The ecclesia in Rome, like that in Corinth, existed in an environment of great immorality, corruption and debauchery. Rome itself was legendary for its decadence and depravity. A book titled The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome1 explores why the literature they produced at the time was just so preoccupied with immorality. Rome was the trading hub of the Roman Empire, dealing in all kinds of luxurious goods of the time. But the historian Tacitus wrote that into Rome flowed all things from the empire that were vile and abominable, and that, in turn, encouraged wicked behaviour in that city that even the world outside found shameful. What was normal practice in first-century Rome would put you in jail if you lived like that today. Wickedness abounded on every hand.

So what do you write about to an ecclesia living in that society? You would write about the need to live above that evil and hence, Paul, brilliantly and methodically, explains that the only way salvation can be offered to mankind is to live a life in faith, specifically living a life based on belief in the gospel.

After an introduction to the ecclesia in Rome in which Paul expresses his thankfulness to this ecclesia and his desire to be with them, it is very appropriate that he begins his message in earnest by describing the gospel’s transforming power (Rom 1:16-17), and then God’s wrath manifested against blasphemy and immorality from verse 18 to the end of the chapter.

Paul begins Romans 1 by calling himself “a servant of Jesus Christ”. The word “servant” in the Greek is doulos, meaning a bond slave. A bond slave is one who is subject to the will, and wholly at the disposal, of another. This is a focal point of salvation in Christ and the outworking of the principles of the atonement—service to others. We need to acknowledge the life we now live is not our own because we have given our lives to God. Paul, on certain occasions, could glory that he was born free as a Roman citizen. He had the same rights and privileges as the Romans. But when it came to the gospel, Paul said that he had no rights. He was a bond slave of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, he had been called and “separated unto the gospel of God”. He was to be the embodiment of its message, proclaiming it and living it. It was the good news of God, which (v2) “he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures”.

The prophets had foretold that the gospel would be preached to all nations and that Paul would be an instrument in that work. Hence, in Acts 13:47, Paul and Barnabas declare their intent to turn to the Gentiles based on the words of the prophets in Isaiah 49:6: “For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth”.

The power of the gospel

In Romans 1:5-6, Paul states that he received grace and the commission to spread the gospel amongst all nations as an apostle, to convince men and women to live lives based on the obedience to the faith. This is a key recurring theme of these verses—to be a part of the ecclesia you must live a life centred on faith in the gospel.

Paul had never visited the Roman ecclesia, but as we read in verse 8, he could earnestly thank God because the faith of this ecclesia was spoken of throughout the whole Roman world. All the ecclesias in the Roman Empire had heard of their steadfast faith rising above the depravity of the Roman capital, and they rejoiced and praised God for His goodness towards them. The ecclesia in the capital set the benchmark for others, because it maintained the faith in a particularly evil and immoral city. The inhabitants of the city would look with contempt at the restraints the Truth brought. To most people, being a disciple of Christ had no appeal whatsoever.

Paul tells them this not to make them proud, but in the hope that they would preserve their faithful integrity. The gospel message is for those who give up their lives now, and are slaves to God and to His Son. Paul’s example demonstrated that commitment (1:15-16):

“So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”

The gospel is the source of great power leading to salvation. The word “power” in the Greek is dunamis, from where we get the English word ‘dynamo’. It means an inherent, inbuilt power, an object which generates power. The power of the gospel is in its words and its message. Once understood and believed, it has the force and energy to transform fleshly minds and hard hearts so that they can be conformed to the image of Christ (cp John 6:63; Rom 12:1-2).

As Romans 1:17 goes on to say, it is within the gospel that the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. The word “revealed” is the Greek word apokalupto, which means to uncover; to unveil and expose; to open to view what was before hidden. The righteousness of God was not apparent in the Law of Moses. It was there for a discerning Israelite to find, but for the most part it was hidden from view to Israel, but now, states Paul, it is uncovered. The veil has been taken away in Christ. He was the one that declared it fully and exposed it to the light and it is this righteousness that also forms part of the gospel’s power.

Not ashamed of the gospel

Paul was not ashamed of proclaiming the gospel message in a debased and corrupt society, and neither should we be. It is the debauchery of this world which should be making us ashamed, not the things of God. The question we have to ask ourselves is, Are we ashamed of the Truth of the gospel? Are we ashamed of being identified with Christ either at work or school? Are we embarrassed to be linked with Christ as his bond slaves?

In Mark 8:34-37, Jesus tells his disciples that they need to deny themselves, and to take up their cross and to follow him. He says that if the disciples try to save their life, they will lose it, but if they lose their life for his sake and the gospel’s sake, they will save it. To be a disciple of Christ is a life of daily crucifying the flesh. The evil things of the world are what we naturally gravitate to, yet we are being told we must go against the impulses of the flesh and follow our Lord and carry our own personal cross. Our Master said in Mark 8:38, “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him shall the son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

He indicates that the generation he lived in was adulterous and sinful. If he called that generation adulterous and sinful, I’m not sure what adjectives he would use to describe our western society in the 21st century. If you are ashamed of Christ and his words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. This is the description of the judgment seat in Matthew 25:31, when the King separates the sheep from the goats.

Not ashamed of the testimony of our Lord

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he writes extensively of not being ashamed of the gospel of Christ. These are the last writings of the Apostle Paul, written to the young man Timothy, who was then living in the wicked environment of Ephesus. Paul writes emotionally and urgently, because the Emperor Nero had imprisoned Paul and was about to execute him for the gospel’s sake. In 2 Timothy 1:8 we read, “Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God”.

This is very powerful indeed. The Emperor Nero was persecuting the Christians, and it would have been very easy to give up on the hope of Israel to avoid persecution and death. Paul exhorts Timothy not to be ashamed of the testimony (marturion, witness) of our Lord, nor of Paul, who counted himself as a prisoner of Christ. Paul was suffering for Christ’s sake. To the world he was a prisoner of Rome, but to Timothy he was a prisoner of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul encourages him not to be ashamed of this status. Weymouth translates this verse, “but rather share suffering with me in the service of the Good News, strengthened by the power of God”. Here again is mention of the power of the gospel.

Note the past tense in verse 9: “who has saved us”. The promise of eternal life after losing our life now in service of the gospel is so certain that Paul could write as if it had already occurred. We will be saved if we share the suffering of the gospel and are strengthened by the power, the dynamo, of God. This is the power of God unto salvation. And once more the apostle introduces us to the fact that God has “called us with an holy calling”. We have been called out of this wicked world; we are the ecclesia of God.

In verse 12 Paul writes, “For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed”. In verse 8, Paul tells Timothy not to be ashamed, and in verse 12 he says that he is not ashamed. He then offers up the example of Onesiphorus who was “not ashamed of my chain” (v16). Onesiphorus was not ashamed of Paul the prisoner of Christ, as he often refreshed the spirit of Paul. It seems that he had lost his own life in the service of the gospel. He had diligently sought out Paul but in doing so he was most likely executed. That’s why Paul asks for mercy upon the house of Onesiphorus, suggesting that Onesiphorus was no longer living and hence his prayer for his family as they now had to cope without a father. Onesiphorus had literally lost his life in the service of the gospel for not being ashamed of Paul and the gospel message. He was not ashamed to identify himself as a Christadelphian in Rome when it was very dangerous to do so.

Not be ashamed to suffer

In 1 Peter 2, Peter tells the believers that, as Christ suffered for us, he gave us an example that we should follow in his steps. In 1 Peter 4:16 we read, “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” Why shouldn’t believers be ashamed if we suffer as a follower of Christ, if we suffer as a Christadelphian? It is because in that very suffering on behalf of the Truth we will be glorifying God.

In 1 John 2:28, the aged Apostle John says: “And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming.” If we are not ashamed of the gospel of Christ now, our King won’t be ashamed of us at his coming. To “not be ashamed” of the gospel of Christ we have to be like “little children”. Children are not ashamed to talk about God and are open about who they really are. It is only when we become adults that we worry about saving face and not talking to others about the gospel in case people look at us as being strange. The brothers and sisters of the first century were fed to the lions for associating themselves with Christ. Let us have the same courage to face the world as a Christadelphian, by standing up for the things of God.

In Hebrews 2:11, we read of the work of the captain of our salvation: “For both he that sanctfieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren”.

Our Lord is a commander, leading his people to victory and glory. Both captain and soldier are united by their holiness and for this cause he is not ashamed of being identified with them. If we have not been ashamed of the gospel message, when our captain returns, he will not be ashamed to call us his brethren. Even though we are sinners and have failed repeatedly to glorify God, when he returns, he will not be ashamed to say to his Father and to the holy angels that we are his brethren.

What a privilege that is! We are the sons and daughters of God. We have the same Father. We have been called by God. We are the brethren of Christ, the Christadelphians. He sanctified us and we are sanctified through him. Sanctified means “separated”. Thayer says that the word “sanctified” means “separated from profane things and dedicated to God”. We have been separated from this corrupt society by our faith in the gospel and its power to change us.

May we appreciate the greatness of this calling and allow the truth of the gospel to transform us so that when our Lord returns, he may find a body of people who are truly his brethren.

References:

  1. Catharine Edwards, Cambridge University Press 1993