The Book of Romans is designed with all the elements of a great narrative. In episode one, we talked about the tension of the plot. In this episode, we look at the heroes and the villains of the story. Paul and his friends are on one side and the Jewish leaders on another. The Jewish leaders are making accusations against Paul, which he addresses head on. In the middle of the two sides are the Gentile believers in Rome, yearning to discern the truth.
Joey: So if Paul is writing this political pamphlet to address this issue, what do you think the title of his pamphlet would be? He’s handing this out, so what’s the tag? What’s the hook line?
Tim: Grace alone and faith alone. I think that would be a reasonable pamphlet. But, you know, the actual theme, I would say, and this is fairly well agreed upon, is “I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” Which, again, the good news about Christ is not just that you can be born into this family but it’s also about what Jesus did for us holistically. Everything about it, not just the beginning part of becoming a Christian. And that’s another reason I think this gets misunderstood because we tend to think the gospel is ‘get born into the family’, but the good news is we get born into the family but also be delivered from the power of sin so that it can’t destroy our life. We now have the ability to walk in a new way. And so that’s why he goes on to say, “I’m not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power to salvation for everyone who believes.” Now again, problematic, right? We tend to think of the word salvation as being saved from the penalty of sin, being separated from God, and eternal damnation. But, in the scripture, salvation means that something’s being delivered from something, and you have to look at the context to see what’s being delivered from what.
What Paul is going to do is tell us that there are three different deliverances that we need. We need to be delivered from death, we’re born in death, and we need to be born into life, that’s new birth. These people already have that. So he doesn’t really address that in this particular letter. But that’s where they started and then every day we need to be delivered from our own flesh and the world, Satan, and lies that will lead us into destruction. And that’s a matter of us choosing to believe that God’s way is better than our way, which is what he’s talking about here, mainly. Romans 16:17 It is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes for the Jew first and also the Greek. For in it, the Gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed from faith. Because you start with faith and that’s how you receive the gift, to faith. To faith is walking every day. And then it says, “For as it is written, the just or the righteous shall live by faith.” So, by living by faith, you’re actually taken from a life of unrighteousness to a life of righteousness. Again, now we have another word that’s problematic because we don’t use the word ‘righteousness’ in everyday life other than self-righteousness. And what righteousness means here is a pretty sophisticated Greek concept that would be better translated as harmony and peace of life or fulfillment–human fulfillment– something like that. That’s what they mean by this. To have an alignment, like justification or righteousness, is when something’s aligned with a standard. Well, when you’re aligned with what’s true, your life works out. And when you’re aligned with what’s not true, it doesn’t work out. So, that’s how you get righteousness revealed, by walking by faith.
And the reason he starts off with this assertion to people who are already believers is because of the accusation that he’s fighting. We’ve already talked about what it’s about, but why don’t we talk about the accusation?
J: And what is that…?
T: What is that accusation? He kind of summarizes his argument right up here up front, but it’s not gonna make much sense to do that, so we understand the accusation.
T: So here’s the accusation, we can see it maybe starting in chapter 3. What advantage then has the Jew? Or, what’s the profit of circumcision? You can infer from that part of this dispute that it’s circumcised versus uncircumcised. The Jews, essentially, are arguing, we’re gonna find out, they’re arguing that if God gives justification in his side just by faith, then all the stuff that he did with the Jews is thrown out the window. Israel’s thrown out, the Jews are thrown out, the law is thrown out, and the Bible is thrown out. Everything’s thrown out and they go through and argue that kind of piece by piece. So what Paul is going to do is go through this letter, as a good defense attorney would, and he’s going to take their accusations one by one and encounter them. And generally, what you can see is the accusation when he says something like “Why not say?” And when he says “why not say?”, then he’s typically giving you an accusation. He says then, well, “what advantage does a Jew have or what profit is circumcision? Much in every way.” I’m not saying being Jewish is a bad thing, not at all. In fact, we can see in Acts that Paul kept doing all the Jewish things right up to the end. Even though he was a minister to the Gentiles, he never stopped going to the temple and doing all the Jewish stuff. Right at the end of Acts, he says to the elders in Rome that “I have done nothing against the customs of our fathers, so I kept all the laws.” So he says, much in every way, it’s great to be Jewish. Chiefly, because to them were committed to the Oracles of God. I grew up with the scriptures, so it’s a great benefit to have grown up with the scriptures. For what if some did not believe? Would their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Just because you don’t believe God is faithful doesn’t mean He isn’t. God’s always faithful. Certainly not, ‘let God be true, but every man a liar’ as it is written. Now he goes to the Bible, “that you may be justified in your words and may be overcome when you’re judged.” And then he goes back to his own, but if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say then? Is God unjust, who inflicts wrath? I speak as a man, certainly not. For how then will God judge the world?So the accusation is this: if God is gonna come in and just give you this righteousness on His side, just because you believe, well then, all of your unrighteousness makes God look good. And so, therefore, we ought to just be as unrighteous as possible. Because the more unrighteousness we do, the more God’s grace abounds and so, it’s benefiting God. So Paul is arguing exactly opposite to everything the Bible says, which says to walk in obedience. The accusation is that Paul is telling them to walk in total disobedience, and that’s how you benefit God. That’s the accusation. You can see the allure of that, right?
J: Yeah, the idea that if nothing that we do is really important towards this end, and God will come in and save us is valuable. Then, yeah, it does make sense for us to be as terrible as we can possibly be, because then when God does save us, the more radical and incredible He can be.
Debunking the accusation
T: Yeah, so Paul is arguing that it’s a win-win. You go live in the cesspool, have a great time! Because of course the inference here is that sin is preferable, right? So you sin, you have all the craziness, and God is benefited too, that’s what Paul is arguing. And so Paul is answering here and he says, “Certainly not. For then, how would God judge the world?” He’s saying that if that’s true, God can’t even be God, because God is judge and he can’t even judge the world. That doesn’t make any sense, that accusation doesn’t make any sense. And then he says–Paul is still answering–for if the truth of God has increased through my lie to His glory, why am I also judged as a sinner? And why not say, now, so here’s another accusation coming,let us do evil so that good may come as we are slanderously reported. And as some affirm we say, slander. So what I can imagine, and now I’m speculating, Priscilla and Aquila are his companions. Have we already talked about how he came to know Priscilla and Aquila?
T: Oh, okay. Well, let’s do that in a second. Priscilla and Aquila are his companions. They’ve learned his whole thing, they’re the ones that straighten Apollos out. So they’ve really got this down. They go to Rome, perhaps founded the Roman church, and they’re teaching them this gospel of grace, that God’s acceptance is wholly unconditional. You don’t have to do anything but be delivered from the wrath of sin because all sins were nailed to the cross, past, present, and future, it’s just given. But now you have the opportunity to be delivered from counterproductive behavior, and you have the power to live above it. Use that power, you don’t have to, but there are huge consequences to doing it, two separate things. Well, if you do that, if you believe that, rules have no power– human rules have no power. You could make them, then they could be instruments. Like, you could make a rule for yourself, but it’s not going to determine your standing before God, that’s gonna be a matter of faith in the heart. So it’s all faith, and there are no human rules, no control mechanisms here, even self-illusion control like “oh I’m better than Joey ’cause I do this or that.” No basis for comparison. It’s just us naked before God, which is uncomfortable to us, but it’s freedom! It frees you up to be everything God allowed you to be or designed you to be. So slander, we are slanderously reported and some affirm that we say, and here’s this little summary answer, their condemnation is just. So clearly he does not agree.
Priscilla and Aquila
T: Now, so let’s just talk about Priscilla and Aquila for a second. We skipped over this, so this was chapter three. We skipped over Chapter Two. He introduces the bad guys in chapter two, So he first like–this is kinda like a novel here. The Good Guys actually are the Roman believers. Faith is spoken of throughout the whole world. It’s pretty diplomatic here. The tone here is dramatically different from Galatians, which is talking about the same basic fight. And he opens Galatians with “what’s wrong with you guys? Don’t you remember anything I taught you?” Well, that’s because they were his children and you don’t talk to other people’s kids like you talk to your own.
K: That’s for sure
J: Hopefully not.
K: Yeah, we’ll find that out very soon.
T: So he’s very diplomatic, he says “Hey, you guys are amazing. Your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world. I wish I could come and interact with you to give some fruit to you, but I would get just as much fruit back because you guys are so amazing.” That’s kind of the opening thing, like, “Oh, well, gee, the Apostle Paul thinks we’re incredible.”
J: So we’ve got the pamphlet and the accusations that the pamphlet is answering. You talk about this as kind of like a story or a narrative where the good guys are Roman believers and the bad guys are in Chapter Two. So, yeah, could you talk a little more about how Paul gets to know Priscilla and Aquila? Also, how he is familiar with this fight and definitely who some of the bad guys are as well.
T: So we go back to Acts again. Acts gives you the context for this fight. So, I’m of course putting somepieces together here, but that’s fun. This is like every story, you have to do that. So we get to Chapter 18, so now Paul is at Corinth. Corinth is a city that is on an Isthmus that connects the Peloponnese, the island at the bottom of Greece where the Spartans were, to the upper part of Greece where Athens was. So it was an old city-state. After these things, he left Athens, which is where the Athenians were, and he went to Corinth. There, he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla because Claudius, the Roman emperor, had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. So Priscilla and Aquila are Jewish. They were from Pontus, but they apparently had moved to Rome. So, now the Jews are being persecuted out of Rome and they had to leave and they go to Corinth. He came to them and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they were working, for by trade they were tentmakers. So Paul, and this is another whole thing that’s through his letters, like 1 Corinthians 9 is all about this, Paul is just a working-class guy. And he’s not a real apostle because he doesn’t get money from donors.
J: He’s not a professional.
T: Yeah, he’s not a professional. He’s an amateur. So, he gets to know these guys because he went into business with them, and so they become very intimate. So if you skip down to verse 18, it says that “Paul, having remained many days longer, took leave of the brethren in Corinth went out to sea for Syria and with him were Priscilla and Aquila. So they become close enough that they now become traveling companions with Paul. So he goes to Ephesus, and he’s got Priscilla and Aquila with him, and he leaves them there. So now, in verse 24 of chapter 18 of Acts, a Jew named Apollos, who’s an Alexandrian by birth and an eloquent man, came to Ephesus and He was mighty in the Scriptures. And this man has been instructed in the way of the Lord and being fervent in spirit. He was speaking and teaching accurately the teachings of John the Baptist, and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. So here we see Priscilla and Aquila, they must have been very powerful in the Scriptures, which was typical of Jews, and so they caught on to this really fast. By the time Paul leaves, the now pick up the work and they take this mighty man of the scriptures aside, and they explained to him more accurately, and Apollos is like, “Okay, got it.” And then he becomes a mighty evangelist. So you can see that Priscilla and Aquila are quite formidable. We already saw at the end of Romans that Paul is like, “greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in the faith.” And that’s why I think he’s basically saying, “These are my people, I’m on their side.”
K: Well, and he’s giving them credibility too.
T: He’s giving them credibility, exactly, in the fight. Now interestingly, chapter 16 of Romans starts with, “I commend to you, our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church at Cenchrea. That you receive her and the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, that you help her in whatever manner she may need of you, for she herself has been a helper of many and myself as well.” That’s probably the messenger, okay? And my guess is, this is just a guess, Priscilla and Aquila send a message to Phoebe, “we’ve got a big fight going on here, we need Paul.” But Paul is like, “I can’t go in person. But I’ll write this letter.” Then Phoebe takes the letter, and part of what Paul is doing here is saying, “Hey, this lady went through a lot of trouble for you, help her out, protect her, maybe pay her way back. She’s working on your behalf.” And, then the very next thing is Priscilla and Aquila.
J: That’s very neat. Yeah, you think about Phoebe, just the journey and the importance of her role in all this, that’s really incredible.
T: Some people estimate that the early church was probably 70% women. One of the interesting things about Priscilla is that when they meet, it’s ‘Aquila Priscilla’, and then, as it goes, they become ‘Priscilla and Aquila.’
J: That is interesting.
K: Yeah, her name becomes the forefront, and his is behind hers.
All One Under Christ
T: That’s right, but it doesn’t ever just become Priscilla. So she obviously was incredibly impactful and they’re doing it as a team. Now, Phoebe, in this case, apparently, she’s just on her own, which is kind of amazing. And maybe she was wealthy and had some guards or something with her, but however she did it, she’s credited here with doing this on her own. And it makes sense, perfect sense, for the early church to be a large percentage of women, because in this era, women were basically property. So Christianity comes and says, “Male, female, slave, free, Gentile, Jew, we’re all one under Christ.” So everybody is elevated to the same level. Not the same role, we’re not all put into the same role, it’s not every man for himself, but everybody has equal standing before God. Even if you’re a slave, you’ve got a different legal role if you’ve got a contract with your master and you need to fulfill that contract. That doesn’t mean I don’t have to do my contract anymore. Slavery was slavery in Rome. Some of the slavery was based on race–if they captured a country and stuff–but most of it was actually more like what we would think of as contract labor. Like, I’ll do this thing for you for this period of time, and maybe they become permanent slaves. But I think of it kind of like the major league baseball players. Now, they buy and sell players. Well, that’s because the players turn themselves into a property for their own benefit, so that they can get people to bid on them for their services, but the contract ends and then they stop being a baseball player at some point in time. And especially in Israel, it was that way because you were only allowed to be a slave for a maximum of six years and then you had to be let go for the law. I don’t know what they were actually doing at this time.
K: Well, and there’s a benefit to being a slave at this time because your master also takes care of you, right? Like you have a roof of your head, you’re fed, things like that.
T: It’s like employment. So employees have the same standing before God as employers, but that doesn’t mean that they then own the business. So different roles, same value. Well, that was a revolutionary thing because the Roman citizens were real people and everybody else was dirt, and men were real people, and women were dirt. But now everybody has equal standing. That’s a major change in human history, so it makes sense that slaves and women would flock to that because now it gives them a real standing in the world. It seems funny to us, but that’s because we come from a Judeo-Christian heritage and we take that for granted. But that’s not been the reality of the vast majority of human history.
Defining the bad guys
J: So, in terms of characters for the story, we’ve got the good guys, Paul and the believers in Rome, and Priscilla and Aquila…
T: Who we might say are the leading believers in Rome.
J: Yeah, exactly. So who are the bad guys? Who’s on the other side? Who are the people that are making theaccusations that Paul is responding to?
T: Well, I’m gonna make a brief nuance, because the good guys are mainly Gentile, but Priscilla and Aquila are Jewish. So you’ve got Paul, who is Jewish, Priscilla and Aquila are Jewish, and the rest of the Church is Gentile. And we know that because, in Chapter 1:13, Paul says, “I don’t want you to be unaware, brethren. I’ve often planned to come to you and been prevented so far, so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles.” So the rest of the Gentiles, that means he’s writing mainly to the Gentile believers here, so we would assume that most of these believers are Gentiles, but Priscilla and Aquila are Jewish, and it makes sense. The Gentiles don’t know the Bible, they don’t have the background. This knowledge is flowing out of Judaism. So it makes sense that they would be the instructors along with the other Jews there.
So the bad guys, who are the bad guys? They’re Jews. So you’ve gotta choose which leadership, the leadership on both sides are Jewish and they’re fighting over the Gentiles.
This makes sense since this fight is about…
J: What the Gentiles need to do, if they need to do anything.
T: Yeah, exactly. So, we go to chapter two here, and he starts off by introducing the bad guys. He says, “Therefore, you have no excuse.” Now, he’s just gotten through talking about God and how God pours out wrath onto unrighteousness. And so God is the judge, he presents God as the judge. And we can come back to that.