“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God…”
As he listened to his friend and scribe, Tertius, read back to him the opening line from his letter, Paul whispered a prayer of thankfulness for the depths of the mercy of God. His heart was heavy as he gave voice to all that he wished to convey to the various groups that made up the church of Rome.
“the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace…”
Grace! Paul prayed passionately for the church at Rome to embrace and distribute this incredible gift! This resilient group of believers had experienced a great deal of upheaval in the last decade. The edict by the Emporer Claudius banning Jews from Rome had lapsed under his successor, Nero. Believing Jews returned to churches that had changed significantly under five years of exclusively gentile leadership. The return of the exiles also led to renewed conflict between Jews who believed Jesus is the Christ and those who did not. The tension gave rise to the re-identification of followers of Jesus as a “new” religion and not just a sect of Judaism. This change was of particular concern for all believers in Jesus. Existing religions such as Judaism were tolerated in the Roman empire; new religions were strictly forbidden, making it even more dangerous to share the gospel of Jesus.
External threats and internal conflicts were not the only dangers to the church of Rome. They were continually confronted with new converts who were unwilling to acknowledge that the pagan worship rituals and sexual immorality that had been such a part of their former lives were unacceptable to a holy God. Leaders struggled with temptations to compromise, especially in the face of powerful challenges to their authority. He prayed that the hearts of the leaders in Rome would remain steadfastly devoted to God.
Paul’s thoughts were drawn back to a day in the temple, only days before the crucifixion. At that time, he, himself, was among those who were violently opposed to every word that Jesus of Nazareth spoke. He stood among his companions in the temple, listening as the Chief Priests and teachers of the law questioned him. As was his custom, he responded by speaking in parables.
“A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress, and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place….”
Paul did not need to be a farmer to know the time and expense that went into the planting of a vineyard. Just the task of preparing the ground was immense. A winepress was a costly investment, and walls and watchtowers were necessary to protect the vineyard from both man and animal intruders. Once the vines were planted, it would be years before the first full harvest. An invitation to labor in a vineyard with all of this preparation completed was an incredible blessing.
“At harvest time, he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.”
It was an obvious reference to the treatment of the prophets of God, but there was an insinuation in his words that placed this same guilt on heads of the chief priests and spiritual leaders of Israel. It was an absurd indictment in Paul’s early opinion. There had been no prophets to the nation in their lifetime. Of course, many held that the Baptizer was a prophet, but even if he was, they had nothing to do with that man’s unfortunate end. If there was any blood-guilt, that was on Herod’s head.
“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’
“But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
At the time, Paul had been enraged by the words, and he was not alone. Even the people who usually hung on his every word seemed to be frightened by this statement. Perhaps they envisioned previous bloody conquests of the land of their ancestors. Many were murmuring against such a pronouncement, “May this never be!”
Paul vividly remembered the sad expression on the face of the man he and his colleagues had labeled a dangerous heretic.
“At the time, I attributed the sorrow to dramatic manipulation,” he shared his thoughts with Tertius. “Today, I know that the pain was genuine, and I weep because the warning is still unheeded.”
“The owner of the vineyard is coming,” Tertius gave voice to Paul’s fears. “And destruction is on the horizon.”
“Jesus ended his confrontation with well-known warnings from the scriptures,” Paul continued.
“Then what is the meaning of that which is written: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone?’ Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
“A reference to the prophet Isaiah,” Tertius commented.
“Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it.
The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.
He will be a holy place; for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare.
Many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken,
they will be snared and captured.”
“Yes, he was,” Paul responded, “King Ahaz was terrified that the Kings of Israel and Aram would conquer Judah – and he had good reason to be. He was woefully outnumbered by the alliance between the two nations. But God had promised him, ‘It will not take place. It will not happen.’ Ahaz had no confidence in God. He had no fear of God, and he had no devotion to God. He scorned the promise spoken to him and sought protection from the nation of Assyria. He placed his trust in a frail, human kingdom instead of in the all-powerful word of God.”
“The kings of Judah and Israel stumbled, and eventually, both nations were broken,” Tertius said softly. “All because their leadership refused to humble themselves before God. Jesus was warning the people that if their leaders did not humble themselves and honor God, they would face the same fate as the tenants in the vineyard. I fear that day will soon be upon us.”
“But don’t forget the question Jesus asked,” Paul reminded his friend. “Then what is the meaning of that which is written, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone?’ Jesus was reminding them that the Father’s purposes for him would be accomplished – whether accepted or rejected by the people.”
“That has always been a victory song,” Tertius replied.
“It is a Psalm often referenced by Simon Peter. I was not present, but I know when he and John were brought before the Sanhedrin for preaching the resurrection, it was this scripture that he referenced. As is his nature, he left no ambiguity.”
“Jesus is the stone YOU builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
“When Gamaliel told me of this ‘blasphemy,’ I wholeheartedly disagreed with my teacher’s tolerant approach, asserting that followers of the Nazarene must be silenced! In brazen defiance of Gamaliel’s guidance, I quickly become a leader in the quest to destroy the followers of Jesus.”
“It is hard for me to imagine that you were ever an enemy of the cross,” Tertius responded. “But there is no doubt that you are a new man.”
“That Jesus forgave me demonstrates to the world that he saves the worst of sinners,” Paul reminded his friend. “Did you ever notice that the Psalmist enclosed his declaration in thankfulness and praise?”
“I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.
The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Lord has done it this very day;
let us rejoice today and be glad.”
“It reminds us that our salvation is the work of God and not of ourselves!” Tertius exclaimed.
“Exactly! Acknowledgment and Gratitude! Critical to a life faithful and obedient to God! It was at the heart of the word spoken to Israel through Moses!”
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
“The tenants of Jesus’ parable inherited all these things, but they forgot the one who had so abundantly provided for them. They became his enemies, and suffered great losses,” Tertius continued the thought. “Just like the Kings of Judah and Israel. ”
“But God will always accomplish his purposes. As a result of the faithlessness of Ahaz, Judah lost 120,000 soldiers in a single day, including the expected heir to the throne – Maaseiah, the king’s son. Instead, Hezekiah, nurtured and preserved by his godly mother, Abijah, ascended to the throne.”
The men fell silent, contemplating the dangers facing the believers in Rome, as well as throughout the world. Fueled with spiritual fervor, they continued the letter.
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools….”
“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie…”
“Since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God…”
Paul prayed both silently and vocally for the recipients of the words spilling from his heart. Tertius echoed his prayers as he faithfully transferred his friend’s admonitions to the parchment, occasionally discussing details and wording with the spirit-driven apostle.
“they have become unwise, unfaithful, unloving, unmerciful.”
“Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that his kindness leads you toward repentance? But because of your stubborn and unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself…”
Following the example of prophets and scribes before them, Paul did not leave his readers without hope. He followed his words of rebuke and judgment with a double portion of exhortation to faithfulness, and promises of the blessings and hope that would come to those who believed in Jesus.
“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
He confronted the disunity that inevitably arose with the integration of Jews and Gentiles into a single body and expressed his heart-stricken grief over the disbelief of his Jewish brothers. His thoughts once again turned to the words of Isaiah – the same ones Jesus referenced in the temple that day.
“See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”
It was a hard truth that many who came face to face with Jesus would stumble and fall, just as he had once done. Paul only prayed that in their brokenness, they would take hold of the mercy and grace offered through Jesus, and then live every day in humble awe of that gift.
He offered more practical advice for living harmoniously in this new faith. Confessing his own needs, he invited them to share in his ministry by lifting prayers on his behalf.
He closed his letter, surrounding the Cornerstone with praise, as King David had done.
“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”
Finally, they penned their final exhortations and greetings, uniting the faithful followers in a divided city.
“To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ!”
Scripture references: Romans 1:1-4, 21-22, 25, 28, 31; 2:4; 6:22; 8:31-34; 9:33; 11:36; 16:27; Luke 20:9-19; Isaiah 7-8; Acts 4:1-22; Psalm 118:21-24; 2 Chronicles 28