The Gospel in the Roman World
To us, the gospel has always been a reference to the scriptures, the New Testament, or the arrival of the Messiah. We use the word “gospel” to refer to many aspects of the Gods message. However, in the first century the word “gospel” did not refer the New Testament to the Roman listener. The word “gospel” was already in use in the world and referred to something completely different. The Romans used the word “gospel” to refer to the good news of the emperors accomplishments. New Testament theologian N.T. Wright of The Center for Theological Inquiry states that the word “gospel” was “the celebration of the ascession, or birth, of a king or emperor.” The Center further states, “In Pauls world the main “gospel was the news of or celebration of Caesar.”
Notice how the word is used in connection with Augustus on a calendar inscription from Priene (c. 9 BC; line 40): “but the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of tidings of joy on account of him.” The birthday of Augustus was considered the beginning of the gospel in the Roman world. Notice how the word was used in connection to Gaius Julius Caesar concerning the day he became a man according to Roman custom: “that on the day when the city received the good news and when the decree was adopted, on that day, too, wreaths (must) be worn and sumptuous sacrifices offered to the gods.” In this context we see the city received the gospel when a decree was given concerning the day Gaius became a man.
With this background in mind, it does not take much to consider what was going on in the first century when the apostles went throughout the Roman world preaching the gospel. The Romans would have thought the apostles were bringing a message about the emperors accomplishments giving reason to celebrate. This helps us understand why we read about the Romans wanting to hear the message that the apostles were bringing into their cities. To say one had the gospel was to say one had celebratory words concerning the emperor.
But one should also readily see the conflict that would begin to arise. To proclaim Jesus as the author and the message of the gospel would have been contrary to allegiance to the Roman emperor. We see this exact problem in Acts 17:6-7: “When they [the Jews] did not find them [Paul and Silas], they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city officials, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here too, and Jason has received them as guests! They are all acting contrary to Caesars decrees, saying that there is another kingÃ¢â‚¬”Jesus.” The Jews used this gospel decree to their advantage to persecute the Christians. The Jews tell the Roman city officials that these Christians are preaching the gospel. What that means is that they are claiming there is another king or another emperor worthy of celebration. To preach the gospel was to preach something contrary to imperial Rome.
Peace in the Roman World
Peace in the Roman mind was also far different from peace that we think of today. David McClister, professor of Biblical studies, says, “The achievement of peace in the empire was such a monumental accomplishment that it was thought that the one who did this must be operating with divine power; it was seen as evidence of the emperors divinity. It was almost universal among the ancients that military victory (and thus the peace that ensued) was by divine power.”
To the twenty-first century mind we think of peace as the absence of war. We think of peace in terms of diplomacy and cooperation. We think of peace that has a purpose into order to save lives and produce equality. But not so to the Roman mind. The Roman concept of peace was the peace which resulted from war and conquest. Peace was the result of military action, not diplomacy. Peace meant being in submission to Rome. Peace was not achieved by negotiation or cooperation. Peace was imposed on the subjugated by means of force. Peace was not negotiable nor was peace voluntary. Peace was brought about by taking lives and creating inequality.
Tacitus records the words of Calgacus, chieftan of the Britons, in a speech before battle against Agricola, in Agricola 30: “To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; and where they made destitution, they call it peace.” The Romans called peace conquering other nations. This concept of peace seems to have originated with Julius Caesar. In his funeral oration for Julius Caesar, Mark Antony praised him as a peace-maker (Dio 44.49.2)- “Yet this father, this high priest, this inviolable being, this hero and god, is dead, alas, dead not by the violence of some disease, nor wasted by old age, nor wounded abroad somewhere in some war, nor caught up inexplicably by some supernatural force, but right here within the walls as the result of a plotÃ¢â‚¬”the man who had safely led an army into Britain; ambushed in this cityÃ¢â‚¬”the man who had enlarged its pomerium; murdered in the senate-houseÃ¢â‚¬”the man who had reared another such edifice at his own expense; unarmedÃ¢â‚¬”the brave warrior; defenselessÃ¢â‚¬”the maker of peace; the judgeÃ¢â‚¬”beside the court of justice; the magistrateÃ¢â‚¬”beside the seat of government; at the hands of the citizensÃ¢â‚¬”he whom none of the enemy had been able to kill even when he fell into the sea; at the hands of his comradesÃ¢â‚¬”he who had often taken pity on them.” The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, was also called Pax Augustus, not merely because there was peace in the world, but also because there was an end to the civil wars in Rome. Augustus brought an end to civil war and went conquering the nations, subjugating them to Rome, bringing about this peace. Even more interesting is that the Altar of Peace (Ara Pacis) stood on the Hill of Mars, the god of war. Peace was brought about by war to the Romans.
First century impact
Now when we read the New Testament scriptures about peace, we know to think of something else besides a peace negotiated. To the Romans, peace was a conquering peace. We can see this imagery in many places in the scriptures. “For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile everything to Himself by making peace through the blood of His crossÃ¢â‚¬”whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Colossians 1:19-20). Notice that Paul describes the peace that Christ made came through death. To see this conquering peace, read the context of this conclusion a few verses earlier. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation; because by Him everything was created, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authoritiesÃ¢â‚¬”all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:15-16). Paul tied war and peace together in Romans 16:20, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”
The New Testament scriptures also play upon the common knowledge of the day. It was common for the Roman emperor before his death to record his accomplishments. Augustus Caesar detailed him accomplishments in the Rae Gestae. This document was published in many cities of the empire. Notice how Augustus chronicled his accomplishments:
“I extended the borders of all the provinces of the Roman people which neighbored nations not subject to our rule. I restored peace to the provinces of Gaul and Spain, likewise Germany, which includes the ocean from Cadiz to the mouth of the river Elbe. I brought peace to the Alps from the region which is near the Adriatic Sea to the Tuscan, with no unjust war waged against any nation. I sailed my ships on the ocean from the mouth of the Rhine to the east region up to the borders of the Cimbri, where no Roman had gone before that time by land or sea, and the Cimbri and the Charydes and the Semnones and the other Germans of the same territory sought by envoys the friendship of me and of the Roman people. By my order and auspices two armies were led at about the same time into Ethiopia and into that part of Arabia which is called Happy, and the troops of each nation of enemies were slaughtered in battle and many towns captured. They penetrated into Ethiopia all the way to the town Nabata, which is near to Meroe; and into Arabia all the way to border of the Sabaei, advancing to the town Mariba.”
There are a total of 55 nations in this writing of accomplishments.
Notice how Acts 2:5-11 is also a statement of conquest:
“There were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. When this sound occurred, the multitude came together and was confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were astounded and amazed, saying, “Look, arent all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and ArabsÃ¢â‚¬”we hear them speaking in our own languages the magnificent acts of God.”
This is how the first century mind read this listing of nations in Acts 2. In fact, Tertullian adds to this list by writing down other nations outside what the Romans had conquered. The point was that the Romans had conquered much of the world, but Jesus and the gospel has conquered nations that the emperor does not possess.
Jesus and the Gospel of Peace
So what does the gospel of peace mean to us? We ought to realize the writers of the New Testament were communicating more than simply our reconcilation with God. Peace with God requires our subjection to God. Paul says, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). When we read that we have peace with God, we cannot think this is a peace that has been achieved by 21st century methods. Our peace with God is not through negotiation. Our peace with God has not come about by an absence of war. Our peace with God was not intended to result in an equality of man with God. Such concepts are a 21st century mind.
The peace we have with God is the result of war which has taken place between Jesus and Satan. Our peace is not negotiable. We are not given the right to dictate the terms of the peace. Jesus has brought a conquering peace, demanding the submission our lives to His cause and will. Paul says, “For although we are walking in the flesh, we do not wage war in a fleshly way, since the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. And we are ready to punish any disobedience, once your obedience is complete” (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). We are engaged in a war and to have peace with God, we must be obedient to God. We are called to submit to Him.
But in our lives being conquered by Christ, God has made a promise. “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with HimÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:8,11). God has promised to make our souls alive to God in that we will inherit eternal life. The gospel of peace is the good news of Jesus conquering Satan and world of sin, causing all things to be in subjection to him (Ephesians 1:20-23). We submit our lives to God by being immersed in water (Romans 6:1-4). Paul says this is how we die with Christ and are made alive with him. We are not in negotiation to receive this grace and this good news of peace. Either we accept and are given life, or we decline and receive the wrath of God that is due us for our sins. Let us choose life and choose to submit to God.