1:1-7 – Salutation
Paul’s apostleship stems from being “set apart for the gospel of God” (1:1). The good news of God implies a more universal scope than simply “gospel of Christ” would – not that Paul would see these two terms in tension.
This “good news” was “promised beforehand” (proepëngeilato) “through his prophets in the holy scriptures” (1:2) – a direct link between the “good news” Paul proclaims and God’s revelation in the OT story.
The “good news” has to do with God’s “Son” (1:3) – that is, the Messiah, the King – who was physically descended from David (according to the gospels’ genealogies). This multi-stranded linking of Jesus with David underscores Jesus’ identity as a Jew. More importantly, the link reiterates Jesus’ own “kingship” by tying him with Israel’s greatest king – David. Already we have implied a contrast between Jesus’ legitimate kingship in Paul’s eyes and the Roman emperor’s less legitimate kingship.
This “king” (Jesus) was declared [by whom?] “Son of God with power” “according to the ‘spirit of holiness’ [i.e., Holy Spirit (?)] by resurrection from the dead” (1:4). It is the resurrection that established Jesus’ identity as King (not his sacrificial death or “sinless” life). However, we also may see an echo here of the “voice from heaven” affirming Jesus’ as God’s Son upon his baptism.
Paul’s calling is to “bring about the obedience of faith among all Gentiles” (1:5). In some sense what follows will explain what Paul means by “obedience of faith.” Let’s start with this suggestion: we are all called to obedience, this is part of what it means to be human (that is, we all have some kind of “god” that we inevitably “obey” – we become like what we worship). But obedience to who/what? And what kind of obedience, with what kind of motivation?
By “obedience of faith” Paul may mean obedience grounded in trust/faith in the one true God revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus (validated by resurrection: this is God’s Son). And this obedience takes the form of a life shaped by, above all else, genuine “grace” and “peace” (1:7). This “obedience” is characterized by being “called to belong to Jesus Christ” (1:6), “for the sake of his name” (1:5).
The “grace” and “peace” Paul wishes for his readers is grounded in the close connection between “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7), implying that Jesus and his way are fully the revelation of God the creator and Sustainer – and that they are best known in terms of “grace” and “peace.”
1:8-15 – Prayer of Thanksgiving
Paul wants to share with readers, “God’s beloved in Rome” (1:7), whom he identifies as being “among the rest of the Gentiles” (1:13) – that is, it appears that Paul is specifically addressing Gentile believers in the Roman churches.
When Paul writes “your faith is proclaimed throughout the world” (1:8 ) he may be emphasizing that it is quite significant that there are Jesus followers in Rome.
1:16-17 – The Power of the Gospel
These verses seem to contain Paul’s nutshell statement of what he hopes to say with this letter. A lot of packed into a few words.
“I am not ashamed” – i.e., “I am proud of” (proud to be associated with), “I happily identify with.” The gospel – “good news”; let’s for now try to define this term in relation to its context here in Romans 1:16-17 more so than importing other ideas into it.
What are we told about the “gospel” here?
• It is the power of God for salvation.
• This salvation is for everyone who has faith/faithfulness.
• It is for Jew (first) and Greek/Gentile.
• In it the righteousness/justice of God is revealed (by God).
• Through (God’s) faithfulness for human faith/trust.
• The one who receives the gospel (the righteous/just person) will live by faith/faithfulness.
Interestingly, the context for “the gospel” here is not Christology (Jesus’ identity or Jesus’ work) but the revelation of God’s justice that transforms how the person of faith lives. In presenting things in this way, Paul stands in direct continuity with Torah and the prophets.
Let’s provisionally unpack these descriptors of the gospel.
(1) “It is the power of God for salvation” – the news informs us that God’s power effects salvation (salvation is not here defined – let’s think in terms [unless later evidence indicates otherwise] of past notions of “salvation”: exodus from slavery, gift of Torah and land, restoration of relationships with God after the end of the Hebrew nation-state [without a new nation-state], forgiveness and liberation from the Powers and from sin by Jesus). The good news seems to be that God is powerful enough to bring healing and liberation.
(2) This salvation is for “everyone who has faith/faithfulness.” It is interesting that this statement is so inclusive. The key here is “faith/faithfulness,” not religious affiliation, residence behind boundary markers, ethnic identity, moral purity, creedal clarity, sacramental participation, or doctrinal certainty.
A key question here is what is meant by the word usually translated “faith”: pisteuonti? My provisional proposal is that we think in terms of “faithfulness” as in a life oriented toward love of God and neighbor (following Jesus’ central statement about salvation, Luke 10:25-28). We have no bases here to tie this term with doctrinal belief or something like the “sinner’s prayer” or purity or “imputed righteousness.” There is no reason here not to assume that Paul has the same sense of the life of faith as Jesus and the prophets. One cannot live faithfully (love of neighbor) without trust in God/the good/the reality of love in a distressed universe (love of God). Torah itself is grounded in the trusting receipt of God’s gift of liberation, forgiveness, and guidance.
(3) “To the Jew first and also to the Greek.” I read this sentence as Paul’s affirmation of the full adequacy of God’s covenant with Israel. The Jew has received this “good news of God” going back to Abraham and Moses. This is still the “good news of God” and salvation remains the calling of Israel.
However, the “also to the Greek/Gentile” emphasizes how Paul reads the covenant. Going back to Abraham, the election of Israel was for the sake of blessing all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3); the Hebrews were given Torah to form them as a priestly people (Ex 19:6) in order to mediate God’s word to the nations.
As this letter has a special interest in Gentiles (1:5), part of Paul’s point here may be to reiterate his grounding in Israel’s prophetic faith – which he reads as having a global concern, renewing God’s covenant with all people (cf. the “Noahic covenant,” Gen 9:8-17) through the “priestly” ministry of the people God singled out as the needed particular channel of God’s mercy that will bless all the families of the earth (cf. the calling of Abraham, Gen 12:1-3).
(4) “In it [the ‘gospel’] the righteousness/justice of God is revealed.” This is a key phrase that contains two extraordinarily rich terms: dikaiosunë (“justice”) and apokalyptetai (“revealed”).
What is meant by dikaiosunë? Again, we need to consider how it is used elsewhere in Romans. The word needs to be read in its context and in itself does not contain its own meaning. But our sense of what this particular word entails will shape how we read the broader discsussion.
The immediate context here links “justice” with “good news,” “salvation,” some connection between Jew and Gentile, faith/faithfulness/trust, and living as just people. We also have a long history in the OT and life of Jesus. In both the OT and gospels, “justice” seems most of all to do with restoring relationships and giving life.
So we have reason to believe that “the justice of God” has to do with God’s work to restore relationships, liberate from the Powers, and bring healing to distressed creation. There is no reason to doubt that Paul has in mind God’s relationality here – and God’s transforming, unconditional mercy.
The “revelation” may best be seen in “apocalyptic” terms – a radical, age-defining, and transforming perception concerning the true nature of reality. The “revelation” involves an exposure of the old age/the reign of the Powers as idolatrous, corrupting, and exceedingly deceptive.
So we are tipped off that Paul has something big in mind – writing about an entirely different orientation toward life than the conventional wisdom of culture, politics, and religion. We might expect that this “revelation” will have to do with insight into the radicality of Jesus the King’s message in contrast to Caesar the King’s message. And yet, we also are being tipped off that the main arena of the divine/”satanic” struggle is in the realm of sight. God’s justice is now visible with those with eyes to see. The way to salvation is seeing what is, not effecting some new, yet-to-come change. And the truth is revealed (passive voice) by God, not Paul or Caesar or the Church.
(5) “Through faith for faith.” This is a kind of cryptic statement. Leander Keck suggests it means, “through God’s faithfulness for bringing about human faithfulness” (HarperCollins Study Bible). That is, God’s work is meant to elicit a response. God’s faithfulness in the exodus was meant to foster human community around Torah. God’s faithfulness after 596 BCE was meant to foster faithfulness in diaspora. God’s faithfulness in raising Jesus from the dead was meant to foster faithfulness in the Jewish and Gentile ekklesia (cf. Mt 28:16-20).
(6) “The just shall live by faith.” Again, so much depends on what dikaios (“just”) and pisteös (“faith”) mean. I propose we assume a unity of belief and action, that we think in terms of the inextricability of love of God and love of neighbor. Then, we see this quote from Habakkuk as a concluding phrase meant to emphasize that Paul is concerned with social wholeness, a community wherein trust in God invariably leads to interhuman justice (again, precisely echoing the prophets and Jesus).
God’s liberation (the apocalypse/revelation of God’s transforming justice) creates communities of kindness, generosity, and restorative justice. Anticipating (based already on Paul’s “Jew first and also Greek”), we may especially see this restorative justice/living by faith in relation to the Jew/Gentile reconciliation in Rome. Such just living witnesses in the very heart of the Beast (Rome) to the life-enhancing power of Jesus-as-king in contrast to the death-enhancing power of Caesar-as-king.
1:18-32 – The Guilt of the “Idolaters”
[1:18-23]—These verses contain a strong statement about human idolatry – and the blameworthiness of such. Paul does not explain who the “they” are here. Typically, interpreters assume that the “they” are Gentiles outside of Israel. However, Paul does not explicitly state that he has in mind Gentiles in clear distinction from Jews.
The problem is clear, though. God has infused within creation itself directives that should lead to “justice.” Let us say “justice” here means the basic attitude of gratitude towards life that fosters kindness, generosity, and wholeness in relationships. Paul may not have taken his thought overtly in this direction, but we could perceive here a sense that many people do have a grateful attitude and just relationships, but these are always at risk due to idolatry [in “outside” cultures and in Israel – and, we would have to say, in the churches]).
Paul’s God is not to blame, so we’d maybe best assume that God has given all cultures the resources to be just – though surely all cultures tend to fall short. Paul’s point maybe should not be seen as an utter condemnation of all cultures so much as an analysis of how each culture gets into trouble. And each culture does get into trouble, despite God having shown everyone what is “true” (that is, what is required for social wholeness) – which is a sense of gratitude for what is.
Because so many people have not lived in gratitude (1:22), brokenness has ensued. The lack of gratitude surely lies at the heart of the drive to trust in idols – seeking something “more” out a sense of dissatisfaction/ingratitude.
Again, as throughout chapter one, we face an interpretative crossroads with a “dik” word. Here it is adikian (1:18, et al). Is the best sense “wickedness” or is it “injustice”? I propose “injustice,” partly to emphasize the continuity among God’s justice (1:17), our justification (2:13), the problem of injustice (1:18, et al), and the saving justice of God revealed in Jesus (3:21ff.). If we translate each “dik” word with words with “just” as their root, the connection among them all is more clear than if we use non-related English words (such as wickedness, righteousness, and justification). The problem and solution have to do with right relationships, healing that which has been alienated and broken – the problem being broken relationships and harm-doing (injustice) stemming from idolatry stemming from ingratitude.
In 1:18 we have another “revelation” (apokalyptetethai). Here it is the “wrath of God.” According to Keck, “the wrath of God is not God’s anger (an emotion) but the rightful response to what humans have done.” As we will see, the effect of the revelation of God’s wrath will be that “God gave them up” (1:24) to self-destructive behavior.
The problem seems to be an “exchange” of their humanity as God’s children for “images” resembling created things, the consequence being an exchange of justice for injustice, shalom for alienation, wholeness for brokenness.
It is interesting to note how Paul says, on the one hand, that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are displayed “through the things God has made” (1:20), and then, on the other hand, the problem arises when idolatrous human beings exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (1:23).
Paul makes a pretty subtle point here. What we need to know about God is revealed in created beings – yet the problem that messes everything up arises when we exchange “the glory” of God for images resembling created beings. Doing so makes human beings fools (1:22). The key is discerning where the line is crossed between learning to know God through created beings and seeing the created beings as our gods.
Paul may well be alluding here to the Ten Commandments and its call not to reduce God to an “image” (Ex 20:4-6). It is notable that God in Ex 20 is introduced as the Liberator (20:2) whose mercy grounds the commands. The comment concerning idolatry in 20:5-6 links worship of idols with “punishment” and links worship of God with “steadfast love.” Considering Ex 20 in relation with Paul’s notion of “wrath” as alluding primarily to “giving up” (see also Ps 115:3-8), we may think of the basic issue being that we inevitably become like what we worship/trust in/give glory to (see also Psalm 115:4-8).
The dynamic, then, is not so much God as one who gets mad and acts to harm the idolater who otherwise would remain unscathed as that the processes of life draw us toward the object of our worship – for better or worse depending on what we are worshiping.
Here is where Jesus’ Great Commandment (reiterated by Paul in Rom 13:8-10) is crucial. We love God insofar as we love and are loved. God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (1:20) and “immortality” (1:23) are revealed in Jesus. And they have everything to do with the difference between “justice” and “injustice” (terms more clear for Paul’s argument than “righteousness” and “wickedness”).
It is crucial here, too, to note the contrast between “revelation” (from God) and the “suppression of truth” by the unjust. A key to salvation is sight/discernment/awareness – being able to see idols for what they are (i.e., fallen Powers who claim to be “Benefactors” – cf. Lk 22:24 and apply this to Rome).
What is needed is a clear revelation (again, apocalypse – this is an epoch-shaping awareness, a sense of the deepest truths/ends [cf. eschatos] of life). To be saved we must see what Jesus is about (anticipating Paul’s eventual answer to the problem he begins to set out in 1:18 in 3:21ff.). Paul’s delineation of the Empire’s idolatry in 1:18-32, among other things, serves as a warning of how strong the Powers’ deception is – and emphasizes the contrast between the two “kings” – Caesar vs. Christ.
Again, the subtlety in the distinction between the two options regarding how to see “created things” – (1) as pointing away from themselves to God as their creator and the one whose transcendent love and justice must shape all of life or (2) as objects of worship/trust themselves (this includes empires, too – cf. Walter Wink on the Powers as “created things”).
[1:24-25]—That God “gave them up” may simply be seen as an acknowledgement of the centrality of human free will in the created order. Thus, this “giving up” is an expression of God’s love in that the only way God can relate to God’s creation in love is to allow us to choose. Love to be love must exist in the context of free relationships. However, Paul also makes clear here that the choice to worship idols actually destroys human freedom.
The point, again, is not that God out of anger gains revenge by taking away our freedom. It is just that by the nature of reality we become like that in which we trust. So, if we trust in “dead” things, “created things,” in and of themselves without God’s enlivening Spirit being perceived, we will become lifeless ourselves.
What God “gives idolatrous human up” to is “the lusts of their hearts” (1:24). Again, Paul emphasizes that this “giving up to” (or, we could say, “reduction to”) follows from exchanging truth for a lie (1:25). Falling victim to the “suppression of truth” and seeing injustice as justice results from this exchange. That is, as I have already pointed out, the creature is worshiped rather than the creator (1:25).
Maybe one way to understand this false worship is that when “created things” are “worshiped” they no longer reveal the God who stands behind them and gives them their meaning. The paradigmatic expression of this dynamic for Paul, it seems, is how interhuman love – which indeed reveals God in profound ways – comes to be reduced to lust. The genuine justice of authentic love fosters life-giving interhuman relationships. When the love becomes lust, the relationships become unjust, broken, contexts for alienation.
[1:26-27]—It is not obvious what the “for this reason” refers to in 1:26. Paul repeats the “giving up” idea that re-emphasizes that if human beings reduce relationships to lust God will let them reap the inevitable consequences. Perhaps “for this reason” means “as a consequence” – alluding to the exchanging of worship of God for worship of “created things” (here, “lusts of their hearts”). In that case, Paul is reiterating the point about God allowing the natural consequences of becoming like that in which you trust to occur.
In light of the above comments about the revelation of God’s character in created things – and linking that revelation with justice (right relationships) we might understand the outworkings of people being given over to their lusts (“degrading passions,” 1:26) as being “unnatural” in the sense of being “unjust” – i.e., fostering death and alienation rather than life and wholeness.
In light of Paul’s overarching concern with the health of the Roman church as a community mediating God’s blessings to “all the families of the earth” (only hinted at so far), he could have in mind lustful behavior that breeds inter-human alienation rather than shalom; reducing relationships to lust rather than genuine love.
Given Paul’s likely awareness of recent history in the emperor’s court (e.g., Emperor Caligula), he may well have been alluding to the prolifigate behavior that had scandalized many and led to a sense of cosmic vindication when Caligula went down.
The emphasis clearly is on the lust, not on a preoccupation with homosexuality. And the lust is problematic because of how it diminishes humanness, reflects worship of “degrading passions” rather than God, distorts the revelation of God in humanness, and in general fosters injustice. People engaging in out-of-control sex, male and female, embody the self-created “handing over” that results in alienation, not wholeness.
In light of what follows in 1:28-32 (with no more allusions to “homosexuality”) we should be keeping in mind several larger themes here. These include: (1) Paul’s awareness of the power of the Powers to become idols and turn people from God, (2) Paul’s particular antipathy toward Rome (whose word for “king” was “Caesar” not “Christ”) and its especially powerful form of idolatry (emperor worship), (3) Paul’s ultimate emphasis on “the justice of God revealed in Jesus” as definitive of the cosmos under God, and (4) Paul’s special concern for social justice/wholeness among Jewish and Gentile church members as bearers of God’s promise to “all the families of the earth” entrusted to Israel via Torah.
[I’m curious about Paul’s use of “shameless” (1:27) of the acts that displayed the idolatry.]
That the idolaters “received their due penalty” (1:27) also seems like an allusion to the “natural outworking” of God’s wrath. For one thing, when you reduce love to lust you weaken your ability for genuinely loving and receiving love.
[1:28-32]—Again, Paul emphasizes that “God gave them up.” The consequence here, also echoing what has come before, is a “debased mind” (contrast, much later, with the “renewed mind” of 12:1-2). Just as when humans overtly turn to violence, they find themselves amidst a “fog of war,” in general when they trust in things other than God their ability to think and perceive and see and discern is profoundly clouded. Again, it seems helpful to place this notion of a “debased mind” in the context of Paul’s antipathy toward Empire, assuming that the sexual degradation he refers to here is in some sense in his mind characteristic of Rome.
It seems best to see the “things that should not be done” (1:28 ) that follow from the “God gave them up” to be pointing ahead to the list that immediately follows with its wide-ranging description more than simply back to the sexual degradation (not that what Paul has just spoken of would not also be an example of such things, but that he is using the particular example to illumine the larger picture and not as an end in itself – a good reason to interpret the sexual allusion in light of the whole list of unjust behavior and as part of Paul’s anti-Empire critique, and not as an end in itself.)
Again, we are not told explicitly who the “they” are here who are “filled with every kind of injustice” (1:28). I see no reason why this (at least in part) could not be a summary kind of picture of how Paul saw the leaders of the Empire. Paul is writing to Gentiles in Rome. He surely would have been concerned with their being influenced by Rome’s idolatry. The Empire killed Jesus. Caesar = king; Christ = king. These two are rivals for the same title, the same loyalty. In general, as a Jew Paul likely could have seen through Rome’s claim to be Benefactor since he would know how Rome sought to manage/dominate Judaism. Paul would know, also, about Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon – Rome’s predecessors and the Hebrews’ great enemies.
I do not see any reason to say Paul is voicing a general critique of Gentiles. He is writing to Gentiles. He wants his Gentile readers to embrace Torah (the authentic approach to Torah that the prophets and Jesus embodied not the legalistic approach that his opponents embodied). He has alluded to and will make more explicit his awareness of Gentile justice-living. He is very concerned about Rome. These are all reasons not to alienate his readers. Plus, he uses “they.” This usage would tend to give his readers a sense of distance from whoever “they” are.
Similarly to what will happen in the Book of Revelation (and as Paul already discussed in 1 Corinthians six with his critique of the state’s “justice”), the picture here is meant to challenge his readers to recognize the true nature of their would-be Benefactors. They claim to act on God’s behalf and for the sake of “peace” and that they deserve people’s trust/belief/loyalty/worship. These “Benefactors,” the elite of the Empire, are actually profoundly unjust and violent. The Pax Romana rests on the sword. It is a counterfeit peace.
In 1:32, Paul (though using it as part of his critique) reiterates that “God’s decree” (1:32 NRSV – Keck: “The Greek word translated decree suggests ‘right verdict.’”) is knowable and recognizable to everyone. The word here for “decree” is dikaiöma, another “dik” word. It maybe should be translated something like “just judgment” and should be seen in the same constellation of thought in this section as “justice/righteousness,” “injustice/wickedness,” “just/righteous,” and “justified/right-wised.”
We all know what right relationships involve. The kind of violation of justice that “they” (the Roman power elite) do deserves death. In light of the picture of God’s wrath here, we could say that this kind of violation of justice in fact carries within itself the inevitable consequence of death – if you serve (worship) death, you will move toward death yourself.
The picture in this section (1:18-32) is that there is an inevitable dynamic. When “created things” are worshiped (i.e., reduced to inert things autonomous from God and God’s life-giving justice – cf. the Book of Amos and its portrayal of the link between justice and life), the inevitable progression moves inextricably toward injustice, violence, oppression, and death. The Powers (we have seen in the story of Jesus that Empire, Temple, and Law were the central idolatrous Powers unveiled as such by Jesus through his death) suck life out by taking the place of God as objects of worship. And they so distort people’s view of reality that “they” applaud those who practice this injustice (1:32).
The central concern here is idolatry because it leads to injustice. We could even draw the implication that wherever we see injustice (be it lustful sex, violence, or economic exploitation), it is founded on idolatry – and tied with suppression of truth and debased minds.
Paul sets the stage for his answer to the problem: the revelation (apocalypse) of God’s justice in Jesus, whose faithful life leading to death at the hands of the Powers (Temple, Law, Empire) followed by God’s vindication through resurrection sets all who trust in him free from practicing injustice and oppression.