NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FIFTEEN (Lesson II)
Reformer John Calvin interprets Paul’s call for strong believers not to be dismayed by the shortcomings of weak believers. Some of them don’t think it’s right when a person who matures in the faith is then given a heavier burden to carry, a burden belonging to someone else. However, says Calvin, the opposite is true, The very reason God has nurtured a believer and caused them to grow stronger is so that He can use them to keep a weak believer from falling and giving up. The fact is, God has destined those to whom He has granted advanced knowledge so they can then pass on what they’ve learned to those who still need instruction. That’s the goal of any teacher. In order to do this, the strong may, from time to time, help the weak until their strength improves to carry more of their own burden.1 In this way, there will be fewer and fewer weak believers and more and more strong believers who together can carry any burden the Lord may put on them as a body for the benefit of those who would be helpless otherwise.2
In German theologian John Bengel’s mind, every minute a strong believer spends on their own wants and wishes means one less minute God can use them to help out a weak brother or sister. So what better way to return thanks to God for all that he’s done for us, than to do all we can for those who need help and guidance? Bengel goes on to point out that by saying “to bear a burden,” is just another way of saying “to sooth a burden.” However, the verb sooth and noun burden do not match very well. I would rephrase it to read, “to give a helping hand.” That means more than just dropping something off with instructions on how to use it. Bengel also remarks that when a person is obsessed with meeting their own needs, they have little time to help someone else out with theirs. Being selfish ought to go against the conscience of every believer.3
John Taylor takes issue with the translation of verse 1 from Greek into English. The KJV renders it, “We then, that are strong.” However, the Greek reads, “We who [are] strong.”4 Another version puts it, “We, the able.”5 By using the KJV, Taylor thinks that this as an inference from the last part of Chapter 14 where it talks about those who are unsure about what foods to eat or not to eat. If they proceed to eat because they are convinced by faith that it is acceptable to God they can be happy. However, if they go ahead and eat while in doubt, then that is for them a mistake. Meanwhile, when those who are strong decide against taking the opportunity to exercise their freedom, and abstain as a favor to the weak brother or sister, are making the right decision.6
Puritan scholar Jonathan Edwards notes John Taylor’s point and finds no reason to object. In fact, he takes this as Paul’s directions to the strong believers in Rome to always be the one who abstains in favor of their weak believer’s point of view. This makes for peace and harmony. And by doing so, they show who are the stronger ones in the local Body of Christ. It also gives the strong believer the opportunity to build up the weak Christian in holiness and wholesomeness.7 The weak believer has little or no choices because they have not grown that much in the faith. Whereas the more mature believer can walk a lot further by faith. So the choice goes to the strong believer and they cannot lose, because it is better to make your weak believer comfortable at your expense, then to make yourself happy at their expense.8 There is no reason to take Edward’s advice as potentially leading to the weak dominating the Body of Christ. These are things that pertain to a person’s spiritual growth, not their views on fads or fashions.
Several years ago there was a story of an ongoing argument between a husband and wife. The actual subject of the argument is much less important than the process. As was often the case, the husband was certain he was right but couldn’t get his wife to back down and agree. The only thing they could agree on in this matter was to seek the counsel of their pastor. The husband knew that the pastor would side with his position and designate him as being “right.” As they shared their dramatically different perspectives, the husband made mental preparations to declare victory. But to his considerable surprise, the pastor didn’t take sides, gracefully sidestepping the dichotomy of right/wrong, and the “I’m Okay,” “You’re not Okay” that goes with it. Rather, he asked the husband matter-of-factly, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” As a Christian, we can often be forced to make that same decision when it comes to keeping harmony in the Body of Believers.
Methodist scholar Adam Clarke believes the sense of this verse is supposed to be the following: Strong Christians who better understand the liberty brought to us by the Gospel, not only may offer to work with the weak in rectifying their differences, but are bound to do so as a Christian duty. That will not only help the strong to better understand the misgivings of the weak about the things the strong feel free to do but will also ease their consciences by knowing that they will not be forced to approve of what the strong do or to join them, which would go against their better judgment.9
Clarke then offers an account from his own life that happened in the early 1800s. He tells us that the first time he visited the Methodist churches in Italy, he found out that the believers there had no issues about drinking table wine at meals, while the denomination’s stance on alcohol was total abstinence. The brethren in Italy’s decision not to drink wine while he dined with them was their way of saying that they respected the denomination’s stance and could not in good conscience practice what their spirit was in harmony with since it would cause unnecessary grief. I might add, that in January 1969 I had the privilege of visiting some churches that were supported by my denomination in Sicily and found that even to that day table wine at meal time was an acceptable practice, but not back in the United States. So the tradition has continued and their respect for the abstainer remains.
Robert Haldane interprets the Greek word bastazō, which the KJV translated as “to bear,” and what Paul says about helping each other out to denote both to bear and to bear with. As so used, Haldane takes it to mean, to carry. He says it can be illustrated by imagining two travelers who are each carrying a suitcase. The smaller of the two has a suitcase that is excessively heavy, and the bigger one has a suitcase which is fairly light. So the strong traveler tells the weak one to let him carry that heavy suitcase and gives the lighter one to him to carry since they’re both going to the same destination.
Then the two stop at a restaurant to have a meal. The strong traveler orders a beer while the weak traveler orders lemonade. But the weak tells the strong that he is against drinking alcohol and is disappointed that his fellow traveler has such low standards. So the strong traveler immediately cancels his beer and orders lemonade as well. So as far as Haldane is concerned, it is improper to think of bearing another person’s burden to mean that you must put up with, endure, or tolerate any inconvenient thing they may demand of you. But there is no reason not to meet them at least halfway.
It is easy to know what things are in our control and which things are beyond our control to manage, says Haldane. God is the Lord of our conscience. The person who speaks of tolerating the belief of another without making their own known is improper. Just as long as it’s not done to please ourselves at their expense.10 This agrees with Thayer’s Greek Lexicon that gives several English renderings of bastazō such as, 1) “to take up with the hands,” and 2) “to take up in order to carry,” and 3) “to carry on one’s shoulders.” Thayer lists the way it is used here in this verse under number 3.
Charles Hodge feels that by separating this passage from the narrative in the preceding chapter by the numbering system is unfortunate since there is no change in the subject, it makes it more difficult to understand in context. In Hodges’ mind, Paul is making his point on how we should all get along by looking at those things on which we agree rather those things on which we disagree. Paul’s having to point out differences between believers should not be necessary since the law of love, the example of Christ, and the honor of our faith requires that we work together to solve our differences. All Paul is saying is that once we know what the differences are and what our weak brothers and sisters find so disturbing, we must look for ways to come to an agreement on how we can make sure they are not offended by our actions. That is far better than insisting on having things our way that ends up being a double loss. We lose because our stubbornness may cost us their friendship and their respect11.12
French theologian Frédéric Godet sees Paul’s intent to foster harmony in the Roman church this way: He is fully aware of those Jews in the church who still have their ties to the synagogue and attachment to their former laws, rites, and rituals, and those who came into the church with none of these things and are celebrating their liberation from paganism and idolatry. So Paul must find a way to advise both sides on how to accommodate each other and still maintain harmony in the church. So he starts with the Gentiles who have been freed and are no longer bound by the laws of self-righteousness and tells them to respect their Jewish brethrens’ uneasiness about eating food sold in the local market that also sells meat to be offered to the idols in the town’s shrines. Their conscience would be hurt if they found out they had mistakenly eaten such contaminated food. That’s why he starts out this chapter by saying that some of them who have no problems with this should be sensitive and patient with those who do.13 This can be taken as another way of saying that there never has been nor will there ever be a time when every Christian on earth is in total agreement about everything they believe, say, and do. But one uniting factor that all believers possess is the love of God in their heart. So, if we cannot agree on how we do this or that, at least let us agree that what we do is all for the glory of God.
Charles Spurgeon preached that when a believer reaches the point where they feel free to say and do what their conscience allows them to do, they still must be careful that they don’t offend other believers who have not matured to that same level. Consider their handicap and do not make fun of it, but try to see things from their point of view. After all, we should not take advantage of our liberty just to please ourselves and leave them to struggle alone on how to stay true to God, their conscience, and the Law. Under no circumstances should we put their faith at risk just because it might cause us some inconvenience and extra time to sort out the differences.14
1 The Greek adjective dynatos translated as stronger suggest being more able to cope with adversities that face believers.
2 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 356
4 New Living Translation Interlinear by Tyndall
5 Scripture for All Greek Interlinear Bible (NT)
6 John Taylor: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 359
7 See 1 Thessalonians 5:11
8 David S. Lovi. The Power of God: A Jonathan Edwards Commentary on the Book of Romans (p. 315)
9 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 278
10 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc, cit., p. 608
11 1 Corinthians 9:20-22
12 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. p. 669
13 Frédéric Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.