Paul begins Romans by mentioning the promises of God fulfilled through his Son. In the Roman world the term “Son” had a very specific meaning. It meant the one given the authority to rule over the earth, to bring peace and flourishment to human society. In modern times, we think of Jesus being the Son of God as the one who gives us an eternal spiritual life only. Our faith is disengaged from an application within this world. We have privatised our faith. It is no longer about renewing our communities in this world. We worship Jesus in heaven, but not in its biblical sense, about the one who is sent by God to renew the whole creation.
This is a bold opening of Paul to Romans, because the Roman Caesar had very clearly taken to himself full rights to the title “Son of God.” And what Caesar meant by this was that he had the divine right to rule the nations of the world. Caesar Augustus assumed other divine titles, like saviour of the world. His birthday was called the gospel, good news, using the same Greek word Paul used for the gospel of Christ.
Caesar meant that the “good news” was that he conquered darkness and brought peace and safety to the world. He commanded all nations to put their faith in him as the bringer of divine justice, faithfulness and righteousness to the creation. Of course, Caesar did this by brutal power and by separating all people into groups of greater or lesser privilege or oppression. His claim to a renewed creation was a corrupt human sham.
The opening of Romans very carefully attributes all these titles the Emperor assumed for himself to Christ instead. Paul claimed Jesus was declared to be “the Son of God, with power by the resurrection of the dead.” (Romans 1:4) His lordship is one over death itself. Paul here was referring to Daniel 7, where the Son of Man ascended to sit at the right hand of power in heaven. Paul knew that the Roman senate had just passed a law, claiming the deceased Roman Emperor Claudius was then in heaven at the right hand of power, ruling on the behalf of subsequent Roman Caesars. Paul, knowingly to that culture of the day, transferred this claim to Christ. Reading Romans today we miss this clear significance of Paul’s words in his time.
The significant point though is what “gospel” meant in that day. We hear the term today with different ears. In Paul’s time it meant the good news about a renewed world, where people lived in peace and justice together. The gospel referred to the kind of vision Isaiah spoke of, with people breaking their swords into ploughs, of enemies becoming one family, of nations on this earth becoming full of peace and goodness.
The gospel then wasn’t good news about our personal salvation by going to heaven. It was personal, yes, but it was more about our being part of a renewed creation, where the presence and principles of God’s kingdom ruled, instead of the arrogant ambitions of divided and hostile humanity. This is the gospel Paul was speaking of and he claimed Caesar couldn’t bring this to pass, but that only the Prince of Peace could bring about this new creation, through the hearts and lives of his followers.