Who was Paul’s audience in Romans?
Paul’s writings and the book of Acts give us more data about him than they do about the Roman church. We know nothing about its origins and only a little about its history. Some have claimed that Peter founded it, but that is unlikely, as Acts tells us he spent the early years of the church near or around Jerusalem. It is even less likely that Peter and Paul founded it together.
The most likely scenario is that it was founded by Jewish Christians, either pilgrims returning to Rome from the Pentecost of Acts 2 or traveling merchants who visited Rome on business. These would have acted like Paul on his missionary journeys and brought their Christianity into the local synagogues, which is only natural, for Jesus was indeed the Messiah the Jewish people were expecting. There were a significant number of Jews in Rome, with estimates as high as 40 to 50 thousand (close to the population of Jerusalem itself!), so there would have been a great number of synagogues.
The preaching of Christ in these Roman synagogues would have led to the same result as Paul’s ministry to the Jews—conflict with and opposition to the Christian preachers (as in Acts 13:50; 14:4–7, 19; 17:5–8, 13; 18:6; 19:9, 23–24). The church was predominantly Jewish in the early years, but other Jews’ hatred of the church led to rioting, and in AD 49 the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews and Jewish Christians from Rome because of it (Acts 18:2).
As a result, the gentile faction of the church that remained had to develop its own leadership. It also would have developed its own polity and style, including adopting the view that the injunctions of the law were no longer in effect in the new era of Christ. Many gentiles had originally been attending synagogues but were not willing to undergo circumcision and become full converts to Judaism. These people were called “God-fearers” (Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16, 26). Many of the gentile converts came from this group and would have evangelized their friends and neighbors. In this way, in the years after AD 49, the Roman church likely developed as a gentile church with gentile leadership.
When Claudius died in AD 54, many of the expelled Jewish Christians returned to Rome. They returned to a gentile-dominated church. Natural tensions developed over things like the observance of food laws and holy days, subjects Paul addresses in Romans 14:1–15:13. Those tensions were part of the reason why Paul wrote this letter. Only three years had passed since the Jewish believers had returned, and the tensions needed to be resolved.
Why did Paul write the book of Romans?
From the letter itself, we know that Paul was writing the Roman church with the intention of visiting them for the first time. His plan was to deliver the collection to the Jerusalem church and then proceed to Rome as the first step in his fourth missionary journey, in which he planned to take the gospel to Spain and the lands in between (15:23–29).
Paul believed his calling was to “preach the gospel where Christ was not known” so as not to build on anyone else’s “foundation” (15:20). He had planted churches in Arabia (possibly, according to Gal 1:17–18), Cilicia (Tarsus, his hometown; Acts 11:25–26), Galatia (Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe; Acts 13:13–14:20), Mysia (Troas; Acts 16:8), Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea; Acts 16:11–17:15), and Achaia (Corinth and possibly Athens; Acts 17:16–18:17). He felt he had fulfilled God’s will in the eastern half of the Roman Empire (Rom 15:23), so it was now time for local pastors like Apollos to take over and “water” the churches he had planted (1 Cor 3:6).
I believe Paul’s main purpose for writing to the Romans was that he believed God was leading him to begin the second half of his life’s work in the western half of the Roman Empire. He hoped the church at Rome would have the same place in his mission work in the west that Antioch had in his three missionary journeys to the east (Acts 13:1–3)—to be the sending church. Thus in part Romans is a letter of introduction to begin familiarizing the church of Rome with Paul and his gospel.
To that end, Paul planned a fairly lengthy stay in Rome to strengthen the church (1:11–12) and have a “harvest” of souls, proclaiming the gospel there (1:13, 15). To be his sponsor, Rome would need to know not only Paul but his theology as well. They must realize he was orthodox and had the same gospel they did. They would need to be able to trust both his mission strategy and the content of his gospel. In short, he must become one of them, a part of their church, so that they could send him and his team off to Spain.
Paul’s second purpose in writing was to ask for prayer as he took the collection to Jerusalem. He needed protection from his enemies and also prayed that the churches in Palestine would accept the gift he was bringing from gentile churches (15:31). To Paul the collection for the poor was more than a financial gift from gentile churches for the poverty-stricken Jewish churches of Judea. It was to be the glue that united Jewish and gentile churches throughout the nations.
Paul’s third purpose was to bring unity to a church in conflict. While he had never visited Rome, friends would have kept him abreast of issues there (see the list in 16:3–15). Jews and gentiles were fighting over the place of the law in the Christian life (14:1–15:13). Gentile Christians believed that Christ had fulfilled the place of the law and that they were therefore free from its demands. Jewish Christians thought the food laws and observance of holy days mandated by the law were still binding.
It is important to realize that these Jewish Christians were not the Judaizers who had replaced the cross with the law as the basis of salvation. Paul writes against this group in Galatians, Philippians, and Corinthians. Here it was not an issue of heresy, for the tone of 14:1–15:13 is one of tolerance rather than discipline. Both groups were orthodox believers. Paul himself at times observed Jewish sacrifices (Acts 21:24–26) and vows (Acts 18:18), but he agreed with the gentile Christians that the demands of the Jewish Christians to keep the law showed they were weak in faith (Rom 14:1–2).
Still, the gentiles were to accept the “weaker” Jewish Christians and not “put any stumbling block” in their way by trying to force them to eat meat that was offensive to them, for in doing so they could “destroy” the faith of the weaker Christians entirely (Rom 14:13–15). Both gentiles and Jews were to understand that God accepted both sides as they were. From this the two sides were to forge a unity out of their differences and bring peace to the church as a whole (14:17, 19; 15:5–7). Peace is a critical theme, first between the sinner and God through forgiveness of sins and justification through the atoning sacrifice of Christ (1:18–3:20; 3:21–4:25) and then between groups in the church who are in conflict with one another (14:1–15:13).
This message of reconciliation is where Paul shows his fourth purpose for writing: Romans is a treatise—a study on the doctrine of salvation and an in-depth presentation of the gospel. The Jew-gentile troubles at Rome reflected such differences throughout the Christian world, and Paul wanted this letter read everywhere, not just in Rome. He wished churches everywhere to know he was not opposed to the law (see 7:7, 12–14, 16; 8:4) and believed it was valid for Jewish Christians to live as they did (14:5–7) as an expression of the level of their faith (14:23). God honored their conscience so long as their trust for salvation was anchored in the cross, not the law. Observance of food laws, holy days, and so on was viable so long as their true faith was in Christ, and such observances were an expression of their worship of him.
Romans provides an important model for Christians today who may differ in their theological underpinnings (Reformed, Arminian, charismatic, dispensational, pacifist) and worship style (high, low, liturgical, holiness, Pentecostal) but not in their adherence to the cardinal doctrines of the faith. Unity and understanding are needed as much in the Church today as in Paul’s day.
Want to study the book of Romans in greater depth? Check out the resources here, particularly:
- The Letter to the Romans: New International Commentary on the New Testament, 2nd ed., (NICNT) — Douglas Moo
- Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (BECNT) — Tom Schreiner
- The Message of Romans (BST) — John Stott
- Paul’s Letter to the Romans (10 hour course) — Douglas Moo
This article is excerpted from Romans: Verse by Verse by Grant R. Osborne (Lexham Press, 2017). The late Grant R. Osborne taught for many years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Image; Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632). Source: commons.wikimedia.org