NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Part XVIII)
Paul had confidence that the Messianic Jews in Rome knew enough about ethics and virtues to live a good and descent life. But he wanted them to undergo what he prayed for the Philippians to experience: “That your love will grow more and more; that you will have knowledge and understanding with your love; that you will see the difference between what is important and what is not and choose what is important.”1 It was the same thing Paul wrote to the Thessalonians but using different words: “Test everything. Keep what is good, and stay away from everything that is evil.”2 Yet, for the Roman saints he wanted something positive because he had faith in their growing spiritually. Much like what the author of Hebrews wrote: “Anyone who lives on milk is still a baby and is not able to understand much about living right. But solid food is for people who have grown up. From their experience, they have learned to see the difference between good and evil.”3
What Paul did not want, was for them to be arrogant and egotistical in their approach to leadership. The Psalmist said: “The Lord’s teachings are perfect. They give strength to His people. The Lord’s rules can be trusted. They help even the foolish become wise. The Lord’s laws are right. They make people happy. The Lord’s commands are good. They show people the right way to live.”4 That is good instruction for both Jew and Christian. But the Psalmist added a qualifier: “Learning respect for the LORD is good. It will last forever.”5 Any teacher who has little respect for the one who taught them will have even less respect for those they teach. Solomon put it this way: “The Law is a lamp. The Torah is light. Both are proof that discipline is the way to a good living.”6 Paul added his own emphasis to this in his instructions to young Timothy: “All Scripture is given by God. And all Scripture is useful for teaching and for showing people what is wrong in their lives. It is useful for correcting faults and teaching the right way to live. Using the Scriptures, those who serve God will be prepared and will have everything they need to do every good work.”7
At this point in his letter, Paul’s begins a series of questions on self-examination. Look at yourself, he was saying to the Messianic leaders of the congregation in Rome. What do you see? His thesis reminds me of what happens when a policeman is arrested for speeding or committing a robbery. We can hear his commander say: Look at yourself! You wear the uniform of an office of the law; you are under oath to enforce and defend the laws of the land; you have been trained to spot criminals and take action when you see a crime being committed. So, how does it feel to be guilty of the very crimes you are sworn to prevent? As early church scholar Pelagius puts it: “At this point, Paul turns to the Jews and says that a Jew should be a Jew in deed and not in name only.”8 Should we not ask Christians the same question?
Origen puts it in a different perspective: “The first thing to notice here is that Paul does not say that the person he is rhetorically addressing is a Jew; only that he calls himself one, which is not at all the same thing. For Paul goes on to teach that the true Jew is the one who is circumcised in secret, i.e., in the heart, who keeps the law in spirit and not according to the letter, whose praise is not from men but from God.9 But the man who is circumcised visibly in the flesh, observing the law in order to be seen by men, is not a real Jew [either]; such a man only appears to be one.”10 How true this is of Christians. They may go to church each Sunday, read their Bible each morning, say grace over their meals, and pray before they go to bed, but in their hearts, they have no room for Christ as Lord, and in their conscience, there is no evidence of the Holy Spirit being their guide.
Reformist John Calvin has some interesting points to make on this self-examination proposed by Paul. He writes: “He means not that they rested [were satisfied] in attending to the law, as though they applied their minds to the keeping of it; but, on the contrary, he reproves them for not observing the end for which the law had been given; for they had no interest for its observance, and were conceited on this account only, — because they were persuaded that the prophecies of God belonged to them. In the same way they gloried in God, not as the LORD commands by His Prophet, — to humble ourselves, and to seek our glory in Him alone,11 — but being without any knowledge of God’s goodness, they made Him, of whom they were inwardly destitute, exclusively their own, and assumed to be His people, for the purpose of vain ostentation [display] before men. This, then, was not the glorying of the heart, but the boasting of the tongue.”12 What Calvin is saying here is often illustrated by people today who, while wearing a cross around their neck, use language and perform acts that are typically attributed to sinners of the worst kind.
Calvin goes on to say: “He [Paul] now concedes to them the knowledge of the divine will and the approval of things useful; and this they had attained from the doctrine of the law. But there is a twofold approval, — one of choice when we embrace the good we approve; the other of judgment, by which indeed we distinguish good from evil, but by no means strive or desire to follow it. Thus the Jews were so learned in the law that they could pass judgment on the conduct of others but were not careful to regulate their life according to that judgment. But as Paul reproves their hypocrisy, we may, on the other hand, conclude, that excellent things are then only rightly approved (provided our judgment proceeds from sincerity) when God is attended to; for His will, as it is revealed in the law, is here appointed as the guide and teacher of what is to be justly approved.”13 How true this is of believers today who know all that the Bible has to say about what not to do in order to judge other people’s conduct, but have very little if any understanding of what the Bible says to do in order for God to judge them as being worthy of His favor and faithfulness.
Bible scholar John Bengel points out some factors that give the rest of this chapter additional context to consider. He says: “The highest point of Jewish boasting (a further description of it being inserted in verses 17-20, and its refutation added, verses 21-24, is itself refuted in verse 25.”14 Moreover, Bengel says the description of Jewish boasting consists of ten clauses: of these the first five in verses 17-18 (in our translated text), are: trust, claim, know, approve, and learned. These are meant to show what the Jew claims for himself. Then in verse 19, they think they are a guide and a light. And in verse 20, they think they show and teach and know. Bengel then sees all of this refuted in verse 25 by the fact that although they claim all these things, they end up no better off than the heathen because they are unable to follow all that the Law commands.
Great Christian thinker Henry Alford suggests that the original Greek word translated as “trust” in verse 17, which means to “rest upon anything” and is used as a metaphor (See Thayer’s Lexicon), signifies “false trust.”15 This brings all ten of the things Bengel says the Jews were trusting in into question. In other words, if you begin with a false premise, your conclusion will be false as well. This is especially true of atheists. If they start with the assumption there is no God, then all of their suppositions will be in error. So when Paul goes on to say that based on what they hold to be true in verse 19 where they claim to be guides to the blind and light in the darkness, they can be seen as fooling themselves. This was certainly Jesus’ conclusion about the Pharisees.16
Methodist scholar Adam Clarke gives his insights here: “What the apostle had said in the preceding verses being sufficient to enforce conviction on the conscience of the Jew, he now throws off the cover, and openly argues with him in the most plain and nervous manner; asserting that his superior knowledge, privileges, and profession, served only to worsen his condemnation. And that, in fact, he who, under all his greater advantages, transgressed the law of God, stood condemned by the honest Gentile, who, to the best of his knowledge obeyed it.”17 In other words, Paul is pulling off the mask that the people were wearing. They were pretending to be an honest, law-abiding, trustworthy person, while simultaneously using their disguise to mislead, confuse, and take advantage of others who were more sincere.
Charles Hodges points out the fallacies he feels Paul is addressing: “To boast, or glory in any person or thing, is to rejoice in Him or it as a source of honor, happiness, or profit to ourselves. We are forbidden thus to glory in ourselves, or any creature, as the ground of our confidence and source of our blessedness. ‘Let no man glory in men; but he that glories, let him glory in the Lord.’18 This glorying in God may be right or wrong, according to the reasons of it. If it proceeds from a sense of our own emptiness, and from right apprehensions of the excellence of God, and from faith in His promises, then it is that glorying which is so often commanded. But if it arises from false notions of our relation to Him, as His peculiar favorites, then it is vain and wicked. The Jews regarded themselves in such a sense the people of God, as to be secure of His favor, let their personal character be what it might. They boasted that He was their God, that they monopolized His favor, all other nations being His enemies.”19
One French theologian makes a critical comment on why priests and ministers wear robes while officiating in church services: “It is natural that the man who officiates in the worship of the Church be clothed in a manner corresponding to the task assigned to him and expressing visibly what he does. Moreover, whoever leads in the act of worship does not perform as a private party but as a minister of the church; he is the representative of the community and the spokesman of the Lord. Hence, an especially prescribed robe, a sort of ecclesiastical “uniform,” is useful for reminding both the faithful and himself that in this act he is not Mr. So-and-so, but a minister of the church in the midst of a multitude of others.”20
1 Philippians 1:9-10
2 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22
3 Hebrews 5:13
4 Psalm 19:7-8
5 Ibid. 19:9
6 Proverbs 6:23
7 2 Timothy 3:16-17
8 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Matthew 23:5
10 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
11 Jeremiah 9:24
12 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.
14 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 230
15 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 20
16 Matthew 15:14
17 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 1 Corinthians 1:31; cf. 2 Corinthians 10:17
19 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 Richard Paquier, Dynamics of Worship: Foundations and Uses of Liturgy [Fortress Press, 1967], p. 138