“I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul told the Romans. Was he struggling as a Christian? Did he fear they’d find his faith embarrassing? Let me take you back to their world.
Rome was the centre of the world they knew. Caesar was the unquestioned lord of the whole world from Britain to Iraq. No one could stand against the might of Rome’s military machine. When nations lost their fight against Rome, they were told, “Good news! You’re now under the protection of the most powerful kingdom in the world. We will give you peace, prosperity, and justice. You’re so fortunate to be living under Caesar’s reign.” Yes, they even used the word gospel (good news) for that message.
The Romans loved bragging about their victories. Any local king who dared stand against them was put to shame. They made a public example of how powerless their enemies were. The most humiliating way to make this point was hanging the rebel leader on a cross in public view, leaving him there so everyone could see death take him. That’s what they did to the king of the Jews (Matthew 27:11, 29, 37).
To Rome, “crucified king” was contradictory nonsense saturated with shame. Following a dead leader is a dead end.
A mocking sketch found on a wall in Rome gives us some idea how shameful Paul’s gospel sounded:
A graffito probably dating to the late 2nd or early 3rd c. and found on the Palatine Hill (Rome, Museo Nazionale della Terme) parodies Christian belief in a crucified deity; it shows a man raising his arm in acclamation toward a crucified figure that has the head of a donkey. An accompanying Greek inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships his God.”
— Felicity Harley-McGowan, “Crucifixion,” in The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 379.
Paul proclaimed God’s gospel (Romans 1:1). God’s gospel is his announcement regarding his Son. Though the Davidic kingship ceased representing God’s reign in 587 BC, God had promised through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures that David’s descendant would rise to reign. Rome crucified this physical descendant of David to demonstrate who was in power (1:2-3).
God doesn’t use his power as Rome does. God has not marched all over the world to force people under his authority. God uses the power of life, not death. So the cleansing breath of God (the Spirit of holiness) restored the mutilated body of Jesus, raising up the king of the Jews out of death. God’s good news proclamation appointed his Son to power by his resurrection from the dead: Messiah Jesus is our Lord (1:4).
This is how God overturned the injustice of Christ’s crucifixion and the crushing humiliation of his people at the hands of empire after empire that had dominated them. This is how God defeated death, restoring earth to heaven’s reign in the resurrected Messiah.
God’s good news rescues not just one nation but all. So God sent messengers to call all the nations to the obedience that comes out of giving him their loyalty by recognizing his name (1:5).
That’s Paul’s gospel, and he’s thrilled to hear that even in Rome — the seat of imperial power — there are some who recognize God’s anointed as earth’s true ruler. They identify as citizens of his kingdom (his holy people, 1:7).
A different kind of power
In the first century, the power differential between Rome’s Empire and Christ’s kingdom seemed ludicrous. But one relied on the power of death, and the other on the power of life. Inevitably, the one that relies on death dies, while the one that relies on life lives.
Life wins. It’s like the images we draw of living plants rising from a concrete jungle in a post-apocalyptic world, or Isaiah’s images of life-giving water breaking out in a parched land (Isaiah 32:1-2; 35:5-6).
That’s why Paul was not shamed by God’s gospel proclamation. The kingdom of the life-restoring God was always going to outlast the kingdom that relied on conquest and death.
The way Rome used its power to dominate everyone was shameful. God has all power, but he uses his power not to subjugate but to save, not to repress but to rescue, not to dominate but to deliver everyone who trusts him: I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes (1:16 NIV)
That’s why God sent messengers like Paul to call all the nations to give their obedient allegiance to his Messiah (1:5). That’s why Paul emphasizes that the message of Jesus’ enthronement is good news for all nations — Greeks for example (1:16).
That’s why Paul proudly proclaims the good news that God’s global rescue mission calls all people to recognize his Christ as our Lord. God calls us to give him our trusting obedience, and so live right under his leadership:
Romans 1:16-17 (my translation, compare NIV)
16 For I am not shamed by the good news, for it is God’s power leading to the rescue of everyone who trusts him, Jew first and Greek too. 17 For God’s righteousness is revealed in him — from faith to faith — just as it stands written: ‘the righteous will live from faith.’.
From the schoolyard to the halls of power, bragging about power to rule others is the way of the world. Presidents and political parties. Bosses and anti-bosses. Bikie gangs, street gangs, criminals.
A crucified king inverts the world. He gives his life for his people so he can give the kingdom to the impoverished and comfort those who’ve lost, so the powerless can inherit the earth and those who yearn for things to be right are satisfied (Matthew 5:3-6).
The gospel inverts power as a crucified king is raised up as the servant of all.
Giving loyalty to this king means we cannot seek power over others. In receiving life from him, we do right because we rely on him (Romans 1:17).
That’s the shameless gospel that rescues everyone who trusts him.
What others are saying
Robert Jewett and Roy David Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 137–138:
As one can see from the parallel text in 1 Cor 1:20–31, the gospel that Paul hopes to proclaim in Rome and thereafter in Spain was innately shameful as far as Mediterranean cultures were concerned. The message about a redeemer being crucified was a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). A divine self-revelation on an obscene cross seemed to demean God and overlook the honor and propriety of established religious traditions, both Jewish and Greco-Roman. … There were deeply engrained social reasons why Paul should have been ashamed to proclaim such a gospel; his claim not to be ashamed signals that a social and ideological revolution has been inaugurated by the gospel.
At the center of the thesis of Romans in 1:16–17 is the paradox of power, that in this shameful gospel that would seem to lack the capacity to prevail, the power of God is in fact revealed in a compelling manner. …
The elaborate triumphs staged by emperors at the conclusion of military campaigns celebrated their allegedly divine power.
This slant on the thesis of Romans not only enables one to explain the claim that “the gospel is God’s power,” but also allows access to the explanatory connection between 1:16a and b. The major point in the thesis statement, that the gospel is God’s means of restoring righteous control over a disobedient creation, dovetails with Paul’s understanding of his mission to extend that reign. In effect, Paul presents himself in Romans as the ambassador of the “power of God,” extending the sovereign’s cosmic foreign policy through the preaching of the gospel.
Michael F. Bird, Romans, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 41:
The gospel contains the “power of God” in the sense that God actualizes his rescuing purposes through it. … The same power of God manifested in raising the Son (Rom 1:4), in creation (1:20), in the divine acts of redemptive history (9:17, 22), in keeping covenant promises (4:21), and in miraculous events (15:19) is also infused into the gospel. The gospel manifests God’s death-defeating, curse-reversing, evil-vanquishing, devil-crushing, sin-cleansing, life-giving, love-forming, people-uniting, super-über-mega-grace power that results in “salvation.”
- Why the gospel calls for faith (Rom 1:17)
- Clash of kingdoms (Mt 10:17-23)
- Jesus’ paradoxical path to power (Mt 16:27-28)
- The power of life and death (Mt 23:25-39)
- The powerful God who reigns in weakness