NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XXXVI)
Jonathan Edwards was burdened by the fact that in his day there were some who, when praying for others, wished either paradise or perdition for them. He said, “They pray that others may either be converted or removed. I never heard nor read of any such thing practiced in the church of God till now.” It goes against the very spirit of what Paul says here. How can any join blessings and curses in the same prayer? No matter how ill-treated we may be by others, we should never allow bad feelings to develop toward them. If a person cannot express goodwill to all, then it might be best not to express any will at all. Paul was certainly in harmony with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount1.2
Robert Haldane agrees with Calvin that we should not take the order in which these characteristics here by Paul, starting with verse 6, as having anything to do with their priority. We should note how important they are, not how they connect with each other. So when it comes to dealing with persecutors, he feels that only born-again believers can follow the instructions that Paul shares. And even for them, the difficulty will be in line with their progress in their spiritual life. Any difference between what our spiritual nature is capable of and what is needed can only be compensated for by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In any case, Haldane does not believe that anyone can justly call themselves a Christian who does not in some measure possess this spirit, and practice this precept. With that being said, Haldane wonders how few genuine disciples of Christ there really are now days.3
Charles Hodge also touches on how far reaching this precept of Paul’s is. Everyone expects Christians to love each other and treat one another with kindness and dignity. But this exercise of love, and carrying out the duties of kindness, are not only to be directed toward the saints of God. This same attitude must be expressed to our opponents. The Greek verb eulogeō rendered “to bless,” signifies both praying for good to happen to anyone, and doing good for them as well. As this word is used in this context, praying for the good of others, including enemies, is the preferred understanding. This is opposed to wishing evil or harm on those who cause trouble and heartache. In Hodge’s mind, refraining from wishing that evil may overtake those who persecute us is not enough. We must go a step further and actually and sincerely desire and pray for their good. It is not sufficient to avoid returning evil for evil, nor even to forbid revengeful feelings; we must bring ourselves to truly wish them happiness. If this is hard for a Christian, imagine how hard it would be for those dealing with a corrupt human nature? Anyone who really knows their own heart would agree. Yet this is a standard part of Christian character as exhibited in the Scriptures4.5
Frédéric Godet also treats this subject by identifying it as a further step from exhibiting hospitality to strangers to showing kindness to those that persecute. Each progressive act of love becomes more and more energetic. No doubt this is the reason why Paul jumps from giving guidelines to demanding action. No longer is Paul dealing with those things expected of love, he now wants the Roman believers to know there are some imperatives that need to be acted upon. That would suggests that some persecution had already started against the church in Rome. What the Apostle Paul is wanting to happen will require a powerful effort of the will. This is why Paul repeats what he says going from the positive to the negative. In other words, do this but don’t do this. You can love and pray for those who persecute you, but for heaven’s sake don’t take revenge on them and wish them any harm.6
Godet thinks we should consider that it might be conceivable that the Apostle Paul had gotten hold of a copy of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If not, he must have known from oral tradition enough that he was able to allude to the sayings of Jesus as recorded by Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:28. This discourse of Jesus is the one which has the most marked traces in the Epistles.7 Our Lord’s recommendation, related to showing love toward malicious persons, was already an expectation in Paul’s day.8
John Stott follows the same line of thinking as Godet. He raises the point that even if our persecutors are not part of our Christian community, yet the call to bless them is a necessary challenge to Christian love. It is easy to see why “blessing” and “cursing” are opposites. After all, wishing people good things or wishing them bad things could not be more different. We must consider that Paul knew about Jesus’ teaching where He told His disciples not only to “bless” those who curse us,9 but also to “pray” for them10 and to “do good” to them.11 What better way is there to express our constructive wishes for our enemies’ welfare than to take them from prayer to action?12
Douglas Moo takes it one step further. He notes that here in verses 9–13 Paul mainly used participles (suggestions) to help define the action we should take. But in verse 14 he switches to the more typical imperative mood (commands) calling for action right now. He also suddenly shifts his focus from relationships with other believers to the way that same love can be shown to non-Christians. Paul’s command in verse 14 remind us of Jesus’ famous teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”13 “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”14
Moo so much as says that these similarities to what Jesus taught suggests that Paul is quoting Jesus’ teaching here. In fact, we see more dependence on Jesus’ teaching in this part of Romans than we do anywhere else in Paul’s writings. The way Paul weaves references to Jesus’ words into his own exhortations is typical of the way the early Christians absorbed Jesus’ teachings into their own ethical tradition and the way many preachers and teachers do today. Paul agrees with Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek, displaying a love for others that goes far beyond the normal boundaries of human love.15
Verse 15: When others are happy, you should be happy with them. And when others are sad, you should be sad too.
Now the Apostle Paul segues from sympathy to empathy. No matter how well-intentioned a Christian’s kindness and hospitality may be, the last thing any person who is disabled or disenfranchised wants to hear them say is: “I feel sorry for you.” There is a distinct difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy expresses feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of what another person is facing, sometimes without them being fully communicated in an explicit manner.
This was so clearly communicated in Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son. When he finally came to his senses, and went back home with full intentions of asking his father to allow him back in as a servant, his father rejoiced that the son he thought was ruined and lost forever, was still alive and contrite over his decision to leave and waste his inheritance. But the elder son was not so thrilled to see his younger sibling return and not be chastised and punished. So his father turned to him and said: “My son, you have been here with me all the time. All that I have is yours. It is right and good that we should have a good time and be glad. Your brother was dead and now he is alive again. He was lost and now he is found.”16
When Paul was explaining to the Corinthians how the body of Christ was like the human body and how each part that makes up the whole should work together for the good of the body. So he tells them this: “All the parts are to care for each other. If one part of the body suffers, all the other parts suffer with it. If one part is honored, all the other parts share in its happiness.”17 When Paul wrote them again, he told them about his decision not to come for a visit: “As I thought about it, I decided I would not come to you again. It would only make you sad. If I make you sad, who is going to make me happy? How can you make me happy if I make you sad? That is why I wrote that letter to you. I did not want to visit you and be made sad by the ones who should be making me happy. I am sure when I am happy, you are happy also.”18
But rejoicing with those who rejoice in victory is only half the story. There are those who need a hug when the tears are those of sadness, not joy. King David tells the story about some of those who wanted to see him overthrown, many of which were once good friends, and put a new king in his place. He couldn’t understand why there were being so brutal and malicious. David says: “When they were ill, wore sackcloth; I put myself out and fasted; I can pray that what I prayed for them might also happen to me. I behaved as I would for my friend or my brother; I bent down in sorrow as if mourning my mother.” But now that David himself was suffering, it’s a different story. Says David: “They gather together in joy. Those who say things to hurt people gather against me. I did not know them any more. They speak against me without stopping. They grit their teeth while telling dirty jokes about me when they get together.”19
This certainly was the case with Nehemiah when he learned that some of the Jews who had been exiled in Babylon were freed and had returned to their homes in Jerusalem. What they found was a city with its walls broken down, the gates destroyed by fire, and the Temple in ruins. Said Nehemiah: “Upon hearing this, I sat down and cried and was filled with sorrow for days. I did not eat, and I prayed to the God of heaven.”20 And the Lord confessed to Jeremiah that He found Himself hurting with sorrow for His people, especially for those who had been killed because of their disobedience. He said: “I wish I were out in the desert, in some travelers’ lodge — then I could get away from my people and distance myself from them!”21 Of course He couldn’t since He loved His people and had promised never to leave or forsake them.22
1 Matthew 5:44
2 David S. Lovi. The Power of God: A Jonathan Edwards Commentary on the Book of Romans (p. 281)
3 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 569
4 Matthew 5:44
5 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 618
6 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Cf. Romans 2:19; 1 Corinthians 4:12-13; 6:7; 7:10; James 4:9; 5:12; 1 Peter 3:9, 14.
8 Godet: op. cit.
9 Luke 6:28a
10 Ibid. 6:28b; Matthew 5:44
11 Ibid. 6:27
12 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Matthew 5:44
14 Luke 6:27-28
15 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Luke 15:31-32
17 1 Corinthians 12:25-26
18 2 Corinthians 2:1-3
19 Psalm 35:13-16
20 Nehemiah 1:4
21 Jeremiah 9:1-2
22 Deuteronomy 31:6