NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FIFTEEN (Lesson I)
15:1 (14:24): Now, we who are more sure owe it to those who are less sure by helping them deal with errors arise from their uncertainties, and do it in a way that does not benefit us, but benefits them.
This opening verse in chapter fifteen begins with the conjunction “now,” which certainly ties it to something said before. Apparently, in 1551 when Robert Estienne (Robert Stephanus in Latin), a French printer in Paris, decided to give numbers to chapters and verses for the first published version of the Bible. Since it is most likely that he used the Latin version and took the opening line “We who are strong...” to be the beginning of a new chapter. He may have been misled by the fact that critical conjunction “then” was missing from the text, which should have read, “We then who…”
So with the conjunction, what does this advice from the Apostle Paul relate to in the preceding verses of chapter 14? All we need to do is go back to 14:22-23 and we will see what Paul is offering as a solution to the problems he mentions there. He tells the Romans to keep that which is fine with them, between themselves and God. Anyone is happy if they know they’re doing what’s right. But if someone has doubts about what foods they should eat, God says they are making sinners of themselves if they go ahead and eat it. It is because they are eating without being assured that it is the right thing to do. It’s important to know, that anything that is not done with certainly is a big error. Then, the next verse (15:1) says, “Now, we who are more sure owe it to those who are less sure…”
So we can see that after the Apostle Paul has taken the Roman congregation outside the walls of the church – in chapter 13, to instruct them on how to get along with their secular neighbors and government, he takes them back inside the sanctuary – in chapters 14:1-15:6 to continue his advice on how to get along with each other. In this case, he exhorts them on how believers should help one another as believers. Let’s think about this for a moment: When we go to the altar to pray, before we pray for ourselves, we ought to pray for the person or persons we know who need more help than we do. When we know someone who has difficulty assimilating into the church fellowship, don’t be the first one to chide them for not adapting quicker. If we know someone who is having trouble with an addiction, let them know it’s the addiction that is the culprit that needs to be confronted. Paul is explaining that when we do this, someday, we may have to depend on their prayers and comfort for problems we are experiencing. Because we helped them, they will be able to help and strengthen us. Failing them now means that somewhere down the road when we need them most, they may fail us just like we failed them.
Paul had some strong words for people like this when he wrote the Corinthians. He told them: “We are fools for Christ, but you think you are so wise in Christ. We are weak, but you think you are so strong. People give you honor, but they don’t honor us.”1 I’ve never heard someone say what I’m about to say. However, I must believe that at some point-in-time someone said it before I did: That is: The dumbest people in the world are those who think they have nothing more to learn. And this can be no truer than of Christians who believe they know all they need to know about God, His Word, and how to please Him.
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul made this confession: “I am glad to have weaknesses if they are for Christ’s sake. I am glad to be insulted and have hard times. I am glad when I am persecuted and have problems because it is when I am weak that I am really strong.”2 And what Paul meant by being strong he explained to Timothy: “Be strong in the grace that we have because we belong to Christ Jesus.”3 In other words, we are not strong because we think we can do everything on our own, but because we know that with Christ’s help we can do all things needed to live victoriously for Him to the glory and honor of God our Heavenly Father.4
Then, and only then, are we prepared to help those who need our assistance. Paul said it this way: “To those who are weak, I became weak so that I could help save them. I have become all things to all people. I did this so that I could save people in any way possible.”5 Paul certainly didn’t mean that he himself became weak in order to help those who needed help, but only that he was willing to do all that it took to help them get over the obstacle in their way, by walking through it with them. Another way to put this is that when we see a fellow believer struggling with some sinful tendency, do not simply show them sympathy, but empathy. Get to know what it is that may be tormenting them. It has a lot to do with attitude. Instead of standing behind them yelling for them to get going, or standing in front of them urging them to catch up, stand with them by offering a helping hand.
Paul also pointed out that oft times we overlook how important the weaker members of the body of Christ are to the whole. He said: “Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are actually very important. And the parts that we think are not worth very much are the parts we give the most care to.”6 In fact, Paul told the Thessalonians: “Encourage those who are afraid. Help those who are weak. Be patient with everyone.”7 Always keep this maxim in mind, expressed over 230 years ago that goes like this: “In every chain of reasoning, the evidence of the last conclusion can be no greater than that of the weakest link of the chain, whatever may be the strength of the rest.”8
Early church scholar Origen has an interesting point to make. For him, our first effort should be to please God first, then we should please our neighbor. But, of course, some will say that Paul is contradicting himself here because elsewhere he said that if we attempt to please mankind then we are not servants of Christ.9 However, this can be explained by pointing out that there is a big difference between trying to please others just to get their approval, and quite another to treat them with kindness so that we show how willing we are to put their needs before our own. That way, we will not be accused of being selfish. When they see this in our attitude and deeds, it will also help them grow in faith by what they see and hear. In so doing, we are, in effect, putting God first because this is what He desires of us. He knows we are not trying to please others by doing things which are against our faith, honor, and righteous living. Note that Paul himself says this, when he adds, that in pleasing our neighbor the purpose is to build them up in the faith. 10
Then Pelagius proposes that we ought to be commended by our neighbors rather than by ourselves. This is the example Paul tried: “Just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage but that of many that they may be saved.”11 For how can we hope to increase another person’s faith if they don’t see it in our own attitude and actions? It’s those who only look out for themselves so that they will be the beneficiaries of any good that comes from what they do. That’s why Paul indicates how and why we should please both God and others, so that we do not do it for worthless self-aggrandizement.12 It’s one thing to let others know how many hours you spend on your knees each day in prayer, but it’s quite another when someone comes to you and tells you they have increased their prayer life because of what you helped them learn about prayer.
Reformer Martin Luther reminds his readers of all that Paul said earlier in this letter concerning disputes between the Jews and Gentiles over which foods to eat and which to abstain from. Luther notes that from dealing with the special case of kosher foods, Paul now constructs a lesson for everyone. He takes what he taught on how to deal with others on the matter of what to eat and what not to eat, and uses this principle of stronger believers being sensitive to weaker believers and applies it to all areas of disagreement. This can be used in discussions on everything from can we use wine for communion, to, should women wear hats in church. The main precepts we use in resolving other issues involve the weak believers not criticizing the strong believers because of their liberal views and the strong believers not despising the weak believers because of their conservative views. Remember, Christ died for all sinners, not just the most moral and righteous, but for the most immoral and sinful. He treats them equally13.14
Then Luther goes on to make the point that those people who only think of themselves and take advantage of others are willing to accept everything they can get from them except their burdens. Luther believes this happens because they don’t want to be responsible for other believer’s mistakes. They are good as vilifying, judging, defaming, accusing, and despising others but make no effort to help. We see a similar case with the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18:10ff. The Pharisee criticized, reprimanded, accused, and condemned the publican while rejoiced in his own self-righteousness. Luther notes that scorning others is a particular trait of those who are out to please themselves. They rejoice less because they are righteous, and more because others are unrighteous. In fact, if those they criticize would become as righteous as they are, they would still not rejoice. To tell the truth, that would upset them because instead of being one of a few, they would be one of many and, therefore, no longer unique in their eyes.15
1 1 Corinthians 4:10
2 2 Corinthians 12:10
3 2 Timothy 2:1
4 Philippians 4:13
5 1 Corinthians 9:22
6 Ibid. 12:22-23
7 1 Thessalonians 5:14
8 Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man: by Thomas Reid, Vol. II, Dublin, 1786, p. 377. It should be noted that Reid based his work on what was said by Job in the Old Testament: “Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts?” (Job 38:36)
9 Galatians 1:10
10 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 1 Corinthians 10:33
12 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 See Galatians 6:1-2
14 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 207
15 Luther: ibid., p. 208