For many, many decades photography was based on chemical film – exposure of the film to light brought about chemical changes in the film that produced an image. There were many innovations in photography such as film on rolls rather than awkward plates, the introduction colour film, cassette film and even instant film. But there was a change that came to photography that has been described by some as ‘disruptive innovation.’ It was the introduction of digital electronic photography. Old companies like Fuji, Agfa and Kodak were swept aside by the new innovation, no longer did you need to take your exposed film to Boots and wait a few days for the processing to be complete – digital was instant and the change was dramatic and lasting.
The apostle Paul was the agent of a huge disruptive change in the flow of God’s dealings with mankind. We can hardly underestimate the magnitude of this change. Much of the bible had hitherto focused on a chosen people through whom God will bring the Messiah for the benefit of all nations. The Messiah had arrived and the gospel was preached. What gospel? The message was clear and simple: ‘repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ This was a message to Jews to prepare for the coming kingdom of the Messiah who would bring in a new age of peace and righteousness on earth and who would sit on David’s throne. There is no doubt that Jesus, John the Baptist and the disciples preached this gospel. One could perhaps say that this gospel was all about the identity of the Jesus as the Messiah. Even after Pentecost, Peter preached that there was a need for Jews to recognise the identity of Jesus and repent of their decision to reject and crucify him. God’s people rejected Peter’s message and this created the conditions for the disruptive change that Paul would champion. Paul’s God-given focus was less on the identity of Christ and more on the work of Christ. Paul was used to introduce something entirely new – in fact Paul called this gospel ‘my gospel’ (see for example, 2 Timothy 2:8, Romans 2:16, Romans 16:25, Galatians 2:2). The disciples had no expectation that Jesus would die on the cross and for them this event was bad news – it was good news that he rose from the dead, but Jesus’ death itself at the hands of his own people was a catastrophe for which Peter preached a need for repentance. But the gospel Paul preached had a different emphasis and target audience. Paul’s gospel was for everyone, not just Jews. Paul’s gospel was not about a kingdom on earth but a church preparing for a future in heaven. Not surprisingly, this huge change did not come without disruption. There was a tendency for Jews to want to hang on to their ways of doing things and force Gentiles to adopt Jewish practices and customs. It took a church council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) to endorse Paul’s gospel and accept that Jews needed to be saved in the same way as Gentiles. That was in AD 51, – it had taken about 15 or 16 years since Paul’s conversion for the change to become formally recognised – and now here is Paul writing his definitive letter to Rome. The year is probably about 57 AD. It was time to set out in a systematic manner this new and highly disruptive gospel – Paul’s gospel, a gospel for Gentiles and a gospel that focused on the work of Christ. Paul’s letter to the Romans brought detail and addressed concerns of Jews who understandably were puzzled and perplexed by the changes that were taking place.
- Paul’s purpose in writing (v 1-7)
This is a letter to a group of Christians in Rome. The origin of the church in Rome is uncertain but most likely it came into being as a result of believers going to Rome and taking the gospel with them. Paul identifies himself in verse one and introduces his theme; the gospel, the word ‘gospel’ appears 6 times in the first paragraphs of the letter. Paul is keen to make the point that this is a ‘gospel of God’ and whilst he was the recipient of new revelation, his gospel is grounded in the prophets and the Old Testament (v2). For sure Paul’s gospel brought new revelation but it was entirely consistent with the words of the prophets. It’s also firmly anchored in the life of the Lord Jesus. Paul refers to Jesus’ earthly life, his royal birth (son of David), his divine nature (son of God) and his resurrection from the dead – he is Jesus Christ our Lord. It was by the direct intervention of the risen Lord that Paul was called to this ministry, a ministry not to Jews but to Gentiles (v5). And it is to the Gentiles in Rome that Paul writes – they had a calling: to be God’s Holy people.
- Paul’s plan to visit Rome (v 8-17)
Paul was in Corinth mid way through his 3rd missionary journey when he penned this letter. He had heard of the faith of the believers in Rome – the news of their faith had spread far and wide. It’s one thing to have a reputation, but it’s only praiseworthy if it’s a good reputation! – and that’s what the Romans had. I wonder what the reputation of our church is? Is our faith reported and talked about by others in our town? Paul not only knew about the faith of the Romans but he prayed for them, and part of his prayer was that he would be afforded the opportunity to visit Rome. We can learn a few things from Paul’s prayer: 1. he prayed with thanksgiving (v8), 2. he prayed through Jesus Christ (v8) – Jesus is our mediator, we come to God through him, 3. he prayed constantly (v9). I’m just getting over a cold and it has come with a cough! Apparently the Greek word Paul used for ‘constant’ prayer is the same word used to describe a nagging hacking cough! – you get the picture! 4. Paul’s prayer was genuine; God was Paul’s witness in this (v 9). 5. Paul’s prayer was specific – he mentioned individuals by name (see chapter 16 for the names) and he prayed specifically about a visit to Rome (v10). Paul was keen to get to Rome, but in spite of his prayer circumstances did not make such a visit straightforward. He had made many plans for a trip but he ‘had been prevented’ from doing so. The remarkable thing is that Paul eventually did go to Rome, but it was not at all under the circumstances he had anticipated, he was a prisoner and ended up nearly losing his life in a shipwreck! God answers prayers but not always in the way we expect!
Paul fundamentally wanted to go to Rome to see people becoming Christians – he wanted to see a harvest just as he had seen elsewhere amongst other Gentiles. Paul said that he owed a debt to both Greeks and non-Greeks, both to wise and to foolish. In saying this he seemed to recognise differences amongst people, but at the same time recognised that they all needed the same thing: to believe in the Lord Jesus. I suspect that Paul saw himself as a debtor because he had at one time done all in his power to frustrate God’s plans – now he was on a mission to correct his past mistakes. He was indeed a debtor, but was eager to preach the gospel. We will see in the following chapters just what that gospel was and is. But the gospel had a willing and eager proponent. Are you eager to preach the gospel? Perhaps if you are not it is because in some way you are ashamed of it – Paul said I’m eager because I am not ashamed of it! Why? ‘because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes. (v16).’ The gospel is not restricted – it is indeed good news for everyone. If it was restricted how could it be considered good news? Next Paul makes a rather remarkable statement, he says that the gospel is for Jews first and then Gentiles. Some believers have said rather unfortunate things about Jews in the past (Martin Luther sadly being one of them) but here is Paul saying that these people who crucified the Lord get the gospel message first! What a gracious God!
In this gospel says Paul ‘the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.’ Here we have Paul’s summary of the gospel – God is righteous, we are not, but through faith we can know God’s righteousness. More of this later!
- Reject truth – acquire depravity
It is a fact of an indisputable nature that we live in times of great scientific enlightenment and achievement. We have all of the benefits of the internal combustion, jet and rocket propelled engines, remarkable medicines and medical procedures, food aplenty and the wonders of the electronic, computer and information revolution to name but a few. The assumption is that if science has brought us these wonders then science is not to be argued with. If science declares that there is no God and that we are products of the effect of time and chance on matter then so it must be. But sadly science has been taken over by atheists who dress up their atheism in scientific clothes. Many, many Christians who ought to know better have bought into this delusion. Here’s the truth: ‘Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.’ Just take a look at God’s handiwork and you will learn something about him. I have the privilege of crossing paths with biological systems in the course of my work. It’s a rare privilege to be able to retrace God’s thoughts and work in the creation.
When I ask my atheistic scientist colleagues how these amazing biological systems could possibly have evolved they say little, but the biological systems speak loudly. Of course there are a few atheists who also speak loudly but listen to what they say – something comes from nothing, complexity comes from simplicity, order comes from chaos. It is fantasy. Why are so many people drawn to something that is so evidently nonsense? perhaps because it avoids the need to answer to God. But there is a cost to this denial of the obvious: God’s wrath. Three times Paul says that ‘God gave them over to…’ as a judgement for their denial of the obvious. Denial of truth leads to a most apposite judgement: darkness and foolishness. Here’s what Paul says: ‘21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.’ The sad consequence of denial of a creator is that rather than recognising the creator for who he is they elevate the creation – they worship the creation rather than the creator. Next time you watch David Attenborough on one of his beautifully filmed TV programmes observe him laud the wonders of ‘Mother Nature’ but omit praise to the eternal power and divine nature of the creator.
The darkness and foolishness of a denial of the obvious does not come alone. ‘24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised. Amen.’ We see this progression in our world today: deny the creator and you will have no anchor for how you ought to live – if there is no God there is no morality and if there is no morality you can live as you please and satisfy your sinful desires. This is the curriculum in our schools today and we wonder why our society has so many problems. Sadly Paul has more consequences of denial of the obvious to inform us about: ‘26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.’ Isn’t this just what we see today? I read in the Evening Standard this evening of huge medical problems involving groups of young men and their collective use of dangerous drugs to facilitate their indecent acts – clinicians are treating all sorts of consequences of these activities from coma to infectious disease to mental illness. Here’s what one of the clinicians is reported to have said: ‘it is vital to adopt a non-judgmental approach to help…’ What is the answer? The gospel is the answer, God made the world and us, sin entered but God has provided a rescue plan through the Lord Jesus, the rescue is for individuals and ultimately for the whole world. But note that there can be no saviour if there is no creator.
Paul gives one last consequence of denial of the obvious: ‘28Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.’ The final outcome of this sorry sequence of events is God’s judgement of death. What a depressing picture! But as we will see as we follow Paul through this Roman letter there is hope – hope of transformation and life – the gospel! Good news indeed.