NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson VIII)
Verse 7: Rarely will anyone will die to save the life of a righteous person. However, someone might risk their life for a good person.
As evidence that God’s offer of salvation through the death of His Son Jesus the Christ, Paul now sets up his argument that dying for sinners is the ultimate sacrifice. The logic is quite simple. The Amplified Bible renders this verse as follows: “Now it is an extraordinary thing for one to give his life even for an upright man, though perhaps for a noble and lovable and generous benefactor someone might even dare to die.” This echoes the statement of Jesus where He said: “No one has greater love than a person who lays down his life for his friends.”1
The distinction between what Paul called a “good person” and a “very good person” was also part of Jewish literature. In the Talmud, we find this subject discussed: “Is there then a righteous man who is good and a righteous man who is not good? But he who is good to Heaven2 and good to man, he is a righteous man who is good. However, good to Heaven but not good to man, that is a righteous man who is not good.”3
In another Jewish document, we find the following: “There are four types of people: One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” is bartering. One who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” – this is an average character. One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” is a chassid (pious person). And one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” is greedy.”4 And in one commentary on the Psalms, we read: “The godly is he who does good to his neighbor beyond what the Law requires of him.”5
Sometimes Jewish teachers tried to find the smallest detail to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly. We read such teachings were even applied to the proper cutting of fingernails and toenails. “Three things were said in reference to toenails: One who buries them is righteous; one who burns them is pious, and one who throws them away is a villain!”6 But Paul had no interest in making such a frivolous distinction when there were much higher virtues and ethics to explore. Besides, he was making the case for God’s and Jesus’ willingness to love even the unlovable.
When speaking about dying for the ungodly, early church scholar, Ambrosiaster has this to say: “Christ died for the ungodly. Now if someone will hardly die for a righteous man, how can it be that someone should die for ungodly people? And if someone might dare to die for one good man, how can it be that someone would dare to die for a multitude of the ungodly? For if someone dares to die for a righteous or good man, it is probably because he has been touched with some sort of pity or been impressed by his good works. But in the case of the ungodly, not only is there no reason to die for them, but there is plenty to move us to tears when we look at them!”7
John Calvin makes this note: “The importance of the verse is this: ‘Most rare, indeed, is such an example to be found among men, that one dies for a just man, though this may sometimes happen: but let this be granted, yet for an ungodly man none will be found willing to die: this is what Christ has done.’ Thus, it is an illustration, derived from a comparison; for such an example of kindness, as Christ has exhibited towards us, does not exist among men.”8
John Bengel gives quite a long exposition of this verse. His attention mostly involves the grammar and how the original Greek is to be understood. He begins with saying that the words righteous and good used here can mean the same or different things in describing a person’s character. He quotes a German theologian who states: “The righteous does all that is required, the good does more than others can ask.” Bengel also notes that the Hebrews call a man righteous who performs his lawful duties, while a good man also performs acts of kindness. He goes on to say: “Every good man is righteous, but not every righteous man is good.” So here in this verse, Bengel says that Paul judges the good man to be more worthy than the righteous man. Bengel concludes with this: “Do you wish to have the most faithful friends? Be a good man.”9
Adam Clarke shares his thoughts on those the Jews call the fourth class of human beings who say: “What is mine, is mine; and what is yours, will be mine.” Clarke then says: “There is nothing amiable in his life or conduct that would so endear him to any man, as to induce him to risk his life to save such a person. Supposedly, for a good man, some would even dare to die – this is for one who gives all he has for the good of others. This is the truly benevolent man, whose life is devoted to the public good: for such a person, possibly, some who have had their lives perhaps preserved by his bounty, would even dare to die: but such cases may be considered only possible: they exist, it is true, in romance; and we find a few rare instances of friends exposing themselves to death for their friends.”10 This makes it even more amazing to know that Christ died for all classes because even the best could not save themselves, let alone those who were living in degradation.
Robert Haldane gives us his understanding of the difference between a righteous person and a good person. To Haldane, this distinction by Paul brings into view a fact that heightens and illustrates the love of God for sinners. In Haldane’s mind, a righteous person is distinguished from a good person because of their character. He says: A righteous person is approved — a good person is loved. In such cases, someone may give up their life for what we call “an upstanding person,” while there may be more who would be willing to die for a “loving, caring person.” Also, by saying “rarely, ” the Apostle leaves open the door that someone might give their life to save a good, law-abiding individual. On the other hand, Paul says it is more likely that a greater number of individuals might take the risk of saving a good person. Says Haldane: “This intimates that to die is a thing to which men are of all things most adverse. It is the greatest test of love.11 ‘Hereby we perceive the love of God, because He laid His life down for us.12”13
Albert Barnes also talks about a righteous man versus a good man: “A righteous man; a man distinguished simply for integrity of conduct; one who has no remarkable claims for amiableness of character, for benevolence, or for personal friendship. Much as we may admire such a man, and applaud him, yet he has not the characteristics which would appeal to our hearts to induce us to lay down our lives for him. Accordingly, it is not known that any instance has occurred where for such a man one would be willing to die… A good man, that is, not merely a man who is coldly just; but a man whose characteristic is that of kindness, amiableness, tenderness. It is evident that the case of such a man would be much more likely to appeal to our feelings, than that of one who is merely a man of integrity. Such a man is susceptible of tender friendship; and probably the Apostle intended to refer to such a case – a case where we would be willing to expose life for a kind, tender, faithful friend.”14
Barnes also makes reference to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras and a famous story he told about two Sicilians named Damon and Pythias. We find this story in the work of Roman philosopher Porphyry. The story goes like this: “It is said that [Italian dictator] Dionysius15 at one time wanted to test the mutual fidelity [of Damon and Pythias] under imprisonment. He contrived this plan. Phintias was arrested, and taken before the tyrant, and charged with plotting against him, convicted, and condemned to death. Phintias, accepting the situation, asked to be given the rest of the day to arrange his own affairs, and those of Damon, his friend and associate, who now would have to assume the management. He therefore asked for a temporary release, leaving [his friend] Damon behind as bond for his appearance. Tyrant Dionysius granted the request, so they sent for Damon, who agreed to remain until Phintias could return.”16 In Barnes’ mind: “This case stands almost alone. Our Savior says that it is the highest expression of love among people. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”17 The friendship of David and Jonathan seems also to have been of this character, that one would have been willing to lay down his life for the other.’”18
Here is a definition of righteous people and good people that really struck me: “The contrast here, then, is between the legally just and the humanly good, between the irreproachable and the noble, between righteousness or negative goodness and positive goodness. To the first we may pay respect – to the second we are irresistibly drawn, and we cannot help it. The first we may admire, the second we love. Righteousness is a hard face, without a warm soul to soften and light it up. The righteous, like a starry sky on a December night, clear but chill; the good like June weather. There is in righteousness, perhaps, the seed-bed and promise of goodness, but we want more; we want to see the fruit in positive good-doing and warm, human well-being. One of the great things that Jesus did was deepened the concept of goodness and illustrated it in its highest and warmest form. It is one of the main things that His Church must learn to do.”19
1 John 15:13
2 Jewish writers often used “Heaven” as a substitute word for “God” out of fear they might use God’s name in vain.
3 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nashim, Masekhet Kiddushin, folio 40a
4 Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), Ch. 5:10
5 Rabbi David Kimchi: First Psalms Book Commentary, 4:4
6 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Mo’ed Katan, folio 18a; Seder Tohoroth, Masekhet Niddah, folio 17a
7 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
8 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.
9 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 256-258
10 Adam Clarke: On Romans, loc. cit.
11 John 15:13
12 1 John 3:16
13 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 192-193
14 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Dionysius I of Syracuse (now Sicily), was known as the tyrant of Syracuse
16 The Life of Pythagoras: Trans. By Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, 1920
17 John 15:13
18 Barnes: ibid.
19 Expositor’s Dictionary of Texts: by William Robertson Nicoli, loc. cit.