Much has been said about the reasons Paul wrote his lengthy letter to the Romans. The more persuasive authors will leave you convinced that they have sorted it all out until you read another compelling argument. Even if the reader thinks that one formulation is highly implausible, often it highlights some angle others may have neglected. It also becomes quite obvious that how a scholar answers other introductory questions (like identifying the intended audience and text critical issues regarding chapter sixteen) can make a huge difference in how they solve this one. It is customary to begin with a survey trying to simplify the options and then showing why another approach makes better sense of the evidence. Rather than running the risk of restating the views of others less convincingly than they themselves have articulated them, hopefully it will be more productive to show how Romans was mainly intended to be a written gospel message for a missional Roman church. Demonstrating this purpose for Romans does not exhaust every reason Paul wrote any particular verse in it—let alone exhaust every reason Paul wrote the letter—nor does it lend itself to wading deeply into important related introductory questions, but the implications for Romans’ application to Christians today are tremendous and fairly obvious.
Many modern commentators correctly believe the epistolary frame possesses the key to unlocking the primary purpose of Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome. It surely is incredibly significant that Romans has the longest epistolary frame of all Paul’s letters and yet, as Richard Longenecker observes, “in the epistolary frame of Romans Paul speaks almost entirely about his own person, desires, and concerns unlike the other epistles of Paul.”1 This would seem to suggest that Paul’s chief reason(s) for writing this letter lies in his own itinerary as a missionary rather than in the circumstances prevalent in Rome at the time. Supporting this contention is the observation highlighted by Jacob Jervell that similar ancient letters would use “a parakalo clause, such as ‘I ask, I request, I beseech’” in order to express “a writer’s intent and concern” and that “it is also known that these phrases are found primarily at the end of the letter.” Jervell observes that there are three such clauses in Romans (12:1, 15:30, and 16:17) and the only one that fits is the one where Paul asks for prayer concerning his upcoming service for Jerusalem2 so that he might come to the Romans with joy and be refreshed in their company (15:30ff). More importantly, Colin Kruse has helpfully summarized the many similarities between Romans 1:8-17 and 15:14-33 suggesting the former sets “out the purpose of the letter” and the latter sums “up what has been the main thrust of the letter.” Romans 1:8-17 and 15:14-33 both begin by affirming the Roman Christians (1:8, 15:14), stress Paul’s preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles (1:15, 15:16, etc.), speak of his desire or plan to come to Rome (1:10, 15:22-24), assure them his purpose for doing so is his and their mutual encouragement or refreshment (1:11-12, 15:24, 32), and explain that he has been prevented from visiting sooner (1:13, 15:22, 25, 28).3 The latter passage is much more expansive and explicit than the former but each sheds light on the other when read together. Thus it will be most helpful to turn to these two pericopes to discover Paul’s reasoning for writing.
Paul’s opening purpose pericope begins with “first” followed by the particle sometimes translated “on the one hand,” leading many readers looking in vain for a “second” and “on the other hand” but Robert Jewett explains, “this is a rather stereotypical Pauline epistolary feature that lifts up the main purpose of writing” and classical oratory often used the phrase the same way. As Jewett says, “This section explains why Paul wants to visit Rome, thus justifying the letter as a whole.”4 The passage also has some other expressions that serve to call further attention to its importance for Roman believers. Romans 1:9 begins, “For God is my witness,” which emphasizes the truthfulness of Paul’s assertion that he prays for the Christians at Rome and asks God that he might be able to finally come to visit them.5 Romans 1:11 speaks of Paul’s longing to see them (cf. 15:23). And Romans 1:13 begins, “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers,” which emphasizes the importance of his point that he often intended to come to Rome (though so far prevented from doing so) in order to reap some fruit among them as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.6 Therefore, in the most general terms, Paul’s main purpose in writing to these Roman Christians has to do with his hitherto thwarted desire to visit them in Rome. This delay at least partially explains why Paul is writing these things now. More logistical details await in Romans 15:14-33.
But even before we turn to Romans 15, Paul reveals in Romans 1:8-15 that his desire to visit Rome, and thus the justification for the letter as a whole, has to do with his calling as an apostle of the gospel to the ends of the earth. No doubt Paul’s thanksgiving speaks of the Roman Christian’s faith as proclaimed in such sweeping terms (1:8, “in all the world”) because it is, as Jewett agrees, “mission terminology.”7 Reaping some fruit (1:13) again sounds missional, as Günther Klein and again Jewett agree, as does the reference to “the rest of the Gentiles.” Jewett explains that the indefinite pronoun ‘some’ “signals that ordinary evangelistic fruit is not in view, that he does not intend to win converts in Rome as he had elsewhere, but that some other kind of fruit is in view.” An example of another kind of fruit was the Gentile offerings to Jerusalem (cf. 15:28).8 Perhaps Jewett is overstating his case since the rest of the verse does mention “the rest of the Gentiles” and ordinary evangelistic fruit would be in view for them. In other words, the indefinite pronoun allows Paul to equivocate between this other kind of fruit for the Roman Christians and ordinary evangelistic fruit (and presumably other fruit too) from the rest of the Gentiles. The indefinite pronoun also recalls one in the phrase in 1:11, “that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” It is worth noting that he is sending this gospel letter to Roman Christians seeking to reap some fruit. Indeed, if he were trying to win converts to the gospel he has sent the letter to the wrong audience. In any case, the mission terminology, including the phrase, “the rest of the Gentiles,” is pointing us to a discussion of Paul’s debt to both Greeks and barbarians – the wise and the foolish (1:14, where the idea of the latter merism is closer to “sophisticates and rustics,” as Jewett helpfully notes). Paul uses these merisms because his desire to visit Rome, and thus the reason for this epistle, has to do with his calling as an apostle of the gospel to the ends of the earth – to the rest of the Gentiles, even to the barbarians, that is, (as he reveals later) to Spain.9 The word barbarians is an onomatopoeic word (sounding like its meaning) poking fun at the way their foreign languages sound to the supposedly more-sophisticated Greco-Roman ears.10 Therefore, Romans is a written gospel message with this mission on his mind.
That Paul wrote Romans with the mission to Spain on his mind is much more boldly and expansively explained in Romans 15:14-33 (although still not terribly directly and overtly). Here Paul speaks at length about his past missionary itinerary and consequently unpacks the reason for his delay in coming to Rome. What kept hindering Paul from preaching the gospel in Rome was his responsibility to preach the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum where Christ was not known. Jewett observes, as those familiar with Paul’s story know, that there were several specific obstacles, including imprisonments and injuries, that slowed his progress of starting churches along this arc.11 Thus until now, Paul had not been able to fulfill this ministry of the gospel of Christ in those regions in the eastern Mediterranean. “But now,” as Paul puts it, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions” (1:24). Paul’s self-understanding of his ministry is “to preach the gospel where Christ was not known” in keeping with the words of Isaiah the prophet, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand” (cf. 15:20-21). But now, since Paul has finished laying a foundation within all these regions by planting churches in certain strategic cities, he can come to Rome as he had longed for many years to do (cf. 15:23). However, Paul’s intent is not to come to Rome and preach the gospel in order to build upon someone else’s foundation (cf. 15:20). To do so would not fit his calling to preach the gospel where Christ was not known. So instead, Paul preached the gospel via letter to Rome so that they might catch the vision of barbarians in Spain as an acceptable offering to God.
Much has been written about the apparent contradiction between Paul’s eagerness “to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (1:15) and Paul’s “ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (15:20). Many conclude that Paul is simply being inconsistent, or at least allow for “a measure of inconsistency.”12 However, it is worth stressing that Paul had no ambition to preach the gospel in Rome for the purpose of building on someone else’s foundation. In other words, Paul had no ambition to evangelize or seek new converts in Rome or, for that matter, the surrounding region. There already were Christians in Rome who could perform this important work. Nor does Paul imply that there is any need for some sort of new apostolic foundation to be laid in Rome.13 Romans itself is a written preaching of the gospel, but it is a preaching of the gospel for those who follow Christ and not to unbelievers at Rome. In other words, Paul’s preaching the gospel in Rome would not be with the goal of establishing churches in Rome but instead his preaching the gospel in Rome would be in established churches. As A.J.M. Wedderburn says, “sharing the gospel and preaching the gospel are not just activities for founding a church but also for keeping it being and keeping it faithful to its calling.”14 Yet by sending this letter Paul might be able to spend less time filling pulpits in Rome. At least one could argue, as Kruse does, that the letter allows Paul to already begin his ministry among them as a “forerunner” for his upcoming ministry in person.15 And here then is one of the clues for the primary purpose that Paul has written Romans: by preaching “the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (1:15) via letter, Paul will instead able to enjoy their company for a while (15:24) and be refreshed in their company (15:32) to an even greater extent than if he also needed to labor in extensive preaching while visiting. Writing the letter to the Romans allows Paul to already get started in this ministry. The epistle is a “temporary substitute” for the personal ministry of Paul in Rome.16 This is part of the reason then that Paul can speak of his visit to Rome as if he would merely be passing through to Spain (15:24, 28).
Romans 15:24 is the first time in the letter that Paul makes clear his travel destination is Spain instead of any plan to set up his tent in Rome for an extended stay.17 The strength of this point is obvious from the way that Paul expresses himself: “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while” (15:24) and “I will leave for Spain by way of you” (15:28). Clearly the trip to Spain is no afterthought. These two verses supply the reader with the particular barbarians (1:14) Paul had in mind for his next foundation-laying enterprise. This destination also makes sense given Paul’s description of his past missionary itinerary (15:16-23). Having completed laying a foundation in the eastern Mediterranean, now Paul can move on to preaching the gospel where Christ was not known in the western Mediterranean.18 Indeed, Paul would not run the risk of building on anyone else’s foundation (cf. 15:20) in Spain. In sum, this mission would complete the merism of Greeks and barbarians since Paul has already discharged his obligation to lay a foundation in Greek-speaking regions in the eastern Mediterranean and now he can take the gospel to the barbarians he was equally indebted to serve as the apostle to the Gentiles. Another clue Jewett sees for Paul’s choice of Spain is suggested by the curious phrase he translates “also as far round as” in 15:19. He argues that the way ancient maps were designed Spain would “complete the arc from Jerusalem through Illyricum and Rome, and on to the end of the earth.”19 In other words, Romans 1:8-15 and 15:14-33 may only briefly mention Spain twice in the second half of the latter, but Paul has been repeatedly preparing the reader for this ambitious goal of his next missionary endeavor.
The journey to Spain was not the only mission on Paul’s mind as he wrote Romans. “At present, however,” Paul says, “I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (15:24-25). In these and the verses that follow Paul gives the Romans more insight into his missionary itinerary. Paul had finished laying that church foundation in Macedonia and Achaia, but Paul still had to deliver their offering to Jerusalem. He says, “When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you” (15:28). Paul had not figured out how to be in two places at the same time. Thus earlier Paul testified to his unceasing prayers for the Christians at Rome, “asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you” (cf.1:9-10). Now he unveils part of his purpose in writing Romans with his appeal to his brothers and sisters in Rome to “strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (15:30-32). While some may want to downplay the significance of this appeal, Paul’s high view of prayer suggests that he understands this to be an important reason for writing Romans. Through their prayers, the Christians in Rome could participate in this important work. Moreover, it has been said that “Christians in Rome needed to know what Paul taught and how he understood his own mission if they were going to ally themselves with other Pauline churches and intercede for a favorable reception of the collection” and Paul’s reception in Rome afterward might not be as refreshing and encouraging if they were upset about it.20 As Jeffrey Crafton describes the event, what was at stake was how “the Jerusalem offering is representative of Paul’s missionary career and theology.”21 In terms of his long-range plans, Spain is the main mission on Paul’s mind. However, Paul was justifiably concerned about this impending trip.
Despite the uncertainty as to how the trip to Jerusalem would go, Paul began making preparations for the laying of a gospel foundation in Spain. He had already secured the patronage of the deaconess Phoebe (16:1) who would be traveling with this letter to Rome. A conjunction ties the previous discussion of a missionary itinerary and how the Romans could help to the verses concerning Phoebe. Citing examples from the letters of Socrates and Pseudo-Demetrius using the same verb introducing Phoebe, Jewett argues, “Ancient epistolary practice would therefore assume that the recommendation of Phoebe was related to her task of conveying and interpreting the letter in Rome as well as in carrying out the business entailed in the letter.”22 Additionally, Jewett translates the instructions concerning her this way: “that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints and provide her whatever she might need from you in the matter” (16:2).23 Everything points to “the matter” being the preparations necessary for Paul’s mission to Spain. The fact that she is described as “a patron of many and of myself as well” (16:2) suggests that she is a woman of very significant means. This implies that what Phoebe will need from the Romans is not necessarily financial aid—a relief for any church to hear. Jewett’s contention then is that Phoebe supplied Tertius (16:22) to Paul as a scribe for the drafting of this letter. Tertius would then be in a position to read this text aloud to the Romans in the manner that Paul intended it to be heard.24 Many people would have a part to play if the mission to Spain was to go forward – including translators and those who could make the right introductions.
There are several reasons that Paul’s vision of evangelizing Spain was an ambitious undertaking that would need substantial logistical support. It is clear that Paul is seeking such aid from the Christians at Rome. When he spoke of being “helped on my journey there by you” (15:24) the consensus is that the verb is a technical term among missionaries (or almost a technical term) for the kinds of support necessary to be equipped for the trip.25 When Phoebe is called a patron (16:2) that too was “a technical term for an upper-class benefactor.”26 Yet even though Paul already has the finances to underwrite this mission there is much more that would need to be arranged before he could leave for Spain. Among the obstactles highlighted in Jewett’s commentary were the absence of synagogues in Spain. Paul’s whole strategy in the eastern Mediterranean had been to start in the synagogue and then move out when problems arose. Synagogues were also helpful for finding the necessary contacts and housing arrangements one might need. A second reason this mission is so ambitious is the languages of the Spanish people. Jewett summarizes the linguistic reality this way: “there were four main language groupings in Spain: the Indo-European languages in west-central and northwest Spain, the Iberian dialects in southern Spain and on the east coast, the Punic languages in the southern coastal area, and a wide range of primitive languages of obscure origin” and then he adds that there were a few pockets where Greek was used (small enough that a Greek-speaking mission would not be able to make much of a lasting impact in Spain) and one where Phoenician was spoken. There was some use of Latin in Spain, mostly limited to major cities. Barbarian is an apt word for the Spanish linguistic situation as the Romans saw it at a time when the Hebrew Scriptures were not even available in Latin. Thus it would be necessary to translate the gospel from Greek into Latin and then into the various dialects. Yet a third complication is the Roman political system in Spain, which would require the right introductions for Paul to be able to avoid relying on those hated by the locals.27 Paul knew that this effort would require advice, logistical support, translators, letters of introduction, and whatever else the Romans might realize was necessary.
The scope of the Spanish mission meant the letter to the Romans needed to preach the gospel in such a way they might overcome their differences and unite together behind Paul’s vision. Longenecker includes among the subsidiary reasons for Romans that Paul needed to defend himself against misrepresentation and criticism and diffuse tensions between the weak and the strong.28 It is fairly straightforward to see how these reasons could help Paul accomplish his primary purpose in writing. That these are subordinate reasons for writing is surely suggested by the fact that the letter never even says “a thing about any sort of information he has received from Rome, and nowhere does he name any informants, as is the case in the other letters.”29 Nevertheless, Andrew Das is persuasive when he argues that Paul appears to know the situation in Rome pretty well.30 Whether one agrees with Das that the audience was wholly Gentile, surely he is correct in saying that some Gentiles had previously been God-fearers associated with the synagogues, others had no synagogue background, and they were now meeting in house-churches instead of in Roman synagogues. Paul addresses the issues these Jewish-Gentile divisions created at length in the body of the letter to the Romans. Indeed, while scholars disagree greatly about the purpose of Romans the historical-critical method has led us to appreciate that Romans was written to a specific audience with particular problems.31 Namely, Romans was written for the churches in Rome.
Longenecker asks whether “Paul’s purpose in writing Romans [is] missionary in nature or pastoral in nature.”32 The answer is yes: Paul wants a missional Roman church! They needed to hear the gospel to lead them to support the mission to Spain and to pray for his reception in Jerusalem. As Crafton says, “Paul has set forth a gospel which should get the Romans interested in the mission to Spain, and indeed is offering them a specific way to become involved. His hope is that they will not only perceive but also take hold of their place in God’s salvific plan for the nations.”33
1 Richard Longenecker, Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul’s Most Famous Letter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p.138, see also p.141.
2 Jacob Jervell, “The Letter to Jerusalem,” in The Romans Debate, ed. Karl Donfried,(Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977), p.66.
3 Colin Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), p.58.
4 Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), p.117-118.
5 Ibid., 120.
6 Ibid., 128; and Kruse, p.58.
7 Jewett, 120.
8 Jewett, 129-130.
9 Jewett, p.131.
10 Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p.61-62.
11 Jewett, p.922-923.
12A.J.M. Wedderburn, The Reasons for Romans (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), p.28.
13Cf. Longenecker, p.137.
17 Jewett, p.923-924; Günther Bornkamm, “The Letter to the Romans as Paul’s Last Will and Testament,” in Romans Debate, p.18.
19Jewett, p.912, 924. Jewett also appeals to the argument of Roger D. Aus that Paul understands Isaiah 66:19 as saying Tarshish (identified as the Spanish city of Tartessos) would be the last offering of the Gentiles to collect. However, see A. Andrew Das, “Paul of Tarshish: Isaiah 66:19 and the Spanish Mission of Romans 15.24, 28,” New Testament Studies, 54 (2008): p.60-73.
20Wedderburn, p.101, cf. p.74.
21Jeffrey Crafton, “Paul’s Rhetorical Vision and the Purpose of Romans: Toward a New Understanding,” Novum Testamentum, 32, no.4 (Oct 1990): p.327.
23Ibid., p.941, cf. p.89-91.
24Ibid., p.22-23, 979.
27Ibid., p.74-79, 87-88.
29 Bornkamm, p.21.
30A. Andrew Das, Solving the Romans Debate (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), p.38-41.
31Karl Donfried, “The Nature and Scope of the Debate,” in The Romans Debate, p.x.