Ashamed – “embarrassed or guilty because of one’s actions, characteristics, or associations” or perhaps “reluctant to do something through fear of embarrassment or humiliation.”
In Greek, the word is epaischunomai ( ἐπαισχύνομαι ) “to be ashamed – of a thing” in this case, the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God.
Fair enough, right? Just a straightforward meaning. Or is there more? An undercurrent of meaning that most of us have missed that the first hearers of the letter would have caught?
Let’s look at the cultural context. Paul…writing to Romans…people he had not yet met. Rome was the heart of the Roman Empire. And that empire flourished because they had dominated the hearts and minds of its people – whether they liked it or not.
So, Caesar was the one who brought peace. Romans knew that the good news was that Caesar had conquered the barbarians and that peace in the world was possible because of him.
In fact, he was the savior of the world. That was the good news.
The bad news was to the conquered. Their lot was one of shame because they had lost. They were the problem and their culture and systems were simply inferior as proven by being overthrown. They were shamed into submission and were assimilated into the Empire.
Their shame was cause for celebration in Rome. Their shame meant peace. Their shame meant Romans had been saved from these people. Their shame became boasting in Rome.
So, when Paul writes that he is not ashamed of the gospel, he is throwing down a clear challenge to Rome, Caesar, and all that the Empire represents. He is in effect saying that he is not ashamed – he has not been conquered, his God has not been defeated, the kingdom of God is greater than the Roman Empire.
This is a huge difference from the surface reading that most preachers and teachers propose.
Let’s first look at how John Piper approaches the subject. (Click here to go there…)
His logic goes like this:
- The reason Paul was “eager to preach the gospel in Rome is that he is not ashamed of the gospel.”
- The gospel was first the basis of Paul being shamed.
- The gospel was secondarily the basis of freedom from shame.
- Therefore, we should not be ashamed of sharing the gospel with others.
Like most Christian teaching today the emphasis is on two things:
- The individual
- The application
The focus is on you, today, here and now and on how you should live this out. Here is a link to another page that does this. Note this quote:
To be “ashamed of the gospel” is to allow willful sin to take over our lives and not look back because who cares what God says…To be “unashamed” of the gospel means that we not only speak this truth, but we also live it out in our lives.
Now, I am not against making a personal connection and I am definitely not against putting into practice what we know and love. What I am concerned about is that we may have missed the point…we may have shape-shifted the message into something it was not.
Indeed, the whole purpose of the book of Romans since the time of the Reformation has been largely accepted to be theological in nature…Paul’s “theological manifesto.” It’s where we got “The Romans Road.” (Interestingly enough, a “road” that the original hearers of Romans would not have grasped.)
But in missing the point right up front in the introduction to the letter, by veering off course just a little, I believe the destination we have arrived at all these years later is not the one the Romans arrived at when they first heard the letter. And that is something to be ashamed about.