This letter is to a Christian community that Paul did not found. There was a large Jewish community in Rome, and Christianity had been present there from at least the early 40s. As non-Jews became part of the Christian movement, tensions developed between them and Jewish Christians.
When quarrelling Jews (and Jewish Christians) were expelled from Rome in 49 CE under Claudius, Gentile Christians took control of the church. When Jews were allowed to return in 56 CE, the Jewish Christians naturally expected to resume their place of leadership and prominence. Tensions grew more serious. Again we have a letter addressing real issues for real people.
Setting in Paul’s Life
Paul is trying to build bridges to Rome and use it for a base to continue his missionary work. The letter serves as an introduction to prepare for a brief visit after celebrating Passover in Jerusalem and taking there the money collected for the relief of its poor. He feels that his work in the east is nearly over and he is looking for new territory in which to plant Christianity. In 15:27 Paul brings together spiritual (Jews) and material (Gentiles) blessing. The Spirit was present in the generosity of the Gentiles; the collection is far more than a charitable deed; it is a political act.
Paul is on the way to Jerusalem with a serious challenge: do they accept the validity of the Gentile churches and of Paul’s mission? It is a question being asked again today in the imposition of liturgical change among diversities of cultures!
The Jerusalem council had granted such acceptance (Gal 2:9), but it had been an unworkable ‘separate but equal’ agreement with Peter going to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. It all broke down when Peter came to Antioch. By refusing to eat with Gentiles Peter was denying their equality. The acceptance of the collection offering would be a statement of acceptance by a rather conservative, law-observing, traditional church, dominated by the pious and law-observing James ‘the righteous’, the ‘brother of the Lord’.
It was a church very suspicious of Paul. He had mocked them as ‘reputed to be something’ (Gal 2:6). Now he hopes that in accepting the offering he brings, they will accept him as valid apostle to the Gentiles. Some of them were not happy to do so. Aware of an approaching crisis, Paul writes from Corinth and prepares to sail to Jerusalem. He is uncertain of the outcome and asks the Romans to pray for him (15:31) that his enemies in Jerusalem would not prevail.
Paul wrote from Corinth (16:21-23) in 56 or 57 CE, proposing a short stay in Rome before beginning a new mission in Spain (Rom 15:24, 28). He had several purposes in writing.
He wanted to present to the Roman Christians a synthesis of the gospel he would teach in Spain, perhaps in answer to criticisms and suspicions that had been raised about his teaching (the Galatian fallout); this letter would doubtlessly have been shown to ‘the pillars of the church’ in Jerusalem. Paul expected not only to present the collection he had gathered, but also to face questioning about his gospel from the local church leaders. In Romans he prepares a systematic defence of the Law-free gospel for non-Jews that he taught.
Finally by his exposition of the unity among Gentiles and Jews created by the death and resurrection of Jesus, he intended to help the Roman Christians to deal effectively with their own internal community conflict (14:1-15:13).
Paul tells us in 1:3-4, 16-17 that the focus of his letter to the Romans is the gospel: the good news of Jesus Christ (especially his death and resurrection) and its consequences for human existence. In the body of the letter he deals with the definition of the gospel (1:1-17), the universal need for the gospel (1:18-3:20), the gospel and faith (3:21-4:25), the gospel and freedom (5:1-7:25), the gospel and life in the Spirit (8:1-39), the gospel and God’s plan (9:1-11:36), the gospel and Christian life (12:1-13:14), the gospel and community conflict (14:1-15:13), and the promotion of the gospel (15:14-16:27).
Romans remains a great document of spirituality: how one stands before God and relates to others and to the world in light of this relationship is the essence of spirituality.
Paul had experienced God’s decisive and definitive action through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This event offered a new way of relating to God.
Throughout Romans Paul explores the significance of Christ ‘for us’. Jesus Christ, for Paul, is the key to the Jewish scriptures, fulfilling its texts and standing in the line prepared by its great characters: Adam, Abraham, Moses, David and Elijah.
Including the Jewish people
Paul is concerned with what God is doing in the history of salvation, how Jewish Christians, other Jews, Gentile Christians, all fit together into God’s mysterious plan. Paul cannot imagine the people of God apart from Israel and regards Gentiles as grafted into God’s people (11:17) through Jesus of Nazareth.
He encourages Christians to regard their lives as a continuing act of worship and themselves as members of the body of Christ and of the Spirit-led community.
All of Christian life, says Paul, flows from what God has done in Christ. All need the revelation of God’s righteousness in Christ, and by faith all can share in its benefits.
Through Christ, there is freedom from the power of sin, death and the Law, and freedom for life in the Spirit. In baptism, Christians enter into the death and life of the crucified and risen Lord. Love is the fulfilment of the Law (13:8-10) and enables one to live with respect for the dignity of others.