This year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s lectures on the Book of Romans. It was those lectures that set in motion a historical period we call the Reformation. The Reformation transformed all of Europe and laid the foundation for the first European Americans to build their city on a hill. Dan and I will begin a new series of sermons expounding the Letter of the Apostle Paul to the church in Rome. Romans. It is appropriate to begin this weekend as we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. You may not know how Martin Luther King Jr. got his name. He was born Michael King Jr. But Back in 1934, Martin Luther King Sr. was one of 10 Baptist ministers who traveled first to the Holy Land and then to Germany to attend the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Congress in Berlin. It was on this trip that the senior King “discovered” Martin Luther, and upon returning, gradually changed both his name and his then five-year old son’s to Martin Luther King.
St. Augustine came to faith in Christ after hearing a voice say “take up and read.” What did he take up? It was part of the book of Romans, Martin Luther said Romans “is really the chief part of the New Testament and the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. The more we deal with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.”
A few years after Luther, John Calvin was also profoundly moved by his encounter with Romans. Calvin wrote, “When we have gained a true understanding of this Epistle, we have a door opened to us to all the most profound treasures of Scripture.”
John Wesley attributes his conversion to a day in London when he stepped into a Moravian chapel on Aldersgate Street in London and heard someone reading from the preface to Luther’s Commentary—on Romans.
Perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century was a man from Switzerland, Dr. Karl Barth. After a failed pastorate, he rediscovered what he called “the goodness of God” through his study of the book—of Romans. Barth’s commentary on Romans has been described as a bombshell that hit the liberal theological world of Europe not long after World War I.
Romans is simply a life-changing gospel manifesto—a truly revolutionary book.
Of course the most important historical figure that encountered the gospel and then explained it to the Romans was the Apostle Paul. Remember, Paul was transformed from a Pharisee who killed Christians, someone who had more in common with an ISIS leader, he was transformed to a follower of Jesus.
On the Damascus Road, Saul had an encounter with the risen Christ, which shattered his preconceived notions both of the Messiah and of Jesus. Prior to this meeting, Saul – like most of his countrymen – was expecting the Warrior Messiah, who would rescue the Nation of Israel from the Romans, not the Suffering Servant. In a heartbeat, he realized that the simple Man from Nazareth WAS the Messiah and that the hopes and dreams of Israel rested upon His shoulders.
Once he understood that God’s promises found their fulfillment in Jesus, the most zealous persecutor of the WAY did a 180° and became its most dedicated follower. Instead of persecuting followers of Jesus, he became the most effective proclaimer of the gospel of Jesus.
As a Pharisee, Saul would have been a strict rule-follower. His tolerance for change would have been very near zero. His attitudes and approaches to religion would have been very rigid. Yet when he met Jesus, Saul realized that his unbending devotion to rules and oral tradition held him in slavery to the Law. It had led him to participate in killing men and women who had discovered that Jesus was the Way, the truth and the life. Jesus brought forgiveness and cleansing and freedom to Paul and his life and the Roman Empire itself was utterly transformed.
I first studied Romans in depth when I was a new campus minister. I was 24 years old. Carrie and I were newly married, we were living in one of the most secular places in the United States, the coastal town of Santa Cruz, home of the University of California at Santa Cruz. UCSC was documented to be the campus with the fewest Christian students per capita in the entire University of California System. In God’s providence, the InterVarsity chapter had just merged with the only other evangelical student ministry on campus. So our group grew from 15 to 50 overnight and there I was, 24 years old and responsible to teach the gospel to all these 18-22 year olds. With the kind of confidence that only a 24 year old can muster, I decided what we needed to do was study the book of Romans and lay a proper foundation for our future gospel ministry on that campus.
So we began, spending 2 hours a week together plus homework and we spent the year working our way through the entire letter to the Roman Church. Our theme verse was Acts 2:42: “Devote yourself to the apostles teaching.” And we did. It was life-changing, exhilarating and it did the job, students realized that the real revolution was Jesus changing them and they starting sharing the gospel with their friends. Our little group started to grow in numbers and influence on campus.
Why is this book of Romans so powerful? New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce answers the question when he describes Romans as “a sustained and coherent statement of the gospel.” Another way to put it is that the gospel is as simple as John 3.16, yet it is as deep and profound as the book of Romans.
So here’s the thing, we are serious about this, we are taking over one of your NY resolutions and telling you today that resolution number 1 will be to devote yourself to the apostles’ teaching.
To assist you, next week we will hand out a little companion devotional guide to Romans. It is written by Tom Wright.
To prepare us for Romans we need to know more about the author. So I am going to spend the remainder of today’s sermon looking at Paul the Missionary. Next week we will look at Paul the Pastor.
I want you to notice three things about Acts 13:1-5.
First, the movement of God begins in a church that is engaged in fervent worship. “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said:” Second, it is a local church that sends out the first missionaries/church planters. Paul and Barnabas began their ministry as local church prophets and teachers. Prophets were the ones who discerned God’s will and delivered God’s message to the people and teachers were the ones who taught the Word of God. So, both were closely related ministries. From this group of people, God called Paul and Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas were great leaders and they were very complementary. Paul was the one with the apostolic and strategic gifts. His great desire was to see the church of Jesus planted everywhere in the known world. Barnabas was the pastor/encourager. Together they had a powerful impact, alone it is likely that Barnabas would have stayed in one place, encouraging and pastoring the people, alone it is likely that Paul would have raced from town to town, staying only long enough to start a new church but not long enough to nurture and encourage it and train up leaders. But God did not send them out alone. When Jesus gave his great commission in Matthew 28 to go and make disciples, he always intended that it be done in teams. That was the pattern of his own ministry with the 12 disciples. Luke 10:1 tells us that when Jesus sent disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God, he also sent them in twos: “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of Him to every town and place where He was about to go.” (Luke 10:1) Even great leaders need partners.
When we send missionaries, we should select them from “among our leaders.” It is unlikely that someone whom nobody knows well in a local church can be a missionary. A missionary is one who is well known and recognized in the local church as a person of love and wisdom.
After the church members worshipped and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” They placed their hands on them and sent them off. Mission was and still is the work of the Holy Spirit.
How do we know that someone is called by the Holy Spirit? We know that by their fruits in life: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”(Galatians 5:22) Those are the characteristics of the person with the Holy Spirit. When we see those qualities in a person, we can tell that the Holy Spirit is with her/him.
Paul and Barnabas went to Cyprus first, the hometown of Barnabas. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper. Missionaries start their work where they have some connection.
Paul and Barnabas continued their ministry and soon, churches were planted around the Mediterranean basin.
Paul and Barnabas and the church in Antioch gave above and beyond the needs of their local church. The Holy Spirit burned inside their hearts for the cities and towns of the Romans Empire that had not yet heard the gospel of Jesus. They couldn’t wait to get to the next town to preach the gospel message. We will learn much more about that message as we study Paul’s letter to the Romans. But the heart of it is 1:17?
The Gospel message is as simple as John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, and as complex as the letter to the Romans. With that introduction I hope you will make plans to invest in our study together of his remarkable letter. But be careful. What happened to Paul, to Martin Luther, to John Calvin to Karl Barth and to millions of ordinary Christians will happen to you.