The writers of holy scripture all wrote with their audience in mind. Therefore, they used metaphors, idioms, similes, and language that related to their audience. Understanding this rule is key to understanding context.
Perhaps it’s so obvious it can easily be missed! When you enter the world of Jesus, you enter the world of monotheistic Judaism in a Near Eastern, village/town, agrarian setting. When you enter Paul’s world, you enter the polytheistic world of Gentile, city, judicial laws, Roman government, and mercantile life. These two worlds are totally different. Much of the contextual images of the Gospels; e.g. shepherds, vineyard management of sheep and goats, fishing are foreign to the city language and culture of Paul’s Epistles and Letters.
Paul’s writings are infused with Roman World images and cultural mores. Miss them or misunderstand them and you can easily miss the thrust of his message. Fail to appreciate Paul’s Roman city context and you can unknowingly end up with a one-dimensional understanding of his writings. Missing that context allows us to easily project our very different 21st-Century way of thinking onto his first-century text.
We need to remember that when we enter Paul’s world, we enter the world of urban Christianity - the impact of the Gospel on the cities. That’s his focus. There will never be a Christian nation if its cities are not Christ-like. Paul knew that. And that reality is as true today as it was in the First Century.
As stated above the religious world of the Romans was filled with many gods (polytheism). There were the three major gods - Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Being inclusive in its religious thinking, when Rome's Legions conquered yet another land, new gods, e.g. Diana and Isis, were added to the list. As a result, the number of major gods you had to appease eventually grew to fifteen. Add to that an extensive array of minor gods, household gods and cultic gods, and you had a plate full of gods all needing appeasement with constant religious practices that were void of faith in any of them.
In the Roman worldview, the gods did not have your best interest in view. In the amphitheater you would encounter plays where the gods toyed with the people on earth, often causing them misfortune. That’s why a Roman had to continually placate the gods so as to keep them from meddling in your life. Significantly, none of the Roman gods were capable of expressing love!
If you dilute something long enough, it loses its meaning and distinctiveness. The Roman portfolio of uncaring gods grew to the point that it became impossible to remember them all. Thus an ever-expanding polytheism sows the seeds of its own demise while at the very same time fostering an underlying receptivity to monotheism and the Gospel of Grace.
With that backdrop, Paul’s message to city dwellers really was “Good News”- there is only one true God AND He is for you! Furthermore, He cares about you, loves you and His every thought of you is rooted in your well-being, wholeness, maturity and growth! Paul uses metaphors common to the Gentile/Roman city dwellers like court rooms, judges, and justice. He has to address unity and the importance of human relationships of love, kindness, submission, servanthood, hospitality, caring for one another because these city dwellers were very diverse.
It was an appealing message for those who saw through the arbitrary, capricious and empty nature of an ever-expanding portfolio of indifferent Roman gods that could never be satisfied.