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by William Barclay
A GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO THE LETTERS OF PAUL
The Letters Of Paul
There is no more interesting body of documents in the New Testament than the letters of Paul. That is because of all forms of literature a letter is most personal. Demetrius, one of the old Greek literary critics, once wrote, "Every one reveals his own soul in his letters. In every other form of composition it is possible to discern the writer's character, but in none so clearly as the epistolary." (Demetrius, On Style, 227.) It is just because he left us so many letters that we feel we know Paul so well. In them he opened his mind and heart to the folk he loved so much; and, in them, to this day, we can see that great mind grappling with the problems of the early church and feel that great heart throbbing with love for men, even when they were misguided and mistaken.
The Difficulty Of Letters
At the same time there is often nothing so difficult to understand as a letter. Demetrius (On Style, 223) quotes a saying of Artemon, who edited the letters of Aristotle. Artemon said that a letter ought to be written in the same manner as a dialogue, because it was one of the two sides of a dialogue. In other words, to read a letter is like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. So when we read the letters of Paul we are often in a difficulty. We do not possess the letter which he was answering; we do not fully know the circumstances with which he was dealing; it is only from the letter itself that we can deduce the situation which prompted it. Before we can hope to understand fully any letter Paul wrote, we must try to reconstruct the situation which produced it.
The Ancient Letters
It is a great pity that Paul's letters were ever called epistles. They are in the most literal sense letters. One of the great lights shed on the interpretation of the New Testament has been the discovery and the publication of the papyri. In the ancient world, papyrus was the substance on which most documents were written. It was composed of strips of the pith of a certain bulrush that grew on the banks of the Nile. These strips were laid one on top of the other to form a substance very like brown paper. The sands of the Egyptian desert were ideal for preservation, for papyrus, although very brittle, will last for ever so long as moisture does not get at it. As a result, from the Egyptian rubbish heaps, archaeologists have rescued hundreds of documents, marriage contracts, legal agreements, government forms, and, most interesting of all, private letters. When we read these private letters we find that there was a pattern to which nearly all conformed; and we find that Paul's letters reproduce exactly that pattern. Here is one of these ancient letters. It is from a soldier, called Apion, to his father Epimachus. He is writing from Misenum to tell his father that he has arrived safely after a stormy passage.
"Apion sends heartiest greetings to his father and lord Epimachus.
I pray above all that you are well and fit; and that things are
going well with you and my sister and her daughter and my
brother. I thank my Lord Serapis [his god] that he kept me safe
when I was in peril on the sea. As soon as I got to Misenum I got
my journey money from Caesar--three gold pieces. And things
are going fine with me. So I beg you, my dear father, send me a
line, first to let me know how you are, and then about my
brothers, and thirdly, that I may kiss your hand, because you
brought me up well, and because of that I hope, God willing, soon
to be promoted. Give Capito my heartiest greetings, and my
brothers and Serenilla and my friends. I sent you a little picture
of myself painted by Euctemon. My military name is Antonius
Maximus. I pray for your good health. Serenus sends good
wishes, Agathos Daimon's boy, and Turbo, Gallonius' son."
(G. Milligan, Selections from the Greek Papyri, 36.)
Little did Apion think that we would be reading his letter to his father 1800 years after he had written it. It shows how little human nature changes. The lad is hoping for promotion quickly. Who will Serenilla be but the girl he left behind him? He sends the ancient equivalent of a photograph to the folk at home. Now that letter falls into certain sections. (i) There is a greeting. (ii) There is a prayer for the health of the recipients. (iii) There is a thanksgiving to the gods. (iv) There are the special contents. (v) Finally, there are the special salutations and the personal greetings. Practically every one of Paul's letters shows exactly the same sections, as we now demonstrate.
(i) The Greeting: Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Php_1:1 ; Colossians 1:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1.
(ii) The Prayer: in every case Paul prays for the grace of God on the people to whom he writes: Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Php_1:3 ; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2.
(iii) The Thanksgiving: Romans 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3; Php_1:3 ; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3.
(iv) The Special Contents: the main body of the letters.
(v) Special Salutations and Personal Greetings: Romans 16:1-27; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Php_4:21-22 ; Colossians 4:12-15; 1 Thessalonians 5:26.
When Paul wrote letters, he wrote them on the pattern which everyone used. Deissmann says of them, "They differ from the messages of the homely papyrus leaves of Egypt, not as letters but only as the letters of Paul." When we read Paul's letters we are not reading things which were meant to be academic exercises and theological treatises, but human documents written by a friend to his friends.
The Immediate Situation
With a very few exceptions, all Paul's letters were written to meet an immediate situation and not treatises which he sat down to write in the peace and silence of his study. There was some threatening situation in Corinth, or Galatia, or Philippi, or Thessalonica, and he wrote a letter to meet it. He was not in the least thinking of us when he wrote, but solely of the people to whom he was writing. Deissmann writes, "Paul had no thought of adding a few fresh compositions to the already extant Jewish epistles; still less of enriching the sacred literature of his nation. He had no presentiment of the place his words would occupy in universal history; not so much that they would be in existence in the next generation, far less that one day people would look at them as Holy Scripture." We must always remember that a thing need not be transient because it was written to meet an immediate situation. All the great love songs of the world were written for one person, but they live on for the whole of mankind. It is just because Paul's letters were written to meet a threatening danger or a clamant need that they still throb with life. And it is because human need and the human situation do not change that God speaks to us through them today.
The Spoken Word
One other thing we must note about these letters. Paul did what most people did in his day. He did not normally pen his own letters but dictated them to a secretary, and then added his own authenticating signature. (We actually know the name of one of the people who did the writing for him. In Romans 16:22 Tertius, the secretary, slips in his own greeting before the letter draws to an end.) In 1 Corinthians 16:21 Paul says, "This is my own signature, my autograph, so that you can be sure this letter comes from me" (compare Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17).
This explains a great deal. Sometimes Paul is hard to understand, because his sentences begin and never finish; his grammar breaks down and the construction becomes involved. We must not think of him sitting quietly at a desk, carefully polishing each sentence as he writes. We must think of him striding up and down some little room, pouring out a torrent of words, while his secretary races to get them down. When Paul composed his letters, he had in his mind's eye a vision of the folk to whom he was writing, and he was pouring out his heart to them in words that fell over each other in his eagerness to help.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
INTRODUCTION TO THE LETTER TO THE ROMANS
The Epistle That Is Different
There is an obvious difference between Paul's Letter to the Romans and any other of his letters. Anyone coming from, say, a reading of the Letters to the Corinthians, will immediately feel that difference, both of atmosphere and of method. A very great part of it is due to one basic fact--when Paul wrote to the Church at Rome he was writing to a Church with whose founding he had had nothing whatever to do and with which he had had no personal contact at all. That explains why in Romans there are so few of the details of practical problems which fill the other letters. That is why Romans, at first sight, seems so much more impersonal. As Dibelius put it, "It is of all Paul's letters the least conditioned by the momentary situation."
We may put that in another way. Romans, of all Paul's letters, comes nearest to being a theological treatise. In almost all his other letters he is dealing with some immediate trouble, some pressing situation, some current error, some threatening danger, which was menacing the Church to which he was writing. Romans is the nearest approach to a systematic exposition of Paul's own theological position, independent of any immediate set of circumstances.
Testamentary And Prophylactic
Because of that, two great scholars have applied two very illuminating adjectives to Romans. Sanday called Romans "testamentary." It is as if Paul was writing his theological last will and testament, as if into Romans he was distilling the very essence of his faith and belief. Rome was the greatest city in the world, the capital of the greatest Empire the world had ever seen. Paul had never been there, and he did not know if he ever would be there. But, in writing to such a Church in such a city, it was fitting that he should set down the very centre and core of his belief. Burton called Romans "prophylactic." A prophylactic is something which guards against infection. Paul had seen too often what harm and trouble could be caused by wrong ideas, twisted notions, misguided conceptions of Christian faith and belief. He therefore wished to send to the Church in the city which was the centre of the world a letter which would so build up the structure of their faith that, if infections should ever come to them, they might have in the true word of Christian doctrine a powerful and effective defence. He felt that the best protection against the infection of false teaching was the antiseptic of the truth.
The Occasion Of Paul's Writing To Rome
All his life Paul had been haunted by the thought of Rome. It had always been one of his dreams to preach there. When he is in Ephesus, he is planning to go through Achaea and Macedonia again, and then comes a sentence obviously dropped straight from the heart, "After I have been there, I must also see Rome" ( Acts 19:21). When he was up against things in Jerusalem, and the situation looked threatening and the end seemed near, he had one of those visions which always lifted up his heart. In that vision the Lord stood by him and said, "Take courage, Paul. For as you have testified about me at Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also at Rome" ( Acts 23:11). In the very first chapter of this letter Paul's desire to see Rome breathes out. "I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you" ( Romans 1:11). "So, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome" ( Romans 1:15). It might well be said that the name Rome was written on Paul's heart.
When he actually wrote the Letter to the Romans, the date was sometime in the year A.D. 58, and he was in Corinth. He was just about to bring to its completion a scheme that was very dear to his heart. The Church at Jerusalem was the mother Church of them all, but it was poor, and Paul had organized a collection throughout the younger churches for it ( 1 Corinthians 16:1 ff; 2 Corinthians 9:1 ff). That collection was two things. It was an opportunity for his younger converts to put Christian charity into Christian action, and it was a most practical way of impressing on all Christians the unity of the Christian Church, of teaching them that they were not members of isolated and independent congregations, but of one great Church, each part of which had a responsibility to all the rest. When Paul wrote Romans he was just about to set out with that gift for the Jerusalem Church. "At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints" ( Romans 15:25).
The Object Of Paul's Writing
Why, then, at such a moment should he write?
(a) Paul knew that the journey to Jerusalem was not without its peril. He knew that he had enemies there, and that to go to Jerusalem was to take his life and liberty in his hands. He desired the prayers of the Roman Church before he set out on this expedition. "Now I appeal to you brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judaea" ( Romans 15:30-31). He was mobilizing the prayers of the Church before he embarked on this perilous undertaking.
(b) Paul had great schemes simmering in his mind. It has been said of him that he was "always haunted by the regions beyond." He never saw a ship at anchor but he wished to board her and to carry the good news to men across the sea. He never saw a range of mountains, blue in the distance, but he wished to cross them, and to bring the story of the Cross to men who had never heard it. At this time Paul was haunted by the thought of Spain. "I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain" ( Romans 15:24). "When I have completed this [that is, when he had delivered the collection to the Church in Jerusalem] I shall go on by way of you to Spain" ( Romans 15:28).
Why this great desire to go to Spain? Rome had opened up that land. Some of the great Roman roads and buildings still stand there to this day. And it so happened that, just at this time, there was a blaze of greatness in Spain. Many of the great figures who were writing their names on Roman history and literature were Spaniards. There was Martial, the master of the epigram. There was Lucan, the epic poet. There were Columella and Pomponius Mela, great figures in Roman literature. There was Quintilian, the master of Roman oratory. And, above all, there was Seneca, the greatest of the Roman Stoic philosophers, the tutor of the Emperor Nero, and the Prime Minister of the Roman Empire. It was most natural that Paul's thoughts should go out to this land which was producing such a scintillating galaxy of greatness. What might happen if men like that could be touched for Christ? As far as we know Paul never got to Spain. On that visit to Jerusalem he was arrested and he was never freed again. But, when he was writing Romans, that was his dream.
Paul was a master strategist. He had an eye for the layout of territory like a great commander. He felt that by this time he could move on from Asia Minor and for the time being leave Greece behind. He saw the whole west lying in front of him, virgin territory to be won for Christ. But, if he was to launch a campaign in the west, he needed a base of operations. There was only one such base possible--and that was Rome.
That was why Paul wrote this letter to Rome. He had this great dream in his heart and this great plan in his mind. He needed Rome for a base for this new campaign. He was aware that the Church in Rome must know his name. But he was also aware, for he was a realist, that the reports which reached Rome would be mixed. His opponents were not above spreading slanders and false accusation against him. So he wrote this letter to set out for the Church at Rome an account of the very essence of his belief, in order that, when the time came for action, he might find in Rome a sympathetic Church from which the lines of communication might go out to Spain and the west. It was with such a plan and such an intention, that in A.D. 58 Paul sat down in Corinth to write his letter to the Church at Rome.
The Layout Of The Letter
Romans is at once a very complicated and a very carefully constructed letter. It will therefore help us to find our way through it, if we have in our minds an idea of its framework. It falls into four definite divisions.
(i) Romans 1:1-32; Romans 2:1-29; Romans 3:1-31; Romans 4:1-25; Romans 5:1-21; Romans 6:1-23; Romans 7:1-25; Romans 8:1-39, which deal with the problem of righteousness.
(ii) Romans 9:1-33; Romans 10:1-21; Romans 11:1-36, which deal with problem of the Jews, the chosen
(iii) Romans 12:1-21; Romans 13:1-14; Romans 14:1-23; Romans 15:1-33, which deal with practical questions of life and
(iv) Romans 16:1-27, which is a letter of introduction for Phoebe,
and a list of final personal greetings.
(i) When Paul uses the word "righteousness," he means a right relationship with God The man who is righteous is the man who is in a right relationship with God, and whose life shows it.
Paul begins with a survey of the Gentile world. We have only to look at its decadence and corruption to know that it had not solved the problem of righteousness. He looks at the Jewish world. The Jews had sought to solve the problem of righteousness by meticulous obedience to the law. Paul had tried that way himself, and it had issued in frustration and defeat, because no man on earth can ever fully obey the law, and, therefore, every man must have the continual consciousness of being in debt to God and under his condemnation.
So Paul finds the way to righteousness in the way of utter trust and utter yieldedness. The only way to a right relationship with God is to take him at his word, and to cast oneself, just as one is, on his mercy and love. It is the way of faith. It is to know that the important thing is, not what we can do for God, but what he has done for us. For Paul the centre of the Christian faith was that we can never earn or deserve the favour of God, nor do we need to. The whole matter is one of grace, and all that we can do is to accept in wondering love and gratitude and trust what God has done for us.
That does not free us, however, from obligations or entitle us to do as we like; it means that for ever and for ever we must try to be worthy of the love which does so much for us. But we are no longer trying to fulfil the demands of stern and austere and condemnatory law; we are no longer like criminals before a judge; we are lovers who have given all life in love to the one who first loved us.
(ii) The problem of the Jews was a torturing one. In a real sense they were God's chosen people, and yet, when his Son had come into the world, they had rejected him. What possible explanation could there be for this heart-breaking fact?
The only one Paul could find was that, in the end, it was all God's doing. Somehow the hearts of the Jews had been hardened; but it was not all failure, for there had always been a faithful remnant. Nor was it for nothing, for the very fact that the Jews had rejected Christ opened the door so the Gentiles would bring in the Jews and all men would be saved.
Paul goes further. The Jew had always claimed that he was a member of the chosen people in virtue of the fact that he was a Jew. It was solely a matter of pure racial descent from Abraham. But Paul insists that the real Jew is not the man whose flesh and blood descent can be traced to Abraham. He is the man who has made the same decision of utter yieldedness to God in loving faith which Abraham made. Therefore, Paul argues, there are many pure-blooded Jews who are not Jews in the real sense of the term at all; and there are many people of other nations who are really Jews in the true meaning of that word. The new Israel was not a racial thing at all; it was composed of those who had the same faith as Abraham had had.
(iii) Romans 12:1-21 is so great an ethical statement that it must always be set alongside the Sermon on the Mount. In it Paul lays down the ethical character of the Christian faith. The fourteenth and fifteenth chapters deal with an ever-recurring problem. In the Church there was a narrower party who believed that they must abstain from certain foods and drinks, and who counted special days and ceremonies as of great importance. Paul thinks of them as the weaker brethren because their faith was dependent on these external things. There was a more liberal party, who had liberated themselves from these external rules and observances. He thinks of them as the brethren who are stronger in the faith. He makes it quite clear that his sympathies are with the more liberal party; but he lays down the great principle that no man must ever do anything to hurt the conscience of a weaker brother or to put a stumbling block in his way. His whole point of view is that we must never do anything which makes it harder for someone else to be a Christian; and that that may well mean the giving up of something, which is right and safe for us, for the sake of the weaker brother. Christian liberty must never be used in such a way that it injures another's life or conscience.
(iv) The fourth section is a recommendation on behalf of Phoebe, a member of the Church at Cenchreae, who is coming to Rome. The letter ends with a list of greetings and a final benediction.
Romans 16:1-27 has always presented scholars with a problem. Many have felt that it does not really form part of the Letter to the Romans at all; and that it is really a letter to some other Church which became attached to Romans when Paul's letters were collected. What are their grounds? First and foremost, in this chapter Paul sends greetings to twenty-six different people, twenty-four of whom he mentions by name and all of whom he seems to know very intimately. He can, for instance, say that the mother of Rufus has also been a mother to him. Is it likely that Paul knew intimately twenty-six people in a Church which he had never visited? He, in fact, greets far more people in this chapter than he does in any other letter, and yet he had never set foot in Rome. Here is something that needs explanation.
If Romans 16:1-27 was not written to Rome, what was its original destination? It is here that Prisca and Aquila come into the argument. We know that they left Rome in A.D. 52 when Claudius issued his edict banishing the Jews ( Acts 18:2). We know that they went with Paul to Ephesus ( Acts 18:18). We know that they were in Ephesus when Paul wrote his letter to Corinth, less than two years before he wrote Romans ( 1 Corinthians 16:19). And we know that they were still in Ephesus when the Pastoral Epistles were written ( 2 Timothy 4:19). It is certain that if we had come across a letter sending greeting to Prisca and Aquila we should have assumed that it was sent to Ephesus, if no other address was given.
Is there any other evidence to make us think that chapter sixteen may have been sent to Ephesus in the first place? There is the perfectly general reason that Paul spent longer in Ephesus than anywhere else, and it would be very natural for him to send greetings to many people there. Paul speaks of Epaenetus, the first-fruits of Asia. Ephesus is in Asia, and such a reference, too, would be very natural in a letter to Ephesus, but not so natural in a letter to Rome. Romans 16:17 speaks about difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught, which sounds as if Paul was speaking about possible disobedience to his own teaching, and he had never taught in Rome.
It can be argued that the sixteenth chapter was originally addressed to Ephesus, but the argument is not so strong as it looks. For one thing, there is no evidence that the chapter was ever attached anywhere except to the Letter to the Romans. For another thing, the odd fact is that Paul does not send personal greetings to churches which he knew well. There are no personal greetings in Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians, all of them letters to churches he knew well; whereas there are personal greetings in Colossians, although Paul had never set foot in Colosse.
The reason is really quite simple. If Paul had sent personal greetings to churches he knew well, jealousies might well have arisen; on the other hand, when he was writing to churches he had never visited, he liked to establish as many personal links as possible. The very fact that Paul had never been in Rome makes it likely that he would try to establish as many personal connections as possible. Again, it is to be remembered that Prisca and Aquila were banished by edict from Rome. What is more likely than that, after the trouble was over, six or seven years later, they would return to Rome and pick up the threads of their business after their stay in other towns? And is it not most likely that many of the other names are names of people who shared in this banishment, who took up temporary residence in other cities, who met Paul there, and who, when the coast was clear, returned to Rome and their old homes? Paul would be delighted to have so many personal contacts in Rome and to seize hold of them.
Further, as we shall see, when we come to study chapter 16 in detail, many of the names--the households of Aristobulus and Narcissus, Amplias, Nereus and others--well suit Rome. In spite of the arguments for Ephesus, we may take it that there is no necessity to detach chapter sixteen from the Letter to the Romans.
But there is a more interesting, and a much more important, problem. The early manuscripts show some very curious things with regard to Romans 14:1-23; Romans 15:1-33; Romans 16:1-27. The only natural place for a doxology is at the very end. Romans 16:25-27 is a doxology, and in most good manuscripts it comes at the end. But in a number of manuscripts it comes at the end of Romans 14:1-23; two good manuscripts have it in both places; one ancient manuscript has it at the end of Romans 15:1-33; two manuscripts have it in neither place, but leave an empty space for it. One ancient Latin manuscript has a series of section summaries. The last two are as follows:
50: On the peril of him who grieves his brother by meat.
That is obviously Romans 14:15-23.
51: On the mystery of the Lord, kept secret before his passion
but after his passion revealed.
That is equally clearly Romans 16:25-27, the doxology. Clearly, these summaries were made from a manuscript which did not contain chapters fifteen and sixteen. Now there is one thing which sheds a flood of light on this. In one manuscript the mention of Rome in Romans 1:7 and Romans 1:15 is entirely omitted. There is no mention of any destination.
All this goes to show that Romans circulated in two forms--one form as we have it with sixteen chapters, and one with fourteen chapters; and perhaps also one with fifteen chapters. The explanation must be this. As Paul wrote it to Rome, it had sixteen chapters; but Romans 15:1-33; Romans 16:1-27 are private and personal to Rome. Now no other letter gives such a compendium of Paul's doctrine. What must have happened was that Romans began to circulate among all the churches, with the last two local chapters omitted, except for the doxology. It must have been felt that Romans was too fundamental to stop at Rome and so the purely local references were removed and it was sent out to the Church at large. From very early times the Church felt that Romans was so great an expression of the mind of Paul that it must become the possession not of one congregation, but of the whole Church. We must remember, as we study it, that men have always looked on Romans as the quintessence of Paul's gospel.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
the Fifth Week after Easter