Introduction to Paul's Letter to the Romans with Prof. N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright
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Paul and His Letter to the Romans: Part One (Romans 1-5)

A Guide to the Apostle Paul's Masterpiece Epistle to the Romans. This Course Covers Romans Chapters One Through Five.

05:55:03 of on-demand video • Updated December 2020

  • Embrace the beauty of this magnificent letter from the pen of the Apostle Paul.
  • Understand the historical background that is so important to discerning the meaning of this pivotal epistle.
  • Discern how the Apostle Paul brings forth an argument with majesty and complexity.
  • Explain the movement of the main themes in Paul's Letter to the Romans.
  • Dig deeply into the intricacies of specific sections within the letter.
  • Explicate how the strands of key thoughts keep interweaving through the text much as a major symphonic orchestral work returns to movements that reinforce the underlying elements of the work.
  • Discuss how key theological ideas and thoughts are worked through by the Apostle Paul.
  • Realize the wonderful background of OT texts upon which the argument of the letter depends.
English Send Paul's letter to the romans is one of the most famous documents in the whole of the church literature . In fact it's like a great mountain peak standing up above. Almost everything else perhaps only the gospel of John and the revelation doesn't John would even come close to it and like all Paul's letters it is extraordinarily dense and rich its material is crowded together as though Paul can't wait to say the next thing and the next thing and they come tumbling out over one another. And that costs us a lot in terms of the effort that we have to put in to get clear as to what the thing is about overall. And it's easy here above all to get lost among the trees and never actually see the forest. So what I want to do in this first session and in the next two as well is to give you a sense of the larger picture what is ROMANS All about as a whole. And then we can gradually move in bit by bit to examining the parts themselves and see how they make up this extraordinary hole. Now as I say like all Paul's writings Romans is very vivid and dramatic and also detailed but it's different from the other letters in two particular ways. First it's got a very careful structure. When you get to know Romans you'll see that it works rather like a great classical symphony. It's in four movements chapters 1 to 4 to 5 to 8 9 to 11 and then chapters 12 to 16 and these are quite different in terms of their style. Lay out their mode of argument. And yet there is a consistent line of thought running through the whole thing or perhaps I should say a set of lines of thought into weaving with one another which run throughout the whole thing so that we need to be alert. Paul doesn't do it like this anywhere else but here he seems to have a particular sequence of thought in mind. And we have to be careful here because often in the history of interpretation of Romans people have had the idea that this represents different kinds of theology as though Paul has shall we say a law court theology in the first four chapters and then something else perhaps participation in Christ theology in chapters 5 to age and so on and so on as though we can then play these off against one another and privilege one against the other. But the letter doesn't work like that. The different things which we sometimes perceive in these different sections actually support one another . They go with one another they modify and interweave with one another. And it's only when we see that whole flow of thought and how these ideas fit together that we get the full majesty of the entire letter. But there's another way in which Romans is significantly different from most of Paul's other writings and that's in its use of the Hebrew Scriptures or the Greek Scriptures they would be for Paul. Paul knew his Hebrew Scriptures but he seems mostly to have quoted them in the Septuagint or the old Greek version of what we Christians call the Old Testament Romans is saturated in scripture. It's as though Paul. Right the way through is determined to be arguing in relation to scripture drawing on texts from the law the prophets the writings and quoting a passage expounding it coming back to it. He doesn't do it the same all through. And that's because of the different subject matter from movement to movement of this great symphony . But even when as in Romans 5 to 8 he isn't quoting so much scripture as he doesn't say 1 to 4 or 9 to 11 he is nevertheless drawing on scriptural themes the whole time and we need to be alert for where he's getting his ideas from because as he says right at the beginning of the letter the gospel which he's talking about is the gospel according to the Scriptures. And again and again he comes back to the Scriptures and in his great summary which I'll come to in just a moment. He talks about the scriptures being given so that by patience and study of these scriptures we might have hope. And that's of course where a lot of Romans is going. So Romans has a lot to do with a movement of thought which he sets up one sequence of ideas then transposes it into something else and then comes back and moves elsewhere. And also with the whole time expounding the Scriptures is specially Genesys particularly Genesis 1 2 and 3. The picture of Adam Genesis 15 the picture of Abraham and the covenant that God made with Abraham and then also the exodus not so explicit in quotations but definitely there in the theme particularly in chapters 5 to 8 Deuteronomy. One recent scholar has said that Deuteronomy 32 seems to be one of Paul's all time favorite chapters and certainly there's a lot of it in Romans. Then there's the Psalms Psalm Tucson 8 some 44 Psalm 110 is in the background and lots of others as well and perhaps particularly I desire. And the book of Isaiah are particularly chapters 40 to 55 seems to suffuse Paul's writing pretty well throughout this whole letter now because Romans has the kind of shapen power and majesty that it does it's no surprise that it's been a favorite and a very powerful letter throughout the history of the church. And famously Augustine was converted through hearing a passage of Romans being read Luther famously made Romans the center of the Protestant Reformation that he was launching John Wesley in the 18th century was converted through hearing a preface to the letter to the Romans and he found his heart strangely warmed. And then of course in the 20th century the great Swiss theologian car Bart made the exposition of the letter to the Romans. Central to what he was doing in the aftermath of the first world war and Bart's commentary on Romans remains a remarkable book to this day even though that first commentary has slightly less to do with Romans itself than one might have thought at the time but Romans has had this impact on one thinker after another and it's by wrestling with Romans that generations and generations of Christians have wrestled with the central issues of the faith particularly the issue of who is God what can we say about God. One of the strange things to testicular is that when you look at all of Paul's letters the word God through us in Greek occurs far more proportionately in Romans than in any other of Paul's writings. It's as though he is determined to write about who God is about the righteousness of God about the justice that is of God the covenant faithfulness of God. One might almost say the Gardiners of God the sovereignty of God God's plan from beginning to end and God's purpose not only for the whole of history but for every single man woman and child and this Purpose of course funneled down specifically onto what Paul says about Jesus geezer's Israel's Messiah Jesus the Lord of the world. Jesus the one in whom all believers find their true identity. Now of course there's no chance in a set of short studies like this to engage with the history of scholarship . There are hundreds and hundreds of commentaries on Romans and thousands of articles on virtually every verse and every passage in the letter. I've studied some of those over the years and I've tried to write about it all myself but there won't be a chance to engaged in detail with that in this course. You'll have to go and do that bit of homework for yourself if you want to follow it up. What I want to do is to line up for you the argument of the letter in outline and then in detail as best as I can. Having studied it for quite a long time myself the theme of Romans I think is clear. It is about God's revelation of Himself and His purposes in Jesus the Messiah right at the start. Paul states this in chapter 1 verses 3 and 4 when he talks about Jesus as Israel's Messiah the one who is descended from the seed of David according to the flesh and marks out her son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead. Chapter 1 verses 3 and 4. And Paul goes on to talk about this as the center of the gospel the gospel isn't just a message about how you can be saved. It isn't simply good advice about how to reorder your life. It's news about something that the One True God has done in and through Jesus of Nazareth who God has declared to be Israel's Messiah. And then when we go right through Romans all the way to Chapter 15 where the theological argument of the letter reaches its goal we find something very similar in chapter 15 verses 7 to 13 the last great paragraph of theological exposition when he talks about what the Messiah has done fulfilling the purposes of God so that the Gentiles might join Israel in worshipping God and glorifying him and all this comes together with a quote from Isaiah 11 verse 10 in Romans 15 verse 12 when he says that desire puts it like this. There will be the root of Jesse the one who rises to rule the nations and in him the nations will hope . And there you have that circle all the way from chapter 1 verse 3 and 4 about the resurrection of Jesus declaring him to be Son of God in power. And now at the end 15 verse 12 this quote from desire about the Messiah who rises to rule the nations and all of the rest of Romans is really held together within that Messianic statement Jesus has fulfills God's promises God's purposes the purposes of God for Israel. But now fulfilled through Israel's Messiah. And here's a point which people often miss that God's purposes for Israel according to Paul and he would say according to the old testament whenever a private game between God and Israel away from the rest of the world the whole point was that what God did for Israel was what he was doing through Israel for the world. So if God has according to Paul fulfilled those purposes in Jesus then this is world wide good news and part of the point of the letter is for Paul to explain how his own apostleship works that because he has been commissioned with this essentially Jewish good news. This old testament based good news. It must be his mission to take it to the ends of the earth. And so we see in chapter 1 and Chapter 15 him talking about his own mission in that way. And we can see this focus on Jesus coming at certain key points throughout the letter. Jesus isn't mentioned very much actually in the first four chapters but where he is it's explosive in Chapter 2 Verse 16. Paul talks about God having unveiled his plan that he is going to sort the world out to judge the world that is through this man Jesus of Nazareth through the Messiah. That's central to Paul's gospel. And then when he draws together in a little tight compressed formula what it is that God has done in order to bring everything around the corner and out into the new age at last chapter 3 verses 24 to 26. He talks very densely about the death of Jesus as we shall see. And then he sums it up at the end of chapter four. When he talks about Jesus who was given up for our trespasses and raised for our justification and though he hasn't actually mentioned Jesus in the previous chapter or so. It's clear from that final summary that Jesus has been underneath what he's been saying all along. And then in chapters 5 6 7 and 8 there's an extraordinary sequence of endings to paragraphs and chapters where each argument that Paul makes he draws it together by saying through Jesus the Messiah or our Lord or in the Messiah Jesus our Lord or something like that. It's as though he's determinedly allowing the centrality of Jesus even to affect the style the way he's lined up his arguments. And then when he starts off both chapters 9 to 11 and chapters 12 to 16 he starts with a pregnant Christological formular like he did in Chapter 1 verses 3 and 4. Chapter 9 verse 5 when he talks about Jesus as the Messiah of Israel according to the flesh and God over all blessed forever. A two part Jesus statement rather like the one in Chapter 1 verses 3 and 4. And as that one. So this one standing over the argument that's to follow and giving it its density and shape and then in chapter 12 verses three four and five. He talks about the church being one body in the Messiah which then sets the framework for the basic argument of chapters 12 to 16. So clearly Jesus footpod is central to what he is saying about God God's purposes God's people God's future. I have stressed in my own work over against quite a lot of scholarship of the last hundred years that when Paul uses the word Christophe's for Jesus he really does mean Messiah the anointed one the true king promised by God to Israel. Now there's no time to go into all the technicalities of that but it seems to me not only that this makes sense in terms of Paul's world where the word Christophe's was not basically a proper name and where indeed in the Christian writings subsequent to Paul Jesus goes on being referred to very explicitly as Messiah and is known as such even by non-Christian writers like the Jewish historian Josephus who much later refers to James as the brother of the so called Christophe's the so-called Messiah. So clearly the idea of Jesus as Messiah resonated on a long time after Paul. And so it seems to me highly likely that when we find in arguments about the Israel shaped or scripture shaped purposes of God Jesus referred to as Christophe's that this is not for Paul just a proper name as so often it is for us. People talk about Jesus Christ as though Jesus is his first name and Christ is His second name or his surname. No for Paul this is an honorific It's a special word like a title only a bit more special again and it means Jesus is the anointed one who sums up God's purposes for Israel and draws them to the point where all along they had been intended to go. Jesus is therefore the focal point of God's purposes for Israel and that becomes the thematic point after point in this whole letter. And this is important for another reason as well because there is a certain messianic logic to the whole of early Christianity today. We are so used to thinking of religions and comparative religions so that we are inclined to line up Christianity Judaism Islam Buddhism in the first century. It wasn't like that at all. It was a world of many faiths many religions religion and public life were all bound up together. And the early Christians didn't think that they were starting something called a new religion for them . What mattered was that the one true God had shown that Jesus was Israel's Messiah. But what would that mean. There was no one identikit messianic package in the first century so that you could say well if there's a messiah he must do this this and this and fulfill these scriptures. There was a cluster of scriptures which different groups could call on in different ways at different times so that the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls drew on various sayings from the Old Testament to say well when the Messiah comes this is what he will be like. And different revolutionary groups as well like the different movements that led up to the Jewish war of 66 to 70 as the Roman Jewish war ending with the destruction of Jerusalem or others that the revolt a generation or two later under Badcock far in the 130 A.D. Barcott far was hailed as Messiah. We're not quite sure which biblical texts his supporters used to back up that claim but there are ideas around those revolutionary movements as well as around the texts that we still have that sustain the idea that many Jews of the time were hoping in some generalized way with occasional focuses this way or that that when God did what God had promised to do and reversed the fortunes of his people and brought them out of the darkness and into the light at last then this might well happen through a king who would come who would defeat the great wicked enemy that were oppressing God's people and would rebuild or cleanse the temple and bring in a measure some sort of new rule some new divine sovereignty to bear on the whole world. And it looks as though Jesus himself and then his first followers took this cluster of half formed expectations and gave it a radical new focus. And that certainly is what Paul is doing when he says that the death and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth constitute the central messianic events as though to redefine even what a Messiah would be and would mean around those events. This is not then about comparative religion as though the Christians were saying we've got a better system than yours. It's about what you might call messianic eschatology that is a view of God's purposes and God's future shaped around the claim that this person is the true Messiah. This is therefore for Paul a deeply Jewish message for the whole world. We can imagine Paul as a young man praying the Psalms Psalm to some 72 some of those great messianic hymns and then on being confronted with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus thinking through those and thousands of other passages in a quite new way and saying oh my this is how they have all been fulfilled and seeing this scriptural network of promises rushing together in and around Jesus. Paul then is picking up throughout Romans the story of Israel which was going somewhere but nobody quite knew where. And he's saying through the very shaping of the letter itself that where it was going all along was Jesus Himself Israel's Messiah and the Lord of the world. That's what Romans is really about.