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The book of Acts reports how all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord during the two years Paul spent in Ephesus, the capital and most influential city in that province (see p. 1553). Since Paul and others had previously preached in the surrounding regions, the good news about Jesus had now been proclaimed throughout the entire eastern part of the Roman Empire. Paul understood that his primary mission was to bring the message about Jesus to places where it had never been heard before. So he began to make plans to travel to the western part of the empire.
Paul knew there was already a strong community of Jesus-followers in Rome that could provide a base of operations for his western trip. While he was in Corinth arranging for the delivery of the collection (around AD 57 or 58), he wrote to them, explaining:
From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone elseʼs foundation…. Now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while.
But Paul had to do more than just ask for assistance, because the Roman church wasnʼt necessarily willing to help him. Even though it was made up of both Jews and Gentiles, its particular focus was on bringing the good news about Jesus to Jews. But Paul was well known as an apostle to the Gentiles. And so he had to make the case for why this church should support him. A woman named Phoebe, a leader in the church of Cenchreae (a small city near Corinth), was planning to travel to Rome, and this gave Paul the opportunity to send a letter with her asking the Romans to support his western journey.
Romans is the longest and most complex of Paulʼs letters, but it follows the same general pattern as the others. It has an opening section where Paul introduces himself and his key message, and a closing section where he explains his travel plans and sends greetings. In between, the main body of the letter has two basic parts. Like many of Paulʼs other letters, it begins with a teaching section. It then ends with a practical section that describes how this teaching should be followed in everyday life. A short song of praise to God comes in between these two parts and marks the division between them.
Opening Section: Introduction of Paul and His Message (p. 1629)
Main Body: (pp. 1629–1645)
Teaching Section (pp. 1629–1641)
(Song of Praise) (p. 1642)
Practical Section (pp. 1642–1645)
Closing Section: Travel Plans and Greetings (pp. 1645–1647)
Paul uses his opening self-introduction and thanksgiving to stress his main theme, namely, that the gospel…is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. Paul proclaims boldly that he is an apostle, set apart to make the royal announcement about the Lordship of Jesus to the world, even to those in the capital city of the Roman Empire. Paul is calling the Gentiles to faith and obedience to the one true God. Godʼs plan for the world has been revealed in the life, death and resurrection of a descendant of the renowned Jewish king David: Jesus the Messiah.
The teaching section itself is divided into three parts by the way Paul alternates between two approaches. He develops his argument for a time, and then he takes a step back to address anticipated questions and objections. This pattern is repeated three times. Paul always answers objections emphatically: “Not at all!” “By no means!” “Certainly not!” But he isnʼt just looking back on the argument heʼs developed and defending it. Heʼs actually using his responses to keep advancing the argument itself.
The flow of this part of the letter echoes the themes of the ancient Jewish story of slavery and rescue. When Israel (Abrahamʼs descendants) fell into captivity in Egypt, God came to save them. He gave them his law and brought them through the wilderness and into their own promised land as an inheritance. Now Paul explains that humanity is in slavery due to the entrance of sin and death to the world. But God has come to rescue both Jews and Gentiles through the death and resurrection of Jesus. A new worldwide family is being created. Baptism into Jesus breaks the power of evil and brings freedom. The Holy Spirit leads the way into this new life that will be complete in a new inheritance—a redeemed creation.
Next Paul faces the difficult question of why many within Israel itself fail to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Within the larger purposes of God, it turns out that Israelʼs rejection of Jesus has actually brought life to the rest of the world. But even now the offer of this life through the Messiah is held out to the Jews.
Having explained and defended his teaching and mission, Paul concludes the main body of the letter with a practical section. He challenges the Romans to live the kind of new life, both individually and in community, that shows theyʼve been restored to fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here—so it is time to put aside the deeds of darkness.
Paul ends this long letter by showing that the Jewish sacred writings always looked ahead to the inclusion of the Gentiles. He then shares his travel plans, formally asks for the churchʼs support, and passes along greetings to and from mutual friends. He closes with a final wish that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith, exactly the phrase he uses at the start of this letter to the assembly of Jesusfollowers living directly under the shadow of Caesar.