Goodbye to the Minor Prophets
Well, the Minor Prophets sure went by fast. I didn’t get to talk about them here as much as I would have liked. I love the Minor Prophets tremendously and so can talk about them a lot more than most people can listen!
But even though we didn’t get to talk about them all, I hope you enjoyed them. More than that, I hope they mystified you. Mystification leads to investigation which results in transformation. So I hope you were mystified by Zechariah’s strange visions and Amos’ apparent crankiness and Micah’s little word plays and Haggai’s four short sermons and Hosea’s bizarre family life and Joel’s locust plague and Habakkuk’s questions and why Nahum even exists at all. I hope you were mystified by these things and will continue to investigate these things. And if you want to talk about them, don’t hesitate to reach out to me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’m more than eager to discuss them with you.
Jumping to Romans
Now, though, we jump into the New Testament. And when I say jump, I mean it. We leap from the last page of Malachi all the way over the Gospels and Acts (which are covered in the other track of our reading plan) to the Epistles or Letters. And the first of those Epistles is the grandmaster of them all: our Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
Romans is unique among the Epistles. It is unique among all the other books of the Bible as well. And I know I’ve been saying that each book we have covered as we work down our reading plan is unique. I’ve been saying that because it is true. Each book of the Bible is unique in some way.
But this is doubly true for Romans. It is perhaps the unique-est of all the unique books of the Bible. It is unique in two ways: it is unique in what it is in and of itself, and it is unique in what it is because it came out of a unique situation.
A Unique Situation
Let’s start with the unique situation first, the situation out of which Romans comes. This situation is that the church in Rome just seems to have sprung into being. By this, I mean that it wasn’t planted by Paul during one of his missionary journeys as most of the other churches he wrote epistles to were.
We still today don’t know who planted the Roman church. We don’t even know if Paul knew who planted the Roman church. To us, this church just appears all of the sudden, and it may have been that way to Paul as well. Even if it wasn’t that way, even if Paul knew who planted the church, the reality is still that a church had come into existence without apostolic influence. That is, has no apostles or disciples of apostles giving direction to it.
A church with a membership that was part-Hebrew and part-Greek had come into existence in one of the most important cities in Paul’s world with no apostolic influence. That’s a situation that Paul could not allow to stand, so he made every effort he could to get to this church and provide it with the apostolic influence it needed.
A Virtual Visit
The problem is that he couldn’t. Every attempt he made to get to Rome failed. And he could not make another attempt now because he needed to go to Jerusalem to deliver the financial gift the Philippians and Corinthians collected for the Jerusalem church. Not only so, but Paul knew there was a strong chance he would not survive his trip to Jerusalem, that the religious leaders there would kill him.
So not only could he not get to Rome but, from his perspective at the time, he might never get to Rome. What he did, then, is the next best thing he could do with the technology of his day. Paul went to Rome “virtually”. He wrote a letter to the Roman church, a letter which would provide the apostolic influence they needed in the case that he never made it there personally.
Crafting a Presentation of the Gospel
From this situation, then, came the book itself. Because Paul attempts to provide a virtual apostolic influence to this apostle-less church, what he writes is a systematic presentation of the Gospel. Actually, he creates a systematic presentation of the Gospel. Romans was not written like a note; it was created like a novel. A good deal of craft, both the Apostle’s and the Holy Spirit’s, went into this Epistle. What that craft produced was first an Epistle that is far grander than any other and second an Epistle that explains how the Gospel works point-by-point.
You can see the grandness of the Epistle in its opening and closing. All Epistles have openings and closings, but none have them like Romans. The opening of Romans takes a full seventeen verses (1:1-17) and ends with the thesis-statement of the book (a statement, by the way, which comes from Habakkuk).
The closing of Romans takes up the entire final chapter. It is mostly a greeting to people in the Roman church Paul either knows or knows of, but it also includes at least one warning and one benediction. No other epistle has anything close to this opening and closing.
Point by Point
You can see the point-by-point explanation of the Gospel in the body of the book. Paul starts in 1:18 by showing that all people are condemned by law. He then turns in 3:21 to show that a new way of salvation has been offered apart from law. It is the way of Christ, the way of believing in Jesus as Savior.
After that, Paul proves this new way of salvation has always been God’s way with a sermon that takes up all of chapter 4. I call it “The Abraham Sermon”. In chapter 5, he contrasts Jesus with Adam, showing that Jesus can undo anything Adam did to us. In chapter 6-8, he shows how this new way of salvation results not just in escaping condemnation but in being empowered to live a new life.
Chapters 9-11 give us what I call “The Israel Essay”, Paul’s explanation of how God used the Hebrew nation to bring these blessings to the Gentiles and how God further intended to bless both. And chapters 12-15 bring it home with some “practical application”, including the teaching to not be divided by “disputable matters”.
An Unfamiliar Audience
There is no real interaction with the Romans as there is with the recipients of the other epistles. Paul does not talk about any questions they have asked him or any history between them as he does in 1 & 2 Corinthians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians. That’s because they are no questions and there is no history. Paul and the Romans are unknown to each other. Instead, there is just this systematic Gospel.
So that is the uniqueness of Romans. That is how Romans is unique and why it is unique. But there is one more thing we need to see before we jump into Romans, and that is what we might call “the primary actor”, that is, the one who is doing the things we are reading about.
What is God Up To?
You see, I first learned that Romans was a systematic explanation of the Gospel when I was 18. At that time, I was still in the youth group at my home church up the road. I was very interested in studying Romans because I believed it would show me what I needed to do. In fact, I believed that this book would show me how I could manipulate God into letting me into Heaven, which is how I thought things worked back then.
I had no concept of God welcoming me into His family. I thought I had to somehow trick Him into letting me in by using Jesus in the right way. And I further thought Romans would show me that right way.
A few decades later, I see that this isn’t the case at all. Romans is not showing me how God can be tricked. It is showing me how God loves. Romans is not showing me what I need to do. It is showing me what God has done and is doing. The primary actor in Romans, this systematic Gospel, is not us but God.
Romans in fact, is asking a question. It is the same rhetorical question Samuel Morse asked in the first telegraph message. In that message, Morse asked the question, “What hath God wrought?” He asked that question because he knew that the telegraph (information sent faster than a human could travel) would change the world and that God was doing tremendous things by giving it to the world.
We can ask that same question with Romans. The Gospel is something that changes the world even more than fast information. And it is something God hath wrought. God has offered Jesus as the sin-atoning sacrifice (and Jesus was willing to be offered). God has empowered us to live new lives. God has done these things. We are not doing them. He has done them. We are not tricking God. God has wrought these things out of His great goodness for our great benefit.
That’s what Romans, this systematic Gospel, shows us. It shows us what God has wrought, period, and what He has wrought for us. May we all be blessed by that great message.