This year we will be studying the Letter of the Apostle Paul to the church in Rome; Romans. Before we begin our comprehensive study, we will review the history and issues leading up to this masterwork of theology. It is easy to project our feelings and personal context into what we are studying, this review will help us to understand what the early Christians were thinking, feeling and struggling to understand.
After Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, He appears as the Risen Christ to his followers over a period of 40 days. He appeared at different times and occasions, at the empty tomb, walking along a road, to his disciples hiding in the upper room, to his disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee, to a crowd of 500 and to his brother James who was not one of Jesus’ disciples. At their last meeting Jesus instructs his disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for “the gift my Father promised”; they will receive power and will become “my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. The apostles are obediently gathered in Jerusalem, but they are still trapped in anticipating Jesus’ return as the conquering Messiah.
Ten days later they are still waiting; it is Festival of Pentecost, when faithful Jews brought their first offering of the Spring Harvest, the first of their fruit in thanksgiving for God’s provision, dedicating the first and best to God. God in His perfect timing has pre-positioned in Jerusalem “devout Jews from every nation residing in Jerusalem”; the seeds of His mission to spread the Gospel to “the ends of the earth” are in place ready to witness God’s miracle.
With a great wind and noise God gathers the witnesses, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples and this international group hears the disciples praising God’s great deeds in their own language. The crowd is amazed because one thing they know for certain – these men are uneducated Galileans – they are witnessing a miracle. Peter stands to address the crowd and explains what they have seen and heard is the fulfillment of the prophet Joel, then proceeds to explain the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Jesus Christ who God raised from the dead, which we have witnessed and is now ascended to God’s right hand, God has now poured out his Holy Spirit upon all of us so that you can both see and hear. “Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.” The crowd was properly distressed understanding they had crucified the Messiah, Peter calls for them to repent and be baptized and God added 3,000 new believers to the church that day.
The next chapters of Acts record the miracles of the Apostles, the growing persecution and struggles in the new church. One day Peter and John are going to the Temple to preach, when a crippled beggar asks them for money. Peter replies I don’t have money, “but what I have I will give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, stand up and walk”. Peter presents the Gospel again, again emphasizing that “they killed the originator of life, whom God raised from the dead”. You acted in ignorance, and handed Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified, repent and turn away from your sins. All this preaching about Jesus and his resurrection greatly disturbs the Temple guard and the Sadducees. Remember the Sadducees and temple guards don’t believe there is an afterlife for anyone! In addition Peter’s preaching is gaining followers another 5,000 new believers were added that day. The rulers of the Temple don’t know what to do, they cannot deny the miracle, the crippled man is standing before them, but they want this new movement to stop. They command Peter and John to stop speaking in Jesus’ name, but the Apostles reply that it is impossible for them to not speak about what we have seen and heard.
The Apostles continue to preach in the Temple courts, great crowds were coming to faith and people brought their sick to them to be healed. The High Priest and his associates, filled with jealousy, arrest them and put them in jail. But during the night while the guards are sleeping and angel opens the doors of the prison and the Apostles are again preaching at daybreak in the Temple Courts. The chief priests demand that they stop preaching and Peter responds that “we must obey God rather than people”.
So many new Christians are added to the church, that it is becoming a burden to administer all the details of daily communal living. The Twelve select seven men to serve as deacons, to supervise and administer the distribution to the poor while the Apostles devoted themselves to preaching the Word and prayer. One of the deacons is Stephan, he was ministering among the Greek Jews, and the Jews argued with him but could not stand up against his wisdom. So they accused him of blasphemy in front of the Sanhedrin bringing false witnesses against him. When the High Priest asks Stephen if these charges are true, he traces the history of Israel beginning with Abraham, reminding them of all the times that Israel rejected God and His prophets. Stephen concludes by saying “You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become! You received the law by decrees given by angels, but you did not obey it.”
They were furious, but when Stephan filled with the Holy Spirit looked to heaven and saw Jesus and said “Look I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” They dragged him outside the city gates and stoned him to death. A Pharisee named Saul attended this execution; he held the robes of those throwing the rocks. From that day forward a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, with Saul leading destruction. The church was scattered into the surrounding areas of Judea and Samaria, the first expansion of the gospel from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria was forced upon the church by persecution. The result was many new believers accepted into the church who previously were excluded from the Good News; the Samaritans, an Ethiopian Eunuch, Jews who could not keep ritually clean and a Roman Centurion. The Apostles begin to understand and preach, “That God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him”.
This persecution continues unabated for about 3 years, until God intervenes. Saul is on his way to Damascus to spread the web of hate and persecution farther. Then Jesus Christ appears to him, in a bright light and loud voice saying, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus who you are persecuting!” Saul is struck blind for three days, God calls on a believer in Damascus, Ananias, to lay his hands of Saul and heal him. God declares to Ananias that, “this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Saul is healed and becomes God’s Apostle to the Gentiles; the reason Saul was persecuting Christians; the blasphemy of a crucified Messiah becomes the foundation of Paul’s preaching. His new message: “we preach a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. Only God could turn a murdering fanatic into His greatest missionary, spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ beyond Jerusalem, to Asia Minor and into Europe.
After Saul’s conversion he goes into the wilderness of Arabia for three years, then returns to Damascus and resumes his preaching in the synagogues. When trouble and persecution erupt, he escapes to Jerusalem, but the church in Jerusalem is hesitant to accept this former persecutor into their fellowship. However God provides the faithful Barnabas to help Saul, he intercedes and Saul meets with James, the head of the church in Jerusalem. Soon another plot to kill Saul develops and Saul escapes this time going home to Tarsus. With the conversion of Saul the persecution against the Christians in Jerusalem ends and the Twelve continue to travel throughout Palestine founding churches and strengthening them.