In the opening of the book of Romans, Paul introduces himself in a rather packed salutation. He uses more than 100 english words in the first six verses, which serve as a “business card” to his new friends in Rome. The bulk of these words, however, revolve around the gospel of God and explode with theological meanings. It is only the first verse that Paul describes himself specifically.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.Romans 1:1–7
God uses human instruments to spread the gospel, even the most unlikely. In fact, we learn that God delights in digging deep to the bottom of the barrel to draw out His messengers. He did so with many of us. He certainly did with Paul.
In the first verse, Paul describes himself with three designations: a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, and set apart for the gospel of God. These designations define his master, his role, and his purpose. Maybe, in seeing Paul, we might see ourselves.
The Story of an Unlikely Messenger
Not that it matters, but Paul was described by an early church leader as “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked.” Despite his less-than charming appearance, he was “full of friendliness; for now he appeared like a man, and now had the face of an angel.” Paul was a messenger of the gospel. His heavenly humility outshined his physical presentation.
Before this, he was quite different. Paul was born Saul, named after Israel’s first king. He was born to a Jewish family who maintained Roman citizenship (Acts 22:28) giving him the highest possible credentials in the Greco-Roman and Jewish society. Before his bar mitzvah, Saul lived with his family in Tarsus (Acts 9:11).
Tarsus was a prosperous city off the coast of the Mediterranean and a center for Greek writings and culture. It was also home of one of the top three universities in the Roman Empire making it the perfect place to be raised from an education standpoint.
At age 13, the family packed up the young Saul and sent him to Jerusalem to be trained under the guidance of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), the grandson of the most famous rabbi in Jewish history. There, Saul was taught Talmudic and rabbinic law through memorization, interpretation, and catechizing. He soon became a leading Pharisee in Jerusalem (Acts 26:5) referring to himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5-6).
After his education, Saul returned home to lead a synagogue and work in tentmaking, his father’s trade (Acts 18:3). During this time, Jesus’ ministry in Israel began and ended in a brief few years. Saul never witnessed it. He did, however, hear of it. The disruption of Jesus was big news and everyone in Roman world heard of it. Saul burned with anger. When he could remain still no longer, he returned to Jerusalem to lead the persecution of these disruptors.
Later in his life, he gives an account of this revealing the deep seated rage he had for the followers of Jesus as well as the extent in which he was willing to go, and did go, to persecute them. This is what he said:
“I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”Acts 26:9-11
Greater details to this story are found in Acts, where we first meet Saul on the pages of Scripture. Stephen, a follower of Christ, was “doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Act 6:8). Some of the people stirred the Jewish leaders against him which eventually led to his fatal stoning. “The witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul,” which was an act of trust (Acts 7:59). “Saul approved of Stephen’s execution” (Acts 8:1).
And so, we are introduced to Saul, who was more or less a leading Christian exterminator. “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1).
Saul’s campaign of persecution became more and more organized. “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2). Damascus was a fairly large city in terms of population and religious activity. Located 160 miles northeast of Jerusalem, it might have taken Saul about six days to get there with his caravan. It was here that Christ would change Saul’s plans forever.
During the noon day when the sun was at its highest and brightest, Saul is suddenly struck down by a heavenly light that surpasses the sun (Acts 9:3). It was Jesus. “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Convinced by this experience that it was the voice of God, Saul asks in response, “Who are you, Lord?” To his surprise, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5).
As an important sidebar, Saul was not expecting God. To borrow from a later chapter in Romans, Saul was not understanding God, not seeking for God, not righteous from God, not useful to God, not doing good for God (Rom. 3:10-12). But, God didn’t care about that. God wasn’t afraid of Paul’s affluence. God wasn’t threatened by Paul’s war. God wasn’t intimidated by Paul’s power. Rather, God wanted to save Saul, and God did what He wanted.
Imagine the terror coursing through the veins of Saul! Had Jesus not told him what to do next, he might have died there on that Damascus road. “Rise,” says Jesus, “and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Saul was a man of action. He obeyed the Lord and “immediately proclaimed Christ” and people were amazed (Acts 9:20-21). When he arrived in Damascus, he carried a cross, not a sword. This resulted in a campaign of persecution against him (Acts 9:23-31).
Saul once wore the jersey of Satan who was waging a war on God. Since his Damascus road experience, Saul wears the jersey of Christ. He switched teams. He changed masters. He exchanged roles. He traded purposes. In his own words:
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”1 Timothy 1:15-16
The Master of a Bound Messenger
Returning to the book of Romans, Paul introduces himself using three designations. The first is found in the phrase “a servant of the Lord” (Rom. 1:1). This is a poor translation in the English Standard Version, but understandably so. Paul uses the word “slave” instead of “servant” here. Due to the awful stigma attached to the word today, our English translators chose a less offensive term.
A “servant” at that time was more or less a day laborer. When a free man needed some work, he would stand out in the public marketplace or street corner, to be it in contemporary terms, to be hired for work. A businessman would drive up and hire anyone willing and qualified to work after they agreed to the wages. Once the work was completed, the servant returned home. It was his choice to work the next day.
A “slave,” on the other hand, was not free. Rather, he was bound to his master as property. Unlike a servant, a slave was purchased by a master at a high price from a slave auction. Upon purchase, the slave was removed from the market and brought home to the master’s house to do what the master required.
The slave was not free. He would live in the master’s home. He would perform the assignments that the master gives. He would be entrusted with the master’s possessions, but not have any to himself. He would have his necessities met. He would be disciplined when he disobeyed the master. He could be rewarded by the master if the master desires. He would have no authority except that which he carries from his master. This is what Paul had in mind. Paul was a man of total devotion to God.
The Role of a Called Messenger
The second designation Paul gives himself is “called to be an apostle” (Rom. 1:1). The word “apostle” essentially means “messenger” or “sent one.” You might think of it as a special carrier. An apostle was not the originator of the message. He was merely the carrier and deliverer of the message.
The term is used in a few different ways in the New Testament. Generally speaking, it referred to the ones who personally helped the twelve disciples (including Paul) who were designated by Christ (cf: Phil. 2:25). In an even broader sense, the term is used to refer to all believers since they are carriers of the gospel message (cf: 2 Cor. 8:23).
However, Paul uses it in a technical, more specific sense, to refer to the official role of an apostle, responsible for laying the foundation of the church (Eph. 4:11-13). The Bible teaches that the qualifications of an apostle were threefold. First, they must have been a witness of the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 9:1). Second, they must have been explicitly chosen by Christ (Acts 9:15). And third, they must have the ability to perform signs and wonders (Acts 2:43; 2 Cor. 12:12). Based on these requirements, and that the church foundation is laid, there are no more official apostles today.
There is another term worth highlighting in this designation. It is the word “called.” Paul did not aspire to be an apostle. He was not even seeking God. Instead, he was chosen. This is the idea behind the word called. It is an irrevocable and undeniable summons to service. “You did not choose me,” Jesus said, “but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit” (Jn. 15:16). Paul was “an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:1). Here he is describing it further:
“But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”Galatians 1:15-17
The Purpose of a Separated Messenger
Finally, Paul designates himself in terms of his purpose as “set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). Essentially, this further emphasizes the idea behind him being called to apostleship. It is for the purpose of the gospel. He is a messenger of God’s good news.
The Greek verb “being separated” in this text carries the idea of being permanently separated. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew people were His chosen people, set apart from the other nations. “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:26). Also, the firstborn, the first fruits, and the Levites were set apart for God. This idea is carried into the New Testament to apply to all believers (2 Cor. 6:17) and to specific missionaries (Acts 13:2).
To be separated implies a removal from where Paul once was. Before Christ, he was concerned with the mundane things of the world. He was living for the purposes of the flesh. But, God set him apart from the world and gave him a heavenly purpose to reach the Gentiles with the message of gospel. This was the tip of the spear for him. At every moment, no matter what he found his hands doing, he was doing it for this single purpose.
Most of us would see Paul as a champion of the faith, and rightly so. But, we shouldn’t elevate him to the level that he no longer resembles the human being that he was, just like everyone else. He was an unlikely messenger of the gospel, but aren’t we all? Weren’t we all dead in our trespasses and sins? Weren’t we all in one way or another hating God and his followers? Weren’t we, as Christians, made alive by Christ by His work? Of course.
We too are unlikely messengers. God delights in taking our mess and turning us into messengers. He binds us to himself as our master. He calls to the role He designates. He set us apart for the specific purpose He desires. The question, my fellow believer in Christ, is whether you are performing the work for which God separated you? Were you not “bought with a price”? (1 Cor. 6:20). Do you not belong to Him? What is stopping you from being the human instrument to spread the gospel of God to the world?