The book of Romans is often called, “Paul’s Gospel” by theologians. It includes a very detailed explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many theologians have commented that Paul’s gospel helps ongoing future generations to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. People such as Augustine and Martin Luther are some representatives of people who were helped by the book of Romans.
This time, I had asked everyone in our group to present any doubts upon reading Romans 1. Everyone went silent for a while. I jokingly said that this is the typical situation of persons who have been Christian for a long time. After reading a chapter of the Bible, it appears we suddenly know everything and at the same time, know nothing. Christians who are more familiar with the Bible may know the literal meanings behind a verse or chapter but can lack fresh insight and inspiration from the Holy Spirit regarding it. This is a dangerous place to be in. The words of the Bible are God’s timely and freshly revealed words to us (Rhema). Romans 1:17 (NIV) says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” After reading this verse, St. Augustine was touched so much that he repented and received salvation. Likewise, Martin Luther was loosed from his bondage of trying to live righteously after he received a true revelation from God concerning the real meaning of justification by faith.
I said at our meeting that we would read Romans 1 in mid-May of 2020, and the Holy Spirit would illuminate this chapter to speak to us in a timely manner. The purpose of reading together is not to explain the Bible word for word, but to be able to say that we collectively experienced being inspired by the Holy Spirit after our reading together. My question today is, “In today’s environment, where the outbreak of coronavirus has forced us to stay at home, what can God say to us through Romans 1?” Let me start with a few verses and offer my questions about them.
We know that the book of Romans was written during Paul’s three months in Corinth. Why did he author the book of Romans in Corinth? The book of Romans has 16 chapters. It is a long letter. In Paul’s generation, there were no computers. This letter, therefore, might have been written on parchment paper. So, perhaps the book of Romans required a lot of parchment. What kind of burden did Paul carry to have tediously written such a long letter to the Roman church? When Paul wrote the book of Romans in Corinth, he had never been to Rome, so we know the church in Rome was not built by him. Writing such a personal letter to a church that does not belong to you adds to the strangeness of Romans. Let’s consider an example of this.
Let’s pretend you are Paul and you have built a church in Los Angeles. You carry the responsibility of shepherding the church, so you write letters to them. Now, let’s suppose you visit a church in New York. You get to know some people there and you feel a burden for them and want to write to them also. This is understandable. But wouldn’t it be awkward if you wrote to a church that you never visited, let’s say in another state? Imagine: the church in Rome was not built by you, you have never visited it, and you suddenly write a letter to teach them? There must be some hidden connection here between Paul and Rome. We must understand where the connection is. I raised this question in our group and suggested that if we could understand why Paul carried the burden of writing the book of Romans, we may be able to understand God’s timely words to us at this meeting today. I often say that the Holy Spirit disturbs us with questions when He wants to speak to us through these questions.
Paul mentioned in Romans 15 that he planned to go to Jerusalem because Macedonia and Achaia would make a contribution to the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. He also planned to go to Rome, and then to Spain (Romans 15:25-28). Acts 19:21 (ESV) says: “Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’” At that time, Paul was in Ephesus in Asia while Apollos was in Corinth. Paul laid hands on and prayed for those under Apollos’ ministry who were not baptized with the Holy Spirit in order that they be baptized. Later, Paul became “resolved in the Spirit” that he would pass through Macedonia, Achaia, and go to Jerusalem. He even said he “must” see Rome. We know that Paul went to Jerusalem to deliver the contribution from Macedonia and Achaia to the poor Jewish Christians, but why did Paul say that he “must” go to Rome? What is the reason for why Paul made the declaration that he must see Rome?
First, although Paul felt that he must see Rome, he actually was not sure whether it would happen. We gather this from what Paul said in Romans 1:10 (NIV), “I pray that now at last by God’s will, the way may be opened for me to come to you.” This shows he was not sure whether he would get to Rome; he was still praying that God would open the way for him.
After Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, Agabus and some disciples (Acts 21) prophesied that he would be bound in Jerusalem. Even the disciples like Luke had opposed his plan of going to Jerusalem. But Paul was determined to go assured that he was ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus (NIV, Acts 21:13). Therefore, after he went to Jerusalem, he was prepared to die wherever he would be. It was only after Acts 23:11 that the Lord appeared to Paul at night and promised that he would go to Rome smoothly. But when Paul was authoring the book of Romans in Corinth, he did not know yet whether God had opened the way for him to go to Rome. In other words, God gave him a burden to go to Rome, but had not yet opened the way for him.
Where did Paul get the burden to see Rome? The Holy Spirit inspired us to notice the verses in Acts 18:1-3, which revealed the answers to our questions. Acts 18:1-4 (NIV) says: “After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 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 Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.”
The Holy Spirit particularly illuminated the phrase “Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.” Why did Claudius order all the Jews to leave Rome? We know that most of the Christians in early churches were Jewish, although they were in Gentile nations. It was only after the gospel had spread that the Gentile conversions gradually increased.
According to historical records, conflict existed between the Jews and the Gentiles in the city of Rome. At that time, the situation was like the situation of Germany during World War II—anti-Semitism flourished. At around 40 AD, the Roman consul was drawn in by the anti-Semites and he began to persecute the Jews. These persecution measures included burning Jewish synagogues and forcing Jews to eat pork which caused many riots. The Roman emperor at the time, Caligula, did not handle these conflicts well. When Claudius succeeded the throne, he regained some status with the Jews. Matters were temporarily resolved. However, the Jews were later incited by others to stir up trouble. Since the spread of the Christian gospel was very active, it caused conflicts between Christians and non-Christians, and between Jewish Christians and other Jews who had opposed the gospel. It may be for this reason that Claudius drove the Jews from Rome—to avoid more conflict. No one knows exactly when Claudius’s decree expired, and eventually, many Jews began to return to Rome later on.
From these historical records and through the reading of Romans 1, we come to understand a few things. First, the gospel in Rome was flourishing. Paul said in Romans 1:8 that he thanked God for the people of the Roman Church because their faith was being reported about all over the world. That is, before Paul went to Rome, Rome experienced a great revival.
Second, we now see why Paul was given the burden by God and the confirmation in Acts 23 to go to Rome. Romans 1:11-13 (NIV) says, “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, 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.” Paul’s intentions are clear. His purpose of going to Rome was to strengthen the Roman Christians, mutually encourage them, and preach the gospel that it would bear more fruit.
Paul’s purpose was mainly to stabilize and strengthen the church in Rome. Below is a war example to illustrate my point. Imagine that two armies are fighting for a mountain top. If each only came and went quickly, they would not be stabilize their position. Only by fighting for their place would they establish a base and stability there. The same was true in Rome. Although a revival was taking place, the Jews had been driven out, and the churches, therefore, were not able to establish a strong foothold in Rome. When Priscilla and Aquila were setting up tents together with Paul, they probably discussed these situations with Paul in detail which likely left Paul burdened to help strengthen the churches there. According to the book of Acts, Paul met Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18. It was only recorded in Acts 19 that Paul was resolved in the Spirit and decided to go to Rome. Therefore, we can boldly speculate that Paul’s encounter with Priscilla and Aquila left him burdened to visit Rome.
Next, let’s look at the record of Romans 16. Paul mentions a lot of names here. This shows that he knew many people in Rome. In Romans 16:3, it is especially records greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, which shows that Priscilla and Aquila had returned to Rome. But the Bible does not tell us about their return, and history also does not record when they returned to Rome. In addition to Priscilla and Aquila, Paul also greeted Sister Phoebe (Romans 16:1), as well as Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia (Romans 16:5). Also, Andronicus and Junia, who had been in prison with Paul and dozens of their household.
While Paul awaited as to whether he would reach Rome smoothly, he became heavily burdened to write the content of the gospel in detail to the church in Rome to help them know the pure gospel. Paul said at the end of Romans 16, “Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past.” (NIV, Romans 16:25) Paul is boldly speaking here! In other words, although they may be experiencing a revival of sorts in, the Christians in the Roman church did not have a deep understanding of the gospel. There may have been deviations in preaching or teaching that didn’t allow them the opportunity to be strengthened and matured. Whatever the case, Paul felt the need to write them.
In our group, I challenged every brother and sister to ask God what He was leading and preparing for them during this social experience with coronavirus. One lady said she felt God gave her time to prepare for her CPA exam. Another lady found that God used this pandemic to give her an opportunity to know Him deeper and experience His healing by faith for a physical illness she was dealing with. What has God spoken to you? In written Chinese, the character for “crisis” is composed of the words “crisis” and “opportunity.” If you are not actively praying to God to hear a response to your questions, you may only experience the crisis and waste the opportunity He has given you amid. May we all pray to God, receive his guidance, and seize the opportunities He has prepared for us.