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(1) Servant.—More strictly, here as elsewhere in the New Testament, slave; and yet not wrongly translated “servant,” because the compulsory and degrading side of service is not put forward. The idea of “slavery” in the present day has altogether different associations.
Separated.—Compare especially Acts 13:2 (“Separate me Barnabas and Saul”), where human instruments—the leaders of the Church at Antioch—are employed to carry out the divine will. The reference here is to the historical fact of the selection of St. Paul to be an Apostle; in Galatians 1:15 (“it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb”), it is rather to the more distant act of divine predestination.
Unto the gospel of God.—Singled out and set apart to convey the message of salvation from God to man. The ambiguous genitive, the gospel of God, seems to mean, “the gospel which proceeds from God,” “of which God is the author;” not “of which God is the object.”
(1-7) In writing to the Romans, a Church to which he was personally unknown, and which might be supposed, so far as it was Jewish, to be prejudiced against him, the Apostle delivers with somewhat more than usual solemnity his credentials and commission. A divinely appointed minister of a system of things predicted by the prophets, and culminating in the revelation, divinely ordained and attested, of Jesus Christ, he greets the Roman Christians, themselves also divinely called. Note the repetition of terms signifying “calling,” “selection,” “determination in the counsels and providence of God;” as if to say: “I and you alike are all members of one grand scheme, which is not of human invention, but determined and ordained of God—the divine clue, as it were, running through the history of the world.” A solemn note is thus struck at the very commencement, and in what might have been regarded as the more formal part of the Epistle, by which the readers are prepared for the weighty issues that are to be set before them.
(2) Which he had promised.—More correctly, which He promised before by His prophets in holy writ. There is a nicety of meaning expressed by the absence of the article before this last phrase. A slight stress is thus thrown upon the epithet “holy.” It is not merely “in certain books which go by the name of holy scriptures,” but “in certain writings the character of which is holy.” They are “holy” as containing the promises referred to in the text, and others like them. It will thus be seen how even this faint shade of meaning works into the general argument. The writings in which the promises are contained, like the promises themselves, their fulfilment, and the consequences which follow from them, all are part of the same exceptional divine scheme.
The prophetic writings describe not only salvation, the substance of the gospel, but also the preaching of salvation, the gospel itself. (See Isaiah 40:2, “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem,” and following verses; Isaiah 42:4; Isaiah 52:1 et seq.; Psalms 19:4; Psalms 68:11, et al.)
Prophets.—In the wider sense in which the word is used, including not only Samuel (Acts 3:24), but also Moses and David, and all who are regarded as having prophesied the Messiah.
(3, 4) Who, on the human side—as if to show that the prophecies were really fulfilled in Him—was born of the seed of David, the rightful lineage of the Messiah; who, on the divine side, by virtue of the divine attribute of holiness dwelling in His spirit, was declared to be the Son of God, by that mighty demonstration, the resurrection of the dead.
According to the flesh.—The word is here used as equivalent to “in His human nature, in that lower bodily organisation which He shares with us men.”
(4) With power.—That is, in a transcendent and superhuman manner.
According to the spirit of holiness.—In antithesis to “according to the flesh,” and therefore coming where we should expect “in His divine nature.” And yet there is a difference, the precise shade of which is not easy to define. What are we to understand by the “spirit of holiness”? Are we to regard it as simply convertible with “Holy Spirit”? Not quite. Or are we to look upon it as corresponding to “the flesh,” as “spirit” and “flesh” correspond in man? Again, not quite—or not merely. The spirit of Christ is human, for Christ took upon Him our nature in all its parts. It is human; and yet it is in it more especially that the divinity resides. It is in it that the “Godhead dwells bodily,” and the presence of the Godhead is seen in the peculiar and exceptional “holiness” by which it is characterised. The “spirit,” therefore, or that portion of His being to which St. Paul gives the name, in Christ, is the connecting-link between the human and the divine, and shares alike in both. It is the divine “enshrined” in the human, or the human penetrated and energised by the divine. It is, perhaps, not possible to get beyond metaphorical language such as this. The junction of the human and divine must necessarily evade exact definition, and to carry such definition too far would be to misrepresent the meaning of the Apostle. We may compare with this passage 1 Timothy 3:16, “God (rather, Who) was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit:” or St. Peter’s phrase, “Put to death in the flesh. but quickened by the Spirit”—rather, in the spirit, as the seat of that divinity by virtue of which He overcame death—(1 Peter 3:18).
The particular act in which the Sonship of Christ was most conspicuously ratified and confirmed was His resurrection from the dead. It was ratified by His resurrection, as a manifestation of transcendent and divine power. (Comp. Acts 2:24 et seq.; Acts 17:31; Romans 4:24.)
It should be observed that this antithesis between the human and divine nature in Christ is not here intended to carry with it any disparagement of the former. Rather the Apostle wishes to bring out the completeness and fulness of the dignity of Christ, as exhibited on both its sides. He is at once the Jewish Messiah (and with the Jewish section of the Church at Rome this fact would carry great weight) and the Son of God.
By the resurrection from the dead.—Strictly, by the resurrection of the dead. There is a slight distinction to be observed between the two phrases. It is not “by His resurrection from the dead,” but in an abstract and general sense, “by the resurrection of the dead”—by that resurrection of which Christ was the firstfruits.
(5) Through Him—through Christ the Son—he, Paul, had received his own special’ endowment and commission to bring over the Gentiles into that state of loyal and dutiful submission which has its root in faith; all which would tend to the glory of His name.
We have received.—The Apostle means himself alone, but the plural is used (as frequently in Greek) with delicate tact, so as to avoid an appearance of egotism or assumption.
Grace and apostleship.—Grace is here divine favour manifested in various ways, but especially in his conversion. St. Augustine notes that grace is common to the Apostle with all believers—his apostleship is something special and peculiar; yet apostleship is an instance, or case, of grace. Origen distinguishes between the two—“grace for the endurance of labours, apostleship for authority in preaching;” but both terms are perhaps somewhat wider than this. Apostleship includes all those privileges which St. Paul possessed as an Apostle; grace is all those privileges that he possessed as a Christian. At the same time, in either case the meaning tends in the direction of that particular object which is expressed in the next clause. The light in which the Apostle valued most the gifts that had been bestowed upon him, was inasmuch as they enabled him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.
For obedience to the faith among all nations.—Literally, For (to produce) obedience of faith (the obedience which springs from faith) among all the Gentiles.
Faith is not here equivalent to “the faith”—a positive body of doctrine received and believed—but, in its strict sense, that active habit and attitude of mind by which the Christian shows his devotion and loyalty to Christ, and his total dependence on Him (Galatians 2:19).
For his name.—For His name’s sake. “His,” i.e., Christ’s. The whole of that divine economy of which St. Paul himself forms part, tends to the glory of Christ. The Apostle’s call to his office, his special endowment for his ministry, the success of his preaching among the Gentiles, as they proceed from Christ, so also have for their object the extension of His kingdom.
(6) Among whom are ye also.—It is, perhaps, best not to put a comma at “also.” Among these Gentile churches, to which I am specially commissioned, you Romans too are called to the same obedience of faith, and therefore I have the more right to address you.
Called of Jesus Christ—i.e., not “called by Jesus Christ,” but “called and so belonging to Jesus Christ,” “your Master’s own elect ones.” (Comp. LXX., 1 Kings 1:41, where the words “guests of Adonijah” are in the Greek “called of Adonijah.”)
(7) In Rome.—It is to be observed that one MS. of some importance, the Codex Boernerianus, omits these words. The same MS., with some others, alters the next phrase, “beloved of God” to “in the love of God,” thus substituting for the special address to the Romans a general address to all “who are in the love of God.” Traces of a similar reading appear to be found in the two earliest commentators on the Epistle, Origen (ob. A.D. 253) and the Ambrosian Hilary (A.D. 366-384). The Codex Boernerianus also omits the words “at Rome” in Romans 1:15, while at the end of the Epistle it interposes a blank space between Romans 14:15. These peculiarities give some support to the theory that the Epistle to the Romans was circulated, most probably with the sanction of the Apostle himself, in the form of a general treatise, with the personal matter eliminated. This theory will be found more fully discussed in the Notes on the last two chapters.
Beloved of God.—Reconciled to God through the death of His Son, and therefore with the barrier that separated you from His love removed.
Called to be saints.—Consecrated or set apart by His own special summons, brought within the sphere and range of the holy life.
These epithets, high-sounding as they are, if applied by a modern writer to a modern church would seem to be indiscriminating or conventional, but as coming from St. Paul they have not yet lost their freshness and reality. They correspond to no actual condition of things, but to that ideal condition in which all Christians, by the mere fact of their being Christians, are supposed to be. They are members of the new Messianic kingdom, and share in all its privileges. The Apostle will not let them forget this, but holds it up before them as a mirror to convict them if they are unfaithful.
Grace . . . and peace.—May God and Christ look favourably upon you, and may you enjoy, as the result of that favour, the peace and composure of mind which is the proper attribute of the Christian.
The terms “grace” and “peace” nearly correspond to two ordinary forms of Jewish salutation, the first of which has also something of a counterpart among the Greeks and Romans. But here, as elsewhere, the Apostle has given to them a heightened and deepened Christian signification. Grace is the peculiar state of favour with God and Christ, into which the sincere Christian is admitted. Peace is the state of mind resulting from the sense of that favour.
“The joy Thy favour gives,
Let me again obtain.”
(8) I thank my God through Jesus Christ.—How can the Apostle be said to thank God through Jesus Christ? Christ is, as it were, the medium through whom God has been brought into close relation to man. Hence all intercourse between God and man is represented as passing through Him. He is not only the divine Logos by whom God is revealed to man, but He is also the Head of humanity by whom the tribute of thanks and praise is offered to God.
Throughout the whole world.—A hyperbole, which is the more natural as the Apostle is speaking of Rome, the centre and metropolis of the world as he knew it.
(8-17) The Apostle congratulates the Romans on the good report of them that he had heard. He had long and earnestly desired to visit them in person. Yes, even in Rome he must preach the gospel—of which he is not ashamed, but proud. It is fraught with nothing less than salvation itself alike to Jew and Gentile. In it is revealed that great plan or scheme of God by which man is made just before Him.
To the modern reader who does not make an effort to enter into the mind of the Apostle, the language of these verses, may seem too high-pitched for the occasion. It is not easy to realise the intensity with which St. Paul felt on what in any degree, however small, affected the spiritual life of those who acknowledged the same Master that he did. He had few of those petty distractions that we have. The whole force of his rich and impressible nature was concentrated upon this one subject; and his expressions reflect the state of tension in which he felt himself to be. Thus it is that they take a solemnity and earnestness to which an ordinary correspondence would not attain.
(9) Proof that the Apostle takes this lively interest in the Roman Church conveyed through a solemn adjuration.
Whom I serve.—The word for “serve” is strictly used for voluntary service paid to God, especially in the way of sacrifice and outward worship. Here it is somewhat metaphorical: “Whom I serve, not so much with outward acts as with the ritual of the spirit.”
With my spirit.—“Spirit” is with St. Paul the highest part or faculty in the nature of man. It is the seat of his higher consciousness—the organ by which he communicates with God. “Certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.” (Bacon, Essay on Atheism.) Of itself the “spirit” of man is neutral. When brought into contact with the Spirit of God, it is capable of a truly religious life; but apart from this influence, it is apt to fall under the dominion of the “flesh”—i.e., of those evil appetites and desires to which man is exposed by his physical organisation.
In the gospel of his Son.—The sphere to which the Apostle feels himself called, and in which this heart-worship of his finds its field of operation, is the defence and preaching, &c., of the gospel.
(9-11) It is the constant subject of the Apostle’s prayers that he may succeed in making his way to Rome; so anxious is he to open his heart to that Church in personal- apostolic intercourse.
(10) If by any means now at length.—Note this accumulation of particles, denoting the earnestness of his desire. “All this time I have been longing to come to you, and now at last I hope that it may be put in my power.”
(11) That I may impart unto you some spiritual gift.—Such gifts as would naturally flow to one Christian (or to many collectively) from the personal presence and warm sympathy of another; in St. Paul’s case, heightened in proportion to the wealth and elevation of his own spiritual consciousness and life. His head and his heart alike are full to overflowing, and he longs to disburthen himself and impart some of these riches to the Romans. Inasmuch as he regards all his own religious advancement and experience as the result of the Spirit working within him, he calls the fruits of that advancement and experience “spiritual gifts.” All the apostolic gifts—miraculous as well as non-miraculous—would be included in this expression. Indeed, we may believe that the Apostle would hardly draw the distinction that we do between the two kinds. Both alike were in his eyes the direct gift of the Spirit.
To the end ye may be established.—That they may grow and be confirmed and strengthened in the faith. As a rule the great outpouring of spiritual gifts was at the first foundation of a church. St. Paul was not the founder of the church at Rome, but he hoped to be able to contribute to its advance and consolidation.
(12) That is, that I may be comforted.—A beautiful touch of true courtesy. He is anxious to see them, that he may impart to them some spiritual gift. But no! He hastily draws back and corrects himself. He does not wish it to be implied that it is for him only to impart, and for them only to receive. He will not assume any such air of superiority. In the impulse of the moment, and in the expansiveness of his own heart, he had seemed to put it so; but his real meaning was that they should receive mutual comfort and edification.
Strictly, the idea of mutual comfort is drawn from the two verses combined, not from this singly. In the last verse the Romans were the subject: “That ye may be established.” Here St. Paul himself is the subject: “That I may be comforted.”
Comforted.—The Greek word has rather more of the sense of our “encouraged,” though the idea of “comfort” is also contained in it. It is a similar word to that which is translated “comforter” in several passages in John 14:15, John 14:16 (where see Notes, and Excursus to St. John’s Gospel).
Together with you.—Literally, that I may at the same time be comforted among you; that is, “that I may be comforted at the same time that you are comforted, by my intercourse with you, through that mutual faith which acts and reacts upon each of us.” The Apostle looks to obtain benefit from his intercourse with the Roman Christians. He expects that their faith will help to increase his own.
There is a truth underlying the Apostle’s courtesy which is not mere compliment. The most advanced Christian will receive something from the humblest. There are very few men whose “spirits are not finely touched” somewhere; and St. Paul was conscious that even an Apostle might not be equally strong at every point.
(13) In the previous verses the Apostle has been speaking of his desire; here he speaks of his purpose, which is one step nearer to the realisation. He had intended to add the Roman Church to the harvest that he was engaged in gathering in.
Let.—This is, of course, an archaism for “hindered,” “prevented.” The Greek is literally, “and was prevented hitherto.”
It is hardly worth while to speculate, as some commentators have done, on the causes that may have hindered the Apostle from going to Rome. In a life like his there may have been many.
(14) To the Greeks, and to the Barbarians.—The Apostle does not intend to place the Romans any more in the one class than in the other. He merely means “to all mankind, no matter what their nationality or culture.” The classification is exhaustive. It must be remembered that the Greeks called all who did not speak their own language “Barbarians,” and the Apostle, writing from. Greece, adopts their point of view.
Wise and foolish.—(Comp. 1 Corinthians 1:20; 1 Corinthians 1:26-28.) The gospel was at first most readily received by the poor and unlearned, but it did not therefore follow that culture and education were by any means excluded. St. Paul himself was a conspicuous instance to the contrary. And so, in the next century, the Church which began with such leaders as Ignatius and Polycarp, could number among its members before the century was out, Irenæus, and Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus, and Origen—the last, the most learned man of his time.
(14, 15) Why is the Apostle so eager to come to them? Because an obligation, a duty, is laid upon him. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 9:16, “necessity is laid upon me.”) He must preach the gospel to men of all classes and tongues; Rome itself is no exception.
(15) Accordingly, so far as depends upon his own will, and not upon the external ruling of events by God, the Apostle is ready to preach the gospel, as to the other Gentiles, so also at Rome.
So, as much as in me is.—There are three ways of taking this sentence, though the meaning remains in any case the same:—(1) “I (literally, that which concerns me) am ready.” But it is doubtful whether this is sanctioned by Greek usage. (2) Still keeping the two phrases separate, “As far as concerns me (there is) readiness.” (3) Combining them, “The readiness or inclination on my part (literally, The on-my-part readiness or inclination) is,” &c. Perhaps of these three the last, which looks the most unnatural in English, is the most natural in the Greek.
(16) The Apostle will not be ashamed of his mission, even in the metropolis of the world. He cannot be ashamed of a scheme so beneficent and so grand. The gospel that he preaches is that mighty agency which God Himself has set in motion, and the object of which is the salvation of all who put their faith in it, to whatever nation or race they may belong. He has, perhaps, in his mind the reception he had met with in other highly civilised cities. (Comp. Acts 17:32.) He had himself once found a “stumbling-block” in the humiliation of the Cross; now, so far from being ashamed of it, it is just that of which he is most proud. The preaching of the Cross is the cardinal point of the whole gospel.
Of Christ.—These words are wanting in the oldest MSS., and should be omitted.
Power of God.—A powerful agency put forth by God Himself—the lever, as it were, by which He would move the world.
Unto salvation.—The object of this gospel is salvation—to open the blessings of the Messianic kingdom to mankind.
To the Jew first.—Here again we have another exhaustive division of mankind. “Greek” is intended to cover all who are not “Jews.” Before the Apostle was making, what may be called, the secular classification of men, here he makes the religious classification. From his exceptional privileges the Jew was literally placed in a class alone.
It is not quite certain that the word “first” ought not to be omitted. In any case the sense is the same. St. Paul certainly assigns a prerogative position to the Jews. They have an “advantage” (Romans 3:1-2). To them belong the special privileges of the first dispensation (Romans 9:4-5). They are the original stock of the olive tree, in comparison with which the Gentiles are only as wild branches grafted in (Romans 11:17 et seq.). It was only right that the salvation promised to their forefathers should be offered first to them, as it is also said expressly in the Fourth Gospel, that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22).
First.—A difficult question of textual criticism is raised here. The word is not found in the Vatican MS. in a citation by Tertullian (circ. 200 A.D.), and in the Græco-Latin Codex Boernerianus at Dresden. In all other MSS. and versions it appears. The evidence for the omission is thus small in quantity, though good in quality; and though it shows, in any case, a considerable diffusion in Egypt and Africa as far back as the second century, internal considerations do not tell strongly either way, but it seems a degree more probable that the word was accidentally dropped in some early copy. Of recent editions, it is bracketed by Lachmann, and placed in the margin by Tregelles and Vaughan.
(17) The gospel attains its end, the salvation of the believer, by revealing the righteousness of God, i.e., the plan or process designed by Him for men to become just or righteous in His sight. The essential part on man’s side, the beginning and end of that plan, is Faith. For which there was authority in the Old Testament, where it is said, “The just shall live by faith.”
The righteousness of God.—By this is not meant, as might, perhaps, be supposed, an attribute of the divine nature—as if the essential righteousness of God were first made known through the gospel. St. Paul goes on to show in Romans 1:19-20, that so much at least of the nature of God might be known without any supernatural revelation. “Of God” means in the present instance “which proceeds from God.” And the “righteousness” which thus “proceeds from God” is that condition of righteousness in man into which he enters by his participation in the Messianic kingdom. The whole object of the coming of the Messiah was to make men “righteous” before God. This was done more especially by the death of Christ upon the cross, which, as we learn from Romans 3:24-26, had the effect of making God “propitious” towards men. The benefit of this act is secured to all who make good their claim to be considered members of the Messianic kingdom by a loyal adhesion to the Messiah. Such persons are treated as if they were “righteous,” though the righteousness that is thus attributed to them is not any actual merit of their own, but an ideal condition in which they are placed by God. This is the well-known doctrine of justification by faith. (See Excursus A: On the Meaning of the word Righteousness in the Epistle to the Romans, and Excursus E: On the Doctrine of Justification by Faith and Imputed Righteousness.)
Revealed.—God’s purpose of thus justifying men is in process of being revealed or declared in the gospel. It is revealed theoretically in the express statements of the way in which man may be justified. It is revealed practically in the heartfelt acceptance of those statements and the change of life which they involved. To the Romans the moment of revelation was that in which they first heard the gospel. St. Paul wishes them to know the full significance—the philosophy, as it might be called—of that which they had heard.
From faith to faith.—It is by faith that man first lays hold on the gospel, and its latest product is a heightened and intensified faith. Apart from faith, the gospel remains null and void for the individual. It is not realised. But when it has been once realised and taken home to the man’s self, its tendency is to confirm and strengthen that very faculty by which it was apprehended. It does that for which the disciples prayed when they said, “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).
The just shall live by faith.—The words are part of the consolatory answer which the prophet Habakkuk receives in the stress of the Chaldean invasion. Though his irresistible hosts sweep over the land, the righteous man who puts his trust in God shall live. Perhaps St. Paul intended the words “by faith” to be taken rather with “the just” than as they stand in the English version. “The just by faith,” or “The man whose righteousness is based on faith,” shall live.
The Apostle uses the word “faith” in his own peculiar and pregnant sense. But this is naturally led up to by the way in which it was used by Habakkuk. The intense personal trust and reliance which the Jew felt in the God of his fathers is directed by the Christian to Christ, and is further developed into an active energy of devotion.
“Faith,” as understood by St. Paul, is not merely head-belief, a purely intellectual process such as that of which St. James spoke when he said “the devils also believe and tremble”; neither is it merely “trust,” a passive dependence upon an Unseen Power; but it is a further stage of feeling developed out of these, a current of emotion setting strongly in the direction of its object, an ardent and vital apprehension of that object, and a firm and loyal attachment to it. (See Excursus B: On the Meaning of the word Faith.)
(18) As a preliminary stage to this revelation of justification and of faith, there is another, which is its opposite—a revelation and disclosure of divine wrath. The proof is seen in the present condition both of the Gentile and Jewish world. And first of the Gentile world, Romans 1:18-32.
Revealed.—The revelation of righteousness is, while the Apostle writes, being made in the Person of Christ and in the salvation offered by Him. The revelation of wrath is to be inferred from the actual condition—the degradation doubly degraded—in which sin leaves its votaries.
From heaven.—The wrath of God is revealed “from heaven,” inasmuch as the state of things in which it is exhibited is the divinely-inflicted penalty for previous guilt. Against that guilt, shown in outrage against all religion and all morality, it is directed.
Ungodliness and unrighteousness.—These two words stand respectively for offences against religion and offences against morality.
Who hold the truth in unrighteousness.—Rather, who suppress and thwart the truth—the light of conscience that is in them—by unrighteousness. Conscience tells them what is right, but the will, actuated by wicked motives, prevents them from obeying its dictates. “The truth” is their knowledge of right, from whatever source derived, which finds expression in conscience. “Hold” is the word which we find translated “hinder” in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7—having the force of to hold down, or suppress.
(19) The Apostle goes on to show how the Gentiles came to have such a knowledge of right, and how they repressed and contravened it.
They had it, because all the knowledge that mankind generally possessed of God they also possessed. So much as could be known without special revelation they knew.
That which may be known.—Rather, that which is (generally and universally) known—the truths of so-called “natural religion.”
Is manifest in them.—Manifest or imprinted upon their consciences, because God had so imprinted it upon them. The marginal rendering, “to them,” is hardly tenable.
(20) For, though there were parts of God’s being into which the eye could not penetrate, still they were easily to be inferred from the character of His visible creation, which bore throughout the stamp of Omnipotence and Divinity.
The invisible things of him.—His invisible attributes, afterwards explained as “His eternal power and Godhead.”
Are clearly seen . . . by the things that are made.—There is something of a play upon words here. “The unseen is seen—discerned by the eye of the mind—being inferred or perceived by the help of that which is made,” i.e., as we should say, by the phenomena of external nature.
Even His eternal power and Godhead.—A summary expression for those attributes which, apart from revelation, were embodied in the idea of God. Of these “power” is the most obvious. St. Paul does not go into the questions that have been raised in recent times as to the other qualities which are to be inferred as existing in the Author of nature; but he sums them up under a name that might be used as well by a Pagan philosopher as by a Christian—the attributes included in the one term “Godhead.” Divinity would be, perhaps, a more correct translation of the expression. What is meant is “divine nature,” rather than “divine personality.”
So that they are without excuse.—They could not plead ignorance.
(21) They knew enough of God to know that thanks and praise were due to Him; but neither of these did they offer. They put aside the natural instinct of adoration, and fell to speculations, which only led them farther and farther from the truth. The new knowledge of which they went in quest proved to be fiction; the old knowledge that they had was obscured and lost by their folly. Starting with two things—a portion of enlightenment on the one hand, and the natural tendency of the human mind to error on the other, the latter prevailed, and the former became eclipsed.
But became vain in their imaginations.—They were frustrated—reached no good and sound result with their speculations.
Their foolish heart.—Not the same word as “fools,” in the next verse. Their unintelligent heart; their heart which, by itself, was endowed with no special faculty of discernment such as to enable them to dispense with the enlightenment from above.
(22) They became fools.—They were made fools. It is not merely that they expose their real folly, but that folly is itself judicially inflicted by God as a punishment for the first step of declension from Him.
(22, 23) Relying upon their own wisdom, they wandered further and further from true wisdom, falling into the contradiction of supposing that the eternal and immutable Essence of God could be represented by the perishable figures of man, or bird, or quadruped, or insect.
(23) Into an image made like to.—For the likeness of the image of mortal man. This anthropomorphism applies more especially to the religions of Greece and Rome. Representations of the Deity under the form of beasts were most common in Egypt. “Worship was universally paid to cattle, lions, cats, dogs, weasels, and otters; among the birds, to the sparrow-hawk, the hoopoe, the stork, and the sheldrake; and among fish, to the eel and lepidotus. Besides these, other creatures received local worship. The sheep was worshipped in Sais and the Thebais, but sacrificed and eaten in Lycopolis. The hippopotamus in the district of Papremis, and the crocodile in the greater part of the land, were considered specially sacred; but the latter was chased and eaten in Tentyra and Apollinopolis. The sacred serpent Thermapis which served as head-gear for Isis had holes in all the temples, where it was fed with veal fat.” “Among the sacred beasts,” says Döllinger, “the first place was given to the divine bulls, of which the Egyptians worshipped four.” No doubt the images in Greece and the beasts in Egypt were by some of the people regarded only as symbols of the Deity, but it was in all probability only a small minority who were capable of drawing this distinction.
(24-32) Hence they fell into a still lower depth; for, in anger at their perversion of the truth, God refrained from checking their downward course. He left them to follow their own evil bent. Their idolatry developed into shameless immorality and unnatural crimes. At last the extreme limit was reached. As they voluntarily forsook God, so He forsook them. They ran through the whole catalogue of sins, and the cup of their iniquity was full.
In the passage taken as a whole, three steps or stages are indicated: (1) Romans 1:18-23, idolatry; (2) Romans 1:24-27, unnatural sins allowed by God as the punishment for this idolatry; (3) Romans 1:28-32, a still more complete and radical depravity also regarded as penally inflicted. The first step is taken by the free choice of man, but as the breach gradually widens, the wrath of God is more and more revealed. He interferes less and less to save a sinful world from its fate. It is to be noted that the Apostle speaks in general terms, and the precise proportions of human depravity and of divine judicial impulse are not to be clearly determined.
(25) Who changed the truth of God into a lie.—They ceased to worship God as He is—in His own true essential nature, and worshipped false gods instead. The phrase “into a lie,” is literally, with a lie, the “lie” being regarded as the instrument by which the substitution is made. By “a lie” is meant here “false gods,” who are the supreme embodiment of falsehood. (Comp. Isaiah 44:20; Jeremiah 13:25; Jeremiah 16:19, &c.)
The introduction of the doxology in this verse is due to an impulse of reverential feeling. Shocked at the language which he finds himself using, and at the connection in which the most Holy Name has been mentioned, the Apostle turns aside for a moment to testify to his own humble adoration.
(27) In themselves—i.e., upon themselves, upon their own persons thus shamefully dishonoured.
That recompence of their error which was meet.—The “error” is the turning from God to idols. The “recompence of the error” is seen in these unnatural excesses to which the heathen have been delivered up.
(28) Even as.—Rightly translated in the Authorised version: “as” is not here equivalent to “because,” but means rather, just in like proportion as. The degree of God’s punishment corresponded exactly to the degree of man’s deflection from God.
Did not like.—There is a play upon words here with “reprobate” in the clause following which cannot be retained in English. “As they reprobated the knowledge of God, so He gave them up to a reprobate mind.” As they would have nothing to do with Him, so He would have nothing to do with them. “Reprobate” means, properly, tried and found wanting, and therefore cast away as worthless.
To retain God in their knowledge.—The word for knowledge here means “exact,” “advanced,” “thorough knowledge.” They refused to hold the true idea of God so as to grow and increase in the knowledge of it.
Those things which are not convenient.—That which is unbecoming, disgraceful.
Fornication.—This word is wanting in the best MSS. and should be omitted, as also the word “implacable” in Romans 1:31.
Wickedness, . . . maliciousness.—These two words appear to be related together, so that the latter expresses rather the vicious disposition—vicious in the special sense, the disposition to do hurt to others—the former rather the active exercise of it. Similar catalogues of sins are given in other of St. Paul’s Epistles, as, for example, 2 Cor. 12:30; Galatians 5:19 et seq.; Ephesians 5:3-4; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:2 et seq.
Murder, debate.—By “full of murder” the Apostle means “full of murderous thoughts.” “Debate” is the spirit of strife and contention generally; not as the English would seem to imply, specially verbal contention.
(29, 30) Whisperers, backbiters.—In the Greek the idea of secresy is contained chiefly in the first of these words. “Secret backbiters and slanderers of every kind.”
(30) Haters of God.—Rather, perhaps, hated by God. There seem to be no examples of the active sense. The Apostle apparently throws in one emphatic word summing up the catalogue as far as it has gone; he then resumes with a new class of sins. Hitherto he has spoken chiefly of sins of malice, now he turns to sins of pride.
Despiteful, proud, boasters.—The three words correspond to the distinction between act, thought, and word. The first implies distinctly insolence in outward bearing; it is the word translated “injurious” in 1 Timothy 1:13. The second is a strong self-esteem mixed with contempt for others. (See 2 Timothy 3:2.) The third is used especially of boastfulness or braggadocio in language.
(31) Without understanding—i.e., without moral or spiritual understanding; incapable of discriminating between right and wrong, expedient and inexpedient. St. Paul prays that the Colossians may possess this faculty (Colossians 1:9).
Without natural affection.—The affection founded upon natural relationship—e.g., between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister. In illustration of this particular expression, we may remember that infanticide and divorce were very common at this period.
(32) Knowing.—Again the word for “full or thorough knowledge.” With full knowledge of the sentence of eternal death which is in store for them.
They show that it is no mere momentary yielding to the force of temptation or of passion, but a radical perversion of conscience and reason, by the fact that they not only practise such things themselves, but in cold blood commend and applaud those who practise them.
With reference to the truth of the description which is here given of the ancient pagan world, see Excursus C: On the State of the Heathen World at the Time of St. Paul.
Judgment.—Just decree or sentence.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Romans 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29