NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TEN (Lesson XI)
Verses 6-7: But the salvation that comes through faith says: “You don’t need to go up to heaven to find Christ and bring Him down to help you,” and, “You don’t need to go down among the dead to bring Christ back to life again.”
Here the Apostle Paul gives us a general meaning of what Moses said about the Law: “Obeying these commandments is not something beyond your strength and reach; for these Laws are not in the far heavens, so distant that you can’t hear and obey them, and with no one to bring them down to you; nor are they beyond the ocean, so far that no one can bring you their message; but they are very close at hand—in your hearts and on your lips—so obey them,”1 and combines it with what is written in Proverbs: “Who else but God goes back and forth to heaven? Who else holds the wind in His fists and wraps up the oceans in His cloak? Who but God has created the world? If there is any other, what is His name—and His Son’s name—if you know it?”2 And of course, “we know His name!” says Paul, it is none other than Jesus the Christ.
Paul knew that the Jewish believers in the congregation at Rome would not find it unusual for him to use the hyperbole of ascending to heaven or descending into the place where the dead. He was aware that such expressions were oft used by the Rabbi’s to express the impossible.3 For instance, in the Talmud, the Rabbis were discussing how the requirements of the Law can be fulfilled in different ways. They concluded that even if it proves impossible to fulfill every Law if a person stipulates what else might be done to qualify as having fulfilled the law, what would that be? This question was raised because it had been taught that if someone says, Here is your divorce, on condition that you ascend to Heaven or descend to the deep, on condition that you swallow a hundred cubits of sugar cane or cross the great sea on foot; if those conditions are fulfilled, the divorce is valid, but not otherwise.4 So as we can see, this was another way of saying that trying to fulfill the demands of the law any other way than complete obedience is impossible. That’s the same thing Paul was trying to say about seeking justification from God by works.
This was also not something Paul just made up, he has the words of Jesus Himself to Nicodemus: “If you don’t even believe me when I tell you about such things as these that happen here among men, how can you possibly believe if I tell you what is going on in heaven? For only I, the Messiah, have come to earth and will return to heaven again.”5 Jesus repeats this in a different manner after feeding the multitude on the eastern shore of Lake Galilee and mysteriously meeting them again in Capernaum, He used the manna from heaven that God gave Moses to give the children of Israel with the bread from heaven that God gave Him to give to them. Jesus told them: “The true Bread is a Person—the one sent by God from heaven, and He gives life to the world.”6
But Jesus wasn’t through explaining this transfer from heaven to earth. He then told them: “I have come here from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to have my own way.”7 In other words, Jesus is telling them: You couldn’t get to me through the Law given to Moses, so I, the Word, was sent down to you. That’s how John put it when he said, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.”8 Jesus then goes on to tell many of those He just fed with bread and fish: “I am the living bread that has come down from heaven… I am the true Bread from heaven; and anyone who eats this Bread shall live forever, and not die as your fathers did—although they ate bread from heaven.”9
Here Paul is repeating to the Romans much of what he told the Ephesians: “The psalmist tells about this, for he says that when Christ returned triumphantly to heaven after His resurrection and victory over Satan, He gave generous gifts to men.10 Notice that it says He returned to heaven. This means that He had first come down from the heights of heaven, far down to the lowest parts of the earth. The same one who came down is the one who went back up, that He might fill all things everywhere with Himself, from the very lowest to the very highest.”11
Since Paul was speaking here primarily to the Jewish contingent in the Roman church, he knew that they were well aware of what they had been taught by the Rabbis. For instance, in the Babylonian Talmud, we find a conversation between Rabbis about understanding the Torah, the Word of God. They said that everyone should fix a certain time every day to study of the Torah. This is in harmony with what another Rabbi said after asking: Why is the text of the Torah so significant? First of all, it is not stored up in heaven so that someone would have to ask: “Who can go up to heaven and bring it down to us?12 Nor is the Torah in some place beyond the sea than another would have to ask: “Who can go over the sea and bring it back to us?”13
They go on to say that we know it’s not up in heaven. If it were then someone should have gone up and gotten it. And if it was beyond the sea someone should have gone over and returned with it. Then a teacher of Rabbis expounded further by saying that not only was the Torah not in heaven, it is also not with someone who thinks so highly of themselves that they believe they know everything. This only means that their pride is as high as the heavens. And for those who think that their knowledge of the Torah is beyond anyone else’s comprehension, only means that their self-esteem is as wide as the ocean.14
Medieval Jewish scholar Rabbi Moses Maimonides gives us some insight into how the Jews understood these words of Moses. He explains that when someone says, “It is not in the heavens,” that is a reference to being high-minded or having a proud spirit. When they say, “It is not across the sea,” they are indicating that it is not found in people who live far across the sea and must be retrieved.15 In other words, no matter how intellectual a person may be, and no matter how broad is the expanse of their knowledge, they still will not grasp all that God has to say in His Word. But Paul takes it one step further by saying that heaven is a reference to the infinite wisdom of God and the sea is a reference to His omniscience. So how can we understand God’s Word unless He explains it to us?
Jesus used this same quote from Deuteronomy when He was speaking with Nicodemus. After telling this highly educated member of the Jewish Sanhedrin and revered Pharisee about being born again, his confusion forced Jesus to tell him that we all know what human birth is and how it happens, but take faith to understand what spiritual birth is and how it happens. Nicodemus was still baffled, so Jesus had to explain to him that having faith is like saying the wind is blowing even though you can’t see it. You can tell by looking at the tree branches as they move back and forth, even though you don’t see what’s moving them, it must be the wind.
But what concerned Jesus more than anything was the lack on Nicodemus’ part of not recognizing the One talking to him. So Jesus said this esteemed Jewish Rabbi: “You hold the office of teacher in Isra’el, and you don’t know this? Yes, indeed! I tell you that what we speak about, we know; and what we give evidence of, we have seen; but you people don’t accept our evidence! If you people don’t believe me when I tell you about the things of the world, how will you believe me when I tell you about the things of heaven? No one has gone up into heaven; there is only the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.”16
Reformer Martin Luther believes that Paul is pointing out the futility of anyone trying to live in such a way that they do not suffer the death penalty for failing to live righteously under the Law. That is not an excuse and will not suffice to meet God’s requirements of righteousness. The righteousness needed for salvation lies beyond the Law’s ability to provide. The Law can convict, but it cannot convert. Therefore, there must be another source, and that is found in Jesus Christ. And when one believes in Christ they can live the way God wants them to live without being tied to the Law, trying to achieve the level of righteousness demanded of the Law.
That’s because the righteousness of faith needs no works of the Law in order to live a holy life. Just having the Spirit of Christ within and living according to the example He provides is all that’s needed. This way, faith replaces works because Christ has already done the works the Law demanded.17 Simply put, the need to work on getting salvation is unnecessary because Christ did the work for us. Now we must join Him in doing the works necessary to prove that our salvation is real. One of the most important works is to love God and love each other. Jesus Himself said that the whole world will know that we are His because we love one another.18
John Calvin attempts to put a frame around the words of Paul so that the picture of righteousness can be better seen. This is done by looking at the blessed assurance of our salvation as having two parallel sides. On the one side, we notice that eternal life has been obtained for us. And on the other side, we see that death has been conquered for us. For Paul, faith through the Word of the Gospel is sustained by both of these: Christ died for us, and by dying the power of everlasting separation from God was forever chained. Christ was also raised from the grave for us, and by coming back to life the power of everlasting life was released. The benefit of Christ’s death and resurrection is now communicated through the preaching of the Gospel. So there is then no reason for anyone to look for salvation in anything else or anywhere from anyone else.19
1 Deuteronomy 30:11-14
2 Proverbs 30:4
3 Cf. Psalm 139:8
4 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Bava Metzia, folio 94a
5 John 3:12-13
6 Ibid. 6:33
7 Ibid. 6:38
8 Ibid. 1:14
9 Ibid. 6:51, 58
10 Psalm 68:18
11 Ephesians 4:8-10
12 Deuteronomy 30:12
13 Ibid. 30:13
14 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Erubin, folios 55a-b
15 Moses Maimonides: Mishneh Torah, Sefer Madda, Talmud Torah, Ch. 3:8
16 John 3:9-13
17 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp.146-147
18 John 13:35
19 Calvin: ibid.