NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THIRTEEN (Lesson XVI)
Verse 13: Let our conduct be decent, like people who belong to the day. We should not have wild parties or get drunk. We should not be involved in sexual sin or any kind of immoral behavior. We should not cause arguments and trouble or jealous rivalries.
Now Paul embarks on defining the Christian lifestyle. This is a reversal of behavior described in Romans 1:29-30. It appears that even in the Apostle’s day there were wild parties held at night. But Paul says that Christians conduct themselves the same way after dark, where few can see them, as they do during the day. That’s why Paul told the Galatians that by allowing the Holy Spirit to guide them they can avoid falling prey to their old sinful nature’s desires.1 And to the Ephesians Paul wrote that they should not live the way they used to before they met God and accepted Christ as their Savior.2 Paul reminded them that at one time they lived in darkness, but now they live openly in the light that comes from the Lord so that God’s glory can shine through them. As a result, says Paul, this will help them live like level-headed people, not fools.3
When he wrote the Philippians, Paul told them: “Conduct your lives in a way worthy of the Good News of the Messiah.”4 A lot of times believers forget that they represent Christ to this world, that’s why they should not shock their unconverted friends with words and deeds that Christians are taught to avoid using and doing. Paul tells them that they should never forget to behave themselves at the high sanctified level they’ve attained with God’s help.5 And in order to do this, Paul tells them: “Focus your thoughts on what is true, noble, righteous, pure, lovable or admirable, on some virtue or on something praiseworthy.”6 And to the Colossians Paul wrote that when they live in a manner that pleases the Lord, not only will their deeds be appreciated but they will get to know God even better.7 Furthermore, it will earn them respect among non-Christians and allow them to offer help instead of always needing help.8
Paul pens a list of questionable activities that one might expect among immoral derelicts but not Bible-believing Christians. The first one he mentions, wild partying, is a reference to the late night, riotous procession of half-drunken, carousing partygoers who after supper parade through the streets with torches and music in honor of Bacchus or some other idol deity while stopping to sing and play before the houses of their friends. This often went on until the early morning hours. The second misdemeanor is intoxication. The third despicable act was modestly translated by the KJV as “chambering.” The Greek noun koitē can either mean taking a nap, going to bed, or cohabitation. Thayer in his Greek Lexicon clearly states that as used here it means fornication.
The fourth worthless activity is described by Thayer as: “Wanton acts or manners such as filthy words, indecent bodily movements, unchaste caressing of males and females.” Today we can see this demonstrated in certain lewd and suggestive dances. The fifth unwanted behavior is described by Paul as arguing and fighting, followed by jealous rivalry. In other words, trying to outdo each other in order to impress. The real question is: why did Paul think it was necessary to warn the Roman believers against such sinful behavior?
Such teaching was not new to the Apostle Paul. As a Jewish Pharisee, he had studied and read what the early Jewish fathers had taught. For instance, the great Jewish Rabbi Hillel once taught that the person who grows fat increases the number of worms needed to devour their dead body. In the same way, the person who increases their possessions increases worry. Also, the person who increases acts of immorality increases guilt. But the person who increases their reading of the Torah increases life; one who increases study increases wisdom; one who increases counsel increases understanding; one who increases charity increases peace. Although a person who develops a good reputation acquires a good life for today, the person who acquires a good understanding of Scripture has acquired a better life for the World to Come.9
Then in his commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Bartenora echoes what Hillel stated about the person who engages in much eating and drinking to the point that they become fat and fleshy, increasing the number of worms that will attack them in the grave. He goes on to say that the effect the maggots have on the body of the dead is similar to the effect of an infection has for living flesh. He acknowledges that Hillel is trying to help us understand that all increases can prove difficult for an individual except for the increase of study in the Holy Scriptures which increases a person’s wisdom and kindness.10
We are told that such over-the-top partying and carousing were commonplace during the Roman Empire. One Roman historian tells us that during the time of the Roman emperor Vitellius (15-69 AD), that overdoing things and cruelty was like a plague. The emperor divided his feasts into three, sometimes into four, a day. They all began with breakfast,11 followed by lunch, then dinner which ended with a drinking contest. The emperor was more than able to do justice to all of them utilizing his habit of taking medicine to induce vomiting. Moreover, he had himself invited to each of these meals by different celebrities on the same day, and the menu for any one of them never cost less than four hundred thousand sestertius.12
Most notorious of all was the dinner given by his brother to celebrate the emperor’s arrival in Rome at which two thousand of the choicest fish and seven thousand birds are said to have been served. He himself eclipsed even this at the dedication of a platter, which on account of its enormous size, he called the “Shield of Minerva, Defender of the City.”13 On this, he mingled the livers of pike, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingos, and the semen of [sea] lampreys brought by his captains and triremes [ships] from throughout the whole empire; from Parthia to the Spanish strait. Besides being a man of an appetite that was not only boundless but also regardless of time or decency he could never refrain himself, even when he was sacrificing or making a journey, from snatching bits of meat and cakes amid the altars, almost from the very fire and devouring them on the spot. And as his chariot bumped along the cobbled roads, snacks that were smoking hot, or even those left over from the day before, were brought to him.14
So it is no wonder that Paul’s admonition about proper conduct and behavior by Christians was commented on from an early church perspective right up to the medieval ages. Origen calls them the works of darkness, which are also called the “works of the flesh,” in which people surrender the passions of their flesh to luxury and uncleanness rather than to holiness and the Lord. When reading the word “Reveling,” we should understand that it refers to dishonorable and extravagant banqueting, which inevitably is prone to sexual immorality. And “Quarreling and Jealousy” are really acts of the mind, but like everything else here, they are called acts of the flesh.15
Ambrosiaster admits that it is true that most people do not sin in public, so let us behave as if we were constantly in the public eye. For there is nothing more public than the truth. Crimes are hatched after drinking large supplies of wine, and many kinds of lust are also stirred up. Therefore, banquets of this kind are to be avoided. Debauchery is another result of this sort of thing. Paul was right to warn them against quarreling and jealousy because both of these things lead to hostile actions.16
Chrysostom does not believe that Paul forbids the use of alcohol; he is opposed only to its excessive use. Nor does he prohibit sexual intercourse between married couples; rather, he is against fornication between unmarried couples. What he wants to do is to get rid of the deadly passions of lust and anger. Therefore, he does not merely attack them but goes to their source as well. For nothing kindles lust or wrath so much as excessive drinking.17
And finally, Pelagius gives his view. For him, just as the light of day keeps everyone from doing what they would freely do at night, so too, knowledge keeps us from ignoring the commands of the Law. A revel is a luxurious banquet, but we have a spiritual feast. Moreover, that drunkenness is ruinous and an occasion for debauchery is further proved by the fact that Paul has added “licentiousness.” That quarreling and jealousy are also objects of reproach is demonstrated both here and by many other examples18.19
Medieval Reformer Martin Luther spends quite a bit of time on this verse, mentioning that it was the text by which St. Augustine was converted. But at the same time, Luther also mentions the fact that St. Jerome in his history tells how the Roman church took the six vices mentioned in this verse and allowed them to ascend to such oppressive levels that they impacted the church in a negative way. Luther also notes that the Apostle Peter also addresses the vices that were rampant in Rome in his day.20 In Luther’s mind, what he saw in Rome during his day far exceeded what the Apostle Paul describes here. Luther then goes on to treat each of these vices and compares them to Paul’s other writings, mentioning that what were admonitions here can be found as commands in letters Paul wrote from his prison cell in Rome.21
1 Galatians 5:16, 25
2 Ephesians 4:17
3 Ibid. 5:8, 15
4 Philippians 1:27
5 Ibid. 3:16
6 Ibid. 4:8
7 Colossians 1:10; See 1 Thessalonians 2:12
8 1 Thessalonians 4:12
9 Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): Ch. 2:7
10 Obadiah ben Abraham of Bartenura on Pirkei Avot: 2:7
11 What was usually an ordinary light breakfast, Vitellius made a banquet of it.
12 An ancient Roman coin
13 A sestertius (meaning two and one half) was a large brass coin that represented the purchase price of two and a half donkeys. In today’s dollar, it would be worth approximately twenty-five cents. So the total cost of each meal was $100,000.00. This was often done to honor the colossal statue of Athena Promachos on the Acropolis at Athens. Pliny the Elder says that the platter cost a million sestertius and that to make the meal it required a special furnace be built in the open fields.
14 Suetonius: The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Vitellius, Ch. 13, p. 269
15 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 24
18 See e.g. James 3:14
19 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 See 1 Peter 4:3-4; Cf. 2 Peter 2:13-14
21 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 190-192