December 14, 2017

The Alpha and Omega Principle

Reading Romans (4)
The Alpha and Omega Principle

Welcome one another, therefore, as the Messiah has welcomed you, to God’s glory. Let me tell you why: the Messiah became a servant of the circumcised people in order to demonstrate the truthfulness of God — that is, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, and to bring the nations to praise God for his mercy.

– Romans 15:7-9, The Kingdom New Testament

* * *

When reading the NT epistles, beginnings and endings are significant, more important than many of us realize.

Letters in the days of the apostles followed a simple form: (1) Opening, (2) Body, (3) Closing. While it is natural to want to move quickly to the body of a letter to consider the main content of the correspondence, in biblical letters the openings and closings often contain concise summaries of the main themes and points the letter writer wants to highlight.

In this series on reading Romans, we have already looked at some key texts in the beginning of Paul’s epistle:

  • Our post on Romans 1:1-7 showed how the epistle begins with a summary of the Christian Gospel.
  • Our post on Romans 1:11-12 encouraged us to remember that Romans is a letter designed to address actual local situations in Rome and not just a general theological treatise.
  • Our post on Romans 1:16-17 discussed a key term — “the righteousness of God” — showing how traditional Reformation interpretations brought out some important truths but didn’t fully catch Paul’s original meaning.

The “Opening” to Romans is obviously more than, “Hi friends, this is Paul. How are you? I’m fine.” The apostle has transformed this element of the common letter form into an important introduction to and summary of the message he will present in this profound epistle. Romans is Paul’s “gospel,” showing how God has been “righteous” (faithful and true) in bringing Jews and Gentiles together in Christ on the basis of faith. Romans is not merely a soterian letter, designed to show me as an individual “how to be saved and go to heaven.” It is a theodicy, an articulation and defense of God’s ways, in which Paul shows how the Messianic Kingdom promised to Israel has become a universal Kingdom welcoming people from all nations.

Before we move on to reading the “Body” of the letter and exploring Paul’s arguments, let’s see how he ended the letter and learn what the “Opening” and “Closing” of this epistle teach us about his purposes in writing to his friends in Rome.

Let’s start with Romans 15:7-13. This passage is the counterpart to Romans 1:16-17, which introduced the body of the letter, stating some of its main themes. It recaps the gospel message of 1:1-7 and states why Paul is proud to be associated with it:

I’m not ashamed of the good news; it’s God’s power, bringing salvation to everyone who believes — to the Jew first, and also, equally, to the Greek. This is because God’s covenant justice is unveiled in it, from faithfulness to faithfulness. As it says in the Bible, “the just shall live by faith.”

At the other end of Romans, 15:7-13 concludes the body of the letter, restating its main themes. “This coda is evidently intended to round off the body of the letter, both the theological treatise and the resulting parenesis, and to link the argument of the letter into the more personal concerns to follow” (J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, WBC).

We might summarize its main points like this:

  • The fundamental issue is the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the purposes of God.
  • It is in Christ — the Jewish Messiah — that Gentiles are welcomed into God’s saving purposes.
  • Therefore, the Gentiles should never forget that they were called through the Jews, and the Jews should never forget that what God has done for them had the Gentiles in view from the beginning.
  • Paul drives home his point by citing Scriptures from the Law, Prophets, and Writings (compare 1:2 — “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings…”).
  • God’s purpose is that both Jews and Gentiles will join together in Christ to offer united and universal praise.
  • Therefore, the main practical intent of the letter is stressed: “Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (15:7). The pastoral heart of Paul’s letter pulses with a concern for Jewish-Gentile relationships within the church. Though we usually focus on the doctrinal content of Romans, it is likely that one of Paul’s primary reasons in writing it was to deal with the conflict that this “new” universal view of God’s kingdom and saving purposes had stirred up.

The ending of Romans shows that Paul’s intricate doctrinal arguments are given in the context of pastoral concerns about ecclesiology. The argument of the body of the letter serves as a foundation for encouraging inclusion and unity in God’s family.

* * *

Next, we look briefly at Romans 15:14-33. In this passage, Paul discusses his ministry and, specifically, his immediate plans. In doing so, he repeats language from the opening of the letter about the gospel, his calling to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles, the power of the Spirit, and his delays in coming to Rome. He writes about his desire to proclaim the message of Christ in new places where no one else has gone, and expresses his desire to complete the circuit of the Mediterranean by going to Spain. As he talks about this, he tells his Roman friends that he hopes to be “helped” on his way there by them — most likely a request that they will financially support his mission. Then he updates them on his current project: taking an offering to the poor saints in Jerusalem, a project dear to Paul’s heart not only because it would meet a real need, but because it would demonstrate the unity and mutual care of Gentiles and Jews in the church.

The ending of Romans thus shows that Paul also had a missionary purpose in writing Romans. His extended arguments in the body of the letter lay the foundation of his appeal for support regarding his ministry of serving both Jews and Gentiles in the Gospel.

* * *

Finally, a glance at Romans 16. The first sixteen verses consist of a commendation of the letter’s carrier, Phoebe, and greetings to various people in the house congregations in Rome. This is followed by a warning in verses 17-20 that the church should be careful of false teachers who are causing dissension and leading them away from the teachings they had received. After a few final greetings, Paul gives a blessing to his friends in Rome:

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel, the proclamation of Jesus the Messiah, in accordance with the unveiling of the mystery kept hidden for long ages but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings, according to the command of the eternal God, for the obedience of faith among all the nations — to the only wise God, through Jesus the Messiah, to whom be glory to the coming ages! Amen. (15:25-27, KNT)

Note how the language from ch. 1 reappears — gospel, Jesus the Messiah, the prophetic writings, the obedience of faith, all nations.

With the mention of troublemakers threatening the church and the language of “strengthening” or establishing them in the final blessing, it appears that Paul also wanted them to be clear and firm in their grasp upon the teaching he has been giving them. The nature of the threat is stated in general terms and may not indicate a crisis in Rome. However, Paul’s express desire to strengthen the Roman congregations and help them stand strong mirrors the pastoral purpose he writes about it 1:12 — that they may be encouraged together in their mutual faith.

So, we might say that the ending of Romans reveals Paul’s purpose to further establish the Roman church in the faith. The doctrinal arguments of Romans serve a didactic purpose of edifying the congregations and clarifying their theological understanding so that they might stand firm in the Gospel.

* * *

There you have it — the alpha and omega of Romans, the beginning and the ending of this remarkable letter. Before even touching the body of Paul’s epistle, we have seen how Paul sets forth his primary purposes and themes in the opening and closing sections.

Romans is a letter written by Paul with genuine pastoral intent…

  • To help the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome live together in unity and mutual concern.
  • To elicit the support of the Roman church for Paul’s continued mission of serving both Jews and Gentiles in Jesus.
  • To encourage the entire church to stand firm together in the truth of God’s good news and not be divided by those who would bring a different teaching.

 

Comments

  1. Cool, CM! Coincidentally, just a few months ago I read the ending of Romans and I also picked up on how much it sounded like the beginning of a letter. I thought to myself, “I wonder what Romans would read like if I used Paul’s closing as the opening lines of Romans and started from there.”

    So out of curiosity, I did something bizarre: I read Romans backwards! I started from his closing “greeting” and moved backward to wherever Paul seemed to be making a case for something. His letter is sprinkled with lots of paragraphs and sections that begin with “Therefore”s and “And so”s that it was easy to find spots to begin reading. I won’t say that it led to any epiphany, but the letter held up surprisingly well in reading it backwards.

    Try it sometime!

  2. Awesome. I am in Romans 4 right now.