1. Reconstructing the reason for the letter to those at Rome. Does anyone have an idea why Paul wrote?
After 10 years of evangelizing the Gentile territories around the Aegean Sea, Paul wanted to go on to new fields. He wanted to go to Spain, but first he had to take an offering that he collected for the poor in Jerusalem. Anticipating this trip to Spain, Paul wrote to the church in Rome in advance of passing through on his way to Spain. Rom. 15:22-29 Paul had never visited Rome before, but he had friends there, and converts from other towns. Paul never made his dream trip to Spain, because as he took the love offering to Jerusalem, he was taken captive. Did Paul ever make it to Rome? (He did enter Rome, but it was as a prisoner.)
Paul wrote the letter during the time he spent in Corinth at the home of his friend and convert, Gaius, as he dictated it to Tertius (=slave #3). Rom. 16:22-23 It was written about AD 56-57.
Does anyone have an idea of how the church at Rome began? (It is not known how the Roman church began, but most likely it began as converts from Jerusalem and other churches Paul planted migrated to Rome.)
2. Historical background of the city of Rome.
Rome was founded in 753 B.C. By the time of Paul it was the greatest city in Mediterranean region with over 1M inhabitants; slaves being a large portion of the population. There were Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, from every stratum of society, from slaves to members of Caesar’s household. There were at least 3 house churches in Rome. Rom. 16:5, 14, 15 What kinds of special administration tasks would face church leadership with house churches scattered across this large city?
At the time of Paul’s letter to Rome, there was a large population of Jews present in Rome – about 50K. Let’s back up in history for a moment. When Pompey conquered Judea in 62 B.C., he took Jewish captives back to the capital. These Jews were later freed and they increased in number. By 59 B.C. Cicero mentions a large crowd of Jews and they became prosperous and influential. Their number and influence threatened the Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome), so Claudius, who ruled Rome from A.D. 41-54, imposed a restraining order on the Jews, forbidding them to meet together, and then later kicked all Jews out of Rome in A.D. 50. Acts. 18:1-3 When Claudius died in A.D. 54, the edict was dissolved and the Jews were allowed to return to Rome.
Do you think the flavor of the remaining Gentile churches would change in the absence of the Jews? During the years of absence of the Jews (5 years), the remaining Gentile sector of the church became more lax about observing Jewish dietary laws and celebration of the feasts. The church changed its cultural distinctiveness. Thus when Claudius died and the Jews returned, there was conflict in the church. It is this conflict that Paul addresses in chapters 14 & 15.
The Romans had some dominant cultural values that add flavor to the recipients of Paul’s letter. Romans were very pragmatic (=the meaning of an idea lies in the observable consequences), so they excelled in practical applications to everything they approached. Therefore they did not have to feel devotion to the emperor when they were forced to participate in festivals or worship of the emperor. What challenge would this present to a new preacher in town urging them to change their loyalty to God? (Mere ritual and ceremony doesn’t cut it with God – He wants us to love Him with all our heart, soul & strength.) This attitude of “just tell me what to do to make this god happy” would explain why Paul writes in chapter 11 about revealing the heart of the gospel before going on to practical demonstration of the Christian walk in the chapters that follow.
Another value of the Roman society was traditionalism. One was expected to do things because they had always been done. Tradition was tradition, and thus it was followed for generation after generation. Anything new, including a new religion, ran against their value system. How would this be a challenge to the spread of the Gospel in Rome? (Going through the motions or clinging to ritual does not please God. Faith, not performance, is what God requires for salvation.) Isa. 1:13-16
3. Literary context of the Book of Romans.
What was Paul’s train of thought or argument in this letter? We can answer this question by locating the key verses for the Book of Romans: 1:15-17. The theme of Romans is believing the Gospel, and the resulting righteousness of God that follows that belief. Belief makes the difference in every aspect of our relationship with God. Our obedience to the Gospel shows we indeed believe, and we have a relationship with God. So here is a brief outline of the Book of Romans:
Chapters 1 - 8 God’s righteousness is revealed.
Chapters 9 – 11 God’s righteousness is vindicated
Chapters 12 – 16 The righteousness of God applied