NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
Verse 1: That’s why those of you who judge other people have no excuse, O man. You too are guilty of sin. You judge them, but you do the same things they do. So when you judge them, you are really condemning yourself.
How often do some people condemn gossip, while gossiping themselves? Furthermore, most people gossip to tear other people down. What they are really want to do is make themselves look better by comparison. Not only that but so often they judge and denounce in others what condemns their own behavior. Yet, because they are unable to correct and control their own shortcomings, they condemn themselves by chastising others. But the harsher their words, and the more vehemently they criticize them, it should be known that when they judge others through ridicule, they denounce themselves. To put it bluntly, if people don’t know the truth, how can they judge what’s true; so if they don’t actually know what’s wrong, how can they judge the error involved? It is so encouraging when some who’ve sinned and received forgiveness from the Lord, become compassionate and understanding when they see that same sin in others. But on the other hand, there are those who after being forgiven of the same sin, become extremely vocal and vicious in their condemnation.1 Paul makes it clear, that what people do in response to others and their shortcomings says more about them than it does the one they are labeling as wrong or unacceptable.
We see this played out so clearly in the encounter between the prophet Nathan and King David after David had Bathsheba’s husband killed so he could marry her. Nathan told a story about a rich man with many sheep who stole the one sheep of a poor man just to entertain some visitors. After hearing the story, David became outraged over that rich man’s wickedness. So he said to Nathan: “’As the Lord lives, the man who did this should die! He must pay four times the price of the lamb because he did this terrible thing and because he had no mercy.’ Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are that man!’”2 Also, one of Asaph’s sons writes a hymn on this subject. In the song, we hear the LORD saying: “What right do you have to quote my laws or discuss my covenant with others when you hate to receive instruction from me [so much] that you fling my words behind you?”3
Perhaps Paul heard others tell him about what Jesus taught: “Don’t judge others, and God will not judge you. If you judge others, you will be judged the same way you judge them. God will treat you the same way you treat others.”4 If so, it may have inspired the apostle to write these instructions to the believers in Rome. Also, when Jesus was confronted by the elders demanding His verdict on a woman they caught in the act of adultery, Jesus said to them: “Anyone here who has never sinned should throw the first stone at her. When they heard this, they began to leave one by one. The older men left first, and then the others.”5
We can also see that Paul and the apostle James were in harmony with this idea of believers staying away from self-incrimination when choosing to judge others. James writes: “Brothers and sisters, don’t say anything against each other. If you criticize your brother or sister in Christ or judge them, you are criticizing and judging the law they follow. And when you are interpreting the law, you are not a follower of the law. You have become a judge. God is the one who gave us the law, and He is the Judge. He is the only one who can save and destroy. So it is not right for you to judge anyone.”6
Early church scholars had various views on what Paul was trying to say in this the portion of the letter. For instance, Ambrosiaster sees Paul eliminating all excuses for bad behavior when writing: “Paul shows that the man who does evil and consents to others who do it is deserving of punishment, for fear that perhaps the one who does it and pretends not to approve of others who do it … might think he can be excused because he can conceal his sin for a time.… It is not right to give in to someone who pretends to be better when in fact he is worse. Such a person appears to escape notice and to be worthy of honor when in fact he should be punished.”7
Then Chrysostom points to the fact that those for whom Paul meant this message were condemning themselves by their own behavior. He writes: “Paul says this with the rulers of the city in mind because at that time they ruled the entire world. He was telling them … that when they pass sentence on someone, they are passing sentence on themselves as well.”8 While most Bible scholars accept that some of these Messianic Jews were leaders in Rome, they were most influential in the community of believers, not among the political class.
Then, in the writings of an early church scholar using the pen name, Constantius, we find where they say: “Here it is shown that each person knows that he will be judged by God in what he judges and condemns another man for doing.”9 And the great Augustine of Hippo points this out: “Paul is speaking here of sins already committed. And when he says ‘O man, whoever you are,’ he includes not only the Gentile but also the Jew who wanted to judge the Gentiles according to the law.”10 Then Pelagius adds: “This concerns those who are in a position to pass judgment. Judges and princes are being put on trial. By a natural process, everyone pronounces a sentence which fits the crime and knows that righteousness deserves reward while wickedness should be punished.”11
Reformer Martin Luther sees this teaching by Paul as a way of pointing out people he calls unconscionable misers who usually accuse and condemn adulterers while they forget their own sins. The result of such an attitude, says Luther, it is impossible for such wicked judges to be guiltless.12 As we know, Jesus touched on this when he accused people with beams of wood in their eye trying to remove a small splinter from another person’s eye.13
Some of the other early Reformation writers have a different take. John Calvin gives his view: “This reproof is directed against hypocrites, who dazzle the eyes of men by displays of outward sanctity, and even think themselves to be accepted before God, as though they had given Him full satisfaction…Now the inference is too simple and plain for anyone to wonder how the Apostle derived his argument; for he makes them inexcusable, because they themselves knew the judgment of God, and yet transgressed the law; as though he said, ‘Though you consented not to the vices of others, and seem to be avowedly even an enemy and an admonisher of vices; yet as you are not free from them, if you really examine yourself, you can not bring forward any defense.”14
Calvin then goes on to make an interesting point found in the wording of the text. He says: “Besides the striking resemblance there is between the two Greek verbs, to judge and to condemn, the enhancing of their sin ought to be noticed; for his mode of speaking is the same, as though he said, ‘You are doubly deserving of condemnation; for you are guilty of the same vices which you blame and reprove in others.’ It is, indeed, a well-known saying, — that they who scrutinize the life of others lay claim themselves to innocence, temperance, and all virtues; and that those who allow in themselves the same things which they undertake to correct in others are not worthy of any leniency.”15
The great German scholar Johann Bengel suggests that to fully understand what Paul is saying here we must accept that he now addresses the Jewish component of the congregation in Rome. He points this out by making a note of the phrase Paul uses here which the KJV renders, “O man.” This corresponds with a common term that the Jews later put into use that we know today by the Yiddish16 word: “mensch.” It literally means “human being,” but philosophically it refers to, “a person of integrity and honor.” This fits the narrative because Paul calls out those Jews who consider themselves superior to the Greeks and Barbarians. Says Bengel: “Self-love – the worse it supposes [of] others, [the more it] thinks the better of [it]self (Galatians 5:4).”17
Methodist scholar Adam Clarke makes an interesting observation on such hypocrisy by these church leaders in Rome. Says Clarke: “You assumes the character of a judge, and in that character condemn others who are less guilty than yourself.”18 To put it another way, they were judging others before looking into the mirror to judge themselves. This is good advice for any believer, in that it suggests we should carry around a spiritual and ethical mirror so that just before we criticize another person for their thoughts, actions, or behavior, we look at ourselves first.
Albert Barnes makes these points: “Remarkable zeal against sin may be no proof of innocence; compare Matthew 7:3. The zeal of persecutors, and often of pretended reformers, may be far from proof that they are free from the very offenses which they are condemning in others. It may all be the work of the hypocrite to conceal some unethical design; or of the man who seeks to show his hostility to one kind of sin, in order to be a balm to his conscience for committing some other. The heart is deceitful. When we judge others, we should make it a rule to examine ourselves on that very point. Such an examination might greatly mitigate the severity of our judgment, or might turn the whole of our indignation against ourselves.”19
Henry Alford notes, it was known that Jews were very judgmental of others to a great extent, that they were the ones who pronounced all Gentiles to be born in sin and under condemnation. But at the same time, there were doubtless some among the Gentiles some who were also arrogant critics. Yet, they were not the ones to whom this rebuke applied, such were not on the Apostle’s mind. He was singling out those who may have resented that after all these centuries of God’s special relationship with the Jewish people, now Gentiles were being allowed into the family of Abraham without having to go through the required rite of circumcision and adherence to Jewish laws and customs.20
1 See Matthew 18:21-35
2 2 Samuel 2:12
3 Psalm 50:16-17
4 Matthew 7:1-2
5 John 8:7-9
6 James 4:11-12
7 Ambrosiaster: Commentary on Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
8 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 5
9 Pseudo-Constantius: The Holy Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, loc. cit.
10 Augustine on Romans 7-8
11 Pelagius on Romans, loc. cit.
12 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 52
13 Matthew 7:3
14 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.
16 A language used by Jews in central and eastern Europe before the Holocaust. It was originally a German dialect with words from Hebrew and several modern languages and is today spoken mainly in the US, Israel, and Russia.
17 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 221
18 Adam Clarke: On Romans, loc. cit.
19 Albert Barnes: On Romans, loc. cit.
20 Henry Alford: The New Testament for English Readers, Deighton, Bell, and Company, Cambridge, 1865, Vol. II, p. 15