It’s easy (for me at least) to get wrapped up in a heavy theological study and miss the heart of God pouring through his servants. Make no mistake, Romans will provide plenty of opportunities to sharpen our “book smarts”, but those are provided, ultimately, as a means to sharpen our “heart smarts”. God’s Word isn’t meant simply to educate us, but to speak to us.
“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” (Romans 1.11-15)
Last time we saw what it was about the Romans’ faith that so impressed Paul, but he didn’t just admire it from a distance. It encouraged and strengthened his own, and in turn he wanted to share that blessing with them. As we’ve mentioned already, Paul’s ultimate goal was to reach Spain with the gospel, with Rome being a stopping point along the way (15.24).
Paul uses an interesting term we don’t use much these days, which is “barbarians”. Unless you’re a fan of Conan, you probably don’t use this one much either. Essentially, Paul is drawing a distinction between Greeks and non-Greeks, between the “wise and foolish” as they would see themselves. The Roman culture was an outgrowth of the Greeks that proceeded them, known for their intellect in philosophical, cultural, and political affairs. Anyone outside of that arena would have been considered “barbaric” in their thinking. It’s hard to say if Paul actually saw the Spaniards as “barbaric” compared to the Romans. It’s quite possible he was just playing into that notion to make a bigger point, which is that the gospel breaks down such distinctions that we create for ourselves. (We see him use this very argument in 1 Corinthians 1.18-31.)
Lest the Romans think he was only using them as a stepping stone into Spain, Paul reassures them that they too are an important part of his journey, so he tells them, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (v.15) so that “I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.” (v.13) So Paul sees his mission, the call of the gospel, as not just one of salvation, but also edification. The gospel not only saves the lost, but encourages, strengthens, and educates the saved. This alludes to the concepts of “justification” and “sanctification”, the former being the initial and eternal proclamation of our right standing with God, and the latter being the ongoing process of becoming more like Christ in our daily lives.
The gospel is effective for both, and Paul sees his role as aiding in both. In fact, as we move along, you’ll see how that balance plays out in his writing. The first part of Romans consists of Paul’s most thorough theological discourse of the gospel found in any of his letters. The entire arc of chapters 1-11 reads like a flowing legal argument, complete with rhetorical debate to secure his point. He then uses the second part of the letter (chapters 12-16) to apply this theological base to the everyday life of the Church. Many of his other letters have a similar pattern, the theological followed by the practical.
So Paul’s heart for the Romans seems to reflect God’s heart for all of us. God isn’t just after our heads. He doesn’t want to simply fill us with information, but information that brings about transformation. If his word truly is “living and active”, then it won’t be satisfied sitting statically in our brains. It will get to work, and we’ll have no choice but to respond, one way or the other.
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