Dr. Robert R. Seyda



John Calvin sees that Paul is having some difficulty in finding words to express the eagerness and compassion that defines Christian love. Remember, our love as believers is always compared to the love of God in John 3:16 and 1 John 3:16. Even though we may never get to that level, it should still be our measuring stick. But Paul found no words that were sufficient enough to satisfy his understanding of the love in a believer’s heart that allows them to embrace one another without meeting their own expectations or conditions. So Paul picked “brotherly love.” In Latin documents, caritatem fraternitatis is this brotherly love with its emotion and affection is defined as the mutual affection which exists between relatives, and truly such ought to be that which we should have towards the children of God.1

This being the case, Paul brings in a precept that is necessary for the preservation of loving-kindness, – that everyone is to give honor to their brethren and not to themselves. There is no venom more potent in poisoning the mind than to being thought of as despised by others. Likewise, there is nothing more opposed to brotherly concord than contempt, arising from arrogance. That’s when people either neglect or use others so they can advance themselves. On the other hand, the best stimulus of love is humility, when everyone honors every one.2

John Bengel believes that what Paul says here is an expression selected to imply that all Christians form one family. He says that the term “preference” literally means to take the lead of, or anticipating. In other words don’t wait to be told, go with what your spirit and God’s Spirit are telling you. So when it comes to showing honor to others in manners and customs, since that may not always be possible, at least always have that thought in your mind. This will be possible if we compare the virtues of others to our own shortcomings. Bengel calls them “the social virtues of the saints.” In fact, the Jewish Talmud implies that if you know that your neighbor is accustomed to greeting you when you meet, you should anticipate their salutation and not act surprised3.4

Adam Clarke breaks down this verse into several sections. On our being kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, Clarke points out that the Greek noun philadelphia signifies that the affectionate regard Christians have for one another should infer that they are members of the same spiritual fraternity. That’s why Paul chose to express it as love between brothers. And when Paul adds that it should make you feel closer to them. He chooses the Greek compound adjective philostorgos which is translated into English as “kindly affectionate.” The literal Greek meaning could be expressed as, “affectionately cherishing.” It signifies that tender and indescribable affection which a mother has for her child. We see this among all creatures’ nurturing and protecting of their young and the great delight they have in doing so. As such, Paul is saying that believers should feel the tenderest affection towards each other, and delight in feeling it. Not something you are forced to do, but something you can’t wait to do.5

Clarke then goes on to address the honoring of one another. It should begin with our considering all our brothers and sisters as more worthy than ourselves. Secondly, that there should be neither grief nor envy when seeing another brother or sister honored while you are being overlooked. This is a hard lesson, and very few learn it thoroughly. Reverend Clarke once heard a conversation between two church members. One said to the other, “I don’t know anything that’s within my power to do that I have failed to do in promoting interest in true faith in this place. Yet, I seem to have so little respect around here that nobody even notices me.” To which the other member replied: “My good friend, take a seat as though you are a nobody, then if someone recognizes you as being somebody, it will all be for your benefit.” Clarke at first thought that such advice was rather odd, but the more he thought about it the more common sense he saw. He doesn’t know if the complaining member gained anything by his fellow believer’s counsel, but Clarke certainty got some good out of it.6

On the subject of brotherly love, Robert Haldane agrees wholeheartedly with the other Bible scholars on the similarity of the love and affection between brothers and sisters in a normal family with the love and affection between brothers and sisters in the family of God. Haldane notes somewhat disappointedly that the family relationship between Christians is often in name only, rather than in reality such as it is clearly seen between normal family members. After all, Christians are children, born of one Father, whose only Son taught them to say, “Our Father in heaven.” So how can anyone claim Him as their Father and yet not love His other children as spiritual siblings? Did not John say: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has become a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves His children, too.7

Among the scholars who see this same meaning in Paul’s words, have given a great variety of expression to explain it. For instance, Calvin, understood it as did our English translators, that when it comes to being honored, believers should prefer their brother or sister over themselves. But a closer look will reveal that the Greek verb proēgeomai signifies “to go before and show the way, to go before and lead, to go before as a leader.” This definition has a great variety of applications. The meaning here seems to be, that in showing mutual respect for other believers, don’t wait to be asked but take the lead. This is a thing in which believers may lawfully compete with one another.

While the people of this world are striving to outpace each other in everything that respects ambition, Christians are to refrain from following their example. This is not a contest that awards blue ribbons or gold medals. It means that when one sees an opportunity to lift up a brother or sister to others as an example of good, faithfulness, dedication, truth, honesty, patience, etc., don’t wait until everyone recognizes it before you act. However, Paul advised the Philippians to use caution. He wrote: “Nothing should be done because of pride or thinking about yourself. Think of other people as more important than yourself.89

Albert Barnes notes that the Greek adjective philostorgos used by Paul here occurs nowhere else in the Last Covenant. This word is used in Greek literature but translated in various ways.10 But as used here it denotes tender affection, such as what exists between parents and children; and it means that Christians should have similar feelings toward each other, as belonging to the same family, and as united in the same principles and interests.11 But when taken to preferring one another, Clarke also emphasizes that it means not being hesitant, taking every opportunity, and setting an example.

When people show mutual respect and honor, they are not to turn it into a “holier than thou” competition.12 Instead, they are to be careful as not take away someone else’s right to being recognized as a faithful servant to the Lord. In some cases, as a child shows respect to their parents, so believers should respect those over them in the Lord. Likewise, as parents are proud of their children, so those in charge should recognize and honor the labor of those under them. All of this Paul intended to develop a spirit of mutual kindness to promote harmony in the Christian community.

But Barnes has one more point to make. This honoring of one another among believers should not develop the spirit of the world where people do things just to have honor conferred upon them. In other words, don’t let your work for the Lord be a race to see who can be the first to receive recognition. Instead, all honor and glory go to God, and that in and of itself will be a reason why others see it as a model to follow. Doing it the world’s way can lead to no small amount of envy, selfish ambition, heartache, and dissatisfaction with the Christian community. Rather, it must be done so as to produce contentment, harmony, love, and order in the community.

This will create a barrier against the progress of law-breaking and annihilate the evils of disorder, discord, and jealousy. There are few things more beautiful than a body of believers dedicated to God’s will for them and inclusive of everyone no matter if they are rich or poor, educated or uneducated, with great talent or little talent. It would even make someone like Diotrephes,13 uncomfortable. This would give them less reason to seek preeminence and make them willing to occupy the place which God has designed them. Not only that but to rejoice when brothers or sisters are promoted to higher posts of responsibility and honor.14

H. A. Ironside taught that the church needs the simple exhortations of verse 20 here in Romans 12. That’s because the virtue of true kindness has become a rare thing. Too often the pretended zeal for truth, or for a Church position, dries up what Lady Macbeth called “the milk of human kindness.”15 It is, like Macbeth, a tragedy, because brotherly love is one of Christianity’s purest virtues. Church of England cleric Dr. W. H. Griffith Thomas once told about an elderly Scottish pastor who frequently said to his congregation: “Remember, if you are not very kind, you are not very spiritual.” And yet how often people imagine that there is something even inappropriate about really spiritual people being too occupied with acts of kindness! But how differently would Christians speak of one another and act toward one another if these ideas Paul on brotherly love were promoted and put into action with earnest desire?16

1 The translator of Calvin’s commentary states: “It is difficult to render this clause: Calvin’s words are, ‘Fraterna charitate ad vos mutuo amandos propensi;’ as does Theodore Beza. The Apostle joins two things — mutual love of brethren, with the natural love of parents and children, as though he said, ‘Let your brotherly love have in it the affectionate feelings which exist between parents and children.’”

2 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

3 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berakoth, folio 6b. Actual reading is: “Rabbi Helbo further said in the name of Rabbi Huna: If one knows that his friend is used to greet him, let him greet him first.”

4 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 343

5 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 243

6 Clarke: ibid

7 1 John 5:1

8 Philippians 2:3

9 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 564

10 Cf. Xenophon, Cyropædia, Bk. 1, Ch. 2, Sect. 1

11 Cf. 1 Peter 2:17

12 Cf. 1 Peter 1:5; Ephesians 5:21

13 See III John 1:9

14 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

15 William Shakespeare: Macbeth, Scene V, at Inverness in Macbeth’s castle as Lady Macbeth enters reading a letter.

16 Harry A Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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