The name “Paul” (Paulus in Latin, Paulos in Greek) was a relatively common name in the ancient world. “Paul” is either a cognomen or a nickname used because the Hebrew “Saul” (šāʾûl) was foreign to Greek speakers. In the prescript of the letter Paul immediately sets out his credentials to the Romans in three quick-fire descriptions of himself as “servant [slave],” “apostle,” and “set apart.”
Paul first describes himself as a “servant of Jesus Christ” (see “servants of the Lord” in 2 Kgs 18:12 [Moses]; Judg 2:8 [Joshua]; 2 Sam 7:5 [David]; Amos 3:7; Zech 1:6 [the prophets]). The word doulos has the nuance of “slave” and denotes one subject to the authority of another. Paul uses this expression of himself elsewhere in his letter openings (Phil 1:1; Titus 1:1; cf. Gal 1:10). As a “slave of Christ” Paul is expressing his solemn devotion to Jesus in terms analogous to the master-slave relationship with connotations of absolute belongingness and total submission. While all Christians are slaves of Christ (see 1 Cor 7:22–23; Eph 6:6), Paul is a special slave with a special office. The title “Jesus Christ” probably first emerged as a shorthand way of saying Jesus is the Christ or Jesus is the Messiah. In fact, “Jesus Christ” is probably an encoded reference to the status and story of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and Lord of the cosmos.1
A second element that Paul introduces about himself is that he was “called to be an apostle.” The call was not an invitation; instead, it was a radical summons. In the Septuagint “call” (klētos) is equivalent to “choose” (e.g., Isa 41:9; 42:6; 48:12). Paul did not volunteer for service, but he was chosen to be an apostle by a sovereign action of God (see Gal 1:1; 1 Cor 15:10). This arresting sense of divine call is reminiscent of the commissioning of prophets in the Old Testament like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Paul stands in a line of great prophetic figures whom God chose and utilized for his own redemptive purposes.
An “apostle” means literally “one who is sent.” It is most likely indebted to the Jewish concept of a šāliaḥ—the sending of an envoy who represents the sender as if himself in person. In Hebrews, Jesus is called an “apostle” in the sense that he is sent from God (Heb 3:1). Titus and Epaphroditus are each designated as an apostolos (“messenger”) of certain churches (2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25). At the end of Romans, Andronicus and Junia are known as “outstanding among the apostles,” which probably indicates their role as missionaries sent out from a Christian community (Rom 16:7). Although Paul was not one of the twelve disciples, he encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and was called to his apostolic work to proclaim the gospel among the nations (see Acts 22:21; 26:16–18; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8–9; Gal 1:15–16).2
The third aspect of Paul’s self-description is that he was “set apart” for an evangelistic task. Ironically, the former Pharisee who gloried in his set-apartness from sinners is now set apart as God’s messenger to the quintessential sinners, the Gentiles. A similar testimony is given by Paul in Gal 1:15, where he described how God “set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace.”
In the church at Antioch, the Holy Spirit led the community to “set apart” Paul and Barnabas for the work which God had called them to undertake (Acts 13:1–3). This set-apartness is also related to the priestly service of carrying the gospel to the nations that Paul undertakes (Rom 15:16).
Paul was called to be a servant and an apostle, set apart for a priestly work. These are not merely descriptions, they are tasks; Paul serves, was sent, and was consecrated for the sake of the “gospel of God” (see Rom 15:16; 2 Cor 11:7; 1 Thess 2:2, 8–9; 1 Tim 1:11).3 What Paul says about himself is geared toward explaining his role as a herald of the “gospel of God.” No sooner has Paul mentioned the “gospel of God” than he proceeds to describe the “gospel concerning his Son” in 1:3 and the “gospel of his Son” in 1:9. Elsewhere when Paul mentions the gospel, it is usually in association with Jesus Christ as its main subject (see 1 Cor 9:12; 15:1–5; 2 Cor 2:12; 4:4; 9:13; 10:14; Phil 1:17; 1 Thess 3:2; 2 Thess 1:8; 2 Tim 2:8). The interchangeability of “Son,” “Jesus,” and “God” as subjects of the gospel is possible because the identity of God is bound up with the “one God” and “one Lord” who are both revealed in the gospel (see 1 Cor 8:6). That means to tell the gospel of God is to tell the story of Jesus. The gospel narrates how God breaks into the world through his Son and the Spirit in order to fulfill the promises that he made to his people.
None of this should surprise us because Romans is the most theocentric letter of the Pauline corpus, with the word theos (“God”) occurring 153 times! Paul is the quintessential Jesus freak, but he is not a mono-Jesus adherent. In fact, God, Son, and Spirit all figure prominently in his opening narration of the gospel story in Romans 1:1–4. Theologically speaking, Romans is a discourse about God as he is known through the gospel. As the apostle called, sent, and set apart by God, Paul sets out before the Roman Christians the story of how God’s plan to repossess the world for himself has now been executed in his own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Michael F. Bird, Romans, ed. Scot McKnight, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 18–20.
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