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THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS - Chapter 1 - Verse 2

 

The EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS

 

INTRODUCTION

THIS Epistle has been, with great uniformity, attributed to the apostle Paul, and received as a part of the sacred canon. It has never in the church been called in question as a genuine, an inspired book, except by three of the ancient sects deemed heretical—the Ebionites, the Encratites, and Cerinthians. But they did not deny that it was written by the apostle Paul. They rejected it because they could not make its doctrines harmonize with their views of other parts of the Scriptures. Their rejecting it, therefore, does not militate against its genuineness. That is a question to be settled historically, like the genuineness of any other ancient writing. On this point the testimony of antiquity is uniform. The proof on this subject may be seen at length in Lardner's works. The internal evidence that this was written by Paul is stated in a most ingenious and masterly manner by Dr. Paley, in his Horae Paulinae.

It is agreed by all, that this epistle was written in Greek, Though addressed to a people whose language was the Latin, yet this epistle to them, like those to other churches, was in Greek. On this point, also, there is no debate. The reasons why this language was chosen were probably the following.

(1.) The epistle was designed, doubtless, to be read by other churches as well as the Roman. Compare Col 4:16. Yet the Greek language, being generally known and spoken, was more adapted to this design than the Latin.

(2.) The Greek language was then understood at Rome, and extensively spoken. It was a part of polite education to learn it. The Roman youth were taught it; and it was the fashion of the times to study it, even so much so as to make it matter of complaint that the Latin was neglected for it by the Roman youth. Thus Cicero (Pro. Arch.) says, The Greek language is spoken in almost all nations; the Latin is confined to our comparatively narrow borders. Tacitus (Orat. 29) says, An infant born now is committed to a Greek nurse. Juvenal (vi. 185) speaks of its being considered as an indispensable part of polite education, to be acquainted with the Greek.

(3.) It is not impossible that the Jews at Rome, who constituted a separate colony, were better acquainted with the Greek than the Latin. They had Greek, but no Latin translation of the Scriptures; and it is very possible that they used the language in which they were accustomed to read their Scriptures, and which was extensively spoken by their brethren throughout the world.

(4.) The apostle was himself probably more familiar with the Greek than the Latin. He was a native of Cilicia, where the Greek was doubtless spoken, and he not unfrequently quotes the Greek poets in his addresses and epistles, Ac 21:37; 17:28; Tit 1:12; 1 Co 15:33.

This epistle is placed first among Paul's epistles, not because it was the first written, but because of the length and importance of the epistle itself, and the importance of the church in the imperial city. It has uniformly had this place in the sacred canon, though there is reason to believe that the Epistle to the Galatians, the first to the Corinthians, and perhaps the two to the Thessalonians, were written before this. Of the time when it was written there can be little doubt. About the year 52 or 54 the emperor Claudius banished all Jews from Rome. In Ac 18:2, we have an account of the first acquaintance of Paul with Aquila and Priscilla, who had departed from Rome in consequence of that decree. This acquaintance was formed in Corinth; and we are told that Paul abode with them, and worked at the same occupation, Ac 18:3. In Ro 16:3,4, he directs the church to greet Priscilla and Aquila, who had for his life laid down their own necks. This service which they rendered him must have been, therefore, after the decree of Claudius; and of course the epistle must have been written after the year 52.

In Ac 18:19, we are told that he left Aquila and Priscilla at Ephesus. Paul made a journey through the neighbouring regions, and then returned to Ephesus, Ac 19:1. Paul remained at Ephesus at least two years, (Ac 19:8,9,10) and while here probably wrote the first Epistle to the Corinthians. In that epistle (Ac 16:19) he sends the salutation of Priscilla and Aquila, who were of course still at Ephesus, The Epistle to the Romans, therefore, in which he sends his salutation to Aquila and Priscilla, as being then at Rome, could not be written until they had left Ephesus and returned to Rome; that is, until three years, at least, after the decree of Claudius in 52 or 54.

Still further. When Paul wrote this epistle, he was about to depart for Jerusalem to convey a collection which had been made for the poor saints there, by the churches in Macedonia and Achaia, Ro 15:25,26. When he had done this, he intended to go to Rome, Ro 15:28. Now, by looking at the Acts of the Apostles, we can determine when this occurred. At this time he sent Timotheus and Erastus before him into Macedonia, while he remained in Asia for a season, Ac 19:22. After this, (Ac 20:1,2) Paul himself went into Macedonia, passed through Greece, and remained about three months there. In this journey it is almost certain that he went to Corinth, the capital of Achaia, at which time it is supposed this epistle was written. From this place he set out for Jerusalem, where he was made a prisoner and after remaining a prisoner two years, Ac 24:27 he was sent to Rome about A.D. 60. Allowing for the time of his travelling and his imprisonment, it must have been about three years from the time that he purposed to go to Jerusalem; that is, from the time that he finished the epistle. (Ro 15:25-29) to the time when he reached Rome, and thus the epistle must have been written about A.D. 57.

It is clear, also, that the epistle was written from Corinth. In Ro 16:1, Phebe, a member of the church at Cenchrea, is commended to the Romans. She probably had charge of the epistle, or accompanied those who had it. Cenchrea was the port of the city of Corinth, about seven or eight miles from the city. In Ro 16:23, Gaius is spoken of as the host of Paul, or he of whose hospitality Paul partook; but Gaius was baptized by Paul at Corinth, and Corinth was manifestly his place of residence, 1 Co 1:14. Erastus is also mentioned as the chamberlain of the city where the epistle was written; but this Erastus is mentioned as having his abode at Corinth, 2 Ti 4:20. From all this it is manifest that the epistle was written at Corinth, about the year 57.

Of the state of the church at Rome at that time it is not easy to form a precise opinion. From this epistle it is evident that it was composed of Jews and Gentiles, and that one design of writing to it was to reconcile their jarring opinions, particularly about the obligation of the Jewish law; the advantage of the Jew; and the way of justification. It is probable that the two parties in the church were endeavouring to defend each their peculiar opinions, and that the apostle took this opportunity and mode to state to his converted countrymen the great doctrines of Christianity, and the relation of the law of Moses to the Christian system. The epistle itself is full proof that the church to whom it was addressed was composed of Jews and Gentiles. No small part of it is an argument expressly with the Jews, chapters 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, and 11. And no small part of the epistle also is designed to state the true doctrine about the character of the Gentiles, and the way in which they could be justified before God.

At this time there was a large number of Jews at Rome. When Pompey the Great overran Judea, he sent a large number of Jews prisoners to Rome, to be sold as slaves. But it was not easy to control them. They persevered resolutely and obstinately in adhering to the rites of their nation, in keeping the Sabbath, etc.; so that the Romans chose at last to give them their freedom, and assigned them a place in the vicinity of the city across the Tiber. Here a town was built, which was principally inhabited by Jews. Josephus mentions that 4000 Jews were banished from Rome at one time to Sardinia, and that a still greater number were punished who were unwilling to become soldiers, Ant. xviii, ch. 3, § 5. Philo (Legat. ad Caium) says, that many of the Jews at Rome had obtained their freedom; for, says he, being made captive in war, and brought into Italy, they were set at liberty by their masters, neither were they compelled to change the rites of their fathers. See also Josephus, Ant. xvii. ch. ii. § 1. Suetonius' Life of Tiberius, 36, and Notes on Ac 6:9. From that large number of Jews, together with those converted from the Gentiles, the church at Rome was collected, and it is easy to see that in that church there would be a great diversity of sentiment, and, no doubt, warm discussions about the authority of the Mosaic law.

At what time, or by whom, the gospel was first preached at Rome has been a matter of controversy. The Roman Catholic Church have maintained that it was founded by Peter, and have thence drawn an argument for their high claims and infallibility. On this subject they make a confident appeal to some of the fathers. There is strong evidence to be derived from this epistle itself, and from the Acts, that Paul did not regard Peter as having any such primacy and ascendency in the Roman church as are claimed for him by the papists.

(1.) In this whole epistle there is no mention of Peter at all. It is not suggested that he had been, or was then, at Rome. If he had been, and the church had been founded by him, it is incredible that Paul did not make mention of that fact. This is the more striking, as it was done in other cases where churches had been founded by other men. See 1 Co 1:12-15. Especially is Peter, or Cephas, mentioned repeatedly by the apostle Paul in his other epistles, 1 Co 3:22; 1 Co 9:5; 15:5; Ga 2:9; 1:18; 2:7,8,14.

In these places Peter is mentioned in connexion with the churches at Corinth and Galatia, yet never there as appealing to his authority, but, in regard to the latter, expressly calling it in question. Now, it is incredible that if Peter had been then at Rome, and had founded the church there, and was regarded as invested with any peculiar authority over it, that Paul should never once have even suggested his name.

(2.) It is clear that Peter was not there when Paul wrote this epistle. If he had been, he could not have failed to have sent him a salutation, amid the numbers that he saluted in the sixteenth chapter.

(3.) In the Acts of the Apostles there is no mention of Peter's having been at Rome; but the presumption, from that history, is almost conclusive that he had not been. In Ac 12:3,4 we have an account of his having been imprisoned by Herod Agrippa near the close of his reign, (comp. Ac 5:23.) This occurred about the third or fourth year of the reign of Claudius, who began to reign A.D. 41. It is altogether improbable that he had been at Rome before this. Claudius reigned more than three years; and all the testimony that the fathers give is, that Peter came to Rome in his reign.

(4.) Peter was at Jerusalem still in the ninth or tenth year of the reign of Claudius, Ac 15:6, etc. Nor is there any mention made then of his having been at Rome.

(5.) Paul went to Rome about A.D. 60. There is no mention made then of Peter's being with him, or being there. If he had been, it could hardly have failed of being recorded. Especially is this remarkable when Paul's meeting with the brethren is expressly mentioned, Ac 28:14,15; and when it is recorded that he met the Jews, and abode with them, and spent at Rome no less than two years. If Peter had been there, such a fact could not fail to have been recorded, or alluded to, either in the Acts or the Epistle to the Romans.

(6.) The epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, to Philemon, and the second Epistle to Timothy, (Lardner, vi. 235,) were written from Rome during the residence of Paul as a prisoner; and the Epistle to the Hebrews probably also while he was still in Italy. In none of these epistles is there any hint that Peter was then, or had been, at Rome; a fact that cannot be accounted for, if he was regarded as the founder of that church, and especially if he was then in that city. Yet in those epistles there are the salutations of a number to those churches. In particular, Epaphras, Luke the beloved physician, Col 4:12,14 and the saints of the household of Caesar are mentioned, Php 4:22. In 2 Ti 4:11, Paul expressly affirms that Luke only was with him—a declaration utterly irreconcilable with the supposition that Peter was then at Rome.

(7.) If Peter was ever at Rome, therefore, of which indeed there is no reason to doubt, he must have come there after Paul: at what time is unknown. That he was there cannot be doubted, without calling in question the truth of all history.

When, or by whom, the gospel was preached first at Rome, it is not easy, perhaps not possible, to determine. In the account of the day of Pentecost, Ac 2:10 we find, among others, that there were present strangers of Rome, and it is not improbable that they carried back the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and became the founders of the Roman church. One design and effect of that miracle was doubtless to spread the knowledge of the Saviour among all nations. See Barnes Notes on Acts chapter 2. In the list of persons who are mentioned in Romans chapter 16 it is not improbable that some of those early converts are included; and that Paul thus intended to show honour to their early conversion and zeal in the cause of Christianity. Thus in Ro 16:7 he designates Andronicus and Junia, his kinsmen and fellow prisoners, who were distinguished among the apostles, and who had been converted before himself, i.e. before a.D. 34, at least eight years before it was ever pretended that Peter was at Rome. Other persons are mentioned also as distinguished, and it is not improbable that they were the early founders of the church at Rome, Ro 16:12,13, etc.

That the church at Rome was founded early, is evident from the celebrity which it had acquired. At the time when Paul wrote this epistle, (A.D. 57,) their faith was spoken of throughout the world, Ro 1:8. The character of the church at Rome cannot be clearly ascertained. Yet it is clear that it was not made up merely of the lower classes of the community. In Php 4:22, it appears that the gospel had made its way to the family of Caesar, and that a part of his household had been converted to the Christian faith. Some of the fathers affirm that Nero, in the beginning of his reign, was favourably impressed in regard to Christianity; and it is possible that this might have been through the instrumentality of his family. But little on this subject can be known. While it is probable that the great mass of believers in all the early churches was of obscure and plebeian origin, it is also certain that some who were rich, and noble, and learned, became members of the church of Christ. See 1 Ti 2:9; 1 Pe 3:3; 1 Ti 6:20; Col 2:8; 1 Co 1:26; Ac 17:34.

 

This epistle has been usually deemed the most difficult of interpretation of any part of the New Testament; and no small part of the controversies in the Christian church have grown out of discussions about its meaning. Early in the history of the church, even before the death of the apostles, we learn from 2 Pe 3:16, that the writings of Paul were some of them regarded as being hard to be understood; and that the unlearned and unstable wrested them to their own destruction. It is probable that Peter has reference here to the high and mysterious doctrines about justification and the sovereignty of God, and the doctrines of election and decrees. From the epistle of James, it would seem probable also, that already the apostle Paul's doctrine of justification by faith had been perverted and abused. It seems to have been inferred that good works were unnecessary; and here was the beginning of the cheerless and withering system of Antinomianism—than which a more destructive or pestilential heresy never found its way into the Christian church. Several reasons might be assigned for the controversies which have grown out of this epistle.

(1.) The very structure of the argument, and the peculiarity of the apostle's manner of writing. He is rapid; mighty; profound; often involved; readily following a new thought; leaving the regular subject, and returning again after a considerable interval. Hence his writings abound with parentheses, and with complicated paragraphs.

(2.) Objections are often introduced, so that it requires close attention to determine their precise bearing. Though he employs no small part of the epistle in answering objections, yet an objector is never once formally introduced or mentioned.

(3.) His expressions and phrases are many of them liable to be misunderstood, and capable of perversion. Of this class are such expressions as the righteousness of faith, the righteousness of God, etc.

(4.) The doctrines themselves are high and mysterious. They are those subjects on which the profoundest minds have been in all ages exercised in vain. On them there has been, and always will be, a difference of opinion. Even with the most honest intentions that men ever have, they find it difficult or impossible to approach the investigation of them without the bias of early education, or the prejudice of previous opinion. In this world it is not given to men fully to understand these great doctrines. And it is not wonderful that the discussion of them has given rise to endless controversies; and that they who have

Reasoned high

Of Providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate—

Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute—

Have found no end, in wandering mazes lost.

(5.) It cannot be denied, that one reason why the epistles of Paul have been regarded as so difficult has been an unwillingness to admit the truth of the plain doctrines which he teaches. The heart is by nature opposed to them, and comes to believe them with great reluctance. This feeling will account for no small part of the difficulties felt in regard to this epistle. There is one great maxim in interpreting the Scriptures that can never be departed from. It is, that men can never understand them aright, until they are willing to suffer them to speak out their fair and proper meaning. When men are determined not to find certain doctrines in the Bible, nothing is more natural than that they should find difficulties in it, and complain much of its great obscurity and mystery. I add,

(6.) that one principal reason why so much difficulty has been felt here, has been an unwillingness to stop where the apostle does. Men have desired to advance farther, and penetrate the mysteries which the Spirit of inspiration has not disclosed. Where Paul states a simple fact, men often advance a theory. The fact may be clear and plain; their theory is obscure, involved, mysterious, or absurd. By degrees they learn to unite the fact and the theory; they regard their explanation as the only possible one; and as the fact in question has the authority of Divine revelation, so they insensibly come to regard their theory in the same light; and he that calls in question their speculation about the cause, or the mode, is set down as heretical, and as denying the doctrine of the apostle. A melancholy instance of this we have in the account which the apostle gives (chapter 5) about the effect of the sin of Adam. The simple fact is stated, that that sin was followed by the sin and ruin of all his posterity. Yet he offers no explanation of the fact. He leaves it as indubitable; and as not demanding an explanation in his argument-perhaps as not admitting it. This is the whole of his doctrine on that subject, Yet men have not been satisfied with that. They have sought for a theory to account for it. And many suppose they have found it in the doctrine that the sin of Adam is imputed, or set over by an arbitrary arrangement to beings otherwise innocent and that they are held to be responsible for a deed committed by a man thousands of years before they were born. This is the theory; and men insensibly forget that it is mere theory, and they blend that and the fact which the apostle states together; and deem the denial of the one heresy as much as the denial of the other; that is, they make it as impious to call in question their philosophy, as to doubt the facts stated on the authority of the apostle Paul. If men desire to understand the epistles of Paul, and avoid difficulties, they should be willing to leave it where he does; and this single rule would have made useless whole years and whole tomes of controversy.

Perhaps, on the whole, there is no book of the New Testament that more demands a humble, docile, and prayerful disposition in its interpretation than this epistle. Its profound doctrines; its abstruse inquiries; and the opposition of many of those doctrines to the views of the unrenewed and unsubdued heart of man, make a spirit of docility and prayer peculiarly needful in its investigation. No man ever yet understood the reasonings and views of the apostle Paul but under the influence of elevated piety. None ever found opposition to his doctrines recede, and difficulties vanish, who did not bring the mind in a humble frame to receive all that has been revealed; and that, in a spirit of humble prayer, did not purpose to lay aside all bias, and open the heart to the full influence of the elevated truths which he inculcates. Where there is a willingness that God should reign and do all his pleasure, this epistle may be, in its general character, easily understood. Where this is wanting, it will appear full of mystery and perplexity; the mind will be embarrassed, and the heart dissatisfied with its doctrines; and the unhumbled spirit will rise from its study only confused, irritated, perplexed, and dissatisfied.


Verse 2. Which he had promised afore. Which gospel, or which doctrines, he had before announced.

By his prophets. The word prophets here is used to include those who wrote as well as those who spake. It included the teachers of the ancient Jews generally.

In the holy Scriptures. In the writings of the Old Testament. They were called holy because they were inspired of the Holy Ghost, and were regarded as separated from all other writings, and worthy of all reverence. The apostle here declares that he was not about to advance anything new. His doctrines were in accordance with the acknowledged oracles of God. Though they might appear to be new, yet he regarded the gospel as entirely consistent with all that had been declared in the Jewish dispensation; and not only consistent, but as actually promised there. He affirms, therefore,

(1.) That all this was promised, and no small part of the epistle is employed to show this.

(2.) That it was confirmed by the authority of holy and inspired men.

(3.) That it depended on no vague and loose tradition, but was recorded, so that men might examine for themselves. The reason why the apostle was so anxious to show that his doctrine coincided with the Old Testament was, because the church at Rome was made up in part of Jews. He wished to show them, and the remainder of his countrymen, that the Christian religion was built on the foundation of their prophets, and their acknowledged writings. So doing, he would disarm their prejudice, and furnish a proof of the truth of religion. It was a constant position with the apostle that he advanced nothing but what was maintained by the best and holiest men of the nation: Ac 26:22,23 "Saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come," etc. There was a further reason here for his appealing so much to the Old Testament. He had never been at Rome. He was therefore personally a stranger, and it was proper for him then especially to show his regard for the doctrines of the prophets. Hence he appeals here so often to the Old Testament; and defends every point by the authority of the Bible. The particular passages of the Old Testament on which he relied will come before us in the course of the epistle. See particularly chapters 3, 4, 9, 10, and 11.

We may see here,

(1.) the reverence which Paul showed for the Old Testament. He never undervalued it. He never regarded it as obsolete, or useless. He manifestly studied it; and never fell into the impious opinion that the Old Testament is of little value.

(2.) If these things were promised—predicted in the Old Testament, then Christianity is true. Every passage which he adduces is therefore proof that it is from God.

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