Reading Romans (1)
The Epistles Begin with the Gospel
Paul, a slave of King Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s good news, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings — the good news about his son, who was descended from David’s seed in terms of flesh, and who was marked out powerfully as God’s son in terms of the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead: Jesus, the king, our Lord!
Through him we have received grace and apostleship to bring about believing obedience among all the nations for the sake of his name. That includes you, too, who are called by Jesus the king.
This letter comes to all in Rome who love God, all who are called to be his holy people. Grace and peace to you from God our father, and King Jesus, the Lord.
– Romans 1:1-7, Kingdom NT
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When talking about “the Gospel” in the epistles, many people start with 1Corinthians 15. That is, indeed, a good place to start. The Corinthian letters are among the earliest in the New Testament, and 1Cor. 15 reflects what Paul “received” and “proclaimed” as the message of “first importance.”
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve….” (15:3-5, NRSV)
In The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight calls this text, “a lifting up of the curtains in the earliest days of the church; it tells us what everyone believed and what everyone preached. This passage is the apostolic gospel tradition.”
After giving a brief list of a few main events in the Gospel story, the chapter goes on to focus our attention on one particular aspect of the message: the resurrection of Jesus and its significance now and forever. Paul shows how the narrative that begins with the person of Jesus whose story is told in the Gospel records — the story that had its culmination in his death, resurrection, and appearances — leads ultimately to “the end” (v. 24), when the kingdom is consummated and all the powers arrayed against God are destroyed (vv. 24-28).
I agree with McKnight: Paul proclaimed a “King Jesus” Gospel. The message is bigger than a “plan of salvation” for individuals (the “soterian” gospel). I would summarize the Gospel and its call, as set forth in the epistles, in these words:
- Jesus came to fulfill Israel’s hope of a King who would defeat the enemies of God (sin, evil, death, “the powers”), gather a people from the ends of the earth to be his new community in the world, and bring about a new creation over which God reigns without rival.
- The Gospel doesn’t begin with my salvation. It begins with Jesus — who died, rose again, ascended to heaven, and poured out the Spirit — the crucified and exalted King (Messiah) who is making all things new.
- This good news message calls me, and all people, to enter his Kingdom by turning from the alternate narratives that rule our lives (repentance) and making his story the guiding narrative of our lives (faith).
- Upon responding to the Gospel and entering Jesus’ Kingdom through baptism, I die to the old life and am raised up with Christ to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:1-4), I become part of a community that is marked by the story of Jesus alone and not by other factors that divide people (there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female — Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11), I live in a community of “resident aliens” in this present age who are “in” the world but not “of” it; as God’s own “workmanship” we walk in good works he has prepared for us that we might show forth his goodness and love (Eph. 2:10, 1Pet. 2:9-12).
In the New Testament, this is exactly how the Epistles begin.
Canonically, Romans comes first among the New Testament epistles, so when we are reading through our Bibles, the first words we read after Acts is Paul’s greeting to the Romans in Rom. 1:1-7. And what we find there is a yet another clear statement of the Gospel message. Tom Wright calls it, “Good News about the New King.”
This text tells us that “the Gospel of God” is…
- The fulfillment of Israel’s story — “promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings.”
- The story of a person: Jesus — “the good news about his son.”
- The story of a king of Israel — “who was descended from David’s seed in terms of flesh.”
- The story of a king who died and rose again — “who was marked out powerfully as God’s son in terms of the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead.”
- The story of a king who chose royal messengers to proclaim his story — “Paul, a slave of King Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s good news…”
- The story of a king who calls all people to believe and obey him — “Through him we have received grace and apostleship to bring about believing obedience among all the nations for the sake of his name.”
- The story of a king who is gathering his own from the ends of the earth into communities of people who love him — “That includes you, too, who are called by Jesus the king. This letter comes to all in Rome who love God, all who are called to be his holy people.”
- The story of king who extends grace and brings peace — “Grace and peace to you from God our father, and King Jesus, the Lord.”
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The Book of Acts ends with these words: “[Paul] lived there [in Rome] for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (28:30-31, NRSV)
The Epistle to the Romans picks right up from there.
Paul carries on what Jesus began, proclaiming the good news message of “the kingdom of God” that Jesus announced at the outset of his ministry (Mark 1:14-15).