The Gospel of God
January 15, 2017

The Gospel of God

Passage: Romans 1:1-7
Service Type:

The Gospel of God
Romans 1:1-7

Lord Lyttleton and Gilbert West were lawyers.  In the 1740s, while they were studying at Oxford, the two of them got together and decided to embark on a year-long research project in which they would prove that Christianity was false.  As they looked at the New Testament they concluded that Christianity stands or falls, first and foremost, on the resurrection of Jesus and then on the conversion of St. Paul.  West took up the task of disproving the resurrection and Lyttleton the conversion of Paul.  They began digging into the evidence and from time to time they would put their heads together and discuss what they were finding.  During one of those meetings West confessed to Lyttleton that he was beginning to reach the conclusion that there really was something to the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  Lyttleton, in response, said that he was relieved to hear West admit this, because as he himself was weighing the evidence for Paul’s conversion he too was gradually coming to the conclusion that it too must really have happened.  They had each set out to write a book that would take down Christianity, but in the end both were converted to faith in Jesus.  Lyttleton’s book turned into a defense of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and West’s into a book defending the conversion of St. Paul.  Although they’re certainly not as well-known as other more recent apologetic works, both books are still in print almost three hundred years later.

Now, it’s obvious why these two men would want to start with disproving the resurrection of Jesus in their attempt to take down Christianity.  The resurrection is the central event in history.  It’s at the heart of the good news.  If Jesus did not rise from the grave, nothing else in the Bible really matters.  But why is St. Paul’s conversion so important?  Why does it matter so much?  Well, remember who Paul was and what happened to him.  He was a leader of the Jews, a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin.  He was zealously opposed to the first Christians.  He was there when Stephen was stoned, holding coats so that some could throw heavier rocks.  He was off to round up more Christians in Damascus when the risen Jesus appeared to him in a light so blinding that it knocked him off his horse.  It was from the risen Jesus that Paul learned the good news for himself.  And he was dramatically transformed.  He had understood his calling as that of defender of the faith.  As far as Paul was concerned, Jesus was a false messiah.  He had been crucified, after all, and that proved he was false.  But then he met the risen Jesus and it recast Paul’s Jewish faith in a completely new light—he began to understand that it was all fulfilled in Jesus.  And so he stuck with his calling as defender of the faith, but in light of his meeting Jesus, he saw the faith in a new light and he began preaching and writing.  He wrote to Christians to exhort and encourage them and to help them understand just what Jesus and his resurrection meant.  The evangelists gave us the four gospels that tell the story of Jesus’ life and ministry; Paul has given us his epistles in which he tells us what Jesus means and why he’s so important.  This is why Lyttleton and West set out to disprove Paul’s conversion.  If that could be disproved, then it would hold up Paul as a fraud and discredit everything he wrote.

The most important of Paul’s writing, his magnum opus, is the book of Romans.  If the New Testament were a mountain range, Romans would stand in the middle of it like a towering peak, standing even above St. John’s Gospel and the Revelation.  Romans lies behind some of the greatest people and movement in the history of the Church.  St. Augustine had come to an end of himself after looking for answers in everything and finding none.  He sat despondent and heard a child on the other side of the wall singing, “Tolle, lege!  Take and read!”  And he opened to Romans 13 and read.  He was converted and the book of Romans went on to profoundly shape his ministry and theology.  Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, was profoundly influenced by Romans a thousand years later.  Because of Luther, Romans was the centre of much of the Protestant Reformation.  A quarter century later John Wesley heard Luther’s preface to Romans being read—describing the way in which God transforms the heart through faith in Jesus—and Wesley’s heart was turned to Jesus.  And there was Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the Twentieth Century.  In World War I he saw the wretchedness of humanity and realised that the theological liberalism in which he’d been educated could offer no hope.  He dove into Romans—eventually writing a commentary—and Romans changed everything for him.  While the Fundamentalists went running from Liberalism, Barth confronted it head on with the Jesus of Romans and exposed Liberalism’s bankruptcy.

In most of his epistles, Paul was writing to churches to address specific problems.  He does that in Romans too, but Romans more than any of his other epistles, is focused on the “big picture”.  It’s about Jesus and it’s about his resurrection and it’s about how both have transformed the world.  In Romans Paul uses the word “God” more frequently that in his other epistles and that’s because it’s not just about Jesus, but about what God has done in and through Jesus.  Romans is about the “godness” of God, if you will.  It’s about his sovereignty and about his righteousness.  It’s about his faithfulness to his creation and his faithfulness to his covenant promises.  In Romans, Paul explains how the gospel of God reveals the righteousness of God—how the good news that Jesus is the risen Lord demonstrates, reveals, unveils God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises.  Paul begins in Chapter 1, in the passage we’ll look at today, by describing the gospel or good news of God, who has fulfilled his promises through his Son, Jesus, who has been shown by his resurrection in the power of the Spirit to be the Messiah, to be the world’s one, true Lord.  This is where Romans begins.  The rest of the book is Paul working through what this means and what the implications are and it finally ends by coming full-circle in Chapter 15.  There Paul reiterates again that Jesus has fulfilled God’s promises to the patriarchs so that the gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.  He quotes Isaiah there, at the end, writing, “The root of Jesse [that’s Jesus] will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.”

We know that Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome about a.d. 55 or 56.  The epistle fits what we know of the situation in Rome in those years like a glove.  In the late 40s or early 50s there had been a controversy in Rome between Jews and Christians.  It may have spilled over into riots by the Jews.  It ended with the Emperor Claudius expelling the Jews from Rome.  It was easy for Christians to see this as God’s judgement on the Jews for rejecting Jesus.  But then, under Nero, the Jews were allowed back—and that included Jewish Christians.  What were Christians to make of it?  Were Jews being judged by God or not?  And when it came to the Church, how were Jewish and Gentile believers to find unity in Jesus when they came from such different cultural backgrounds and when the Jews insisted on continuing their practises of circumcision and diet and observing their holy days?  And for the Jews: What did Jesus mean for them?  Paul addresses these issues in Romans, but he addresses them by explaining just who Jesus is and, more importantly, what he means for the whole world—not just Jews, not just Romans, but everyone.

To really understand what Paul’s doing we need to get one thing straight.  You see, when you and I think of “religion” we tend to think of it in terms of Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism.  But that’s not how Paul or the First Century Christians looked at things.  Paul didn’t see Jesus as coming into the world to start a new religion.  For that matter, Paul didn’t see himself as setting out to preach Jesus in order to start a new religion based on Jesus’ life and teaching.  No, Paul, like other Jews, had grown up steeped in what we know as the Old Testament.  He grew up hearing the great messianic promises of the Psalms and of Isaiah.  His understanding of God’s covenant and what it meant to be his people, as we see in Romans, was dramatically shaped by Deuteronomy 32.  Like other Jews he looked forward to God’s fulfilling these promises one day in the Messiah.  The Zealots looked forward to the Messiah fulfilling things one way, the Pharisees another way, the Essenes still another—but they all hoped for the Messiah.  Paul was steeped in that.  And then on the road to Damascus he was confronted by the risen Jesus himself.  And that confrontation didn’t demolish Paul’s Jewishness and his Jewish background or the Jewish Scriptures.  No, but it did force Paul to rethink everything in light of Jesus.  Jesus’ death and resurrection were the fulfilment of the story of Israel and of God’s promises.  Everyone had known that Israel’s story was going somewhere, but many weren’t sure and those who were sure disagreed strongly with each other.  But now Paul understood that where it was all going was Jesus.  In his resurrection God declared him to be Israel’s Messiah, but what Paul realised—and this is what he works out through Romans—is that as Israel’s Messiah, Jesus is also the Lord of the whole earth.  That’s the theme of Romans.  Jesus is Lord of all.  That’s the big picture here.

Now, let’s zoom in to 1:1-7.  Paul introduces himself with a rather long greeting and it’s clear that he thought through every word, because each of them is loaded with meaning.  Here’s how he introduces in himself in verses 1-6:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from Davidaccording to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…

Paul refers to himself first as a “servant” of Christ Jesus.  It’s unfortunate that almost every major English translations uses the word “servant” to translate the Greek word doulos, because the sense of doulos is not the sense of the English word “servant”.  We think of a servant as an employee—a free agent who signed on to a job and can leave at any time, or at least when the current contract is over.  But the Greek word doulos describes a slave—it describes someone either owned by another or someone so wholly committed to another that he might as well be a owned.  Paul brings both of those meanings into play here.  He is so utterly and wholly committed to Jesus that his life is no longer his own.  He is a slave, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ.

And he’s in this position because God has called him and set him apart.  For Paul, to be called is to be saved, to be redeemed, to be brought into covenant with God.  That’s happened to Paul that day when he met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.  When Jesus confronted him, Paul realised that this Jesus he had rejected and that he had fought against was God’s Messiah, that Jesus was God’s King.  And that left Paul with no choice: he had to tell people.  And so Paul describes himself as an apostle.  An apostle is simply one who is sent.  There’s also the sense in which we talk of Jesus’ twelve-disciples-plus-Paul—these men who were eyewitnesses to Jesus and whom he himself commissioned to go out and preach the good news to the world.  Jesus granted them special authority.  We call them apostles in a unique sense, but what Paul’s getting at here is the fact that in meeting Jesus, in having come to understand who Jesus is, he’s been given the responsibility of carrying this message to others—and as we’ll see, Paul saw his mission in particular to be to the Gentiles, to non-Jews.  So to be entrusted with the good news of Jesus is to be sent out—you can’t keep the good news to yourself.  And, going back to the slave image, Paul writes that he’s been “set apart”.  It’s the sort of language you use for property.  He is not his own.  He belongs to Jesus.

But Romans isn’t about Paul.  Romans is about Jesus.  Paul is his slave.  Paul has been set apart as a herald of his good news.  That’s what he’s getting at when he says that he’s been set apart for the gospel of God.  But what’s the “gospel”.  We use the word all the time, but it needs some unpacking here.  Paul’s word for “gospel” should be a familiar-sounding Greek word for most of us: euangellion.  It’s the word from which we get “evangel” and “evangelical”.  It means “good news”.  But here’s our problem: modern Christians often think of “the Gospel” as a set of instructions: 1. Believe this.  2. Pray this.  3. Do this.  Follow these steps to become a Christian or to be saved.  And it’s not that there aren’t things we need to believe and do to be saved.  When the men on Pentecost heard the good news and asked Peter what they should do, he told them: Believe and be baptised.  But that’s just it.  The gospel is the announcement about Jesus.  The “believe and be baptised” part is not the gospel; it’s how we respond to it.  The gospel, the good news is the announcement that Jesus is God’s Messiah, that Jesus is God’s King, that Jesus is the world’s one, only, and true Lord.

It helps to understand the background of the word gospel.  When you talked about “gospel” to Jews it took them back to passages like Isaiah 40:9 and 52:7.  It brought up an image of a herald on the top of the mountain announcing good news.  “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who proclaims salvation, who announces to Zion that ‘Your God is King’.”  The good news in Isaiah’s day, the good news everyone longed for was the news that Babylon was finally defeated, that the exile was over, and that the Lord had returned to set everything to rights and to rule over his people.

But “gospel” wasn’t just a Jewish word.  In the Roman world, imperial heralds would be sent throughout the empire to announce the gospel, to announce the good news.  And that good news was the announcement that a new emperor, a new Caesar had ascended to the throne.  A year or two before Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, heralds had gone out with the good news that Nero was Emperor, that Nero was lord.

So Paul explains that he is now the herald—he’s the one announcing that in Jesus the long wait is over, the Lord has returned to dwell with his people and to lead them out of exile.  Paul’s announcement is that in Jesus—to use Isaiah’s language—“our God reigns”.  But Jesus didn’t just come from nowhere all of a sudden.  In verse 2 Paul writes that all of this was promised by God beforehand in the Scriptures, in the prophets.  Jesus is the fulfilment of Isaiah, especially the messianic passages of chapters 40-55.  Jesus is the fulfilment of the messianic psalms—psalms like Psalms 2, 22, and 110.  And Paul ties Jesus to the Scriptures when he says that he’s the “son of God”.  Paul describes him as “descended from David according to the flesh” and “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Holy Spirit by his resurrection”.  This idea of “Son of God” eventually took on the sense of describing Jesus in his divinity, Jesus as God over against Jesus in his humanity or Jesus as man.  And that does grow out of what Paul talks about here and in the rest of Romans, but what Paul’s getting at with this “son of God” idea here is that he’s tying Jesus to the promises God made through the Old Testament prophets.  In the Old Testament Israel is “God’s son”.  God’s son is his chosen, the one—or the people—through whom he works to make himself known and to bring redemption to the world.  As Israel’s story unfolded King David came to be identified as God’s son—his chosen.  And then in the prophets the son of God also came to be identified with the king, the messiah, who would one day be born, descended from the line of David.  He would both represent Israel and would also be the true King and Lord.  Through him God would restore and reign.  And so, Paul stresses, Jesus had the lineage: he was born in the kingly line of David.  But it took more than that.  Lots of Jews could trace their ancestry back to David.  Jesus’s most important credentials were his death and resurrection.  Jesus declared himself to be the Messiah, to be the son of God, to be the one in whom the Lord was returning to his people, but the people rejected him.  When they nailed him to the cross they were declaring that he was a false messiah.  But in raising him from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, God overturned the verdict of the Jewish authorities and of the Romans.  In raising Jesus from the dead he vindicated Jesus.  Raising Jesus from the dead God declared: this is my Son, this is my King, this is your Lord.

And so, in verse 4, Paul packs all of this into three short words when he proclaims that this is Jesus Christ our Lord.  He is Jesus, the man born of Mary in Bethlehem.  He is Christ.  Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name.  In fact, it’s not a name at all.  Christos is simply the Greek word for “Messiah” and “Messiah” is essentially the Hebrew word for the King—not just any king, but the King, the Lord’s King, the one who would come to set things right, the one who would come to save his people, the one who would come and through whom the Lord God would finally and once again be King over all of his Creation.  Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and that means that he is Lord.  He’s Lord in the sense that he is the Lord of lords and King of kings, but Paul also chooses to call him Lord because it connects him with the God of Israel.  When God met Moses at the burning bush he revealed his name as “Yahweh”.  That’s Hebrew for “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be”.  It captures the sense that God is not only the one who is, who exists and who has being, but he is the one responsible for everything else that is and he is the one in whom everything and everyone has our being.  But by Paul’s day people were afraid of using God’s name.  They were afraid of blasphemy, so where the Bible read Yahweh they would instead read or say “Lord”.  And Paul deliberately connects Jesus with the Lord, with the God of Israel here.  Jesus Christ our Lord.

In verse 5 Paul goes on to say that it’s through Jesus Christ our Lord that he’s received the grace of apostleship, the grace of being set apart and sent to proclaim this good news that in Jesus God has come to his people to save and to set things to rights.  Specifically, Paul writes that he’s been sent to “bring about the obedience of faith” to the nations, which includes the people of Rome, the people who live under the very nose of Caesar.  This idea of obedience goes back, like everything else, to the Old Testament and is wrapped up with the story of Israel and God’s promises to her.  Israel’s most basic statement of faith is summed up in the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”  If God is God he must be loved and followed—and in his mighty deeds and saving acts he shows his goodness and faithfulness and that he is truly worthy of our love and obedience.  And now, in Jesus the Messiah, he demonstrates his goodness and faithfulness again—but not just again, he demonstrates his goodness and faithfulness, he reveals his righteousness in a way even deeper and more profound than in any of his other acts.  In Jesus he has become one of us.  In Jesus he has died for our sake.  And in Jesus he has raised us to the life for which he created us.  As Israel was called to submission to the Lord, so Paul has now been sent by Jesus with the good news of his resurrection and his lordship to call the nations, the whole world into submission to the God of Israel.  This is the announcement.  This is the gospel.  This is the good news.  In Jesus God’s King has come and he is truly Lord of all.  Jesus is the King, his kingdom is here, and the only legitimate response to that is to believe it and to be baptised—to submit in faith to him as God’s King.

Finally, having introduced himself, he gives this salutation in verse 7:

To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: 
 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

As he had been called to be a saint—to be set apart to obedience to Jesus and to proclaim his kingdom—so these brothers and sisters in Rome are called to be saints.  And the promise of God to them is grace and peace.  Grace is the love of God reaching out to those in rebellion.  Grace is the love of God towards sinners who rejected him, who cut themselves—who cut ourselves—off from the life of God and deserve only death.  Grace is God giving his Son for our sake that we might have life.  And peace is the central and core blessing of the covenant.  It’s the Hebrew idea of shalom—of being made whole, of being brought back to a position of peace and fellowship with the God against whom we rebelled, it’s the sense of everything being set to rights.  Grace and peace are the fruit of the obedience of faith, of submitting to Jesus the Messiah, the world’s true Lord.

This is the gospel.  This is the good news.  Brothers and Sisters, you and I are called into this “obedience of faith”—knowing that by his death and resurrection God has declared Jesus to be King and Lord, we are called to submit to him in trusting obedience—to give him our all as Paul did.  But we have to ask: Do we really think of the gospel this way?  Is this how we proclaim the gospel?  I don’t think it always is.  The gospel is good news, but we often tend to think of it as good advice.  We often present the gospel as if it’s a product that our friends and family might want to try out to see if it works for them, when what it really is, is a command from the world’s true King that we would be fools to reject.  Think again about the imperial heralds who went through the Roman empire proclaiming Caesar.  They didn’t go out “sharing” the message that Rome was coming and that if you think you might like Rome’s way of doing things you could follow Caesar.  No.  It was just the opposite.  The heralds proclaimed that Caesar was lord if you didn’t submit, well, he had armies and he had lions who would make sure you did or you would die.  And now Paul’s gospel comes to us.  It’s not good advice.  It’s good news.  And it truly is good news.  It’s the good news that the real Lord has come in King Jesus.  His power is a different kind of power than Caesar’s.  His authority is a different kind of authority than Caesar’s.  His kingdom is a different kind of kingdom than Caesar’s.  Caesar brought peace to the world with a sword.  King Jesus brings peace—real peace—not with a sword, but with grace, by offering his own life for the sake of his people.  What does it look like to truly respond to this as good news and not just good advice?  Brothers and Sisters, that’s what the rest of Romans is all about.

Let us pray: We thank you, Father, that as you called Paul, so you have called us to be saints.  In your grace you have brought us into the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  You have restored us to yourself and given us peace.  Remind us, we pray, that we are your bond-servants, set apart and sent out to proclaim with power and authority the good news of King Jesus and his kingdom, not as simply one option among many, not simply as good advice that others might want to follow, but as the good news that Jesus is the world’s true King who died and rose again.  We ask this through him.  Amen.

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