Let’s talk about how subversive the Book of Romans is.
I mean, for the only book of the Bible written directly to people living in Rome—not to mention one that is so long and has so much to say—the city itself (and the Empire of Rome that the city is the seat of) is practically silent. In fact, the city itself is only named twice in the beginning, and in passing, merely as the location of the Church Paul writes to (1:7,15).
Which is weird, right? I mean, if an apostle wrote a letter to Christians in Washington D.C., we might imagine he’d have all this stuff to say about America, about our country, about what the “founding fathers” wanted and how Christians in America—particularly her capital—have all this potential for turning the capital of the world’s most powerful empire into the hands of God. “Now let’s get a Christian in the white house and Congress and turn this nation [back] to God.”
So why don’t we see much about Rome in the book of Rome? The truth is, much of the Letter to the Church in Rome is saying all kinds of things about Rome, both the empire and the city.
- The first reason why Paul is not going to say anything about Rome in the letter is to protect the Christians there and elsewhere. It’s no secret that Christianity was a peaceful “threat” to Roman Empire, but Paul is not going to say anything obviously negative in a letter that might be apprehended by Roman soldiers. Jesus taught us to understand that we will have an enemy in every earthly nation, but his followers were not taught to make a habit of upsetting earthly leaders just for the sake of it. Persecution will come, but it shouldn’t be because we outright insulted earthly leaders, but because our teaching threatens their power. So, if Paul thinks Rome is a stinking heap of manure, he’s not going to write that, but it doesn’t mean he’s not thinking it. Like any good Christian, he’s clever as a snake.
- The second reason why Paul is not going to say anything about Rome in the letter is to silence the significance of Rome. By making Rome only a place on a map, Paul is reducing the capitol of the empire to its rightful place in the plan of God. Despite all the powerful leaders, vast structures, and impressive festivities, Rome is nothing but a heap of ruin and sin to God. It doesn’t have to be said. Paul is effectively yawning at the empire, as if to say “Everybody’s all like ‘Hail Caesar!’ and I’m over here like ‘Praise Jesus!'”
- The third reason, and of course most important, is simply that Paul is writing a letter to Christians about Christ and his Kingdom. What could be more important? Nothing on earth. No matter how important it looks to the eyes of the flesh. Not even Rome.
Let’s look at how Paul’s silence about Rome actually says a lot about how God’s kingdom relates (and doesn’t relate) to Rome—and how it matters us as Christians in America:
- Paul, a Roman citizen, doesn’t even introduce himself as a citizen of Rome. He could have used that to his advantage in case he was searched by a Roman soldier. It’s like he doesn’t care. His citizenship is in Heaven, and although elsewhere in scripture he’s mentioned his Roman citizenship (Acts 16), he only uses it to convenience the Gospel and humble Roman authorities. Instead, he reaches them as one sent in the name of Christ “in power” and “among all nations.” It’s a subtle way of saying, “I’m writing to the citizens of a great power stretching across the earth—you know, Jesus’ kingdom.” Burn.
- Paul is eager to go to Rome, but not to do anything associated with Rome itself. It’s like, “I can’t wait to go to D.C. and meet some special people.” “Political leaders?” “Um, no. I’m visiting the Church there.”
- Right after Paul mentions Rome, he says he’s not ashamed of the Gospel (1:16). It’s a brave move of defiance. “I don’t care what they do to me. I love Jesus and his Message.”
- And then, right after that, he says “the wrath of God” is against all who “suppress the truth.” Another subtle move, implying that Rome is being judged by God for persecuting Christians and practicing horrible sin. Talk about a subtweet.
- He calls God the God of the Gentiles (3:29). Oh, and by the way, he’s the only God. A spit in the face of Jupiter, Diana, Baal, and any other false god in the world.
- He says that Christians are heirs of the world, being by faith children of Abraham. In other words, not Rome. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, if he had no humility, Paul might could have well said, “Hey, Caesar, this world you rule? It actually belongs to my God, and therefore we’re going to get it in the end. Not you.”
- He tells Christians to be happy they’re being persecuted. That’s a show of defiance. To be sad is to show weakness and defeat, or even guilt and repentance. Governments don’t harm people hoping they’ll be happy about it. They want to stop something. Not only is Paul encouraging the faithful, he’s telling the Church and those who persecute her that such suffering can make them stronger, better people. “The more you hurt us, the more powerful our hope.” Bold words from a leader in a cult dedicated to a helpless man-god who died in the hands of Roman soldiers.
- He says Christians are united as a new creation through Christ’s death. Real subtle, but it’s there. A group of people being united despite the empire is scandalous. Calling them a new kind of person that doesn’t live under the same rules as Rome is scandalous. And both those things being under a man Rome executed for rebellion is scandalous.
- While Law was a big deal to Romans, Paul never mentions Rome’s law or its “source.” Instead, he says we delight in the Law of the Lord.
- He literally says, “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (8:31). Imagine this letter being read in a secret basement in the midst of the capital. How rebellious! Any antagonism toward Christians Paul sees as insignificant and powerless to topple God’s plans. “Who can bring any accusation against God’s elect?” (v33). He might as well add, “I dare you.” Oh, and by the way, he implicitly says, “our King you killed, he came back. You can’t stop him.”
- And then, right after that, he says Christians are “more than conquerors.” Rome is just a conquering empire. That’s it. All they do is exercise temporary power over people’s bodies, but not their hearts and souls. Christians have a better role: We are ruled by a more powerful being, and we can use love to conquer hearts, truly convicting people of real power. Paul even says that nothing, not even Rome, can stop Jesus. Only he does it without actually naming Rome. He says “rulers” and “powers.” We smell what he’s cooking. He then adds firmly, “I am speaking the truth.” Boom.
- He says there’s no meaningful distinction between any race, ethnic group, or nationality. That’s anti-empire.
- He says people who carry the Good News have beautiful feet. The main reason is to praise people for spreading the Gospel, but it’s also implied that the one thing Rome tries to oppress is actually beautiful. Always rebellious. “We’re gonna do it anyway, because it’s awesome! And those who do it are awesome!”
- He says Gentiles can be “grafted” into Abraham’s lineage, essentially inviting Roman people to happily “defect” to Jesus.
- He tells Christians not to act just like typical Romans, but instead transform into a better way of living. Abandon the culture you’re in, he means, and adopt the culture of the man Romans hung on a cross for treason.
But WAIT A MINUTE. He also says “let everyone be subject to governing authorities,” (13:1) and even says that God set them in place, and that they are servants of God. So now what? Is Paul tooling out? Is he actually endorsing Rome?
This is a very misunderstood passage. It’s important to remember the context here. The whole time Paul has been implicitly defying Rome as demonic and impotent (what John also does in Revelation). He’s NOT about to shill out to Caesar just for the sake of peace and order. If you look at his use of language, Paul is not endorsing Roman rule, but merely asking Christians to respect the order and relative justice these leaders inadvertently bring about, but he phrases it in a way that makes him look like an obedient, non-hostile law-abider. But it’s not because Rome is good, but because Rome is a tool God uses to carry out his justice.
Earthly powers inherently rebel against God by claiming authority they don’t have, but God can even use their efforts at control to bring about his vision of justice. This is why Christians aren’t supposed to rebel just for the sake of it, or disobey laws just to say “stick it to Caesar.” Our rebellion should be for the Gospel, not to pick a fight. Hence why Paul’s letter is very anti-Rome without being up front about it.
- Right after offering conditional respect to rulers, Paul immediately tells his followers to follow a better legal system, put on their armor for a fight, and kill Roman culture. Only, the fight is not physical, and the killing of another culture is not oppressive, but voluntary. We kill the culture in us, not in Romans. Unlike Rome, we don’t force people to assimilate. Instead, we use love to invite them to Jesus. Paul even goes on to demonstrate how flexible and non-judgmental true Christian culture is, despite being so anti-Roman.
- Paul directly quotes Isaiah, claiming Jesus came to rule Romans (and other Gentiles). Just not by force, but by a love more powerful than force.
- He lays out his plans to travel everywhere the Roman empire stretches, praising Jesus the executed traitor and making more of his followers. Between the lines, “oh and yeah, I totally plan to stretch through your whole empire and repeat this stuff. I have no plans to quit. Oh, and plenty of your subjects are happy to help me. They’re everywhere, and more will be joining them.” He even names some followers by name. Unashamed.
- He tops it off with a reminder that Jesus is for all nations (not Roman rule), according to the command of God (not Caesar), to bring about obedience of faith (not obedience to Roman rule). And not just to Paul’s God, but to the only God. A-men. Mic. drop.
In recap, Paul defies Rome by pointing to God’s grace instead of Caesar’s power, calling for Christians to trust in the Messiah Rome had executed, abandoning any cultural practices (many of them Roman) that are against Christ, and boasting in how God has helped him spread the news of a nation encompassing all nations that has nothing to do with Rome.
Paul also says a lot about how Jews aren’t saved just for “being Jewish” either. Holding to Jewish law and culture won’t save them because it’s not trusting in Christ. Being in the lineage of Abraham won’t save them any more than being a citizen of the greatest empire. For us, being “American” has nothing to do with making us saved, even if America’s origins included some Christian values.