Background to Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome

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Background to Paul’s Letter to the Church​​ in​​ Rome

Rick Moffett​​ 



Why Romans?


Certainly, it is hard to determine that any one part of the bible is more important than another, for God’s truth is interwoven through it all. If you choose to omit any one part of it, likely you will fail to fully understand other parts. That being said, most students of the bible have their favorite scriptures, likely because the Holy Spirit has illuminated them to make a change in their life. It is my shared opinion that the book of Romans, especially​​ chapters 5-8, contains​​ some of the most important truths a person can know. They have helped me see more clearly my identity in Christ,​​ and​​ my freedom from the power of sin and from the law, consequently, changing how I live my life.  ​​​​ 


In his​​ Commentary on Romans, Martin Luther states, “This epistle is really the chief part of the New​​ Testament and​​ is truly the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul.”


In my desire to teach these truths to others, I sought to study this letter that Paul wrote to the church​​ in​​ Rome more deeply. I have no formal​​ Bible training, but I believe the Holy Spirit has led me to undertake the task of writing my own commentary. Not because I am smarter than the many who have already completed this task, but​​ because​​ the Lord might reveal to me truths that would continue to change my life, as well as the lives of others.​​ 


Context is Critical!


Likely many will skip the reading of this background to Paul’s epistle to the Roman church. In so doing, the context of this letter will be more difficult to determine and thus, the interpretation of many of the scriptures as well. Understanding the historical setting is a must for fully grasping what the author is trying to communicate to the reader here in Romans, as well as in every other book in the bible. Consider what James Fowler said on the subject of scripture interpretation –​​ “It cannot mean​​ now, what it did not mean​​ then. Otherwise, it can mean anything to anyone...”​​ So as always, historical context is critical!


A Touch of History


The letter was written in late A.D. 57 or early A.D. 58 at the end of Paul’s third missionary journey. The apostle Paul is writing to the beloved saints in Rome​​ (v7). At the writing of this letter, Paul had not yet visited Rome​​ (Rom.1:10,13;15:20-22). Rome was the capital of a Gentile empire with a population of about one million people.​​ 


In A.D.​​ 41,​​ Claudius (Emperor of Rome), expelled the Jews from Rome due to the rioting among them, presumably over Jesus as the Messiah. Around A.D. 54, the Jews were allowed to come back to Rome. While still predominately a Gentile population, it is estimated that by the time Paul wrote this letter,​​ 40-50 thousand Jews were​​ living in Rome.​​ 


Rome was the center​​ of​​ the government of the Roman Empire. It has been compared to modern-day Washington D.C.​​ 


First-century Rome was known to be filled with all kinds of debauchery and immorality, from the barbaric practices of the arena to sexual immorality of all kinds. Homosexuality, abortion,​​ and feminism did not begin in the U.S.A.; they were prevalent in Rome during the first century.​​ 


Writing this letter from Corinth, Paul likely encountered a diverse mixture of people and practices—from rough sailors and skilled tradesmen to wealthy idolaters and enslaved Christians. Not unlike Rome, Corinth was a prominent city and also a center of sexual immorality and idol worship. So, when Paul wrote in Romans about the sinfulness of humanity and the power of God’s grace to miraculously and completely change lives, he was speaking from first-hand knowledge. Each day, Paul was able to observe the same immoral lifestyles that also surrounded him in Corinth.​​ 


Who is Paul?


In case you are not familiar with the Apostle Paul, let me give you a quick overview of him.​​ He said of himself,​​ 


  • But Paul said, "I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; ..."​​ Acts 21:39​​ 


  • "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today.”​​ Acts 22:3​​ 



  • “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.”​​ Romans 11:1​​ 


  • “although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.  But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”​​ Philippians 3:4-7​​ 


  • When asked if he was a Roman citizen, Paul answered yes.​​ Acts 22:27


Paul was raised by Jewish parents who certainly had a great influence on his religious beliefs.​​ Paul was called to proclaim the gospel message to all men, but especially to the Gentiles​​ (Acts 22:21; Rom. 1:5, 11:13; Eph. 3:1;​​ etc.).​​ 


Jews and Gentiles


In the book of Romans, as in most of Paul’s writings, you see his heart (and God’s) to resolve the conflict between the Jews and the Gentiles (and​​ between the orthodox Jews in Rome and the Christian Jews). In doing so, Paul makes some comparisons and points out some distinctions between these​​ groups.​​ Seven times he specifically does this –​​ Rom 1:16, 2:9, 2:10, 3:9, 9:24, 10:12.​​ ​​ Four other times he specifically calls the Jews by name –​​ Rom. 2:17, 28, 29, 3:1. It is important to keep this in mind when trying to understand this letter to the church​​ in​​ Rome.​​ 


Being a Jew himself, Paul was also well aware of the attitude that most Jews had toward the Gentiles. The Jews were chosen by God to be his people. He revealed himself to them first, gave them his Law, and made a covenant with their patriarch, Abraham. Hence, the Jews believed they were “right with God” because of their nationality (rather than a personal decision of faith) and therefore, tended to look down on all other nations (of course there were exceptions to this attitude). Jews (especially the​​  Pharisees and Sadducees )​​ were quick to judge those who did not adhere to God’s Laws,​​ and the Gentiles certainly fell into that category! Jews seemed to believe they had special favor from God because they were Jews​​ (chapters 2-3).​​ 


But make no mistake, many Gentiles looked down on the Jews as well. Due to differences in cultural practices, religious practices (keeping the Old Covenant Law), beliefs about God (more specifically, Jesus), etc., there was much conflict, often erupting into violence between the Jews and the Gentiles.​​ 


Paul knew that with God there is no partiality; he loves the Gentiles as much as the Jews. And Paul also knew that ultimately all men, being under the condemnation of sin, needed a savior​​ (Rom. 3:9).


Church Life in Rome


Since there is no evidence of an apostle starting the church in Rome, it is unclear exactly how it was started. However, we do know that there were some from Rome present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost when God poured out his promised Holy Spirit​​ (Acts 2:10). These Roman visitors surely heard Peter’s message and likely were among the 3000 who received salvation that day. One theory is that these Roman visitors took the gospel message back to Rome, thus giving birth to the church there. ​​ 


It is important to understand,​​ that​​ the church in Rome was not a large congregation that met in a large building in the middle of the city. It was illegal for Christians to meet at the time of Paul’s writing this letter. Hence, the church in Rome met in several different house churches scattered around the city​​ (Rom. 16:5, 10-15). Initially,​​ they consisted of mostly Gentiles because of the Jewish expulsion from Rome (A.D. 41). However, by A.D. 54, Jews began to return to Rome,​​ and subsequently, the church was a mixture of both groups.​​ 


Paul addresses both Jews​​ and Gentiles in this letter. Because of the small size of these groups, conflicts among them were magnified. Again, one of the reasons for many of Paul’s epistles was to unify the Jewish believers with the Gentile believers.​​ 


Note –​​ When the bible speaks of the church, it is speaking of the body of Christ, i.e., people or groups of people who have received Christ by faith. Sadly, today the word “church” has come to mean a building where people meet. The question is often asked by​​ Christians, “Where do you go to church”. Likely, what is really being asked with this question is, “What denomination are you?” and “In what building do you meet?”. So, when you read the word “church” in the bible, think​​ of​​ people, not buildings.​​ 


In this letter,​​ Paul obviously knew the reputation of the church in Rome. He wrote in this letter that their “faith was being proclaimed throughout the world”​​ (Rom. 1:8), and “the report of their obedience had reached to all”​​ (Rom. 15:19).​​ 


Final Thoughts


When Paul wrote this letter, the church was still in its infant stages. The transition from the Old Covenant of Law to the New Covenant of grace was not a smooth one. Most Jews struggled to let go of their life under the Mosaic Law,​​ while​​ some never did. Combine that with being surrounded by the immorality and paganism of the Roman culture, and you can begin to see the many challenges that this early church group faced. That being said, we face many of the same challenges here in the 21st​​ century. As you may be aware, the church has always flourished under persecution. Today, as in the first century, the gospel is the power of God to change lives​​ (Rom. 1:16), so, don’t miss an opportunity to share it! Amen. ​​ 


Next​​ – Continue to Chapter 1




1.​​ Bible Knowledge Commentary; Walvoord, John; Zuck, Roy

2.​​ Exposition of the Epistle of the Romans; Haldane, Robert; 2006

3.​​ Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans; Luther, Martin

4.​​ Introduction to Paul’s Epistle to the Roman Christians; Fowler, James

5.​​ Earliest Days of the Roman Christian Church;​​ O’Neal, Sam

6.​​ Ancient Jewish Views of Gentiles;​​ Vankin, Jonathan​​ 

7.​​ Judaism's First Century Diversity;​​ Cohen, Shaye

8.​​ The Origins of the Church at Rome; MaGee, Greg

9.​​ 1st - 2nd century: Jews and Gentiles;​​

10.​​ Jews And Greeks In the First Century A.D.;​​ McCracken, Randy

11.​​ The Church in Rome – Jews and Greeks;​​ McCracken, Randy

12.​​ Christianity in the Roman Empire;​​ Schroeder, Steven