Romans is a personal favorite of many people. Paul, who almost all agree was the author, touches on almost every major theological belief in this great book, so the next three weeks are sure to be stimulating.
Rome was the center of the New Testament world. A city of several million, it was the political and cultural center of the Roman Empire, home to the Caesars. Rome was the ancient equivalent to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Tokyo. Religion was big in Rome, mainly the worship of the Roman gods and the developing Emperor cult, but there was a large, vibrant, and legal Jewish population in Rome as well. Remember that when Christianity first stated it was considered a Jewish sect so it too was a protected religious movement and not largely persecuted. Christians would suffer severely in Rome but not for another 20 years after the writing of Romans.
Romans was most certainly written in Corinth around AD 55 and delivered to Rome and first read to the church there by the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1).
The purpose for Romans has been described in many ways. Martin Luther read his own issues with the Roman Catholic Church into the book and saw Romans as a treatise against works-oriented religion. It is certainly that, but that characterization has more to do with 16th Century Europe than 1st Century Rome. Others imagine Paul sitting down and writing Romans as a theological compendium, a statement of his beliefs. There is too much that is specific to the Roman church for that to be true, plus that would make Romans truly unique amongst New Testament letters.
Like every other letter in the New Testament, Romans is situational. There was something going on that made Paul write this letter, to a church he had not started nor even visited. Paul had a habit of setting up home bases for his various mission endeavors. First it was Antioch, then Ephesus, now Corinth. Paul’s greatest desire was to get to Spain where the Gospel had not really yet been preached widely (15:23-33). By all appearance, Paul was preparing this Roman church to be his next launching point for that campaign. However, this church was a divided church turned inward on itself in no condition to be involved in outward mission. We know from the ancient Roman historian Suetonius that around AD 49 the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome because they had been rioting amongst each other concerning a person named “Chrestus” (c.f., Acts 18:2). This likely was an argument between Jews and Christians over Christ. So for a span of five years until Claudius’ death in AD 54 when the Jews would have returned to Rome, this largely Jewish church with a defined Jewish flavor became thoroughly Gentile. Leadership changed. The culture and practices of the church changed. Now in AD 55 we have a power struggle and identity crisis in the Roman church, largely involving ethnicity and customs. Issues like circumcision, food, holidays, a background in paganism, an Abrahamic heritage, and the like would have been hotly debated, and these will pop up a good bit in our readings. Paul is writing a significantly divided and prejudicial Roman church attempting to help them sort out their problems for the sake of the advancing Kingdom of God.
Background aside, Romans is so popular because the Gospel that all of us needs to hear speaks freedom, hope, love, and faith into every situation, whether in ancient Rome, modern Memphis, the Philippines, Malaysia or Canada.