January 5, 2024

His Invitation

Reconciliation, unity, and latter-rain power

Gregory & Carol Allen

At the close of His farewell discourse, Jesus’ prayer to His Father has implications that stretch from the cross to the eschaton. Jesus prays for Himself and the apostles; then He intercedes for all who would believe in Him until the end of time (see John 17:22-24, NASB).

The specific focus of Jesus’ prayer is that His disciples might be one; that their perfect unity will mirror the oneness of God. Only this unity in the church will convince the unbelieving world of God’s saving purpose in Jesus.

Certainly God called our church into existence. Yet according to Jesus’ prayer, proclaiming the Sabbath, the sanctuary, and the third angel’s message is not sufficient to attract unbelievers to Christ (cf. John 12:32).

God’s Solution in Jesus Christ

Many Christians are unaware that Paul’s letter to believers in Rome is a Spirit-inspired tour de force on reconciliation and unity written to Gentile and Jewish house churches divided by their ethnicity.1

Since the Protestant Reformation, especially based on Martin Luther’s ideas, most Christians believe that Paul, oblivious to the division between Gentiles and Jews, wrote a theological treatise to believers. Its overarching theme is justification by faith in Christ alone.2 Against the medieval Catholic emphasis on righteousness by works, the Reformers emphasized justification, God’s declaration of individual acquittal through faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ.

Instead, Paul writes a letter to divided believers in which every theme, including justification by faith, is designed to foster reconciliation and unity through the gospel of Jesus Christ.3 But before we provide biblical evidence from the letter, contextual background will be helpful.

After Pentecost, Jewish believers took the gospel to every corner of the Roman Empire, including Rome (Acts 2:14-41). In the early years, before “Christian” assemblies were organized, Jewish believers shared the gospel in synagogues. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, writing after the fact (A.D. 121), rioting occurred in the synagogues in Rome “at the instigation of Chrestos.”4

Although Suetonius mistakenly thought that Jesus Christ was responsible for the disturbances, what he shares next is critical for a proper understanding of Romans. Because Roman authorities suppressed the disruption of peace anywhere in the Empire, and especially in Rome, the emperor Claudius issued an edict in A.D. 49, expelling the Jews from Rome. Luke corroborates this expulsion (see Acts 18:1, 2). 

What then became of Christianity in Rome? With synagogues closed, Gentile believers preserved Christianity by creating house churches (Rom. 16:3-16). During the expulsion Roman Christianity became exclusively Gentile in leadership, theological beliefs, and practices (Rom. 11; 14). When Claudius died (A.D. 54), the edict either lapsed or was repealed, and Jews returned to Rome. The Jewish community found Christian Gentile leadership firmly established in the house assemblies. The Gentile majority was in control.5

Aware of this situation (Rom. 16:1-16), Paul writes the letter to the Romans (c. A.D. 57) to address the ethnic division with the gospel. Because he did not establish the Roman house churches, Paul opens his letter diplomatically. He affirms both communities (Rom. 1:1-15). He reminds his Jewish audience of the gospel’s roots in Scripture’s promise of a Messiah through the lineage of King David (verses 1-3). Then Paul, a Jew, affirms the Gentile community by announcing his desire to “reap some harvest” among them and describing his obligation to the non-Jewish world (verses 13, 14). He thanks God for both groups and asserts that their “faith is proclaimed in all the world” (verse 8, ESV), but hints that all believers need to be strengthened through his gift of the gospel; this is Paul’s first allusion to the need for corporate sanctification.

Throughout the letter Paul presents the Godhead as the model for communal oneness. Paul portrays the Father as the author of the gospel, then asserts that Jesus Christ is the content of the gospel as Son of David and risen Lord. The good news of wholistic salvation is achieved through the sacrifice of God’s Son. Paul uses the cryptic expression “the Spirit of holiness” (verse 4) to identify the Holy Spirit as the one who resurrected Jesus Christ from the dead. Later Paul shows that the Spirit mediates the life and transformative power of Christ to the believing community (verses 1-4; Rom. 8:1-17). The Godhead acts as one.

Paul’s thesis statement asserts the essential claims he will make (Rom. 1:16, 17). Aware of the Roman cultural value of honor, Paul asserts that he is not ashamed of the culturally shameful gospel of a crucified Savior. He stresses that Christ’s death provides God’s saving power for all “trusting” Jews and Gentiles. Moreover, God’s gospel of Christ is first to the Jews, who are first chronologically, and then to the Gentiles. Paul asserts that Christ’s person and work reveal both the nature of God and His ability to save sinners. Finally, Paul signals the rhetorical core of the message that he will develop in the letter. He quotes Habakkuk: “The just shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). Paul has established that believers in Rome have been justified by faith in the gospel of Christ (Rom. 1:8). However, he will argue that their ethnic division reveals their desperate need of communal sanctification. Those in Christ must “live” by faith through the power of the Spirit.

In the body of the letter, Paul levels the playing field for Gentiles and Jews. He demonstrates that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Therefore, all are under a death sentence: “For there is no partiality with God” (Rom. 2:11; see Rom. 1:18–3:20). Paul reiterates God’s solution: the sacrificial death of Christ. He explains to the Jews that their salvation was not achieved by law keeping, but by faith in Christ; indeed, Abraham is the father of all those who are justified, both Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 3:21–4:25).

In Romans 5:1-11 Paul exposes the heart of his argument. He moves from the legal semantics of justification to the relational language of reconciliation. Justified believers, Gentiles and Jews, now enjoy peace with God through the reconciliation accomplished through Christ. Through this he shows the basis for communal, or horizontal, reconciliation in Rome: the implied necessity. In Ephesians Paul explains: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph. 2:13-18, NIV). 

Communal reconciliation and unity are not optional. One new humanity through Christ’s death is God’s reality and must become reality for all true believers. Rejection of the new humanity is a rejection of the efficacy of the cross. Throughout Romans Paul builds on this premise, i.e., genuine reconciliation with God through Christ will issue in reconciliation and unity between Jews and Gentiles.

Paul’s Call to Unity in Jesus Christ

Paul closes his letter with an apostolic appeal that has relevance for Adventism today. He exhorts believing Gentiles and Jews to perfect relational unity with these words: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom. 15:7, NRSV). In Paul’s day pagan Romans used the term translated “welcome” to mean “accept into one’s society, receive into one’s home, afford table fellowship, grant access into one’s heart.”6 In Greco-Roman society this type of welcome was typically not offered to the ethnic other. To the ethnically divided house churches in Rome, Paul commands both Gentiles and Jews to engage in a unity undergirded by tangible fellowship. They are to experience a relational oneness that is reciprocal and continuous. Yet Paul’s command is not rooted in his personal authority. It is fixed in the fact that Gentile and Jewish believers have been received by Christ. A more precise rendering of the command and its basis would be: Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed y’all. The personal pronoun is plural. All believers have experienced unmerited acceptance through the blood of Christ. Through the power of the Spirit, and for God’s glory, they are to extend this acceptance to the other (cf. Matt. 5:43-48).

Latter-Rain Power

Paul’s letter raises a question. Will the Spirit be poured out in latter-rain power on a divided church? The answer lies in the reception of the former rain in the first century. Luke describes this critical moment in salvation history:

“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1-4). 

The Greek expression translated “one accord” literally means to be of one mind.7

But here is the backstory to Pentecost: Jesus “breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ ” (John 20:22). Christ gave His Spirit to His disciples before Pentecost. Then “these all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication” (Acts 1:14). Christ’s Spirit first produced oneness among His followers, and then the same Spirit fell in latter-rain power on a united people.

We end as we began, with the prayer of Jesus: “The glory which You have given Me I also have given to them, so that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me” (John 17:22, 23, NASB).

Jesus prayed for a united church as an evangelistic necessity. Will Adventism yield to the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s end-time work? Will we accept Christ’s invitation?

1 W. Wiefel, “The Jewish Community in Ancient Rome and the Origins of Roman Christianity,” in K. P. Donfried, ed., The Romans Debate, revised and expanded (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991); see also K. Stendhal, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).

2 See Donfried.

3 See G. J. Allen and C. E. Allen, Christ Has Welcomed You: A Case for Relational Unity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Huntsville, Ala.: Unity Publishers, 2016).

4 Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, Divus Claudius, in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, rev. ed., trans. R. Graves (New York: Penguin Books, 1979).

5 Donfried.

6 F. W. Danker and W. Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Writers, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).