To Hear The Good News From God
Re-Translated In September 1999
1. As of the first Lord's day this January we will be reading The Epistle To The Roman Disciples during our worship service. Today I read you the opening section, Paul's greeting to the church at Rome. It runs from verse one to verse seven. In summary, this passage says, "From Paul to everyone at Rome." Paul wrote in conformance with the general form of ancient letters. However, whoever reads this will probably notice that this explanatory parenthetical clause is considerably long. In the original document the word "Paul" comes at the very beginning. It seems as if all different kinds of things have been written to the end of verse six, but on the whole it is a way to explain the kind of person Paul is. In short, by this text Paul's understanding of himself is made open to us. The reason he wrote this so long is because it is important. When this letter was to be read by the disciples at Rome, I believe he was probably wanting them to read this letter with the knowledge of what kind of person had written it. It was not just because he had not yet visited the church at Rome, nor because he was not acquainted with them. It was necessary in order for this epistle to be correctly understood. In light of this, we will read this salutatory section in two parts, this week and next week, and will make preparations to further us along in our reading of the main body of this epistle.1
As The Gospel From God
2. In a written composition, the opinion of the author in how the text ought to be read is included. According to what I said before, understanding what kind of person the author is frequently takes on importance for the understanding of the very text itself. For example, if the person calling himself a poet has written a poem, that piece would have to be read as poetry. If after he wrote "The sun sank into the far side of the sea," it would be senseless to object with "No, the sun never sank. The earth revolved."
3. Even in this letter there is a specific way to read its text. Paul designed it so. If you don't understand Paul's design, you can't understand this letter. What was Paul saying about himself? Look at verse one. "From a servant of Christ Jesus, chosen for the gospel of God, called, and made an apostle, Paul." He calls himself "a servant of Christ Jesus." He says he is a "chosen" person. He says he is "called and made an apostle." It does not touch here upon the issue of his apostolic ministry and his apostleship, but to be brief, we should regard him as a "sent one, [apostoloV is etymologically linked to the concept of sending out]." Therefore, we understand that Paul is clearly conscious as "a servant" of the one who is his master, the one who chose him, the one who called him and the one who sent him out. In other words, with this text it is being made clear that behind the words which Paul will speak from on here after there is, in a real sense, [another] Person speaking forth these words.
4. This is also expressed in the words "gospel of God." Later Paul calls it, "my gospel," (2:16). But, it is not Paul's gospel from the start, it is first of all "the gospel of God." That is, it means that it is a gospel where God is the one [doing the speaking], it is a gospel from God, and it is a gospel that God has given to us. In other words, it is about how that what is written in this epistle is not merely the ideas of one man called Paul. Neither is it the expression of the end result of long years of research and study, nor is it a development of some original system of thought invented by Paul, nor is it a record of anything Paul arrived at spiritually by his own pious meditations or religious quest. Paul had no intentions to inform us of "man-made" [words]. He was trying to speak God-given [words]. As a sent out [apostle] he was just trying to communicate what was from God.
5. Since that's the situation, we will never have understood Paul's epistle correctly as long as we don't read it regarding him in the manner described above. When we read this letter we shouldn't read this thinking only of just the man Paul alone. We must direct our thoughts to the One behind it, to the One who chose, called, and sent Paul out. We cannot understand this epistle without a respect for that One. Even if we're some kind of world class biblical scholar or a celebrated specialist in classical literature, or whatever we might be, we cannot read this letter correctly without a respect for God and unless we have thoughts that humbly try to receive the message from God.
As The One Promised In The Old Testament
6. Next comes verse two; it is a portion written referring to the phrase "gospel of God" back in verse one.2 Here Paul records a few points regarding what "the gospel of God" is. When something like this is written within a salutation, it is probably going to have something to do with the very contents of the epistle. To put another way, what Paul will seek to speak on from here all the way through the entire epistle is nothing but the one and only "gospel of God." We will be seeking to hear "the gospel" from here on. From now on after this, [God] intends to tell us "the good news."
7. However, before we can hear this "gospel," that is, the good news, the orientation of its purpose must be established. Because our world is filled with imitations of the gospel and news that sounds good. It is full of messages that promise easy happiness as if words contained salvation and full of messages that promise liberation from all kinds of predicaments. The reason the marketplace is so full of this type of "good news" is that from one perspective "bad news" has filled up the world. Thus, people feel glad and are attracted to good news that easily makes them happy. Actually this same stuff went on even in the Greek and Roman world back in the day Paul used to lived in. The scene back then was full of all kinds of messages and ideas which spoke on salvation. Amid this world with all its supposed good news, Paul will try to clarify what in the world the message is that he is now seeking to give. He says, "This gospel, which God long ago promised through the prophets in the scriptures, has to do with his son," (verse three and the first half of verse four).
8. Here Paul was telling us that the gospel which he proclaimed had a background in the long history of the people of God and that it was based on the events prophesied and fulfilled in [their history]. In short, the words Paul was giving had roots deeply dug into the soil of the earth; [these roots] were events of revelation from God that were manifested in history. Earlier I said that it did not come from humankind, but was "the gospel of God." But, this does not mean that it was simply a special revelation based on some sort of mystical experience Paul undertook. The gospel, which Paul was trying to tell, was not only not his own idea or conceptualization, neither was it a type of oracle that was in the mystery religions back then, nor was it a type of special "divine consciousness" which persons called "spirit men" claimed to have. The reason Paul became a Christian was indeed because he had heard the voice of the risen Christ on his way to Damascus. The details to that are recorded in Acts the ninth chapter. And also when he became a gospel missionary, it was because he was called and sent out by Christ. That's what the text says recorded in verse one. It goes beyond our conjectures and is definitely a mystical experience that we cannot enter into. But, Paul will not attempt to give the gospel from these experiences of his. He would do his best to speak basing it on the words of scripture which have been transmitted in the setting of the history of God's people.
9. This is very important for us to recognize. I say this because we who live in Japan are easily inclined toward novelties. Unfortunately we have assumed religious characteristics and have no doubt experienced oracles, mystical appearances, and forms of spiritualistic powers. Many people are attracted to such things. We know that from seeing the numbers of that type of publication stacked up like mountains in the book shops. When we live as if only what is in front of our eyes is important, we accept whatever seems to be useful at that particular moment and whatever seems to help us then without engaging our minds in the investigative process. But, we have got to think carefully. And if there's any thing else besides, we shouldn't seek for matters pertaining to salvation in the kinds of shady practices that have no grounding on a firm foundation. This is not just a problem outside the church. When we talk of the church, we are thinking about just this congregation in before us. We still only think about "the now." So, I suppose that probably most of us worshipping here have never even considered that we are connected to the people in the Old Testament. We must read [this] Pauline epistle while sensing the gravity of the fact that the gospel is still being preached today, which is grounded on events that were promised through the prophets and fulfilled [in history].
As A Matter Pertaining To The Son
10. Well, the promised gospel of God, Paul says, is defined as "It is a matter that pertains to the son." The son is defined as the One we call Lord and Jesus Christ. Paul is ultimately trying to speak on the facts of the son. Since that's the case, we too should also read this epistle with a concentration on the facts of the Son. What does the coming of Jesus Christ promised in the Bible through the prophets and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have to do with our salvation? We should follow that closely. If we don't understand the Son, it will mean that we have not really read this epistle. Furthermore, we could probably even go so far as to say we have not really read the Bible. The Son whom we ought to know is briefly touched upon as follows: "The Son was born from the lineage of David according to the flesh and determined as the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead according to a spirit which is holy. This person is our Lord Jesus Christ," (the second half of verse three through verse four). I think this was probably an expression that was already used as a set form in the primitive church. Paul inserted it here and got it ready for when it would later develop in its completed form.
11. How are we to begin looking at Christ? First of all, Paul says "according to the flesh." Flesh means the existence which belongs to this temporal world. The Son was certainly born in the lineage of David. In other words, he was born exactly like us as a person in history and in the world. He shares this same earthly reality in which we live. "The gospel of God" which Paul gives is not some kind of idealistic argument totally unrelated to our every day lives. Insofar as it is "a matter pertaining to the Son," it pertains to our own every day reality. Because the Son "was born in the flesh in the lineage of David." The gospel has something to do with our daily troubles and sufferings. It has to do with the pains, sorrows, groanings, and despair which we experience. However, it is not a message of a simple superficial patchup for our problems. Because to say [we] are "flesh" is deeply full of suffering. It has to do with our destination, with our sin and death. Our sufferings and afflictions do not merely come from troubles in interpersonal relationships, neither from economic hardships, nor from physical and emotional illnesses. At a very deep place within us there is sin, and we are beings on the way to ruin, [suffering] comes from the fact we are people with that kind of "flesh." The Son was born in the flesh in the lineage of David. The gospel of God has to do with us, people with that kind of flesh.
12. However, had this person been only born of just the lineage of David and nothing more, he could not be our savior. Because the salvation of humanity could not be achieved by what comes from within humankind. No matter how great he was, since he was only the lineage of David, he could not bring about salvation. To think that what comes from humankind can save a person is to think like the child who has fallen into a hole and grabs the back of his own neck and tries to pull himself up out of the hole. Salvation must come from the outside.
13. Paul speaks on it some more. "[He] was determined as the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead according to a spirit which is holy." The phrase "according to a spirit which is holy" is expressing the dimension that goes beyond this temporary world. He was determined as the Son of God with power while at the same time he was a descendant of David. By what was [he determined to be the Son of God with power]? It was by the resurrection of the dead. (However, although it is translated "determined," Jesus did not first become the Son of God by the resurrection. It would be better to render the meaning of this as "it became clear that he was," "he was revealed.")
14. As for the resurrection of Christ, since this very thing is a circumstance of the dimension that goes beyond this temporary world, it is a situation that truly surpasses our understanding. I suppose it was probably that way too for the disciples when they encountered the risen Christ. But, there had been one thing he made clear to them. What is that [one thing]? [He made clear] that he is the son of God with power. [He made clear] that he is not simply a person that is to become a great king in this world, or a great leader, or even a great teacher. [He made clear] the fact that he is the one who goes beyond the dimension of this world, he is the Son of God with power. Insofar as the the gospel of God is "a matter which pertains to the Son," it is not a condition of the temporary dimension of this world. [The gospel] is not simply something like "Oh, let's live as the great person Jesus lived," nor is it "Let's live according to the teachings of Jesus." [The point is that the gospel is not just something to imitate because Jesus is a great role model. The gospel is much more than that.] By [attempting to imitate Jesus or follow his teachings] we, who are nothing more than flesh, cannot be saved. The gospel of God has to do with him who "was determined as the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead according to a spirit which is holy."
15. Today we read the first half of the salutatory section. Before we enter into the contents of this epistle, we had to first of all set the direction for how we ought to read it. [It comes from God.] And I should probably say that we ought to keep on retaining this orientation in our minds whenever we read other passages in the Bible. Next week I would like to read the succeeding verses from verse five on.
1 The text for all the sermons in the Roman series is the Shinkyodo Version or The New Interconfessional Version. The Japanese have more than one translation of the Bible just as all the other major language groups do.
2The English version called the New International Version has the word "gospel" in Romans 1:1 and 1:2, but the King James Version does not; it uses the referent "which" to refer back to the preceding word "gospel." The original Greek text is most interesting because it uses the referent in verse two, but the verb which follows contains a verbal form of the word "gospel" "proephggeilato."