NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Part XIX)
To help us understand the dilemma that Paul describing, theologian Dr. F. F. Bruce lays out all of the hypocrisy, on the part of this imagined Jew, in an excellent manner: “Paul addresses the moralizer explicitly as a Jew. ‘You bear the honored name of Jew,’ he says, ‘your possession of the law gives you confidence, you glory in the fact that it is the true God whom you worship and whose will you know. You approve the more excellent way,’ Paul continues, ‘for you have learned it from the law. You regard yourself as better taught than those lesser breeds without the law; you consider yourself a guide to the blind and an instructor of the foolish.” Bruce then has Paul tell the Jews: “But why not take an honest look at yourself? Have you no defects? You know the law, but do you keep it? You say, ‘You shall not steal;’ but do you never steal? You say, ‘You shall not commit adultery;’ but do you always keep that commandment? You detest idols, but do you never rob temples? You glory in the law, but in fact, your disobedience to the law brings you and the God whom you worship into disrepute among the pagans.”
Bruce then finishes: “To be a Jew will do one good in the sight of God only if he keeps the law of God. A Jew who breaks the law is no better than a Gentile. Conversely, a Gentile who keeps the law’s requirements is as good in the sight of God as any law-abiding Jew. Indeed, a Gentile who keeps the law of God will condemn a Jew who breaks it, no matter how well-versed that Jew may be in the sacred scriptures, no matter how canonically circumcised he is. You see, it is not a matter of natural descent and an external mark like circumcision. The word ‘Jew’ means ‘praise,’ and the true Jew is the man whose life is praiseworthy by God’s standards, whose heart is pure in God’s sight, whose circumcision is the inward circumcision of the heart. He is the true Jew, I say—the truly praiseworthy man—and his praise is not a matter of human applause, but of divine approval.”1
On verse 18, Chrysostom has this to say: “What seems to be an advantage—being given the law—may turn out to be a disadvantage if one does not keep the law. Paul states this with great accuracy. He does not say ‘you do’ but ‘you know,’ nor does he say ‘you follow’ but only ‘you approve.’”2 But Paul is not finished with the self-examination, he has many more queries to offer in an attempt to get these leaders to take a long, hard look in the mirror at themselves.
Verse 19: You think you are a guide for people who don’t know the right way, light for those who are in the dark.
The questions for self-examination continue. Apparently, Paul had been given information about the leadership in the congregation at Rome that bothered him. They may have had the talent and teaching, but they were going about it the wrong way. So this letter was meant to stop them in their tracks before things got out of hand. Confidence can easily become conceit if the motive is not proper. Paul certainly may have had in mind the words of the wise King Solomon who said: “Do you see someone who thinks himself wise? There is more hope for a fool than for him!”3 The key word in Solomon’s advice is, “thinks.” Years later, Isaiah encountered the same fallacy: “They think they are so smart. They think they are very intelligent.”4 What made the prophet come to this conclusion? He lays it out clearly: “They call bad good and good bad. They explain ignorance as enlightenment and enlightenment as ignorance. They try to make what is bitter to the taste sweet and what is sweet to the taste bitter.”5
Here Paul is pointing out the same mindset that Jesus also exposed: “…they are like blind men leading other blind men. And if a blind man leads another blind man, both of them will fall into a ditch.”6 That’s why he warned the Corinthians: “Don’t fool yourselves. Whoever thinks they are wise in this world should become a fool. That’s the only way they can be wise. I say this because the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God.”7 Later, Paul tells them that he had become a fool for God. He did so as a comparison between himself and their self-appointed status as wise men for God.8 Paul appears to be doing a similar thing here with regard to some of the leaders in the congregation in Rome.
But the same emphasis concerning the day of salvation, in Isaiah, and who will led those in prison to freedom;9 those in darkness to the light; those who are hungry and thirsty to satisfaction and springs of living water, is intimated here in what Paul is saying to the Roman community of Christian believers. He wanted the words Jesus spoke to him on the road to Damascus: “You will make them able to understand the truth. They will turn away from darkness to the light. They will turn away from the power of Satan, and they will turn to God,”10 to come to fruition in Rome.
The metaphor used by Paul here of a person being a lamp to shine the truth on those living in the darkness of ignorance, was often used by Jewish writers as a reference to leading Rabbis who excelled in explaining the deeper things of God in His Word that most people did not have access to, or could not understand. For instance, we read about Rabbi Abbahu who traveled from his Academy in Caesarea to the court of the Roman proconsul in Tiberius. It is said: “Handmaidens from the Imperial house went out towards him and sang before him thus, ‘Prince of his people, leader of his nation, a lamp of light11 blessed is your coming in peace!”12 In another Jewish document called Zohar, there is a reference to Rabbi Shim’on, who had recently died, as a “holy lamp.”13 And again in the Talmud, we read that when revered Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai became ill, his disciples went to visit him. As soon as he saw them coming he began to weep. His disciples asked him: “Lamp of Israel, pillar of the right hand,14 mighty hammer! Why are you weeping?”15 It is clear from this that those Jewish leaders in the church at Rome rightly understood Paul’s reference here to their being a lamp to the congregation.
Chrysostom adds his thoughts: “Paul does not say that the Jews are really guides to the blind, only that they think they are.… Remember what they said in the Gospels to the blind man who had received his sight: “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?‘16”17 And Pelagius explains: “The blind are those who have been deprived of the light of knowledge.”18 Also, John Bengel touts this as a doubtless allusion to Matthew 15:14. He writes: “The Pharisees, most of all Jewish sects, magnified this outward calling of the Jews.”19 And while Henry Alford accepts Bengel’s premise about the Pharisees and the reference to Matthew 15:14, he goes on to say that both what we read in Matthew and what Paul says here, “were allusive to a title ‘leaders of the blind’ given to themselves by the Pharisees, with which St. Paul as a Pharisee would be familiar. Similarly, the following titles may have been well-known and formal expressions of Jewish pride with reference to those who were without the covenant [the Gentiles].”20
Adam Clarke sees Paul’s self-examination process here not only one of posing questions, but also challenging their own assessment of their qualifications to lead. In Clarke’s mind, Paul is pointing out that these Jewish leaders really believe that as a consequence of all these religious advantages, they are convinced that they are able to teach others and to be guides and lights to the bewildered, darkened Gentiles, who may become proselytes to their religion.21 That would be like the child of a well-known Bible teacher assuming that just because they grew up in a theologian’s home and were used to seeing him study and write books, that they were automatically qualified as Bible experts.
Charles Hodge gives his impression of what Paul is driving at here: “The apostle, in these verses, states the effect which the peculiar advantages of the Jews produced upon them. They considered themselves to be greatly superior to all other nations; capable of instructing them; and of being the guides and light of the world. This idea is presented in different lights, in what follows (in the text) — a light of them which are in, darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes. They looked upon themselves as qualified to act as the instructors of others, because they had the form, etc. Having the form of knowledge and of truth in the law.”22 In other words, they had the form but not the real power needed to make the form work.23 That power could come only from Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
H. A. Ironside also has a good exposition on this subject: “In these masterly clauses he [Paul] sums up all their [the Jews] pretensions. And when I say pretensions, I do not mean pretenses. These were the things in which they gloried, and they were largely true. God had revealed Himself to this people as to no other, but they were wrong in supposing that this exempted them from judgment if they failed to keep His covenant. He had said long before, ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore will I punish you for all your iniquities.’24”25
So, does this open up the possibility for us to ask: If what Paul is saying here about the misconception of the Jews being leaders just because they were Jews, be applied to Christians today who style themselves as leaders of those in darkness just because they are Christians?
1 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, pp. 97–98
2 Chrysostom: On Romans 6
3 Proverbs 26:12 – Complete Jewish Bible
4 Isaiah 5:21
5 Ibid. 5:20
6 Matthew 15:14; cf. 23:16
7 1 Corinthians 3:18-19a
8 Ibid. 4:10
9 Isaiah 49:9-10
10 Acts of the Apostles 26:17-18a
11 Literally, “lamp of light”
12 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nahim, Masekhet Kethuboth, folio 17a
13 The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Translated by Daniel C. Matt, Stanford University Press, 2004, Vol. 1, p. 20, footnote 136
14 This is a reference to the two pillars in the Temple. See 1 Kings 7:21
15 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Beracoth, folio 28b
16 John 9:34
17 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 6
18 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
19 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 230
20 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 20
21 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
22 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
23 See 2 Timothy 3:5
24 Amos 3:3
25 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.