“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle,
set apart for the gospel of God” – Romans 1:1
Introductions are important. A first impression can make or break an interview, a potential friendship, or the chance at a first date. But more important than impressions, which certainly do change over time (even the worst first impression can be smoothed over), introductions are an opportunity to start from a blank slate and let someone know what you are all about. What defines your identity and makes you, you? What are the most important things that the person you are meeting should know about you? What do you want to be defined by?
Depending on the context, what you want people to know about you may change. For instance, if you were being interviewed for a job as an electrician, you want to leave the interview having made it clear that you are a competent electrician. Likewise, if you are meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time and they happen to love cats, you aren’t going to tell them about how much you despise felines. You are going to make sure that you do not leave that dinner as, “the cat hater who is no longer allowed to date their daughter.”
However, regardless of the context, there are certain indelible aspects of our person that we may not mention in every situation but are nevertheless a core part of our identity. With the pressure on, with only thirty seconds on the clock to let the world know who we are, these are the elements of our personhood that shape how we would give an answer to the question, “Who are you?” These foundational components of our identity shape our thought processes, our reactions, our personality, our speech, and actions. Once people know these things about us, they know us: How we will act in certain situations, whether we can be trusted, what our worldview is, and who we serve (whether God or our bellies).
If I were to say, “I’m Justin, and I am a coward,” you now know that you probably shouldn’t rely on me to back you up in a fight and also that I’m not likely to be particularly aggressive on any topic. But, what about if I introduced myself this way, “I’m Justin, a slave of Christ Jesus!”? What does that reveal and how would you view me?
This is how Paul introduces himself in his letter to the Roman church. He’s never been there, he knows a few members of the church, but it’s likely they couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, and he wouldn’t know them from the members of the Roman mason’s guild. He has heard about them, though. By word-of-mouth he’s learned of their faith (1:8), and he has desperately desired to fellowship with them for quite a while (1:10-13). Though he had been unsuccessful in the past, it seemed as if he was finally going to be able to make it to them, at least for a little while until he was refreshed and equipped enough to continue his planned missionary journey to Spain.
Paul also knows that they are a congregation made up of both Hebrews and Gentiles, and so recognizes that there are some theological tensions within the church. With these two things in mind he writes to this church not only to let them know of his desire and plan to be with them, but also to help them live in unity as the body of Christ. His method to securing this unity is by providing them with a thorough exposition of the gospel. Why exposit the gospel and not just talk about the importance of unity? It is precisely because the gospel is the message of Christ who, through His flesh, tore down the dividing wall of hostility creating in Himself one new man in the place of two, thereby making peace between Hebrew and Gentile and reconciling them to God (Eph 2:14-16).
But why should the Roman church listen to Paul? Before he could get to that immensely important message and instruction, the Roman church had to first know who exactly is writing to them, and Paul tells them masterfully. He distills his identity down into a clear phrase: he is a servant of Christ Jesus. This is Paul, and from how he describes himself we also learn about what our identity should be based upon if we would also claim Christ Jesus as our Lord.
Paul, Slave of Christ Jesus
Following his name, the first thing Paul tells the Roman church is that he is, “a servant of Christ Jesus.” While servant can be an apt translation of the Greek, it does not carry the full force of the word that Paul uses here. The word doulos literally means “slave.”
A slave, by definition, is someone who belongs to another person. This is a word that, at least in America, people have mixed feelings about due to the issue of slavery in our nation’s history. But even if we were to remove our historical context from the word’s American connotations, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who proudly describes and introduces themselves as a slave. Being a slave is typically something you would be ashamed of. “I am not my own, I am another’s.” It would be akin to announcing that you are a prisoner. And yet Paul proudly proclaims here, “I am a slave!” Who would be proud of such a state?
The one who is proud of their master would boast in their status as a slave, and one who is proud to be a prisoner would gladly boast of their residence in a penitentiary. Paul is immensely—if not unusually—proud to be a slave of Jesus Christ. Similarly, in Ephesians he is proud to be a prisoner of Christ Jesus. He is so proud of his station as a slave that he begins a number of his personal letters with this fact about himself (Phil 1:1; Titus 1:1; Gal 1:10).
To be a servant of Christ is not a pauper’s prize but a grand station in life. By the word of his power Christ upholds all of creation (Heb 1:3). Christ died so that we may live, not for ourselves, but for him (2 Cor. 5:15). Christ has set us free from the law of sin and death (Rom 8:2). He became sin so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). And He is the one who died, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, and who indeed is interceding for us (Rom 8:34). If Paul was a slave of the emperor, he would have been ashamed, but how can Paul not boast in being a slave of Christ?
This statement is more than a simple boast, however; it is also a declaration of the deity of Christ. In the Old Testament there was a similar title given to men of faith: “the servant of the Lord.” Moses was called this, for example, in Joshua 1:1: “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord.” At the end of that book Joshua himself was honored with this title in 24:29: “After these things Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being 110 years old.” David, likewise, identifies himself to God as, “your servant” all over the book of 1 Samuel. Thus, by saying that he is a servant of Christ Jesus, Paul is placing Christ in the same position as the Lord of the Old Testament. Christ is Lord!
What does this boast and declaration tell the Roman church about Paul? It shows them a bit of his humility, but more importantly it tells them that he is one of them. “Jesus is Lord” is the common refrain and confession of the body of Christ shared among all its members. All believers are Christ’s slaves, as Paul will tell them later in the book: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom 6:22). Or as he told the Corinthians, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body”(1 Cor 6:19-20).
Paul’s first and primary identification is as a fellow Christian. A humble worker for the Lord. He is telling them in effect, “I am not writing to you as a stranger, nor to lord my authority over you from on high, but as a fellow servant and brother in Christ our master.” How gracious and illuminating as to the character of Paul while at the same time magnifying the name of Christ!
As we identify ourselves to others, or even as we self-reflect on our identity, how do we describe ourselves? Is it in a way that magnifies the name of Christ? Does it reflect Christ at all?
Now, should every Christian introduce himself or herself as, “I am a slave of Christ!”? Not necessarily. However, we must give careful consideration about how we do present and introduce ourselves. It should be in a way that reflects our status as fellow slaves of Christ, our calling to serve him, and our being separated for his gospel. We may not say everything we want to say about ourselves in our opening statements, but these aspects of our identity should make their way to the surface as close to the beginning as possible.
If, like Paul, we truly count all things as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, his person is going to be the defining aspect of our identity. From him will spring our desires, thoughts, words, and deeds. Jesus and his saving work on behalf of all men will be what we want to introduce to others over and above ourselves. “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Let us follow the examples set before us as we seek to serve the One who purchased us with His blood:
Paul: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” (Rom 1:1)
Peter: “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ.”(2 Pet 1:1)
James: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (James 1:1)
Jude: “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.” (Jude 1:1)
John: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.” (Rev 1:1)