READ : Romans 1:1-7
Christians are always talking about something called “the gospel.” Do you know what that is?
This is the opening paragraph of the book of Romans:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Romans 1:1-7, niv
How would you begin a letter to a group of people you had never met before? Just to make it interesting, let’s say you also want to influence them deeply, in fact, you hope to shape the whole direction of their lives. Not only that, you need their help to advance your own career. Your future success depends in large measure upon their response to the letter of introduction you are writing. So how would you start it? The answer is: very carefully – which is exactly how Paul begins his letter to the Christians in Rome.
Paul the apostle is in the prime of both his life and his missionary career. He’s a seasoned veteran of the gospel service, having spent many years crisscrossing the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean world preaching and teaching the Christian message and establishing Christian churches. Paul has worked in many of the great cities of the Roman Empire, but now he is eager to enter the biggest and most important mission field of all, the capital of the empire, the center of the western world – Rome. Just the name conjures up images of imperial splendor and power. At the time Paul was writing, Christianity had already been established in Rome, probably by Jewish converts who had heard the gospel in Jerusalem. Paul writes these Christians now to introduce himself to them, to explain the essentials of the Christian faith, and to tell them about his own future plans in hopes that they will help him to realize them. And the result is the New Testament book we call Romans.
From the very start, it is obvious that there is something special about this book. Letter writing follows certain conventions; letters open and close with stylized formulas like “Dear Sir” and “Yours sincerely.” The way to begin a letter in the New Testament world was to state the sender’s name followed by the recipient’s name and then a salutation, like this: “A. to B., Greetings!” In the New Testament itself, this is the basic form used, but Paul expands it dramatically here in the opening of Romans. In between his self-description and the identification of his readers, he inserts a whole paragraph of additional material. It’s as if he can’t wait to get at his main subject, for the theme of these inserted verses is the same as that of the whole book, namely, this thing called the gospel. Paul tells us here what it’s all about.
THE GOSPEL OF GOD
Let’s start with the word itself. Gospel is the English translation of a Greek term that means “glad tidings” or “good news.” It was used in the ancient world to describe imperial announcements, such as those proclaiming the birth of a royal heir or announcing the accession of a new king. Modern governments still have such messages; they call them press releases. In the first century they were called evangelia, “gospels,” and that’s the word the New Testament writers took up to use for the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The nature of those events and their significance for the destiny of every human being is what Christians mean by “the gospel” or “the good news.”
The first thing Paul says about this Christian gospel is that it is from God. He tells the Romans that he himself has been “set apart for the gospel of God” (v. 1) which means the gospel that comes from God, God being its source or origin. That’s why the gospel truly is good news. The only really good news has to come from somewhere outside our world, for everything that comes from within it is in some way touched by evil. There is a dull sameness about our news. Our news is mainly an endless report about one expression or another of the depravity of the human race. I had a striking experience of this just a couple of days ago. I was worshiping in a Christian church away from home. The sermon was about how through Christ God has broken down all the walls of hostility that divide us along ethnic and racial and cultural and religious lines. What God is doing is taking everyone who believes in Jesus and making them part of a single new people who will live and worship him as one. That’s great news! When the service was over, I walked out of the church, got in a car, and as I rode away I turned the radio on. It happened that a news broadcast from the BBC World Service was just beginning, and for the next quarter of an hour I listened to one terrible story after another. There wasn’t a single sentence of good news in the whole broadcast. Everything was bad: war, famine, violence, terrorist murder, refugee deaths – the stories piled up in rapid succession from every corner of the world. And as I listened, I suddenly realized that beneath the details, each of these stories had the same theme. They were all about the dividing walls of hostility. We’ve been separated by sin, and unless the love of God touches a human heart, all we’ll do across our walls is hate and hurt each other. That’s why the news we hear in the world every day is always the same, and always so different from the news that we hear in the gospel.
The sad old story of the human race is full of bad news about evil and suffering, most of it self-inflicted; the truly new thing is what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ to change all that. So the Christian story is good news, first of all, because it comes from God. It’s not a human religion; it’s a divine revelation. It isn’t the fruit of philosophical investigation or the distilled wisdom of earthly sages and holy men, it doesn’t offer the best suggestions from a select group of ethical teachers. No, Christianity is the announcement, in God’s very words, of the action he has taken to rescue us from our moral and spiritual helplessness. It’s the gospel – the good news – of God.
The next thing Paul tells us about the gospel is that God has “promised [it] beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (v. 2). Paul is talking here about the Bible, specifically the Hebrew Scriptures, the part that Christians call the Old Testament. He says that the gospel was promised ahead of time – described in advance of its own appearing – in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. This means that the gospel was never a novelty, even when it was brand new. It was all there from the start for those who could see it, spelled out in the promises and prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. The gospel doesn’t begin with the four books of the Bible we call “the Gospels” (that is, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). No, it’s already there hundreds of years before in Isaiah and Jeremiah and the rest of the prophets. In fact, it goes all the way back to the beginning of the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, where God promises that someday the child of a woman will destroy the “evil one.”
One of the oldest criticisms of Christianity is that it was all made up by Jesus’ followers. It is, some say, an idea “cooked up” by the first apostles and served to an unsuspecting world. Even today you’ll hear people complain that they can admire Jesus and could accept his gentle religion if only it hadn’t been taken over and distorted by those apostles with all their ideas. That’s the sort of criticism that could only be leveled by someone who hasn’t read the Bible carefully. The apostles’ own confession is that not only have they faithfully reflected the teaching of Jesus himself, but what they preached and wrote is also the essence of the Old Testament as well. The gospel message did not originate in the first century. Its origin was in eternity, in the mind of the God who first revealed it in shadow form through the events and words of the Old Testament. The Bible, Old and New Testament together, is one book with a single theme. There is one God in the Bible, one story, one faith, one people, and one subject – the gospel!
CONCERNING HIS SON
The third piece of information Paul gives us in his definition of the gospel is the most important one of all. The gospel is the message concerning God’s Son, he says (v. 3). You see, it’s all about Jesus. Jesus is the heart of it; his nature and the events of his life are its substance. Jesus is “the Son” in a double sense. On a human level, he is the son of the Jewish King David, which in the sense used here means he is the Messiah, the Promised One who was the object of all Israel’s hopes and the fulfillment of all the promises of God. But Jesus is more than just a man. He is also the Son of God, which means he himself is God in a unique and absolute way. This truth was declared publicly, Paul writes, through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Perhaps you know that Jesus was condemned to death and executed as a criminal on a Roman cross. Three days after his execution and burial, he came forth from the grave in the glory of a risen and transformed life, a new existence forever different. The Son of God, who had lived in humility for thirty years or so, his identity largely hidden even from those around him, who voluntarily consented to every sort of indignity, accepting the limits of human existence even including the final horror of death itself, was revealed at last with power and great glory in his true nature as the Son of God when he rose triumphant from the grave. This is the gospel. It’s the good news about him, about Jesus, who is both son of David and Son of God. It’s the announcement that God became a man, that he was born, that he lived and died for us, and that he has risen from the dead with power for our salvation. Further, the gospel is the good news that God’s Spirit lives within anyone who puts their faith in Jesus, and that he one day will raise them from death just as Jesus was raised.
I wonder: Does that message come as news to you? Is it good news? Perhaps it truly is news; you’ve never heard it before, or maybe you’ve never been able to understand it in quite this way. Throughout his little introductory paragraph to the Gospel, Paul talks about the idea of calling. In verse 1, he says that he was called to be an apostle and he was set apart by God to communicate the gospel message. And then later on in verse 5 he says that part of that message is to call individuals from every nation to the obedience that comes from faith, to believe and obey God’s Word. And still later he says again that the people whom he’s addressing are called to belong to Jesus Christ. When I was a small boy, I used to play with my friends in our neighborhood. Sometimes, late in the day as night began to fall, somebody’s mother or father would open the door of their house and call out the name of their son. When we heard our name called, we knew what it meant. It was an invitation to come home, but it was more than that – it was a command we could not disregard. Do you hear God’s voice right now, calling you to believe him and obey, to accept the good news, to belong to his Son Jesus Christ, to come home? Don’t ignore it. Give your life to Christ today!