NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XVII)
When we examine the Last Covenant, there is no lack of Scriptures that point out how this word ministry was understood. Even as the disciples were organizing after the ascension of Jesus, and they were voting to select a replacement for Judas Iscariot, Peter referred to him this way: He was one of our group and had a part in our ministry (diakonia).1 And as they prayed over the two candidates chosen, they asked God to point out which one should be part of their ministry and apostleship.2 Then later on, as people became part of the movement’s rapid growth, a problem arose because the widows of those husbands born outside Israel were not being treated equally as those whose husbands were born inside the Holy Land. It involved the daily ministry of distributing food among them.3 So the disciples decided to select a group of men to take over this ministry, and based it on the following: “So we ourselves can give our full attention to praying and ministry of the Word.”4
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster looks at how Paul sees the gift of ministering or service in the church. For Paul, ministers are strengthened for service to the church according to how convinced they are that they were called to serve. This will help in keeping them from taking on more than their faith will allow and prevent exhausting themselves to the point of ruin.5 Chrysostom also looks at the word ministering as comprehensive, covering everything from the apostleship itself to any spiritual function. While it is the name of a particular office, for example, diacon, here it is used in a general sense.6 Then Pelagius believes that Paul was pointing to those who held the office of an elder or deacon.7 Theodoret takes it to mean those who are called to preach.8 So even among the early church scholars, there were various opinions on what Paul meant by the word diakonia (ministering or service).
John Calvin feels that Paul is making a strong statement here to ordained ministers. They should execute their office in ministering with the conviction that they were not called to this service to benefit themselves, but others. So for Calvin, Paul is instructing everyone to fill their office by ministering so faithfully that they are ready when their names are called.9.10 But John Bengel adds that ministers should not assume too much so that they fail to do their assigned duties.11 Albert Barnes also contends that each minister is to be wholly and diligently given to their ministry. They should be the best they can be by making it a top priority for their time and effort. In particular, do the job that is given and do not spend time aspiring to higher office, nor seek recognition and honors for their present office.12 Can you imagine a pastor who is so preoccupied with the appearance of the lighted cross that will go on top of the church steeple, that he or she spends all the church’s money on that, and very little on having a solid foundation poured and building a strong edifice? The same principle applies to the ministry. They accept the title “Reverend” not because of the duties it brings them, but because of the distinction it adds to their name.
On the gift of ministry, Robert Haldane notes that word in the original is that which appropriately designates the office of the deacon. The term not only refers to the office, but it also refers to the person holding the office. This is how the apostolic church understood the term, Apostle. Just being appointed to the office does not qualify the individual. They must have the qualifications before being appointed. This applies to all areas of ministry. Why should someone be appointed to preach the Gospel if they have not yet studied the Gospel?
Can anyone teach on the gifts of the Spirit if they have not been endowed with any gift themselves? There is no need for any candidate to wait until they perceive themselves as being perfect for the position. Growing in the position is always part of the qualification. That’s why any pastor, evangelist, apostle, teacher, deacon, elder, etc., should never think that their learning is over when they are appointed to that position. And one of the qualifications for any position is the willingness to learn. Another is being ready to devote oneself to the interests of the body of Christ. And whatever gift a person has been given should be administered to the best of their ability and do so faithfully and diligently.13
And Barnes also takes note of that the Greek noun diakonia Paul uses here twice means service to others on behalf of others.14 It is used in the Christian ministry it is a two-way path. It denotes the service which is rendered to Christ as the Master, and the service delivered to believers on His behalf. It is applied to all classes of ministers in the Last Covenant as denoting they are being servants to Christ and of Christ. In some places, it is used to denote the ministry or service which Paul and the other Apostles rendered in their public work.15 In a few places, this word is used to denote the function which the deacons fulfilled.16 In this sense, the word “deacon” was most commonly used as denoting the function which was performed in providing for the poor and administering the donations to the church. It is not easy to say in what sense it is used here. Barnes is inclined to believe that Paul did not refer to those who were appropriately called deacons, but to those engaged in the function of the ministry of the word; whose business it was to preach, and thus to serve the churches.17
Henry Alford sees the word used here as referencing several ministrations in the church. In Acts 6:1 and 4 the word is applied both to the lower ministration, that of donations and food and to the higher ministry of the Word, which belonged to the Apostles. But here in verse 7 it seems to be used in a more restricted sense, from its position as distinct from prophecy, teaching, exhortation. It was Paul’s way of saying that the members of the Church in Rome who have been appointed to look out for those who need help of some kind, should stick with that ministry as effective members of the body.18
Charles Hodge also notes that this Greek noun diakonia is used in various ways in the writings of Paul. This term is used in reference to a particular class of church officers, to who were committed the outreach ministries of the church, the care of the poor, attention to the sick, etc.19 Although it is clear that Paul was speaking of this outreach ministry here, he does not specify exactly what mission they were to perform. But the emphasis is not on the ministry itself but the person’s commitment to their ministry. Too often people in one area of ministry are looking over at other ministries and either trying to offer unwanted assistance or criticizing the performance. Luther and many others give these words a broader meaning. For instance, Luther translated it this way: “Hat jemand ein Amt, so warte er des Amts.”20 (If someone has an office, let him attend to that office.) A newer German translation has: “Wenn einer dient, [sei es so] in dem Dienst.”21 (When someone ministers, [let it be] in the ministry.) For Hodge, the Apostle Paul, in this context, refers to this particular ministry as part of the ordinary duties of a Christian, not necessarily an officer of the church.22
Frédéric Godet makes this observation that these are pure spiritual gifts: “Le terme de diakonia, charge, désigne tout office confié par l’Eglise et accompli à son service.”23 (Translation: The term diakonia, (charge), means any office entrusted by the Church and performed in her service). Godet mentions that this is a charge or responsibility. It is not something a person simply volunteers to do, they must be sent out under orders. In our passage, this term ministry, placed as it is between prophecy and the function of teaching, can only designate an activity of a practical nature, done in deed, not in word.
It is almost in the same sense that Peter talks about it when he said: “If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides.”24 Godet thinks it is possible that this term as used here denotes two ecclesiastical offices: the pastorate (bishop or presbyter) and of the diaconate. Bishops or presbyters were established in the church of Jerusalem from the founding of the Church.25 Paul also instituted this office in the churches which he founded.26 They presided over the assemblies of the Church, and directed its course and that of its members in respect of spiritual matters;27. Hence their title pastors28.29
Charles Ellicott agrees with Godet in that the word ministry used here is to be taken as a technical term for the discharge of the office of a deacon. We find the institution of this office described in Acts 6:1-5. Its object was to provide for the practical aspects of the Church’s outreach, rather than the spiritual ministrations of the Church. This often involved the distribution of charity and the care for the poor, the sick, widows, etc. The functions of the diaconate are called “serving tables” (in the literal sense), “providing food” for those who needed it,30 and “assistance.”31 Ellicott goes on to say that the text implies that for those in this ministry, they are to be absorbed in it and devoted to it.32
1 Acts of the Apostles 1:17
2 Ibid. 1:25
3 Ibid. 6:1
4 Ibid. 6:4; See also: 1Corinthains 12:5; 16:15; 2Corinthians 3:7, 8, 9; 4:1; 5:18; 6:3; 8:4; 9:1, 12, 13; 11:8; Ephesians 4:12; Colossians 4:17; 1Timothy 1:12; 2Timothy 4:5, 11; Hebrews 1:14; Revevelation 2:19
5 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 21
7 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 See Ecclesiastes 9:10
10 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 342
12 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 562
14 Luke 10:40
15 Acts 1:17, 25; 6:4; 12:25; 20:24; 21:19; Romans 11:13; 15:31; 2 Corinthians 5:18; 2 Corinthians 6:3; Ephesians 4:12; 1 Timothy 1:12.
16 Acts 6:1; 11:29; 1 Corinthians 16:15; 2 Corinthians 11:8.
17 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 111
19 See Acts 6:1-3; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13, etc.
20 Luther’s Epistel-Auslegung, Der Römerbrief, Siebente Predigt, 21. 1. 1537, p. 257 (Luther’s Exposition of the Epistles, the Letter to the Romans, Seventh Sermon, on January 21, 1537, page 257)
21 Die Heilige Schrift des Alten und Neuen Testaments nach dem Urtext übersetzt von Franz Eugen Schlachter, Neue Überarbeitung, 1951, durch Genfer Bibelgesellschaft
22 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 607-608
23 Commentaire sur L’épître aux Romains: par Frédéric Godet, 1883, Reprint Soliel d’Orient, 2009, p. 1161
24 1 Peter 4:11
25 Acts of the Apostles 11:30
26 Ibid. 14:23; cf. Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1ff; Titus 1:5ff
27 Cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13
28 Ephesians 4:11
29 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
30 Acts of the Apostles 6:2-3
31 1 Corinthians 12:28
32 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.