On a warm spring day in what was probably 2002 I remember a specific phone conversation I had with my dad. Now, I don’t remember it because it was some warm, emotional conversation wherein he told me how proud he was of me as his son or I thanked him for all the sacrifices he made in raising me. No, I remember the conversation because of where I was when I made the call. I called my dad as I was sitting on my roof.
That spring had been much like this spring, with a decent number of storms and some strong winds so that a few of the shingles in the middle of my roof had blown off. And instead of hiring someone to fix this, I decided I would get out ladder, climb onto the roof, and fix it myself. My only problem is that I really didn’t know what I was doing, and once I got up onto the roof with shingles in my hand, I also realized that the task wasn’t self-evident, as I was hoping it would be. So I called my dad.
Now what I particularly remember about that phone call that was surprising to me is the surprise my dad expressed that I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s the same kind of surprise that shows itself when I tell some well-educated student that I haven’t actually read any of the volumes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That is, a kind of surprise that is laced with pity and disdain that I would consider myself a human being and not have achieved this feat. That’s how my dad expressed his surprise that I didn’t know the steps to take in replacing a few shingles on my roof.
So, of course, I answered his surprise just as anyone whose noted inability uncovers a bit of insecurity would respond; I defended myself. Specifically, I noted that the responsibility to teach such things would typically fall on one’s dad, and, though I didn’t want to point fingers, my dad had really dropped the ball here.
Now, here’s the question: how could my dad, who really would have been the only candidate for teaching me roofing and didn’t do so, be surprised that I didn’t know anything about roofing? Well, there is a sensible answer. My dad’s mom was a Williams and was one of eight children, and almost all of them stayed in this one small county in Western Kentucky, raising their kids there. Her brother, Jimmy, became a housing contractor, and every summer he would have his son and all of his nephews work with him, doing everything necessary to build a house, including roofing.
There came a point where if you were of the age to do manual labor and were related to Jimmy Williams, it could be assumed that you had learned about everything necessary to build a house. When I was eight, however, we moved from that county, to another part of the state, and I never lived there again. So, while my cousins were learning all the skills that went into building a house and applying those skills each summer, I was doing other things. We had close friends who farmed tobacco, so I learned to do a number of the menial skills that went into tobacco farming, but I never learned roofing.
In other words, my dad, who’d been taught roofing and was raised in a county where he could assume that any male related to him who was of working age knew roofing, simply assumed that his son (me) would have learned roofing as well, but I never did. It’s an example of what we’ve referenced again and again about the gospel, namely, that what is simply assumed (and not explicitly taught) in one generation will be lost in the next. My dad (one generation) simply assumed everyone knew roofing without explicitly teaching it, and I (the next generation) represent the loss of roofing expertise in my family line.
Well, when you get to Romans 1:1-7, which we’re looking at as we begin our study through this book, you may be tempted to move right on by these verses and get into the substance of the book. After all, Paul is simply introducing himself, talking briefly about the gospel and his mission, and sending a word of greeting to the Roman Christians. However, if we skip over this text, assuming it’s already known and unnecessary to spend time on, we’d be doing exactly the opposite of what Paul was doing.
You see, if anyone might assume that he need not introduce himself and lay out his task, it’d be Paul. After all, to understand what it was like for Paul to become a Christian, you’d have to imagine ten years ago Osama Bin Laden deciding that he wanted to a traveling country musician, covering patriotic songs about the United States of America. In other words, no one was sitting on the edge of their seats, in anticipation of Bin Laden singing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” at a nearby arena, and no one anticipated Paul becoming a Christian. He was, according to Acts 9:1, “Breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” and yet had amazingly become a disciple of the Lord himself, devoting his life to making Christ known and worshiped among the Gentiles. Needless to say, Paul needed no introduction. He was the miraculously converted apostle to the Gentiles.
But Paul makes no assumptions about what these Roman believers know. Nor does he want his calling and the aim of his life to be unknown to any. So, he writes in the opening verses of this letter, to a people he hasn’t met firsthand, to tell them who he is, what he preaches, and what his aim is in all things. And it’s this that I want us to see this morning so that we might understand why this book can be trusted, what is the center and focus of this book, and what is the aim of the Spirit in inspiring Paul to write this book. So, let’s look at each of these elements:
Who Paul is
Paul begins the book by way of introduction, as I’ve already noted. Specifically, he writes, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (v. 1). As I noted, this is Paul’s way of telling them why what he’s writing can be trusted. He tells us that he’s a servant of Christ Jesus, but many could claim that. But what comes next is crucial. Paul tells them that he is an apostle, one set apart by God for the gospel.
Now, perhaps this idea of the apostles is so familiar to us that we fail to pause and appreciate what the Lord has done in calling some men to be apostles. You see, the question is, after Jesus was raised from the dead on that Easter Sunday morning and then ascended to be seated at the Father’s right hand, how would God continue to communicate truth to his people?
Remembering the opening of the book of Hebrews, we can remind ourselves that in the days of the Old Testament “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). But what about after Jesus’ ascension? Well, the answer is that Jesus Christ appointed men as his apostles, men he had appeared to after his resurrection. And Paul, of course, was one to whom Jesus had appeared later (on the road to Damascus) and called to be an apostle.
The Lord had promised these men that the Spirit would remind them of what he’d taught them and, further, would lead them into all truth. These apostles would become appointed authoritative mouthpieces for Jesus Christ to his people. And, by the Lord’s grace, they wrote these words of truth that the Spirit led them into (as Jesus promised he would do) and oversaw the writing of others in the Scripture, so that 2,000 years later we do not look to any single men or group of men to tell us the truth of Christ but to this book, the Scriptures, wherein the apostolic authority is preserved for us.
So then, you see the weighty claim Paul is making when he introduces himself as one “called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” He is saying that the words he is writing to them under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit are Christ’s words so that to say, “Paul wrote to the Romans” is the equivalent of saying, “Jesus said to the Romans.”
This is who Paul wants them to know that he is. By the Lord’s grace, though undeserving, he is a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God. And by this introduction, he’s telling the first readers of this letter that his words can be trusted and carry the very authority of Christ. This is who Paul is. But Paul also tells us the message that encompassed Paul’s life. That is, we see:
What Paul preached
Paul has already made this known in verse 1, by noting at the end of the verse that he was set apart “for the gospel of God.” Paul’s message, what he proclaimed, was the gospel. The word “gospel” means “good news,” and the good news is that though all mankind has sinned and stands condemned before the holy God, God, in his love, sent his Son who voluntarily took on flesh, lived a perfectly obedient life, died to pay for our sins, and was raised from the dead on that Easter Sunday morning so that all who repent of their sins and place their faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ will have forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
And Paul’s declaration here that he was set apart for the gospel is consistent with what he says elsewhere. In his letter to the Corinthians, he wrote to them that the gospel he preached to them – that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead, in accordance with the Scriptures – was of first importance to him. In fact, this message was so crucial that Paul told the Galatian believers that if he or even an angel from heaven came along preached something besides this gospel message, that he should be considered under the condemnation of God.
But here, in just a few phrases, Paul reminds us of some important truths in regard to the gospel. He reminds us, for example, that the gospel is God’s message. Paul calls the gospel the gospel “of God,” meaning that it is God’s gospel, God’s work, and God’s message. This is the very reason why no man has the choice to alter the gospel message or try to make it more palatable from age to age and culture to culture by changing it in any way. The gospel is not ours. This message of good news wasn’t created by the church. It is God’s gospel, and it’s why we must never change it.
Further, this gospel, Paul tells us, was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son” (vv. 2-3). In other words, the gospel isn’t some reality that God simply came up with late in the game or after Israel had lived so miserably in the Old Testament. Rather, the Old Testament is full of promises that were always intended to be fulfilled in the work of the Son taking on flesh, as Jesus lived, died, and was raised.
Now, we would pick a number of OT promises that Jesus fulfilled by his coming, life, death, and resurrection. But Paul specifically notes one key promise Jesus fulfilled by his resurrection from the dead (which is why this is such a great text for Easter Sunday). Paul writes in verses 3-4, “Concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Before explaining this, let me note one translation issue. The word translated “declared” in v. 4, regularly means and is typically translated “appointed” in its seven other occurrences in the NT. So, for example, in Acts 17:31, Paul declares that God has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.”
So, if this word means “appointed,” rather than “declared” and is regularly translated “appointed” elsewhere, then why do the ESV translators (as well as many other English translations) use “declared” here? Well, you can probably imagine why. We know from many other texts of Scripture that Jesus is God the Son incarnate, the second person of the Trinity who took on a fully human nature, becoming man, the God-man. So the last thing that any translators want us to think is that somehow Jesus wasn’t the Son of God (i.e. the second person of the Trinity) until some day when he was “appointed” as such. He is and has always been the divine, eternal Son of God. Therefore, let’s just suggest that the resurrection declared or manifested this truth. That’s nice and neat, isn’t it? But the problem is that the word means “appoint.” So, what do we do with that?
We noted this in our study through the book of Matthew, but the title “Son of God” can be a title that refers exclusively to the divine second person of the Trinity, God the Son (or Son of God). But the title “Son of God” is not an inherently divine title. Humans who aren’t divine are called God’s sons in Scripture. Adam is called the son of God in Luke 3:38. Israel is called God’s son in Exodus 4:22. And after God promised David to raise up one of his descendants to be an eternal king, adding, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:14), the title “son of God” was a special title to be applied to David’s promised human offspring, the Messiah, the Davidic king, who would reign over God’s kingdom forever.
In verse 3, Paul is clearly identifying Jesus as this promised Davidic descendant. This is why he specifically notes that he was “descended from David according to the flesh.” But the OT (which Paul notes contained the promises fulfilled in Jesus’ gospel work) looked not only for who was David’s promised descendant but also the moment he would be enthroned as king.
You see, Psalm 2 was a Psalm that remembered God’s promise to enthrone this promised son of David as God’s king, God’s son. The psalm pictured this moment where the nations were raging against God, the kings and rulers of the earth were conspiring against him, and peoples were plotting things against the Lord. But it was all in vain, for the Lord was installing one as his king, who would have authority over all of them, reign over all of them, demand allegiance from all peoples, and judge all who would not bow to and take refuge in him.
The Psalm reads, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (v. 6). And then the Lord announces the decree he will make, appointing this one as his glorious king. That decree began, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (v. 7). It continued on, noting that the nations will be the heritage of this king, the ends of the earth his possession, and on and on.
And every time another of David’s sons took the throne, this Psalm would be read, this decree declared, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” But they all knew, none of these kings were really the promised King, the Messiah, the one who would reign over the earth. And the kings themselves confirmed as much, disobeying God, leading the people astray, etc.
So the people waited and looked for the one, David’s promised descendant who would reign as king. And here comes Jesus, a descendant of David. But they also looked for the day when he would be enthroned as king. When and how would God make his decree, appointing him as this human king, saying, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.”
And the NT answer to what moment was the “today” when God enthroned his king is that it was Easter Sunday morning, as God raised Jesus from the dead. We heard it read earlier. In Acts 13:32-33, Paul declared to Jews to whom he was preaching, “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’”
That’s exactly what Paul is confirming here in Romans 1:4 as he writes that Jesus was “[appointed] to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” When God raised Jesus from the dead by his Holy Spirit he was doing more than just bringing life to Jesus’ body. Nor was he simply showing us that Jesus’ sacrifice had been accepted. He was appointing his obedient Son to be king. He was appointing the eternal Son of God as the Davidic Son of God in that moment. The decree God spoke as Jesus was raised was, “You are my Son, today I have enthroned you as King.” Thus Jesus not only God, the divine Son, but he fulfills the role meant for a human. He is the Davidic Son of God. As both God and man, the eternally divine Son is the appointed Davidic Son of God who reigns over all the earth as God’s promised King. And his appointment to the throne happened on that Easter Sunday morning as God appointed him to be the Son of God in power “by his resurrection from the dead.”
That is the gospel Paul preached, the good news that the crucified and risen Lord was also God’s appointed Messiah, King, and Lord to whom we could be reconciled by repentance and faith. That is the message Paul proclaimed. But we also see the goal of Paul’s labors, or we might say:
Why Paul labored
Paul adds in verses 5-6, “through whom [i.e. Jesus Christ] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”
What Paul is saying here is that his goal, the reason he was given grace and made an apostle, is to bring all people without distinction (i.e. from among all the nations) to the obedience of faith. Now, what does that mean? Well, some have suggested that Paul could mean simply faith itself, as if Paul is saying, “Obedience which is faith.” We can see this is in the phrase “bar of gold” whereby we simply mean a bar which is gold. So, perhaps Paul is simply saying that he labors to bring about faith among all nations.
Others have suggested Paul might mean the obedience that stems from faith. After all, all obedience in the Christian life requires faith. We’re assembling together this morning in obedience to the command of Scripture, after all, because we have faith that God’s commands are good for us and should be obeyed.
But I don’t know that we should hold these two options too far apart because just as obedience always requires faith so saving faith always produces obedience. And this is what Paul is after. This is his goal. He proclaims the gospel because he wants to bring about obedience to the gospel which is seen in saving faith that produces a life of obedience to Christ’s commands. This is why Paul labored.
Even this labor, however, is to another end. Paul seeks to bring about the obedience of faith among all nations “for the sake of [Christ’s] name.” This is the burning passion in Paul’s heart. He wants to see Christ honored. He wants to see the Christ who lived, died, and was raised for us to be honored. He wants to see the Jesus who was appointed as God’s promised eternal king to be honored. He wants the Jesus who loves these Roman believers whom he has called to himself to receive glory. This is what drives him.
And just in case we miss it in these opening verses, he basically reiterates what he has said here in his closing words to this letter as he writes in Romans 16:25-27, “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
This is what consumed Paul. As a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, he proclaimed the gospel, which was promised in the OT concerning Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and was raised and appointed as king, so that people from all nations would believe and obey, thus glorifying his Lord. This was Paul’s heart. And I pray that we might not only reflect this desire as well but might find our delight in and passion for God’s glory grow over these many weeks as we study through this glorious book. May our Lord be glorified even now as we proclaim his death and resurrection as our only hope as we come to the table. Amen.