Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Romans

Romans is the first of Paul’s many letters, and I believe that the key to understanding it lies in an obscure passage in chapter 15. Paul is writing to a church he did not found, and which he has never visited, but he is setting out perhaps the clearest exposition of the Christian gospel to be found anywhere in the NT. Was he writing to put them straight over some points of doctrine or behaviour, as is clearly the case with some other letters? There is no hint of this at all in the letter: compare it, for example, with Galatians, to which we will come shortly.

 Dionisii (Dionysius). The Apostle Paul.

I think there is a different purpose behind his letter. He is not trying to get the Roman Christians to be orthodox: he is telling them that he is. 15:17 begins a section in which Paul is saying that he has finished his work in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. From the origins in Jerusalem right round to Illyricum (modern-day Croatia, the last stop before Italy) Paul has preached the gospel and planted churches. We know that his ministry has always been to break new ground, rather than building on the work of others (v 20), so (v 23) there is nowhere else for him to go. But he has one burning ambition left – to do in the western Med what he has done in the east. He wants to go to Spain (don’t we all as autumn draws on?). But that is a bit of a distance from his base in Antioch, so he is looking for a new ‘sending church’, and Rome seems an admirable choice.


But how will the Christians there know whom they are taking on, and more importantly can they trust him? So Paul writes to them setting out in detail the gospel he will be preaching under their sponsorship, and in the process gives us the greatest account of what the Christian gospel means to be found anywhere in the Bible.


The first eight chapters spell out clearly and logically what the gospel is, beginning from human sin and rebellion and ending with the crashing crescendo of chapter 8 and the triumphal cry of ‘No condemnation’ for those in Christ Jesus. There is then a three chapter diversion into the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, a key issue in the church in Rome due to its particular history. Then, in 12:1 comes the fateful word ‘Therefore’ which marks the division between good theology and its outworking in right behaviour. Chapter 12 to 15 spell out how Christians ought to live in the light of the gospel, and covers such up-to-date topics as roles within the church, respect for secular authorities, and the treatment of those who see things differently from how we see them. Finally he sets out his hope to come to Rome to begin the new phase of his ministry, and adds a chapter of personal greetings: many of the characters he knows because their paths have crossed in the past.


Romans is one of the best NT books to study in detail, because of its clear explanation of the gospel. Some of its arguments may sound a little strange to our ears, but it all makes perfect sense and would be a great way to spend six months of your homegroup’s or congregation’s life.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Acts

It is very clear from the first paragraph that Acts is volume two of Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus, who continues to be very much present among his followers as the church is born and they continue the work he began. The story is obviously selective, as we saw last week that John’s was, but Luke’s guiding principle is set out clearly in 1:8. The believers are to receive the Holy Spirit, and then the gospel is going to spread out from the city of Jerusalem, to the ‘county’ of Judea, and to the neighbouring territory of Samaria, which was considered Jewish by the Gentiles but foreign by the Jews, rather as Wales might be to Americans and to the English. Then it would spread to the ends of the earth. The rest of the book is the story of how this happened.


The Spirit comes, as promised, during the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, which celebrated the firstfruits of the harvest, and the disciples, who have now become ‘apostles’, are supernaturally gifted not just with speaking in tongues but also with boldness to preach and demonstrate the gospel. Within a very short time the church has grown to thousands of members, who are seeking to live out their community life of prayer, learning, generosity and service. Then in chapter 8 Philip takes the gospel to Samaria, and the same supernatural life springs up.

 All Saints Episcopal Church, Jensen Beach, Florida windows 010.jpg

The focus then shifts to Paul, who is dramatically converted in chapter 9, and who will be the one to take the gospel into the world of the Gentiles. His missionary journeys fill the rest of the book, until his arrest and transportation to Rome to face trial.


One significant feature alongside the spiritual power and success of the church in Acts is the fierce opposition they face, almost from day one. As a general rule opposition comes not from the occupying Romans but from the religious Jews: Paul’s appeal to be tried by Caesar in 25:11 suggests that he thinks he will fare better there than before the Jewish Sanhedrin. But even within the church there is opposition: the conversion of some Gentiles is a matter for deep suspicion, Abraham’s call notwithstanding, and it takes the first General Synod in chapter 15 to allow Gentile believers into the church. The study of opposition is an important area with which to engage in the church today, riddled as we are by hostility to new things. Acts suggests that it doesn’t take very long at all for traditions to get set in stone and to become hostile to the work of the Spirit.


Significant in the book are the ‘we’ passages, in which Luke switches to the first person, suggesting strongly that he himself was an eyewitness to the events he describes. As with his Gospel, he shows concern for medical details, and for women and the poor and helpless.


But what of the ends of the earth? The book seems to end with a whimper rather than a bang, as Paul is imprisoned in Rome and fades from view. However it may not be like that. Paul arrives in Rome, not the end of the earth but its centre, to which all roads lead and presumably from which all roads go. There is some evidence that the Roman legal system allowed two years for accusers to come and make their case, after which prisoners were acquitted and set free. But even while under house arrest Paul preached freely. So there may be more of a bang there than we think. And of course as has often been said we are Acts chapter 29 as the story goes on and more and more unreached people have the opportunity to respond to the good news of God in Christ.

Image: “All Saints Episcopal Church, Jensen Beach, Florida windows 010” by Stephen B Calvert Clariosophic – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –