In the ancient Roman world letter writing was quite common. People traveled much more than we generally think, though travel was by foot or by boat and, perhaps, by horseback. Travel was much slower than today, yet it was quite common. This made letter writing much more feasible as merchants traveled all over and would often carry and deliver mail, as would servants sent specifically for this task. The average personal letter was about 90 words in length while the average literary letter—a letter from an important individual that was published for public consumption—averaged about 200 words in length. The apostle Paul’s shortest letter has 335 words while his average letter was over 1,300 words in length! His letter to the Romans was a whopping 7,114 words long! That’s longer than my longest sermon!
Paul had never met the Roman Christians. He knew several of them from elsewhere, yet he had not planted the churches there, nor did the majority of them know him. Still, he was an apostle and was traveling to Rome and so he wrote a letter to them. Priscilla and Aquila were there and Paul had labored with them in ministry in various places. Surely they gave him the “inside scoop” as to the strengths and weaknesses of the churches in that large city.
There is a lot of scholarly debate over the purpose of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. A great many books are still being written about this. One thing is quite clear, however, and that is that the Christians in Rome were at odds with one another. They were divided along ethnic lines, with Jews and Gentiles assembling separately. The population of Rome in the first century was about a million people so it would have been impossible for all the Christians to assemble together every week, so various local churches were established all over the city. These tended to divide along the various lines we see today. One huge area of division was food, specifically, whether or not to eat meat. In a city such as Rome the vast majority of meat markets were connected to temples of various gods and the meat being sold was meat from animals that had been offered in sacrifice. Some Christians understood that nothing is unclean in itself (Romans 14:14) and so they had no problem purchasing and eating such meat while others could not, in good conscience, eat meat they knew had been offered to an idol. Paul clearly sides with those who ate meat yet he warned them to love their brothers and sisters more than food and to abstain from eating meat if it caused the other to stumble. His hope for the myriad Christians in Rome is expressed in chapter 15 of his letter:
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.Romans 15:5–7 ESV
In the great scholarly debate over the purpose of Romans are those who say this is the real reason Paul wrote this letter: to urge them to be united in spite of their ethnic and culinary and cultural differences. They have Jesus in common, therefore they should be able to assemble together—”with one voice”—and worship the Lord.
In this chapter he goes on to tell them this:
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.Romans 15:14 ESV
He had received reports from various sources, include Priscilla and Aquila, and though he had never met most of them, he knew them quite well. He is emphatic in declaring their competence in the faith. They know their stuff! They have been taught well and they are even able to instruct one another in the faith. This is high praise from the apostle! Yet the very next thing he writes is this:
But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.Romans 15:15–16 ESV
This idea of reminding them carries the idea of reminding them again. They know it, but there is a real need for him to spell out these things they know in great detail for them again. What he is really doing is showing them the implications of what they already know. Theodore of Mopsuestia put it this way:
Paul is telling them that he has not received anything new or wonderful which he is writing to teach them. Rather, he is just reminding them of things they have already learned.Theodore of Mopsuestia, “Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church”
In other words, he’s not really sharing something new with them—just some things they’ve either forgotten or have not yet worked through the practical implications for them. It is really interesting that these words come after a chapter in which he tells them to love one another even though some are carnivores and some are vegetarians. I know the theological issues behind eating meat and abstaining from meat offered to idols is more significant than mere dietary choices, yet Paul is writing this letter to remind them of the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done, and what it means for them on a very practical level.
He tells them that he has been given the “priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable”. What is this offering? It is the same offering that Jewish Christians offer to God. In chapter 12 he tells all of them to present their “bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”. Paul functions like a priest in this regard. A significant part of his ministry is helping Christians live as living sacrifices. He’s reminding them again of what they already know, that they might offer every square inch of their existence as a sacrifice to the Lord. How they think about food and how they put others before themselves are directly impacted by the gospel. While Paul has spent considerable time writing about the gospel in this letter—the first eleven chapters!—this is no mere mental or academic exercise, and the gospel is not simply the message that “if you believe this, you go to heaven when you die”.
Paul’s point throughout this letter is that the gospel is the very power of God, and this power of God is used to completely and utterly change us, and that no part of our lives is to be separated from the implications of this truth. After spending eleven chapters explaining the gospel, here is his very first point of application:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.Romans 12:1–2 ESV
The very first thing Paul says after explaining the gospel in great detail is this: live as if it were true! Let the gospel of Jesus permeate every fiber of your being. Let the truth of Jesus transform your thinking. This renewing of the mind requires that we think of life and this world from the lens that God in Christ through his Spirit is victorious over sin and death. It requires that we see the world and ourselves from God’s perspective, and God isn’t about to let meat and vegetables be a thing that divides the very people for whom Christ died (Romans 14:15)!
It is true that we are both physical and spiritual beings. We have physical bodies with physical needs and we have spirits with spiritual needs, but if we separate these two by thinking that the physical and spiritual needs are not actually intertwined, we miss the importance of the letter to the Romans. We cannot separate the two. We are physical beings united with our spiritual selves, and every last bit of our lives ought to be brought into conformity to the truth of Christ. At the very least, this means how we love one another ought to flow out of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our thinking is what controls our actions. If I understand that God is for me, not against me, that God desires my highest good in any situation, and I can know this because Paul says earlier in Romans that God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us, then I know that there is nothing good God will withhold from me. If I understand this then I know that whatever obstacles I face in this life, however painful, even if the source of pain is a fellow believer in Jesus, God is working for my highest good. If I truly comprehend the enormity of the good news of Jesus, there is no area of my life that will not be transformed. This will be seen especially in my relationships with others.
The gospel is about God working to completely and utterly transform everything that is, and this transformation begins with you and with me and is seen in how we love one another. It is good to be reminded of this. Again.