NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Part XX)
Verse 20: You think you can show clueless people what is right. And you think you are a teacher for those who are just beginning to learn. You have the law, and so you think you know everything and have all truth.
Paul was not happy with the attitude of some leaders in the community of believers in Rome who wanted to be guiding lights to those who were less educated in the Law, but who themselves were just as uninformed when it came to how the Law related to the gospel of Christ. Paul remembered what it was like when he first went to Corinth. He wrote them later, “Brothers and sisters, when I was there, I could not talk to you the way I talk to people who are led by the Spirit. I had to talk to you like ordinary people of the world. You were like babies in Christ. And the teaching I gave you was like milk, not solid food. I did this because you were not ready for solid food.”1 Likewise, the ministers in the community at Rome were in the same situation, trying to lead and teach new converts to Christianity on the merits of the kingdom of God, but were themselves still struggling with loyalty to the Law as opposed to full loyalty to Christ and His teachings.
That’s why Paul was not confident that they really knew what was needed or how to do it. What he says to these leaders in Rome was very similar to what was said by the writer of Hebrews: “You have had enough time that by now you should be teachers. But you need someone to teach you again the first lessons of God’s teaching. You still need the teaching that is like milk. You are not ready for solid food. 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.”2 The apostle Peter experienced the same thing in writing to his constituents: “Like newborn babies hungry for milk, you should want the pure teaching that feeds your spirit. With it, you can grow up and be saved.”3
But Paul saw one big problem. Because these Messianic Jewish leaders were such experts on the Law of Moses, they thought that was enough for them to be able to explain the Gospel of Christ. Paul wanted to offer them the same model of teaching that he gave to young Timothy.4 The whole purpose of Paul’s teaching was to avoid what he warned Timothy would take place: “They will do foolish things without thinking and will be so proud of themselves. Instead of loving God, they will love pleasure. They will go on pretending to be devoted to God, but they will refuse to let that ‘devotion’ change the way they live.”5 Unfortunately, the same attitude can be found in some churches today. New believers feel that because God loved them the way they were, and saved them in spite of their sinful past, that they need not change their way of living. They were told that God is a loving, caring Father who will not be bothered by their shortcomings since his unconditional love will not allow them to be lost again.
With Paul being a converted Jew speaking to converted Jews, he knew that if he used the same language as the Rabbis, they would find it easier to understand the point he was trying to make. That’s why the idea of young believers being like babies was not new to them. In fact, in the Jewish Talmud, it is said that among those who are wise and shine like the stars in the sky “applies to the teachers of young children.”6 The emphasis on the youthfulness of Jewish students not only meant their biological age, but also their newness to the study of righteous living under the Law.
When it came to the obligation to teach children, the demand was so prominent and obligatory, that the great Jewish teacher Moses Maimonides wrote: “If a village has children who are not studying Torah, its populace is placed under a ban of ostracism until they employ teachers for the children. If they do not employ teachers, the village [deserves to be] destroyed, since the world exists only by virtue of the breath coming from the mouths of children who study Torah.”7 The emphasis was on those with knowledge to pass on that information. And the most efficient way of doing so was by example. How can a father expect his son to learn honesty when the son hears his father lie. Or, how can a daughter learn manners when she sees her mother disrespect others. This seemed to be the main issue among the leaders there in Rome.
Ambrosiaster had this point to make: “Here is the task of the law: to teach the ignorant, to make the wicked subject to God [His Laws], to provoke those who by the worship of idols are ungodly to trust in a better hope by the promise which is given through the Law. The teacher of the Law is right to glory in these things because he is teaching a form of the truth. But if the teacher does not accept the Expected One whom the Law has promised, he glories in vain in the Law [itself], to which he is doing harm as long as he rejects the Christ who is promised in the Law. In that case, he is no more learned than the fools, nor is he a teacher of children, nor is he a light to those who are in the darkness, but rather he is leading all of these into perdition [the place of punishment].”8
John Calvin sees things this way: “They professed to be the teachers of others because they seemed to carry in their hearts all the secrets of the Law. The word ‘form’ is used as a model (exemplar — pattern); I think, to point out the conspicuous elegance of their teaching, and what is commonly called display; and it certainly appears that they were destitute of that knowledge which they pretended. But Paul, by indirectly ridiculing the perverted use of the law, intimates, on the other hand, that right knowledge must be sought from the law, in order that the truth may have a solid basis.”9
John Bengel takes what Paul is saying here as evidence that the boasting Jew he was referring to had a lesson plan or an outline that he used to teach what he thought was right. Says Bengel: “‘What was right’ in this text signifies soundness in established doctrine, now called orthodoxy.”10 Henry Alford refers to it as a “model:” not the mere apparent likeness, but an authentic representation. Alford then adds: “The Law, as far as it went, was a reflection of the holiness and character of God.” However, says Alford, “Hardly is so much meant here that the Law contained a foreshadowing of Christ, – for the Apostle is speaking now more of moral truth and knowledge, by which a rule of judgment is set up, sufficient to condemn the Jew as well as the Gentile.”11
Adam Clarke sees a similar factor: “You believe the Gentiles to be babes and fools when compared with yourselves; that you alone possess the only true knowledge; that you are the only favorites of Heaven; and that all nations must look up to you as possessing the only form of knowledge, the grand scheme, and drawing of all true science, of everything that is worthy to be learned: the system of eternal truth, derived from the law. If therefore, you act not as becomes those who have such eminent advantages, it must be to your endless disgrace and infamy.”12
Verse 21: You teach others, so why don’t you teach yourself? You tell them not to steal, but would you steal if given the chance?
The apostle Paul shows no fear in pointing out apparent inconsistencies to the example of those leading the congregation in Rome. One well-known Spanish Jewish philosopher Shem tob ben Joseph ibn Falaquera, once wrote: “He that teaches men, that which he himself does not practice, is like a blind man who has a lamp in his hand to enlighten others, while he, himself, walks in darkness.”13 In fact, the Jews had their own story of a blind man wanting to lead those who could see. They said, there once was a blind man who lived in a small town. He always carried a lighted lamp in his hand when he went out at night. On one dark night, he was walking along with his lite lamp in his hand. A group of men passed by him, and when they saw the blind man they made fun of him. They said, “O blind man why do you carry the lighted lamp. You are blind and cannot see anything?” The blind man politely said, “This lamp is not for me, but for you people who have eyes. You may not see a blind man coming and run into him.” They felt ashamed and begged his pardon. Therefore, the moral of this story is this: Think twice before you speak.
Even Jesus found leaders of the Jewish community attempting to propagate this old ruse: “Don’t do as I do, do what I say do.” On one occasion He spoke to the people and His disciples about the teachers of the Law and said: “The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees have the authority to tell you what the Law of Moses says. So you should obey them. Do everything they tell you to do. But their lives are not good examples for you to follow. They tell you to do things, but they don’t do those things themselves. They make strict rules that are hard for people to obey. They try to force others to obey all their rules. But they themselves will not try to follow any of those rules.”14 Paul did not want this to be the case of the leaders of the Christian community in Rome.
Paul also ran into a similar problem with the Galatians. Some Judaizers had followed him there and were preaching that grace must be joined with works because keeping the laws of Moses made them better Christians. When Paul wrote the Galatians, he cautioned them: “Those men who are trying to force you to be circumcised are only doing it so that their people will accept them. They are afraid they will be persecuted if they follow only the cross of Christ. They are circumcised, but they don’t obey the law themselves. They want you to be circumcised so that they can boast about what they did to you.”15
By whatever means the apostle Paul was receiving news from Rome, it caused him to pose some serious questions. The gist of what he says is this: Do you tell them to do something you refuse to do or forbid them to do something you feel free to do? He selects the subject of theft as an example. No doubt Paul was using it as part of sarcasm. By that I mean, they were claiming to be helping some person, but in reality, they were taking advantage of them.
The prophet Amos has a description of such a deceptive practice where the merchants closed the doors to their shops because of the Sabbath and Holy Days to appear pious and law-abiding. But in reality, they were forcing the poor to use up all the grain they had so that when the doors opened again, they would rush to their stores to buy more. So they conspired: “We can raise the price and make the measure smaller. We can fix the scales and cheat the people. The poor cannot pay their loans so we will buy them as slaves. We will buy those helpless people for the price of a pair of sandals.”16 Jesus found a similar scheme being perpetrated in the Temple that made Him very angry.17
1 1 Corinthians 3:1-2
2 Hebrews 5:12-14a
3 1 Peter 2:2
4 2 Timothy 1:13
5 Ibid. 3:4-5; Cf. Titus 1:16
6 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Bava Bathra, folio 8b
7 Moses Maimonides: Mishneh Torah, Sefer Madda, Tractate Talmud Torah, Ch. 2:1
8 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
9 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit. loc. cit.
10 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 231
11 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 20
12 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Tov Ibn Falaquera: Sefer Ha-Ma’alot
14 Matthew 23:1-4
15 Galatians 6:12-13
16 Amos 8:5b-6a
17 Matthew 21:12-13