Paul, a bondservant of Christ Jesus, called as 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 born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord.
We saw from verse 1 last week that Paul is a bondservant of Christ Jesus, that is, he was bought and is owned and ruled by Christ. He lives to please Christ. And, lest we get the wrong idea of Christ somehow being dependent on Paul’s initiative and Paul’s slave labor, we should notice in Romans 15:18 that Paul depends on Christ for all that Paul himself does in the service of Christ: “I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed.”
In other words, Paul serves Christ in the power with which Christ serves Paul. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45; see also 1 Corinthians 15:10; 1 Peter 4:11). We will skew the whole meaning of Romans from the outset if we don’t see that Paul serves Christ in the power that Christ supplies, so that Christ gets the glory for Paul’s service (see 1 Peter 4:11). This sovereign, all-supplying Christ is the one we meet in the next phrase, “called to be an apostle.” Christ called Paul on the Damascus road and commissioned him to be his authoritative representative in founding the church with true teaching.
Then we saw God’s sovereign, all-planning hand in the next phrase, “set apart for the gospel of God.” God set Paul apart before he was born, Galatians 1:15 says. God is so jealous for the arrival and revelation of his gospel that he leaves nothing to chance. Now today we look at this term, “the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1) and how Paul unpacks it in verses 2–4.
Promised in the Scriptures
The first thing Paul says about it is exactly in line with what we just saw: that God is jealous to show that the gospel was planned long before it happened. Verse 2: Paul was “set apart for the gospel of God, which He [God] promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures.” Consider these three things from verse 2.
1. The gospel of God is the fulfillment of Old Testament promises.
It is not a new religion. It is the fulfillment of an old religion. The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament. What he was preparing and promising then, he fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.
2. God keeps his promises.
Hundreds of years go by. The Jews wonder if the Messiah will ever come. They go through horrendous suffering. Then God acts and the promise is fulfilled. This means that God can be trusted. It may look as if he has forgotten his promises. But he does not forget. So verse 2 is not only a statement about the content of the gospel, but is also a reason for believing it. If we can see that God promised Christ centuries before he came, and that in many details he fulfils these promises, our faith is strengthened.
3. These are holy, inspired writings we should reverence and believe.
Notice the tremendously important implications of verse 2 for our doctrine of Scripture. First there is God; then there is a promise that God wills to make; then there are prophets “through” whom (note well: not by whom, but through whom — God himself remaining the speaker) he speaks his promise; then there are writings; and these writings are called holy.
“The gospel is not a new religion. It is the fulfillment of an old religion.”
Why are they holy — set apart from all other writings, and one of a kind, and precious? Because it is God who speaks in them. Read the verse carefully: He [God] promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures.” God promised in the Scriptures. God is speaking in the Scriptures. That is what makes them holy. This is Paul’s understanding of Scripture and should be ours. If you have ever wondered why our Bibles say “Holy Bible” on the front, Romans 1:2 is the answer.
And lest we miss the immediate relevance of this for our exposition of Romans, remember three things:
Paul sees himself in Romans 1:1 as an apostle of Christ Jesus, speaking and writing with authority on Christ’s behalf as a founder of the church — in other words, like one of the prophets of old (Ephesians 2:20).
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:13, “We speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit.” In other words, Paul claims a special inspiration for his teaching.
In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter says that some “people distort [Paul’s writings], as they do the other Scriptures.” So Peter puts Paul’s letters in the same category with the Holy Scriptures that we are reading about here.
This is why preaching is so serious in our life together. We believe that Paul’s letter to the Romans is the word of God, not merely the word of man. The gospel was promised in holy writings inspired by God; and the gospel is unfolded and preserved for us in holy writings inspired by God. This is what we believe, and it makes a huge difference in the way we view truth and doctrine and preaching and worship and everything else in the world.
So the first thing Paul says about the gospel of God is that it was planned and predicted long ago (Romans 1:2). It is the gospel “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in his holy Scriptures.”
All About the Son
The second thing he says about the gospel of God (Romans 1:3) is that it concerns his Son: “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son.” The gospel of God has to do with the Son of God. We need to get two things clear about the Son of God immediately, or we could go far astray.
1. The Son of God existed before he became a human being.
Look at Romans 8:3: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” God sent him to take on human flesh. So the Son existed as the Son of God before he became a man. This means that Christ is and was the Son of God in a way utterly unique — not the same way we are sons of God (Romans 8:14, 19).
2. Christ is himself God.
In Romans 9:5, referring to the privileges of Israel, Paul says, “whose are the fathers, and from whom [that is, Israel] is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” And in Colossians 2:9 Paul says, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” So when Paul says that the gospel of God concerns his Son, he means that it has to do with the divine, pre-existent Son. The gospel of God is not about God arranging human affairs in a better way. It is about God penetrating human affairs from outside in the person of his Son who is the perfect image of the Father and is himself God.
So Paul puts a huge weight on the “gospel of God” by saying, first, that it is promised — planned — by God long before it happened, and, second, that it concerns his divine Son. The sovereign Creator of the universe, has planned good things for the world, and at the center of this plan is his Son.
Descendant of David
The third thing Paul says about the gospel of God is that this divine Son “was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh.” This says two things at once:
1. The Son of God became a man.
He was born. The work he had to do — the mission he was on — required that he take on human nature, along with his divine nature. God did not choose a man and make him his son; he chose to make his eternal, one-and-only Son a man.
2. He was born in the line of King David in the Old Testament.
Why is that part of the gospel of God? Why is that good news? The answer is that all the promises of the Old Testament depended on the coming of the Messiah — the Anointed One — who would rule as king in the line of David and conquer the enemies of God’s people and bring righteousness and peace forever. He would be the Yes to all God’s promises (2 Corinthians 1:20). Consider a couple of Old Testament promises:
Jeremiah 23:5: “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.’”
Isaiah 11:10: “In that day the Root of Jesse [i.e., the Son of David, Jesse’s offspring] will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.”
So the gospel of God is the good news that now, after hundreds of years, God has acted to fulfill his plan and promise that a king would come in the line of David. And as Isaiah 9:6–7 says, “The government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”
“Jesus is the Messianic king. He is reigning now over the world. He is putting all his enemies under his feet.”
So the “gospel of God” is the good news that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Mark 1:14–15: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” The coming of the Son of God into the world was the coming of the “Son of David,” the promised King.
He would rule over the nations and triumph over the enemies of God and rule with righteousness and peace and, according to Isaiah 35:10, “the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” That is what makes verse 3 the “gospel of God.” The coming of the Son of God as the Son of David would mean everlasting joy in the presence of God for all the ransomed of the Lord.
Dead and Raised
But there is one more thing Paul says about “the gospel of God.” Not only was it planned and promised before it happened; and not only is it concerning his divine, pre-existent Son; and not only is it the news that this Son has been born as the human son of David to fulfill the Old Testament hopes and dreams of righteousness and peace and joy in the kingdom of God; but, in verse 4, Paul says something that was both devastating and exhilarating. He says that God’s Son “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness.”
Why do I say this was devastating? Most of the Jewish people in Paul’s day expected that the Messiah would come with power and political sway, and would defeat the oppressive rulers of the world, the Romans, and establish an earthly kingdom in Jerusalem and live forever triumphant with his people. But what Paul says in verse 4 implies that between verses 3 and 4 the Son of David died. He died! Those who thought he was the Messiah were devastated. Messiahs don’t die. They live and conquer and rule. They don’t get arrested and beat up and mocked and crucified and leave their people destitute. This was absolutely devastating. Luke 24:21: “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.”
Paul will come back to the death of Christ in chapters 3 and 5 and 8. But for now, he goes immediately to the exhilarating note of triumph in the gospel of God. This dead Messiah, Paul says in verse 4, was raised from the dead. This is at the heart of the gospel of God. And Paul says two things about this resurrection:
1. This resurrection from the dead was ‘according to the Spirit of holiness.’
What does this mean? I take this to mean at least two things.
God’s Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead.
I take my cue from Romans 8:11 where Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” This teaches that we will be raised by the Spirit of God who dwells in us, in the way that Christ was raised. So the Spirit was involved in raising Jesus from the dead.
Why does Paul use this unusual expression, ‘Spirit of holiness’?
This statement is found nowhere else in the New Testament. Here’s my suggestion. Dealing with the dead was dirty business. When King Saul wanted to commune with the dead he went to the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:3–25), and it was a secretive and illicit business. Mediums and diviners and sorcerers were an abomination in Israel. When the dead are dead, you leave them alone and don’t have dealings with them. Seances were and are unlawful for believers. Dealing with the dead has been a kind of black magic, not a beautiful, clean, holy thing. Anything but. Talk of an executed dead man being raised from the dead must have sounded to many ears absolutely horrible and gross and dirty and unclean, like dark sorcery and black magic.
Over against this Paul lays stress on the exact opposite: Christ was raised from the dead in accord with the Spirit of holiness, not a dark spirit or an evil spirit or a defiled spirit, but the very Spirit of God himself who is marked above all by holiness. He was not defiled in raising Jesus. It was a holy thing to do. It was right and good and clean and beautiful and God-honoring, not God-belittling. It was holy.
2. By this resurrection, Christ was ‘declared [or, appointed] the Son of God with power.’
The key phrase here is “with power.” I think the NASB and KJV and RSV are right in showing that this phrase modifies “Son of God.” The point is not that Christ was not the Son of God before the resurrection. The point is that at the resurrection, Christ moved from being Son of God in lowliness and human limitation and weakness to being Son of God with power. The key phrase is with power.
“God has acted to fulfill his plan and promise that a king would come in the line of David.”
This is what Jesus meant after the resurrection when he said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). It’s what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 15:25–26 when he said of the risen Christ, “He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.”
In other words, Jesus is the Messianic king. He is reigning now over the world. He is putting all his enemies under his feet. There will come a day when he breaks forth out of his invisible rule with visible glory and establishes his kingdom openly and gloriously on the earth. That is what Paul means by “Son of God in power.” He is ruling now. He is working his purposes out through his Spirit and his church. And the day will come when Christ will defeat every enemy, and every knee will bow and confess that he is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:11).
That will be the consummation of the gospel of God. To which we say, “Amen, come Lord Jesus.”