NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XLII)
Frédéric Godet notes that Paul continues talking about how we should always confront evil with good. In Godet’s mind, the Apostle is identifying a person’s preoccupation with good as being a remedy for the retaliatory thoughts and hostile intentions people began to conjure up when dealing with resentment. Paul wants the believer’s internal preoccupation with doing good to be so apparent in their conduct, even toward their adversaries or enemies, that no one would suspect them of possessing a mind that is inspired by a hostile disposition. This spirit of goodwill is necessarily one of a peacemaker. It does not meditate on things that can cause trouble but strives to remove what disunites. Paul’s first restriction deals with our neighbor’s conduct. We are not to try and master their feelings. We have enough to do with keeping our own in check. That leads to the second restriction. As much as lies within our own power, to exercise discipline over ourselves. Paul is not advocating that we are responsible for convincing our neighbor that they should make peace with us. Rather, God is depending on us to always be inclined to keeping a peaceful relationship with them.1
John Stott also meditates on this subject of good for evil. For him, Paul’s first antithesis between good and evil was, “bless and do not curse” (verse 14). His second begins with: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (verse 18). I like how J. B. Phillips renders this, “we are to see that our public behavior is above criticism.”2 This then would make our actions and attitude abnormal if we claim to be refraining from doing anything bad while at the same time not seen as trying to do anything good. Paul’s next counterpart to this first precept is to dismiss any notion of retaliation. As much as possible, and as far as it depends on us, we should have a peaceful relationship with everyone. When we refrain from repaying evil with evil, it defuses any potential of inflaming a disagreement into a quarrel. But there is more. As believers, we must do all we can to initiate peacemaking,3 even if, as the two qualifications indicate (“if it is possible” and “as far as it depends on us”), this is not always possible. We’ve learned that sometimes people are either unwilling to live at peace with us, or refuse to accept any conditions for reconciliation. When this happens, never be tempted to agree to any unacceptable moral compromise just to make peace.4
Douglas Moo also has some thoughts on this subject. For him, at the end of the Apostle’s brief outline of the subject of sincere love, Paul returns to a key ingredient of that love he mentioned in verse 14, namely, responding to the persecution of unbelievers with kindness rather than with hatred. Paul wants to show the positive and negative aspects of dealing with unkindness and slander. First, he introduces the negative facet: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” With the teaching of Jesus in mind, Paul echoes what our Lord said encouraging us to bless those who persecute us, and discouraging us from demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.5 Jesus thereby introduces us to the kingdom of God’s ethic of non-retaliation, something Paul renews here.
But here the followers of Jesus are exhorted to do more than just avoid retaliation. Paul says in verse 17 they must also do what everyone would agree was the right thing to do. However, who is to determine for a Christian what is “the right thing to do?” That’s why verse 18 qualifies the extent to which believers are to conform their behavior to meet the expectations of unbelievers. “Do the best you can” means, in effect, only that which God’s good and perfect will allow you to do. But under no circumstances should believers feel compelled to seek approval with the world at the expense of God’s moral demands. We all must realize that a harmonious relationship with unbelievers will not always be the outcome of our best efforts. After all, look how hard our Lord tried to establish a good relationship with the scribes and Pharisees, but in the end, they too joined in crying out, “Crucify Him.”6
Jewish scholar David Stern makes no secret of the fact that this teaching by Paul may have been influenced by the teaching he received under Jewish Rabbis.7 For instance, in their own Mishnah, we read these words: “It is one’s duty to be free of blame before man as before G-d. As it states: ‘And you will be cleared [of any charges] before ADONAI and before Israel.’8 And it further states: “Then you will win favor and esteem in the sight of God and of people.9”10 Another Jewish writer believes that Paul is speaking here about being arrogant. This means: having an attitude of superiority which is expressed in an overbearing manner based on presumptions. Paul might have been offering this advice while dealing with a specific situation in the Roman congregation, but it qualifies as a general application for all believers. In this Jewish writer’s mind, arrogance is equated (spiritually) with poor judgment, while humility is attributed to sound judgment based on seeking God’s will as found in the Torah. It is there that we find what God’s says are our “rights” or “freedoms” as believers11.12
Verse 19: My friends, don’t become the avenger when someone does something wrong to you. Wait for God to punish them with His displeasure. In the Scriptures, the Lord says, “I am the one who punishes; I will pay people back.”13
Here the Apostle Paul begins with one reference and one quote from First Covenant writers. First, he repeats what Solomon said about waiting for the Lord to do the punishing.14 Then, second, he quotes what Moses had to say to the children of Israel about how to placate their enemies and making peace. In another place, Moses adds this: “Don’t take vengeance on or bear a grudge against any of your people; rather, love your neighbor as yourself; I am ADONAI.”15 King Solomon also emphasized the same ethic: “Don’t say, “I’ll do to him what he did to me, I’ll pay him back what his deeds deserve.”16
Paul wrote this letter to the Roman believers during a time when Jews were hated in many places where they had relocated, and Christians were looked upon as a radical sect of Judaism and not well thought of. Therefore, getting along with each other was of extreme importance. This then would help them support each other when they were assaulted and persecuted by the heathen world around them. It was another way of God saying: Stick together and let me take care of those who are trying to make your lives miserable.
There was a good reason for Paul to make this recommendation. After all, what God did once for His people He would do again since He never changes. He told the children of Israel what would happen to those who turned their backs on Him: “Vengeance and payback are mine for the time when their foot slips; for the day of their calamity is coming soon, their doom is rushing upon them.”17 Even the Psalmist called out for God to do His job: “Yahweh God of vengeance, ADONAI! Yahweh God of vengeance, appear! Assert Yourself as judge of the earth! Payback the proud what they deserve!”18 Of course, once such a prayer is prayed, then the outcome must be surrendered into the hands of God so that His will and only His will may be done. The prophet Nahum received this word in his vision about Nineveh: “ADONAI is a jealous and vengeful God. ADONAI avenges; He knows how to be upset. ADONAI takes vengeance on His foes and stores up punishment for His enemies.”19 Some 700 years later the writer of Hebrews echoes the same warning as it was written in the Torah.20
Early church scholar Origen sees what Paul says about vengeance belonging to God as two ways of dealing with the anger which comes when we are offended. First, we hold back our anger and let it pass. Once the fury of our rage has subsided it will be gone because we learned how to swallow it. The second way is to surrender it to God who puts it in His storehouse of punishment waiting for the Day of Judgment. On that day, God will dispense to each person what they deserve for their words and deeds. When we take it upon ourselves to get revenge, there is not much we can do apart from demanding an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth,21 or else insulting others as they have insulted us. But if we postpone any such avenging to what God has planned for them, He will, without doubt, punish them far more severely than we ever could.”22
The Bishop of Tarsus, Paul’s hometown, shares that Paul uses the Greek noun orgē, meaning “wrath,” to describe God’s punishment. Thayer in his Lexicon puts this in the category of how God treats disobedience and resistance to His will by punishing them for it. In other words, it is not all out wrath upon them, but specific to their act of being stubborn and resistant to God’s will.23 If there was no discipline, how would sinners understand right from wrong in God’s Law and God’s judgment on those who are disobedient to His Law? This has nothing to do with some kind of passion on God’s part to be mean and nasty. Since most people respond to those who do them wrong in wrath and anger, they shouldn’t be surprised that the Scriptures use the same words to describe God’s reaction.24 Then Chrysostom adds to what is being said here by noting that what any insulted or injured person desires most is for the guilty paid back. But Christians need not worry, God will give it to them in full measure, provided that believers do not take it out of His hands and avenge it themselves. Leave it to God to follow up the wrongs done to you.25
1 Frédéric Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 J. B. Phillips Translation of the New Testament, loc. cit.
3 Cf. Matthew 5:9
4 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Matthew 5:38
6 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Numbers 32:22
9 Proverbs 3:4
10 Mishnah: Second Division: Mo’ed, Tractate Shekalim, Ch. 3:2
11 See Psalm 131
12 Messianic Bible, On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Deuteronomy 32:41
14 Proverbs 20:22
15 Leviticus 19:18
16 Proverbs 24:29 – Complete Jewish Bible
17 Deuteronomy 32:35
18 Psalm 94:1-2
19 Nahum 1:2
20 Hebrews 10:30 quoting Deuteronomy 32:35-36
21 See Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21; Matthew 5:38-48
22 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
23 See John 3:36; Romans 1:18; 4:15; 9:22a; Hebrews 3:11; 4:3; Revelation 14:10; 16:19; 19:15
24 Diodore: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
25 Chrysostom: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.