NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XVI)
On the subject of prophecy as a gift from God to the body of Christ, Robert Haldane limits it strictly to the foretelling of future events. But he does extend the idea of prophecy to denote any message from God, whether relating to things in the present or things to come. When looking at the Last Covenant, Haldane refers to the exposition of Scripture as part of prophecy. Paul also understood it in this sense when he said, “I would be glad if all of you spoke in tongues, but I prefer that you prophesied.”1 In addition, he said that “We only prophesy the part we know now, but when everything is perfectly clear then that part we didn’t know will be revealed.”2 Therefore, says Haldane, it is apparent that Paul was not advocating that the gifts of the Spirit, as used in the past, would return, but to encourage the gifts as they are being distributed at this time to be utilized for the benefit of the Church as ordinary gifts available to each member in line with their faith.3
Charles Hodge has a lengthy commentary on the subject of prophecy that makes it impossible to reproduce here. But he does make note that the first gift specified is that of prophecy. As far as our understanding of this gift is concerned, the precise nature of how it operates in the church has not been agreed upon by everyone. When we examine the original and proper meaning of the Hebrew noun nabiy’ in the First Covenant, which is rendered in English as “prophet” 312 times, it signifies a spokesman, a speaker. The prophets of Israel were anointed to carry God’s message to whomsoever God directed them to. These were not their words, but those which had been divinely received from above. Then to this, the Greek idea of prophētēs is added with John the Baptizer,4 and Jesus of Nazareth,5 being the first two given that title.
As far as Hodge is concerned, it mattered little whether the will or purpose of God which the prophets were called upon to deliver had reference to the present or the future. They were not known mainly for their predicting what was to come. That was only a small part of their mission. They were mostly interpreters used by God to speak in His name. And when we look at the First Covenant we find that the term prophet was applied to all classes of religious teachers under the Mosaic dispensation. Therefore, those who were called to act as the mouth of God, no matter what the subject of their message was, they were called prophets. This is the sense of the word as used in the Last Covenant. So we can say that a prophet is anyone God employs to deliver His divine message6.7
Frédéric Godet looks at how prophecy and prophets operate in the church. For him, the prophet is, as it were, the eye of the church to receive new revelations. He sees this in Paul’s message to the Ephesians about God’s household (the Church): “Built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Preachers), with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief Cornerstone.”8 The Prophets, of course, are those who preached the Word and the Apostles interpreted the Word, with Christ, the Living Word, being in the middle like an Archstone binding them together. Then Paul talks about the secret made known to him by revelation that revealed the mystery of Christ. Paul said that it all came by the revelation that God’s Prophets (preachers) and Apostles (teachers) received from the Holy Spirit.9 But Godet goes on to note that without the Prophets (preachers) and Apostles (teachers) the message and revelation would be incomplete.
Godet then points to what is said about prophets (preachers) in the Acts of the Apostles: “Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.”10 Then Paul later talks about the role of prophets in the Church at Corinth: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.”11 As mentioned before, Paul never used prophētēs as a title for someone who foretold the future. To him, they were preachers and teachers who interpreted and expounded the Word of God. It was not so much their role but their method of delivery.
Godet continues by noting what rule should the prophet (preacher) voluntary place any limitation on him or herself in the exercise of this gift of preaching? Should they preach according to the competency they have based on their measure of faith? No preacher is absolutely free to say what he or she thinks the people need to hear with no responsibility to those over them in the Lord. Also, they should not go beyond the level their faith raises them to. So the question now is, what does faith mean here? Some would say the preacher’s own faith and confidence in their understanding of the text and the insights communicated to them by the Holy Spirit. Too often a preacher may get carried away with pride and try to mix human feelings with the holy emotion with which they are filled from above.
But Godet has more. Every preacher should respect the foundations of the faith already laid down while composing their message. These are spiritual facts and the truths revealed over time to those anointed in the past and passed down from one generation of believers to another. We must keep in mind that the word “faith” is never used in the Last Covenant to denote doctrine itself. It is always a reference to the subjective feeling of self-surrender based on confidence in God and Christ having chosen them as their messenger.
So Godet wonders if this same subjective meaning of the word “faith” can be applied to the whole church? The preacher’s mission should be to develop the divine work of faith in the heart of believers by starting at the point they have already reached. They can do this by humbly attaching themselves to the work of their learned predecessors. Some preachers are reluctant to quote from previous works for fear that the congregation will think they have nothing original of their own. But by continuing the string of interpretation from the revelations received by those scholars in the past, preachers can guard themselves against individually conceived speculations that can, unfortunately, disrupt the growth and maturity being experienced by those who sit listening to their messages.
In other words, the revelations preachers share should never be used to make themselves shine. Their sole purpose is to edify the church by taking them from their present state of understanding to a higher level of comprehension. It seems unfortunate, but it has become obvious, that in the exercise of this spiritual gift of prophecy some have let themselves go beyond the measure of their revelation into speculation. This forces the listeners to mix these speculations in with elements of the faith on which they were raised and the hope of the Church itself. If the Holy Spirit inspires the message and its revelation, then the same Holy Spirit will inspire the understanding of that message. Neither the prophets of the First Covenant nor the preachers of the Last Covenant took it upon themselves to share more than what was given to them. It was just part of the whole, not the whole revelation itself. That’s why Paul said that every preacher’s message should be weighed carefully by other preachers to ensure its conformity to the facts12.13
John Stott accepts the term prophesying as speaking under divine inspiration. In the case of the Apostles, they were anointed to speak on a universal level, the prophets spoke on a local level. This makes sense, for why should a preacher in a local church select a sermon topic meant to cover a situation that the members will never be a part of? Taking these different scopes of ministry into account, it will help us understand the regulation which Paul places on the exercise of the prophetic gift.
From Paul’s perspective, each speaker is to use their gift in proportion to their faith. Some think that this is a subjective restriction. In other words, preachers should speak only on that for which they have confidence in their inspiration. That means, not adding any doctrines of their own. However, this is more likely an objective restriction. To put it another way, preachers must make sure that their message does not contradict what is already accepted as part of the Christian faith. For instance, the Trinity, or the virgin birth of Christ. In this case, we should note that “faith” has the definite article, and we should translate the phrase “in agreement with the faith.” That is: Preachers are to make sure that their message does not in any way contradict the Christian faith.14
Verse 7a: When it comes to the gift of ministering, be devoted to your ministry.
Now Paul moves on from ministers to ministering. The Greek noun diakonia that he uses here means: to serve by executing the requests of others. It is from this word we get our English word “deacon,” via the Latin diaconus. Thayer in his Lexicon lists its use here as being that of those whose service it was to prepare and present food. This is illustrated by what is said about Martha in Luke 10:40. But this does not exclude its understanding as serving the congregation to meet their need for spiritual food.
We find an equivalent Hebrew term that reflects this type of ministering when Moses took Joshua, his assistant (Hebrew sharath – KJV “minister”), and went up onto the mountain of God.15 And then of Aaron we read about the robe he was to wear containing bells on the hem: “Aaron is to wear it when he ministers and its sound will be heard whenever he enters the Holy Place before ADONAI.”16 Later on, it was said: “David left Asaph and his kinsmen to perform their ministry before the ark, as each day’s work required.”17 And at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, we are told that because the Shekinah glory of God’s presence was so strong, the priests could not stand up to minister.18 So from a Jewish perspective, the role of such service was clearly to minister in the house of the Lord.
1 1 Corinthians 14:5
2 Ibid. 13:9
3 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 561
4 Matthew 11:9; 21:26
5 Ibid. 13:57; 21:11
6 Matthew 10:41; 13:57; Luke 4:24; 7:26-29
7 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 603-607
8 Ephesians 2:19-20
9 Ibid. 3:2-5
10 Acts of the Apostles 13:1
11 1 Corinthians 14:29-32
12 1 Corinthians 14:29
13 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Exodus 24:13
16 Ibid. 28:35
17 1 Chronicles 16:37
18 2 Chronicles 5:14