A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 16:17-27. Paul’s warnings, messages and doxology.
Some find Paul’s transition from greetings to warnings very abrupt, and the tone of his admonition so harsh as to be inconsistent with the rest of his letter, and especially with his gentle handling of the weak. They therefore wonder if verses 17-20 were written by another hand than Paul’s. But it is readily understandable that his mind should move from the Roman church’s unity in diversity (to be expressed in the kiss of peace) to the menace of those who were threatening divisions. Moreover, Paul’s conciliatory attitude to the weak reflected his respect for their sensitive consciences; his severity to false teachers was aroused by their deliberate mischief in disrupting the fellowship and contradicting apostolic teaching. Having said this we still do not know who they were. Paul’s language is too indefinite to permit certainty. All we can say is that, since they served themselves instead of Christ (18), they had antinomian tendencies.
1). Paul’s warnings (17-20)
Paul begins his exhortation with the same words which he has used to introduce an earlier one: *I urge you, brothers* (17, cf.12:1). He issues a threefold appeal – to vigilance, to separation and to discernment.
First, Paul pleads for vigilance: *watch out for (JB ‘be on your guard against’) those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way*, hindering your progress, *that are (both of them) contrary to the teaching you have learned* (17). Of course some *divisions* are inevitable, like those caused by loyalty to Christ (see Mt. 10:34ff.) and so are some *obstacles (skandala)*, especially the stumbling-block of the cross (9:32f.; 1 Cor.1:23). Paul urges the Romans to look out for those who cause them because they contradict the teaching of the apostles. He takes it for granted, even thus early in he church’s history, that there is a doctrinal and ethical norm which the Romans must follow, not contradict; it is preserved for us in the New Testament.
Secondly, Paul calls for separation from those who deliberately depart from the apostolic faith. *Keep away from them*, he writes. There is no question of approaching them with a holy kiss, but rather of standing aloof, and even turning away. (For similar commands see 1 Cor.5:11; 2 Thess.3:6, 14; 2 Tim.3:5; Titus.3:10. They relate not to trivial matters, but to inveterate and impenitent offenders, who deliberately turn away from plain apostolic truth, and who ignore repeated warnings). Why is this? What is the essence of their deviation? Paul tells us. *For such people are not serving our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own appetites* (18a), literally ‘their own belly’ (AV). This is very unlikely to be an allusion to the controversy over the Jewish food laws. It is rather a graphic metaphor of self-indulgence (as in Phil.3:19, ‘their God is their stomach’). The expression is used ‘in the sense of serving oneself, of being the willing slave of one’s egotism’. These false teachers have no love for Christ, and no wish to be his willing slaves. Instead, they are ‘utterly self-centred’ (JBP), and also have a baneful effect on the gullible. *By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people* (18b). Better, ‘they seduce the minds of simple people with smooth and specious words’ (REB).
Tomorrow: Paul’s warnings, messages and doxology (Continued).