Paul's "Missionary Appeal" (Romans 1:1-17)

Finally, we can start reading the text now! And we're going to start at the beginning, so that we pick up where Paul's audience in Rome is expected to pick up. But first, just a smidgen of recap:

If you're following me so far, you already know that we're reading Paul's "letter" as what performance criticism suggests it was: a speech delivered by someone acting on behalf of Paul. In this case, Phoebe, his benefactor in Corinth, who is herself the pastor and leader of a congregation of the faithful in the eastern port district. This speech, Paul's formal introduction to Rome, is composed using a style of persuasive rhetoric we call "diatribe," which was a common mode for teaching. Paul/Phoebe is essentially going to draw the Roman audience into a series of arguments that will be presented before them. The goal is to persuade them over the course of the speech that, while many things they believe are true and good, some things they believe are false, and that other things, which Paul believes and they should also believe, are true in their place.

This involves, as I have said, telling the divided Roman audience their own common falsehoods, lies they believe about themselves and one another, as well as about God. The audience will see this as Paul agreeing with them, and will of course agree with him. And in every case Paul will then topple the lies and set up the truth in such a way that the audience is persuaded to follow him. They will learn, and so will we, to differentiate falsehood and truth, and to become better people for it.

Ah, but not right off. First, we need introductions. We need to introduce "Paul the Missionary" to the Roman audience—and in the process, we get to introduce them to themselves.

Putting the Diatribe to Work: Appealing to the Audience

What kind of lie is the easiest to accept? Flattery, of course: the lie that affirms. And flattery goes down especially well when combined with the truth told slant.

In every address of Paul to an audience, made through an actor who is essentially presenting Paul as a character in his absence, the most important job is to introduce him in such a way as he is likely to be heard. And part of this is also reminding the audience of Paul's relationship to them, telling them who they are to Paul and who Paul is to them.

And that works in Philippi, Galatia, Thessalonika, and Corinth, because Paul already had credit with those audiences. Those letters all belong to existing relationships, with mutual obligations and shared experiences Paul can draw on. They knew him, he had been influential in their founding and/or growth as communities in Christ, he had spent time among them, they built partnerships and worked together, &c. None of that applies here in Rome. It's likely his reputation has preceded him (which is always a mixed bag), and there are also people here that he knows well enough from elsewhere ... but Rome owes him nothing. There's no relationship to build on here, only a relationship to build—and that from a distance! Something else is needed here, something to link up to so that the audience sees Paul belonging to what they all already have in common. There must be praise before there can be blame, here.

Now, we have good reason from Galatians to suppose that Paul doesn't go around deploying flattery to further the gospel. This is not the way that lies serve the truth, by smoothing the way for it. And yet we are about to see a whole lot of flattery here, mixed generously into the truth. And it's good rhetoric, and it's going to work. You see, when you have nothing else to work with, you appeal to the audience's own interests, to what they think of as their better natures. We may reject fawning admiration when we see it at a distance, but the experience of it firsthand from someone with a reputation for honesty is undeniably appealing. It makes Paul a very sympathetic character: someone who shares their interests, someone who has something to offer especially to them, someone they want to hear. We like who these words tell us we are. We want to be who Paul claims we are in this appeal.

And, just as this kind of rhetorical appeal often holds the door open for less truthful words, it will also hold the door open for Paul—who will proceed to overturn the lie and set the truth up straight. We will see, soon enough, that we don't really act like the people Paul tells us we are, the people we really want to be. But these words and what they promise will keep us going through the diatribe, as Paul reveals our unpleasant truth piece by piece.

The People We Really Want to Be

Much as I enjoy telling, it's time for showing. Let's begin with an outline of the components of Romans 1:1-17, and what they do:

  • Romans 1:1-17: Phoebe, as Paul, to the audience
    1. 1:1-7: Dramatis personae [one sentence]
      1. 1:1-6: Introduction of Paul's sympathetic character
        1. 1:1-2: A servant of Christ Jesus with God's authentic proclamation
        2. 1:3-4: In tune with credal orthodoxy about Jesus
        3. 1:5-6: In faithfully obedient mission among the nations
      2. 1:7: Naming and address of the audience
    2. 1:8-13: Paul's actions-in-character in relation to his audience
      1. 1:8: Praising the worthy Roman reputation
      2. 1:9-10: Swearing to Paul's desire to visit Rome
      3. 1:11-12: Paul's desire to contribute to their common good
      4. 1:13: Apology for not having visited sooner
    3. 1:14-17: The proclamation
      1. 1:14-15: Paul's obligation: "Wise Hellenes" as well as "Senseless Barbarians"
      2. 1:16a: The worthiness of the proclamation
      3. 1:16b: God's power for all who trust God, "Judeans first, and also Hellenes"
      4. 1:17: God's justice for those who trust God, "from trust to trust"

If we step back from the assumption that Paul has some form of apostolic authority, as though that were a thing, it begins to look more like it's the audience that has the power here, and that Paul is playing up to them. This is not framed as a missive written from patron to client. This is the provincial Paul begging audience to sell his services to the more cultured, independent Roman community.

And this is how he does it: Paul authenticates as orthodox, protests in the most effusive and humble-stumbling terms possible how much he respects the audience, offers to help them—not that they need it, of course, and he would benefit as much if not more from the exchange—and then wraps with an appeal to the faithful and cultured Hellenistic Judean identity of the audience. They are orthodox, they are beloved of God, they are called to missionary duty in their own right, they are a holy and distinguished community—and most importantly, they are quality people. The kind of people that Paul, who has been busily working his way from Syria across Asia Minor to Greece, has always wanted to serve.

(I'm sure it helps, too, that this is delivered first by a well-to-do Greek: Phoebe, who in addition to being the leader of one of the Corinthian assemblies is likely also a merchant, and has come with an entourage that at least includes her own scribe. Someone well-spoken and respectable speaks for Paul.)

Along the way, of course, truth is told, truth that will form the basis for the intended unity of Paul and the audience. But even this truth is leverage. And part of that leverage is in the personal pronouns used. It's leverage towards unity, unity of the speaker with the audience. First-person appeals from Paul/Phoebe and their missionary company connect with second-person appeals to the audience, insinuating things like "I'm on your side," "I am with you," "You are good," and "We could be good together."

And that starts with the first massive sentence—which isn't really a sentence, so much as what we might otherwise call a "dramatis personae," introducing the characters of the coming play.

Dramatis personae: Romans 1:1-7

Παῦλος, δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, κλητὸς ἀπόστολος ἀφωρισμένος εἰς εὐαγγέλιον θεοῦ, "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called a missionary and set apart for God's proclamation,
ὃ προεπηγγείλατο διὰ τῶν προφητῶν αὐτοῦ ἐν γραφαῖς ἁγίαις, περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ· which was promised in advance through God's prophets in holy writings, concerning God's son:"

This is certainly not the way the letters to Corinth or Galatia begin, in which Paul declares that he is an apostle because God made him so. Only Philippians begins with doulos rather than apostolos—but it's appropriate that Philippians should begin simply with Paulos kai Timotheos douloi, because Paul and Timothy are engaged in a partnership of mutual service with the assembly at Philippi.

There is no mutual agreement with Rome, however. To open in this way to a strange audience, to introduce oneself in the status of a servant first, has a different resonance. It will be heard at face value. It is only as such a servant that Paul then indicates that he has a calling as a missionary, and he "buries the lede" by shifting the emphasis to the God who called him, and to that call as characterized by the proclamation of Jesus Christ.

Phoebe does not therefore announce that Paul is anything worth noting in himself—only that God has given him something to do. Paul, here, is a preacher, and his message is familiar. Paul authenticates himself using this message: that it is in continuity with the prophets in scripture, and that it concerns Jesus as the anointed son of God. And he goes on to authenticate this further by using a creed that should be recognized by the audience as their own:

τοῦ γενομένου ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυὶδ κατὰ σάρκα, "The one begotten by the seed of David according to flesh,
τοῦ ὁρισθέντος υἱοῦ θεοῦ ἐν δυνάμει κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης ἐξ ἀναστάσεως νεκρῶν, The one set apart as God's son in power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead,
Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν· Jesus Christ our lord,"

Creeds are very important. Reciting this, in this place, serves the rhetoric because common confession does much to endear strangers to one another. What is confessed here is Jesus Christ, the one who is both son of David and son of God, born of the promised royal line of kings of Israel and Judah, raised from the dead in power and devotion to God, who is "Lord," an echo of the Hebrew adonai and with the same implication of rightful mastery over a group of people.

Strangers who share a common confession also share the same God, understood the same way—and in this case also the same master, and in the next sentence, the same service. These strangers are suddenly people who have the most important things in common. And in this, they are not meeting in the middle. Paul is accommodating the audience, confessing their creed, affiliating himself (and Phoebe, and her company, and their community) with the Roman audience. Paul joins them in their belief, and it is important that they accept this and continue to believe it.

δι’ οὗ ἐλάβομεν χάριν καὶ ἀποστολὴν εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως ἐν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν ὑπὲρ τοῦ ὀνόματος αὐτοῦ, ἐν οἷς ἐστε καὶ ὑμεῖς κλητοὶ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, "through whom we have received grace and commission into trusting obedience among all of the nations for the sake of his name—nations among whom you are also called by Jesus Christ;"

The "we" here is not yet inclusive of the audience—imagine a gesture of the speaker to her company, the "apostolic plural" genuinely indicating a group of people who, with Paul, have been called into missionary service. These are all obedient servants who trust in the same God who anointed Jesus as the messianic Son and raised him from the dead. They serve among the nations, proclaiming Christ to the gentiles. And from the beginning Paul acknowledges what the audience already knows about themselves: that this is a mission they share, a mission Rome has in its own right just as Paul does. These Romans, too, are called by Christ to serve among the nations, to preach to the gentiles in the name of Jesus.

We will learn in Romans 16 that there are faithful gentiles in this audience, people who are like Phoebe and her company. It can be understood that these are gentiles who belong to the Roman mission, who are convinced of the Judean God and who serve God for Christ's sake. And we will also learn that there are faithful native Judeans here, Paul's kin—even those who were in Christ before him. When we know that, we know that this Roman audience doesn't share Paul's ministry. Instead, Paul shares their ministry, just as Phoebe shares Paul's ministry. The Roman community has an arguably superior claim, having been in the business longer than Paul and being an older community than those at Corinth. Once again, Paul is playing up to his audience, authenticating himself and his emissaries on their terms. And now, finally, it is time to address them directly:

πᾶσιν τοῖς οὖσιν ἐν Ῥώμῃ, ἀγαπητοῖς θεοῦ, κλητοῖς, ἁγίοις, "To all of those who are in Rome, beloved of God, called, and holy:"
χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. "Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and our lord Jesus Christ."

This is, of course, who they are. This is who we all wish to be: beloved of God, called by God to service, and set apart as holy before God. We may not all be in Rome, more's the pity, but these certainly are, and to them Paul conveys the standard greeting. "Grace," the goodwill of one's patron, and "peace," which is not only a common salutation, but also a wish for good health.

The patron here, of course, is God. Yahweh, which the Hebrews rightly refuse to say out loud, is Lord, and the father by covenant adoption of all who are in Abraham—and so the father of all those here assembled. And that patronage is joint, conveyed also in the name of Jesus Christ, who is more immediately the lord and master of these servants of God here assembled.

And now that we know who the players are, it's time to add a bit of context, to flesh out the relationship between them.

Establishing Paul's Character: Romans 1:8-13

Πρῶτον μὲν εὐχαριστῶ τῷ θεῶ μου διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ περὶ πάντων ὑμῶν, ὅτι ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν καταγγέλλεται ἐν ὅλῳ τῷ κόσμῳ. Let me first say that I give thanks to my God about all of you, because your faith is announced by the whole world.

It's not uncommon for Paul to include an expression of thanks to God at the beginning of his addresses, or to tell them about his prayers for/about them. Worth commenting on here is that Paul uses an ambiguous word, katangellō, which can refer to simple retelling of something, but can also be negative. Words with kata attached as a prefix tend to shade into opposition, so that this word can mean "denounced" as easily as "announced." We would call such a messenger a bearer of bad news.

Now, the ambiguity may be both intentional and positive, as we know that Paul doesn't care whether people talk about him using praise or blame as long as they get the gospel right. If the whole world is denouncing you for being true, that's still good news for you, and bad for the world. And the implication is going to be that what Paul has heard about them, spoken for good or ill, is what has led him to seek them out. That part is certainly true, whether the flattering framework is or not.

All the world likely also knows of their disagreements, just as they know of ours—and even if they don't understand the context, it still colors their view of our faith. If we are denounced for the gospel, well and good. But if we are denounced for our questionable fidelity to the gospel, as seen in our lives together, we are denounced rightly.

Oh, but we're not there yet. We're flattering still. And Paul's thanks to God parlays into prayers—but prayers with a purpose.

μάρτυς γάρ μού ἐστιν ὁ θεός, ᾧ λατρεύω ἐν τῷ πνεύματί μου ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ, ὡς ἀδιαλείπτως μνείαν ὑμῶν ποιοῦμαι πάντοτε ἐπὶ τῶν προσευχῶν μου, δεόμενος εἴπως ἤδη ποτὲ εὐοδωθήσομαι ἐν τῷ θελήματι τοῦ θεοῦ ἐλθεῖν πρὸς ὑμᾶς. For God is my witness—whom I serve in my spirit by the proclamation of his Son—how unceasingly I make mention of you all the time when I am praying, wanting somehow someday soon to be successful in my journey—by the will of God—to come to you.

Have you ever seen a less-felicitous run-on pile of short clauses and prepositional phrases, so heaped about with adverbs? The next bit won't win any prizes, either, but all Paul is saying here is that he's got a longstanding interest in visiting Rome. And it's an apology, really, because he can't come himself.

And how does he do it? First, he swears by God. That requires a second clause, in which he mentions how faithfully he serves God as a missionary. Then he mentions how devoted he is in his prayers to God, never ceasing to mention Rome. Just badgering the Lord about it, seriously. Day and night, nonstop. Because it seems remote and unlikely that God should ever be amenable to letting him go to Rome. No matter how much he wants it. Which he does. A lot.

You get the point, don't you? Paul isn't his own man. No matter how much he loves Rome—oh, and he does, really he does—he is a servant, bound to his master. He regrets bitterly that his duties leave him unlikely to ever be permitted to come to Rome himself, and he is too good a servant to lark off—but he has, after all, sent Phoebe and her company as his emissaries to deliver the apology. Which is some compensation to Rome, but the quality of the messenger also implies status for Paul, which in turn implies the level of his respect for the audience.

ἐπιποθῶ γὰρ ἰδεῖν ὑμᾶς, ἵνα τι μεταδῶ χάρισμα ὑμῖν πνευματικὸν εἰς τὸ στηριχθῆναι ὑμᾶς, τοῦτο δέ ἐστιν συνπαρακληθῆναι ἐν ὑμῖν διὰ τῆς ἐν ἀλλήλοις πίστεως ὑμῶν τε καὶ ἐμοῦ. For I long to see you, in order to share with you some spiritual gift for your support—that is, to be comforted along with you, in your company, by the faith you and I share in common.

A chink in the armor here, quickly hidden. The language of "charisma" is the language of patronage, of gifts and obligations between people. Grace always implies debt. And the direction of these gifts, and of the resulting debt, is very important. Charisma that creates debt we call "grace"; charisma that responds to debt we call "gratitude." And Paul expresses a wish to grant something to his Roman audience, something he has to give, something they need for their stability. Suddenly he is not leaning on them—suddenly they are leaning on him.

And we're not there yet! To an audience that doesn't understand itself to be in a position to receive your grace, that's presumptuous. Rome doesn't need Paul's charity, not least in matters spiritual! Didn't he just get through confessing their creed, acknowledging their mission, and praising them? Are they not called, holy, and beloved of God?

But this is just a little barb, a piece of intentional provocation that Paul immediately soothes and smooths over. He didn't mean to suggest that anything he could give would place them in his debt. He doesn't mean to share with them something he has, but rather that the faith they all share should be the basis for their mutual stability. His enthusiasm just got the better of him for a moment.

(Of course, this entire text may be seen as Paul imparting a spiritual gift for the sake of the stability of their community. And ours, too. We at least will acknowledge that Paul has something to teach us, and that we owe him much.)

οὐ θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι πολλάκις προεθέμην ἐλθεῖν πρὸς ὑμᾶς, καὶ ἐκωλύθην ἄχρι τοῦ δεῦρο, ἵνα τινὰ καρπὸν σχῶ καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν καθὼς καὶ ἐν τοῖς λοιποῖς ἔθνεσιν. I do not wish you to be ignorant, siblings, that many times I set out to come to you—and that I have hitherto been hindered—so that I might have some fruit among you, just as I have among the rest of the nations.

Summing up, Paul reminds his audience that in spite of his apparently boundless enthusiasm for them, and his desire to share fruitfulness with them, this is still an apology for his absence. The passive verb here can be understood in the same sense as his earlier protests, namely that God is the one hindering him. This is how it is with servants, and how it should be: they obey their masters, and not themselves. (An important point for later.)

And yet he does it with another dig! "I do not wish you to be ignorant." Infelicitous, to begin a sentence like this—and then pause. Such a phrase suggests that the audience doesn't know something very important. If the "charity" slip raised eyebrows, this will set teeth on edge. But what follows it is perfectly banal recapitulation of things he has already said, so it can be chalked up to mere infelicity.

Of course, there's also the matter of what "having fruit" means. The verb here, echō, is simply the verb "have," and is thoroughly neutral. This is not one of the more suggestive verbs used with "fruit." The verb poieō, which is "do" or "make," refers to a plant producing fruit. This also works with ferō, more literally to "bear" or carry fruit. (John prefers the latter; the Synoptics prefer the former.) The verb didōmi, which is "give," refers to harvest, when the plant "yields" fruit. If Paul were "gathering" fruit, that would be sunagō. But simply to "have" fruit may be the province of plant or person, one's own product or fruit one has gathered. There is no taking here, and no giving, just an ambiguous having.

To "have fruit" in this way will reappear in chapter 6, where it is an image of positive outcome. And that is perhaps all we can say here. Paul does not suggest that he wishes to benefit from the fruitfulness of the Romans, or that the Romans would benefit from his own fruitfulness, but simply that he wishes he could have some personal benefit from his longed-for and still-delayed visit to Rome.

From here Paul slides easily into the next thing. To speak of enthusiastic desire, and then to speak of obligation—especially in a sense that frames Paul as the inferior and the audience as superior—leaves open a very tempting inference. The audience is about to read itself into Paul's rhetoric where he does not place them, and so begins the lesson.

Characterizing the Proclamation: Romans 1:14-17

Ἕλλησίν τε καὶ βαρβάροις, σοφοῖς τε καὶ ἀνοήτοις ὀφειλέτης εἰμί· οὕτως τὸ κατ’ ἐμὲ πρόθυμον καὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς ἐν Ῥώμῃ εὐαγγελίσασθαι. I am indebted to the Hellenes, as well as the barbarians; to the wise, as well as the senseless—hence the eagerness on my part to preach also to you who are in Rome.

There's a lot of implication going on here. Paul never says who his audience is in this double binary. But they're sure as hell not going to call themselves "senseless barbarians"! It is obvious that the senseless barbarians are other people. Paul has, after all, been spending his career working westward from the provinces. Romans have little love for the natives of the provinces, and Judeans have little love for their neighbors, so this works out. Both cultures feel about outsiders in ways compatible with the Greek word "barbarians."

Even among Judeans, in the diaspora, there's a status hierarchy—and so this audience readily claims for themselves the status of wise Hellenes, as is their right as cultured Romans. (I don't say "Greeks" because they aren't actually Greek. This word for the children of Hellas came to be used as the name for all citizens of cultural virtue in the Empire. We don't call it Hellenistic civilization for nothing!) And when Paul uses the last of his first- and second-person pronouns for the entire chapter right here, he does it in order to encourage this identification, and to introduce the idea that "you" and "I" are together against "them." Not that he has to work at it, really, because the audience already has that idea.

There will be one more first-person verb, and then we will see something very interesting happen: all the first- and second-person references disappear, and everything goes solidly third-person. You won't see another first- or second-person pronoun or verb conjugation until Paul uses the second-person to condemn the audience at the beginning of chapter 2. That's important, and I want you to watch what it does as we go through.

You see, Romans 1 is a masterwork of what we call epideictic rhetoric, which is non-controversial moral discourse involving praise and blame. We have praise in this half, and we'll have blame in 1:18-32, but the most important point is that at no point is the speaker in conflict with the audience. Epideixis exemplifies what the audience believes about moral issues, giving them better and more eloquent words to use to express that belief without challenging it. The real blame, when it comes, will be all the more surprising for all of this "agreement."

οὐ γὰρ ἐπαισχύνομαι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον For I am not ashamed of the proclamation;

Here's that last first-person verb: "I am not ashamed." Paul may be a humble man, but there is nothing humble about God's proclamation, the message of Jesus Christ. It is not something little, something only worthy of "senseless barbarians" and something that the cultured should despise. Paul is not ashamed, Phoebe is not ashamed, and neither should the Roman audience be ashamed, of the proclamation. And here we're about to shift back into something that feels like common confession again—which is, after all, the opposite of what you do with something shameful. If you are ashamed of something, you hide it. If you are, on the other hand, proud of something, you claim and display it openly!

δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι, Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι. indeed, it is the power of God for the salvation of all who trust—of the Judean first, and also the Hellene.

What is this proclamation, of which they are so proud? It is Jesus Christ, of course, as we've discussed, and he is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe. I would, of course, go farther than that—but the simple statement Paul makes is true. Jesus Christ demonstrates and is in fact God acting in power to save. And that salvation applies to those who trust God, and it applied first to the Judean people, and then to those outside.

And, to be sure, the Roman community knows that's how it is. The native Judeans first, and the gentile converts because of them. And, of course, it only applies to gentiles who do in fact believe. No amount of culture and breeding will save you. There is no salvation in Hellenistic culture—not that you shouldn't aspire to be cultured and saved, just that culture is a secondary matter to your faith in God.

That little inversion of the order of the world is one of the things that lets Judaism survive and even thrive in Rome. Converts belong to something superior, something better than Rome could ever give—but not something that forces them out of the culture game entirely. It turns the tables, letting them play for advantage on different terms. It wasn't Christendom by any means, but that's because Christendom was a version of the endgame, one of the goals of this mode of play. A world in which God alone is called "Soter."

δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται. For the justice of God is revealed in it, by faith and for faith, just as it is written, "The just will live by faith."

And God's power isn't the only thing evident in the proclamation of Jesus Christ. In the salvation of all who trust God, God's justice is revealed. Trust in God shows that God is just to those who trust. This is an expansive claim, running from the Judeans as God's first people out to all peoples of the world—as long as they trust God. Salvation, after all, is for those who trust God. All of them, but only them.

After all, in the citation from Habakkuk 2 that supports this—similar to the use of this same citation in Hebrews—it is the unjust, the presumptuous, the arrogant, the greedy ... the person consumed by vice, not to put too fine a point on it, whom God opposes, humiliates, and destroys with poetically appropriate punishments.

Keep that in mind, as we go forward into Romans 1:18-32. It will all seem awfully familiar. Are those two things, trust in God and vice, really connected? If so, how? If not, what's really going on?