Onto Greater Things?

So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. – Rom. 1:15-16

Ever since I became a Christian some 13 years ago, I have been puzzled by these words of Paul. As far as we know, the Gospel did not reach Rome by any of apostles; instead, it probably arrived there through merchants and pilgrims from regions like Palestine and Asia Minor, where the message of Messiah’s coming and His propitiation of sins was spreading like wildfire. Some of those might have been the Jews from places mentioned in Acts 2:10. But in the end, the fellowship of believers in Rome was well overdue for some apostolic instruction – crucial for the spiritual establishment, encouragement and edification of the believers (Rom. 1:11).

By the time Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome (around 56 AD), Rome was the centre of the world: Founded in 753 BC it was only around this time, with the expansion wars of Pompeii and Julius Caesar and the iron rod of Octavian Augustus, that the city was really put on the map. Actually, by now, Rome was the map: In the 1st century AD (the time in question), the Imperium Romanum (“Roman Empire”) stretched from England all the way down to Egypt and from Spain to Syria. Archaeologists tell us that about 1 in 4 people in the world at the time lived and died under Roman law. The city itself was a vibrant, “international” conglomerate the likes of which the world had never seen before: It is estimated that at the time Paul wrote this letter, Rome had a population of over a million – a spectacular number for the times. Magnificent buildings like the Circus Maximus, the Emperor’s Palace and the Forum stood as testaments of Rome’s glory and might. Rome was the centre of the world in just about everything: Politics, legislation, sciences, technology, arts and even religion.

But it wasn’t all good: Most of those million souls in Rome consisted of slaves, and the city’s beautiful architecture was surrounded by slums. Crime was rife, and the frequent ping-pong of government between ambitious politicians often resulted to riots, vandalism, and sometimes famine. By the time the Gospel reached the streets and alleys of the ancient world’s capital, the Republic would have just about managed to stand on its two legs.

That was the backdrop of the epistle to the Romans: Christians living in a melting-pot society teetering between religious liberalism and conservatism, full of old and new ideas, pragmatism, cynicism, class separation, rampant sexual immorality, opulent wealth and abject poverty, fashions, fads and regular “making it through the day”. Thankfully the world is so different today.

And in this intimidating world, a group of Christians are living and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ – that all men can be saved from God’s wrath by putting their faith in Jesus Christ rather than their own wisdom, good works and moral credentials. And it was perhaps this situation that, humanly speaking, prompted the apostle Paul to write the Roman Christians this incredible letter; incredible in that the truths it reveals about the Gospel could never be concocted by a human mind – at least not without slipping into antinomianism (“we’re saved, so let’s sin all we like”). No wonder this letter turned the world upside down 500 years ago with the Reformation.

But let me draw our attention back to the original passage (1:15-16). Now, we’ve established that Paul wanted to visit the Roman Christians because he wanted to encourage them and strengthen them. Before we go thinking that this reeks of pride (“so, they couldn’t manage without the great Paul?”), we need to understand what was so special and unique about the apostles.

In a nutshell, the apostles (“sent-out ones”) had been given special authority to establish the Church of Jesus Christ (cf. Mat. 16:19; 18:18; 1 Cor. 12:28). They were God’s messengers to proclaim and teach God’s ongoing – at the time – revelation. Today, we could think of them as human Bibles, in the sense that whatever they proclaimed as God’s word was directly and authoritatively given by God (cf. Gal. 1:8). So you can understand how crucial their input would be for a church at the time – just as crucial as having the Scriptures in a church today (though, tragically, some churches wouldn’t necessarily feel that way). And the church in Rome was no exception in the need for apostolic instruction – and Paul was well aware of it and longed to visit his brothers and sisters in the world’s capital (Rom. 1:13; 15:23-32).

But here’s a question: Paul writes that he wants to come to them and “impart some spiritual gift” (1:11), and the only description of what that spiritual gift would be is found in verse 15: “to preach the gospel”. You might imagine the Roman Christians reading these words and scratching their heads, puzzled: “The gospel? But, Paul, we have the gospel! We’re Christians, aren’t we?” And it might be a reasonable question. After all, the conditions were too hostile at the time to be making false or misguided proclamations of faith – that only happens in cushy environments like in today’s West where everyone’s a Christian and lives like a demon. And one might argue that it was also relatively “early” for false teachers to really have a deceptive impact on the church, though there seem to have been already some liberal/antinomian elements (“we’re saved by God’s grace, so let’s sin all we want!”) (16:17-18). So it seems unlikely that Paul wanted to check up on the Romans’ claims of Christianity. Furthermore, when we look at the behavioural/application instructions he gives them at chapters 12-16, there doesn’t seem to be any major reason for Paul to worry about the genuineness of their faith like, for example, the Corinthian assembly (cf. 2 Cor. 13:5). In fact, in 15:32 he says: “that I may come to you with joy by the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you” and in 16:19a, “for your obedience has become known to all. Therefore I am glad on your behalf”. You don’t say things like that to people who are faking it.

A more likely explanation is that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, wants to fulfil his calling. In Acts 9:15 the Lord reveals to Ananias that Paul will “bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.” (see also Rom. 15:16; Gal. 1:16, 2:7-9; Eph. 3:8, where Paul mentions his calling to the Gentiles). And what better place to do this than in Rome, the centre of the secular world? It would be the peak of Paul’s ministry to the nations. His primary mission field were the Gentiles and he wanted to head for the white fields of the world (John 4:35). Look at what he says in 1:13: “Now I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that I often planned to come to you (but was hindered until now), that I might have some fruit among you also, just as among the other Gentiles.” Paul longed to preach the Gospel at the beating heart of the Gentile world.

But that’s not all. Without being too analytical, I think that there is something deeper in that word: “εὐαγγελίσασθαι” (“evangelisasthai” = to announce good news; to declare/bring good tidings; preach the gospel). Paul, God’s sent-out herald of the Good News of salvation through faith and grace alone, wants to come to Rome and preach the gospel to the Christians there. And the question arises again: Why the gospel to Christians? The answer is simple and yet powerful: Because outside of the gospel, there is nothing else.

I have written before about the watering-down of today’s gospel. What is preached from pulpits and in evangelistic events often does not live up to the message the Lord commissioned us to proclaim. Contemporary evangelism is mostly man-centred rather than God-centred; it’s full of God’s love without mentioning that this is a HOLY love; and it is devoid of God’s justice and the indescribable burden of sin that we bear before God. The immediate result is obvious: Wobbly “believers” who jump ship the moment “the whole Jesus thing” doesn’t fulfil their personal needs; people who come to Christ on their own terms rather than His and are never known by Him (Mat. 7:21-23).

But another consequence is this: The Church comes to a place where it actually doesn’t think much of the gospel. I’m serious: A superficial understanding of the gospel will lead to a low view of the gospel. We start to see it as “the basics” – something we have to get over and done with so we can “move onto greater things”. Stop and think for a moment: what greater things? What can be greater than this? Is the gospel not enough?

Let me ask this: How often do we speak of someone who “became a Christian” as casually as saying that they bought a new shirt? And yet “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10). You know where else in Scripture there is great rejoicing in heaven? At the fall of Babylon in Revelation 19:1-2, where God is glorified as a Judge: After these things I heard a loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, “Alleluia! Salvation and glory and honor and power belong to the Lord our God! For true and righteous are His judgments, because He has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication; and He has avenged on her the blood of His servants shed by her.” In other words, heaven rejoices over God’s justice, and it is this same justice that was satisfied by the cross of Jesus Christ. And yet, we think of it as “just the beginning” of our “spiritual journey”, when in fact it IS our “spiritual journey”. There is nothing more beyond the gospel, because it IS everything.

Remember what the apostle Peter wrote: To them [the Old Testament prophets] it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into. The angels themselves are longing to understand the mystery of the gospel and everything that it encompasses, and we who claim to be partakers of that same glorious gospel so often treat it as some kind of spiritual quick-fix band-aid; a kind of “God subscription”. We literarily shove people through the “narrow gate” and then bombard them with discipleship sessions, seminars, alpha courses, books, and “inspirational” worship – whatever works to keep them on the “path”. And so often they just fall off with the tiniest nudge of wind because they lack deep roots (Mat. 13:6, 21).

Paul knew this. Proof? He spends 11 chapters of his letter analysing and dissecting the gospel! Why? Because on this hinges every other doctrine of the Christian faith. A solid, thorough and deep understanding of the gospel can only lead to an equally deep understanding of the character of God, which will lead to a humble, powerful, deep and constant fellowship with the Lord, which will lead to an obedient, constantly sanctified life (2 Cor. 3:18), which ultimately will lead to the glorification of God (Mat. 5:16). And fear not, theologian: In a correct gospel is found a correct dispensationalism and eschatology because the first naturally leads to the gospel and the other naturally follows it. And fear not, missionary: A correct gospel can only lead to real evangelism, because the gospel, as Paul says, is the power of God (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18; 1 Thess. 1:5).

I’ll leave it here. But I want to challenge you to think about your own view and understanding of the glorious gospel of Christ. Because, if you are a Christian, in there lies everything that concerns your new life.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ – Eph. 1:3

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.
– Isaiah 61:1-3

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