Why does Paul make this claim in Romans 1:16? And what does he mean by it? And why does he say this in this letter to this audience?
Many interpreters consider Romans 1:16-17 as Paul’s thesis or thematic statement for the entire letter. I’m not convinced that this is the case. I agree with Daniel Kirk’s contention in Unlocking Romans that Paul states it earlier. While “the summative nature of these two verses is undeniable . . ., Paul declares his intentions and themes in Rom. 1:1-7” (pp. 6-8).
In reading vv. 16-17, however, we must keep in mind vv. 1-15 and Paul’s intentions in writing to Rome. When we do, we see that Paul’s statement in v. 16 is likely not a triumphal or defiant claim. We should not be thinking of dramatic historical moments like Luther before the Diet of Worms. Paul is not playing the role of a lone faithful disciple before a hostile audience.
We don’t know exactly what was happening in the Roman churches or how much Paul knew about the situation. We can, however, read Romans carefully and take into account what we know historically.
I had said previously that Romans is a pastoral letter written to a multi-ethnic church that is struggling with racial tensions. Since the founding of the church and for about twenty years, there had been a pretty clear power arrangement. Jewish Christians formed the backbone of the Christian community and were well-established in the leadership of the churches. The mode of life in the Christian community was thoroughly Jewish and the lines between the Christian churches and Jewish synagogues may have been very blurry. Converts among gentiles over the years adjusted to these patterns of community life.
With the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 CE, things changed. Gentiles took responsibility out of necessity and likely filled leadership roles with growing confidence. The communal patterns of life changed, too, in ways that reflected a non-Jewish membership.
In 54 CE, Jews were allowed to return to Rome with the death of Claudius and the rise of Nero. As anyone in ministry knows, five years is a very long time in the life of a church or network of house churches. The community has changed.
With the return of Jewish Christians, there is tension and perhaps even some isolated open conflicts. Those who had formerly enjoyed roles of leadership expect to speak once again with the voice of authority and resume their previous positions of prominence. Jewish Christians would have noticed that many particular communal practices that make up a Jewish mode of life have been neglected. Certain feasts and holidays no longer orient the rhythms of life.
The Jewish Christians likely stressed the need to restore faithfulness to the Jewish Law. They would have associated the particular practices of a Jewish mode of life with obedience to Jesus. They would have seen the larger issue of community practices in terms of faithfulness to God.
There is tension, then, between Jewish Christians insisting on renewed Law observance that involved the particulars of a Jewish mode of life and non-Jewish Christians who have grown comfortable with how community life had evolved over five years’ time.
The former community leaders among the Jewish Christians were asserting their ethnic priority as God’s historic people. They had the priority in God’s saving work in the world and thus the privilege, and not the gentiles, to determine the shape of community life. They may have adopted the mantra, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
The community tensions have produced widespread discouragement. A formerly thriving community with a clear mission had adapted to the loss of leadership with the expulsion of the Jews. With their return, what was envisioned as a shot in the arm has produced discouragement. There is hopelessness in the community and resentment between community leaders.
Even more distressing is that the situation is being exacerbated by the renewal of attention to the Law. How can this be? How does renewed attention to God’s word produce bad fruit? Getting ahead of ourselves, I think this is the question Paul answers in Romans 7.
But just to say here, Paul’s tone in Rom. 1:16-17 is far more compassionately pastoral than defiantly triumphant. He’s speaking to a community that has lost hope in the work of God to unite Jew and gentile in God’s new family in Christ.
He says in v. 15 that he’s eager to come to Rome to see the gospel bear fruit among them. He wonders if their response might be, “Why? What’s the point? To see us further discouraged and put the final nail in the coffin of our formerly thriving community?”
Paul expresses his confidence that God’s saving power is indeed currently working through the gospel–God’s new move to unite Jews and non-Jews in Christ by the power of God’s Spirit. Despite their current discouragement, the gospel does indeed have the power to transform them and produce among them a harvest of righteousness. His letter is pastoral counsel on how they can see this happen.