NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XXVI)
Jewish writer David Stern talks about understanding the law. For him, the Greek phrase nomos, (law), can have at least these three meanings: (1) Law in the sense of “legislation, statute;” (2) Law in the sense of “rule, norm;” and (3) “Mosaic Law – Torah.1 So in these verses, Paul engages in wordplay using all three of these meanings. To Paul, sin is personified as having organized its own Mount Sinai experience, and there it was given its own version of a Torah which some people find themselves giving halfhearted devotion to with their old nature. It is a corrupt version of the law in that they interpret it to mean what they want it to mean in order to cover their shortcomings and excuse their sins.2
Another Jewish scholar also believes that when Paul speaks of law in verse 21 that is different than God’s Law (Torah) in verse 22. That’s because the first law Paul mentions refers to a “different law,” as he says in verse 23. This other law is the “law of sin,” which Paul also calls “the power of sin,” equivalent to the Hebrew Yetzer Hara (evil inclination), or even a “perverse Torah.” Paul teaches that believers should agree with and delight in God’s Torah, as it reveals God’s good will and His mercy.3 The “inner-man,” therefore, is the spirit that goes against the Yetzer Hara by crucifying it on the cross through Yeshua. In this way, a believer banishes the “outer-man,” from being in control of his bodily passions.4 He “agrees with the Torah,” proving by his observance of its commands that it is “holy, righteous, and good.”5 As contrasted to the “law in my members.” It’s a person’s will that makes the choice between serving their Creator or their Yetzer Hara. Once Yetzer Hara becomes master, the person’s mind and will are taken captive by their fleshly desires.6
Verse 24: What a miserable person I am! Who can liberate me from this dead body?
In desperation, Paul cries out with the same despair as those who’ve found themselves yearning to be free. It’s another way of saying: I can’t save myself from defeat; peace between these warring factors in my heart, mind, soul, and body is impossible. Can’t anybody help? It is important that Paul acknowledges that he needs help. That is the first step in rehabilitation. David came to this realization: “There was a time when I wouldn’t admit what a sinner I was. But my dishonesty made me miserable and filled my days with frustration.”7 And this was the heart of Solomon’s prayer: “When the people realize their sin and pray toward this Temple, hear them from heaven and forgive and answer all who have made an honest confession; for you know each heart.”8
This is a rhetorical question because Paul already knows the answer. But he’s asking so he can point out that only when the cry for help is made can anyone with the power to help respond. But the answer may not come immediately. David found this out during one of his most trying times. He tells the time when all hope seemed lost. He says: “Don’t forsake me now when my strength is failing. My enemies are whispering, ‘God has forsaken him! Now we can get him. There is no one to help him now!’ O God, don’t stay away! Come quickly! Help!”9 It is worth noting that these same thoughts were expressed when David’s royal Son was hanging on the cross at Calvary.10
Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, makes an interesting comparison between the soul and the body. If we take it the way Paul uses it, his soul – the “living body,” is carrying around a “dead body” – his flesh. Without the soul, the body would be dead anyway. But since the body has no interest in cooperating with the soul, in order to obey God’s law, it’s as good as dead.11 But Paul was interpreting this from a spiritual point of view, with the soul representing his spiritual nature, and the body as symbolic of his sinful nature.
There is another ancient story that fits even better. We are told about Mezentius, king of a Mediterranean culture group known as the Tyrrhenians. He was especially noted for his cruel acts and godless heart. One terrible act was to put his subjects to death by tying a living person, wrist to wrist, foot to foot, and face to face, to a dead one. They had to walk around this way until they also died. We find this in the writings of the Roman poet, Virgil:
“Till cursed Mezentius, in a fatal hour,
Assumed the crown, with arbitrary power.
What words can paint those wretched times,
The subjects’ sufferings, and the tyrant’s crimes!
That blood of the murdered, O ye gods, replace
On his own head, and on his godless race!
The living and the dead at his command
Were coupled, face to face, and hand to hand,
Till, choked with stench, in spurned embraces tied,
The living victims weakened and died.”12
In this sense, Paul saw his sinful nature that had been put to death in Christ was still attached to him, and he had to drag it around face to face day after day. So he wanted to be delivered because the stench of its sin was driving him insane. Oh if only believers today could imagine the works of their sinful nature in that same light, they would want to rid themselves of such shame instantly.
In Chrysostom’s eyes, the law failed, and mankind’s conscience proved to be unequal to the task, even though it praised what was good and even fought against what was bad. So where will salvation come from?13 Another early church preacher believes that after Paul looked hard at the struggle taking place between his body against his soul and how a person can be imprisoned by this, he sought a way to escape so that the body of death may be transformed into a living body.14 And Patriarch Gennadius points out that Paul did not say “bad boy” or “mischievous guy” but rather “O wretched man.” The fact that he had contemplated the good with his mind but was still drawn toward evil by the passion of his flesh made him feel more like a victim meriting mercy instead of a criminal deserving punishment.15
In a book written by Augustine of Hippo, defending certain doctrines of the church, he sees what Paul says here about the “body of this death” applies only to that part of his being that still had the opportunity to live for God, not that part bound to die because of sin. He did not want the dead part taking the living part with it. That’s why Paul asks: “O death, where is your victory?16”17 Martin Luther interprets Augustine’s saying as a reference to Paul’s speaking of a spiritual death, not a natural death. Luther says that no one regards himself as a miserable man who is not spiritual.18 As such, this body of death is that part of the believer’s struggle in which his sinful tendencies are holding him back from reaching his goal of freedom from sin.
John Calvin sees Paul’s desperate cry for help as a voice of one panting and almost fainting because he cannot find the immediate help he so desperately needs. As unimaginable as it may seem, the godless who are in despair do not wish for such a merciful rescue from that which is dragging them toward the grave. Instead, they want to die quickly because they have become weary of their present life, and not because they are sick of sin. At the same time, it must be noted that although the faithful do reach a level of frustration and desperation at certain times, they still do not wish for a quick end to put them out of their misery. On the contrary, they run to God for comfort and submit themselves to God’s will. After all, it is better to live with momentary discontent while waiting for delivery or healing than to do what Job’s wife suggested, curse God and die.19 They have learned to carry their burdens to the Lord in prayer so that He can help them to concentrate on the coming victory instead of on their depression at having to go through such suffering. In this way, they blend their grief with joy because of grace and God’s love holds out promises for tomorrow that cannot be experienced unless you remain strong to see another sunrise.20
Wesleyan scholar Adam Clarke sees the body Paul was speaking of as a whole mass of sin and corruption to which the soul is bound with unbreakable chains. If that isn’t enough, this dying body is terminal with immoral infections transfused through its whole being, and it is pressing the individual down with the bitter reality that it might separate them from God for eternity. They tried seeking refuge in the law but it offered no deliverance. They turned to other human beings for help but that only brought harsh criticism. But after hearing the redemptive message of Christ, like a dying person with their last breath, they groan for rescue. If Paul is describing his own case, it can be taken as a reference to the unexpected visit he received from Ananias who breathlessly told him: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”21 Suddenly the door of hope swung open. Immediately, based only on this one prayer and his prospects for deliverance, Paul returned thanks to God for this new expectation of freedom received through salvation, all of which came through the Lord Jesus Christ.22
1 See Romans 3:20
2 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. Also see verse 5; 5:25; 8:2
3 See verse 17; also Psalm 19:8, and Psalm 119:14, 16, 24, 35, 47, 70.
4 See Romans 6:13
5 See verses 12 & 16
6 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Psalm 32:3
8 1 Kings 8:38
9 Psalm 71:9-12
10 Luke 27:46-49
11 Allegorical Interpretation, III, Ch. XXII (69)
12 The Aeneid: by Virgil, (Written 19 BC), Bk. VIII, Verse 485, redacted by Dr. Robert R Seyda
13 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 13
14 Severian: On Romans, loc. cit.
15 Gennadius of Constantinople: On Romans, loc. cit.
16 1 Corinthians 15:55
17 The Fathers of the Church: Saint Augustine Against Julian, Translated by Matthew A Schumacher, Fathers of the Church, Inc. New York, 1957 Vol. 35, Bk. II, Ch. (3), p. 63
18 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 114
19 Job 2:9
20 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Acts of the Apostles 9:17
22 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 137