"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13).
Some reasons for trying out a model of the Spirit throughout the epistle are set out in the Introduction. We identified chapter 8 about the power of the Spirit as the pivotal section to which the epistle proceeds, and from which it moves on to its conclusion. Paul's blessing at the end of his sustained argument puts the model in a nutshell. "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (15:13). So we will be trying out the idea that the gospel or good news (1:1, 3, 9, 16) is not just about being forgiven, but it gives us hope of transformation by the power of the Spirit as a result of faith in God's Son.
1:1 Paul is an apostle set apart for the good news of the gospel. In classical Greek an "apostle" was the leader of a naval expedition. As a Christian apostle Paul viewed himself as the leader of a church planting team. The gift of the Spirit needed for church planting work came at the top of the list in a previous epistle (1 Cor. 12:28; also in Ephesians 4:11), but Paul does not mention it among the gifts he lists in 12:6-8. He defines his own work as an apostle in 1:5, and he has no doubt that anything he has done as an apostle is a gift of the Spirit (15:19; see Mark 3:14-15).
1:2 If the good news concerns the power of the Spirit we can see why several of the Old Testament prophets announced a new work of the Spirit. Jesus himself quoted Isaiah 61:1 (Luke 4:18). Jeremiah mentioned the need of heart circumcision (Jer. 4:4; 9:26) and a new covenant of the heart (31:33). On the Day of Pentecost Peter remembered Joel's prophecy of the Spirit being poured out (Joel 2:28-29). And Ezekiel looked forward to a work of the Spirit in the heart which would result in the Spirit giving life to God's people (Ezekiel 36:27; 37:14). All of these themes will be picked up by Paul in the epistle. It seems that whereas in the Old Testament the Holy Spirit was given to individuals for special tasks, Paul now sees the Spirit working in and through communities of the Spirit throughout the world each functioning as the body of Christ.
1:3 The good news concerns the Son of God. His lineage "according to the flesh" was from the royal line of David (as in 15:12; see Psalm 89:20-29; Isaiah 9:7; 11:1, 10; Jeremiah 23:5). Matthew's Gospel was probably not yet written when Paul wrote, and it explained that by adopting Jesus as his son Joseph gave him the right to the Davidic throne (Matthew 1:1,16,20).
1:4 The "Spirit of Holiness" seems to be a Hebrew expression for the Holy Spirit. And in fact the writers of the New Testament assumed that every part of the life of Jesus on earth from conception to resurrection was by the power of the Spirit (See Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of God: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, 1996, chapter 3). As Jesus was tempted to avoid the cross in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was strengthened the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14) and perhaps assured that the power of the Spirit would be sufficient to raise him from the dead. Paul will point out that an important part of the good news is that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is exactly the same power of the Spirit that is freely available for us in the particular struggles we face (Romans 8:11; see Ephesians 1:19-20).
1:5 In a covering letter attached to this epistle Paul will claim that his function was to plant churches among other nations, and he had already succeeded in doing this "by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ" (Romans 15:19). That is a distance of 1500 miles (as crows are said to fly) through huge Gentile cities such as Syrian Antioch, Tarsus in Cilicia, Galatian Antioch, Asian Ephesus, the Roman colony in Philippi, and the famous Greek cities of Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth. And this astonishing achievement was totally by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It also seems that these churches would in turn become fruitful by the Spirit, would be given gifts of the Spirit, and energized to make known and make visible the good news in the surrounding areas . "Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit... For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place" (1 Thessalonians 1:5-8).
"For the sake of his name" seems to connect with the question, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" (Acts 4:7). The answer is significant. "Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit" explained that the lame man was healed "by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified" (Act 4:7-10). A name often referred to the power or authority of the person named. Here healing is by the name or authority of the crucified and ascended Jesus through the power of the Spirit. And Paul's good news is received both by faith in the Son and being empowered by the agency of the Spirit.
1:6-7 Christians are already saints (Acts 9:13, 32, 41, 26:10) because we are sanctified (the verb from the same root as "saints") by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:2; in baptism 6:11). We are called to live that out by setting our mind to be transformed by the Spirit (Romans 8:5; 12:2).
1:8 He writes to Christians whose faith is known throughout the Roman empire. As we will see in chapter 4, faith was not just believing and accepting what Jesus had done. Paul speaks of "your work of faith and labour of love" and explains that "our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 1:3, 5).
1:9-11 Paul serves "in my spirit in the gospel" (margin)." He seems to be referring to the power of the Holy Spirit empowering his spirit in his own work of goodnewsing. And as he prays for the church which he has never visited, he longs to impart a spiritual gift ("charisma"; see 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-31).
1:12 Some ingredients of mutual encouragement are set out in 14:1-5. And some Christians seem to have a special gift of encouragement the literal translation in 12:8). Barnabas for example was called "son of encouragement" (Acts 4:36).
1:13-15 Paul has already reaped a harvest among other nations (see 15:16-19). The Greeks were mainly Greek speaking city dwellers. Barbarians were the peoples of the surrounding countryside, often with strange dialects (Acts 14:11). Now Paul's longing is to preach and teach in the capital of the Roman empire (15:23-24).
1:16 Paul is not ashamed of the good news of the power of God, which others might deride (as did the Athenians in Acts 17:18). In a previous letter Paul had explained that "My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and power" (1 Cor 2:4).
We might compare the idea of the Holy Spirit as the power of God in Luke's Gospel. Mary was told "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35). Luke goes on to refer to the power of the Spirit in Jesus' ministry, and how opponents ascribed that power to the Beelzebul, the lord of the flies (11:14-15). Speaking against Jesus is by no means as serious as denying the power of the Holy Spirit (12:10). The Gospel ends with "Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:49), and the Book of Acts begins with the promise of that power (1:8; see 2:4; 3:12; 4:8, 33; 6:8; 13:9).
It therefore seems that "the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16; see also the word power in 1:4; 15:13, 19) which Paul is not ashamed to preach, and expounds throughout this letter, is the power of the Holy Spirit, and it is accessible to all people by faith alone.
1:17 Since God is love (1 John 3:16) it is tempting to identify God's righteousness as his love. This was already known as God's character in the Old Testament (Exodus 15:13; 20:6; 34:6,7; Deuteronomy 5:10; and hundreds of references to steadfast love in the Psalms). But the love of God is now fully revealed in Jesus the Son of God. And it has become clear that God's original intention in making us in his image (Genesis 1:26-27) is to adopt us as children in his family (Romans 8:14-16), and transform us (see commentary on 12:1-2) for the perfect love of heaven.
"Through faith for faith" ("from faith to faith") has many possible interpretations. Paul seems to be quoting from the text "Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith" (Habbakuk 2:4). Using our model we might want to paraphrase "The proud and self-sufficient trust in their own power, but God's righteousness is revealed when the righteous live by faith in the Son of God and the empowering of the Spirit." As the epistle proceeds it seems that the word salvation does not just refer to forgiveness and the assurance of eternal life but God's saving in all the circumstances of our life, and through death and resurrection.
In the Old Testament there is not one example of wrath being defined as a judgment after death resulting in hell fire. A text in Daniel is often quoted to support the idea of God's judgment and eternal damnation. "The court sat in judgment and the books were opened" (Daniel 7:8), but the chapter goes on to explain that it is nations who have their books open before God, and the judgment involves the dominion of an evil kingdom being taken over by "the people of the holy ones of the Most High" (7:22, 27).
Later in Daniel there is a book listing those who have either everlasting life or everlasting contempt (12:2-3). But rather than declaring that God chooses to send people into eternal damnation, we might prefer C.S. Lewis' picture in The Great Divorce, where there is a grey city that is freely chosen by those who go there. Possibly Lewis based The Great Divorce on the explanation that follows John 3:16: "This is the judgment (krisis) that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light" (3:19-21).
1:18 The wrath of God that is revealed in the sense that we can see it operating in the lives of individuals and nations. And Paul will now point out how wrath is revealed both in the corruption of Greek civilization and in Jewish history (1:22-2:11).
1:19-21 The reason that nations suffer such bad wrath consequences is due to a failure to honor and look to God. To do this they suppress the truth of God's creative power, which should be obvious from the nature around them. The result of failing to honour and give thanks to God results in mental confusion and a mind darkened by meaninglessness.
In Paul's day the various Greek ideas for doing without the power of God were very similar to those that are current in our day. The Sophists offered ways for humans to succeed in politics or business. For Plato, God was an ideal of perfection. In Aristotle's philosophy God is first principle of all being. Diogenes believed in living naturally. The Sceptics doubted everything. The Stoics did not need God to do their duty. And Epicurus thought there must be a god or gods, but they had no interest in our pursuit of happiness. But none of the Greek philosophers suggested we needed the power of God to live our lives. So Paul points out that the Greek attempt to attain perfection without God by the pursuit of wisdom had failed disastrously. This was obvious to all, so he has only to delineate the declension in three steps down into the current enormities.
1:22-23 In a previous epistle he had written "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world" (1 Cor. 1:20). Instead of finding wisdom they had ended up in the gross idolatry that Paul had pointed out in Athens (Acts 17:16, 22-23).
1:24-25 The next step that inevitably goes with idolatry is sexual degradation. This accompanied the Baal worship that took over Israel in the time of Elijah (1 Kings 16:29-33). Sex becomes the worship of the male or female body instead of a celebration of love. As opposed to every form of sexual manipulation, Paul had already set out his ideal of a loving mutuality (1 Corinthians 7:1-16), and that kind of love is only possible as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
1:26-27 This passage seems to be based on Leviticus 20:10-16 where seven kinds of sexual abomination deserved the death penalty. In addition to four specific kinds of adultery (one is referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:1), three other sexual practices were forbidden. First there was buggery, or the anal penetration of another male (20:13). Secondly bestiality, or the penetration of an animal by a male (20:15). And thirdly a woman allowing herself to be mounted by an animal (20:16). What horrified Paul was that these practices that had required the death penalty were now common pastimes in the Greek world. One hates to discuss such crudities, but it seems that God's word in Leviticus and Romans is not embarrassed to call a spade a spade.
If it was Leviticus 20:13-16 that was in Paul's mind then Romans 1:26 refers to women being mounted by their pets. We should then translate "And in the same way men abandoning natural sex with the female, were consumed by their desire" (i.e. sex with animals). There was no punctuation in the Greek text, so by moving the comma the remainder of v. 27 then becomes "with one another men penetrating other males doing what is shameless."
This would give an exact correspondence with the three acts, other than adultery, which deserved the death penalty in Leviticus 20:16, 20:15, and 20:13. And we know that these three kinds of behavior were flaunted in the world where Paul did his apostolic work. The anal penetration of young men was always extremely dangerous, and in our day we know that sexual penetration of the anus is a major cause of AIDS.
1:28-31 Whether or not that is the correct translation of 1:24-25, the next step is down into the morass of Greek civilization. It was characterized by moral evil, greed, malice, envy, murder, strife, slander, inordinate pride, constant invention of new forms of evil, hatred of parents, implacable ruthlessness, etc.
1:32 The end of civilization is when such social behavior is applauded and made the norm in society. It is important to note that Paul is describing three steps down that resulted from the Greek obsession with human wisdom. He is not listing sins with a view to creating individual conviction of sin. In a previous letter Paul had argued that the needed fruits of the kingdom are only produced by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23). The opposite works of the unaided flesh are exactly those that Paul had described to characterize the final stage of Greek civilization (1:28-32). It is tempting to make the connection and imagine that Paul's explanation in Romans for the disastrous corruption of the Greek world was their pursuit of the works of unaided human wisdom instead of looking to the inspiration of the Spirit (see "the flesh," 7:14-25).