The Gospel of King Jesus: A sermon based on Romans 1:1-18
Who is Jesus and what does he have to do with the God of Israel? Let’s not be too quick to answer that question. Sometimes being able to quickly answer a question has drawbacks. It could means that we are no longer reflecting deeply on what the question is asking. There are many off the cuff answers we can give to the question of “Who is Jesus and what does he have to do with the God of Israel and its a question that every one who follows Jesus should be able to answer. Who is Jesus? Jesus is God. The Son of God. What does He have to do with God? Jesus is the one who God sent to die on the cross for our sins. We are missing out if our understanding only goes as far as those bullet points. Jesus being God and dying for the forgiveness of our sins is a such a major part of our faith, we rehearse it so often, that we can sometimes forget the rest about who he is and what he has to do with God. That matters. It matters because a full understanding of who Jesus is and what he’s got to do with the God of Israel should should be a source of power in our life. Notice what Paul said in verse seventeen. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” Notice that Paul does not say the Gospel is about the power of God. Paul says the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith. The Gospel is the power of God. In this letter we call Romans, Paul is teaching the Gospel. Paul is explaining who Jesus is and what He has to do with God of Israel and there is power in that. That’s what gets me excited about working through this Letter. Paul is explaining the Gospel, he is explaining who Jesus is and what He’s got to do with the God of Israel. And Paul says proclaiming the Gospel in this way reveals God’s power. Transformation happens. Working through the book of Romans and uncovering what the Gospel is about must be a powerful experience. In his book, The Gospel According to Paul,” Robin Griffith-Jones argues that the book of Romans is a kind of therapy. He says that as we continue to read the book of Romans, God will bring us from the ‘darkened mind’ that Paul talks about later in chapter one, and God will bring us to be like the ‘transformed’ and ‘renewed’ mind that Paul talks about towards the end of the letter. This makes perfect sense. In this letter, Paul is unpacking the Gospel of Jesus. Paul is teaching the Christians in Rome about who Jesus is and what He has to do with the God of Israel. They could not hear this Gospel and be left unchanged, neither can we. That’s all because the Gospel is God’s power for those who believe.
This introduction brings up an important question. What is a ‘gospel’? ‘Gospel’ is a word most of us have probably heard before when people are talking stuff related to the New Testament. You probably know that it means, “good news.” But the word Gospel is not a word Paul invented. The word Gospel is not even a word that Jesus invented. So where did they get it from? They probably got it from two different places. One of those places is in the Old Testament. You’ll first come across the word Gospel if you are reading the book of Isaiah in Greek, like you do. Here is the Gospel according to Isaiah, you’ll find it in chapter 40. Isaiah says (Slide 3) “You who bring the Gospel to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring the Gospel to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid’ say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” See the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.” For Isaiah, the Gospel would be the announcement of the good news that not only the current enemy-nation Babylon had been defeated — Isaiah’s Gospel was about that, but it was about more than the defeat of the nations enemies. Isaiah’s Gospel was about the personal return of YHWH. Isaiah’s Gospel was about when the God of Israel would come and be with His people in Jerusalem. Isaiah said when YHWH returns, He will rule the nations with a mighty arm, with justice, with righteousness. That what the word Gospel meant for Isaiah (or at least the people who translated his words into Greek) — the Gospel was about when God’s personal presence would return to Israel and he would bring his rule and justice to the world.
If you were not Jewish, but maybe Roman, and you heard Paul talking about the Gospel, you might not immediately think of the Greek translation of the prophet Isaiah. You’d probably start thinking about someone else. You probably couldn’t avoid thinking about this person because you saw reminders of this person on a daily basis. You were reminded of this person when you looked to the surrounding hills and saw their palace. You were reminded of this person when you went to the market and saw their statue all over the city. You were reminded of this person when you passed by their temple and felt compelled to even worship this person. If you were a Roman and heard the word Gospel, you probably immediately thought of the Emperor. In greco-roman culture, Gospel was the word of choice to announce the enthronement of the Emperor. Gospel meant a specific sort of good-news. When Augustus Caesar came to power, a new Gospel went throughout the land. The announcement went out saying, “Good news, Caesar is Lord!” Rest assured, Caesar made sure that everyone in his enormous kingdom knew this gospel. “Good news,” Caesar’s ambassadors would cry out, “Caesar is lord, Caesar has power. Caesar rules and to his laws everyone must give their believing obedience. Everyone must submit to the peace Caesar is bringing about — the PAX ROMANA. And anyone who does not submit to this peace shall be brutally suppressed.” That was the Gospel of Caesar Augustus. But he died, and then Tiberius Caesar came to power, so a new Gospel was proclaimed. And then a new Gospel came with Caligula, and also after him when Claudius became emperor. With each new emperor came a new Gospel, a new rule, a new power. Claudius died and Nero came to power. And with Nero came a new Gospel — the Gospel of King Jesus our Lord. This was a Gospel which the world had never heard before.
That’s the background we need to hear when Paul talks about the Gospel of King Jesus. The Gospel Paul announces is the good news that someone else has risen to power, and his name is not Caesar, Trudeau or Trump. You see, the Emperor now has competition. Each Emperor would announce their gospel throughout the land, and this proclamation went unquestioned and unchallenged. But now a rival has appeared. The Emperor’s gospel was under threat, for another Gospel was being announced and proclaimed. The Gospel was even preached, audaciously, in the capital city of Rome. You might think, “Paul aren’t you afraid, aren’t you ashamed to announce the Gospel in the Capital city? The heart of the emperor’s gospel?” (Slide 3). Yet Paul says firmly, “no, I am not ashamed of the Gospel”. In Psalm 71 we learn that shame is what you experience when your enemies have more power than you. Paul is unashamed to announce the Gospel of Jesus. The Roman Emperor does not have more power. The only true power is found in the Gospel of Jesus the King. The Gospel of Jesus has a power that Nero never dreamed of, and so Paul is not ashamed to announce this Gospel of Jesus, even in Rome.
With this background, see if you hear Paul’s opening words in this letter a bit differently. He writes: “Paul, a slave of King Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s Gospel, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings—the Gospel about his son, who was descended from David’s seed in terms of the flesh, and who was marked out powerfully as God’s Son in terms of the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead: Jesus the King, our Lord! Through him we have received grace and apostleship to bring about believing obedience among all the nations for the sake of his name. That includes you, too, who are called by Jesus the King.”
The announcement of the Gospel is not just about forgiveness of sins. Its not just about the promise of an afterlife. Although it certainly contains those powerful truths. But more fully, the Gospel is about who Jesus is. He is King, He is Lord, He is the ruler over all. So for the people in Rome hearing Paul’s words, it would begin to dawn on them that their primary allegiance wasn’t to Caesar, it wasn’t to their Prime Minister, it wasn’t to any other Earthly power. Their primary allegiance was to Jesus. And so is ours. Paul saw that it was his job to bring about believing obedience among all the nations. Paul had been commissioned by King Jesus to call the nations of the world to realize who is Lord, who they must follow, and who they must obey. Can you see how much more texture the word ‘Gospel’ takes on when we uncover its background? It makes me ask this question — If the Gospel contains a power so great that it would have been considered a threat to the Emperor of Rome, what is missing from our Gospel? For that, we need to keep reading Paul’s letter and asking the question of who is Jesus and what’s He have to do with the God of Israel.
The question of who Jesus is and what He has to do with the God of Israel was a crucial question being asked by those Roman Christians — especially the part about what Jesus had to do with the God of Israel. The Roman Christians were likely thinking that the whole Israel thing had been left behind with Jesus, and that would have suited the Greek and Roman Christians just fine. Although they encountered a strange sort of power in the person of Jesus, they had also been bred with a deep prejudice against the Jews. Don’t worry, the Jews returned the favour. It wasn’t a time of racial tolerance. Yet despite this climate of prejudice, Jews, Greeks and Romans found themselves worshiping alongside one another — at least until the Jews were kicked out of the Capital City of Rome. The Emperor Claudius got fed up and made all the Jews pack up their bags and leave Rome — maybe that event confirmed the Roman Christian suspicions that God had left this whole Jewish thing behind. As I said, Jews and Romans didn’t get along so well. Imagine you’re a Roman Christian and all the Jews had been kicked out, including Jewish Christians. Your culture has programmed you to have a certain disgust for Jewish festivals, laws and worship. You might have felt a sense of relief when the emperor forced the jews to leave the capital city. It might have been all too easy to jump to the conclusion that God had left the Jewish world behind along with its laws, customs and practices. Maybe that would have made things seem simpler. But it didn’t stay that way for long. Claudius died, a new Gospel went out with Nero which allowed the Jews to come back into Rome. That meant that the house churches once again had Roman and Jewish Christians worshiping side by side.
Paul is writing into this situation. He’s trying to answer not only the question of who Jesus is, but to show those Roman Christians that Jesus has everything to do with the God of Israel. If you separate Jesus from the history of Israel you lose far too much — you lose the Gospel and its power. What you’re left with is the story of a god who is unfaithful and powerless to keep his promises. Instead, Paul shows that the King Jesus has everything to do with the God of Israel, and that through Jesus the King, God has fulfilled his promises to rescue and restore the world through his people Israel. The King of Israel always embodied the people of Israel. So through King Jesus God has done what he always promised He would do through the whole people of Israel. In King Jesus, God has shown himself faithful to His promises. That’s what we’ll discover as we work through Romans. We’ll discover a picture of God’s faithfulness, and its a picture of power and redemption which is breathtaking, terrifying and irresistible. This is the journey that I’d like to invite you into as we work through the most magisterial letter ever to have been written and uncover the power contained in the Gospel.