So what is the purpose of the letters which make up most the rest of the New Testament? Having looked at the Gospels and Acts which tells the story of the beginnings of the spread of the message, we turn to the early writings of some of the apostles. Most of the letters are written by Paul but they do not appear in any particular order. The letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians were probably written around AD60 while Paul was a prisoner in Rome. He received visitors during that time; people who kept him informed of all that was going on in the churches in Greece and Asia Minor. It is worth remembering that these letters are often only one side of a conversation or a reaction to a problem. As you read ask yourself what may have prompted the responses you are reading.
As usual a cross-reference Bible may be useful.
Thoughts about Romans
Rome – the centre of the empire, and consequently of the known world at the time of Paul – was important to Paul’s strategy to reach the Gentiles. And, of course, he was himself a Roman citizen. He wanted to get there but there was so much to do first, so he wrote. He had been on three exhausting journeys around Asia Minor and Greece and was probably, at the time of writing, in Corinth preparing to take a relief fund back to the Christians in Jerusalem. Always planning ahead, Paul may have been thinking of his dream to travel to the other end of the Mediterranean Sea to Spain. On the way he would make that visit to Rome and so he wrote, in part perhaps to prepare the way for his arrival.
From the beginning of the letter Paul establishes the basis for his arguments; faith in God, through Christ, is the only pathway to salvation. Paul gives his impression of the evils of the world and the deepening problems; the hopelessness for all caught up in it. Many believe they can find their way out by their own efforts but the sentiment of chapter two echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 7, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged.’ Perhaps surprisingly, in the eyes of many of his readers, he is particularly hard on the Jews who regarded themselves as superior because of their observance of the Law. A Jew himself, he does not dispute the special place that a Jew may have but cautions against complacency and a sense of superiority for God holds Jew and Gentile in equal esteem – and both are equally sinners!(3:23) Jews were not alone in condemning vice in others but failing to live according to their principles. Because of the Law the Jew has less excuse for being a sinner.
So faith is the key, but not as a replacement for the Law, but as its fulfilment. Abraham is held up as an example of God’s response to faith. Faith is therefore the binding agent, not bloodline or religious observance. Jesus came to fulfil the Law (Matt 5:17) through the Cross and Resurrection but we have to believe (John 3:16-17). When we believe that the effect of the Cross offers the reverse of the events of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) then we become united with Christ through faith. The real purpose of the Law is to convince us that we cannot be free from sin by our own efforts; that we need God. And God sends his Holy Spirit to live with us and within us (chapter 8).
Paul is filled with anguish because of his fellow Jews who refuse to accept that Jesus is their Messiah while Gentiles turn to him in faith. God has kept his promises and the nation which has a history of stubbornness and rebellion remains the chosen race. And here we receive a warning against condemning Jews for failing to believe. In chapter 11 Paul clearly foresees and so counsels against holding the view that Gentile Christians are superior. Many Jews, Paul included, did become believers and therefore the hope for Israel remains. We are not to condemn but rather to hold out that hope for all who will turn according to the principle of faith.
And so in the closing chapters Paul turns to the practical implications of the life of faith; of living at peace with one another; respecting the earthly authorities except where there is direct conflict with God’s commands. We are to be sensitive to those around us and not allow our sense of freedom through faith to become a stumbling block to others. We are to follow the example of Christ who sought to embrace all with his love. So his closing remarks include a warning against causing division – faith is the key; unity is the banner.