NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Lesson XXII)
Reformer John Calvin has an interesting comment on what Paul implies here related to idolatry. He says: “He (Paul) fitly compares irreverence to idolatry, as it is a thing of the same kind; for irreverence is simply disrespect of the Divine Majesty, a sin well-known to heathen poets. On this account Ovid1 calls Lycurgus sacrilegious [irreverent] for despising the rites of Bacchus;2 and in his ‘Fasti’3 he calls those sacrilegious hands which violated the majesty of Venus.4 But as the Gentiles ascribed the majesty of their gods to idols, they only thought it a sacrilege when anyone plundered what was dedicated to their temples, in which, as they believed, the whole of religion [was] centered. So at this day, where superstition reigns, and not the Word of God, they acknowledge no other kind of sacrilege than the stealing of what belongs to churches, as there is no God, except in idols, [and] no religion except in pomp and magnificence.”5
H. A. Ironside has an interesting exposition on this subject of plundering pagan temples. He writes: “Perhaps the keenest thrust is in the last question of all. ‘You who abhors idols, do you commit sacrilege?’ The word translated ‘commit sacrilege’ really means ‘to traffic in idols.’ This was an offense of which the Jew was peculiarly guilty. Abhorring images, he nevertheless was often known to act as a go-between in disposing of idols stolen from the temples of a conquered people and those ready to purchase them in other districts. He was even charged with systematically robbing temples and then selling the images. The town-clerk of Ephesus had this in mind when he said, ‘You have brought these men here who have neither robbed temples (not, churches), nor blasphemed your goddess” (Acts 19: 37). So this was indeed heart piercing, exposing at once the hypocritical character of the man who professed detestation of idolatry and all its works, and yet was not above profiting financially at the expense of idolaters in a manner so thoroughly dishonest.”6
Charles Hodge adds this to the subject of idolatry: “The insulting character of these several clauses requires that the thing here charged should be of the same name with idolatry, not its opposite. The Jew taught that men should not steal, yet he stole himself; he said, Commit not adultery, yet he was guilty of that crime; he abhorred idols, yet was guilty of idolatry. It is something analogous to idolatry that is here charged, not the despoiling of pagan temples, which would be the natural expression of the abhorrence of idols. The essence of idolatry was blasphemy of God; of this, the Jews were in a high degree guilty.”7
F. F. Bruce comments on the same topic with a different view: “What Paul has in mind is difficult to say: perhaps he refers to some scandalous incident like that of AD 19 recorded by Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 18; Ch. 3:4), when four Jews of Rome, led by one who professed to teach the Jewish faith to interested Gentiles, persuaded a noble Roman lady, a convert to Judaism, to make a generous contribution to the temple at Jerusalem, but appropriated it for their own uses. When the matter came to light, the Emperor Tiberius expelled all resident Jews from Rome. An incident like this brought the honored name of ‘Jew’ into disrepute among the Gentiles. There, however, it was the temple of the God of Israel that was robbed; here the conjunction with idolatry suggests the robbing of pagan temples. Either way, temple robbery (hierosylia) was reckoned a most heinous crime; in Acts 19:37 Paul and his associates are declared to be guiltless of it in relation to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.”8
All of this from both the Apostle Paul, early church scholars, and Reformation scholars should make us pause and look at our own lifestyles and forms of worship to see how much is directed solely toward God in order to obey Him, worship Him, praise Him, reverence Him, honor Him, adore Him, and magnify Him, and how much is designed to entertain the congregation and satisfy the performers as being successful in their quest to please God while making themselves look like dedicated servants. In a way, the robbing of pagan temples and transforming stolen idols into objects of Christian worship may be analogous today when worldly forms of entertainment from theaters, taverns, and television are brought into the House of God and used as modes and methods of worshiping God. This is what Paul would call: spiritual adultery, which helps us to better understand by committing adultery and robbing pagan temples are combined into one charge in this verse.
Verses 23-24: You are so proud that you have God’s law, but you bring shame to God by breaking His law. As the Scriptures say, “People in other nations insult God because of you.”9
Likewise today, the popularity and acceptance of Christianity by the world rises and falls with our conduct. Someday we will be judged according to our actions and the damage done to the cause of Christ through our carelessness. We must remember, not only are we as Christians open for ridicule and mocking when we profess less than we possess but because of our foolishness our heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus are often given a black-eye as well. Paul did not want this to happen in the worlds’ capital that time.
Again the apostle Paul seems to be drawing inspiration from the words found in Jeremiah: “You keep saying, ‘We have the Lord’s teachings. So we are wise!’ But this is not true because the scribes have lied with their pens.”10 Jesus pointed out such hypocrisy when the Pharisee prayed on one corner of the Temple court and a tax collector prayed on another. The Pharisee prayed: “O God, I thank you that I am not as bad as other people. I am not like men who steal, cheat, or commit adultery. I thank you that I am better than this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of everything I get!”11 But the tax collector prayed: “O God, have mercy on me. I am a sinner!”12 Jesus is quick to point out that the tax collector went home because his heart was right with God while the Pharisee had no such peace in his heart. The tax collector had exposed the things hidden in his heart through prayer while the Pharisee tried to cover the things in his heart with prayer.
Now Paul points at what could be the serious downside of all this pretension and bickering inside the community of believers in degrading the name of the very God they claimed to serve. Apparently, this was a problem in several places. Even the Apostle James had to address it in his letter: “You are proud and boast about yourself. All such boasting is wrong. If you fail to do what you know is right, you are sinning.”13 And Paul did not want what happened to Jerusalem become something that they would lament much as the prophet Jeremiah did: “Those who pass by on the road clap their hands and laugh at you. They make fun of Jerusalem, shaking their heads at the sight of her. They ask, ‘Is this the city that people called “The Most Beautiful City” and “The Joy of all the Earth”?‘”14
It reminds me of the famous 2,736 seat Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Orange County, California. Built in 1981 by Dr. Robert H. Schuller of the Reformed Church in America it was shown on TV during weekly broadcasts and admired by everyone as a beautiful work of art built to the glory of God. But in 2010 it declared bankruptcy citing $43 million in debt, including a $36 million mortgage, and $7.5 million in miscellaneous debts. In November of 2011 the property and buildings were purchased by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County, and in June of 2012 the diocese announced that it would be known as “Christ Cathedral.” The former congregation held its last service there on June 30, 2013.
How did all this happen? In 2008 the founder Dr. Schuller removed his son Robert A. Schuller from his role in the ministry there. Said Dr. Schuller: “It is no secret to any of you that my son, Robert, and I have been struggling as we each have different ideas as to the direction and the vision for this ministry. For this lack of shared vision and the jeopardy in which this is placing this entire ministry, it has become necessary for Robert and me to part ways.” While some today may look at the unique building and still admire its use as a house of worship, others will look at it with heavy hearts and continue to think of what could have been, had only a father and son been able to practice what they preached.
Paul knew that he was writing to a group who could relate to what God said through the prophet Ezekiel: “I scattered them among the nations and spread them through all the lands. I gave them the punishment they deserved for the bad things they did. But even in those other nations, they ruined my good name.”15 But now they were on the verge of ruining the name of Christ, the Son of God who they had accepted as the Messiah. Then Paul paraphrases the sentiment expressed by God in Isaiah: “Their oppressors are howling, says Adonai, and my name is always being insulted, daily.”16 This is the same thing God lamented to Ezekiel: “I am concerned about my holy name, which the house of Isra’el is profaning among the nations where they have gone.”17
The concept of dishonoring God was a vital subject among early church scholars. For instance, Basil, the Bishop of Caesarea, had this to say: “If we prefer a life of pleasure to the life of obedience to the commandments, how can we expect a life of blessedness, fellowship with the saints and the delights of the angelic company in the presence of Christ? Truly these are the imaginations of a foolish mind.”18 And in the writings of Ambrosiaster, we find this: “The breaker of the law is the one who overlooks the meaning of the law, which speaks of the incarnation and divinity of Christ and dishonors God by not accepting the testimony which He gave concerning His Son. For the Father said: ‘This is my beloved Son.‘19”20 Then Chrysostom offers this: “Here Paul makes two, or rather three, accusations. First, that they dishonor. Second, that they dishonor that by which they were honored. Third, that they dishonor the One who honored them, which was the depth of ingratitude.‘21”22
1 Ovid was a highly influential Roman poet (43 BC – 17 AD)
2 The Metamorphose by Ovid, Sir Samuel Garth Editor, Bk. 4
3 In ancient Rome, the fasti (Latin plural) were chronological or calendar-based lists, or other historical records or plans of official and religiously sanctioned events.
4 Ovid’s Fasti: Translated by Sir James George Frazer, Harvard University Press, 1959, p. 195
5 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Harry A Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 99
9 See Isaiah 52:5; Ezekiel 36:20-23
10 Jeremiah 8:8
11 Luke 18:11-12
12 Ibid. 18:13
13 James 4:16-17
14 Lamentations 2:15
15 Ezekiel 36:19-20
16 Isaiah 52:5 – Complete Jewish Bible
17 Ezekiel 36:21 – Complete Jewish Bible
18 St. Basil and His Rules: by E. F. Morison, Oxford University Press, 1912, Appendix, A, p. 142
19 Matthew 3:17
20 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
21 See Isaiah 52:5
22 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 6