“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16-17
These are two of the most-quoted verses of the Apostle Paul’s writings–and for good reason. Paul is explaining ‘why’ he spent his life preaching the Gospel of Christ. It’s not because being an apostle was a good career move; not because the job paid well and included great perks; not because being a Gospel preacher gave him a good standing in the community. In fact, being an apostle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the opposite of all that. Paul suffered greatly because of his commitment to the Gospel. The reason Paul preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ was because “it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.”
These verses are in the context of those that preceded them:
“Now I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that I often planned to come to you (but was hindered until now), that I might have some fruit among you also, just as among the other Gentiles. I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also.” Romans 1:13-15
The Apostle Paul wanted to be part of the great spiritual harvest God was doing in the early days of Christianity. Thousands of people were becoming Christians throughout the Roman Empire and Paul was one of its primary leaders. He was ready (προθυμον – enthusiastically willing, eager) to ‘preach’ (ευαγγελισασθαι – proclaim good news .. from εὖ, good, well done, and ἄγγελος, messenger, envoy, one who is sent) the Gospel to the people of Rome.
Paul had a deep trust in the ‘effect’ of the Gospel based on his many supernatural experiences with God (e.g. Acts 9:1-7; 2 Corinthians 12:1-6). He knew first-hand both the efficacy and the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of Paul’s knowledge and experience, he was “not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” He knew it was the “power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.”
Here is how the first part of Romans 1:16 reads in Greek – ου γαρ επαισχυνομαι το ευαγγελιον του χριστου. Let’s begin with the word ‘ashamed.’ The word επαισχυνομαι is a combination of the preposition ἐπί (on, onto) and αἰσχύνομαι (put to shame). The word is used 11 times in the New Testament. Here is an example of Jesus using the word:
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:38
Here is an example from Hebrews:
“For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.” Hebrews 2:11
The idea of ‘shame’ in New Testament times came out of what was known as an ‘honor-shame’ culture. This culture can be seen in the Mediterranean societies, including Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Palestinian societies. The primary goal of family leaders was that their family received public honor while they avoided public shame. It was incumbent on every member of the family to participate in this goal whatever the personal cost. If one person shamed the family name, everyone in the family was shamed. Honor or shame was shared by all members of the family.
God included the importance of honor as a commandment to Israel – “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12) Given the understanding of honor and shame, the actions of children honoring their father and mother would be in the context of what was done in public.
Jesus spoke these words to the scribes and Pharisees – “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God’— then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites!” (Matthew 15:3-7) The Apostle Paul wrote these words to the Ephesians – “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother,’ which is the first commandment with promise: ‘that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3)
The moral code of God’s commandments also included rising before people with gray hair and giving honor in the presence of an old man. That command to revere the elderly was also connected to ‘fearing’ God’ (Leviticus 19:32).
We see an interesting process of the honor-shame culture in a song of King David:
“Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me; O Lord, make haste to help me! Let them be ashamed and brought to mutual confusion Who seek to destroy my life; Let them be driven backward and brought to dishonor Who wish me evil. Let them be confounded because of their shame, Who say to me, ‘Aha, aha!” Psalm 40:13-15
David wanted ‘shame’ to come upon his enemies. He wanted them to be ‘confounded’ because of their shame. He wanted them to be driven backward and brought to ‘dishonor’ publicly.
The goal of ancient warriors was to appear brave and full of excellence. That was honorable and led to fame. To not appear brave and full of excellence was dishonorable and led to shame. Being viewed as honorable led to heroic ventures. Being viewed as dishonorable was a strong motivation to warriors and others to be heroic so as not to be dishonored and shamed. Dying an ‘honorable death’ was of extreme importance to ancient warriors in honor-shame cultures.
Here is an interesting insight to honor and shame from the Holman Bible Dictionary:
“Acquired honor was gained through meritorious deeds or public performance. Family social position provided the honor base from which males launched out with hope of increasing family and personal honor. The public forum provided challenges for gaining or losing honor. A challenge might show the superiority of one person or group over another. A challenge could be ignored if not worthy of response due to social distance between the parties, but a true honor challenge required response. The party recognized as winning gained honor and the other lost honor or social standing. For example, when the Pharisees and Herodians observed Jesus to see if He would heal the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1-6), an honor challenge took place. If Jesus violated Sabbath law, He would lose honor. If He did not heal the man, He also would lose honor. The trap looked perfect. In response to this unethical challenge, Jesus clarified the Sabbath’s intent so He could lawfully heal the man. When the trap failed, they decided to collaborate to destroy Jesus and His rising social status (which came at their expense).” (Holman Bible Dictionary, Holman Reference, Nashville, Tennessee, 2003, p 1474)
The primary concern in an honor-shame culture was what happened in public. It was being honored or disgraced in a way that people outside of the family could see or hear. This is where the connection of the apostles to the Gospel of Christ becomes important for us to understand. While most people would be ashamed to be publicly disgraced in an honor-shame culture, the apostles of Christ rejoiced in the public disgrace of preaching the Gospel.
“And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, saying, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!’ But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him … And they agreed with him, and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” Acts 5:27-32, 40-42
For a Jew to be brought forcibly before the ruling council of Israel and rebuked for not obeying a command of the council would usually bring about great ‘shame’ and dishonor on that person and their family. However, Peter and the other apostles of Christ rejoiced that “they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.” That was an amazing thing to witness in a strict ‘honor-shame’ culture.
Christians today view what Jesus did on the Cross as a wonderful thing for Him to do, and it was. He died for our sins. Jesus was ‘without sin,’ yet died for our sin and shame. He was not ‘guilty’ of any crime and the Jewish and Roman rulers knew it, but how did Christ’s death on the Cross appear in an ‘honor-shame’ culture?
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2
Dying on a cross was a public event and in an ‘honor-shame’ culture brought great shame and dishonor on the person on the cross and on his family and friends. That ‘shame’ was the intention of the enemies of Jesus. It did not matter to them that Jesus had not done anything wrong. They wanted to bring shame upon Him and His followers. They believed that by killing Jesus and bringing shame upon His name and ministry, they would bring an end to what He had started just a few years earlier. What happened to Jesus culturally was a great ‘shame,’ but Jesus endured the cross, ‘despising the shame’ because of the ‘joy that was set before Him.’ And, as we know from history, the pain and shame Jesus endured at the hands of His enemies led Him to victory over death and a position of public honor at the right hand of the Throne of God.
As we continue our study in Romans, keep watch for the idea of honor and shame. It is important to our understanding of what Paul was explaining to the Roman Christians who lived in an ‘honor-shame’ culture.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.