NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FIFTEEN (Lesson III)
Bible teacher H. A. Ironside, taught about being sensitive to other people’s preferences, especially those weak in their faith. By doing so, we can be a vessel and tool of the Holy Spirit to help them grow and mature. So when you see a believer having trouble dealing with things that weigh heavy on their conscience, ask them to explain and then see how you can help. But under no circumstances, should you start out by lecturing them on how weak they are in their faith and why their spiritual growth has been stunted by the way they think. Remember, you are there to build them up, not tear them down. If you are truly free to make a decision of eating or not eating; drinking or not drinking certain things, then use that freedom to abstain if necessary.
That is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. When He came to earth as the Messiah, the Son of God was under no obligation to obey Mosaic Law, follow the laws of purity, or celebrate the Jewish Feasts, etc. Yet He voluntarily submitted to every precept of the Torah and even went so far as to pay the Temple tax. His reason? “Lest we should make them stumble.”1 By doing this, He was willing to be criticized by those who thought He did not need to pay and was only giving into the Romans out of weakness. But His outward behavior was as blameless as His inward life, yet people still reviled Him as they reviled God.2
John Stott has quite a bit to say about Paul’s opening verses here concerning how those in the church who are spiritually mature should assist and mentor those who are spiritually immature. Since Paul begins with “we who are strong,” he clearly indicates who he is talking to. From the context of what he has said so far, that would be the Gentile converts and any of the Jewish converts who had made the transition from the Law to the Gospel. So what, then, ought the strong to do? What is their Christian responsibility towards the weak? That’s where Paul’s warning comes in. Strong believers may be tempted to utilize their strength to brush off the weak. Paul urges them, instead, to help them carry their load as it pertains to their conscience. Before their conversion, being self-centered and self-seeking was natural to their fallen human nature. But they ought not to use their strength now to their own advantage. Pleasing our neighbor, which Scripture commands,3 must not be confused with pleasing anybody for the sake of convenience4.5
Back in 1842, a young British born man immigrated to the United States with his father. His name was Thomas B. Welch (1825-1903). He attended school in New York and became a dentist. Then in 1859, at the age of 17, he joined the Wesleyan Methodist Church. From their beginning, this denomination was totally against the manufacturing, buy, selling, or drinking alcoholic beverages. As a consequence, they needed a form of grape juice that had not fermented. This was not an easy task to do. Not only that, but there were some in the Church that had no problem using wine, some of which contained 12% alcohol. At the age of 19, Welch became an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Sometime later, Welch decided to use pasteurization to create unfermented grape juice for the purpose of using it at communion. So for those who were totally against drinking fermented wine and those who saw no problem with it, Welch was able to find a compromise that worked. It later became known as Welch’s Grape Juice and was sold in grocery stores in the New York and New Jersey area until it spread across the country and around the world.
On this subject of not letting differences developing into a grudge against one’s neighbor, Rabbi Avraham Saba tells us that the early Rabbis taught that a person should not try to hide any ill feelings from someone else, but it should be brought to the other person’s attention without expressing anger or hate. If a person fails to do so and continues to harbor ill will in their hearts against a neighbor, they are burdening themselves with a sin. However, even if telling your neighbor does not change their ways or cause them to apologize, at least you have unloaded your potential sin so it should not bother you anymore. The worse thing a person can do is try to retaliate so as to get the other person’s attention to show how hurt you really feel. In that case, you become no better than they are and now both of you are at fault. Rather, attempt to replace the bad feelings with good feelings by performing acts of love. Consider the things your neighbor likes and adopt their interests as a way of showing that you like what they like, instead of continuing to point out what you don’t like.6
15:2-3 (14:25-26): We should do whatever helps others to grow stronger in faith because this is what will build them up spiritually. Even Christ did not live trying to please Himself. As the Scriptures say about Him, “Those people who insulted You have also insulted me.”7
The Apostle Paul encouraged everyone in the Roman Christian community to look out for one another because he practiced it in his own life. As he told the Corinthians: “Although I am an independent man, not bound to do anyone’s bidding, I have made myself a slave to all in order to win as many people as possible.”8 Paul continues this theme in his letter: “Try to do what is good for others, not just what is good for yourselves.9 I do the same thing. I try to please everyone in every way. I am not trying to do what is good for me. I am trying to do what is good for the most people so that they can be saved.”10
But the Corinthians were not the only ones Paul tried to motivate into being helpful to others. He also told the Philippians: “In whatever you do, don’t let selfishness or pride be your guide. Be humble, and honor others more than yourselves. Don’t be interested only in your own life, but care about the lives of others too.”11 Paul had good reason to teach this altruistic approach because he read the words of David: “Lord, you made me understand this: You don’t really want sacrifices and grain offerings. You don’t want burnt offerings and sin offerings. So I said, ‘Here I am, ready to do what was written about me in the book. My God, I am happy to do whatever you want,”12 and understood how it applied to Christ his Savior and all those who follow Him.
This attitude is best exemplified in the submission of our Lord Jesus when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion: “My Father, if it is possible, don’t make me drink from this cup. But I want what you want to be done, not what I want.”13 Then when our Lord fell on His knees a second time He prayed: “My Father, if I must do this and it is not possible for me to escape it, then I pray that what you want will be done.”14 This was not the first time that Jesus evinced His total dedication to His Father’s will. While speaking to the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria, Jesus told her: “My food is to do what the one who sent me wants me to do. My food is to finish the work that he gave me to do.”15 And later when Jesus healed the man at the Pool of Bethsaida in Jerusalem, He saw the man again in the Temple and explained to him and others around him: “I can do nothing alone. I judge only the way I am told. And my judgment is right because I am not trying to please myself. I want only to please the One who sent me.”16 Then, after feeding the 5,000 on the shores of Lake Galilee, Jesus told them: “I came down from heaven to do what God wants, not what I want.”17
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster takes note that the Savior says that He did not come to please Himself but God the Father. Because He said I did not come down from heaven to do my will but the will of Him who sent me,18 the Jews objected and put Him to death as a blasphemer. Thus He fulfilled what the Psalmist said “The disgrace of those who disgraced You fell on me.”19 This has been taken by the earliest Apostles as an inference that this Psalm was speaking of Christ who would do the very same.20
Martin Luther believes that Paul is shifting the emphasis of love for ourselves to love for others. He references where Paul says to the Corinthians that love does not focus on oneself.21 Luther then presents his particular view of a saying of Jesus about loving one’s neighbor. He does this without trying to dispute the opinion of others. Yet, despite his high regard for the early church scholars, when they interpreted “having love for one’s neighbor,”22 to mean that by loving one’s neighbor as oneself”23 that one’s love for themselves is the measure of one’s love for their neighbor. This, says Luther, is ridiculous!24 Luther contends that this commandment does not imply that we should love ourselves first and then love our neighbor the same way. Rather, that we treat our neighbor with the same compassion and respect that we would like others to treat us.
As it relates to Paul’s exhortation for the strong believer to encourage the weak brothers and sisters for their own good, John Calvin points out that there are two things emphasized here: In verse two, we are told that we are not to be content with our own judgment, nor give in to our own desires, but ought to strive and labor at all times to work with our fellow believers in settling disagreements. Furthermore, in our efforts to work with our fellow believers we must keep in mind that as far as God is concerned our main aim should be to build up their confidence, not tear it down. To make this work, we must approach it with understanding for what they are dealing with. But under no circumstances should we seek to please them by flattering their foolishness and forget about their salvation. Not everyone has honorable intentions. There are some with ulterior motives and nothing will please them except what gives them complete victory.
1 Matthew 17:26
2 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Leviticus 19:17-18; cf. Romans 13:9
4 E.g.. Galatians 1:10; Colossians 3:22; 1 Thessalonians 2:4
5 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Tzror Hamor: On Leviticus, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. IV, p. 1394
7 Psalm 69:9
8 1 Corinthians 9:19
9 Ibid. 10:24
10 Ibid. 10:33
11 Philippians 2:3-4
12 Psalm 40:6-8a
13 Matthew 26:39
14 Ibid. 26:42
15 John 3:34
16 Ibid. 5:30
17 Ibid. 6:38; Also see: 8:29; 12:27, 28; 14:30, 31; 15:10; Philippians 2:8
18 Ibid. 6:38
19 Psalm 69:9
20 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
211 Corinthians 13:5
22 John 13:34; Cf. 15:12
23 Matthew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18
24 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 208-209