A Commentary by John Stott
Romans. 1:1-17. Introduction.
Paul begins his letter in a very personal way. The personal pronoun and possessive (I, me, my) occur more than twenty times in these opening verses. He is evidently anxious from the start to establish a close relationship with his readers. His introduction is in three parts, which I call ‘Paul and the gospel’ (1-6), ‘Paul and the Romans’ (7-13) and ‘Paul and evangelism’ (14-17).
1). Paul and the gospel.(1:1-6).
Letter writing conventions vary from culture to culture. Our modern way is to address our correspondent first (‘Dear Joan’) and to identify ourselves only at the end (‘Yours sincerely, John’). In the ancient world, however, the custom was to reverse the order, the writer announcing himself or herself first and the correspondent next (‘John to Joan, greetings!’). Paul normally followed the convention of the day, but here he deviates from it by giving a much more elaborate description of himself than usual, in relation to the gospel. The reason is probably that he did not found the church in Rome. Nor has he yet visited it. He feels the need, therefore, to establish his credentials as an apostle and to summarize his gospel. *Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God*, he begins.
‘Servant’ is *doulos* and should really be translated ‘slave’. In the Old Testament there was an honourable succession of individual Israelites, beginning with Moses and Joshua, who called themselves Yahweh’s ‘servants’ or ‘slaves’ (e.g. ‘O Lord, truly I am your servant’, Ps 116:16), while Yahweh also designated Israel collectively ‘my servant’, E.g. Is. 43:1, 10). In the New Testament, however, it is remarkable how easily the title ‘Lord’ has been transferred from Yahweh to Jesus (e.g. verses 4, 7),while the Lord’s ‘servants’ are no longer Israel, but all his people, irrespective of whether they are Jews or Gentiles.
‘Apostle, on the other hand, was a distinctively Christian name from the beginning., in that Jesus himself chose it as a designation of the Twelve (Lk. 6:12f.), and Paul claimed to have been added to their number (E.g. Gal. 1:1). The distinctive qualifications of the apostles were that they were directly and personally called and commissioned by Jesus, that they were eye-witnesses of the historical Jesus, at least (and specially) of his resurrection (Acts 1:21-26; 1 Cor.9:1; 15:8f.), and that they were sent out by him to preach with his authority. The New Testament apostle thus resembled both the Old Testament prophet, who was ‘called’ and ‘sent’ by Yahweh to speak in his name, and the *shaliach* of rabbinic Judaism, who was ‘an authorized representative or delegate, legally empowered to act (within prescribed limits) on behalf of his principal’. It is against this double background that the apostle’s authoritative teaching role is to be understood.
Paul’s twofold designation as ‘slave’ and ‘apostle’ is particularly striking when these words are contrasted with one another. First, ‘slave’ is a title of great humility; it expressed Paul’s sense of personal insignificance, without rights of his own, having been purchased to belong to Christ. ‘Apostle’, on the other hand, was a title of great authority; it expressed his sense of official privilege and dignity by reason of his appointment by Jesus Christ. Secondly, ‘slave’ is a general Christian word (every disciple looks to Jesus Christ as Lord), whereas ‘apostle’ is a special title (reserved for the Twelve and Paul and perhaps one or two others such as James). As an apostle, he had been *set apart for the gospel of God*.
How did Paul intend his readers to understand his reference to having been set apart? The verb *aphorismenos* has the same root meaning as ‘Pharisee’ (*pharisaios*). Was this deliberate, since Paul had been a Pharisee? (Phil. 3:5). Anders Nygren, for example, reflecting his Lutheran tradition, writes that ‘as a Pharisee Paul had set himself apart for the law, but now God had set him apart for…the gospel… Thus in the very first verse of this epistle we encounter the letter’s basic juxtaposition of law and gospel which, from one point of view, is the theme of Romans’. It is questionable, however, whether Paul’s readers would have picked up this play on words. In his own mind Paul is more likely to have seen a parallel between his consecration to be an apostle and Jeremiah’s to be a prophet. For in Galatians Paul wrote that God had set him apart (using the same word) from birth, and then called him to preach Christ to the Gentiles (Gal.1:15f.), just as God had said to Jeremiah: ‘Before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations’ (Je. 1:5). We need, therefore, to think of Paul’s Damascus road encounter with Christ not only as his conversion but as his commissioning to be an apostle (*ego apostello se*, ‘I send you’, ‘I make you an apostle’) (Acts 26:17), and especially to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
Paul’s two verbal expressions, then, *called to be an apostle* and *set apart for the gospel of God*, belong inseparably together. One cannot think of ‘apostle’ without thinking of ‘gospel’, and *vice versa*. As an apostle, it was Paul’s responsibility to receive, formulate, defend, maintain and proclaim the gospel and so combine the roles of trustee, advocate and herald. As Professor Cranfield has put it, the apostle’s function was ‘to serve the gospel by an authoritative and normative proclamation of it’.
Paul now proceeds to give a six point analysis of the gospel, to which he has been set apart.
Tomorrow: 1. The origin of the gospel is God.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.