If someone discovered the cure for cancer, they wouldn’t hesitate to let the world know. Even if they were shy, they wouldn’t let their fear of social interaction keep them from announcing the cure. Similarly, according to Paul, the gospel is nothing to be ashamed of because it is God’s power to save all people, and all people need saving (Romans 1:16, 18). Paul felt that the gospel placed him in debt—a debt that he could only discharge by preaching the gospel (Romans 1:14). Like a scientist who discovered a cure for cancer and must share the good news, Paul must preach the gospel.
What is the gospel Paul must preach? As do the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Paul summarized the gospel in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God (Romans 1:1–4). For Paul, Jesus is the gospel, and this gospel is the power of God to save (Romans 1:16).
When Paul states that the gospel is God’s power to save, he assumes the reader would ask why. To this implied question, Paul had a ready answer. The gospel is God’s power to save because it reveals the righteousness of God (Romans 1:17). The righteousness of God is the righteousness God possesses. Said another way, it is the beauty of His character. It is His faithfulness to His promises. Since the beginning of the great controversy between God and Satan, questions about God’s righteousness have come up, questions about His character (Genesis 3:1–5). These questions have been fully and finally answered by the revelation of God’s real character or, as Paul puts it, the revelation of the righteousness of God through the gospel.
The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection proclaims God’s beautiful character. It demonstrates that He is committed to us; that He would rather die for us in Christ than live without us. According to Paul, the message of a promise-keeping God demonstrated in the Jesus story needs to be proclaimed to all people that they might believe and be saved.
The ancient city of Rome had a Jewish population almost equal to Jerusalem’s. The emperor Pompey brought large numbers of Jews to Rome as slaves. Emperor Claudius’s later treatment of the Jews is a study in contradictions. First, he granted Jews the freedom to worship and gave them rights as citizens. But, unfortunately, his kindness did not continue. According to the historian Suetonius in his The Life of Claudius, the Jews were expelled in AD 49 because they “constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”
Chrestus is likely a mispronunciation of Christ. During Claudius’s reign, the gospel came to Rome. Many Jews became believers in Jesus as the Christ. Many did not. Those who rejected Jesus as the Christ began to riot against those who did. Claudius’s solution to this social unrest was to expel all the Jews. The book of Acts notes this historical fact in a passing comment about Aquila and Priscilla, who had recently come from Rome “because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome” (Acts 18:2).
Claudius’s expulsion of the Jews from Rome would have dramatically altered the cultural feel of the local churches in Rome. These churches were founded by Jewish converts to Jesus and would have had a distinctly Jewish cultural feel. Greeks who became believers in Jesus were assimilated into these Jewish churches. With the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, these congregations that were once culturally Jewish would have begun to take on a decidedly different cultural feel.
When Claudius died in AD 54, the decree prohibiting Jews from living in Rome died with him. Jews were now free to return, and many did. When they came back to Rome, they would have been shocked. Their churches had changed, and these changes didn’t sit well with them. They began quarreling over their differing opinions (Romans 14:1).
This social and cultural dynamic is one of the reasons for Paul’s reference to the Jew first and also for the Greek in Romans 1:16. This refrain is repeated frequently (Romans 2:9–11; 3:21–24, 28–30; 4:3–16; 9:8, 22–33; 10:11–13; 11:32; 15:7–12; 16:25–27). The repetition of these phrases was not a rhetorical flourish to make the letter sound good. It goes to the heart of what Paul was trying to accomplish by writing this letter. Through the truth of the gospel, Paul is trying to facilitate a social context that would foster unity between Jews and Greeks.
The gospel recognizes the universality of the problem of sin and the promise of salvation. God’s wrath is against all ungodliness and unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), not just that of those we tend to despise. Both Jews and Greeks are under sin (Romans 3:9). The gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Romans 3:16). Our solidarity in sin and the believer’s solidarity in the gospel has the power to unite a church no matter our cultural differences.
The gospel is the power of God to save. To be saved implies that there is an impending problem from which we need to be saved. From what does the gospel save us? Paul’s answer is God’s holy judgment against sin (Romans 1:16–18). Paul calls this the wrath of God. During more optimistic times, many have doubted the existence of God’s wrath. They assumed that a God of love wouldn’t have wrath. In light of the horrors of the holocaust, the abuse of children, and the steady stream of suffering caused by the actions of evil people, many people are less inclined to doubt the possibility of God’s judgment against evil. In fact, a God who isn’t upset by the evil in this world couldn’t possibly be considered a God of love.
God’s wrath is not like ours. Our anger at sin tends to be highly selective. Some sins outrage us and others we secretly enjoy, but God’s wrath is against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Romans 1:18). Unlike us, God isn’t partial to any sin. He has holy opposition to everything that brings harm to His creation.
Paul teaches that God’s wrath isn’t directly against people. It is against their unrighteousness and ungodliness (Romans 1:18). People suffer God’s judgment against sin when they remain attached to their sin.
Paul also teaches that God’s wrath is just, because our sin is not committed in ignorance. Through creation, God has clearly shown us that there is a magnificent Creator. When we choose to worship anything in His place, including ourselves, we are willfully choosing idolatry over God, and we are without excuse (Romans 1:19, 20).
Idolatry is by definition self-referential. When we worship what we make, we are effectively worshiping ourselves. This is what Eve did. She was convinced the tree was “desirable to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). Eve thought it would make her “like God” (Genesis 3:5). She attempted to idolatrously exult herself to the place of God. Paul implies that we are making the same mistake she made. Like Eve, through idolatry, we claim to be wise and become fools (Romans 1:23).
When we worship ourselves by worshiping the works of our own hands, we reject God’s restraining grace in our lives. In response, God honors our choice and, in an act of judgment, gives us up to our sin (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). Accordingly, when people reject God and pursue lives of pleasure seeking with reckless abandon, they are experiencing the wrath of God. When people plunge into lives of sexual immorality, violence, and strife, they are experiencing life without God (Romans 1:29). The same is true of those who are evil-minded, and whisper, and backbite (Romans 1:29, 30). When we are unloving, unforgiving, and unmerciful, we give evidence we are under the wrath of God.
This brings us back to the good news about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Through the cross, God saves us by giving Himself in Christ. He became subject to His own judgment by taking our place on the cross so that we might be saved.
Romans teaches that the whole Bible centers on Jesus (Romans 1:2). The story of Scripture begins with creation and moves to the fall. Immediately after the fall, God promised to solve humanity’s problem through the seed of Eve. This seed would crush the head of the serpent, who brought a curse to God’s good world (Genesis 3:15). Later in Genesis, God specified that this seed of Eve would come from the family of Abraham (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 26:4). Then, God identified the specific family from which the descendant of the woman would be born. He would come through the family of Abraham’s son Isaac (Genesis 21:12). Isaac’s son Jacob had twelve sons. Near the end of Genesis, we learn that the seed of the woman would be a king in the royal lineage of Jacob’s son Judah (Genesis 49:10).
As God’s plan continued to unfold, he further clarified that the messianic seed would come from the family of David (2 Samuel 7:12–16; Isaiah 11), the descendent of Judah.
Like many good gifts, the gift of the messianic seed took much longer to arrive than Abraham’s descendants anticipated. While they waited for this saving seed to come, they suffered greatly under the unbearable pain of exile. First, Israel was crushed by Assyria. Then Judah was exiled to Babylon, Persia, and Greece. Rome later captured Jerusalem, and Abraham’s people were once again forced to live under the occupation of a foreign nation.
These painful experiences of exile seemed at odds with the promise that they were God’s people and that He would deliver them through the descendant of David. Would God ever keep His promise and send the Messiah?
The prophet Habakkuk powerfully expressed the heartbreak God’s people felt as they suffered under the painful yoke of a foreign empire and waited for the coming seed. “O LORD, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? Even cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ and You will not save” (Habakkuk 1:4). The answer to Habakkuk’s painful cry is that “the just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Keep waiting. Keep trusting. The seed is coming. Live by faith.
Jesus is the answer to generations of the heartbroken waiting for the coming messianic seed. The book of Romans announces that through the good news about Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has kept the promises He made in Scripture (Romans 1:2–4). The coming of Jesus has revealed the promise-keeping righteous God (Romans 1:17).
Paul, quoting Habakkuk 2:4, reminds the Romans that the journey God had His people on began by faith. In faith, God’s people waited for the coming seed. Now God has kept His promise and sent the seed—Jesus the Messiah. His people will continue to live by faith, for the “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17b). The waiting is over. The Messiah has come. That which began by faith must continue from faith to faith (Romans 1:17a).
“Then as the children of God are one in Christ, how does Jesus look upon caste, upon society distinctions, upon the division of man from his fellow man, because of color, race, position, wealth, birth, or attainments? The secret of unity is found in the equality of believers in Christ. The reason for all division, discord, and difference is found in separation from Christ. Christ is the center to which all should be attracted; for the nearer we approach the center, the closer we shall come together in feeling, in sympathy, in love, growing into the character and image of Jesus. With God there is no respect of persons.
“Jesus knew the worthlessness of earthly pomp, and He gave no attention to its display. In His dignity of soul, His elevation of character, His nobility of principle, He was far above the vain fashions of the world. Although the prophet describes Him as ‘despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ (Isaiah 53:3), He might have been esteemed as the highest among the noble of the earth. The best circles of human society would have courted Him, had He condescended to accept their favor, but He desired not the applause of men, but moved independent of all human influence. Wealth, position, worldly rank in all its varieties and distinctions of human greatness, were all but so many degrees of littleness to Him who had left the honor and glory of heaven, and who possessed no earthly splendor, indulged in no luxury, and displayed no adornment but humility.
“The lowly, those bound with poverty, pressed with care, burdened with toil, could find no reason in His life and example which would lead them to think that Jesus was not acquainted with their trials, knew not the pressure of their circumstances, and could not sympathize with them in their want and sorrow. The lowliness of His humble, daily life was in harmony with His lowly birth and circumstances. The Son of the infinite God, the Lord of life and glory, descended in humiliation to the life of the lowliest, that no one might feel himself excluded from His presence. He made Himself accessible to all. He did not select a favored few with whom to associate and ignore all others. It grieves the Spirit of God when conservatism shuts man away from his fellow man, especially when it is found among those who profess to be His children.
“Christ came to give to the world an example of what perfect humanity might be when united with divinity. He presented to the world a new phase of greatness in His exhibition of mercy, compassion, and love. He gave to men a new interpretation of God. As head of humanity, He taught men lessons in the science of divine government, whereby He revealed the righteousness of the reconciliation of mercy and justice. The reconciliation of mercy and justice did not involve any compromise with sin, or ignore any claim of justice; but by giving to each divine attribute its ordained place, mercy could be exercised in the punishment of sinful, impenitent man without destroying its clemency or forfeiting its compassionate character, and justice could be exercised in forgiving the repenting transgressor without violating its integrity” (Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 1, 259–261).