NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XXXIX)
Early church preacher Chrysostom wants us to notice that once again the Apostle Paul insists on humility, which is how he started this whole exhortation. It did not escape Paul’s attention that there was a strong possibility that the Roman believers would be high-minded because of the greatness of their city, the capital of the world at that time. He knew that there is nothing more likely to cause schisms in the church than vanity. So the Apostle’s instructions were that if you are given the opportunity to invite a poor person into your house, don’t go strutting around because you were able to do so.1 In Christ, there are no rich or poor. Don’t be turned off by their outward appearance, but receive them because of their inward faith. If they appear despondent and troubled, do not hesitate to comfort them. If they are rejoicing over some accomplishment, don’t be shy sharing in their excitement. If you think of yourself as an important person, then think of them the same way. If you find that they are humble and lowly, then remember where you came from and what you used to be and treat them as a close friend.2
Martin Luther believes that Paul is referring here to the tendency of some to esteem those who rank highly in the world but have little or no interest in those of the lower class. Paul wants them to treat both equally. The purpose of this is so that people do not begin to think so highly of themselves that they become arrogant. Luther believes that Paul’s words are addressed to those who have become conceited, stubborn, and obstinate. Luther looked around and commented that it was hard to believe that so many were afflicted by this proud attitude that it was difficult to find anyone who was totally free from it. Such individuals accept no advice, even though they have been convinced of what is right by simple reasoning. These are the type that cause of dissension. They tend to be the most vicious peace-breakers and destroyers of the unity of faith. For this reason the Apostle writes to the Ephesians: “Endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,”3 and to the Philippians: “Be like-minded, having the same love; being of one accord, of one mind.4”5 If you ever read about what Luther went through before the Reformation broke out, you’d clearly understand who he was talking about.
Fellow Reformer John Calvin points to the Greek words that Paul uses and finds how significant and suitable they are to the antithesis, “Think not,” he says, of “high things.” The Greek verb phroneō (mind) actually refers to one’s “opinion” of themselves. So when that is combined by the Greek adjective hypsēlos (high things) which refers to “something we aspire to,” we can see Paul’s point more clearly. In other words, don’t get hooked on being something you are not or that you think you deserve to be. In Paul’s mind, that it is not the kind of arrogant person a Christian should be, ambitiously aiming for those things that may put them ahead of others. Instead, keep a low profile and let circumstances raise you higher, not self-pride. That way, if a person does succeed in being placed in a more responsible position, it will be by the Lord’s choice, not by pride and disdain for others.
For Calvin, verse 16 was a fitting principle added to what Paul had just said in verse 15. There, Paul advised everyone to rejoice with those who rejoiced and feel sad about those who felt sad. So now he tells them that by doing so they will live in harmony with each other. As Calvin knew, nothing shatters the unity of believers more than when one or two begin to elevate themselves as though they belong to a higher class. Furthermore, it will only grow worse when some in the group have their heads swell because they think they know what’s best and do not need to submit their ideas to any council. The cause of such arrogance can be traced to people who elevate themselves to positions of importance.6
Jonathan Edwards informed his listeners that humility can prevent contemptuous behavior. Treating others with disrespect and discourtesy is the worst kind of pride. Truly humble believers do not go around bad-mouthing others either out of jealousy or just because it feels good. They don’t see themselves as being above others so as to cause them to look down on them with a haughty spirit. They realize that if it wasn’t for the grace of God, they would be just as despicable a worm as they are. They sing with great gratitude and passion the words of Isaac Watts famous hymn that goes: “Alas! and did my Savior bleed and did my Sove’reign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”7
Adam Clarke speaks about some of the conditions in society during his period of the 1700’s. Too many were trying to get to the top no matter what it cost. For Clarke, it was the corruptness of shallow minds. However, it does serve some redeemable purpose. Such individuals are more than conscious in their own minds of the fact that they are of little worth the way they are, so the only way to become worth something is to try and gain a little credit by endeavoring to associate themselves with people of high rank and fortune. Some seek to do this through employment, and others by way of social events and association. This was true not only in the world but also in the church. However, any rise in their importance was mostly done by their imagination. Here Paul echoes what the wise man said in Proverbs: “Don’t be impressed with your own wisdom. Instead, fear the LORD and turn away from evil.”8 Clarke warns his fellow ministers that they should not suppose that wisdom and discernment dwell alone in them. Always accept the fact that they need both help and instruction from others.9
On the subject of being united in thought with fellow believers, Robert Haldane feels that this precept refers to unanimity, cordiality, and harmony when dealing with church business, rather than being of one mind when it comes to understanding the Gospel. That’s because when it comes to their beliefs, it is the Word of God with which believers are to be in accordance, and not with the opinions of each other. For congregations to be united in their belief, even the least part of the revelation of God is of great importance. However, being in complete agreement on everything in God’s Word would require everyone to have full and complete knowledge of the Divine word. This, of course, is hardly possible. Paul’s injunction is most important, however, and a warning against a faultfinding spirit when it comes to the business of the church with which we are all connected in our discussions with another.10
Charles Ellicott has some interesting things to say here. As he sees it, perhaps a better paraphrase of this verse might be as follows: “Let yourselves be carried along in the stream with those who are beneath yourselves in rank and station; mix with them freely; be ready to lend them a helping hand if ever they need one, and do this in a simple and kindly way; do not let any social predispositions keep you at a distance.” Another rendering would be, “come down from your high horse and associate with those on the ground.”
Ellicott mentions something that John Keble, an English church layman, and poet, after whom Keble College at Oxford was named, wrote. In one of Keble’s poems, that was turned into a church hymn, we read where he wrote that our everyday tasks and common duties give us all the opportunity we need to humble ourselves and bring us closer to God.11 As a Bible scholar you will observe that in this way of taking the passage, the Greek verb synapagō which means “to condescend, move down, be humbled” has to be said with force, not in an expressive and natural way Paul would have liked to have said it.12 Humility is necessary for Christians not only in their dealings with others but also to keep their minds open and teachable. This is a hard thing for many to do. But this provides a way they can see their errors, and learn from them.13
John Stott takes up the subject of elitism in the church by pointing out that there are few if any, kinds of pride that are worse than snobbery. Snobs are obsessed with issues of status, with the stratification of society into “upper” and “middle” and “lower” classes. In some countries, its divisions are “tribes” and “castes,” and the social circle they live in. They forget that Jesus fraternized openly and freely with those considered to be social rejects, and called on His followers to do the same with equal freedom and naturalness. Stott notes that J. B. Phillips in his NT translation puts it, “Never be condescending, but make real friends with the poor.” What a comprehensive picture of what Christian love ought to be like that Paul gives us! As Stott points out, Love is sincere, discerning, affectionate and respectful. It is both enthusiastic and patient, both generous and hospitable, both benevolent and sympathetic. It is marked by both harmony and humility. Christian churches would be happier communities if we all loved one another like that.14
Verses 17-18: If someone does you wrong, don’t try to pay them back by hurting them. Try to do what everyone agrees is right. Do the best you can to live in peace with everyone.
Here the Apostle Paul endeavors to show the difference between retaliation and recompense. Retaliation is most often an effort to inflict injury while trying to get revenge for some true or imagined harm done. Recompense, on the other hand, means seeking to receive compensation for some service rendered or damage incurred. It is often thought of as simply replacement of cost. So when some member of the church does something that results in a loss, especially an accusation that causes harm to one’s reputation or standing, Paul says don’t try to pay them back by attacking their good name. Check with those around you and agree on what everyone thinks would be a fair recompense. Not only will this result in keeping a friend, but in some cases may make a friend out of an enemy.
Perhaps Paul had Solomon’s wise saying in mind, where the son of David said: “Don’t say, ‘I’ll pay back evil for evil;’ wait for Adonai to save you.”15 Jesus went a step further when He told His disciples: “I tell you, do not fight with the man who wants to fight. Whoever hits you on the right side of the face, turn so he can hit the left side also.”16 This no doubt inspired Paul to tell the Thessalonians what he is telling the Romans here: “See that no one repays evil for evil; on the contrary, always try to do good to each other, indeed, to everyone.”17 Even the Apostle Peter offered the same advice: “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.”18
1 See Luke 14:7-11; James 2:5
2 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 22
3 Ephesians 4:3
4 Philippians 2:2
5 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 177
6 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 David S. Lovi. The Power of God: A Jonathan Edwards Commentary on the Book of Romans (p. 283)
8 Proverbs 3:7
9 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 246
10 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 570
11 From the hymn: New Every Morning is the Love, words by John Keble, 1822, 4th stanza. In the original, it reads, “The trivial round, the common task, will furnish all we ought to ask, room to deny ourselves, a road to bring us daily nearer God.”
12 Cf. Romans 11:25; Proverbs 3:7
13 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Proverbs 20:22
16 Matthew 5:39
17 1 Thessalonians 5:15
18 1 Peter 3:9