Straight to the heart of Romans

Straight to the heart of Romans July 21, 2011

Today I can share with you by kind permission of Monarch the first chapter of my friend Phil Moore’s new book Straight to the heart of Romans. The second will be posted here tomorrow, and the third will be made available to those who subscribe to my email newsletter.



“Paul, a servant of … Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 1:1&4)

Paul’s letter to the Romans is not just the longest surviving letter from the ancient world. It was also the most dangerous. It was written to a city where a murderer built his reign on the corpses of his rivals. Ten years later, because of the message of Romans, Paul’s own corpse would be added to his ever-growing pile.

The Emperor Nero had come to the throne in October 54AD when his mother assassinated his step-father, the Emperor Claudius. She had heard rumours that Claudius was about to disinherit Nero in favour of his son from a previous marriage, so she persuaded court officials to poison him before he could. Nothing must stand in the way of her sixteen-year-old son’s aspirations to the throne.

Nero quickly followed his mother’s example and made murder the hallmark of his insecure reign. Only weeks after becoming the most powerful ruler in the world, he consolidated his position by poisoning his step-brother. In the years which followed, he murdered his mother, two of his wives, and any nobleman who posed a threat. The Roman historian Suetonius tells us that Nero “showed neither discrimination nor moderation in putting to death whoever he pleased on any pretext whatever.”[1] That’s why when Paul wrote from Corinth to the Christians at Rome in the spring of 57AD, his letter was as dangerous as throwing a flaming torch into a room filled with gunpowder.[2]

Paul claimed that there was one true King and that it wasn’t Nero. Many of us miss this because we skim over Paul’s choice of words in his opening verses, but three key words cannot have failed to capture the attention of his original Roman readers.

First, he used the Greek word euangelion, which means gospel. This was a technical word used by the Caesars themselves to proclaim the news that they had fathered an heir or had won a great victory on the battlefield. An inscription in the ruins of the Greek city Priene which dates back to 9BC declares that “When Caesar appeared he exceeded the hopes of all who received the gospel … The birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the gospel regarding him for the world.” Paul therefore uses the word euangelion as a deliberate challenge to Caesar’s vain boast. The real Gospel was not the good news of Rome regarding Nero, but “the gospel of God … regarding his Son.”

Second, Paul used the word kurios, or Lord. This was the word used by the translators of the Old Testament into Greek to translate God’s name Yahweh, but it was also a title which the Roman Emperors used of themselves. One of Nero’s officials illustrates this by referring to him as the Kurios in Acts 25:26, so Paul’s letter told the Romans a dangerously different story. He announced the reign of “Jesus Christ our Lord” and promised in Romans 10:9 that “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Kurios,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Third, Paul used the word christos, meaning Christ or Messiah. This was the word used in the Greek Old Testament to refer to King David’s heir who would one day take his throne and establish God’s Kingdom which would last forever. Daniel 7 had even prophesied that this Messiah would face up to the iron-toothed Roman Empire and destroy it along with its boastful ruler.[3] Now Paul claimed that this Messiah had come: Jesus of Nazareth. He was telling the Romans there was a new King in town.[4]

Stop for a moment and think how risky that was. Jesus had been dragged before a Roman judge under the charge that “he opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.” When the Roman judge hesitated, Jesus’ enemies reminded him that “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” The judge had therefore ordered that Jesus be crucified by a team of Roman soldiers, wearing a mocking crown of thorns and under a sign which told everyone what Rome thought of his claim to be “the King of the Jews”.[5] Now Paul was claiming that God had raised this same Jesus to life, and in doing so had revealed him as the true Lord and King of the universe.[6]

Nero was Emperor because the Praetorian Guard had supported him when he stood over the dead body of his adoptive father. Paul responded that Jesus was the true King because God had supported him when he raised his dead body back to life. Nero’s first act as Emperor had been to deify Claudius and claim to be divi filius, Latin for the son of a god. Paul responded that it was actually Jesus who “through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God.”[7] This threat was not lost on Paul’s enemies, who accused him of “defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.”[8]

Paul begins his letter to the Romans by telling them that the new King saves, both objectively and in day-to-day experience (chapters 1 to 5 and 6 to 8). He then settles the conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians by explaining to both groups that the new King has a plan (chapters 9 to 11). Next, in light of this, he gets specific about what it means for both groups to accept that the new King is Lord (12:1 to 15:13). Finally, he outlines his plans to preach the Gospel across the Western Mediterranean and warns his Roman readers that the new King is advancing (15:14 to 16:27).[9]

That’s why we mustn’t view Romans as a theological treatise which calls people to make a private response to an offer of personal salvation. Nero’s ambassadors did not cross the Empire to encourage his subjects to experience the benefits of choosing him as their Lord. They simply announced that Nero was Emperor, whether their hearers liked it or not, and that they needed to submit to his rule or face the deadly consequences. In the same way, Paul wrote this letter and sent it into Nero’s backyard to proclaim that Jesus Christ was Lord, and they needed to surrender. Nero could execute Paul ten years later in Rome as one of the last desperate acts of his disintegrating reign,[10] but he couldn’t resist his all-conquering message. Even today, when people read Romans, they discover that King Jesus really is Lord and that his plan to save all nations is nearing its grand finale.

So let’s get ready to experience the message of Romans for ourselves. Whatever the world may have told us and whatever false gospels we may have believed, it is time for us to experience God’s Gospel concerning his Son. It is time for us to wake up to what it means when Paul tells us that there is a new King in town.

[1] Suetonius, writing in c.120AD in his “Life of Nero” (37). Nero did not kill his mother until two years after Paul wrote Romans, but he murdered his step-brother and many noblemen almost straightaway.

[2] The context of 15:25-26 links this letter to Acts 20:2-3, as does Paul’s mention in 16:1&23 of Phoebe from nearby Cenchrea and the Corinthians Gaius and Erastus (1 Corinthians 1:14 & 2 Timothy 4:20).

[3] The four empires of Daniel 7:1-7 belong in turn to Babylon, Medo-Persia, Macedon and Rome.

[4] Paul never actually uses the word ‘king’ in Romans, since first-century Romans used it to describe their puppet rulers. To clarify the kind of king Jesus is, he uses the far more dangerous word kurios over 40 times.

[5] Luke 23:2, John 19:12 and Matthew 27:27-31&37.

[6] The Greek word horizô in 1:4 means either to appoint or to mark out. Since Jesus is God’s eternal Son, Paul must be telling us that God marked him out to all the world as his Son when he raised him from the dead.

[7] “The Spirit of holiness” is simply a Jewish way of saying “the Holy Spirit”.

[8] Acts 17:6-7.

[9] Some people object to the idea that Jesus is the ‘new’ King. Surely he has always been the Lord? Yes, but Acts 2:36 and Philippians 2:9-11 are clear that he also ‘became’ Lord in a new way through the Gospel.

[10] See “Straight to the Heart of Acts” for how Luke’s defence of the Gospel helped save Paul from being executed in Rome earlier in 62AD.

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