NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XXVIII)
Professor F. F. Bruce puts a real twist on this by translating what Paul says here this way: “Outdo one another in showing honor.” Or, “Count others better than yourselves;”1 also, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.2”3 Also, when it comes to preferring one another Karl Barth believes that this can serve to remind us of the opportunity which attaches itself to this ethical possibility. Most are familiar with the way the world pays honor to each other. But in a way, removing one’s hat and bowing as they pay compliments to each other is nothing less than honoring themselves. That’s why the honor we pay to one another must be done as part of an ethical act of kindness, it must also be an unconditional, genuine preference, which neither expects nor desires anything in return. This is the only way it can represent the honor which we owe to God. And to make sure that it is ethical, it is done as a form of reverence. No amount of kneeling, closing one’s eyes, folding or raising one’s hands can substitute for the honor one feels inside for their Redeemer. On the other hand, however, we should understand that when we pay honor to our brothers and sisters in Christ we are showing genuine respect for holiness. As far as Barth is concerned, when these virtues are not present, we are only acting like a collection of imbeciles.4
John Stott gives us a clearer picture of how Paul uses these words of affection. He sees Paul bringing together in this verse two words associated with family. As the Lexham English Bible renders it, “Be devoted to one another.” This translates the Greek adjective philostorgos as the natural we have affection for our relatives. Also, the “typically, love of parent for their child.” The other word is the noun philadelphia, “brotherly love,” which denotes the love of brothers and sisters for each other. Both words were applied originally to the blood relationship siblings share through their parents in the human family, but Paul reapplies them to the blood relationship believers share through Christ in the Christian family. It is as tender, warm affection which should unite all the members of the family of God to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.5
John Stott brings up a situation that I also saw growing up in conservative Pentecostal church. While some people were so lovey-dovey at church, at home, and in the workplace they were like wild animals, always clawing at one another. Paul is more or less saying that we should treat each other at home or at work in the same way we treat our brothers and sisters in church. That’s because, when our love at home is anything other than love and affectionate for a brother and sister, what then do we have to offer our Christian brothers and sisters at church that is genuine?
Verse 11: Work hard and don’t be lazy. Let your spirit be aglow knowing that you are serving the Lord!
There is no doubt that Paul knew the teaching of the Rabbis concerning the need for good workers in the vineyard. What he says here is similar to the saying of Rabbi Tarphon who stated: “The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”6 It was Solomon who suggested that lazy people should watch ants work in order to show them how much better these little insects performed than they do.7 In another place, Solomon says: “The lazy person always wants something but never gets enough. But the person who works hard and does their best ends up with more than they need.”8
Jesus also viewed lazy workers with disdain. In His parable about the estate owner who left his servants in charge while he went away and then came back to see how they did with the money, he left them. Two of them worked hard and doubled his investment. But one just dug a hole, hid it in the ground, and did nothing to advance his portion of the business. So Jesus said that the estate owner called him in and said: “You are a bad and lazy servant. You knew that I harvested without planting. You knew I took in without giving out. You should have taken my money to the bank. When I came back, I could have had my own money and what the bank paid for using it.”9
And the Apostle Paul, as well, knew there were some ministers who were free-loaders, only looking for what they could get with as little effort as possible. That’s why when he met with the Church of Ephesus council he defended his ministry this way: “I have not wanted for myself anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have provided not only for my own needs but for the needs of my co-workers as well. In everything I have given you an example of how, by working hard like this, you must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Yeshua himself, ‘There is more happiness in giving than in receiving.’”10
Later on, when he wrote the Ephesians he told them that free-loaders should stop looking for handouts.
“He must work with his hands so he will have what he needs and can give to those who need help,” he told them.11 When he wrote the Thessalonians Paul told them to live within their means. And when they worked, do the best job they could. By doing this, said Paul, you will be well respected as Christians by those who aren’t. Not only that, but you will not become a burden to others because you work hard to provide for yourself.12
He would write the Thessalonians again and touch on the same subject: “Now this is what we tell you to do, Christian brothers. In the name of the Lord Jesus, keep away from any Christian who is lazy and who does not do what we taught you. You know you should follow the way of life we lived when we were with you. We worked hard while we were there. We did not eat anyone’s food without paying for it. We worked hard night and day so none of you would have to give us anything. We could have asked you to give us food. But we did not so that you might follow our way of living. When we were with you, we told you that if a man does not work, he should not eat. We hear that some are not working. But they are spending their time trying to see what others are doing. Our words to such people are that they should be quiet and go to work. They should eat their own food. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we say this.”13
But Paul wanted to add some fuel to the fire so that the believers in Rome would understand how strongly he felt about working hard for the Lord. So he adds that they should be fervent in serving the Lord. The Greek verb zeō that Paul uses here, in the physical world, means: to bring to a boil. As a metaphor, it denotes bubbling over with zeal for what is good. The only other place this word is used in the Last Covenant was when Luke described Apollos after being converted to Christianity. He left his native Alexandria in Egypt and went to Ephesus to preach what he had learned. Luke tells it this way: “This man had been informed about the Way of the Lord, and with great spiritual fervor he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Yeshua.”14
Since Paul was acquainted with the teachings of the Rabbis, perhaps he was inspired to repeat what Rabbah bar Nahmani said in the Talmud: “If a young scholar gets overly excited in reading the Word it is because the Torah inflames him, as it is said, ‘Is not my word like a fire? said the Lord.’15”16 Serving the Lord with such great energy and zeal does not suggest that a person becomes nearsighted like a person driving their car as though they are the only ones on the highway. Rather, it means that when they see obstacles, hindrances, impediments, deterrents, mountains to climb, valleys to walk through, and rivers to cross they don’t become discouraged and want to turn back. But there is another factor. Paul touches on it in his letter to the Ephesians: “Do not work hard only when others are looking. You would be doing this just to please people. Work as you would work for Christ. Do what God wants you to do with all your heart. Be happy as you work. Do your work as for the Lord, not for people.”17
Several early church scholars also point out that service without zeal can certainly not be seen as a gift of the Spirit. As Origen sees it, the expression “aglow with the Spirit”18 proves that the Word of God is hot and fiery.19 And Ambrosiaster makes the point that this means that we should not be lukewarm in doing God’s work. God says in the Revelation of John: “Because you are lukewarm, I shall spit you out of my mouth.”20 It begins with daily meditation on God’s Word that upsets inactivity and makes people awake and watchful.21 Then Chrysostom calls for eagerness in serving God. It means that expressing love for God is not enough, there must be active love. This is called “zeal” for God and His Word and comes out of putting love into action which warms the soul. In this way, love warms the soul and the soul burns with love. There are many people who have the idea of love in their mind but who can never decide on how to make it work. This is why Paul encourages believers to use every means they can to keep the flame burning in their souls so that their love will be on fire.22
We often see that new converts are often on fire for God from the beginning. They can’t get enough of His Word, going to church, being involved in witnessing to others, and sharing their testimony whenever and wherever they can. But as time passes, they seem to become less intense and their zeal seems to have waned. Does that mean the fire has gone out? No. Think of making a fire in a fireplace. At first, the flames ignite the kindling wood, then began to burn the logs. They become high and strong, sending heat out into the room. But after a while, the flames settle down as the logs glow with burning embers. All it takes is one little stoke and the flames shoot up again. That’s that way it should be with a Christian. They are still aglow for all that is Godly. But sometimes they only need a little poke in order for the flame within their heart and soul to rise again and send out its light and heat into the world.
1 Cf. Philippians 2:3
2 Ephesians 5:21
3 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 227
4 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Pirke Abot, Ch. 2. Sec. 15
7 Proverbs 6:6-9
8 Proverbs 13:4
9 Matthew 25:26-27
10 Acts of the Apostles 20:33-35
11 Ephesians 4:28
12 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12
13 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12
14 Acts of the Apostles 18:25
15 Jeremiah 23:29
16 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Ta’anith, Folio 4a
17 Ephesians 6:6-7; Cf. Colossians 3:22-24
18 See Amplified Version, loc. cit.
19 Origen: On First Principles 2.8.3
20 Revelation 3:16
21 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
22 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 21