Romans Bible Guide – Day Two

Previously, in Romans: Paul’s half way through a greeting to the faith communities in Rome, a greeting that doubles as an introduction for his letter’s major themes.

Romans 1:8-17

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10 asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15 —hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”


Points of Interest:

  • ‘I thank my God… for all of you’ – The greeting morphs into a love letter for a while. Paul thanks God for these people, prays for them all the time, calls them his family, and can’t wait to come see them soon. What’s so special about them? Their faith is famous throughout the world. That sounds like an exaggeration, but Rome was the center of their known world, and it’s likely these home gatherings were talked about throughout the Empire. It’s the significance of a small business that can proudly say, “Did you realize we have a branch office in Manhattan?”
  • ‘reap some harvest’ – Things take an unusual turn when Paul says he wants to visit to reap some harvest among them, as he does everywhere else he goes. What does Paul hope to get out of them? Either this is an especially vivid way of referring to his end of their relationship of mutual encouragement (v. 12), or it hints at some other form of support he hopes to get from them, which we’ll find out later is support for a mission to Spain, on the far Western reaches of the Empire. Either way, Paul asserts familiarity and even intimacy to people he’s never met, highlighting the depth of connection he assumes among followers of Jesus.
  • ‘both to Greeks and barbarians’ – As Paul finishes his introduction, he drops a bomb. To a Roman resident, Greeks are “us” – “the wise”, the honorable, the educated, the cultured. Barbarians are “them” – “the foolish”, the shameful, the idiots, the barely human people who lived beyond their society. Paul says he’s not only connected to them all, but he owes them all. Presumably he feels he owes them all this “gospel,” this good news about Jesus.It’s hard to capture just how radical this sounds, but let’s try an analogy. You get an email from someone you admire, saying he plans to visit you soon. It’s all love and warmth, until he says, “I can’t wait to visit your latte-sipping, liberal elite, sophisticated friends. Because then I’m going to Appalachia to find my gun-toting, meth-smoking, buddies living in a shack as well. Because we’re all in this together. I owe you all the news that Jesus loves all of us. And by the way, I’m hoping you’ll lend me some cash for that leg of my trip.” It’s radical. And now that I’ve offended my entire reading audience, I’ll move to my final comment.
  • ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel’ – Paul ends his greeting with what reads like a thesis statement. He’s not ashamed of Jesus’ good news, even though it puts him into contact with “foolish barbarians” – people considered shameful. Why? It offers everything that Rome claims to, but better, and for all people. 

    Rome’s good news promise is its “Pax Romana” – peace, order, salvation from an unworthy life. One Roman ambassador wrote that the emperor was “a savior who put an end to war and will restore order everywhere”, calling that emperor “the god” whose birthday was “the beginning of the gospel he brought.” By calling Jesus’ good news “the power of God for salvation”, Paul implies that the civic religion of Rome is counterfeit, and that Jesus is the one making all things right, for all people who have faith.

  • ‘in it the righteousness of God is revealed’ – One more part of the story – this is good news for God too. Jesus’ story shows God is righteous, which means something like just and dependably good rolled together. This is the God who all along, first for the Jews and then for the whole world, had promised to make all things right. Now, Paul says, it’s happening.

Taking It Home:

For youAs you start out this season, pray that your faith in the “power of God for salvation” would deepen, that you would trust that God is just and good and will prove himself to be that in your life.

For your city and church – A hallmark of the Jesus movement is radical inclusion and equalizing of all people. Pray that our church would be widely known for its good news in our city to people of high and low status alike, and for a community in which both are at home.

Romans Bible Guide – Day One

Romans 1:1-7

1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


Points of Interest:

  • This is the first half of Paul’s introduction, and it’s a long one. In this greeting we’ll read today and tomorrow, Paul crams in much of the key vocabulary and themes of his letter. Apostle, promise, gospel, God, Son, resurrection, holiness, Lord, grace, obedience of faith, called to belong (together) to Jesus Christ – it’s almost like a glossary, but without the definitions.
  • ‘servant of Jesus Christ’ – Servant, or slave, sounds undignified, but “slave of Caesar” was a common title for an official agent or messenger of the Roman emperor. By calling himself a “slave of Jesus Christ”, Paul communicates both devotion and authority. This is reinforced with the word “apostle,” which means “one who is sent”. Paul hints at his back story, likely already known to his readers, that he had a vivid, life-changing spiritual vision of Jesus, in which he learned he would spread the word about Jesus among non-Jewish peoples. Caesar has his slaves and ambassadors, and apparently Jesus does as well, and Paul is one of them.
  • ‘gospel of God’ – With the word “gospel” (from the Greek for “good news”), Paul continues to borrow from Roman imperial language, applying it to Jesus. The great deeds of the Emperors were called their “good news”. Paul says that God has good news too, implying that it’s better news, and more important.
  • ‘his Son, who was descended from David…’ – The dense theology of verses 3-4 is likely quoting a very early bit of poetry about Jesus, something people may have recited in the first worship spaces in Jerusalem in the 30s A.D. “Descendant of David (by flesh), declared to be Son of God (in Spirit) through resurrection, Jesus our Lord.” It’s neat how it has both Jewish (descendant of David, Israel’s greatest king) and Greek (flesh/spirit distinction) elements to it, reinforcing Paul’s radically inclusive message.
  • ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’ – Two final terms of distinction for Jesus. “Christ” is the Greek version of a Hebrew term (Messiah) for God’s special person who would change history and inaugurate God’s Kingdom. It’s a Jewish, royal title. And “Lord”, which means “master” and is a nod to one translation of the most common Old Testament word for “God.” Paul has said a lot about Jesus in a short span – God’s man, God’s Son, descendant of David, alive from the dead, giver of kindness and peace, and master.
  • “Saints” – It’s what Paul calls the people connected to Jesus. It means “holy”, kind of a spiritual version of “special.” And they’re special because God loves them, all of them.

Taking It Home:

For youPaul calls followers of Jesus God’s beloved, belonging to Jesus, and saints. Try these images out on yourself for a minute. Do any of them provoke a response from you?

For your 6 – Have any of your friends bought into supposed good news that isn’t serving them, that looks more like propaganda? Pray that they would discover the good news that God is alive and loves them.

Romans Bible Guide – Introduction

I have exciting news to share – our city is almost at the bottom of a national survey about the Bible! Barna – a United States firm that researches faith, religion, and culture – releases a research brief each year on “America’s top Bible-minded cities.” They study the Bible reading habits and confidence in the Bible’s accuracy and principles in America’s 100 largest metro areas. Unsurprisingly, winners tend to be Southern Bible belt cities. And this year, our Boston to Manchester, NH region dropped to 99th place. That’s right – in 2015, we were the third to last Bible-minded city, and now, we’re second to last. We have only Albany, NY to pass before we can take the crown!


It might be surprising for you to hear from a pastor, but I see this as at least partly great news. Don’t get me wrong. I’m really committed to the Bible. Daily Bible reading was the first spiritual practice recommended to me when I became interested in Jesus as a teenager, and I’ve been at it – more or less – ever since. I’ve read every one of the Bible’s 1,189 chapters multiple times, some of them hundreds of times. I’ve taken graduate courses in Bible, studied the New Testament’s first century Greek language, and taught Bible in churches, on college campuses, and in public school classrooms.

But all that Bible reading has convinced me that long-time readers can miss the point of the whole thing, losing the forest for the trees. People read the Bible like it’s a book, rather than a library of books. Like it’s addressed to and primarily concerned with 21st century Americans rather than ancient peoples. Like it’s a rule book, or a recipe book, or a history book, rather than something more varied and more complicated and more beautiful than that.

So in our region’s relative unfamiliarity with, or perhaps disinterest in the Bible, it seems like we’re in a great position to have a fresh experience with these ancient texts – to hear their story anew, to discover what they’re telling us about Jesus, and to use them as a tool to guide our prayers, enrich our thinking, and enhance our lives. We hope this can happen for you, and that this 40 Days of Faith can help. (Just don’t tell a pollster – I’m gunning for Albany’s bottom spot!)

Our church has produced these Bible guides annually for a dozen years. Each year we take a different section of the Bible, this year in the New Revised Standard Version, and read it together in 40 daily doses. This will be followed by two sections:

  • Points of Interest—a handful of comments, which include literary or historical notes as well as impressions, thoughts, questions, and reactions. These aren’t meant to be exhaustive or authoritative, but simply to give you some more perspective to work with as you ponder the passage yourself.
  • Taking It Home—every day, there will be some experiments to try, or prompts for prayer. These invitations will focus on some of these areas:
    • For you: How does this passage apply to you or your family?
    • For your six: Consider six of your favorite people, people you interact with on a regular basis, who don’t seem to have much of a direct connection to God, but for whom you are very much rooting. What does this passage have to say to them, or to you about them?
    • For our church: How can we apply the passage corporately as a faith community?
    • For our city: What does the passage say about or to our entire city?

The Daily Bible Guide, while it can certainly be a standalone product, is designed to be one component of a bigger package called 40 Days of Faith – a six-week faith experiment that includes sermons, small group discussions, further prayer exercises, and more. You can learn more about the full 40 Days of Faith in this year’s User’s Manual, available on the campus and at the website of Reservoir Church. And the guide itself is available in various forms: paper, blog, and now podcast. Look online at or right her on the blog.

About Romans

By the late 50s A.D. a Jewish man named Paul of Tarsus had spent twenty years travelling about the Eastern Roman empire telling people about Jesus and helping them start small house communities for people who wanted to worship and follow Jesus together. Paul hadn’t yet been as far West as Rome, but the message of Jesus had preceded him there, and he was hoping to visit soon, to see these house churches, and enlist their support for a mission to the farthest reaches of the known world.

The Roman Empire was the largest in the World, just bigger than China. Rome was also the largest city in the world at this time, with a population of about a million people, so for its residents, it was the center of culture and commerce and power of the whole known world. In the late 50s, Nero was in his first decade as Emperor. When he came into power at age seventeen, it would have been with the usual fanfare. Nero would maintain and expand the peace and glory of the empire. The good news of his reign traveled through all the earth. Caesar saves! The great Roman fire of 64 A.D. hadn’t occurred yet, nor had Nero’s subsequent burnings of members of the new Christian sect. So Nero wasn’t infamous yet, just notable. He’d reestablished chariot races and gladiatorial battles. Rumors of his prodigious sexual exploits circled about the city – his lovers are his wives, his slaves, his friends, his family members, or perhaps all of the above. At age 18, he poisoned his step-brother; by 22, he’d have his mother killed. By 31, he’d be condemned to be flogged to death by his own state, only to beat them to it by killing himself.

Male Roman citizens enjoyed relative peace and prosperity in this era, while women were literally second-class citizens, and many others – including slaves and Jews – lived as third-class outsiders in this highly status-conscious society.

It was to house churches in this city and this era that Paul wrote his letter that became known as Romans. Romans is one of seven New Testament letters scholars are sure Paul wrote, one of thirteen attributed to him. It’s the longest of the bunch and historically, it’s been the most important. Every big name thinker and reformer in Christian history has had a read on Romans and lots to say about it. But, of course, they haven’t all agreed on their interpretations.

Before addressing more practical concerns, Paul presents a sweeping interpretation of the meaning of the life of Jesus, placing it in Jesus’ Jewish context and subversively borrowing Roman imperial propaganda to describe God’s good news given through Jesus. In doing so, Paul’s interested in God’s story and our story, and how they intersect. On God’s end, Paul says it is good news that the fulfillment of God’s purposes for history and the vindication of God’s character and justice have come to pass. On our end, there’s good news of personal renewal, renewal of the whole Earth, and the transformation of human society as well. Followers of Jesus now find themselves part of a new community, where mutual acceptance and unity – Paul insists – are more important than status. And Paul’s especially eager to see status-conscious Romans embrace this reality.

Paul is something of a cultural and historical big deal. He helped shape what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, and a community of followers of Jesus, not just in the Roman Empire, but for all of history. Yet for all that, he’s kind of difficult. Sometimes he’s ornery, like he’s in an argument we’re only hearing one side of (which is, in fact, probably the case). Sometimes he says things that seem harsh or befuddling or contradictory. His sentences and thoughts tend to run long and complicated. Take a breath, we want to say! In fact, one Pauline scholar, a man who’s made a career studying these letters, wrote a book called, “Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?” This is its own play on words with one of the most difficult passages we’ll encounter in Romans, and the implication is something like, “You, Paul, can be a real pain.”

That said, why Paul? And why Romans?

Did I mention that it’s the most famous, most high impact take on the Jesus story ever written, not just in the Bible, but in the past two thousand years? I thought that would inspire us.

Also, in a dozen or so Bible guides, we’ve read poetry and history and biography but we have never dipped into these thirteen Pauline letters, and it seemed about time.

Additionally, when you get past Paul’s intensity and inscrutable sentence structure, he’s actually a pretty fascinating author to read. Maybe you don’t want him as your friend, but there is no doubt you would follow him on Twitter! He’s what some anthropologists would call a third culture person. He was born and raised Jewish, lived much of his adult life among Gentiles, but wasn’t fully accepted or appreciated by either community. He was trained to be a conservative Bible scholar and rabbi. Yet his passion for Jesus – discovered almost despite himself – and his desire for all people to be able to access faith and community in Jesus alienated him from parts of the Jewish community. In his writings, he’s consistently working out how the life of Jesus can bring joy and purpose and wellness to all people, who can then live in rich, interdependent community with one another.

Perhaps most importantly, reading Romans seemed a great way to help us discover the significance of Jesus for ourselves, and in our times, again. Perhaps we’ll even fall in love with Jesus ourselves, and find some of the same joy and purpose and wellness and community that Paul’s first century readers did as well.

One final note before we begin. I’m thankful for the many Bible scholars I’ve read over the years. These are people who have spent their careers trying to illumine these ancient texts for modern readers. Two great sources that have been particularly influential in my preparation are the published work of Robert Jewett and N.T. Wright. I’ll be sharing their insights again and again – consider them credited.

Jewett, Robert. Romans. A Short Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.

Wright, N.T. The Letter to the Romans. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.