NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson IX)
All of this “I’m-better-than-you-are” thinking was not restricted to the Roman church. Paul had to tell the Corinthians: “After all, what makes you so special? What do you have that you didn’t receive as a gift? And if in fact, it was a gift, why do you boast as if it weren’t?”1 And he also told the Philippians: “Nothing should be done because of pride or thinking about yourself. Think of other people as more important than yourself.”2 He also shares with the Corinthians a personal lesson on how any thoughts of being a special Apostle were quickly repressed by the Holy Spirit: “To keep me from becoming overly proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from the Adversary to pound away at me, so that I wouldn’t grow conceited.”3
So it only makes sense that since Paul told them what not to think and do when they are given a special place in God’s plan to get the Gospel to the world, he should also tell them what to do. The Greek verb sōphroneō translated as “soberly” by the KJV means to think clearly without letting emotions becoming involved. Thayer, in his Lexicon, defines it as, “exercising self-control by putting a moderate estimate upon one’s self.” Paul uses this same word in his letter to the Corinthians when he told them he didn’t want them to think he felt he was more important than they were. He put it this way: “If we are ‘out of our mind,’ as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.” 4 And to Titus he wrote: “Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness.”5 Even the Apostle Peter cautioned his readers to do the same.6
But that was not all. Paul also wanted them to keep their focus and not try to go beyond the limits of the gifts and abilities that God bestowed on them to complete their mission. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “The Holy Spirit works in each person in one way or another for the good of all.”7 And to the Ephesians, he said: “Christ gave gifts to men. He gave to some the gift to be missionaries, some to be preachers, others to be preachers who go from town to town. He gave others the gift to be church leaders and teachers. These gifts help His people work well for Him. And then the church which is the body of Christ will be made strong.”8 In other words, spreading the Gospel and teaching the Word is a team effort. No member of the team should feel superior to the others.
Early church scholar Origen feels that everyone should know the limits to their spiritual understanding and ability. This is something that must be arrived at by faith. For instance, one individual feels called to do charity work, another to do counseling. another assisting the poor, another involved in caring for the sick, another the welfare of widows and children, another hospitality. This is something God has portioned out to each person according to the size of their faith. But imagine someone who received a calling and given understanding about one of these ministries who does not understand the limitations of their ability to handle it properly.
Still, they want to learn more about the ministry they have been assigned to, the doctrines of their faith, and desire to become more efficient and knowledgeable in their ministry. However, that is something they will have to learn and go to training for. But, they don’t want to start getting so involved that they would suddenly be expected to teach others. That would put them in a quandary of having to instruct people on things they had no expertise in. This is the case of someone who wants to go beyond what they are really capable of handling.9 What Paul is saying is, we should stay within bounds of our ability. There are some people who want to be big shots when they have no shot at being mediocre.
Other early church scholars touched on this subject as well. Basil the Bishop of Cæsarea hears Paul saying that we should accept the level of ministry we are assigned to and not seek to advance without the encouragement of others at our level, or the approval of those over us. Also, do not desire to rise higher in order to take over someone else’s area of leadership.10 For Ambrosiaster, Paul teaches us to be careful not to try to do too much and be too demanding in what we do. Keep in mind that we are there to serve others, not ourselves. We do what’s best for them not what’s best for us.11 And Chrysostom feels that Paul is addressing these words to everyone, not just one group of people. Those who lead and those who are led, the employer and the employee, the educated and the uneducated, the women and the men, the young and the old. Sometimes, when God speaks He speaks to everyone, not just a few.12
Then Pelagius takes the view that since Paul is ready to terminate any idea that his human wisdom goes beyond God’s wisdom found in the Law, he informs the Christians in Rome that he is not writing to tell them what to think. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit he is telling them what God thinks they should know. He seems to be writing specifically to all those who are elders or teachers in the church, and whose example the others follow. Anyone who claims to have received a revelation on a subject God’s Word does not address is wanting others to think they are wiser than them. That’s why we find in Scripture this admonition: “Do not inquire after things higher than yourself and do not search after things greater than yourself but think always on the things that God has commanded you.”13
Note that Paul calls the Holy Spirit, God. For to the Corinthians, he declares that the Holy Spirit apportions gifts to each person as He wishes.14 Charismatic gifts which only Spirit-filled believers receive, are to be regarded as indicative of their measure of faith. The term “measure of faith” may be better understood by substituting the term “allotment of faith.” So along with the charismatic gift comes the sufficient amount of faith for the gift to operate. That’s why no one should seek a gift for which they have not been given the necessary allotment of faith to use it for God’s glory and the church’s benefit and edification.15
Also, Gennadius, the great early church scholar, points out that Paul said all this as a formula for those brethren who were running after charismatic gifts as though they deserved them. God did not order the Holy Spirit to dispense gifts in order that believers should be jealous of each other or that spiritual things should become an excuse for debate and controversy. Rather, that believers can enjoy harmony and friendship and the common bond they share in Christ. No believer receives spiritual gifts just because they claim them as their right. Both those who are deemed capable of several charismatic gifts and those who are given but one must remember that they are gifts given by God through the Holy Spirit. And knowing this should inspire each one to use these gifts according to the volume of their faith.16
Martin Luther says that Paul is saying all this in the interest of unity because there are few things that bring about division more than those who do not stay within the bounds of their calling. This results when they neglect their own ministry out of jealousy because of their desire for the gifts of others. Since it is God who distributes all gifts, He chooses those He wants to use in certain ways. That’s why no person should exalt themselves as though they should have more than all the others. It is through such arrogance that the unity of a congregation is destroyed. The Greeks say that everyone should practice only the art they are capable of,17 which fits this same criteria.18
Luther also addresses the expression “measure of faith.” As he sees it, this may be understood in the sense of God’s faith in the one to whom it is given. But also, since the Apostle Paul emphasizes the fact that various gifts are imparted with a measure of faith, we can also take it to mean the measure of faith that comes with the gift. Then again, some may see it as the measure of faith the believer needs to receive such a gift. But one thing that never changes is the fact that they are gifts. When such faith is increased either by the amount that comes with the gift, or the amount of faith the believer has in order to accept the gift, it will determine the number of gifts bestowed. For certain, there is one faith, one baptism, one Church, one Lord, one Spirit, and one God.19 Nevertheless, in this one faith, this one Church, this one body of Christ’s there are a variety of differing gifts. So keep in mind, whatever gift the Holy Spirit uses you to minister to the members of the body of Christ, it was picked out for you by God the Father to bless others.20
Fellow reformer John Calvin also touches on the unique distribution of charismatic gifts by God. He points out that we must not get the words mixed up in the wrong order. So instead of reading it as “To everyone God has distributed,” instead, read, “To everyone as God has distributed.21”22 To put it another way, Calvin is saying that we must not interpret this as God indiscriminately distributing gifts to everyone, but as God distributes the gifts based on the measure of faith in each believer to receive and use such a gift. This means that individual spiritual gifts are given according to the level of a person’s faith. Therefore, those with little faith no doubt receive few spiritual gifts if any, while those of strong faith may receive several.
Calvin contends that such reasoning is given here to help us make sense out of what Paul has just mentioned. Namely, since the distribution of these gifts is various. That’s why everyone must always stay focused on the limits of their faith when inspired by the Holy Spirit to use their gift. To put this in perspective, when a believer is given the gift of the “word of wisdom,” do not think it also can be used as the gift of the “word of knowledge.” Wisdom implies words of counsel and advice that may be dispensed to one or many believers together. Knowledge indicates information of which the speaker has no prior cognition and is often meant for only one person.
1 1 Corinthians 4:7 – Complete Jewish Bible
2 Philippians 2:3
3 2 Corinthians 12:7 – CBJ
4 Ibid. 5:13 – NIV
5 Titus 2:6-7 – NIV
6 1 Peter 4:7
7 1 Corinthians 12:7
8 Ephesians 4:11-12
9 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Basil the Great: op. cit., loc. cit., Concerning Baptism 2.8
11 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 20
13 Ecclesiasticus (The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach), 3:22
14 1 Corinthians 12:11, 28
15 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Gennadius of Constantinople: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Aristophanes: with English Trans., of Benjamin Bickley Rogers, London: Heinemann Ltd., 1930, Vol. 1, “The Wasps,” spoken by the character Philocleon, p. 541
18 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 169-170
19 Ephesians 4:4-6
20 Luther: ibid., p. 170
21 This is from the English rendition of the Latin Vulgate Bible text
22 There is a similar transposition in 1 Corinthians 3:5