“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures— concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and was appointed to be the powerful Son of God according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead.” -Romans 1:1-4 (CSB)
Have you ever found yourself in an identity crisis?
Moreover, have you ever found yourself wondering not just who you are or why you’re here (alive and on earth), but why you’re facing the challenges and difficulties that seem to have overwhelmed your current situation?
When we feel overwhelmed, one of the first major crises we face is not simply the collection of challenges framing our situation (formidable as they may be), but keeping a proper perspective as we journey through those challenges. When the going gets tough – especially when it gets extremely tough – its often hard to remember who you really are and why you’re really here.
The Apostle Paul speaks deeply to this point in the first several verses of his New Testament letter to the church of Rome. The book of Romans opens with a profound and magnificent self-identification of Paul linked with his calling from God and rooted in the Gospel. Not only is this a remarkable way to open the book of Romans, but it is a powerful reminder to all Christians of who the Author and Originator of our calling is and the purpose for which that calling is made.
Paul’s Identity: Servant and Ambassador of Christ
Paul begins his letter to the Roman church by immediately identifying himself as a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. The word Paul employs in verse one is the Greek word, δουλος (“doulos”)[i], which can be appropriately translated as either “slave” or “servant.”[ii], [iii] Both translations are accurate, but “slave” captures more fully the essence of what Paul was communicating in addressing himself in this way. A slave had no inherent rights in first-century Roman society; a δουλος was a servant totally surrendered to the will and desire of his master.[iv] This is how Paul describes himself in this passage and how he, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, introduces himself to the church at Rome. No self-respecting, cultured Greek man living in the first century would have dared refer to himself in this manner.[v] However, Paul deliberately and proudly introduces himself as one totally and completely surrendered to the will of God and, by implication, articulates his own surrendered state as a model to be followed by all Christians. As followers of Christ, we are called to live in complete and total surrender to the Lord and His will for our lives.
Next, Paul introduces himself as an apostle of the Lord set apart for the Gospel of God. “Apostle” comes from the Greek word, αποστολος (“apostolos”)[vi], which carries the meaning of a “messenger,” “ambassador,” or “envoy.”[vii], [viii] The word “apostle” is transliterated from αποστολος, rather than outright translated, because it refers not only to Paul’s God-called task but also to the formal office into which Paul was called by God. Understanding this word is important for grasping both how Paul presents himself and how Paul views his calling before the Lord. Paul could have referred to himself in many ways and in many capacities. After all, Paul was the most successful missionary the world had ever known! He served the Lord and His church in a remarkable array of capacities. However, Paul chose as his chief identifying marks the terms of δουλος and αποστολος – servant and apostle – denoting both his servant status and ambassadorial role in obedience to Christ.
The Purpose of God’s Calling: Set Apart for the Gospel
Paul’s description of himself as an αποστολος is further qualified by the declaration that he was an apostle “set apart for the gospel of God.” Paul was a man who knew many challenges, heartaches, and difficulties throughout his long and remarkable ministry. He knew what it was to face ill health. He knew what it was to be near death. He also knew what it was to be rejected by others, not only in their social treatment of him, but even personal rejection that culminated in stoning (which he remarkably survived by the grace of God). Paul knew all manner of hardships. And yet, Paul was able to endure all of these hardships by understanding that his calling, ministry, and future were secure in and staked on the Gospel of God – the truth that there is salvation in the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, and in no other. As Paul so powerfully stated it, “…the gospel of God – which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures— concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and was appointed to be the powerful Son of God according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead” (Romans 1b-4 CSB). Paul endured tremendous hardship because he recognized not only who he was in Christ and what he was called to do, but why he was called to do it. He was a Christian called of God – one set apart for the Gospel.
The Key Point: Rooted in the Gospel
In our present time, we are journeying through a season where many in the Christian faith are faced with numerous sources of difficulty and discouragement. The experiences of this particular year – 2020 – have presented many difficulties and sorrows, and Christian men and women are certainly not immune to these experiences. However, Paul’s exhortations remind us that we need not be overwhelmed by the challenging times in which we find ourselves. Further, Paul also reminds us that he is not a member of some special class of “super-Christians” immune from the normal physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual difficulties human beings face in the course of life. Paul does not introduce himself as, “Paul – an exalted, extraordinary, super-Christian above, beyond, and immune to the world and its troubles.” No, Paul introduced himself as, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus” (v.1) – the same title born by every person who claims the name of Christ and follows Him as the Savior and Lord of their life.
As followers of Jesus, we have the knowledge that our lives, including our present difficulties, are not governed by random chance or probabilities. We’re not here just to take up space and resources while simply surviving from one day to the next. Nor are our lives intended to be spent in some futile effort to accomplish the eternally-vague “something meaningful” that will outlast ourselves. Far beyond random chance – far beyond just something meaningful – our lives and our callings before God are governed by the truth of the Gospel – that Jesus Christ, the perfect, sinless, Son of God, died to save sinners; that He gave His perfect, sinless life to pay for a debt of sin owed by all of humanity that no other human being could ever pay; and that by His perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection from the dead, there is salvation and hope – both now and eternal – for those who choose to follow Him. The Gospel of God is the good news that Jesus saves, and that simple, eternal truth is the truth upon which our lives, our ministries, and our futures are and must be staked. So, in moments of discouragement and frustration, remember: we’re not here by our choice; we are here by His. And it is by His power, and not our own, that we will endure and we will succeed. Praise God for the glorious truth of the Gospel!
[i] Aland, Kurt, Barbara Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger. Novum Testamentum Graece. 28th Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), 481.
[ii] Mangum, Douglas, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, and Rebekah Hurst, eds. Lexham Theological Wordbook. Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).
[iii] Spicq, Ceslas, and James D. Ernest. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 380.
[iv] Mounce, Robert H. The New American Commentary: Romans. Vol. 27 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 59.
[vi]Aland, Aland, Karavidopoulos, Martini, and Metzger. Novum Testamentum Graece. 28th Edition, 481.
[vii] Mangum, Brown, Klippenstein, and Hurst, eds. Lexham Theological Wordbook. Lexham Bible Reference Series.
[viii] Spicq, Ceslas, and Ernest. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, 186.