NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THIRTEEN (Lesson XII)
Karl Barth makes the point that Love is incapable of contradiction. Love does not enter into competition; and, therefore, it cannot be defeated. And since it can only hate when it comes to evil,1 it is, therefore, the action which is altogether preeminent over all evil. If it were possible for Love to do wrong in the midst of evil, it would make itself incompetent under all circumstances. That would mean, that if, as a protest against the course of this evil world, we would stop loving, that would prove that we do not love God. Therefore, we would be unable to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice and would not have our minds renewed.2 This is the relentless, impelling, earnestness of the command of Love; and – therefore, Love does fulfill of the Law.3
Jewish scholar David Stern admits that even Messianic Jews live with that tension. But so do Gentile Christians, and likewise non-Messianic Jews. For even the most orthodox Jew, even one who, for the sake of argument, knows every halakhic [Jewish Law] ever enacted, would, as a practical matter, have to reach their own conclusions as to what the Law requires of them, at least in border-line situations; if at such moments, they are not operating in love, their decision will be wrong. Conversely, an approach which disregards legal rules and precedents guarantees a lower standard of ethical action, since each individual will have to “reinvent the wheel” as they rediscover for themselves accumulated wisdom and expertise. This Jewish writer thinks the best position is to avoid both the stiff application of the Law and the unreliability of subjective love-feelings. It combines the sensitivity of Spirit-inspired love (which is more than a mere feeling – it implies loving action) with respect for ethical instruction in Halakhah [Jewish Law] and other laws seeking to draw from the full complement of God-given human and supernatural resources – good and loving responses in all circumstances.4
Verse 11: I say this because you know that we live in an important time. Yes, it is now time for you to wake up from your sleep. Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
When these words were written, in the mind of the author the coming of Christ was imminent. Now over 2000 years later as we read them, should we take them seriously since they were apparently meant for another time and place? By all means! Paul was a tool of God’s divine inspiration. Even though he spoke to his generation, God knew that future Christians would need this admonition, not in the future tense, but with the impact of the present tense imperative.
Jesus pointed out to the religious leaders of His day that while they are cognizant of the signs they see in nature such as a red sky at night is a sailor’s delight but a red sky in the morning is a sailor’s warning, they seemed oblivious to the spiritual signs being shown to them.5 Later on, Jesus would tell His own disciples that they too must be aware of the signs of the times. So he told them to always be on the lookout.6
That’s why the Apostle Paul cautioned the Thessalonians: “You do not need anyone to write to tell you when and at what kind of times these things will happen. You know for sure that the day the Lord comes back to earth will be as a robber coming in the night. When they say, “Everything is fine and safe,” then all at once they will be destroyed. It will be like pain that comes on a woman when a child is born. They will not be able to get away from it.”7
When we see some Christians who are seemingly asleep in their walk with Christ, we want to be like the ship captain with Jonah on-board. In the middle of the storm when things started getting bad, we read that the “ship’s captain found Jonah and yelled at him, ‘What are you doing sleeping down here? Get up! Call on your god!’”8 Jesus had His own illustration about ten young ladies who were part of a wedding entourage. Five of them thought ahead and took extra oil just in case their wait would be longer than they planned, but five of them didn’t bother to plan ahead. So when the call went out that the groom had arrived, those who didn’t bring extra oil were left in the dark.9
And what about the parable Jesus told His disciples the estate owner who went on a long trip. Jesus said: “The man gave each one of his servants some work to do. He told the one standing at the door to watch. In the same way, you are to watch also! You do not know when the Owner of the house will be coming. It may be in the evening or in the night or when the sun comes up or in the morning. He may come when you are not looking for Him and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all. Watch!”10 And to the Ephesians Paul wrote: “You, brethren, are not in the dark so that the Day [of judgment] might take you by surprise like a thief; for you are all people who belong to the light, who belong to the day. We don’t belong to the night or to darkness, so let’s not be asleep, like the rest are; on the contrary, let us stay alert and sober.”11
Such alerts are not without merit. Jesus was telling His followers that there will be plenty of signs that will warn them of His impending danger. He told them: “When these things start to happen, stand up and hold your heads high; because you are about to be liberated!”12 And Paul had already written the Corinthians and told them: “While you live in this world, live as if the world has no hold on you. The way of this world will soon be gone.”13 The Apostle Peter alerted his readers: “You must be the boss over your mind. Keep awake so you can pray.”14
When it comes to the reality of doing all the good we can, not to earn salvation, but to earn the words of our Lord: Well done, you good and faithful servant, several early church scholars made comments. Diodore, Bishop of Paul’s hometown of Tarsus tells us that when we realize what the advantages of doing good to others and in charitable giving are, the message of salvation and the reason we were saved becomes easier to understand than it was when we first believed. For when we believed in Christ we did not immediately acquire an exact understanding of what we should be doing, nor was it clear to us what we should stop doing, and what we should continue doing. Wisdom comes with time.15
Bible scholar Ambrosiaster also saw it as an awakening. As far as Paul was concerned, it was time for the Roman believers to realize that they were not doing all that they should be doing to let their light shine in the darkness of Roman depravity and idolatry. This is what it means to wake up from sleep even though it is still dark – to start working in God’s vineyard as though it were already daytime. For living a good life is a sure sign that a Christian believes in their future salvation. For when a person believes and is baptized they are forgiven but not rewarded. Later, as they walk in the newness of life, they draw nearer and nearer to their home in eternal life.16 Be reminded that Ambrosiaster is not advocating that living one’s life for the glory of God is a way to salvation, but in gratitude for salvation. This is what Jesus clearly meant when He said: “Let your and good deeds shine out for all to see so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”17
And Chrysostom sees a sense of urgency in what Paul is saying. The day of reckoning and judgment is drawing nearer and nearer for each individual. Anything you want to do for God must be done before you die. There are no good works to perform in the grave. So always keep this in mind: The time is short, the day of resurrection and of God’s judgment is fast approaching. Remember, there is no passing of time when you are at rest with God awaiting the call of resurrection to a new life.
From the moment you die to the moment you are awakened by the sound of the trumpet will seem like only seconds. If you have done everything that was asked of you and are prepared for it, then you have nothing to fear, but if you have not, then look out! Paul is not trying to frighten his readers but to encourage them, so as to detach them from their love of the things of this world. It was not unlikely that at the beginning of their endeavors they would be more dedicated and slacken off as time went on. But Paul wants them to do the opposite – not to slacken as time goes on but to become even more dedicated. For the nearer the King is the more they ought to be ready to welcome Him.18
And early church scholar Pelagius tells his readers to Grow Up! It is the hour for you to strive for that which is more perfect and complete, for you should not always be children and infants. Let everyone rise from the sleep of indifference and lack of attention. It’s time to let the light of Christ shine in this dark and dreary world. With the increase of knowledge, our salvation is nearer than it was when we became a believer.19 To which we add the words of Bishop Theodore: “Our salvation” means the general resurrection on the last day, for it is then that we will enjoy true salvation.20 And for Gennadius: Every day the end comes closer; we are already on the threshold of getting in line for our call from the grave.21
Verses 10-11 of this chapter generated one of the larger portions of Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. It is worth reading to understand his take on Paul’s instructions from the point of view of a Reformer in the 16th Century. When it comes to loving our fellowman as much as we love ourselves, Luther says that this command is immeasurably deep, and every Christian should thoroughly explore their heart, mind, and attitude with respect to those around them, as they conscientiously examine themselves to see where their weaknesses and strengths are.
Luther then says that after Paul has instructed us, he admonishes us. This involves what Luther calls indoctrination and exhortation. Indoctrination is needed when someone is ignorant of the facts and cannot distinguish the difference between truth and heresy. According to Luther, Paul uses metaphorical and figurative expressions which are not suited for those who are still infants in their knowledge of God’s Word. He points to where Paul said to the Corinthians: “Think carefully about what is right and stop sinning.”22
1 1 Corinthians 13
2 Romans 12:2
3 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 David H. Stern; On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Matthew 16:1-3
6 Matthew 24:42
7 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3
8 Jonah 1:6
9 Matthew 25:1-13
10 Mark 13:34b-37
11 1 Thessalonians 5:4-6
12 Luke 21:28 – Complete Jewish Bible
13 1 Corinthians 7:31
14 1 Peter 4:7
15 Diodore: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Matthew 5:16 – New Living Translation
18 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 23
19 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 Theodore of Mopsuestia: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Gennadius of Constantinople: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
22 1 Corinthians 15:34