Are you a Christian?
BIBLE STUDY COMMENTARY
< 451201 > ROMANS 12:1-21
HERE we enter on the second division of this Epistle, where Paul, according to his accustomed method, enforces the duties of believers, by arguments dependent on his previous exhibition of the grand and influential doctrines of the Gospel. These doctrines, as well as all the commandments of God, may be summed up in one word, namely, in\parLOVE. By the view which they present of the goodness, the forbearance, and the long-suffering of God, believers are daily led to repentance, while the contemplation of the Divine compassion and philanthropy is calculated to beget reciprocal confidence and child-like affection. ‘We have known and believed,’ says the Apostle John, ‘the love that God hath to us.’ ‘We love Him because He first loved us.’ This love of God does not exclude reverential fear and filial devotion; of which, on the contrary, it is the principle and the foundation — while both together unite in the spirit of adoption to inspire the cry, ‘Abba, Father!’
Brethren. — The Apostle addresses the believers at Rome as his brethren, as standing on the same level with himself regarding acceptance with God. I beseech you. — We may here remark the difference between the endearing manner of address often used by inspired Apostles, and the haughty, overbearing tone of Popish antichristian tyranny. Those whose authority was avouched by mighty signs and wonders, whose very word was command, strive frequently to express commands as entreaties. Therefore. — This may have reference to what had been said in the foregoing chapter respecting the Gentiles and the Jewish nation in general, to whom, as being part of the elect remnants, some of those addressed belonged; or rather, as he now enters on the second division of the Epistle, Paul here refers to those grand doctrines of the Gospel which, in the preceding part of it, he had been unfolding, denominating the whole of them, as forming together the great plan of salvation, the mercies of God. By the mercies of God. — The word mercies or compassions is here used in the plural number, because it refers to the different instances before enumerated of Divine compassion. In the foregoing chapter, the Apostle had been declaring the mercies of God in the calling and restoration both of the Gentiles and the Jews, verse 31. But the whole of his preceding discourse contained a most striking and encouraging display of the mercies of God to all believers, in their election and predestination to eternal life, their calling, their deliverance from condemnation, their justification, their union with the Lord Jesus Christ, and communion with God, with the enjoyment of all the unspeakable blessings of the new covenant. Christians are here urged to devote themselves to the service of God by the consideration of these mercies because they present the strongest motives to obedience. How different is the mind of the Apostle from the mind of the world on this subject! The wisdom of this world rejects the grace of the Gospel, because it is thought to lead to licentiousness. The interests of morality are supposed to be better secured when salvation is suspended on men’s good works, than when it is represented as flowing from the Divine compassion. But Paul presents the mercies of God to the mind of believers, as the most powerful incitement to devote themselves to His service. In the remainder of the Epistle, we find him as strenuous in pressing the duty of holiness and personal obedience, as in the previous part of it, in insisting on those truths on which obedience is founded. This ought to convince of their error those who, misunderstanding the doctrine which the Apostle teaches, imagine that it is inconsistent with attention to the peculiar duties of Christianity. It will, however, be seen that the persons who seem to fear that his doctrine tends to licentiousness, are equally opposed to the strictness of his precepts, the observance of which they speak of as impracticable. That represent your bodies. — There is no necessity, with Mr. Stuart and the majority of commentators, to understand the term ‘bodies’ as denoting both soul and body. It is of the body that the Apostle here speaks, and it is not proper to extract out of his language more than it contains. The expression evidently makes a distinction between themselves and their bodies. Those addressed are entreated to present their bodies, and the body is here considered as the sacrifice. This, indeed, cannot be done without the soul, yet this is not the thing expressed. This shows the importance of serving God with the body as well as with the soul. Every member of the body is to be employed in the service of God. Many, when they use their members sinfully, attempt to excuse themselves, and found a plea for pardon, by alleging that they have a good heart. But we see from this passage that God requires the service of the body as well as that of the mind. Besides, an exclusive reference to the body comports better with the figure of offering a sacrifice. The apostle seems to summon attention peculiarly to our actions or outward deportment, which are of so great importance to the Christian life. But, in addition to this, if we extend the expression further, and include in it the whole man, we lose the beauty of the connection in the 2nd verse, which relates particularly, and likewise exclusively, to the state and frame of the mind. Sacrifice. — This term is used figuratively. It intimates that there are now no proper sacrifices. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross has put an end to sacrifices. The sacrifice of the mass, then, is an invention of man, and an abomination to God. It is also observable that even figuratively it is not the Lord’s Supper, but the service of the body, that is here called a sacrifice. The phraseology that afterward prevailed, by which the table whereon the bread and wine were placed was called the altar, has no countenance in the word of God, even as a figure of speech. Living sacrifice. — This is called a living sacrifice, in distinction from the sacrifices of the law, in which the animal offered was put to death. The phraseology is quite similar to the phrases living bread and living way. Dr.
Macknight, then, entirely errs when he explains the phrase as signifying ‘an excellent sacrifice,’ from the circumstance that animals were brought alive to the altar. Formerly those believers thus called on to offer their bodies a living sacrifice were dead in trespasses and sins, and had yielded their members as servants to iniquity; but now they were quickened, and risen with Christ, to walk in newness of life. And as the sacrifices were wholly devoted to God, so believers ought to be wholly consecrated to His service, preserving their bodies pure as temples of the Holy Ghost, and remembering that they themselves are living stones, built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Holy. — It was necessary that the sacrifices of the law should be holy, or free from everything that would render them ceremonially unclean. In like manner, the bodies of the saints must be holy as well as their souls. They must not be employed in the service of sin, else they cannot be fit to be presented to the Lord. Acceptable unto God. — The Jewish sacrifices, even if offered according to the law, now ceased to be acceptable to God, since they were abolished by the coming of their antitype, the lamb of God. But the preparation of the bodies of believers is a service that is always well pleasing to God. This and other such things as are obviously appointed are the only sacrifices acceptable to God. The sacrifice of the mass not being appointed by God, and actually subversive of the sacrifice of the cross, instead of being agreeable to God, must be odious in His sight. Your reasonable service. — This evidently refers to the distinction between the service of the Jews by sacrifices and ceremonial worship, and the service of Christians. Sacrificial worship, and, in general, the whole ceremonial ritual of the Jews, were not worship according to reason. It is, indeed, reasonable to worship God in whatever way He prescribes; but had not man fallen, he would not have been required to worship by such ceremonies as the Jewish law enjoined. Sacrificial worship is not in itself rational, and was appointed by God not for its own excellence, but from its adaptation to prefigure the good things to come. Many commentators appear to have mistaken the true meaning of this phrase, from an ill-grounded fear that it is disrespectful to the Divine appointments to suppose that they are not in themselves rational. This, however, is an important and obvious truth. Sacrificial service was appointed only as a shadow, and when abolished, is classed by the Apostle among ‘the weak and beggarly elements.’ But to worship God with our bodies is as rational as to worship Him with our souls. Such worship, then, is called reasonable worship or service, as distinguished from the Jewish ritual. Mr. Locke imagines that it is opposed to the irrational worship of the heathen. But to this the contrast is not exclusively confined; for it is evident that the sacrifices of the pagans were of the same kind as those of the Jews. If the nature of the one kind of sacrifices was irrational, so also must be the other. The difference between the heathen sacrifices and those of the Jews did not consist in the things offered, but in the object of the offerings. The one was appointed of God, and was accepted of God: the other was not only not appointed by God, but was an act of homage to devils. Agreeably to this view, it may be asserted with the utmost confidence, that sacrifices are of Divine appointment, and not an invention of men. They are not in themselves rational, and no abuse of reason would have led to such a practice.
Ver. 2. — And be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.
And be not conformed to this world. — ’ World’ here denotes the people or inhabitants of the world. But there is no allusion, as Dr. Macknight supposes, to the heathen world. The same exhortation is as applicable to men in every age, even since so large a portion of the world has assumed the name of Christian, as it was to the pagan Roman empire. The wicked are called the world, not, as Dr. Macknight imagines, as the whole is put for a part, but on the principle that the righteous are comparatively so few. As the nation of Israel was so small in number as not to be counted among the nations, so are the people of God among the inhabitants of the earth. They are not counted in the world. ‘We know,’ says the Apostle John, ‘that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.’ By conformity to the world is meant assimilation to the people of the world; or the sentiments, conduct, and customs by which they are distinguished.
It is the character of those who are dead in trespasses and sins, that they walk ‘according to the course of this world,’ acting conformably to those maxims which regard only the present life; and they ‘who mind earthly things’ are described as the enemies of the cross of Christ; but the conversation of believers, as being pilgrims and strangers, is in heaven.
This prohibition, however, respects those things only that are sinful, and does not require singularity in the Christian in anything that is not contrary to the law of Christ. Pride may be indulged in the singularities of austerity, as well as in the imitation of fashionable folly. A sound Christian mind will have no difficulty in making the necessary discrimination on this subject. Transformed. — This word signifies the change of the appearance of one thing into that of another. It is used by the fabulous writers to signify the change or metempsychosis of animals into trees, or of men into the appearance of other animals. This term denotes the entire change that passes on a man when he becomes a Christian. He is as different from what he was before, as one species of animal is from another. Let not men be so far the dupes of self-deception as to reckon themselves Christians, while they are unchanged in heart and life. ‘If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (or creation); old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new.’ If there be not a radical difference between their present state and that in which they were by nature, they have no title to the character of Christians. This shows that, in general, it is not difficult to discriminate Christians from the world. If the change be as great as the word of God here teaches, what difficulty can there be, in most cases, in judging of the character of those who profess Christianity? It is not the heart we are called to judge. If the person be metamorphosed, as the word originally implies, from a state of nature to a conformity with Christ, it will certainly appear, and the state of the heart will be evident from the life. As there are degrees in this transformation, although all Christians are transformed when they are born again, yet they ought to be urged, as here, to a further degree of this transformation. Renewing of your mind . — It is not the conduct merely, but the heart itself, of the Christian that is changed; and it is from the renewal of the mind that the conduct is also renewed. The transformation or change that passes on the man who becomes a believer of the Gospel, is not one produced by enthusiastically imaginations, monkish austerity, or a spirit of legalism, endeavoring to attain salvation by good works. It is produced by the renewing of the mind, and by that only. Many persons become for a time changed in conduct from various motives, who are not changed in heart by the Spirit of God, and the truth believed respecting the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. But such changes are generally temporary, and though they should continue for life, they are of no value in the sight of God. That change of life which the Lord will approve, is a change produced by the renovation of the mind, in the understanding, the affections, and the will. That ye may prove. The word in the original signifies both to prove and to approved, but we cannot so properly say approve what is the will of God. The passage seems to assert that to find out and discriminate the will of God with respect to those things that He requires and forbids, it is necessary to be renewed in the mind. Calvin well remarks, ‘If the renewal of our mind is necessary for the purpose of proving what the will of the Most High is, we may hence see how much this mind is opposed to God.’
Indeed, nothing can be more true than that these renewal of the mind is necessary for a successful inquiry into every part of the will of God. The natural man is in everything opposed to the mind of God. Good — The will of God is here distinguished as good; because, however much the mind may be opposed to it, and how much soever we may think that it curtails our pleasures, and mars our enjoyments, obedience to God conduces to our happiness. To follow His law is even in this world calculated to promote happiness. Acceptable. — That which the Lord enjoins is acceptable to Him, and surely this is the strongest motive to practice it. Nothing else is acceptable to Him, however specious it may appear to human wisdom. All injunctions that proceed merely from men in Divine things are unacceptable to God. He approves of nothing but obedience to His own commands. All the injunctions, then, that men submit to, in obedience to the mandates of the Church of Rome, are unacceptable to God. They are abomination in His sight. Perfect will of God. — The will of God as exhibited in His word is perfect. Nothing can be added to it, nothing can be taken from it; yet that monstrous system of Antichristianity which has so long, in the name of Christ, lorded it over the world, has added innumerable commands to those of Christ, and even taken away many of His laws.
Ver. 3. — For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.
For appears to indicate the reason why those who were addressed should in all things ascertain the will of God. By introducing a particular instance of the importance of this duty, Paul enjoins the necessity of giving heed to his exhortation. It is the will of God that His people should make a just estimate of their own gifts, and not from ignorance overvalue themselves and despise others. I say, by the grace given unto me. — Although Paul sometimes addresses believers, as in the beginning of this chapter, in the humblest and most affectionate style, yet at other times, as in these words, he employs that tone of authority which was the prerogative of an Apostle. He calls on them to attend to his words, as remembering that he did not speak of himself; but, as he elsewhere expresses it, ‘as of God, in the sight of God, speak we in Christ.’ The grace given unto me. — This grace or favor bestowed upon Paul, is the of force of an Apostle. But it is not correct to say that grace in this place signifies apostleship. The apostleship was a grace or favor; but favor or grace is not apostleship.
Grace or favor includes, but by no means signifies, that office, although it is one of the innumerable gifts conferred by grace. To explain grace as signifying office, as is often done, is an instance of that unsound criticism that makes a word specifically designate whatever its general meaning includes, which, though in this instance it may be harmless is productive of much false interpretation. To every man that is among you. — The Epistle was addressed to all in the church at Rome, and consequently they were all included in the exhortation that follows. When, therefore, the Apostle addresses them here individually, it shows that the dissuasive refers to a thing to which all of them were naturally much inclined. With this, fact corresponds. All men are prone to overvalue themselves; and therefore to each of them Paul thus pointedly brings home the exhortation. Not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think. — In the two foregoing verses the Apostle had been enjoining the duty of entire devotedness to God, both in body and soul. Nothing could tend more powerfully to render his exhortation ineffectual, or stand more in the way of the performance of those duties on which, in the following part of the Epistle, he was about to expatiate, than high-mindedness in those whom he addressed. According, therefore, to the example of our Lord, both in His Sermon on the Mount, and when inviting sinners to come to Him, Paul begins here by inculcating humility. He warns each of them not to form a higher opinion of himself than his faith in God warranted. To this all are naturally prone; but there is an opposite error, assuming the semblance of obedience to this exhortation, which ought equally to be avoided. This is an affectation of humility by speaking of one’s self contemptuously. This species of hypocrisy ought to be avoided. When an author speaks of his poor abilities, and tells us he is the most unfit man for the work he has undertaken, he is generally insincere; but if not insincere, he must be unwise; for God never requires us to exercise a talent which He has not bestowed on us. Think soberly. — Christians are here directed to make a sound and moderate estimate of their own gifts, which will preserve them from both extremes, — on the one hand, from overrating, and, on the other, from unduly depreciating, their attainments or talents. According as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. — God hath given us here, by the Apostle, a standard by which we may measure ourselves. Of the term ‘faith’ in this place, various explanations are given; but that it simply means faith in its usual acceptation throughout the Scriptures, as this is the most obvious, so it appears to be its true import.
By faith we are united to the Savior, and by faith is received out of His fullness all that is imparted to us by God. The measure, then, of faith, with which each believer is blessed, whether strong faith or weak, great faith or little, indicates with certainty both his real character before God, and his relative standing among other believers. According, therefore, to his faith, as evidenced by his works, every Christian ought to estimate himself: The man who has the greatest faith is the highest in the school of Christ. We here also learn that not only faith, but every degree of it, is the gift of God; for men believe according as God hath dealt to each of them the measure of faith; and ‘unto every one of us is given grace, according to the measure of the gift of Christ.’ By the consideration of the manner in which the Apostle thus enforces his admonition, the believer will both be moderated in his own esteem, and also in his desire for the esteem of others. He will consequently be much less exposed to encounter what may inflame his pride, or tend to his discouragement.
Ver. 4. — For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office; The Apostle here illustrates the union and connection of believers, by the figure of the wonderful structure of the human body. Every member has its proper place in the body, and its proper function to perform, and every member is valuable according as it is useful in the body. But no member is useless. For the smallest and least honorable is useful. But this does not imply, as Mr. Stuart understands it, that there is no superiority of value among the members. This is contrary to obvious fact, and contrary to the nature of the figure here employed. One member of the human body is more useful, and, as Paul says to the Corinthians, more honorable than another; but the least honorable is useful, and to be treated with respect. ‘To show,’ says Mr. Stuart, ‘that no one has any reason to set up himself as superior to others, the Apostle now introduces the admirable comparison of the body of Christ, i.e., the Church, with the human body.’
Surely it is not to teach us that all the members of the body of Christ are equally valuable, that the Apostle introduces the comparison. Such a comparison would be very ill chosen; for among the members of the body there is a great variety in their relative scale of importance. Who would not rather lose a joint of his finger than his eye? But while one member is more important than another in the human body, as well as in the body of Christ, every member is important; every member has its peculiar function, which contributes to the good of the whole, and which the most honorable members are not adapted to perform. The eye is a more important member than the foot, but the eye could not perform for the good of the body that function which the foot performs. The eye, therefore, as well as every other member of the body, ought to honor the foot, according to the value of the services it is adapted to perform. Office. — This does not mean office in a restricted sense, because every member of the body has such an office. It means office in its general sense of function.
Ver. 5. — So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one remembers one of another.
So we, being many, are one body. — This is not to be restricted to one church, as to the church at Rome, to which it was written, but refers to the Church of Christ, which embraces His people of all ages, and of all countries. The feeblest disciple, even he who of the whole number is least instructed in his Master’s will, has still his place in the body, and his use in that place. Whatever church, then, refuses to receive any Christian for want of knowledge of any part of the will of Christ, acts against the spirit of this passage. It is wrong either to refuse admission to Christ’s known people, or to admit His known enemies. In Christ. — Not, as Dr.
Macknight understands it, ‘under Christ.’ It is not by our being under Christ that our union is effected with one another, but by being in Christ. Members one of another. — By being united in Christ, believers become members of one another, that is, they are united to each other, as all the members of the body are united. The most remote members are united by their union with the body. The hands and the feet have fellowship through the intervening members. Hence Christians ought to love one another as parts of themselves. As the Apostle says, no man ever hated his own body; and he that loveth his wife loveth himself. For a like reason, a Christian, when loving his fellow-Christians, is loving himself. It is thus that Christians, in the Church of Christ, taken individually, are many, and are together one body in Christ, having the Spirit of Christ, and all of them are members one of another. This consideration ought to operate powerfully to unite them. There is a sectarian partiality, ‘distinct from this, too often found among the professors of Christianity. But as the union of Christians, here represented by that of the members of the human body, respects none but real Christians, and as it respects all such, whether they be eternally united in Christian fellowship with us or not, we ought to cultivate love to them as to the disciples of Christ, of whatever name, and cherish this love to them, on the ground of their union with Christ. We ought to unite with the Apostle in praying ‘Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.’
Ver. 6. — Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us. — Upon this Dr. Macknight observes: — ’As the grace of apostleship signifies the office of an apostle graciously conferred, so the grace here said to be given to the Romans may mean the particular station and office in the Church assigned to individuals by Christ.’ But the word grace has neither the one signification nor the other. It is that favor by which Christ confers His gifts on the members of His body. Office in the Church belongs to few of them, but they all possess gifts or talents by which they may be useful to the body. Many of the gifts possessed when the Apostle wrote, were gifts miraculously bestowed; but even at that time they were not all such.
And the word gifts includes those gifts that are given in providence, or conferred by constitution, talent, birth, education, and other circumstances, as well as the extraordinary gifts immediately conferred by the Holy Spirit. Riches and natural eloquence are gifts, as well as the miraculous ability to speak in languages not previously learned. Christians, then, should consider everything they possess as a gift bestowed by God, which they should cultivate and use to His glory, and for which they are accountable. If a Christian misspends his money, his time, his abilities, his influence, or any talent which God has conferred on him, he is not misspending his own, but, is misspending what is entrusted to him by God. He is unfaithful in his trust. Whether prophecy. — Prophecy strictly signifies the foretelling of future events. But it seems also to be extended to denote any message from God, whether relating to things present or to come, and, in the New Testament, to refer to the exposition of Scripture. Calvin, after remarking that ‘some mean by prophecy the power of prediction which flourished in the Church at its commencement,’ afterwards observes, ‘I prefer the opinion of those commentators who take the word in a more extended sense, and apply it to the peculiar gift of explaining revelation, according as any one executes with skill and dexterity the office of an interpreter in declaring the will of God. Prophecy, therefore, at this period, is nothing else in the Christian Church than the proper understanding of Scripture, and a peculiar faculty of explaining the same; since all the ancient prophecies, and all the oracles of God, were contained in Christ and His Gospel. For Paul understood it in this sense, 1 Corinthians 14:5, when he said, ‘I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that you prophesied’ ‘We know in part, and we prophesy in part,’ 1 Corinthians 13:9. For it does not appear that Paul was only desirous in this passage to recount those admirable graces by which Christ ennobled His Gospel at the beginning, but rather gives a statement of ordinary gifts, which certainly remain in the church. Proportion of faith. — They were to speak according to the extent of their information or measure of faith. This passage does not appear to relate to that principle of interpretation which is called the analogy of faith. This is a canon of Scripture interpretation which has no doubt been abused; but when rightly applied, as the word of God must be consistent with itself, it seems both reasonable and useful. Since the time of Dr. Campbell of Aberdeen, who keenly opposed this principle, it has been generally renounced by expositors of Scripture; yet, when viewed in a proper light, it is by no means liable to the exceptions made to it. The objections which Dr. Campbell brings against it are fully obviated in Dr. Carson’s late work, entitled, Examination of the Principles of Biblical Interpretation of Ernesti; Ammon, Stuart, and other Philologists, pp. 103-108. f58 Ver. 7. — Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering; or he that teacheth, on teaching.
Or ministry . — The word in the original is that which appropriately designates the office of the deacon. If it refers to office, it must refer to this officer. For though ministry equally applies to Apostles, and all who serve in the Gospel, yet appropriately it refers to one office; and when it is applied to others, it is with circumstances that make the reference obvious. Indeed, what is here said applies to all offices as well as to that of the deacon; but this should not influence us so as to prevent our ascertaining its immediate reference. There is no necessity here to restrict the word to an official meaning, for it will apply to every one who devotes himself to the interests of the body of Christ. As Howard, the philanthropist, was to humanity, so may many Christians be to the Church of Christ, — at least, to that part of it with which they are more immediately connected. He that teacheth on teaching. — Fitness to teach is a gift of the Head of the Church, which all who teach ought to possess, and without which no appointment of any one can make Him a minister of Christ. They who possess the gift of teaching ought to employ it diligently.
Ver. 8. — Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.
He that exhorteth. — This means to excite to duty and dissuade from sin, and requires a peculiar talent. Mr. Stuart supposes that the teacher and exhorter were different officers; but it is quite obvious that the Apostle is not distinguishing offices, but gifts. Every gift does not require a different office. Many of the gifts required no office at all. No opinion can be more groundless, than that the gifts imply each a separate office in the Church. He that giveth. — This is usually supposed to refer to the deacon; but as the Apostle is not speaking of the distinction or number of offices, and as the word used is not so restricted, there is no just ground thus to limit the passage. It includes the deacon, but is not confined to him. Mr. Stuart, however, is not justified in saying that the word ‘properly means to impart among others what belongs to one’s self; to give to others.’ It is not essential to the word whether the gift proceeds from the giver as the owner, or merely as the steward. The gifts conferred by the Apostles were not their own; yet Paul applies the word ( Romans 1:11) to the communication of a spiritual gift through his hands to the Church. But to prove that the word here extends to those who gave of their own substance, it is not required that the word cannot apply to official or vicarious alms. It is enough that the word is one of a general meaning, and applies to the giving of one’s own. Why should it be confined to official giving, when there is nothing restrictive in the word or in the circumstances? Why should it be confined to the deacon, when the Apostle is not at all treating of office, but of gifts possessed by unofficial as well as official persons. With simplicity. — This means singleness of view It guards against ostentation or love of praise, on account of which the Pharisees gave their alms. The word is sometimes used to signify liberality, and is so understood here by Mr. Stuart. This meaning is not unsuitable, but still the other is more appropriate In all cases Christians need the caution to give with simplicity, but it would not be possible for some to give with what is generally understood by liberality. He that ruleth. — Mr. Stuart labors hard, but unsuccessfully, to make it appear that this word does not here apply to presiding or ruling in the Church, but to assisting the poor by hospitality, like Phebe. The word is usually applied to presiding in the church; and when it is used without a regimen, the most obvious meaning must be supplied to fill up the ellipsis.
That this will confine it to ruling in the church admits of no question.
Presiding or ruling in the church is here considered, not with a view to its distinction from other offices, but with respect to the gift that fits for it. ‘Some are of opinion,’ says Dr. Macknight, ‘that the president was one appointed to superintend those who were employed in distributing the church’s alms.’ There can be no doubt that the word would apply to a president of any kind. But to believe that it signifies here such presidents, when it is appropriated to other presidents in the church, and when there is no evidence that there were any presidents of the kind supposed, is building without a foundation. With diligence. — The ruler is to attend to his office with earnestness and diligence It is the duty of all to spend and to be spent in the service of their Lord. Showeth mercy. — This signifies the giving of money, or anything, for the support of poor brethren; or applies to every instance in which mercy was to be shown to the afflicted, whether the affliction arose from poverty, sickness, or any other calamity. With cheerfulness. — Mercy must be shown, not only so as to indicate that it is voluntary, but also with cheerfulness, which shows that is a pleasure. This spares the feelings and soothes the sorrows of the afflicted.
Ver. 9. — Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good.
Let love be without dissimulation. — There seems to be here an indirect allusion to those hollow pretensions of love so generally manifested in society. Men pretend to have the greatest love to each other, when they not only have no love at all, but when they may really be under the influence of a contrary disposition. Calvin well observes on this passage. ‘It is difficult to give a view of the ingenuity with which a large portion of mankind assume the appearance of that love which they really do not possess. For they not only deceive others, but impose upon themselves, while they endeavor to believe that they entertain a very considerable share of love, even for those whom they not only treat with neglect, but in reality renounce and despise. Paul therefore declares that only to be genuine love which is free from all dissimulation and guile; and every person can best Judge for himself whether he entertains any feeling in the innermost recesses of his heart opposed to this noble and lasting affection.’ Christians ought to be careful that, while they use to each other the endearing language of brethren, they feel the sentiments and perform the actions which this language imports. ‘Above all things,’ says the Apostle Peter, ‘have fervent charity (love) among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.’ Believers ought to throw the mantle of love over the numerous faults into which their brethren may fall, in their conduct towards them, and thus to hide them from their eyes, forgiving their faults, even as God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven them, Ephesians 4:32. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. — With respect to this, Calvin observes, ‘The words following in the context, good and evil, have not a general meaning; but by evil is intended that malicious iniquity which injures any person; and by good, that kindness by which are afforded to others aid and assistance.’ But it rather appears that the words in this place are to be viewed as to what is bad and good in general. We ought not only to avoid doing what is evil, but to accustom ourselves to abhor it, as the vilest and most offensive of things are abhorred To what which is good we ought to cling with all our hearts. Christians are not to be satisfied with abstaining from what is evil, and practicing what is good.
The affections of their minds should be in unison with their duty; they should hate as well as avoid what is sinful, and love as well as practice what is good. We thus learn that we are accountable to God for the state of our minds, as well as for our external conduct. We should not only not practice, but not love evil.
Ver. 10. — Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honor preferring one another; Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love. — This appears to indicate; that in brotherly love believers ought to have that affection for one another which nature displays among those who are brothers in the flesh. Brotherhood in Christians ought not to be a mere name, but a reality, evinced by the affections of a relationship of kindred. All Christians are brethren; they are born of one Father, who hath taught them to say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’ He who loves the Father, loves the Brethren. ‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God; and every one that loveth Him that begat, loveth Him also that is begotten of Him.’ In honor preferring one another. — Among those who derive the same meaning from these words, there is a great variety in their method of expressing it. Calvin, with many others, understood it as our translators, that each in honor prefer his brother to himself, agreeably to other texts of Scripture. But the word signifies, in general, to lead before, and has a great variety of applications. The meaning here seems to be, that in showing mutual respect they ought each to strive to take the lead. This is a thing in which they may lawfully strive with one another. While the men of the world are striving to outstrip each other in everything that respects ambition, Christians are to refrain from following their example; but they are permitted and enjoined to strive with one another in the indication of mutual respect. Dr. Macknight understands the passage to mean, ‘In every honorable action go before, and lead on one another.’ But it seems forced to understand ‘honor’ as signifying every honorable action. The word appears to have a limited reference to the honor to be shown to one another by the brethren. — ’In lowliness of mind, let each esteem other better than himself,’ Philippians 2:8.
Ver. 11. — Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; Not slothful in business. — It does not appear that the word in the original can bear to be translated business. It denotes eagerness, earnestness, zeal, urgency, etc. The meaning appears to be, that in doing everything with respect to things both temporal and spiritual believers are not to be slothful or indulge in indolence; but in every duty to use exertion and manifest earnestness. Fervent in Spirit. — A fervent spirit is the reverse of sloth, and always prompts to diligence and vigor of action. Christians ought to possess such a spirit in doing all their business, especially in the things of the Lord. Earnestness in doing good, says Calvin, requires a zeal and ardor, lighted up in our breasts by the Spirit of God, Acts 18:25. Serving the Lord — Christians are here exhorted to consider themselves as the servants or slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ. They are so in the fullest sense of the word as concerns Christ’s right to them, and authority over them, and the duty of their being solely devoted to Him. They have none of the disagreeable feelings of slavery, because Christ’s service is their delight, their honor, and their interest. Though the precept applies generally, yet it appears to have a particular reference, from the connection to the duty of fervency of spirit which precedes it.
Christians should consider themselves as wholly and at all times the servants of the Lord, and, remembering that His eye is ever upon them, do all things as in His presence. It is not merely in acts of worship, or on particular occasions, that they are to be considered as serving Him, but in all their lives and all their actions. They are in their worldly employments and engagements to do all with a view to the authority of their Master.
Even in eating and drinking, they are exhorted by the Apostle to act for the glory of God. If Christians would keep this at all times before their minds, how much would their happiness be increased! For we may be assured that an increase in our obedience to our heavenly Master will always be accompanied with an increase of true happiness.
Ver. 12. — Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; Again and again it is enjoined on believers to rejoice in the Lord — in the contemplation of His person, His offices, His power, His love, and in their union with Him. Here, in the midst of exhortations to attend to various duties, they are commanded to rejoice in hope. Hope is founded on faith, and faith on the Divine testimony. Hope, then, respects what God has declared in His word. We are here exhorted to exercise hope with respect to future glory, and to rejoice in the contemplation of the objects of hope.
What can be better calculated to promote joy than the hope of obtaining blessings so glorious in a future world? Were this hope kept in lively exercise, it would raise believers above the fear of man and a concern for the honors of this world. It would also enable them to despise the shame of the cross.
The objects, then, of the believer’s hope are the spiritual and celestial: blessings which are yet future, to which his eyes should constantly be directed, and which are calculated to fill him with the greatest joy. It is not the prospect of terrestrial possessions in which he is to rejoice, but of a house eternal in the heavens. ‘In Thy presence is fullness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.’ It is that glorious communion with Jesus Christ of which the Apostle speaks, when he says, ‘Having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better.’ It is that state in which believers shall be like Him, for they shall see Him as He is. ‘As for me, I will behold Thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake with Thy likeness.’ It is the hope of righteousness for which through the Spirit, believers wait, Galatians 5:5. This hope is founded on the unchangeable promise of God — on His promise accompanied by His oath — on the blood of Christ with which He has sealed His promise — on Him who was not only dead, but is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for His people. This hope, then, is both sure and steadfast, and entereth into that within the vail, whither the forerunner, even Jesus, is for us entered.
This description of hope, as an anchor both sure and steadfast, confutes the erroneous doctrine of Roman Catholics, who maintain, as has been formerly observed, that the hope of the Gospel is a doubtful conjecture, instead of a firm expectation of future blessedness. They insist that the believer ought to be always in doubt as to his salvation; that he cannot know whether God loves or hates him; and that all the assurance he can have of His salvation can never go beyond conjecture. Is this, then, the anchor both sure and steadfast which enables the believer to remain firm amidst the storms and agitations of this unsettled world? Can he rejoice in a hope so uncertain and unstable? That Roman Catholics should thus reduce to doubt and uncertainty that hope which the believer is commanded to maintain perfectly ( 1 Peter 1:13), is not to be wondered at, since it is partly on their own merits, and on the satisfaction and sufferings of their saints, that their hope is founded, and not exclusively on the blood of Christ. The believer is here commanded to rejoice in hope; and if he consider that he is bound to apply to himself the other injunctions contained in this portion of the word of God, and to act upon them, he ought equally to regard it as his duty to obey this injunction, and to remember that, if he is not obeying it, it is an indication that all is not right with him. The same conclusion may also be drawn, if he is not walking according to that other express command in chapter sixth, to reckon himself to be deed indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The hope of the glory of God, in which the Apostle here affirms that Christians ought to rejoice, is provided as an important part of the believer’s armor, — an helmet to cover his head, to defend him against the attacks of his spiritual enemies, 1 Thessalonians 5:8. It supports him when ready to be cast down. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise Him who is the health of my countenance and my God.’ It soothes the bitterness of affliction when the believer is resting on the promises of God. In prosperity it elevates his affections, and, fixing his expectation on the glory that shall be revealed, disengages him from the love of this world. ‘My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?’ It comforts him in the prospect of death; and he says, with his Savior, ‘My heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth, my flesh also shall rest in hope.’ His spirit at death ascends to mingle with the spirits of just men made perfect, while his body enters the grave as a place of rest, waiting for its glorious resurrection, and the day when he shall sing that song of triumph. ‘O death! where is thy sting? O grave! where is thy victory?’ It is the prayer of the Apostle, ch. 15:13, that the God of hope would fill His people with all joy and peace in believing, that they may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost. Patient in tribulation. — Since Christians have such a good hope through grace, they ought to be patient under their afflictions. Nothing is better calculated to enable us to bear calamities than the hope of a happy result.
And what can equal the prospects of the Christian when he has passed through the furnace and been tried as gold? His afflictions are not only necessary for his trial, and honorable to God, but they are for his own eternal advantage. The light afflictions of the righteous, which are but for a moment, work out for them a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. The trial of their faith is much more precious than that of gold, though it be tried with fire, and shall be found unto praise and honor and glory in the day of Christ. Afflictions are sent by God to His people to increase their patience. On account of remaining sin, they are their portion while in the body. ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.’ Continuing instant in prayer. — The Christian is to ‘pray without ceasing.’ No duty can be well performed without this. It is especially necessary in the time of affliction. ‘Paul also,’ says Calvin, ‘not only excites us to prayer, but expressly requires performance; because our warfare is unceasing, and we are daily attacked by various assaults, which champions even of the greatest bravery are unable to support without an occasional supply of new vigor. Unceasing continuance in prayer is the best remedy against fatigue.’ It is impossible that believers can discharge the various duties which are here enforced, without having their eyes constantly directed to their heavenly Father, and without receiving from Him the will and the capacity necessary for their discharge Our Lord’s parable of the unjust judge, Luke 18:1, contains the strongest encouragement to perseverance and importunity in prayer. The Lord commands His disciples to pray always, on account of the power of their spiritual enemies, who are constantly seeking their destruction. The Apostle also exhorts believers to pray always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and to watch thereunto with all perseverance; to continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving; in everything giving thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus; and to be careful for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, to let their requests be made known unto God. If a Christian undertakes anything whatever without prayer, he is neglecting his duty and not acting up to his privileges. In that matter he is not walking with God, whose ears are open to the prayers of the righteous. On occasions, even, when there is not a moment to deliberate, and when an immediate decision is indispensable, there is still time for prayer and for receiving an answer, Nehemiah 2:4,8.
The believer, too, should ever address his heavenly Father with full confidence that his prayers will be heard, not perhaps according to his wishes, but in a way that in the issue will be more advantageous. ‘This is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us. And if we know that He hear us whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of Him ‘Whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in My name, I will do it.’ ‘Ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.’ ‘And all things whatsoever ye shall ask in Prayer, believing, ye shall receive.’ If the believer asks and does not receive, it is because he asks amiss he does not ask in faith, he asks for things that are not proper, he asks while he is indulging in sin. ‘The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord; but the prayer of the upright is His delight.’ If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me,’ Psalm 66:18. Here, however, it is proper to remark that there is a great difference between iniquity prevailing in the heart, and iniquity regarded in the heart. In the last case we cannot draw near with acceptance. God will not accept our prayers, because in that case we cannot draw near with ‘a true heart.’ But in the former case, of iniquity prevailing in the hearts we may draw near in the full assurance of faith, of which we see an example in the case of David. ‘Iniquities,’ he says, ‘prevail against me;’ but he immediately adds, ‘As for our transgressions, Thou shalt purge them away,’ Psalm 65:3.
Ver. 13. — Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.
Distributing to the necessity of saints. — Rather ‘communicating to the necessities of the saints.’ The poor brethren are thus made joint partakers of the substance of their richer brethren; the rich make their poor brethren participators with them in their substance, by giving them what is necessary to supply their wants. ‘Observe,’ says Calvin, ‘the propriety of the expression. The apostle thus intimates that we ought to supply the wants of our brethren with as much care as if we were assisting ourselves.’
It may here be observed that this precept proves most clearly that there was no general custom among the first Christians of a community of goods. Had this been the case, the rich would not have been commanded to communicate to the necessities of the saints. It ought also to be noted that it is to the necessities of the saints that communication is to be made, not to their indolence. ‘This we commanded you, that if any would not work neither should he eat.’ So far from its being the duty of Christians to support the idle, it would be a breach of one of the laws of Christ’s kingdom. Saints. — It may also be observed that, while we are to do good unto all men, the poor saints are the peculiar care of a church of Christ. These are to be fed as children of the family who are unable to support themselves.
Here also, we may see the character of the members of the first churches.
They were such only as appeared to be saints and godly in Christ Jesus.
The term saints signify those who are separated for the service of God — sanctified in Christ Jesus. This appellation belongs to all the people of God without distinction, and not to a particular class or part of them exclusively, such as to the Apostles. The Apostles were indeed saints, and so were Noah, Abraham, Moses, and all the Prophets. If this title were indiscriminately applied to all who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, — that is, to every Christian, — as in the apostolical Epistles, it could not be misunderstood; but its exclusive application to Apostles and some others besides, leads to the supposition that all Christians are not saints. This application is one of the engines of the Man of Sin, by which he deceives.
If any plead for it as a proper distinction, it is sufficient to advert to the saying of Paul, ‘We have no such custom, neither the churches of God,’ 1 Corinthians 11:16. Here the reference is to the approved customs of the churches acting under the immediate guidance of the Apostles, which consequently are equivalent to direct precept. We find no such custom in the Scriptures, in which Prophets and Apostles name themselves, and each other, without this distinction. Given to hospitality. — This does not mean, as it is generally now applied, social intercourse and conviviality among neighbors, but it means the receiving and entertaining of strangers at a distance from their own habitations. This was a duty of peculiar necessity in the primitive times, when inns and places of entertainment were unusual. But it is a duty still; and the change of times and customs cannot set aside any of the precepts of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christians ought hospitably to receive their brethren coming from a distance, and to assist them in their business. We are here directed not only to practice hospitality, but, according to the import of the original, to follow or pursue it. Christians are to seek opportunities of this manifesting love to their brethren. In another place the Apostle enforces the same duty: ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’
Ver. 14. — Bless them which persecute you; bless, and curse not.
Bless them which persecute you. — Calvin justly cautions us against endeavoring to find a certain order in these precepts. It is their import, and not their connection with each other, that we ought to ascertain.
Sometimes there may be a relation; at other times there is entire independence. The precept here given cannot be obeyed in its genuine sense by any who are not born again of the incorruptible seed of the word; and even to such it is a difficult duty. In proportion to their progress in the Divine life, will there be in them a difference with respect to their attainments in that heavenly spirit which enables them to comply with this injunction. But none can justly be looked on as Christians, who do not in some measure possess this spirit, and practice this precept. If this be so, how few are the genuine disciples of Christ! ‘None,’ says Calvin, ‘can boast himself to be a son of God, or glory in the name of a Christian, who has not in part put on this mind, which was in the Lord Jesus, and does not daily wrestle against and oppose the feeling of enmity and hatred. The law of God is in all respects a law of love, and the precept here enjoined contains a peculiar characteristic of Christianity, in the exhibition of which Christians are imitators of their heavenly Father. Our Lord Jesus Christ gave a signal example of obedience to this rule, when on the cross He prayed to his Father for the pardon of those by whom He was crucified.
And Stephen, the first martyr, in imitation of his Divine Master, died in calling on His name, and praying for his murderers. This precept teaches Christians in what manner, when reviled or persecuted, they ought to act to their persecutors.’ ‘Being defamed,’ says the Apostle, ‘we entreat.’ The repetition of the precept in the following clause adds to the energy of the expression. Bless and curse not. — Paul repeats the precept to bless, on account of its importance, and its applicability to men in general, in connection with a command to curse no man. How does this condemn the Church of Rome, which so frequently manifests its antichristian character by cursing its enemies, and allowing its priests to curse from the altar those who give them offense. How many are there, who, calling themselves Christians openly and without shame utter maledictions on those who irritate them!
How few abstain from imprecations of every kind and degree! f59 Ver. 15. — Rejoice with them that do rejoice and weep with them that weep.
This precept has no doubt a peculiar importance with respect to the brethren, but it is applicable in general. We ought to sympathize with our fellow-creatures in their happiness and afflictions. The meaning of the precept is quite obvious. The prosperity of others ought to inspire us with joy. Their affliction ought to affect us with sorrow. Even the very semblance of this duty among the people of the world has a beneficial influence on society, heightening the joy of prosperity, and lessening the pain of adversity.
Be of the same mind one toward another. — This precept refers rather to unanimity, cordiality, and harmony in transacting all the business of the Church, than to oneness of mind as to the truth. With respect to faith, it is the word of God with which believers are to be in accordance, and not with the opinions of each other. Besides, this often-repeated precept is always introduced with others of a practical nature. Oneness of belief in everything, even the least part of the revelation of God, is of importance.
This, however, cannot be effected but by a full knowledge of the Divine word. The injunction is most important, and cautions against a captious spirit respecting the affairs of the church with which we are connected, or our intercourse one with another. Dr. Macknight has entirely mistaken the import of this passage, making it refer to what precedes. ‘Be of the same hospitable, forgiving, sympathizing disposition towards one another as towards strangers and persecutors.’ Mind not high things. — Men in general are aspiring to things above them.
The great efforts of life are to obtain high rank or commanding station in the world. Christians are here cautioned against setting their minds on high things. Nothing can be more opposed to progress in the Divine life, than the evil against which we are here warned. In proportion as Christians indulge it, they make their bed among thorns, turning away their eyes from the glory of their future inheritance. Condescend to men of low estate. — The word here translated condescend signifies to be led away with; and that which is rendered men of low estate may with equal propriety be rendered low or humble things; and in this way the clause is an antithesis to the one preceding. ‘Not thinking of high things,’ says Calvin, ‘by which he means that a Christian ought not to aspire, in an ambitious manner, after those things by which he may surpass others, nor indulge in haughty feelings, but meditate rather upon modesty and meekness; for our excellence, in the presence of God, consists in these virtues, not in pride or the contempt of our brethren. This precept is properly added to the former; for nothing breaks the unity mentioned by the Apostle more completely than the exalting of ourselves, and our aspiring to something still more elevated, with a view to attain a higher situation. I take the word humble in the neuter gender, that the antithesis may be more complete.’ Be not wise in your own conceits. — ’ This sentence,’ says Calvin, ‘connects with the preceding part of the context; for nothing inflates the mind more than a high opinion of our own wisdom and prudence.’ Self-conceit is an evidence of weakness of mind and of ignorance. So far as it manifests itself among Christians, it evidences low attainments in the knowledge of the things of God, and is most destructive to the harmony of a church, and the improvement of the individual under its influence.
Ver. 17. — Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
Recompense to no man evil for evil. — It is natural to every man to return evil for evil. Those of the most indolent and passive dispositions are not without feelings of revenge. Nothing but the faith of Christ will enable any man to overcome this disposition. But faith will overcome it; and every man who believes in Christ most labor to overcome it in his heart, as well as in his practice. If Christians are tried by this test, the pretensions of the great bulk of those who usurp the name will be found groundless. Provide things honest in the sight off all men. — We are not to do our work to be seen of men, but we are to be careful that all our works are done so as to avoid anything that would bring a reproach upon the Gospel. We ought not only to abstain from what we know to be wrong, but we ought sedulously to avoid just suspicion, 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Sometimes Christians say that if they have a good conscience, they care not what any one thinks of them. But this is contrary to this precept. If we are falsely charged, we may commit ourselves to Him who judgeth righteously. But, so far as in our power, we are not only to avoid what is improper, but to avoid the blame or suspicion of what is improper. In Paul himself we see an example of solicitude in this respect. ‘Providing for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men,’ 2 Corinthians 8:21.
Ver. 18. — If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
Such is the state of human nature, that offenses must needs come, and here the Apostle, in his exhortation, proceeds on the fact of the difficulty of living at peace with all. The believer is, notwithstanding, constantly to aim at this, and to pursue it even when it seems to fly from him. He ought particularly to guard against giving occasion to any just subject of complaint against him. To live at peace with all men, as far as is attainable, without sacrificing duty, is not only duty, but for his happiness. To pursue peace, then, is to fly from misery. It is impossible to be happy in disturbance, and broils, and enmities; but it may sometimes be impossible for Christians to obtain peace. When this is the case, they must submit to it as one of the greatest afflictions; but we ought to recollect that it is God who giveth us peace with men, and to seek it from Him with ardent prayer, as well as from men, by unremitting endeavors after it. When deprived of it, we ought also to inquire whether there be not a cause of this in ourselves; for when a man’s ways please the Lord, He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him. Calvin justly cautions us ‘not so to affect the security of the favor and esteem of men, as to refuse to incur, for the sake of Christ, the hatred of any human being, when necessary.’ As some Christians may be naturally of a contentious disposition, so others may, from a selfish desire of having the favor and good opinion and praise of men, be inclined to keep out of view whatever is most offensive in the religion of Christ. Such persons may congratulate themselves on the possession of a spirit of peace, but it is only a spirit of cowardice and selfishness, a spirit of worldly indifference to the glory of God and the salvation of men. We are never to seek to maintain peace, either with the world or with Christians, by the sacrifice of any part of Divine truth. A Christian must be willing to be unpopular, that he may be useful and faithful. To whatever obloquy or opposition it may expose him, he ought earnestly to contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.
Ver. 19. — Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves. — As by the law in the members we are most strongly urged to take revenge on those who injure us, the Apostle introduces this dissuasive against indulging this corrupt principle, with the most endearing address. Christians will constantly have opportunities of exercising themselves in obedience to this exhortation.
There are innumerable occurrences calculated to provoke and excite them to retaliation. But they will find that to abstain from avenging their own cause will essentially promote their happiness. It is a painful thing to think of injuries, and it is most for our peace and happiness to forget them, and commit ourselves to the Lord. How opposite is this from the principles of the men of the world, and what are called the laws of honor, in obedience to which a man will, in cold blood, he; said his own life and that of his neighbor on account of some contemptuous expression or trivial injury! What gross ignorance does it manifest to consider any man a Christian, who is always prepared to act in this manner, and who would regard it as an affront if the contrary were supposed! Give place unto wrath. — Calvin, Dr. Macknight, and Mr. Stuart understand this of the wrath of God; but notwithstanding what the latter has alleged in confirmation of this, the common view of the passage is unquestionably the just one. No principle of language will justify the ellipsis that makes wrath in this connection designate the wrath of God or the Divine wrath. Among the various applications of the phrase ‘Give place,’ one of them is, to retire from the place, that it may be occupied by another, Luke 14:9. The person here referred to gives the place that he occupied to another, and retires to another place. This meaning, then, is quite in accordance with that of the common explanation of this passage.
Give place to wrath, that is, leave the place, and let wrath occupy it; or give place, as a man would do if attacked by a wild beast, stepping aside to let it rush by. Mr. Stuart, indeed, alleges that the other interpretation ‘is rendered nearly certain by the quotation which immediately follows,’ which he supposes would be wholly inapposite if wrath be understood as referring to the wrath of the enemy. This argument, however, is without force. The meaning objected to is quite consistent with the quotation. ‘Take not revenge yourselves, my brethren, but retire from the contest, for it is not you but God who has a right to take vengeance.’ It is a good reason why we should not take vengeance, that it is God’s prerogative to take vengeance. For it is written, Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. — It belongs to God, and He will repay it. Those threatenings of the vengeance of God which we find in the writings of the Prophets, and especially in the Book of Psalm, are not to be viewed as proceeding from the angry spirit of the writers, but from the Holy Ghost who dictated them, who hates, and will come out of his place to punish, all workers of iniquity. If any man dare to take into his own hands the vengeance which belongeth to God, it will recoil upon himself.
From this it is evident that God will avenge the injuries done to His people. What, then, shall be the punishment of those who employ themselves in persecuting, injuring, reproaching, and slandering the disciples of Christ. We are not, however, to understand this precept as prohibiting Christians from appealing to the magistrate in case of injuries.
Calvin, indeed, justly observes, that it prohibits us from applying to the magistrate from a principle of revenge. It is quite true that to appeal to the magistrate out of a principle of revenge is indulging revenge as much as if we took revenge with our own hands. But it is often right to appeal to the laws of our country in order to secure the peace of society, and defend ourselves and others from similar injuries. To act on the principle avowed by some, that it is wrong to apply to the power of the civil magistrate, is not only mistaking this precept, but is contrary to the fundamental principle on which society rests. In many cases it would be highly sinful not to punish evil-doers. If the magistrate ought not to bear the sword in vain, the subject ought to assist him in executing vengeance.
If thine enemy hunger, feed him. — A Christian must be an enemy to no man, but he cannot prevent others from being enemies to him; but instead of revenging their injuries, he is bound to do good to them. Conduct so opposite to nature can never be genuinely effected by the natural man. It is only to be effected by the power of God through faith. It is the fruit of the new birth only. We are not to understand this precept as always to be fulfilled by the giving of meat and drink; but meat and drink are taken as an indication that in every possible instance good will is to be manifested. Shalt heap coals of fire. — Dr. Macknight, with many others, makes this refer to the custom of fusing metals, and supposes that it recommends this line of conduct as the most effectual way to soften or melt the enemy to repentance. This, however, is a meaning made for the words, instead of being extracted from them. Mr. Stuart makes it imply pain, but thinks that it is not the pain of punishment, but of shame or contrition. This is equally remote from the obvious meaning of the expression. Besides, it is equally unwarrantable to do anything with a view to occasion the pain of contrition, as to occasion the pain of punishment. We should desire the contrition of our enemy for his good, and not that he may endure suffering.
It is vain to force the words of the Holy Spirit. They evidently assert that the conduct recommended will have the effect of increasing the punishment of the enemies of God’s people; and though they should not rejoice in this effect as causing misery, yet they should hereby be led to adore the manifestation of Divine justice. Besides, this ought to be a warning to their enemies to abandon their wicked conduct, and finally to escape the fearful consequences which they cannot avoid if they persevere in their enmity. They ought to be informed of this part of the Divine pleasure. There can be no doubt that such conduct from the Lord’s people, if it does not overcome their enemies, will eventually add to their guilt and punishment. We should beware not to explain away the words of Scripture.
Ver. 21. — Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
Be not overcome of evil. — Christians are here exhorted not to suffer themselves to indulge a spirit of wrath or resentment from the provocations of their enemies. In the world they will experience evil on the part of others, but they ought never to allow themselves to be drawn into the commission of evil and to be overcome by it. To yield to anger is to be conquered by an enemy. Men in general suppose that to resent an injury is only to show a proper spirit. But in the estimation of God it is the opposite, and manifests defeat. He acts as the Christian, who yields not to anger, but remains without wrath under insult and ill treatment. When the Lord commanded the disciples to forgive their offending brethren, perceiving the difficulty of acting in this manner, they immediately prayed, ‘Lord, increase our faith.’ No prayer could be more suitable, and nothing more necessary for the performance of this duty. Overcome evil with good. — This implies that the injurious person may, by repeated acts of kindness, be won over from his enmity. This, indeed, frequently happens, and there is hardly a case in which it will not have some effect. But whatever may be the success, we ought always to make the trial. If our efforts shall be lost on our enemy, they will not be lost with respect to ourselves. Our Christian character will be more perfected, our happiness will be increased, our ways will be pleasing to the Lord, and our reward will be sure. Persons who cannot be overcome with good must be in the most awful state of hardened wickedness, and their punishment will be dreadful.
In the above remarkable portion of Scripture, we learn the true tendency of the doctrine of salvation wholly by grace, established in a manner so powerful in the preceding part of this Epistle, by which men are created in Christ Jesus unto good works. How beautiful is it, and how sublime when displayed in all its practical effects in the duties which flow from it, as here described! We may search all the works of the most admired writers, and, so far as they have not borrowed from the fountain of inspired truth, we shall find in them nothing comparable to the elevated maxims contained in this chapter. Especially we shall not discover the faintest shadow of resemblance to the motives by which these duties are here inculcated. If the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth forth His handiworks, — if the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that the heathen are without excuse, — how much more clearly do the Scriptures proclaim their Divine origin, and the majesty of their Author! God hath magnified His word above all His name, <19D802> Psalm 138:2.