Romans 1:1 – “Set Apart by God”

Art by christina-mccowan“Set apart” might refer to Paul’s separation from Judaism, or his missionary activity (Acts 13:2.)  But it is more likely that the separation that Paul has in mind is his “consecration to a future task,” specifically the task of bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. Paul uses the word ἀφορίζω (aforizo) in both Gal 1:15 and this passage to describe his calling.  But the word is used in the Septuagint for setting apart a firstborn man or animal to God (Numbers 15:20) or  consecrating Levites to God’s service (Numbers 8:11).  In a few cases, the word is used to describe God  separating Israel from the nations to be his people (Lev. 20:26).

Paul chose this word to emphasize his belief that his life was something of a sacrifice to the Lord.  A sacrifice no longer lives its own life, but he is wholly given over to the purpose for which he was chosen.  But Paul takes this a bit further than a literal sacrifice – Paul set apart by God from birth (Gal 1:15)!   This is more like the prophet Jeremiah, who says that he was set apart for prophetic office before he was born (Jer  1:5).

Paul is separated for the purpose of the gospel of God.  Since most Christians have an idea of what the “gospel” is they overlook the rich background behind this word.   There is both an Jewish and Greco-Roman background to the “good news.”

Looking at the “good news” from the Jewish perspective, the word is associated with the coming time of eschatological judgment and salvation.  In the Hebrew Bible, the word בשׂר (bashar) is used in Isa 61:1, for example, to describe the activity of the anointed one, and is associated with both the coming of God’s salvation and his vengeance.  This word is translated as εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) in the LXX.  Jesus used the same phrase to describe both his teaching and healing ministry in Galilee (Matt 11:5 and Luke 7:22).

But the Roman world used the phrase “good news” as well.  They considered important events in the life of the Emperor as “good news” and celebrated them.  It is possible that this word was chosen intentionally to contrast the real good news of salvation with the false peace which comes from the Roman “good news.” This is a counter-cultural and dangerous idea, since it says that the “good news” about the emperor fades into insignificance in the light of the Gospel of God.

On one level, Paul is unique as one who was set apart by God to be the light to the Gentiles.  But on another level, Paul is a model for all Christians.  Later in the letter Paul says that all believers are to be a “living sacrifice” (12:1).  If Christians really lived out their “set apart”  calling, I think that the gospel could again be just as counter-cultural as it was in A.D. 55.

16 thoughts on “Romans 1:1 – “Set Apart by God”

  1. Paul’s active ministry definitely set him apart from the world. But as far as him believing that he was set apart at birth, is a very interesting concept to me. When we accept Christ as our personal Savior, then we are set apart. So I am not really sure what Paul means when he says that he was set apart before he was born, because we are all born sinners. Yes, Paul was set apart from the world and the Holy Spirit worked through him in amazing ways, but God can use anybody. God’s purpose for him was to share the Good News with the Gentiles. But it is the mission of Christ’s children, whoever they may be, to be set apart from the world and proclaim the Good News to nonbelievers. When we are sanctified through Christ, we then are set apart from the world by Jesus’ blood. But it is our job as believers to continue to live a lifestyle that is obviously apart from the world’s.

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    • Election. Read Romans 8,9, and 10. I’d say go directly to 9, but I think you’ll lose the bigger picture of the gospel if you hone in on a concept like total depravity and predestination without having a firm foundation in which to justify those other positions.

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  2. I believe Paul is a great example of what it means to be “set a part” for a superior purpose. Widely known for his impressive persecution of the Church, Paul did not let his past dictate his future. God, all knowing, foreknew the wonderful works that Paul would carry out after his conversion. I don’t believe anyone can argue with that. Nevertheless, Paul, sanctified and consecrated, comprehended that he had been called, or had been “set apart,” to fulfill the mission of presenting the Gospel to the Gentiles, henceforth Paul’s cognomen as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
    Another great example is evidently Jesus Christ himself. In the book of Luke we can see with our own eyes Jesus’ calling. Shortly after coming out of the desert, following a grueling forty-days being tempted by Satan, Jesus walked into the synagogue and took the scroll of Isaiah and pointed directly to the passage that revealed the purpose that he was to about to embark on.
    If we only ensconced more on the breathing examples that were in Paul and Jesus, as Christians we would only come to embrace that he does have control over our lives and we have been “set apart.” Although this might seem as a substantial undertaking, it is important to remember that the Lord will lead us through and all that he requires is that we see ourselves for who we really are—“set apart” for the sake of the Gospel.

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  3. I think the word ‘gospel’ or the phrase ‘good news’ has lost its true meaning nowadays. People don’t really seem to think much of it, or that it requires you to change anything – it is just a ticket to heaven. However, thankfully we have the wonderful example of Paul to show us what the gospel/salvation really is and requires of us. Polhill says, “Christ presented himself as a sacrifice for us. The proper and logical response to this divine act of grace is to sacrifice ourselves in sacred service to our Lord” (Polhill 297). God calls us to live for Him in everything we do, yet we seem to miss this and neglect it. If all, or even most Christians lived out the example of a servant in Romans 12, everything would be radically different. That being said, I do think that we were set apart before birth to do what God has called us to do. He has just placed circumstances and people in our lives to help guide and direct us.

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  4. Paul’s ministry set him apart with his ministry the way our Christianity is called to be set apart in modern culture. A common enemy from the time period of Rome and now is something always sets itself up against the Gospel and tries to make it seem as important as God’s word. As its painted as a literal sacrifice the american church wouldnt understand what sacrifice really is unless the country flipped upside down and outlawed church over night. Often in modern times we give our 10 percent and maybe more, but when is the last time we made the choice between feeding a homeless man or McDonald? when is the last time we gave more than what we thought we could afford to do and not be able to buy the latest gadget or toy that came out? When is the last time we tried to spend time with a person who has nothing he could ever give back to us? or even tried to help a person get the skills he needs to survive in this world? In Romans we are called to be set apart but i look out my window and i dont see anyone set apart for the gospel, sadly not even me. Somedays i wonder if there is a Paul in this generation?

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  5. I believe that set apart just means that Paul was set apart for his missionary activity. His ministry and missionary journeys are valid proof and the success of those should be of enough significance to help understand that that’s what he meant when he said that he was set apart. I don’t see or understand why he would mean anything different other than the fact that he was set apart to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. He definitely sacrifices all that he had to do what God wanted him to do. he was beaten to near death countless times, house arrested, and tortured just because of what he was doing for God. Paul’s mission was to spread the gospel to those that have not heard and to those that were set apart from the promise of God. God then set Paul apart to introduce them to that promise and that gift. I think that Paul just used the phrase, “set apart,” just as we would say, “God called me to be a preacher, or a missionary.” I think that it is the same meaning but different phrase or different terminology.

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  6. I really like how Katie brings up the point of how Paul saying that he was set apart when he was born is a very interesting concept to me as well. When I look at Paul’s life before his conversion, I would say that there wasn’t anything different about him that would set him apart from anyone else. He was persecuting those for this belief in Christ, and when he was converted, he was on his way to Damascus to persecute more people. “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts9:1). I don’t see how a man that is persecuting the Lord’s disciples can be set apart, in a good way. We are nit set apart until we a r e saved, and I feel that this is the same for Paul. I do not see any difference from Pail before his conversion that would set him apart.

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  7. The idea that Paul was ‘set apart’ for his calling of bringing the gospel to the Gentiles is an interesting idea. He was definitely set apart in the sense that he was called to serve God in a way that no one else was called to. Paul defines this call by saying that he was set apart from birth; this is more of a prophetic calling. Today, God calls us to do work for Him that glorifies Him. It is not necessarily a prophetic call, like Paul, being called from birth. Rather, it is call that we need to live “set apart” from non-Christians and how culture tells us to live. We have been set apart to serve God and find out what his call on our lives is. Paul is a great example of a person who we can look to, to show us what it looks like to live “set apart” for Christ.

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  8. Paul was definitely set apart from people back then for his missions. Paul was unique for back then. Paul didn’t follow the trends back then like we do now. If we see someone famous wear this type of clothing, or have this, everybody will want that type of cloths or objects. This reminds me of the lesson I did yesterday with my youth group. I had a bowl of frosted flakes, and had the youth pick out their favorite piece of frosted flakes, and explain why they liked it. I then told them to put it back in the bowl, and I put one fruit loop in and mixed up the cereal and spilled it on the table and asked them to find their favorite piece again. Of course they couldn’t find their exact one that they had, but they could easily spot the fruit loop. I think that is where Paul was coming from. Paul wants us to be set apart from this world, and not become a frosted flake of this world, but to be a fruit loop.

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  9. The whole idea of being “set apart” is, I think the basis of what it really means to be a Christian. For the modern Christian it is not merely and identification your set apart position, it is also a process of actually setting yourself apart to be that sacrifice. The true purpose of Paul’s “set-apart-ness”, as well as our own, is for the “good news” from God. Its important to note the reason for anyone or thing to be setapart, because it give significance. For me, knowing that I am set apart for some Godly purpose gives me hope, and confidence in the fact that no matter how much I face God will pull me through until I am able to fulfill the purpose for which I am set apart.

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  10. It seems that Paul keeps trying to turn the Christians in Corinth from looking to their pagan society as ways that are okay to behave or do in the church. Paul wants the believers to realize that they are set apart and therefore should not be acting or doing church in the same way one might act in the Roman culture. It seems that the Corinthians were struggling with the same things we still struggle with in the modern church: how much do we include culture in the church? The Corinthian believers were still involved in many of the same practices instead of taking their new faith into account and how that should affect the way one lives. In this way, the church was failing to realize the need to distinguish themselves from their culture. We struggle with this very thing today. Church today has been made so accessible with several different services, casual dress codes, etc. For example, I go to church on Saturday nights and therefore I can work on Sunday mornings. It’s an interesting experience for me when all the “church folk” come into Applebee’s and I am working. Sometimes I get these looks and I realize that people do not know that I’m a Christian. They just see the server girl who is working on a Sunday instead of being at church. I realize that outward marks are difficult to distinguish Christians by. (Outward in the sense of dress, church attendance on Sunday mornings. etc) Then I think, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).” This is the most distinguishable way for people to see Christ in you. If we love as Christ loved us, it seems only logical that our actions will be those that distinguish Christians from the rest of the world.

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  11. Sorry everyone— that was a comment from a different post!! wrong copy and paste from my Word doc..

    Like Katie said, Paul believing he had been set apart from birth can be an interesting concept. I agree that when we are saved is when we are “set apart” by God. However, it seems that Paul believed he was set apart since birth, it seems that he is stating that God already had a plan for Paul’s life and had intended him to be the one who would eventually take the gospel to the Gentiles. Before Paul’s conversion there were already elements of Paul’s upbringing such as his Pharisee training and Roman citizenship which were all parts of equipping Paul for his future as an evangelist. I also really liked learning that the “good news” has both a Jewish and Gentile meaning. It’s always interesting to see if the phrase “good news” was coined purposefully with the intention of having both Jewish and Gentile connections.

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  12. Paul knew his past and knew how God would use that and how God planned to use that from the very beginning. Paul was put into the right home, under the right people, and learned from the right areas and then upon his conversion, was in a sense, training for what God wanted him to do. He was faithful to the law, faithful to his beliefs and firm in them. He was a good debater and good at convincing others of what it right and wrong. He was persuasive and bold. Everything that he did prior to his conversion played an immaculate role in how God used him and what God used him for. There is not much that happened or that he did before his conversion that he did not use after becoming a follower of Christ. God then waited for the right time, waited for his zeal to be at a max, and then stepped in. He not only set apart Paul to do His work, but God set him apart to go to the least of the least. Paul knew what it was like to be high up in class and to have many people below him, but then God humbled him so that he could reach the lowest of low.

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  13. I totally agree that if Christians really lived out their calling the gospel could be just as counter-cultural as it was in Paul’s day. If we were all willing to serve God as “living sacrifices” who considered everything in life to be worthless compared to knowing Christ – as Paul did (Phil 3:8) – then Christianity would change the world in a dramatic way. The problem is, like the Israelites and the Corinthian church, it is difficult to serve God without conforming to the ways of the world around us. Still, we have to remember that, like Paul, we are all set apart for service to God. Ephesians 2:10 says: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Serving God is what we have been designed for, it would be a shame to life your life for any other purpose.

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  14. Once again the lines of following the world around us and following our higher calling to be set apart can seemingly be blurred. I agree that if we focused on our being set apart, then we would be able to have a truly radical, counter cultural, life changing movement in Christianity. It is interesting, there are studies out that show we have not done a great job explaining the Gospel. Many students when posed with the question of what Christianity and the Gospel is don’t come up with a solid answer or miss some important elements. (see the book “Sticky Faith” by Dr. Kara Powell). If we are missing out on the good news, then its hard to get to the point of living a set apart life where we follow God’s calling and follow him in everything every day. Everything hinges around the Gospel message and if we aren’t getting that and having a deep love and passion for it, then its difficult to really live out our Christianity in a truly life changing way that impacts the world around us.

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  15. I agree that Paul is a model to all Christians. When I think about his life and how boldly he proclaimed Jesus as the son of God, I often admire his commitment and dedication to being “set apart”, and as pointed out in the blog post, if Christians now were to live with the same fearlessness for spreading the gospel, it would be very counter-cultural as said in the post (Long). What we believe goes completely against societal norms. I guess my question to myself is, what is stopping me from breaking the norm and being bold as Paul was- truly living out what it means to be set apart. Mkosten19 brings up a valid point that Paul did not go with the flow of society like we do today. I think we live in a very timid society; in the sense that we don’t want negative attention drawn to ourselves, we are taught as young kids to be nice and not offend anyone, and that blending in isn’t all that bad. Paul did the opposite of blend in and he had a tremendous impact on spreading the gospel (obviously). As a personal lesson, I think I definitely need to be more bold in my speech about Christianity and not be so afraid to stand out from the rest of society.

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