NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XXXVII)
Paul also shared this sense of empathy with the Corinthians. He wrote: “Who is weak without my sharing his weakness? Who falls into sin without my burning inside? If I must boast, I will boast about things that show how weak I am.”1 And in Hebrews we see this same sentiment expressed: “Remember those in prison and being mistreated, as if you were in prison with them and undergoing their torture yourselves.”2 No doubt all of us have heard the phrase: “In word and deed.” Paul uses that saying in several places.3 It is so apropos here when we think about how many times people have come forward in church for prayer, or sent requests for prayer, and then they never hear anymore from the ones who prayed for them. Paul is saying, that our prayers and best wishes for those in need are best served with a follow-up. Don’t just say you care, show how much you care.
Some early church scholars have differing opinions on how rejoicing and weeping should be applied by believers. On the assertive side, Ambrosiaster believes that if you weep with an unbeliever, it may motivate them to accept the Lord’s teachings.4 And Chrysostom preached about having compassion when he points to Paul’s desire that the believers in Rome be saturated with the warmth of friendship in their hearts and minds. That, then, propels him to continue exhorting them not merely to bless, but even feel compassion for the pain and suffering that comes upon people after they fall into serious trouble.5 The real key here is to link verse 15 with verse 14 where Paul is talking about those who persecute believers. So we are not to switch from rejoicing or weeping with fellow believers to showing no emotion for unbelievers who are weeping or rejoicing.
Then, on the cautious side, we read that Origen believes we must have a clear and precise understanding of when to be happy and when to be sad for other people and their conditions. Origen felt that a Christian’s joy was to be different than other kinds of joy, the tears of a Christian are not to be confused as simply being tears. He had seen people rejoicing because they had made a lot of money, or acquired a lot of property, or having received many worldly awards. He didn’t feel it was proper to rejoice with them because these are only temporary and they are often followed by sorrow and disappointment. For him, rejoicing as a believer should be with those who are seen doing a work which deserves to be recognized in heaven, whether it is a work of righteousness, of charity, of peace, or of mercy. Also, when we witness someone leave the darkness of sin behind and come to the light of truth and the forgiveness of sins, we ought to rejoice with them.6
Origen, strangely enough, felt like there was no reason for believers to weep with unbelievers who were mourning their dead. Rather, that a believer’s tears should join those who are weeping because they are under conviction for their sins; who are turning to Christ in repentance, and whose tears are part of their sins being washed away. Furthermore, when an unbeliever groans because they suddenly realize the hopeless predicament they are in as a lost sinner and want to find Christ, then we should join them in their desire to be saved with an outpouring of tears7.8
However, Pelagius sees the appropriate application of what Paul says here as a litmus test in identifying true believers. After all, our Lord was brought to tears by the weeping of Mary, to give us an example.9 His weeping must not be misunderstood as shedding tears for His friend Lazarus whom he would shortly bring back to life, but because of the unbelief of those who again and again did not believe Him when He performed wonders. As odd as it may sound, Pelagius believes that Christians now do just the opposite. They weep with envy over those who rejoice and rejoice with gladness over those who weep. When they see someone other than themselves being praised, they weep with unhappiness. However, if they see some prominent individual fall into ruin, they leap for joy. When believers act this way they show everyone that they do not belong to the body of Christ. Who can grieve for a member who has been cut off when that means they have become enemies of their own side and friends of the opposition. On the other hand, who would not grieve if they saw one of their bravest Christian warriors fall in the heat of battle against Satan, but not be brought to their feet, rejoicing in admiration when they see them fighting bravely against sin and evil and being victorious.10
On this precept, John Calvin points out that we find another truth laid out for us by Paul. This is related to how the faithful should regard each other with mutual affection and admiration, and put the other person’s situation above their own. Here Paul specifies two particular things, – That they were to “rejoice with the rejoicing,” and to “weep with the weeping.” This is what authenticates true love, that as believers we weep for our brother or sister rather than stand back and only observe their grief from a distance while we go on with our lives. What did Paul mean by this? He stresses that as much as possible we ought to empathize with one another. And whatever our situation may be, take the time to assimilate the feelings of a hurting brother or sister, whether they are grieving or dealing with adversity, or rejoicing in prosperity or suffering from loss. But never should a believer subdue their happiness for a fellow believer because of envy. At the same time, to refrain from grieving for their misfortunes is not only unchristian but inhuman. As Calvin sees it, we believers should develop such a depth of compassion and sympathy that we can respond authentically to all kinds of situations and emotions.11
One thing I learned in my Clinical Pastoral Education as a chaplain was not to cry for people but cry with them. Feel their hurt and let it bring tears to our eyes. Adam Clarke had a similar concept in mind when he advised that believers should work at developing a compassionate or empathizing mind. Their heart should ache for those in distress; start joining them in their grief, and bear part of their burdens. In fact, through empathy, a person may actually have their own feelings affected in great measure to the distress of their friend. This should help their friend have the same amount of relief as the amount of empathy their friend shares with them in their grief.12
On the other hand, when it comes to being thrilled at the success for good fortune of a brother or sister, neighbor or friend, Albert Barnes believes that this command grows out of the doctrine stated in verses 4-5 pronouncing the church as one family. Therefore, it has one interest, and that is mutual empathy in its joys and sorrows with brothers and sisters. One way to participate in their welfare and show your attachment to them is by rejoicing when they are made happy.13 In this way, happiness can spread and multiplies itself. God has joined us together in Christ. And since He is touched by our feelings, we should be touched by the feelings of others14.15
Charles Hodge focuses on the fundamentals of this concept of rejoicing or weeping with those who celebrate or are in sorrow. For Hodge, love produces not only the forgiveness of enemies, but a general sympathy for the joys and sorrows of our fellowmen, and especially of our fellow Christians. What Paul is saying here is the exact opposite of a selfish indifference to any interests but our own. The Gospel requires that we think of all our brothers and sisters as family members. That means we share the same spiritual nature, we share the same Father up above, and we have a mutual destiny called heaven. There are very few things that are more powerful than love and genuine sympathy. How much like Christ is the man who feels the sorrows and joys of others, as though they were his own16
Preacher Charles Spurgeon speaks on this in one of his sermons. For him, sympathy is a duty of all mankind. We are all brethren sprung from the same stock, and that which is a good thing to any other person ought to be a joy to each of us. When we hear of any friend or neighbor being sick, it should make us feel sad. At the same time, should any of our acquaintances rejoice over something worthy of joy, it should make all of us thankful. But Paul wants to elevate a natural duty into something higher. We should consider it a sacred privilege among the born again in the wonderful family of God. In addition to the natural ties we all have as human beings, we have additional bonds as new creatures in Christ Jesus. That’s because we have “one Lord, one faith. one baptism.” We are members of one body, having one only Head: and one life throbs through all the members of that body.
Therefore, for us, as believers to find strife in dealing with one another in joy or in sorrow would be contrary to the sacred instincts which arise out of Christian unity. Spurgeon points out that if indeed, we are one with Christ, we are also one with each other, and we must participate in the common joys and common sorrows of all the elect family. But this can go even higher with greater intensity when the joys involved are spiritual joys. For instance, if a fellow Christian prospers in a business that we may not be sure it will turn out to be a real blessing to them, if they do end up prospering in spite of some difficulties and setbacks, then we may safely rejoice to the very fullest that the blessing they have received will bring honor and glory to God.17
Jewish scholar David Stern tells us that this concept of having empathy with those who are happy or in grief was also part of Jewish culture. He points to the Babylonian Talmud where it says that when the community is in trouble a person shouldn’t say I’ll go home, eat and drink, because I’m fine. What the person who does that is really saying, the Scripture says, Let’s have a good time now because tomorrow we’ll all be dead.18 So what follows next? Listen to what the Lord of Hosts revealed to me: You will pay for what you’ve done when you die. This is the conduct of ordinary people, but what does Scripture say of the conduct of the wicked? They will say let’s have a party, nothing’s going to change, in fact, it may get even better by tomorrow.19 But what does Scripture say about the righteous? It tells us that when a righteous person perishes, nobody seems to care. When godly people are taken away, they are lucky to escape the evil that is coming.20 It should never be this way, people should always share in the distress of the community.21
1 2 Corinthians 11:29-30
2 Hebrews 13:3 – Complete Jewish Bible
3 See Romans 15:18; Colossians 3:17; cf. 1 John 3:18
4 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 22
6 See Psalms 13:5–6; 40:16; 68:3; 71:23; 97:12; Isaiah 25:9; 61:10; Matthew 5:11–12; Luke 15:6
7 See Jeremiah 30:15; 4 Ezra 2:3
8 Origen: on Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 See John 11:33-35
10 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 245
13 Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:26
14 Hebrews 4:15
15 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 619
17 Charles Spurgeon: Message titled: Sympathy and Song, delivered at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, England, Sunday evening, January 7, 1872
18 Isaiah 22:13b – Complete Jewish Bible
19 Ibid. 56:12
20 Ibid. 57:1
21 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Ta’anith, folio 11a