Paul’s letter to the Romans opens with one of the best gospel summaries anywhere. It’s a precis of the whole kingdom story, rising to a key phrase that is the goal of the gospel in Paul’s view. It’s so crucial that the same phrase is the culmination of both the opening sentence and the closing sentence of this remarkable letter. Do you know what it is?
Previously, we saw that the Book of Acts which opened with “the kingdom of God” and closed with the same phrase. That technique is known as an inclusio, and there’s one around the Romans as well. Here’s how it opens:
Romans 1:1-5 (my translation)
From Paul, slave of King Jesus, his appointee assigned to announce God’s good news, the message he promised through his prophets in the Old Testament about his Son, the physical descendant of David who was named “Son of the divine ruler with power” by the cleansing Spirit when he raised up King Jesus from the dead. Jesus is therefore our ruler, and we’ve received his favour—appointing us to call all the nations into trusting obedience under his authority.
That’s an incredibly dense summary, but follow Paul’s train of thought:
- Paul’s significance is that King Jesus has appointed him as emissary. The message Paul carries is “God’s good news.” It’s the same message the OT prophets promised: that the God’s kingship would be restored, even though the Davidic kingship and effectively the nation had ceased when Babylon invaded in 587 BC. Isaiah 40:9-10 would be an example of this message in the prophets.
- In OT times, the earthly king who represented the heavenly ruler could be called his son (as in Psalm 2:7 and 1 Chronicles 17:13). After 600 years with no such ruler, the best news! Here he is! Jesus is the heir, the literal descendant of King David. He’s also the Son of God. The heavenly ruler has given to his Son the power to reign!
- That declaration was made by the Holy Spirit—the Spirit who cleanses the world. He announced Jesus as our ruler with an act of power: resurrecting Jesus out of death. The cleansing Spirit overturned the rebellion in which human rulers killed God’s Son to keep their power. He restored authority where it should be: in Jesus our king and ruler (“Messiah and Lord”).
- Jesus our king and ruler treated us with so graciously, commissioning us as emissaries called to work with him towards his ultimate goal: the trusting obedience of all the nations under his authority.
What an astounding goal! This is far bigger than the restoration of the Davidic kingship or the territory of Israel. We’re talking the restoration of God’s reign over all the nations of the earth! Wow!
Once all nations trust Jesus to be their sovereign and obey his directions as earth’s king, everything that God envisioned at the beginning will be restored in the end! This is not just the fulfilment of the covenant with David, and with Moses, and with Abraham; it’s the fulfilment of the covenant with Noah that God would never give up reigning over all the people of the earth, no matter how difficult they were to rule. The trusting obedience of all nations under the authority of the name of the ruler appointed by God—that’s the restoration of Eden, the ordered creation God intended when he first spoke.
That’s the good news of God’s reign (the gospel of the kingdom).
Sixteen chapters later, when Paul writes his closing sentence, he goes off the charts with exultation of our astounding sovereign. It’s precisely the same kingdom goal:
Romans 16:25-27 (paraphrased)
Now to the one who can establish you [as his kingdom] according to the good news I carry— the proclamation of Jesus the king! That’s the unveiling of what was a silent secret so long, though it was demonstrably present in the prophetic writings as the command of our eternal ruler, aimed at the trusting obedience of all nations. To the only wise God who rules through King Jesus be enduring regal splendour! May it be!
Did you see the inclusio? The opening and closing sentences of Paul’s letter to the Romans build towards the same goal:
- εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως ἐν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν (Romans 1:5)
- εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως εἰς πάντα τὰ ἔθνη (Romans 16:26)
- into obedience of-faith in/for all the nations (word-for-word)
This is much more than a literary technique. What Paul declared as the goal of the gospel in the start of this letter is the same thing he praises God for in the end. Paul’s good news was the restoration of God’s reign over the whole earth (all nations), through Messiah Jesus our ruler. That’s the gospel of the kingdom.
What others are saying
Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 811:
What we have here is a carefully formulated and syntactically complicated conclusion that is redolent of the central themes of Romans. In particular, the topics that received emphasis in 1:1–7 (see the exegesis and exposition there) are summoned to the readers’ attention again. Romans 1:1–7 and 16:25–27 therefore function as an inclusio for the contents of the letter.
Craig S. Keener, Romans, NCCS (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 192:
… 16:25–27 recalls earlier material, especially 1:2–5 (the most important echo being the “obedience of faith”).
James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1998), 916:
εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως εἰς πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, “for the obedience of faith for all the nations.” The echo of 1:5 is strong and deliberate—εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως ἐν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν (see on 1:5). The second εἰς may be used here to increase the rhythmic parallel, but the meaning is little different whether the second εἰς depends on ὑπακοή or directly on the verb in parallel with the first εἰς.
Ben Witherington III and Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 400:
Most of these echoes are from the beginning of the letter. Paul has come full circle, and what he asserted earlier in the letter he will reiterate here, only now he will thank God for these truths and promises.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 1066:
A strong case can be made for saying that whenever Paul refers to Jesus as Kyrios—from Romans 1:5 onwards!—it is this that he has in mind: the sovereign rule of the Messiah, inaugurated already, fulfilling the prophecies in which the world would at last be brought to book by the true human in charge of the ‘animals’, by the Messiah in charge of the nations. Certainly the concept of the messianic ‘inheritance’, in the sense of Jesus’ sovereignty over the whole world, is assumed by Paul to be central …