NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XXXV)
Albert Barnes notes that Paul is not inventing a new Christian ministry here, it was prominent even among the Gentiles. In many countries, it was customary to build places for lodging and shelters at suitable distances between destinations, by the side of springs or oases for travelers to rest in. Some were built at public expense but were unfurnished. Travelers carried their own sleeping mats and clothes and cooking utensils. Most were merely shelters for caravans.1 But among Christians who were a minority in every place they lived and worshiped, considered it one principal part of their duty to show hospitality to itinerant preachers and traveling fellow believers. Barnes notes that believers rarely traveled without letters of commendation which testified to the purity of their faith, and procured for them a favorable reception wherever the name of Jesus Christ was known2.3
John Stott has an interesting commentary on Christian hospitality where he points out that if charity is shown to the needy, hospitality is shown to visitors. The Greek noun philadelphia (love of sisters and brothers) in verse 10 has to be balanced by the Greek noun philoxenia (love of strangers) here in verse 13. Both are indispensable expressions of love. Stott also notes that hospitality was especially important in Bible days since inns were few and far between, and those that existed were often unsafe or unsavory places. So it became essential for Christians to open their homes to Christian travelers. In fact, this was the ministry of many local church leaders.4 So Paul did not only urge the Romans to “practice” hospitality but rather to “pursue” it.5
Verse 14: Wish only good for those who treat you badly. Ask God to bless them, not curse them.
Hospitality must be practiced in the same way we accommodate other drivers on the highway, those going in our direction and those coming from the other direction. Paul says you must show respect to both. After all, you’re not the only one on the highway. The wise man Job certainly faced this in his day. But here was his answer to those who may have thought he was not hospitable enough: “Did I rejoice at the destruction of him who hated me? Was I filled with glee when disaster overtook him? No, I did not allow my mouth to sin by asking for his life with a curse.”6 In many parts of the world, many people have been won to Christ because they were treated with compassion by Christians before they ever heard the Gospel.
Jesus understood this same dynamic. When He was teaching on the mountainside He told His listeners this: “You have heard that our fathers were told, ‘Love your neighbor — and hate your enemy.’7 But I tell you, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! Then you will become children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun shine on good and bad people alike, and he sends rain to the righteous and the unrighteous alike.”8 Luke records it this way: “Love those who work against you. Do good to those who hate you. Respect and give thanks for those who try to do bad thing to you. Pray for those who make it very hard for you.”9
On the subject of loving one’s neighbor and hating one’s enemy as spoken by Jesus in Matthew 5:43-45, it must first be noted that Jesus did not point to the Scriptures. Rather, He mentions the words of their Jewish forefathers. This was no doubt a reference to what was called “Oral Law.” So Jesus was not contradicting the Torah, but was no doubt quoting a popular adage among the Jewish Zealots: “Love your neighbor, but hate your enemy.” That is to say, “Love your fellow-Jew but hate the Romans.” The Dead Sea community in Qumran went even further. They taught their followers to “love all the sons of light … and hate all the sons of darkness,”10 understanding the sons of light as members of their own sect and sons of darkness to be other Jews outside of their sect. Furthermore, who can forget what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane after Peter, in a fit of rage, cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant? Jesus stopped him, bent down, picked up the piece of the ear and healed the servant.11 And even when Jesus hung dying on the cross, He look up to His Father and said: “Father, forgive them. They don’t understand what they are doing.”12
Before Paul wrote this to the believers in Rome, he had already shared his feelings about hospitality with the Corinthians: “We work with our hands to make a living. We speak kind words to those who speak against us. When people hurt us, we say nothing. When people say bad things about us, we answer with kind words.”13 Then, to the Thessalonians Paul wrote: “Do not let anyone retaliate for the bad he received. But look for ways to do good to each other and to all people.”14 Even the Apostle James saw the value in this principle when he warned: “When giving thanks and speaking bad words come from the same mouth. That, my Christian brothers, this is not right!”15
The Apostle Peter drew the same conclusion, especially when he looked at the example of Christ Jesus. Peter wrote: “These things are all a part of the Christian life to which you have been called. Christ suffered for us. This shows us we are to follow in His steps. He never sinned. No lie or bad talk ever came from His lips. When people spoke against Him, He never spoke back. When He suffered from what people did to Him, He did not try to pay them back. He left it in the hands of the One Who is always right in judging.”16 Peter then goes on to say: “When someone does something bad to you, do not do the same thing to him. When someone talks about you, do not talk about him. Instead, pray that good will come to him. You were called to do this so you might receive good things from God.”17
Several early church scholars offer their understanding of what Paul is advising here. Origen contends that Paul did not want those who believed in Christ to think ill of others but rather to speak and to pray for good things for them. That way they may be thought of as servants of a good Lord and disciples of a good Master. What the Apostle Paul says here refers to when we are assaulted by our enemies or afflicted with harm. Paul pleaded that we not repay wishes of evil with wishes of evil but to do what he says he himself he wrote: “When we are screamed at, we bless in return.18”19 Then Ambrosiaster focuses on the cause of why some believers may respond with harsh words. When God made Christians new people, they were new in every respect. Paul wanted them to discard some of what used to be old habits. For instance, when someone cursed them in anger, they returned the favor. But now things have changed. When someone curses a believer out of hatred or anger, instead of returning the same, bless them and tell them you wish them only the best. This way the Lord’s teaching might be respected20.21
Also, in his sermon on this text, early church preacher Chrysostom proclaimed that our persecutors are in fact couriers of a double reward to us. If we remain calm and composed in our response, we will get a reward for being an example for others who may be persecuted. But there’s another reward. By demonstrating the character of Christ by blessing them, you will earn a further reward by letting our light shine as conveyors of love, not hate. If a person curses their persecutor in return for being cursed by them, it shows they are unwilling to suffer for the cause of Christ. But those who bless them that persecute them, they show the greatness of Christ’s love.22 And the early church patriarch of Constantinople believes that Paul wants all believers to exhibit such brotherly love that those who want to persecute them will have no reason for doing so.23
For some reason, this directive by Paul touched John Calvin in a sensitive spot. He says that once and for all he wanted to remind the readers that they should not feel obligated to religiously try and follow all the precepts Paul is laying down here in precise order. Rather, he says they should be looked at as unconnected and suited as a foundation for a holy life in conjunction with the principles the Apostle introduced at the beginning of this chapter. In other words, Calvin did not want believers to view them as some Rosary to be repeated each day in the same order they were given. This has been a problem with some ultraconservative Christian groups who pride themselves with their daily check-off list in order to validate their purity as dedicated believers and followers of God’s Word.
Calvin notes that Paul is about to give directions on how to deal with retaliation for any injuries believers may suffer at the hands of persecutors. But first, he wants them to take the first step of not wishing evil on those who curse them. Instead, to wish and to pray that God will help them see that there is far more to gain with kindness than there is with curses. Since it is harder to do this than simply giving what we get in return, we should seek earnestly to rise to a higher level. The Lord commands nothing of us but what He does not require it of Himself. That’s why He accepts no excuses for being disobedient. If we lack what it takes to change, we should pray for His help in assisting us in making progress toward that goal. If there is anything that God expects of His people it is that which differs from the ungodly and the children of this world.
Calvin confesses that it is more difficult to let go of revenge when anyone is injured. While most believers will restrain their hands and not be baited into doing physical harm, yet they find it hard to not to wish some calamity to fall on the heads of who assault them as a way of paying them back for what they said or did. On top of that, Calvin experienced that even when some Christians are so pacified that they do none of these things, very few, if any, will wish their persecutors good things in hopes that persecution will stop. As Calvin sees it, God by His word not only restrains our hands from doing evil, but also subdues our bitter feelings inside. He is more interested in us being concerned about the well-being of those who trouble us for no reason and seek our destruction.24
1 Calmet’s Dictionary of the Holy Bible: with the Biblical fragments, American Edition, Article: Caravanserai, Boston: Published by Crocker and Brewster, 1832, p. 278-280
2 Calmet’s Dictionary of the Holy Bible: with the Biblical fragments, American Edition, Article: Hospitality, Boston: Published by Crocker and Brewster, 1832, p. 503-504
3 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8
5 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Job 31:29-30
7 Leviticus 19:17
8 Matthew 5:43-45
9 Luke 6:27-28
10 Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, by Penquin Books, The Community Rule, IQS, p. 99
11 Luke 22:51
12 Luke 23:34; See also Acts of the Apostles 7:59-60
13 1 Corinthians 4:12-13a
14 1 Thessalonians 5:15
15 James 3:10
16 1 Peter 2:21-23
17 1 Peter 3:9
18 1 Corinthians 4:12
19 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 See Matthew 5:43-45; Luke 6:35
21 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
22 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 22
23 Gennadius of Constantinople: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
24 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.