Paul never actually met Jesus while he was alive. But that doesn't stop him from becoming the foremost authority on his life and death. Go figure.
Paul's Jesus is pretty different than the Jesus of the gospels. For starters, the letter to the Romans was written nearly 20 years before the gospels were ever committed to parchment. Paul doesn't tell any stories about Jesus's life. He also doesn't seem very concerned with anything Jesus ever said or did either. What's up with that?
Well, it's mainly because the people he's writing to—the Roman Christians—would have already known all that stuff. They're followers of Jesus, so presumably they've heard all the stories about how all-around amazing Jesus was. Paul's mostly focused on discussing what the life of Jesus means for Christians. He's taking it to the next level (source, 17).
Really the only biographical detail from the gospels that Paul refers to is the idea that Jesus died and then rose again. But Paul moves past all the gory details to answer the question: What does it all mean?
For Paul, Jesus's death and resurrection are the defining parts of Christ's life. They make Jesus who he is and reveal his incredible love for the entire world. Sure, Jesus said a lot of nice things, but when push came to shove, he gave up his life out of devotion to God. That's so hardcore.
• "We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him." (6:9)
• "It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us." (8:34)
• "For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living." (14:9)
Okay, we get it. Jesus died and rose again on the third day. But why?
Even though the traditional answer to the question is, "Jesus died for our sins," this isn't something that Paul ever says. Though Paul says Christ died for us "while we still were sinners" (5:8), he doesn't say it was because we were sinners. A subtle difference. In fact, he says that Jesus's death proves God's love for us. Awwww.
But, Paul says, it's not enough to just know that Jesus died because he loved us. You've got to participate in his death, too. Say what?
Paul says over and over again that Christians have died to their old way of life and are reborn in Christ Jesus. Don't worry. It's metaphorical. (Mostly. Remember the martyrs?) Baptism is one symbol for this:
We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (6:4)
Christians are supposed to be transformed through the death and resurrection of Christ. They're supposed to be living completely new lives as risen people. They're like shiny new creations. Paul uses the phrase "in Christ" to sum this up a lot. It's actually one of his favorite sayings. Don't believe us?
• "You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus." (6:11)
• "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (8:1)
• "Greet Andronicus and Junia… [who] were in Christ before I was." (16:7)
So, what does all that mean? For Paul, living a life "in Christ" means being radically transformed. Everything you do is now oriented towards what God and Jesus want for you. It's a tall order.
What to do with all this information about Jesus? Paul has one answer: believe. Everyone—and he means everyone—needs to be putting their faith in Jesus:
• "[God] justifies the one who has faith in Jesus." (3:26)
• "It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead." (4:24)
• "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (10:9)
And yes, that means if you do not believe in Jesus, things are not going to work out so well for you. Paul is constantly struggling with this issue. Sure, God loves and desires the salvation of all, but he's not going to give it to you unless you get on board with his Son. Someone sure likes being withholding.
Is that fair? Is that right? In the end, Paul seems to think it is. Believe or perish. To him, it's a really easy choice, really.