“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…” (Romans 1.1-2)
If you have any familiarity with the Bible or with Christianity at all, you’re probably aware of the Apostle Paul. His name gets mentioned quite a bit when talking about scripture, theology, and church practices, and for good reason. Of the 66 books in the Bible, Paul is responsible for 13 of them. That’s 20% of the entire Bible, about half of the New Testament alone. But who is he, and how did he reach this level of prominence?
We’re first introduced to Paul in the book of Acts, which also contains the most thorough record of his life that we have. I would encourage you to read through that sometime, but to make a long story very short, he was a zealous Jewish leader who went on a tirade to squash the fledgling Christian movement until, quite literally, Jesus Christ stopped him dead in his tracks. Later, Jesus would describe Paul’s new commission in this way: “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9.15-16) Much of the book of Acts does just that, describing the momentous victories and near-death experiences of this new Apostle.
There’s an interesting parallel between these words of Christ and Paul’s introduction of himself to the Romans:
Servant – This word can also translate as “slave”. In our culture that word brings with it a vast amount of tension, and rightfully so. However, slavery in the first century was much more common and took on many different forms, not always as brutal as our own history reflects. I bring this up now because we will encounter it again. In this context, however, it seems the best translation would be “bond-servant”, one who willingly places himself in servitude under another. Paul no longer had the freedom to carry on as he pleased. He now belonged to Christ, and would face trials that he would never willingly bring upon himself – perhaps the cost of his former acts of persecution.
Called – As with the original Apostles, it was Christ alone who gave him that title, not one that he gave himself: “He is a chosen instrument of mine.” In his writings, Paul would simultaneously acknowledge and shake his head in disbelief at this idea, that of all people, he would be the one chosen as Christ’s instrument, his representative.
Set apart – A key phrase in the above quote from Jesus is crucial to understanding who Paul was: “to carry my name before the Gentiles“. If you’re not familiar with that term, “Gentile” simply means “non-Jew”. Since the Bible was written through a Jewish filter, the general cultural distinctions were broken down into Jew and non-Jew. As you dig into scripture, you’ll see Paul’s role was the “Apostle to the Gentiles”, while Peter was known as the “Apostle to the Jews” (see Romans 11.13; Galatians 2.7-8). In fact, the book of Acts quite neatly divides itself into two halves, with chapters 1-12 featuring the ministry of Peter and chapters 13-28 featuring the ministry of Paul. Though he had much to say about his fellow Jews (and they had much to say about him), his ultimate mission was clear: tell the Gentile world about the gospel of grace and peace that comes through Jesus Christ. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome would become a vital part of that mission.
“To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1.7)
As we will later discover (see 1.10,13; 15.22-24), Paul had yet to meet the Roman Christians. Having worked almost exclusively in Asia Minor, and now writing this letter from the city of Corinth, Paul feels the time is right to begin a new work among the Gentiles in Europe, specifically in Spain. But to do so he would need the support of the Roman church, as Rome would be the major stopping point along the way. But this would be a quick visit rather than an extended stay. The fact that they had probably never met, as well as the anticipated brevity of his visit, may have contributed to the theologically intense nature of this letter. His letters to other churches strike a more personal tone since he had been deeply involved with all of them, unlike the Roman church. So perhaps his letter to the Romans was both an introduction and a statement of faith, an unmistakable glimpse into the heart of God’s preacher to the Gentiles.
Don’t worry, I won’t always take this much time on just 3 verses. However, understanding who Paul was and where he came from can vastly affect how you read his letters. You can find a variety of opinions out there about him, resulting in just as many preconceived notions through which they read him. But if you believe the Bible to be true, you must concede that he was no longer his own. He belonged to Christ, and therefore so did his words.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.