NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SIXTEEN (Lesson IX)
On the other hand, Paul knew that just like a ship sailing along under blue skies and on calm waters, the possibility for sudden storms to come rolling in across the waves always existed. King Solomon felt the same way when he was asked by God what he needed to lead His people, even as his father David did so successfully. Solomon said: “Give your servant an understanding heart able to administer justice to your people so that I can discern between good and bad.”1 Perhaps Solomon recalled the psalm in which his father wrote: “I will follow the path of integrity. When will you come to meet me? I will run my life with a sincere heart inside my own house.”2 If David and Solomon felt their need for God’s guidance in their house, how much more those Christian leaders in the House of God? After all, did Christ Himself tell His disciples: “I am sending you out like sheep with wolves all around you. Be wise like snakes and gentle like doves.”3
Paul grew accustomed to taking ownership of what he believed to be critical issues in the church. He once wrote the Corinthians and told them that when it came to rights and wrongs, stop thinking like children and start thinking like adults.4 And to the Ephesians he wrote that when it came to knowing what lifestyle to choose as a believer: “Don’t be foolish, try to understand what the will of the Lord is.”5
He also had a word of advice for the Philippians: “This is my prayer: I pray that your love will grow more and more. I pray that you will have a better understanding and be wise in all things. I pray that you will know what is the very best. I pray that you will be true and without blame until the day Christ comes again… In that way, you can prove yourselves to be without blame. You are God’s children and no one can talk against you, even in a sin-loving and sin-sick world. You are to shine as lights among the sinful people of this world.”6 Furthermore, he told the Colossians: “I ask God that you may know what He wants you to do. I ask God to fill you with the wisdom and understanding the Holy Spirit gives.”7
Early church scholar Origen puts Paul’s admonition in context. He points to what Paul wrote to the Corinthians when he said: Don’t think like children, grow up and act like adults, but when it comes to being biased, be innocent like kids.8 The Lord also said much the same thing when he complained that the sons of darkness – those who neither knew or understood who God was – in this world are smarter when it comes to understanding their own generation than the sons of light – those who both knew and understood who God was – do with theirs9.10
Then, Pelagius hears Paul saying that if the believers in Rome paid so much attention to those they should not listen to, how much more should they pay attention to someone they ought to listen to! Didn’t they know that these heretics might come to them because they knew the Romans are prone to swallow anything they hear? Paul rejoiced that the believers in Rome were willing to learn, but they should be careful about what they learn. He wanted them to be wise when it came to knowing what was good for them, but don’t spend any time trying to decide if you should do something that may be wrong. That way, Paul says, they will be able to bring those who come to mislead them down from their high pedestals so they can then walk right over them on their way out the door.11
When it comes to Paul’s commendation of believers, John Calvin finds that simplicity is what impresses Paul the most in Christians. Some take great pride in pointing at their precise practice of Christian ordinances as a personal mark of distinction. On the other hand, humble Christians must not confuse them with those who count it a high privilege to be able to say they live an exceptionally high moral and virtuous, life, and doing so without knowing anything about the Bible. Calvin sees Paul approving of the Romans because they were obedient and teachable, yet he encourages them to exercise wisdom and judgment. Being too trusting exposes them to being taken advantage of. Paul happily congratulates them for not being worldly-minded, but yet he cautioned them about being led astray by what we called in German, the “schlockmeisters,” – a person who sells simple junk as if it were highly priced goods.12
On Paul’s admonition for the readers of this letter to remain faithful to what they believe, Calvin sees this clause in verse nineteen about having wisdom on how to be good but ignorant on how to be bad as allowing for two interpretations: The noun hypakoē, rendered “obedience” by KJV, may either be expressed as their obedience dedication to the Gospel and their faith,13 or, as their obedient disposition, as in, their readiness to follow the instructions of their religious teachers.
If the first meaning is adopted, the sense of the passage reads like this, “You must be on your guard against false teachers, for since your character is so high, your faith being everywhere spoken of, it would be a great disgrace and tragedy if you were to be led astray by them.” However, if the second meaning is adopted the sense would be, “It is absolutely necessary that you be on guard against false teachers because your readiness to learn from your teachers is so great and known everywhere. This, in itself, is very commendable, but you must join consideration with your carefulness.” Calvin feels that this second meaning is the better of the two and the one we should use in this case14.15
Verse 20a: The God who brings peace will soon crush Satan’s head and give you power over him.
The children of God face no greater enemy than Satan the deceiver. At this point, it may be good to understand the Jewish concept of Satan. Judaism does not teach or believe in the devil as a person, but they do believe in what they call, “the Satan.” Here is what one Jewish writer said that the word Satan means: “challenge,” “difficulty.” or “distraction.” When placed with the Hebrew article ha – it becomes, haSatan, and refers to “the challenger.” This describes Satan as the entity that is the embodiment of man’s moral challenges. HaSatan can only operate with God’s approval. It involves choosing good over evil enough of a challenge so that it ends up being a meaningful choice. In other words, haSatan is a force whose mission is to add difficulty, challenges, and growth to life’s experiences. Contrast this with Christianity, which sees Satan as God’s fiercest opponent. In Jewish thought, the idea that there exists anything capable of setting itself up as God’s opponent would be considered overly polytheistic – meaning you are setting up the devil to be a god or demigod.16
However, Paul takes a different view. He makes an inference to the Word of God which reads: “Adonai, God, said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all livestock and wild animals. You will crawl on your belly and eat dust as long as you live. I will put animosity between you and the woman, and between your descendant and her descendant; he will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.”17 Rabbi Nachmanides tells us that Jewish scholars in the past taught that this curse placed upon the serpent was that it would only be able to produce offspring once in seven years. This comes from an answer given by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya18.19 In like manner, Satan may not take action immediately because you put up resistance, but as the snake he is, he will continue to look for places where he can lay his eggs of doubt and rebellion.
Of course, some Rabbis dispute this idea of seven years because they note that most snakes lay eggs every year. But there is one curious fact that does point to what the Rabbi had in mind. The female serpent begins her journey to find an area with an abundance of food that will also provide a good spot for her to give birth. Snakes have been recorded as journeying more than twenty kilometers away from the den to find food – although scientists speculate that they went further. Only once the female selects her area will she allow her body to ovulate and fertilize her eggs. However, if she determines that there is not enough food or the weather conditions would not make incubating her young an easy task, she can store the male snake’s sperm inside her reproductive tract, without being used, for up to seven years, at which point she can still fertilize her eggs.
In addition to this, the rest of the verses quoted about such ends with this admonition, “From now on you and the woman will be enemies, as will your offspring and hers. You will strike his heel, but he will crush your head.” Rabbi Nachmanides goes on to tell us that this is taken metaphorically to mean that mankind will have an advantage over the serpent. Humans will walk on the ground while snakes must crawl. And if a person steps on them, they may bite the person’s heel, but that person will crush their head. This is certainly in harmony with what the writer of Hebrews said: “It is true that we share the same kind of flesh and blood because Jesus became a man like us. He died as we must die. Through His death, He destroyed the power of the devil who holds the power of death.”20 And the Apostle John echoes this truth about Christ’s power over the devil.21 We see this played out in John’s revelation.22
1 1 Kings 3:9 – Complete Jewish Bible
2 Psalm 101:2
3 Matthew 10:16
4 1 Corinthians 14:20
5 Ephesians 5:17
6 Philippians 1:9-10; 2:15
7 Colossians 1:9
8 1 Corinthians 14:20
9 Luke 16:8
10 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 See Romans 1:8
14 See 2 Corinthians 10:6; Philemon 1:21
15 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 697
16 Social Culture Jewish Newsgroups: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers, What does Judaism believe about Satan?
17 Genesis 3:14-15
18 Mind over Matter: Teachings of The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, Translated by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd, Jerusalem, 2003, p. 57
19 Rabbi Nachmanides: On Genesis, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 83-84
20 Hebrews 2:14
21 1 John 3:8
22 Revelation 12:9; 20:1-3