Friday, February 15
Romans 14:14-23: Paul continues the theme from the previous section, going on to exhort believers to peace-making and edification (verse 19). In these verses, however, his exhortation is directed to the stronger, more confident Christians who may, even by mere inadvertence, create crises of conscience for their fellow believers.
The example chosen by Paul to illustrate this point is the eating of certain foods, particularly meats, which the Mosaic Law classifies as common (koinon) or unclean, foods that are not kosher. Paul is certain that Christians may eat such foods with a safe conscience (verses 1-5; Acts 10:9-15).
The Apostle recognized, nonetheless, that some Christians, from habits long adhered to, could not really eat such food with a safe conscience, because they had not arrived at a level of faith and Christian maturity that would enable them to do so. (Here he is not talking about the faith through which a Christian is justified, of course, but of faith as an effective principle in making moral decisions.)
If these latter Christians, then, were recklessly to follow the example of stronger, more mature believers, there was a genuine danger of their violating their own consciences. They would be eating for some reason other than faith, perhaps human respect or perceived social pressure, and this would constitute sin (verse 23). In short, it is never a safe of laudable thing to act against one’s conscience.
What should the stronger Christian do in such a case? He should forego his own freedom in the matter, says Paul, in order not to lead the weaker brother into sin, even inadvertently (verses 15,20-23). Peace and charity, that is to say, take precedence over the exercise of freedom (verses 17-18). Freedom, as the result of charity, must never be exercised at the expense of charity.
Moreover, a Christian should relinquish his freedom even in those instances when the exercise thereof would bring distress to another Christian (verse 15). In other words, a Christian must go out of his way, if need be, to avoid distressing fellow believers. The proper motive is love, inspired by the death of Jesus (verse 15).
In all these comments Paul enunciates essentially the same thesis he defended in Galatians 2:11-17, and which will appear later in Colossians 2:20-22 and Mark 7:19.
Saturday, February 16
Romans 15:1-13: From dealing with the possible conflicts of conscience among Christians in chapter 14, Paul goes on to enunciate the guiding principle for the resolution of such conflicts, namely, the example of Jesus, and more specifically the example that Jesus demonstrated in His suffering and death (verse 3.)
In other words, the sufferings and death of Jesus, in addition to being the efficient cause of our redemption and reconciliation to God, also provide the exemplary type of the Christian moral life (verse 7). Some years earlier Paul had made such a case when treating of congregational problems in Macedonia (Philippians 2:5-10).
The Christian’s moral life, then, is not merely personal and private; it is social (verses 1-2,5-7). Paul knows nothing about personal holiness apart from life and responsibilities in the Church. (For this Christian thesis we may see a pagan adumbration in the traditional Spartan theory of education, in which “virtue,” arête, is invariably social and unselfish.)
The exercise of freedom is never a goal or final purpose in the Christian life; it is, rather, the proper ambience and atmosphere of the Christian life. Freedom for freedom’s sake is unknown in the Holy Scriptures. Christian freedom is ever at the service of Christian charity.
Divine charity was the motive of Jesus’ assumption of our sins in His self-offering upon the cross (verse 3; 8:32-35). In support of this thesis Paul invokes the authority of Psalms 69 (68):10, a verse descriptive (as is the whole psalm) of Jesus’ sufferings.
Then, having appealed to the Old Testament in order to throw light on a specific Christian theme, Paul enunciates the principle on which such an appeal is based, namely, the Christocentricity of the Hebrew Scriptures. Since the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ, and thereby finds its full doctrinal meaning in Christ, its proper moral application is in the lives of Christians (verse 4). This application is what Christian theology calls the moral or tropological sense of Holy Scripture (cf. P. H. Reardon,
“Scripture Saturation,” Christian History 22/4 [Winter 2003-04], pp. 30-34).
Finally, the joining of the Gentiles with the Jews is not only a doctrinal fact (verses 8-12), it is a principle of moral behavior for those so joined (verses 7,13).
We observe that the imitation of Jesus is a basic behavior pattern throughout this section, as in the whole New Testament (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:6; Philippians 2:5-8; 1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Mark 8:34; 1 Peter 2:21; John 13:15).
Sunday, February 17
Romans 15:14-21: Paul now proceeds to introduce himself more completely to the congregation at Rome, a city he plans to visit in the near future for the first time. In the present verses he says a bit about himself and his ministry, evidently feeling that such information is necessary, given the strong and authoritative tone that he has adopted in this epistle (verses 15-16).
Paul commences these remarks with a polite and positive sentiment about the congregation at Rome (verse 14), an approach that he employs elsewhere in his letters (2 Corinthians 8:7; 9:2-3; Philippians 4:15). In the present case such an approach is particularly appropriate, because he is conscious of writing to a church that he had no hand in founding (1:5,13). Because of this latter circumstance, Paul does not enjoy the advantage of immediate paternity and familiarity that he enjoys in the churches of Syria, Asia, Macedonia, and Greece.
He feels compelled to write to the Romans, however, because he senses a responsibility that he has toward all the Gentile Christians (verse 16 [Note the Trinitarian structure]; 1:5; 12:3; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Galatians 2:7-8).
Like Jesus preaching in Galilee (Mark 6:6), Paul has maintained a preaching “circuit” (kyklo, the Greek root of “cycle”—verse 19), first centered in Antioch and later in Ephesus. (Observe that the churches of Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Colossae form a sort of semi-hub around Ephesus.) We note here that the bishops of these large metropolitan areas in due course became known as archbishops and metropolitans. This was a natural development, since the outlying cities had been evangelized by missionaries from the larger ones. This historical circumstance is what accounts for the immense authority of the bishops of Ephesus, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome in early church history.
Up to this point in his ministry, the extreme limits of Paul’s evangelizing have been Jerusalem in the southeast and Illyricum, or Dalmatia (Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo), in the northwest. It has ever been Paul’s goal to preach Christ where He has not been hitherto preached (verse 20; 2 Corinthians 10:15-16; 1 Corinthians 3:6).
Miracles and wonders have frequently attended Paul’s preaching (Acts 12:22; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:4).
Paul describes his ministry with a liturgical and sacerdotal term, hierogounta to Evangelion tou Theou, “serving the Gospel of God as a priest,” or even “priesting the Gospel of God” (cf. Isaiah 66:20). This is one of our first instances of a specifically priestly term used to describe the ordained Christian ministry.
Monday, February 18
Romans 15:22-33: Paul now discloses his further plans:
First, he will travel with some companions to carry the collection of money that the churches of Galatia, Macedonia, and Greece have assembled for the relief of the Christian poor at Jerusalem. This collection has been in process for several years (verses 25-27; Galatians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1–9:15. We know that Paul eventually did make the delivery (Acts 24:17).
To assist in carrying this money Paul has gathered a group of sturdy Christians who will bear and defend it. These men would have to be strong and efficient. After all, this money was in coins only, not bills nor travelers’ checks. The money bags were heavy, and armed brigands were everywhere, so Paul was obliged to choose the biggest, toughest, and perhaps scariest Christians he knew. The list of them is contained in Acts 20:4, where we see that they were drawn from Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Galatia. At Troas they would be joined by Paul himself, Luke, and some others whom we may be able to identify from Colossians 4:7-14.
Second, after delivering these financial resources to Jerusalem, Paul plans to sail west and visit the church at Rome, a place that he has long wanted to visit (verses 22-23,29,32; 1:10-15; Acts 19:21). In fact, Paul would arrive in Rome a bit over two years later.
Third, after visiting Rome, it is Paul’s intention to expand his missionary work to include Spain, at the far end of the Mediterranean (verses 24,28).
Did Paul ever reach Spain? In spite of the testimony of the Muratorian Fragment, it would seem that he did not. That anonymous testimony is fairly weak, given the absence of any other records of Paul’s life after his two years of house arrest in Rome in 60-62 (Acts 28:30). Indeed, the few testimonies to Paul’s alleged ministry in Spain come from outside of Spain. If Paul had actually established churches in Spain, as he had in Galatia, Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece, it is inconceivable that Spanish history would have preserved no records on the matter. A Pauline succession of Spanish bishops would certainly have been preserved and cherished in the official testimonies of the Spanish churches.
Indeed, there is no clear and compelling evidence that Paul lived past his house arrest in Rome, so it is reasonable to conjecture that he did not live past the year 62. This would also explain why there is no mention of him in Peter’s First Epistle during the next year or so.
Meanwhile, still in Corinth and writing this epistle in early 58, Paul asks the Roman Christians to pray for three things: First, his safety in Jerusalem, where he knows he has many enemies; Second, that the aforesaid collection will be well received by the church at Jerusalem, where he fears that some Christians were not especially enthused about the Gentile ministry anyway; Third, that he will find his way to Rome after all this is done. The account in Acts 21-28 narrates the irony with which this last prayer was fulfilled.
Tuesday, February 18
Romans 16:1-16: As the rising sun moves up toward the eastern horizon each morning, one by one the myriad stars of heaven start to disappear. They do not depart the sky, of course, but the stars do become invisible by reason of the sun’s larger and more garish light, and we upon the earth may no longer gain our bearings by observing them.
Not so the saints who shine on high. The true Sun or Righteousness does not, at His rising, eclipse those lesser lights by which the Church on earth is guided. On the contrary, He Himself illumines the saints, who have no light apart from Him. The reign of Christ does not dethrone the saints, who have no reign apart from His.
The saints, because they are so many and their serried ranks so closely stand together, are described as a “cloud” (Hebrews 12:1). Yet, on closer inspection we perceive that not one of the saints loses those personal and particular traits by which each friend of Christ may be distinguished from the others. The Good Shepherd calls them each by name.
The individual and particular names of the saints are inscribed in the Book of Life, and the names of many of them are written likewise in the Bible. It is the singular merit of Romans 16 that it contains the New Testament’s largest collection of names of individual Christians. They belong to the “church,” a word that now appears in Romans for the first time (verses 1,4,5,16,23).
In verses 1-16, here under consideration, these are all names of Christians at Rome, with the exception of Phoebe, the “deaconess” of Cenchrea (the eastern port of Corinth), who will carry this epistle to the church at Rome.
Since Paul himself had never been to Rome, how are we to explain the obvious fact that he knows so many of these Christians personally? Indeed, this problem has so vexed commentators over the centuries that they have doubted that chapter 16 belongs at the end of the Epistle to the Romans at all. They have suggested that it originally may have been attached to some other epistle, such as Ephesians.
Since there is no manuscript evidence for such an hypothesis, however, it seems better to regard chapter 16 as an integral part of Romans, seeking some other explanation for Paul’s personal familiarity with so many Christians in a city that he has never visited.
I suggest the following explanation: When the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in A. D. 49 (Acts 18:2), that expulsion also included many Christians. Many of these came east and settled in cities that Paul evangelized. This is how they came to be the friends of Paul and even his coworkers. However, with the death of Claudius in the year 54, about three and a half years before the composition of Romans (January to March of 58), some of these Christians naturally returned to Rome, where they owned homes and other property. Paul’s greetings here, then, are directed to those who had returned to Rome over the previous forty-two months. This suggestion, I believe, reasonably explains how Paul came to know twenty-eight Christians at Rome personally.
This suggestion is especially clear in the case of the first two whom Paul greets, Prisca and Aquila (verses 3-4), whom he had first met as exiles from Rome in Greece in the year 49 (Acts 18:2). It is significant that the next one named, Epenaetus, who is also from Greece (verse 5). Moreover, it is reasonable to think that Phoebe herself, who is described as a “patroness” (prostates, or Latin patrona) of Paul (verse 2), is another of these exiled Romans returning home.
The “Rufus” who lived at Rome with his mother (verse 13) was known to Paul from Jerusalem itself. They were the son and wife of Simon of Cyrene. Eight years later, writing in Rome during the persecution that followed Nero’s fire (July of 65), Mark mentioned him and his brother Alexander, who had also arrived in Rome by this time (Mark 15:21).
Since the Epistle to the Romans and the other New Testament epistles were composed to be read at the Christians’ weekly Eucharistic gathering, and because Christians normally greeted one another with a kiss after the prayers that followed such readings (Justin Martyr, First Apology 65.2), the closing remarks of these epistles sometimes refer to that kiss (verse 16; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Peter 5:14).
Wednesday, February 20
Romans 16:17-27: Having finished his greetings to friends at Rome, Paul will now send the salutations of those who are with him at Gaius’s house in Corinth (verse 23; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:14; Acts 19:29).
Prior to sending these salutations, however, Paul warns the Romans against schism, heresy, and dissension (verses 17-18). He knows there are troublemakers abroad. Indeed, among the Jewish Christians who were returning to Rome during those years, he may have recognized some of the very individuals who had been sowing dissent among his own congregations in the East.
The tone of Paul’s warnings here differs greatly in style from the rest of the Epistle to the Romans. One would think that Paul, as he thought on the friends in Rome that he had just named, had somewhat forgotten that he was writing to a church that he had not founded. He reverts to his more usual style, so that these few verses more closely resemble the other epistles. For example, one may compare verses 17-20 with Galatians 6:12-17.
Once again Paul commends the good reputation of the Roman Christians (verse 19; 1:8).
The crushing of Satan underfoot (verse 20), of course, fulfills the prophecy in Genesis 3:15.
Greetings are first sent from Timothy, who had recently arrived at Corinth and will soon be leaving to accompany the collection to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4).
In verse 22 we learn that Paul’s scribe, who has written this epistle at his dictation, is named Tertius, a Latin name signifying that he is the third son in his family. Tertius sends along greetings from his younger brother, Quartus (verse 23). Their older brother, Secundus, will be one of those carrying the collection to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4).
“Erastus, the treasurer of the city” (verse 23) has become a Christian. This municipal commissioner for public works is well known from archeology. Visitors to Corinth can still see his name on a Latin inscription on a marble pavement block.
Thursday, February 21
Matthew 13:1-9: As we now come to the third and central of the five great discourses in Matthew, Jesus once again sits down as teacher (Compare 5:1). Taking up a standard mystic number in Holy Scripture, this discourse will be composed of seven parables: the sown seed, the wheat and tares, the mustard seed, the leaven, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the fishing net. Four of these, as we will have occasion to note, are found only in Matthew. Even in wording this first parable is nearly identical with Mark 4:1-9.
In this chapter, a sharp distinction is made between those that understand the parable—the ‘insiders”–and those that don’t—the “outsiders” (verse 11). Thus, when the chapter opens, Jesus is speaking to large crowds (verse 2), but afterwards He speaks only to an inner circle and privately (verse 36). This move indicates a change in the focus of the Lord’s ministry and preaching. This change is not surprising, in light of the bitter controversies that have been mounting in Matthew’s narrative.
Jesus begins this sermon by sitting down (verse 1)—the posture of the teacher—just as when He began the Sermon on the Mount (5:1; cf. 24:3). A close reading of this text discloses a striking parallel with Revelation 7:9-12, where a great multitude stands before God seated on the throne beside the sea (4:6).
This first parable, in which most of the sown seed is lost, summarizes Jesus’ own experience, as narrated in the previous chapter. So little of the Gospel, it seems, has fallen on fertile ground. As directed to the Church, this parable urges a sense of modesty about “success” in fruitful preaching. A great deal of the sown Word will simply be wasted.
This first parable also provides the foundation for the other six; it is the fountain out of which they flow. Thus, the second parable (wheat and tares in verses 24-30), is concerned with the wasted seed that falls by the wayside and is eaten by birds. The “enemy” that sowed the tares in verse 24 is identical with the “wicked one” in verse 19. Similarly, the third parable (mustard seed in verses 31-32) and the fourth (leaven in verse 33) deal with the seed that is sown on stony ground. Parables five (hidden treasure in verse 44) and six (pearl in verses 45-46) are concerned with the seed sown among thorns, while the seventh parable (dragnet in verses 47-50) parallel the seed sown on fertile ground and bringing forth much fruit.
The seed sown by the wayside (verse 4) is the Word preached to the unworthy heart, an interpretation introduced by the quotation from Isaiah in verse 15: “Lest they should understand with their hearts.” The key is an understanding heart (verse 23). The failure in this case has to do with the first imperative of the Shema: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart.”
The seed fallen on rocky ground (verses 5-6) is the Word preached to a shallow soul, which is unprepared for the trials that the reception of the Word will bring. The failure in this case pertains to the second imperative of the Shema: to love God with the whole soul.
The seed sown among thorns (verse 7) is the Word preached to the worldly, who are concerned with wealth and the strength that comes with wealth. In this case the failure is related to the Shema’s command to love God with all one’s strength.
The seed fallen on good ground (verse 8) is the Word preached to someone with an understanding heart. Such a man is described in Psalm 1: the man who “brings forth his fruit in its season.” This is the man who fulfills all the imperatives of the Shema.
Friday, February 22
Matthew 13:10-17: In the Gospel dialogue that immediately follows the parable of the sown seed, only Matthew quotes at length the long text from Isaiah found in verses 14-15. This text well fits the pattern of growing obstinacy on the part of Jesus’ enemies, a theme that has been growing steadily since 11:16. The argument the Lord uses in these verses is obscure, for the plain reason that hardness of heart is an obscure and mysterious subject.
If the workings of divine grace are difficult to comprehend, even more difficult to grasp is man’s willful refusal of that grace. Because a choice is both an effect and a cause, there is a tautology in human choice, and like all tautologies it can only be expressed by what seems a circular argument. That is to say, we choose because we choose. This is what is meant by “free” choice.
Mysteriously, then, the refusal to believe is also the punishment for the refusal to believe. These verses are also a sort of explanation of the following section, particularly verses 19 and 23, which contrast the “understanding” and “non-understanding” of God’s Word.
In this respect the disciples of Jesus are distinguished from the others who hear the parables. The “to you” is contrasted with the “to them” (verse 11). The “whoever has” is distinguished from the “whoever has not” (verse 12). There is an antithesis between those that see (verse 16) and those that do not see (verse 13).
Matthew thus introduces the historico-theological themes of grace and rejection. To those who have, more will be given, while from those who have nothing, even that will be taken away (verse 12). Matthew will return to this irony in the Parable of the Talents (25:29). The judgment aspect of this antithesis will be illustrated in the suicide of Judas (273-10).
Inasmuch as these things cannot be understood, they are called “mysteries” (verse 11—contrasted with the “mystery” in Mark 4:11), indicating God’s free and mysterious (and mysterious because free!) interventions in history through grace and rejection. Matthew, in his own lifetime, was watching the fulfillment of these words of Jesus in the very painful relations between the Church and the Jews.