NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ONE (Part IX)
Verse 8: First I want to say that I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you. I thank Him because people everywhere in the world are talking about your great faith.
Paul now reverses the flow of his greeting. First, he sends the Roman believers the grace and peace that comes from God the Father through Jesus the Messiah, and now sends his thanks back to God the Father through Jesus the Christ. Not only his thanks but also his praise. This was the hallmark of Paul’s gratitude in both directions for the success of God’s kingdom here on earth. He once wrote the Ephesians: “With God’s power working in us, He can do much, much more than anything we can ask or think of. To Him belongs the glory by the body of believers through Christ Jesus for all time, forever and ever. Amen.”1 He reiterates this to them again with these words: “Always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”2 Not only that, but in Paul’s prayer for the Philippians he prayed: “That your life will be full of the many good works that are produced by Jesus Christ to bring glory and praise to God.”3 And in the writer of Hebrews’ instructions to the Messianic Jews, he includes: “Through Jesus Christ, we should never stop offering our sacrifice to God. That sacrifice is our praise, coming from lips that speak His name.”4 In other words, Jesus was the center of everything we say and do to the glory of God the Father.
One early church Presbyter and theologian named Novatian (210-280 AD), who was very strict on doctrines related to holiness, wrote a letter to the leaders of churches after his views caused members to take sides. He wrote: “We have not just recently adopted this particular course of action, nor have these measures against the ungodly suddenly crossed our mind. For with us, the holiness is ancient, the faith is ancient. The apostle would not have praised us so highly by stating: ‘Your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world,’ if this holiness of ours had not already been rooted in the faith of those times.”5 Such letters have been sorely needed throughout the churches since the beginning. However, many theologians were afraid to write them due to backlash from those in authority. Martin Luther staked his life on this, as did Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the rise of Nazism. It was also not uncommon in early American churches. But here of late, such courage has been sorely lacking.
The thing that made Paul so happy about the Roman believers was their faith, and how the news of that faith had spread throughout the Christian community worldwide. Paul was equally as proud of the believers in Thessalonica: “The Lord’s teaching has spread from you throughout Greece and beyond. In fact, your faith in God has become known everywhere, so we never have to tell anyone about it.”6 This was a fulfillment of what Jesus said to His followers on the Mount of Olives: “The Good News I have shared about God’s kingdom will be told throughout the world. It will be spread to every nation.”7 This should give all of us a reason to rejoice every time we hear of the gospel reaching places where it has never been heard before.
Another early church bishop was inspired to also write a letter when he became aware of people being baptized into the church who had not sufficiently repented and turned away from their sins. He wrote: “This counsel was not recently planned by us, nor have these unexpected protections against the wicked lately surprised us. But this is known among us as the ancient holiness, the ancient faith, the ancient discipline, since the apostle [Paul] would not have revealed so great praise of us when he said: ‘because your faith is proclaimed all over the world,’8 if already this vigor had not been received through the roots of faith from those times; it is a very great crime to be declared unworthy of these praises and of glory.”9
Another bishop from the diocese of Constantinople had this to say about Paul’s letter to the church in Rome: “Paul does his utmost to win the Romans over, in case they may be thinking that he has something against them, or that following the tradition of Peter he might be coming to order them about, and if indeed they are vexed for this sort of reason, they might refuse to read his letter and miss out on the blessing it would bring. Therefore, starting with thanksgiving and faith, he praised them for keeping it pure and firm, as they all did together, and then with the word proclaimed spoke more personally in praise of the city, and by adding ‘in all the world’ he praised them greatly and exalted them before going on to talk about meeting them in person.”10
Martin Luther speaks to the reason why Paul thanked God through Christ for the reputation of the believers at Rome because of their faith. Luther says: “Jesus Christ is our only Mediator, and the true Christian way of praising is not simply to praise men, but to praise, primarily and above all, God in them and to ascribe to Him all glory. Again, we can praise God only through Christ; for as we receive all blessings through Him from God, so we must also through Him acknowledge them all as God’s since Christ alone is worthy to appear before the throne of God and as our Priest to intercede for us.”11 It must have been disconcerting for Luther to read the compliments of Paul and early church writers on the lifestyle and Christian attitude of the first congregants in Rome, only to see how it had deteriorated in his day to the point of high positions in the church being bought and sold, and heathen practices being adopted by the church under the guise of winning them to Christ.
John Calvin comments on Paul’s admiration of the faith of the Roman believers: “The first thing worthy of remark is, that he so commends their faith, that he implies that it had been received from God. We are here taught that faith is God’s gift; for thanksgiving is an acknowledgment of a benefit. He who gives thanks to God for faith, confesses that it comes from Him. And since we find that the Apostle ever begins his congratulations with thanksgiving, let us know that we are hereby reminded, that all our blessings are God’s free gifts. It is also needful to become accustomed to such forms of speaking, that we may be led more fully to motivate ourselves in the duty of acknowledging God as the giver of all our blessings and to stir up others to join us in the same acknowledgment. If it is right to do this in little things, how much more with regard to faith; Which is neither a small nor an indiscriminate gift of God. We have here besides an example, that thanks ought to be given through Christ, according to the Apostle’s command in Hebrews; inasmuch as in His name we seek and obtain mercy from the Father.12 — I observe in the last place, that he calls Him his God. This is the faithful’s special privilege, and on them alone God bestows this honor.”13
Adam Clarke gives us a view of the thinking in Methodism in the early 19th-century: “He will manifest His indignation, and inflict wrath – punishment, on all who are contentious – who obstinately dispute against the truth, and obey unrighteousness – who act under the influence of the principle of sin, and not under the influence of the Spirit of God.”14 However, I think it is safe to say that Clarke was thinking more of this being addressed to those in his day rather than to Christians in Paul’s day. That’s why, if he were alive today he would be paralyzed by what he would see in the modern church.
Harry A Ironside looks at the providence of God involved in Paul’s relationship with the church in Rome. He writes: “There seems to have been a providential reason why he was hindered from going there earlier. He calls God to witness (that God whom he served not merely outwardly but in his spirit, the inward man, in the gospel of His Son) that he had never ceased to pray for those Roman believers since he first heard of them; and coupled with his petitions for them was his earnest request that if it was the will of God he might have the opportunity to visit them, and a prosperous journey. How differently that prayer was answered from what he might have expected, we well know; and it gives us a little idea of the overruling wisdom of God in answering all our prayers. No man is competent to say what is prosperous and what is not. God’s ways are not ours.”15 From this we can conclude that Ironside did not see Paul writing the believers in Rome as an outsider with little interest in getting to know them, only wanting to dictate to them as an Apostle. Rather, we can clearly see that Paul had a personal and spiritual connection with the church there in Rome. So he writes this letter with deep feelings of appreciation and gratitude.
Charles Hodge gives his view on Paul’s thanking God through Christ: “This form of expression supposes the mediation of Christ, by whom alone we have access to the Father, and for whose sake alone either our prayers or praises are accepted. ‘Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’16 And ‘Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.’17 ‘Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise.’18 All this is in accordance with the command of Christ, ‘Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive.’19 Such then being the clear doctrine of the Bible, that in all our approaches to God in prayer or praise, we must come in the name of Christ, that is, in Him, referring to Him as the ground of our acceptance, there is no need of the various forced interpretations of the words in the text, which have been given by those who are unwilling to admit the idea of such mediation on the part of Christ.”20
Douglas Moo also comments on this giving thanks to God through Christ: “Paul draws special attention to his thanksgiving, a feature typical of Paul’s letters. He offers his thanks to ‘my God,’ a note of personal piety that may reflect the language of the Psalms. Only in Romans, however, does Paul offer his thanks ‘through Jesus Christ.’ Although this might mean that Christ, as High Priest, is the mediator of his thanks before God, it is better taken as an indication that Christ is the one who has created the access to God for such thanks to be offered.”21
Charles Spurgeon bemoaned a situation in his day in the mid-1800’s that we must admit is similar to what we face today. He said: “Oh, I would it were so with us, that we had faith that could be spoken of throughout the whole world! I am afraid that some have none to speak of; these saints in Rome had such faith that the noise thereof went abroad everywhere, and all people wondered at them.”22 If light bulbs could speak, what would you think of one who always complained when it got dark because then it had to shine. Wouldn’t you say to it: You were made for this reason? So it is with some believers when Christianity is ridiculed, they complain because they then have to show their true colors. But we were called out of darkness into His marvelous light for that purpose.
Albert Barnes rightly points out: “The term “throughout the world” is limited in the scriptures, and here it denotes those parts of the Roman Empire where the Christian church was established. All the churches would hear of the work of God in the capital and would rejoice in it.23 It is not improper to commend Christians and to remind them of their influence, and especially to call to their mind the great power which they may have on other churches and people. Nor is it improper that great displays of divine mercy should be celebrated everywhere, and excite in the churches praise to God.”24 One of the worse things that can happen to a believer is when they remain silent when they hear God’s Name being blasphemed and see His commands being violated and then later it is revealed they are one of God’s children, to which someone exclaims: I didn’t know you were a Christian!
1 Ephesians 3:20-21
2 Ibid. 5:20
3 Philippians 1:11
4 Hebrews 13:15
5 Novatian: Letter One 2.2
6 1 Thessalonians 1:8
7 Matthew 24:14
8 See Romans 1:8
9 Cyprian: Letter 30.2
10 Gennadius of Constantinople: Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church, loc, cit.
11 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 37-38 (Cf. Ephesians 5:20; Hebrews 13:15)
12 Hebrews 13:15
13 John Calvin: Commentary on Romans, loc. cit.
14 Adam Clarke: Commentary on Romans, loc. cit.
15 H. A. Ironside: On Romans, loc. cit.
16 See Romans 7:25; Ephesians 5:20
17 Colossians 3:17
18 Hebrews 13:15
19 John 16:24
20 Charles Hodge: op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. citl, loc., cit., p. 57
22 Charles Spurgeon: op. cit., loc. cit.
23 Colossians 1:6, 23; John 12:19.
24 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.