NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson XXXIV)
Verse 28: We know that everything works out for the good of those who love Him. These are the ones God chose for His purpose.
Now Paul places the emphasis on how praying to God with the help of the Holy Spirit will result in His answers working everything out for our good according to His will. This is certainly something Joseph experienced and told his brothers: “You meant to do me harm, but God meant it for good – so that it would come about as it is today, with many people’s lives being saved.” And in the case of the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness, God did not answer their prayers as they thought He should, but to teach them a valuable lesson that they would use later in the Promised Land for His glory.
And later, the Psalmist expressed it this way: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we are unafraid even if the earth were to give way, even if the mountains were to tumble into the depths of the sea, even if its waters were to rage and foam, and mountains were to shake at its turbulence.” And to the prophet Zechariah God explained it this way: “I will bring the third that came through the fire and make them pure, as gold and silver are refined and purified by fire. They will call upon my name and I will hear them; I will say, ‘These are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’” In other words, don’t focus on the circumstances, focus on the One who controls the circumstances.
No wonder that Paul told the Corinthians: “These sufferings of ours are for your benefit. And the more of you who are won to Christ, the more there are to thank Him for His great kindness, and the more the Lord is glorified. That is why we never give up.” And he wrote to the Philippians: “I know that as you pray for me, and as the Holy Spirit helps me, this is all going to turn out for my good… While I am going through all these trials here, just as I have in the past; and that I will always be an honor to Christ, whether I live or whether I must die. For to me, living means opportunities for Christ, and dying – well that’s better yet!” Then to the Thessalonians he penned: “This is only one example of the fair and just way God does things, for He is using your sufferings to make you ready for His Kingdom.”
The writer of Hebrews uses Proverbs 3:11-12 to explain to his readers: “When He punishes you, it proves that He loves you. When He spanks you, it proves you are really His child. Let God train you, for He is doing what any loving father does for his children. Whoever heard of a son who was never disciplined?” And the Apostle Peter echoed this same thought: “These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it – and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold.”
God allowing us to suffer through temporary afflictions for our good was very much a part of Jewish teachings. In the Babylonian Talmud, we find the pathetic story of a man named Nahum of Gamzi. There is a town mentioned in the OT by the name of Gimzo, but Jewish scholars believe this is not the name of a place but a combination of the words “also” and “this.” Anyhow, he was blind in both eyes and both his hands and legs had been amputated, and he was covered with bed sores because he was lying in an old dilapidated house, in a bed where its feet were in standing bowls of water to keep ants from crawling up onto the bed. His disciples became so concerned about his health that they offered to sanitize the house. But he warned them that his presence in the house was the only thing keeping it from collapsing.
So they asked Nahum, since he was such a pious believer, how all this happened to him. He explained, that on a journey to his father-in-law’s house with donkeys loaded down with food, drink, and treats, a poor man met him and asked for something to eat. He asked the man to wait while he unloaded something from one of the donkeys. But it took him so long to unpack that the poor man died from hunger on the spot. This troubled Nahum so much that he laid down on the poor man’s body and put this curse on himself: “May my eyes which had no pity upon your eyes become blind, may my hands which had no pity upon your hands be cut off, may my legs which had no pity upon your legs be amputated, and my mind was not satisfied until I added, may my whole body be covered with boils.”
Once his disciples understood his plight, they thanked him for telling them his story. He responded that he was pleased that they were able to see him this way. So the question was asked by those listening to the Rabbi tell this story and asked him, “Why was he called Nahum of Gamzi?” The Rabbi said: Because whatever befell him he would declare, “This is for the best.” So wherever he went and no matter what bad things happened to him, he would always say it as God’s way of working things out for his good.
We find this same theme in another Tractate in the Talmud where Rabbi’s are discussing all the things we should thank God for. He mentioned such things as the way the body was formed, for healing, for sleep, for dreams, for clothing, hand washing, etc. Then we read that Rabbi Huna quoted to his students a proverb from Rabbi Akiba that says: A person should make it a habit of always saying, “Whatever the All-Merciful does is for my good.’’ Then Rabbi Huna shared Rabbi Akiba’s story of when he was traveling along a road and came to a certain town where he looked for a place to stay overnight. But everywhere he went they refused to let him in. Nevertheless, each time he would say, “Whatever the All-Merciful does is for my good.” So he decided to spend the night out in an open field. He had brought along a rooster, a donkey, and an oil lamp. But after he got settled, a sudden gust of wind came up and blew out the lamp. Then in the dark a weasel came and stole his rooster, then lions came and carried off the donkey. Yet, when he found out in the morning what happened he said: “Whatever the All-Merciful does is for my good.” That same night some bandits raided that city and carried off the inhabitants of the town where he wanted to stay. The next morning as he was passing by the town, he saw one survivor and said to him: Didn’t I tell you, “Whatever the All-Merciful does is all for our good?” In the footnotes, we find this explanation of why Rabbi Akiba was so thankful that things worked out for his good, because the lamp had not gone out, or the rooster or the donkey been stolen by other animals, they might have disclosed his location to the bandits and he too would have been taken hostage.
But such discipline and training were not offered to everyone just because they prayed, not even to some of those who claim to be His children. Paul adds two qualifiers: First, they must love God. This principle was already prevalent under the first covenant. God made this very clear to the Israelites: “I lavish my love upon thousands of those who love me and obey my commandments.” Since love is an act of the will, just saying we love God is not enough. When done willingly and wholeheartedly, obedience is one form of showing true love. This was explained later by Moses: “O Israel, listen: There is one ADONAI and He is our only God. You must love Him with all your heart, soul, and might. And you must think constantly about these commandments I am giving you today.”
The prophet Nehemiah expressed this same concept: “I cried out, ‘O LORD God, O great and awesome God who keeps His promises and is so loving and kind to those who love and obey Him! Hear my prayer!’” Even the Promised Land was only pledged to those who loved His name. So the Apostle Paul was repeating for the Jews in Rome the words they had read and studied from the time they were young. But that was not new, Jesus Himself quoted them: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God is the one and only God. And you must love Him with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.”
So we should not be surprised that Paul wrote the Corinthians: “That is what is meant by the Scriptures which say that no mere man has ever seen, heard, or even imagined what wonderful things God has ready for those who love the Lord. But we know about these things because God sent His Spirit to tell us, and His Spirit searches out and shows us all of God’s deepest secrets. No one can really know what anyone else is thinking or what they are really like except that person themselves. And no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit.”
The Apostle James had this to add: “Happy is the person who doesn’t give in and do wrong when they are tempted, for afterward, they will get as their reward the crown of life that God has promised those who love Him.” He goes on to say: “Listen to me, dear brothers: God has chosen poor people to be rich in faith, and the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs, for that is the gift God has promised to all those who love Him.” And the Apostle John shared this with his readers: “God showed how much He loved us by sending His only Son into this wicked world to bring to us eternal life through His death. In this act we see what real love is: it is not our love for God but His love for us when He sent His Son to satisfy God’s anger against our sins… So you see, our love for Him comes as a result of His loving us first.”
Since Paul was writing to a large contingent of Jewish members of the church in Rome, we can see that by him also being a Jew he would know about these sayings and stories just as they would. So why not choose something they were familiar with the make an essential point about the importance of loving God before certain blessings could be expected. Nevertheless, it was a lesson to the Gentiles and to all believers who would read this letter in the centuries to come.