Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” Romans 1:1
Unlike the format of letters today, when these words were sent to the believers in Rome, it was common for the author to begin his message by identifying himself. The readers of the first century would have unsealed this parchment to find the heading, ‘Paul.’
Luke, the author of The Acts of the Apostles, first introduced Paul to readers of the Bible. But he was introduced by the name of Saul. In the seventh, eighth, and ninth chapters of Acts, we learn Saul was on a campaign to rid his community of people who claimed to be followers of Jesus. Saul was a devout supporter of his nation’s religion, and he considered these people, who would soon be known as Christians, as enemies that must be eliminated.
On the road to Damascus, where he hoped to get permission to bring even greater persecution against the young church, Saul’s life was changed forever. On this road, Saul met the risen Lord and became a chosen vessel to bear the name of Jesus before all people.
Some twenty-five years after his salvation experience on the Damascus road, Paul penned his letter to the believers at Rome.
Paul could have introduced himself as a theologian, a master of the Old Testament texts, or even as a proven missionary. Instead, he describes himself as a ‘servant,’ one who has been ‘called’ and ‘set apart.’ These are his credentials, his calling card for his identification with Jesus to the world.
The term, ‘servant of Christ Jesus’ is meant to portray a master and slave relationship. By introducing himself this way, Paul is sharing with his readers that his writing of this letter is not some dream he conjured up in the night, but that he is obediently following his instructions from his Lord. Being identified as a servant meant obedience was not optional. The Master instructs and the slave obeys.
Paul was divinely selected and appointed by Jesus to be an apostle. Before his letter is finished, he will ensure that all his readers know they too are ‘called.’ Maybe not as apostles, but called, none the less. All believers are called to a person (Jesus), called to a purpose (to be like Jesus), and called to a people (the people of Jesus). By this claim, ‘called to be an apostle,’ Paul removes any ideas that he has self-appointed himself to instruct them. They can rest assured that they will be receiving their instruction from Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s guidance of Paul’s pen.
When Paul claims he has been set apart, he is using imagery of the term, sanctification. In Temple worship (both Jewish and pagan), items that were assigned to the Temple could be used for nothing else. They were set apart for that use only. To make use of these items for anything else was to profane the item and the Temple. Paul employs this term to indicate that God has given him a specific responsibility, and that his life would be spent entirely on that task.
That task was to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is God’s good news to the world. Paul will soon go into great detail to unfold the gospel before his readers, but simply stated, the gospel is the message that sinful people can now have a relationship with their God. When Jesus (God’s Son) came and died on the cross, He accomplished something that we cannot.
Because of sin, we are alienated from God, and no relationship is possible. But God loved His world, and sent His Son to pay the penalty of our sins for us. When we believe His payment was sufficient, turn from our sin, and to Him and His Lordship, then fellowship with God is restored. And that is the greatest news of all, the gospel!