NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XXVI)
Jewish historian Flavius Josephus spoke about the role of brotherly love in his writings. He quotes Moses as he called out Korah, a fellow kinsman, on how he led his own family astray.1 Moses spoke loudly to Korah and the two hundred and fifty men who stood with him. Moses didn’t deny that he and Aaron were unworthy of offering incense before the Lord, even if they were not as rich and well-known as Korah was. But Moses noted that his brother Aaron received the office of High Priest even though he was not very rich. In fact, Korah exceeded Moses and Aaron in the greatness of his wealth. Furthermore, was Aaron appointed high priest because he belonged to an eminent family among the Hebrews back in Egypt. Nevertheless, even though both Moses and Aaron shared a common ancestor with Korah, none of that matter in God’s eyes.
Furthermore, Moses did not ask God to appoint Aaron as high priest out of brotherly love, which someone else may have done. Nor had Moses bestowed the honor of being the high priest on Aaron as a way of showing reverence and honor to God. Aaron was God’s choice, and if Moses had given the position to someone else who may have been a closer friend to him than his brother, he surely would have endangered himself for not following God’s directives and, thereby, offending God Almighty, just for the sake of making someone else happy with the position of high priest.2 In other words, Moses could not let Korah commit this profane act of offering sacrifices simply out of brotherly love no more than he could have appointed Aaron as high priest simply out of brotherly love. It was God’s decision.
To put this narrative of Josephus’ in perspective. Korah and his crew thought that there were just as worthy to offer sacrifices and burn incense before God as was Moses and Aaron because they were all family. But Moses was trying to point out that Aaron’s being high priest was not his idea, it was God’s. So if God made the decision to appoint Aaron, then how could Korah decide on his own that he too should have been considered for the job just because they were equal in his eyes. The main point was, even a brotherly love relationship is not a valid enough to excuse someone who violates the will of God. To put this another way, brotherly love cannot overrule Godly love.
Nevertheless, other Last Covenant writers spoke highly of brotherly love. The writer of Hebrews says: “Let your brotherly love continue. And don’t forget to be friendly to strangers. Some people who did this did not know at the time, but they were entertaining angels.”3 The Apostle Peter tells his readers: “You have made your souls pure by obeying the truth through the Holy Spirit. This has given you a true love for the Christians. Let it be a true love from the heart.”4
But for Paul, just telling the Romans to love one another as brothers and sisters, was not enough. He wanted to add a qualifier by insisting that they do it because they prefer their brother and sister over themselves. The Jews certainly had an example of that when Abraham decided that his flocks and herdsmen and Lot’s flocks and herdsmen were contending for the same grazing areas. So Abraham took Lot to where they could see the Jordan Valley as it lay out before them. Then Abraham told Lot: “Let’s separate your family and my family at this point. You go to the left, and I will go to the right. But if you go to the right, then I will go to the left.”5
This is what Paul called preferring one another. When James and John, at the encouragement of their mother, came to Jesus and requested thrones next to Him in the coming kingdom, the other disciples became upset. So, in order to enlighten them and pacify their anger Jesus told them: “You know how the kings of the nations show their power to the people. Important leaders use their power over the people. It must not be that way with you. But whoever wants to be great among you, let him care for you. Whoever wants to be first among you, let him be your servant.”6
And Luke recalls the time Jesus taught them to prefer one another as He was watching people jockeying for position to get the best seats next to the banquet host. The Master told His disciples: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, don’t sit down in the best seat; because if there is someone more important than you who has been invited, the person who invited both of you might come and say to you, ‘Give this man your place.’ Then you will be humiliated as you go to take the least important place. Instead, when you are invited, go and sit in the least important place; so that when the one who invited you comes, he will say to you, ‘Go on up to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in front of everyone sitting with you. Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”7
The Apostle Paul echoed this same ethic when he wrote the Philippians: “Do nothing out of rivalry or vanity; but, in humility, regard each other as better than yourselves — look out for each other’s interests and not just for your own.”8 Although Paul did not say this directly to the Romans, it is clearly in harmony with what he is saying. When someone prefers their Christian brother or sister over themselves to have the seat of honor, they don’t do this to make themselves look good. Rather, they do so in recognition of their brother or sister as a way to bring honor and glory to God.
There are several early church scholars’ remarks about Paul’s listing of brotherly love as a gift of the Spirit. Ambrosiaster declared that brotherly love is useless unless it is mutual9.10 Then Origen makes the point that sometimes we despise the things we ought to love, and love the things we ought to despise. But the reason we were ordered to love our brothers and not to hate them is that even if we think they may be ungodly, remember that “Christ died for the ungodly.”11 So if you think that because your brother is a sinner you do not have to love him, remember that “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.”12 But if your brother is a believer, then you should love him all the more because it says, “God loves the righteous.13”14
Also, Chrysostom gives us something to think about when he asks, why would anyone want to try and love someone they really don’t like with warm affection without being a hypocrite? That’s why Paul says here that we are to love one another like brothers and sisters. Furthermore, don’t wait to be loved by someone, start the process yourself. Be the first to take a step toward establishing a warm brotherly relationship. That way, you give them an opportunity to love you because you first loved them so that you can be blessed by their brotherly love and affection.15 Now that Paul has given a reason why we ought to love one another as brothers and sisters, he also tells us how that relationship can grow and get stronger.16
Martin Luther sees this guideline by the Apostle Paul of being kind to one another with brotherly love as not being universal. He believes that what Paul is saying here that when Christians deal with one another their love must be of a special degree and more complete than when they deal with strangers and enemies. He also points to what the Apostle wrote in Galatians: “Because of this, we should do good to everyone. For sure, we should do good to those who belong to Christ.”17 As Luther sees it, the Apostle Paul is using a very potent expression. He is comparing our love for one another as believers, with how we love our own brothers and sisters. In other words, loving one another as children of God is recognizing that we are all part of God’s family.
Luther makes mention of Paul’s instructions on why we should prefer one another with honor. He quotes what Paul told the Philippians: “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.”18 Also, what Luke records our Lord Jesus as saying that when you are invited to an important banquet, pick a seat that is farthest from the guest at the head of the table.19 For Luther, what Paul says here echoes those same sentiments when speaking how believers we should have a genuine inward preference to show honor which consists of high esteem and appreciation for a fellow believer. That’s because any false outward preference to show honor often is hypocritical and seeks to be repaid with greater honor when it is shown. For Luther, it is one of the believers’ greatest characteristics to prefer one another in love! As Luther sees it, it is a lot easier to be courteous to others in the practice of etiquette, than it is to actually feel unworthy of any praise and genuinely look at others as being more worthy of more esteem than oneself.20
Luther is describing here what many of us have seen when one person feels obligated to speak in glowing terms and heap praise on another person whom they despise. You can see it in the look on their face and hear it in the tenor of their voice. Paul is saying here that even though you may be the ranking official at a gathering, you may feel motivated to give someone else your seat on the raised platform because you know they are underappreciated for the fine work they’ve done at great cost to themselves. But in no case should it be done for show or to make yourself glow.
1 See Numbers 16:1ff
2 Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 4, Ch. 2:4
3 Hebrews 13:1-2
4 1 Peter 1:22; 2 Peter 1:7
5 Genesis 13:9
6 Matthew 20:25-27
7 Luke 14:8-11 – Complete Jewish Bible
8 Philippians 2:3 – Complete Jewish Bible
9 See John 13:34-35
10 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Romans 5:6
12 1 Timothy 1:15
13 Psalm 146:8
14 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 1 John 4:19
16 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 21
17 Galatians 6:10
18 Philippians 2:3
19 Luke 14:10
20 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 174-175