Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”
Most of us who have endeavored to follow Christ probably came across this verse early in our journey of faith. While I am not often comfortable taking one solitary verse out of its context, this verse actually communicates a singular message quite well on its own. The gospel — the good news about life in Jesus – is not something about which any follower of Christ should be ashamed. The good news is powerful because it comes from God Himself. The gospel is good news because everyone who believes it will receive God’s salvation — the only true hope for human beings before and after death. The Apostle Paul, who wrote these words, also clarifies that this good news is for the Jews and the Gentiles. In other words, it is for everyone.
For those of us who live in the developed Western world, however, the idea of not being ashamed of Jesus has a much different meaning than it did in Paul’s day. And I’m not speaking only in terms of persecution. While the difference in persecution then and now is certainly a big one, there was so much more. In the context of the first century Roman Empire, this verse takes on an entirely different meaning that it easy to miss.
Let us not forget that Paul is writing to a group of people IN ROME (1:15). In first century Rome, it was probably not too flattering to be named along with Jesus of Nazareth. For one thing, Jesus’ name was slandered among both Jews and Gentiles. Among the Jews, Jesus was a blasphemer and fraud. Among the Romans, Jesus was classified as a criminal.
Oh, but there was so much more. Those who were becoming known as “Christ-ians” claimed that their Lord, Jesus, was a divine king. They were telling people that Jesus was in fact God in the flesh. For the Romans, this was nothing new. There had been many gods to walk among them in the form of the Caesars. A plethora of gods and goddesses could be found in the temples. Gods were everywhere, and they were nothing like this Jesus. According to “Christ-ians” like Paul, Jesus was poor, not boastful, and he allowed himself to be arrested and killed without putting up a fight. He wasn’t even a citizen of Rome, the greatest empire the world had ever known. How powerful of a king could he really be? He certainly couldn’t be classified as a god. Following a king like this could be quite embarrassing indeed.
Consider this description of the Roman situation from my man John Chrysostom:
The Romans were overly anxious about the things of the world; mostly because of the weight of their riches, their empire, and their victories. They considered their kings to be equal to the gods, and so they even called them such. For this reason, they worshiped them with temples and with altars and with sacrifices. Indeed it was because of their ‘puffed up’ view of their kings that Paul was going to preach Jesus in the opposite manner; as one who was the carpenter’s son, who was brought up in Judea, and that in the house of a meager woman. Paul preached about Jesus as the true King who had no bodyguards, who was not encircled in wealth; but instead died as a culprit with robbers and endured many other inglorious things . It is likely that some of those in the church at Rome were hiding their beliefs and pretending to not know these unspeakable and great things. So, for this reason, Paul says, ‘I am not ashamed,’ precisely so that the Roman believers would themselves not be ashamed. (John Chrysostom, Homily 2 in Romans, in NPNF 1.11:348).
When Paul challenges those within the Roman churches to not be ashamed of Jesus, he is concerned that they are literally embarrassed about their King. He reminds them that they have nothing to be ashamed of. To be sure, the Lord Jesus was not like other kings or other “gods”. But it was precisely His uniqueness that set Him apart. That which Jesus offered came straight from the one true God, and it was not mixed with human error.
There are many reasons modern-day followers of Jesus might feel embarrassed about our faith or even be tempted to suppress our true beliefs. May we remember, as Paul reminded the earliest Christians, that Jesus is not ashamed to be our Lord. He is not ashamed to be our King. He is not ashamed to be our God. Jesus was who He was and is who He is because that’s exactly how God wanted it. Who could be better for us to follow? For EVERYONE who believes, Jesus is the hope of true and full life both now and forever. Amen.