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Now that's good news!

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of suddenly noticing something that has always been there. For example, say you just purchased a red sports car or a burgundy SUV. What kind of vehicles do you think would start catching your eye? Or perhaps the faucet in your home that has been performing unnoticed for years starts dripping. Suddenly you're looking at it every time you walk by.

It can be that way with the Bible. Most of the time it’s an obscure passage that that suddenly roars to life. But every once in while it can be a familiar text, one that is well traveled and marked by the dog-eared page, that you start to see differently. It’s like a road whose surface has been worn through and a layer is exposed underneath is exposed that is different than what was on top of it.

That’s the way I’m looking at Paul’s letter to the Romans.

When we look at the New Testament with first century eyes, we see that much of it is written in counterpoint to the Roman Empire. (I’ve developed this in A Roman cross and a Jewish carpenter 1). But if that’s true on the whole for the New Testament, how much more would we expect it to be true for a letter written by a citizen of Rome to those living in the heart of the Empire? And while the references to Rome might not always be overt and obvious to us, they would be as clear to the Christians at Rome as the numbers 911 or 1776 are to Americans.

We don't have to look any further than the opening section of the letter to find this. I count six times in the seventeen verses of the introduction where Paul uses the word "gospel" (v. 1-2, v. 9, v. 15-17). The word translated gospel is euangelion. It is derived in part, from angelos, which means "messenger." An angel is a messenger from God. Los Angeles is the "city of the angels." And true to its roots, euangelion is a message --- a message of good news.

In ancient times, euangelion was the message of victory that was carried from the field of battle to the home country. It was understood as good news from the gods. In the first century, the word came to be applied to the Roman emperors. Their accession to the throne was not just viewed as being from the gods, the emperor himself was looked upon as a god. This was what lay behind the imperial cult of emperor worship. To get the flavor of this, listen to this from an early writer as he speaks of Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome:

It is a day which we may justly count as equivalent to the beginning of everything --- if not in itself and in its own nature, at any rate in the benefits it brings --- inasmuch as it has restored the shape of everything that was failing and turning into misfortune, and has given a new look to the Universe at a time when it would gladly have welcomed destruction if Caesar had not been born to be the common blessing of all men . . . Whereas the Providence . . . which had ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere . . . and whereas the birthday of the God (Augustus) was the beginning of the world of the glad tidings (in the Greek the ‘Evangel’) that have come to men through him . . . Paulus Fabius Maximus, the proconsul of the province . . . has devised a way of honouring Augustus hitherto unknown to the Greeks, which is, that the reckoning of time for the couse of human life should begin with his birth.*

That’s the kind of thing they were saying about Augustus and later would be said of the emperors who followed him! Friedrich says in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. 2, p. 724-725):

The ruler is divine by nature. His power extends to men, to animals, to the earth and to the sea. Nature belongs to him; wind and waves are subject to him. He works miracles and heals men. He is the saviour of the world who also redeems individuals from their difficulties . . . He has appeared on earth as a deity in human form. He is the protective god of the state. His appearance is the cause of good fortune to the whole kingdom. Extraordinary signs accompany the course of his life. They proclaim the birth of the ruler of the world. A comet appears at his accession, and at his death signs in heaven declare his assumption into the ranks of the gods. Because the emperor is more than a man, his ordinances are glad messages and his commands are sacred writings. What he says is a divine act and implies good and salvation for men.

The imperial cult and the Bible share the view that accession to the throne, which introduces a new era and brings peace to the world, is a gospel for men . . . Caesar and Christ, the emperor on the throne and the despised rabbi on the cross, confront one another. Both are evangel to men. They have much in common. But they belong to different worlds.

With this background, Paul will tell the disciples at Rome he had been set apart for the gospel of God (v. 1). This good news was not a proclamation from the Roman Senate, it had been forecasted by the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures (v. 2). The gospel was not about Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, but Jesus, the son of David (v. 3). All Romans knew that Caesar had been recognized as a god upon his death, making Augustus a son of God. The emperor was declared a god when he went off in death --- but Paul tells his readers that Jesus was declared the Son of God when He came back from the dead (v. 4).  That's a declaration with power! 

Viewed from this perspective, it’s not hard to see the irony in Paul’s statement that he was eager to preach the gospel to those who were in Rome (v. 15). The city’s inhabitants had been given political propaganda labeled good news, but Paul had the real thing and he knew it. Though ridiculed at times (Acts 17:32,26:24,28), he was not ashamed because he understood the good news to be the power of God for salvation (v. 16). The Pax Romana (peace of Rome) was nice, but it wasn’t on the same page or even in the same book as God’s deliverance through Jesus. 
 
Now that's good news!
 
 
 
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*  This is from U. Becker (quoting a work by E. Barker), in the New international Dictionary of New Testament Theology, p. 108.
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