.  I’m sure he didn’t enjoy being tossed about in the boat, much less traveling as a prisoner.  However, he remained faithful through it all, trusting in God’s wisdom and providence.



Acts 26 – Defense to Agrippa

Read Acts 26

This is not the first time that we have heard Paul use his story as a defense against the accusations brought against him.  However, this particular moment records something very interesting that perhaps we tend to overlook.  As Paul began to follow Christ he didn’t turn his back on the teaching of the Old Testament.  In fact, at this point, 25 years into his ministry, he was not guilty of breaking the law and traditions of the Jewish people, at least not the ones that they religious leaders are accusing him of.

Paul’s understanding of Jesus comes from a deep knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, the only “Bible” that they had at that time.  He understands that, as he is a witness to Jesus Christ and the Gospel of the resurrection, the best witness to that among the Jews is to hold well the Old Testament Scriptures that point to Jesus as the Messiah.

Sometimes I think we too readily throw the Old Testament aside.  We think that because Jesus came, and because He represents a New Covenant, the old stuff doesn’t matter any longer.

While it is true that Jesus fulfilled the Law and through Him we have freedom from it, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to cast aside the Old Testament teachings.  All of Scripture points to Jesus Christ as the Messiah.  The sacrificial system that was in place helps us to make sense of the need for Jesus’ sacrifice.  The Passover has a direct correlation and brings deep meaning to the sacrifice of Jesus.  The Law shows us our need for a savior.

Do you want to know Jesus better?  Read the Old Testament and see how it foreshadows the coming Messiah and the salvation, reconciliation, redemption, light, and renewed relationship to the world.



Acts 25 – Trial #2: Festus

Read Acts 25

When governor Felix is succeeded by governor Festus, the Jews waste no time in coming to him and bringing the charges they have against Paul.  No doubt they have been working hard make these charges sound much worse than they actually are.  Sadly, though, it seems that in two years, they still are unable to convince the governor that Paul has done anything seriously wrong; certainly nothing that warrants death by any means.

However, here we see politics come into play.  Governor Felix had “won” the hearts of the Jewish people through years of extended peace in which they had a good deal of freedom to live and practice their religion within the Roman Empire.  Festus had no such advantage and so, seeking to gain one, he is willing to go against Roman law to gain some Jewish brownie points.

Paul, though, will have none of it.  He has been held without conviction for the past two years and it’s pretty clear that he isn’t planning on going back to Jerusalem and so he does the one thing that he knows will get him on the way to Rome: he appeals to Caesar.

For Paul, heavenly standing with God is always more important than earthly citizenship.  He knew his identity was in Christ and that is what always came first for him.  Yet there are times when our worldly titles and positions can be an advantage to us as well.  Here, Paul once again takes advantage of his Roman citizenship, something the Jewish leaders cannot do.  This was a privilege reserved only for Roman citizens.

It is important to remember the order of identity here.  Paul has been appealing as a follower of Christ; this always comes first.  Sometimes I wonder if American Christians today get that backward.



Acts 24 – The Two Year Trial

Read Acts 24

Paul’s first official Roman trial begins with a man named Felix, a governor over the region in which Jerusalem was a part.  When the Jewish religious leaders arrive, they present “charges” against Paul that coincide with his missionary journies throughout the Roman Empire.  Interestingly, though, if we were to read back over Paul’s journeys, we would see very quickly that it was actually the fault of the Jews in each of the cities where Paul was that riots broke out.

One thing that is missing from this chapter is the history of the Jews and the Roman Empire, and why the question of riots was so important.  The Jews were not a willing people when it came to Roman subjugation.  Throughout the rule of both the Greeks and the Romans, the Jews rioted and revolted constantly resulting in a Roman garrison being set up in Jerusalem.  Many soldiers were stationed there in an effort to keep this peace.  Being accused as a “troublemaker” and someone who “stirs up riots” was a big deal; the Romans had no patience for it.

But Paul’s defense leaves little doubt that these charges are, at best, incomplete, and lack the proper witnesses for the accusations that are being brought.

I have to wonder what Paul was thinking as the days, weeks, and months in Caesarea wore on.  He stayed with Governor Felix for two whole years, all the while being questioned in hopes that Paul would slip up.  He never did.

So for two years Paul waited to move on to the next step of the journey that would lead him to Rome.  It must have seemed like an eternity to him.  Yet during this time, God was setting the stage, preparing both Paul and those he would encounter along the way.



Acts 23 – Take Courage

Read Acts 23

Even though Paul knew that he was following what God willed for him, I can imagine that he was probably getting a little tired of being fought over and accused by the Jewish religious leaders.  It is interesting, though, that in these moments when Paul was at his weakest and most vulnerable, that God provides exactly what Paul needs.

Have you ever experienced this in your life?  You find yourself in the midst of a battle, something pressing in on you, and it is in that moment that something happens or someone shows up and offers you the very encouragement that you need to help you move forward.  God always provides what we need and protects us; when we are at our weakest, God is at His strongest.

We never quite know how God is going to work in our circumstances either.  Paul’s situation seems rather bleak even though God has assured Him that he would be going to Rome to testify.

Behind the scenes, there is a plot that is unfolding.  This group of people that is planning a trap so that they can kill Paul probably thought that they were doing the Lord’s work by ridding their religion of Paul and his “lies.”  Little do they know how much of the Lord’s work they are actually doing here.

I always love the little ironies that crop up in Scripture.  If it wasn’t for this plot, Paul would have never been moved out of Jerusalem and his trip to Roman likely wouldn’t have taken place.  Yet, once again, like the story of Joseph being sold into Egyptian slavery and then becoming an instrument of salvation, what humans meant for evil, God meant for good, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ might continue to spread throughout the Roman empire.



Acts 22 – Paul's Story

Read Acts 22

I have heard it said that all we have to do is “tell our story.”  Leaders and pastors tell Christians this to communicate that there is no fancy degree or qualification that is needed to share your experience with God and what He is doing in your life.  This is incredibly true.

Far too often, Christians remain silent or are afraid to share with others because they feel that they “aren’t educated enough” or “won’t know what to say.”  The fact is that no one knows your story better than you and no one knows what God is doing in your life better than you (except God of course).

Here, Paul doesn’t actually share the Gospel as he had in other places.  Instead, he shares his experience of transformation and how his life was changed.  For this moment apparently, Paul felt that this was what God was directing him to say.

One thing that we don’t often here in the “tell your story encouragement” is what the results might be.  This, actually, is the reason why we don’t readily share things with others anyway; we don’t know what will happen.

In some accounts in Acts, people readily received the Gospel message in whatever form it was shared.  Yet here, the response is profoundly negative.  The crowds call for Paul’s death in a scene that looks markedly similar to Jesus’ trial.

Yet there is something we need to take into consideration here: God’s plan.  Paul’s testimony leads to a conversation about his citizenship.  This conversation ultimately leads to his journey to Rome.  That journey leads to countless people hearing the Gospel.

We may never know where one conversation leads, but we are still called to share and to trust God’s work in that moment and every one that follows.



Ephesians 1:3-14 "Let's Talk About Identity"

Jesus Christ is the foundation on which our faith is built.  He gives us our identity as sons and daughters of God, called out of darkness into God’s light forever.



Acts 21 – Faithful Return

Read Acts 21

Paul’s return to Jerusalem was not simply a stubborn desire of his own heart, but a directive by the Holy Spirit that he faithfully followed.  As he made his way home, many people warned him to stay away and begged him to not go.  They all knew that if he did show his face in Jerusalem, his “fate” would be sealed.

This really came as no surprise to Paul, though.  He was very aware of what would happen to him and actually welcomed it.  That is not to say that Paul welcomed death, but that he trusted God to faithfully be with him through whatever he would experience as he followed God’s calling on his life.

So what can we learn from Paul’s actions here?  If we believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through all Scripture, which God does do, then even in a historical account of Paul’s travels we can learn something.

Ultimately, Paul’s return set in motion a series of events that leads to his death in Rome.  Yet Rome was the end goal of Paul’s travels, as he attests to in both Acts and Romans.  He felt strongly that God was calling him there to witness, to strengthen the church there, and to present to Gospel to the highest governmental seats in the known world.  He knew that it wouldn’t be comfortable, but he was willing to go the distance for the sake of Christ.

How about you?  Typically God’s calling on our lives ends up making us uncomfortable; more so than we would like.  We talk a good “following God” talk, but in the walk that we walk we avoid situations that are uncomfortable, especially when it involves sharing our faith.  Perhaps we can learn from Paul’s trust and God’s faithfulness here?



Acts 20 – Encouraging Departure

Read Acts 20

There is a strong Biblical precedent set by leaders of God’s people to offer words of encouragement and warning at their final departure.  Moses offers this at the end of Deuteronomy, David at the end of 2 Samuel and the beginning of 1 Kings, and even Jesus at the end each Gospel and the beginning of Acts.  Paul’s words here follow this tradition and clearly come from a deep love and rich relationship he has with the church in Ephesus.

Paul’s words here are not just a warning for the church in Ephesus, but one that we can (and should) take to heart each day.  His concern for the church doesn’t come from a perception weak faith, but from a knowledge that the enemy is on the prowl and is merciless.

Essentially he is encouraging them to “hold on to what they have learned,” to “hold fast to the Word of God,” and to “be vigilant for those who would distort the Gospel Truth.”  Paul has seen and knows full well the power of the enemy and the desire to corrupt that Satan has.  Even from within the midst of the body he will exploit, confuse, pollute, and destroy if he has the chance.  We have seen this in our contemporary context, have we not?

Yet even Paul understands that, to hold fast in this fight, the strength of the Church does not rest on its own knowledge, its ability to remain relevant, her great teachers, or sound doctrine.  The strength of God’s people lies in their trust and faith in God.  Paul commits the Ephesian elders “to God and to the word of His grace.”  This too is where our faith and hope must lie if the Church is to weather the storms and attacks that come our way.



Acts 19 – Paul in Ephesus

Read Acts 19

Paul spends two years in Ephesus, another one of the major cities of the Roman Empire in that region and a significant place of Christianity in the early church.  As a matter of fact, the Apostle John moved to Ephesus after the church was established there and became the leader of that church after Paul died.  After his time on the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation, John returned to Ephesus where he later died.

It appears that, when Paul arrived, there were already believers present in the city.  Luke refers to them as “disciples,” indicating that they were followers of Jesus, yet they seem to have only experienced Jesus through the teachings of John the Baptist.

Highlighted here is the difference between an “old identity” and the “new identity.”  The old baptism, that of John the Baptist, was still part of the old covenant, preaching a message of repentance and preparation for the coming Kingdom.  Everything points to Jesus’ coming; all of the Old Testament points to the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world.

In contrast, the Baptism that Paul offers in the name of Jesus Christ is not about redemption so much as it is about identity.  We are no longer waiting and preparing for the Kingdom of Heaven, we are living it right now.  Notice that Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ sees the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the unleashing of spiritual gifts.

More than this, though, is the bold proclamation of the Gospel and the restorative work that is indicative of Kingdom expansion in the name of Jesus Christ.  Miraculous things are done, people are healed, evil is driven away, lives are changed, and the Gospel and glory of God are seen everywhere!



Acts 18 – Paul in Corinth

Read Acts 18

The city of Corinth was one of the major trade cities in the Roman empire.  Sitting directly on an isthmus that separated northern and southern Greece, Corinth was the place to stop either for getting supplies for the long journey ahead or for offloading all the trade goods that a ship was carrying.  It was actually easier for them, in that day, to carry a ship full of trade goods across the isthmus and then reload another ship on the other side than it was to sail around the southern tip of Greece.

Corinth was a very strategic city for both the Roman Empire and for the spread of Christianity.  Like Israel’s placement at the “crossroads” of the known world (the area joining Asia, Europe, and Africa), Corinth was the crossroads for trade at that time.  Obviously, God knew this.  He kept Paul there for a year and a half helping to set up the church and strengthening the believers.  Paul develops deep relationships here and a great affection for the Corinthian church which we will see more of when we read Paul’s correspondences to them later.

One thing that struck me here is God’s message to Paul.  God said, “I have many people in this city…”  Paul had never been to Corinth prior to this.  There is no record of any Christians going to Corinth prior to Paul’s visit, yet God already had many people there.  The way had been prepared for Paul long before he physically arrived, and the Spirit was at work before Paul even knew it.

Sometimes we wonder if we will “have an effect” when we share the Gospel.  Remember, God has been at work for far longer and in much deeper ways than we will ever know and we must trust Him.

 



Acts 17 – Observing Religion

Read Acts 17

Paul’s travels take him to a number of different places and contexts where he preaches the Gospel.  When he comes to Athens, a place of great idol worship, religious practices, and philosophy, Paul observes elements from this context and speaks to them in a manner that is appropriate to that setting.

This is an important part of preaching the Gospel: knowing the context in which you are speaking.  In today’s cultural context there is far too much mindless talking points that do not take into consideration the people or the stories that are in the background of our lives.  Paul notices a great deal about the lives of the Greeks before ever addressing them.

As he looks around Athens, Paul takes some time to observe and notice things that help him to know the people better.  He sees their “very religious” lifestyle, how they worship, and what impact that has on their lives.  When he addresses them, he takes elements of that culture and “redeems” them as he shares the truth of Jesus Christ.  In doing so, Paul is speaking their language and giving them something to relate to.  Too often Christians share the message of Jesus using “Christian-ese,” lingo that we would use to talk to each other but not necessarily language that the general public would understand.  We can take some pointers from Paul on this.

I wonder, in light of this, what Paul would refer to if he were to come to the United States today.  What about if he were to walk into one of our churches?  Would he observe the body of Christ living out the message of the Gospel, being a light to a dark world?  Or would he say, like he did in Athens, “I can see you are very religious…”?