NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FIFTEEN (Lesson XV)
Charles Hodge takes what Paul says here about what he knew of the Christians in Rome to mean that he was acquainted with some of the leading members of the church well enough that he did not need to be informed by others of their true character.1 To make sure that he did possess such information, Paul shares what he already knows about them being very conciliatory and highly virtuous in character. Not only that, but that they were also well-versed in the Scriptures and the Gospel of Christ. This then made them spiritually strong enough and sufficiently grounded in the truth so that they could counsel one another on issues of doctrine and Christian ethics. So it wasn’t that Paul was writing to novices in the faith, but seasoned believers.
Albert Barnes believes that Paul’s reference to the believers in Rome being full of goodness was to separate them from those among the Jews and even some Gentiles who were opposed to him. By saying that they were filled with “kindness” it predisposed them to obey all proper and relevant instruction so that any consequent errors in their opinions and conduct would not result from being ignorant, stubborn, or contrary. There was indeed danger in the congregation at Rome from some Jews who were proud and haughty. And even among the Gentile converts, there might have been some reluctance to receive instruction from a foreign Jew such as Paul. But the Apostle was persuaded that all this could be overcome by a mild and humbling spirit of shared faith and fellowship. So Paul kindly asks that they respect his authority as an Apostle of Jesus Christ, called and commissioned for their benefit.2
Barnes also makes note of the special character of Paul when it came to dealing with others. For him, the Apostle, as far as possible, refrained from dwelling on the faults of other Christians. When it was necessary to discipline them, he did it with tenderness and tears. When it was possible for him to commend, he preferred it, and never hesitated to give them credit to the fullest degree possible. He did not flatter, but always told the truth; he did not commend them just to excite pride and conceit, but to encourage them so they would become even more involved in active efforts to help the church grow in harmony. Barnes makes it clear, the ministers who always censure and condemn, whose ministry is made up of complaints and criticisms, who never speak about believers except to point out faults and failures, who constantly preach on sin as though there are no saints in the house, bear no resemblance to our Savior and the Apostle Paul. Therefore, they should expect not to see any real success in their work.3
One Messianic Jewish writer points out that Paul does not teach that without Torah there is no such thing as sin. In verse 14 he makes it very clear that had there been no sin before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, then death would not have reigned from Adam to Moses. Much doctrine has been established around the preceding verses, particularly many related to the concept of original sin. Judaism does teach the doctrine of “evil inclinations” in mankind, they are called Yetzer Hara, but also that man can overcome this, as God Himself asked Cain: “If you are doing what is good, shouldn’t you hold your head high? And if you don’t do what is good, sin is crouching at the door – it wants you, but you can rule over it.”4 Judaism teaches that today one conquers sin by learning and obeying the Torah. And the Torah is obeyed by trusting in the atoning work of Yeshua.5
Rabbi Nachmanides explored the Rabbinical teachings on God’s admonition to Cain and found several thoughts he shares with us. For instance, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra takes the phrase, “hold your head high,” as an answer to God’s earlier question to Cain, “Why are you so downcast?”6 This is another way of saying, “Why are you standing there with your face looking downward instead of looking upward to Me?” So when a person is able to lift their face, it means they are not ashamed of what they have done. In fact, when his friends tried to shame him, Job stated that they couldn’t believe that he still had a smile on his face and a good sense of humor.7 Furthermore, when Jacob was about to meet Esau, knowing that he had deceived their father Abraham and stolen Esau’s birthright, he thought that by sending gifts ahead of their meeting that perhaps when they did meet Esau’s greeting would cause him to lift up his face because he felt forgiven an accepted.8
Rabbi Nachmanides goes on to give his own opinion, that what God says to Cain in Genesis 4:7 really means that once Cain mended his ways by repentance and forgiveness, he would be able to get back his dignity. After all, he was the first-born. Now he felt overshadowed by his younger brother Abel. That was really the problem. Cain’s jealousy and sense of shame is what caused him to kill his brother, and now here he stands with his head hanging down, unable to look God in the eye to answer His question, “Where is your brother?”9 But since God already knew that Cain had murdered his brother, the question takes on a larger meaning. It was another way of saying: If you are willing to admit that what you have done to your brother was wrong, you will be able to get over this so you can move on with your life. But just remember, every time you go out the door with unforgiven guilt, sin is just waiting to get hold of you and rule your life. So it goes without saying, unforgiven sin will only lead to more sin. The only way to stop it from repeating itself is to get rid of what is causing it in the first place.10
And Rabbi Avraham Saba also shares insights from the early Jewish writers by noting that verses 6 & 7 of Genesis 4 were given by God so that His creation could learn about His attributes of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Here God goes out of His way to manifest Himself with kindness to someone who partially represented the power of evil in the world, and who was almost the reincarnation of the serpent’s poisonous venom. God spoke to him soothingly, asking “Why are you so upset?” We can see here that Jewish Rabbis were very much aware of the inherited strain of sin from Adam, which is called, “original sin.” Also, God’s response to Cain is clearly seen as God’s offer of grace and mercy. So these Jewish teachings were not new to Paul, he was simply expressing them through the Gospel from a different perspective.
Rabbi Saba goes on to say that instead of Cain blaming Abel for the rejection of his sacrifice, he should blame himself. After all, what he chose to give to God was his personal decision. And God’s revelation of sin crouching at the door was His way of explaining to Cain that he had been born with a residue of the serpent’s poison as an integral part of his being. Consequently, it was within his power to neutralize that handicap and rise above it. All that was required was the will to do so. Here we see the idea of salvation by works, even though God had offered grace and mercy. By telling Cain to mend his ways, the Jews understood this as making amends to God through good deeds and acts of devotion. And if you don’t succeed by offering the correct sacrifice the first time, try again and this time do it right with the appropriate good works. God promised, if done right, He would accept it. However, if Cain continued to bring God an offering of mixed grains, it would only be giving Satan the opportunity to deceive him once again.11
15:15-16: Now on some points I have written to you with forceful words as a way of reminding you about them. It’s because of the grace God has given me to be a servant of the Christ Jesus to you Gentiles, with the priestly duty of presenting the Good News of God to you Gentiles so that you may be an acceptable offering, made pure by the Holy Spirit.
It is clear that Paul feels that he is wrapping up his letter to the Romans, and wanted to reiterate some of his earlier points. His ability in teaching and counseling have caused some Bible scholars to wonder why the eleven disciples didn’t wait a little longer so that they would have had the opportunity to elect Paul to take Judas Iscariot’s place instead of Matthias. Others have even gone so far as to advocate that God should have annulled Matthias’ selection when He knew that Paul would be chosen to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. These conjectures have no basis, of course, and do not enhance our understanding of Paul’s calling. Paul was an Apostle and he was chosen by Jesus Christ for a specific mission. In other words, he was the first of a new breed.
Many of the original disciples knew Jesus personally before He called them to follow Him. But when Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, the Lord had to introduce Himself. There is no doubt that Paul’s experience in meeting Jesus was real and undeniable, that’s why Jesus gave Paul directions to go to Damascus and find Ananias, He did not say to him, “follow me,” and then lead him there. So faith was the main factor in Paul’s following Jesus instead of physical contact. Paul exceeded the accomplishments of all the other disciples because he was the first of the faith-called Apostles of whom today’s ministers and Bible teachers are his successors. Some will tell you they would have preferred if Jesus had come down in the flesh and spoken directly to them when calling them to preach, but that would have left them with little faith to go on, and they would keep asking the Lord to come back and instruct them in person again so they could make sure what they were being told by the Spirit was true. With such an attitude, how far do you think they would have gotten in their ministry?
Since Paul knew that he had a lot of subjects to cover and many things to say to the believers in Rome, so he had to be concise and precise. The writer of Hebrews felt the same way,12 and the Apostle Peter was under the same impression.13 And Jude, in his epistle, had these passionate words: “Dear friends, I have been trying to write to you about what God did for us when He saved us from the punishment of sin. Now I must write to you and tell you to fight hard for the faith which was once and for all given to the holy people of God… You already know all this, but think about it again. The Lord saved His people out of the land of Egypt. Later He destroyed all those who did not put their trust in Him.”14 Thank God they were motivated and inspired by the Holy Spirit to write these letters, for had they not done so we would be lacking in the instructions and insights they received from the Lord.
1 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 676=677
2 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Cf. Romans 1:8; 16:19; 1 Corinthians 1:5; 2 Corinthians 8:7; 9:2; Philemon 1:3-7; Hebrews 6:9; 2 Peter 1:12
4 Genesis 4:7 – Complete Jewish Bible
5 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Genesis 4:6
7 Job 29:24
8 Genesis 32:21
9 Genesis 4:9
10 Rabbi Nachmanides: On Genesis, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 88-89
11 Tzror Hamor: On Genesis, op cit., loc. cit., Vol. I, pp. 112-113
12 Hebrews 13:22
13 1 Peter 5:12
14 Jude 1:3, 5