As Paul sets out to write a letter, he usually already has in mind what he wants to say. That is not a big surprise, is it? The reason for drawing attention to such a likely fact is that as we read the opening portion of one of his letters, we are likely to find already showing through in indirect reference, if not explicit mention, some of the great themes that will form the focus of the letter’s contents.
As Paul introduces himself and the recipients of the letter, he usually takes time to make some sort of theological and spiritual statement in blessing and thanksgiving to God. Often these words contain a general reference to what he is going to treat of in the letter. By looking at what he says from the start of the letter this way, we can often begin to have an idea of what his focus will be.
Looking at some of Paul’s other epistles, we can see how this works. Consider 1 Corinthians:
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints…In everything you were enriched in Him, in all word and all knowledge…so as for you not to be lacking in any spiritual gift, awaiting the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 1:2, 5, 7)
These opening statements introduce some of the key themes of the epistle: The need of holiness for the church, which is so central to their calling and yet at that moment lacking; the great importance of rightly understanding and using spiritual gifts, which the Corinthians certainly have, but are abusing and misusing; the proper understanding of the time of Christ’s coming and our awaiting Him, which especially helps to give rise to that great chapter 15 of the epistle which is the great explanation of the resurrection of believers.
Ephesians serves as a great example of this tendency of Paul as well. It has one of the richest and fullest theological introductions to a letter. Verses 3-14 of the first chapter all serve as one long blessing to God in which statement after statement is piled up in long sequence concerning the great theological topics that Paul wishes to talk about. Here is just a short sample:
Blessed be God…who blessed us in every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ…He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before Him in love, foreordaining us unto sonship through Jesus Christ unto Him according to the good pleasure of His will unto the praise of the glory of His grace which He granted us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6)
We could give more of these grand excerpts, as Paul continues for many verses longer to give a great summary of the theological portion of this epistle, with its great emphasis upon the blessings we are given in Christ through the simple good pleasure of God the Father. All things are ours in Christ, and we have been raised up to salvation, life, and heavenly glory in Him.
We could look similarly at other epistles and see the same pattern: Philippians emphasizes the point that the church has come to have great fellowship with Paul in the work of the gospel and how Paul longs to come to see them again. 1 Thessalonians dwells upon Paul’s newly gained reassurance that this young congregation has indeed been chosen by God for true salvation as Paul hears that they are standing firm in faith and love, serving God and waiting eagerly for Christ’s return as they have been taught. 2 Timothy speaks of the fact that Paul has served God with a good conscience, which is important for him to be able to say as he faces the impending end of his earthly race, and how Paul remembers Timothy’s sincere faith as well, whom he wishes to see and to leave with these important final admonitions to hold that faith fast and imitate Paul’s faithfulness in the ministry. In nearly all of Paul’s letters there is some emphasis upon the great themes of the book given in an introductory thanksgiving to God. Sometimes they are more clear, sometimes less, but almost always present.
In Romans, looking at the first 15 verses of chapter 1, which serve as the introductory portion of the letter, we see some important statements and references that from the start should give us an indication of Paul’s focus. Here are those first 15 verses with some of those key statements underlined to help us see the emphasis:
Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called as an apostle, set apart unto the gospel of God which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures concerning His Son who was born from the seed of David according to the flesh, appointed the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness from the resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship unto the obedience of faith among all the nations for His name, among which you yourselves also are called of Jesus Christ, to all those in Rome beloved of God, called saints. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I indeed first give thanks to my God through Jesus Christ concerning all of you that your faith is reported in the whole world. For God is my witness, whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of His Son, how ceaselessly I make remembrance of you, always upon my prayers requesting if somehow already once I would be sped along in my way in the will of God to come to you. For I long to see you, so that I might pass on some spiritual gift in order for you to be established, that is, to be encouraged among you through the faith that is in one another, both yours and mine. But I do not wish you to be ignorant, brothers, that many times I determined to come to you, and have been hindered until now, so that I might have some fruit among you also, even just as among the rest of the nations. Both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to those without understanding, I am a debtor. Thus the eagerness that is in me to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. (1:1-15)
Reading this introductory section, what would you say are the emphases that Paul has in mind and that you would expect to find developed in his epistle? You certainly see from the start that his mind is on the gospel. Do you notice, though, how he immediately adds that this gospel is something that has been promised beforehand in the Old Testament? What is his purpose in emphasizing this? He wants to show how this gospel message has plain and clear roots in the Jewish faith. This is not something new, nor is it something different from what has so long been the faith of Israel. This gospel is the fulfillment of the long-awaited promises that have been the hope of Paul’s people.
He further emphasizes this fact by asserting that Jesus was the promised seed of David. This is again to tie the gospel of Jesus Christ to the hope of the Jewish nation. The faithful Jews had been living in hope of the promised heir of David who would come and establish again the throne and kingdom of David. They were as Simeon who was in the temple “anticipating the comfort of Israel” (Luke 2:25).
But from that first emphasis upon the gospel of Christ as the fulfillment of the Jewish hope and promise, Paul immediately also demonstrates another side. Not only was Jesus the son of David, but He was much more yet, the very Son of God. This was such an important point concerning the Messiah, one that the Jews had not well grasped when Christ appeared upon this earth.
Do you remember how Jesus Himself emphasized this fact by questioning the Jews concerning whose son the Messiah was to be? They knew that He was to be the son of David, which He certainly was in a very real sense, but Jesus demonstrated to them that the Messiah must certainly also be someone yet more and greater:
But He said to them, “How do they say that the Christ is the son of David? For David himself says in the book of Psalms,
The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit from My right hand
Until I should set Your enemies
A footstool for your feet.’
David, then, calls Him ‘Lord,’ so how is He his son?” (Luke 20:41-44)
Jesus was pushing the Jews to see that they had something more to learn about the true Christ, something that was very important but that they had not yet grasped. Their conception of the Christ as simply the son of David, that is, simply the heir of David’s kingdom and fulfillment of the hopes of the Jewish nation, was too limited. The Messiah would indeed be the salvation and fulfillment of the Jewish hope, but He would be more than this. He was not only David’s son, the hope of Israel, but He was God’s Son, the hope of all mankind. He was indeed born from the seed of David and so revived a long dead line, but He was also born from the dead in the resurrection and thus revived not only Israel, but all men who would face death and have need of new life. He would begin a new hope for Israel, but also a new hope for all men, for He was a universal Savior, not only the hope of Israel. This great theme is dealt with and developed further in later chapters of the book, and our words of explanation so far already incorporate some of that grand and glorious truth later set forth. We are already seeing, though, some of that truth laid out before us in these first few verses.
Paul then explains that he has been called as an apostle and set apart in service to the gospel with a particular purpose: To bring all nations into obedience to God through faith in Christ. Here is the first explicit emphasis upon the universality of the gospel. Paul makes his point plain. He is serving God with the purpose of preaching to all peoples and all nations and bringing them all to worship Christ and glorify His name.
Paul’s apostleship is something that he emphasizes often in his ministry, and the book of Romans is no exception to that. One reason why it comes into play in this book is the need to explain why Paul is writing to the Romans the way he is. What is his business and connection with them, exactly? He is not writing back to a church that he planted on his missionary journeys, as is usually the case in his letters. This is a church which he has never visited. Why then is he writing to them? And why is he talking about visiting them and how he has often longed to do so?
Paul is explaining this in his introductory greeting to them: Paul’s apostleship is for the purpose of preaching to all the Gentile world. He is an apostle to the Gentiles, as he later states in the book (11:3). He wants to bear fruit and gather the harvest in all parts of the Gentile world, and Rome is an important part of that. Therefore, he has a great desire to preach also in Rome, for this is one important step in his fulfilling the purpose of his calling as an apostle to the Gentiles.
This is important for Paul to establish, particularly in light of the fact that he himself is a Jew. This is important throughout the book. Paul refers at points to the fact that the Jews are his people and he himself is a Jew. But the gospel that he received from Jesus Christ brings both himself as a Jew into faith and salvation and the Gentiles as well. Paul does not come to the Gentiles without reason; he is not out of place as if he were bringing only a Jewish message to them that really does not belong in the Gentile world. The Gentiles, too, belong to Jesus Christ through faith in Him.
This is an important thing for Paul to make clear, and he does so plainly in these verses. He wants to emphasize to the Romans that they are indeed called of Jesus Christ. He tells them this in order to establish that they properly belong to Christ as much as anyone else does. The Gentile world as well as the Jewish nation has been called to Christ. They are called to Christ, and they are beloved of God. This is important in order to assure them that they have every bit as much of a place in the kingdom of God’s Son as anyone else does. They belong to Him, called and beloved by Him.
And that is why it makes perfect sense for Paul to want to come to Rome and preach to them as well, which serves as his final main point in this introduction. Do you notice how Paul mentions that the faith of the Roman church is well known in all the world? How he then again says that fruit is being found in his ministry among all the rest of the nations of the world? This is a great focus for Paul: The spread of the gospel and its bearing fruit in all parts of the world. The language here in Romans is not quite as strong as what we read elsewhere from his pen, but it is very much along the same lines:
The gospel which is present with you, just as also in all the world it is bearing fruit and increasing, just as also among you.
Paul is always looking at the gospel in terms of its spreading over the whole of the world. This is his great focus and task in the ministry, to be an apostle of the Gentiles, to preach where Christ has not yet been named. Indeed, this is one of the particular circumstances that moves Paul to write to the Romans at this point, as he later explains. He has preached in all regions of his part of the world, and now the time has come, he feels, to move on to another part of the world so that he might keep on expanding the domain of the kingdom of the gospel. He does not want to keep preaching where Christ has already been preached, but where He has not been proclaimed.
So he plans to go to Spain, and along the way he will stop and spend some time in Rome. All of this is the focus of Paul’s writing to the Romans. He is busy expanding the reach of the gospel to the whole of the Gentile world. Rome is a part of that. They are called to belong to Jesus just as much as all the rest of the world. It is a universal gospel for all mankind, and that is fundamental to Paul.
This is Paul’s word of explanation to them. Why does he want to come to visit them? He wants to help bless them with spiritual truths that will make their faith in Christ yet more sure and firm than ever. This is his calling for all the Gentile world, to bring them into a sure faith in Jesus Christ. He wants to do the same with the Roman church. In fact, he is duty bound to do so: “I am a debtor,” he says. He must preach, and that to all men, whether Jew or Gentile, Greek or barbarian. He owes it to them for the sake of his calling from Jesus Christ. For this reason, he plans soon to visit the Romans and writes to them at the present time.
With all this emphasis in these opening verses on the universality of the gospel, shouldn’t we be wise and expect that this will be a large part of what Paul has to say throughout the book as a whole? The truth is, this is at the heart of his purpose in writing. It dominates these opening words, and we will see that it also dominates his message throughout the whole flow of his letter. Paul is consumed with this glorious truth that the gospel is for all men. It is a universal gospel of universal salvation for both Jew and Gentile alike in one people of God. This is the theme of the book of Romans, the setting in which Paul treats of so many great theological truths, and the controlling focus that dictates the flow of the argument from step to step throughout.