Submission to Scripture
For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (15:4)
A fourth characteristic that will lead us to please one another as Christ did is our willing and unreserved submission to God’s Word.
Whatever was written in earlier times obviously refers to the divinely-revealed truths we now call the Old Testament. They were written for the times in which they were recorded but also for our instruction, for God’s people in the present age.
As we have seen, beginning with Romans 14:1, Paul emphasizes that the ceremonial requirements of the Old Covenant are no longer binding on believers, Jews or Gentiles. But even though we are not bound to obey all of the commands of that covenant, every part of God’s revelation written in earlier times is still valuable for our instruction. Knowledge of all Scripture had spiritual benefit for Christians in Paul’s day and still has benefit for Christians for all time.
With few exceptions (Rom. 16:26; 2 Pet. 3:16), New Testament references to Scripture signify the Old Testament. Paul’s well-known statement that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17) certainly applies to the New Testament. But in the minds of the initial readers, it referred to “the sacred writings” (v. 15) of the Old Testament. That same understanding was in the minds of those to whom Peter wrote, saying “that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:20–21).
Paul reminded believers in Corinth that the events of the Exodus under Moses “happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved.… Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11).
Our part in this blessing is perseverance, which is closely related to patience. In regard to the Lord’s return, James admonishes us to “be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:7–8). Like saving faith, perseverance is both commanded of us and given to us by God, as Paul assures us in the next verse of our present passage (Rom. 15:5). It is continuing faithfulness to the Lord through all circumstances. Revelation 14:12 identifies perseverance with sustained faith and obedience. Second Thessalonians 1:4 says that perseverance is faith that does not fail “in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure.” The clearest exhortation to perseverance is given in Colossians 1:22–23: “Yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (cf. Matt. 24:13; Heb. 3:12–14; 4:11).
God also gives us encouragement to persevere. He provides this impetus by means of the Scriptures, which chronicle all the reasons to keep believing. They give us reason to sustain hope for our glorious future.
Jeremiah speaks of God, the author of Scripture, as the “Hope of Israel, its Savior in time of distress” (Jer. 14:8; cf. 17:7). The psalmists repeatedly speak of their hope in the Lord. “Why are you in despair, O my soul?” one writer asks himself. “And why have you become disturbed within me?” Giving answer to his own question, he says, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence” (Ps. 42:5). Another psalmist advises himself, “My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him” (Ps. 62:5). In the great psalm that so majestically exalts God’s Word, the writer calls on the Lord to “remember the word to Thy servant, in which Thou hast made me hope” (Ps. 119:49), and pleads, “Sustain me according to Thy word, that I may live; and do not let me be ashamed of my hope” (v. 116), and testifies, “I hope for Thy salvation, O Lord, and do Thy commandments” (v. 166). Another psalmist affirms, “I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope” (Ps. 130:5).
We read in the book of Job that “the hope of the godless will perish” (Job 8:13)—unlike Job himself, of whom James writes, “Behold, we count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (James 5:11). It was his certain hope in the Lord’s righteousness and justice that gave Job the unimaginable perseverance to endure the torments with which God permitted Satan to afflict His “blameless and upright” servant (Job 1:8).
Paul reminded Gentile believers in Ephesus that before their conversion they “were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12; cf. 4:17–18). “The covenants of promise” were part of the Old Testament, God’s revealed Word to His chosen people Israel.
From those passages and many others in both testaments, it is clear that, as far as the believer’s hope is concerned, God and His Word are inseparable. We know that God’s living Word, His Son “Christ Jesus, … is our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1) because that glorious truth is made known to us in God’s written Word.
The Encouragement of the Scriptures
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
A number of years ago a German theologian named Juergen Moltmann wrote a book entitled The Theology of Hope. His point, which meant a great deal to Bible scholars at the time, was that eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) should not be an appendix to Christian theology—something tacked on at the end and perhaps even dispensable to Christian thought—but should be the starting point of everything. He said that it is confidence in what God is going to do in the future that must determine how we think and act now.
I am not sure that is entirely right. I would call the cross of Christ, not eschatology, the center, arguing that we must take our ideas even of the future from the cross. But Moltmann was correct in stressing that hope is important for living well now. To have hope is to look at the future optimistically. So to some extent a person must have hope to live. The Latin word for hope is spes, from which the French derived the noun espoir and the Spanish, esperanza. But put the particle de in front of those words, and the resulting word is despair, literally “without hope.” People who despair do not go on. When John Milton wanted to depict the maximum depth to which Satan fell when he was cast out of heaven, he has him say to the other fallen spirits in hell, “Our final hope is flat despair.”
How can any sane person have hope in the midst of the desperate world in which we live? The frivolous can, because they do not think about the future at all. Thinking people find the future grim. Winston Churchill, one of the most brilliant and influential people of his age, died despairing. His last words were, “There is no hope.”
Our text says that a Christian can have hope and that the way to that sound and steadfast hope is through the Bible.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends—the scarecrow, the tin man, and the cowardly lion—make their way down a yellow brick road to find their future. Our text likewise gives us a road to hope. That road leads first through teaching, second through patient endurance, and third through encouragement. The text says, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
The Teaching of the Scriptures
The first and most important stop along this important road leading to hope is teaching, because it is through the teaching of the Scriptures that the other elements, endurance and encouragement, come. Christianity is a teaching religion, and our text is the Bible. It is true that those whose minds have been enlightened by the Bible often go on to learn in other areas too. Some of the greatest scholars in the world have been Christians, and many have traced their love of learning to their Christian roots. Moreover, wherever the gospel has gone throughout the world, schools and colleges and other institutions of higher learning have gone with it. Still, Christians maintain that however much a person may come to know in other areas, if he or she does not know what God has revealed about himself and the way of salvation in the Bible, that person is ignorant and remains a great fool.
Paul said of the Gentile Christians at Ephesus, among whom there must have been many learned persons, that before they had been taught about Jesus and had received him as their Savior, they were “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). They may have been educated, but they were ignorant of the things that matter most. After they had been taught and came to faith in Christ, however, they had hope of “the riches of [God’s] glorious inheritance in the saints,” which was future, and “his incomparably great power for us who believe,” which was present (Eph. 1:18–19).
Our text in Romans is about the teaching of the Scriptures and tells us at least three important things about the Bible:
- The Bible is from God. When Paul says that everything written in the past “was written to teach us,” he is not saying that when Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, he did so intending that the church in future ages might be blessed by his writings, or that David wrote the psalms so that we might profit by them. His point is that God caused the human writers of the Bible to write as they did, because what he had in mind was the edification and encouragement of his people through the ages, whether or not the human writers understood this.
This also flows from the context. We remember that Paul has just quoted Psalm 69:9, applying it to Jesus Christ, whom he brought forward as an example for our right conduct. Some may object, “How can you imagine that David was writing about Jesus Christ, who was born so many hundred of years after his own age, or that this has anything to do with us?” Paul is answering, in effect, as F. Godet suggests, “If I thus apply this saying of the psalmist to Christ and ourselves, it is because, in general, all Scripture was written to instruct and strengthen us.”
Of course, many other verses say the same thing. Peter wrote, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20–21).
Similarly, Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The reason the Scriptures are so valuable is that they are unlike other books written by mere human beings. They are from God; therefore they have the authority and power of God within them. Besides, God has promised to bless them to the ends for which they have been given (Isa. 55:10–11).
- Everything in the Bible is for our good and is profitable. The second important teaching about the Scriptures in Romans 15:4 is that all Scripture is for our good and is profitable. In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful.…” In our text he uses the words “everything that was written,” but he means the same thing in both passages.
This is not an endorsement of every piece of ancient literature, as if the words “everything that was written in the past” refer to the writings of the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans. Paul is not writing about secular literature, but about the writings that are “God-breathed.” Other books may instruct and even charm us wonderfully, but only the Bible gives us a sure ground for hope, since only it speaks with full authority and trustworthiness about what God did to save us from sin and give us eternal life.
Paul’s statement is, however, an endorsement of all of the Bible. That is, he is informing us that “all Scripture … is profitable” and “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us.”
Some critics of the Bible have found things in it that they do not like and have therefore argued either that the Bible is from men only, not from God, or that it is a mixture of the two—some parts being from God and some from man. The parts that are from God are then regarded as authoritative, but the parts said to be from human beings only are discarded as error-prone and nonauthoritative. This is a convenient way of pretending to submit to the Bible’s authority while at the same time avoiding anything in the Bible that is convicting or contrary to the critic’s thought. This is not the Bible’s teaching. It is not historic Christianity. The Bible teaches that everything in it is the true Word of God and that it is binding upon the minds and consciences of all persons. Therefore, if we are being led by God’s Holy Spirit, we will conform our thoughts and actions to whatever we find in his Word.
- Nothing in the Bible is without value. Paul’s third point is that not only is everything in the Bible for our good and profitable, but nothing that is in the Bible is without value.
John Calvin was strong in this conviction: “This notable passage shows us that the oracles of God contain nothing vain or unprofitable.… It would be an insult to the Holy Spirit to imagine that he had taught us anything which it is of no advantage to know. Let us also know that all that we learn from Scripture is conducive to the advancement of godliness. Although Paul is speaking of the Old Testament, we are to hold the same view of the writings of the apostles. If the Spirit of Christ is everywhere the same, it is quite certain that he has accommodated his teaching to the edification of his people at the present time by the apostles, as he formerly did by the prophets.”
The second checkpoint we must pass along the road to hope is endurance, which some versions of the Scriptures translate patience (King James Version), perseverance (New American Standard Bible) or even patient endurance, since the word involves both passively accepting what we cannot change and actively pressing on in faithful obedience and discipleship. This word (hypomonê) occurs thirty-two times in the New Testament, sixteen times in Paul’s writings, six of which are in Romans.
Is Paul saying that endurance comes from the Bible—that is, from knowing the Bible? I raise that question because a detail of the Greek text provokes it. Paul uses the word for through (dia) twice, once before the word endurance and once before the word encouragement (the New International Version omits it the second time). According to the strictest rules of Greek grammar, that should mean that endurance is separated from encouragement with the result that the words “of the Scriptures” should be attached to encouragement only. In other words, Paul would be saying that it is through our own personal enduring as well as through the encouragement that we have in studying the Bible that we find hope.
Leon Morris is a fine Greek scholar, and he is led to this position by his grammatical sensitivity. “[Paul’s] construction seems to show that only encouragement is here said to derive from the Bible,” he says.
In my judgment this is a place where it may be wrong to read too much into a fine point of grammar. Grammatically Morris is right. But in terms of the flow of thought it is hard to suppose that Paul is not thinking of the role the Scriptures have in producing endurance too. For one thing, he links the two ideas together in verse 5, saying, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement.…” Again, in verse 4 both terms follow Paul’s opening words about the use of the Scriptures for teaching: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that …” Or again, even apart from what Paul is saying, elsewhere we are taught that endurance comes from reading how God has kept and preserved other believers even in terrible circumstances.
James wrote, “Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:10–11). He is saying that we learn to endure by reading about the way God helped others before us.
Although they recognize the grammatical issue, a large number of other writers nevertheless see the matter as I have outlined it here. Among these are John Murray, Charles Hodge and F. Godet.
The third checkpoint along the road to hope is encouragement, which also comes to us through Scripture. Encouragement (paraklêsis) is found twenty times in Paul’s writings out of twenty-nine occurrences in the whole New Testament. It occurs three times in Romans.
The interesting thing about this word is that it is virtually the same one Jesus used to describe the work of the Holy Spirit among believers, saying, “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7; see 14:26; 15:26), and that the apostle John used to describe the work of Jesus himself: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1). The word Counselor and the phrase “one who speaks … in our defense” translate the same Greek word paraklêtos, which is also sometimes translated advocate. The literal meaning is “one who comes alongside of another person to help him or her,” to back the person up or defend him. So together the passages teach that Jesus himself does this for us, the Holy Spirit does it, and the Scriptures do it too. Indeed, it is through the Scriptures that the Holy Spirit chiefly does his work.
The end result of this is hope. In our text the article is present before the word hope (“the hope”), meaning the Christian hope. This is not just optimism that Paul is writing about, not a hope founded on something the world thinks possible. Also, the verb have is in the present tense, meaning that hope is a present possession. As Calvin says, “The particular service of the Scriptures is to raise those who are prepared by patience and strengthened by consolation to the hope of eternal life, and to keep their thoughts fixed upon it.”
An Example from History
But enough analysis! If we are to travel the road of endurance and encouragement to hope by learning from the Scriptures, we should study how it actually works.
There are hundreds of examples of this in the Bible, of course, but let’s examine the familiar story of Joseph. Joseph was the next-to-youngest son of Jacob, and he was favored by his father because he was born of his much-beloved wife Rachel and also perhaps because he was an extraordinary young man. His brothers hated him for his virtue so they threw him into a cistern and then sold him to Midianite traders who were on their way to Egypt. Joseph was just seventeen years old. In Egypt he became a slave of a rich man named Potiphar. Joseph served the man well, and he was placed in charge of his entire household. Then Potiphar’s wife was attracted to Joseph and tried to seduce him. When Joseph refused to sleep with her, the proud, angry woman denounced him falsely to her husband, and Joseph was thrown into prison.
Joseph languished in prison for two years. Once when he had correctly and favorably interpreted the dream of Pharaoh’s cupbearer, predicting that he would be taken from the prison where he too had been confined and restored to his previous position, Joseph asked the man to remember him when he was released and speak a good word to Pharaoh to get him out of prison. But the cupbearer forgot.
The years dragged on. One day God gave a dream to Pharaoh. No one in the palace could interpret it, but the cupbearer remembered Joseph and his ability to interpret dreams and told the king about him. Pharaoh sent for the young man, and Joseph interpreted the dream, predicting seven years of prosperity to be followed by seven years of severe famine. He recommended that the king appoint a wise man to save grain during the good years so that the people would not starve when the years of scarceness came.
You know the story. Pharaoh appointed Joseph to the task. Joseph served well. The land was saved, and in time, when the famine drove Joseph’s wicked brothers to Egypt to buy grain, God used Joseph to bring the brothers to repentance. The family was reconciled, and Jacob moved all of them to Egypt, where the people stayed and prospered for many years.
The climax of this great story comes in the final chapter of Genesis, when Jacob dies and the brothers come to plead with Joseph not to take revenge on them. They had completely misunderstood him. He had no intention of doing any of them any harm. “Don’t be afraid,” he exclaimed. “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:19–20). The story teaches that God is sovereign even in such terrible circumstances as those that overtook Joseph. And from it we learn to trust God’s sovereignty, endure in hardship, be encouraged, and so grow strong in hope.
I have picked this particular story because of Psalm 105, which refers to it. It may have been written by King David, but whoever the writer was, he was a man who needed encouragement. He found it in Joseph’s story:
Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.…
He [God] called down famine on the land
and destroyed all their supplies of food;
and he sent a man before them—
Joseph, sold as a slave.
They bruised his feet with shackles,
his neck was put in irons,
till what he foretold came to pass,
till the word of the Lord proved him true.
The king sent and released him,
the ruler of peoples set him free.
He made him master of his household,
ruler over all he possessed,
to instruct his princes as he pleased
and teach his elders wisdom.
Psalm 105:1, 16–22
This writer clearly knew that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Do you know that? If you do, you will study what God has spoken and move ahead boldly for him and with hope.
4 The citation of Psalm 69, portions of which were evidently regarded in the early church as messianic, leads the apostle to a more general statement concerning the usefulness of the Scriptures for the “instruction” (didaskalia, GK 1436; NIV, “to teach”) of Christians—in fact, as deliberately planned for their edification (“was written to teach us”; cf. 1 Co 10:11).
The very phenomenon of the regular quotation of the OT speaks loudly of the dependence of the church on the course of redemption history reflected there. Things both new and old enter into Christian faith. The example of Christ was bound to influence the church to revere and use the OT, and this was made easier because at the beginning its membership was largely Jewish-Christian. Stuhlmacher, 231, calls attention to the importance of this perspective on the OT: “Accordingly, the church of Christ may and can relate the Holy Scriptures, read from the perspective of Jesus, to themselves, to their path in life, and to God’s future with the world.” As for the Gentiles, in many cases at least, they had become familiar with the Greek OT (reflected in the LXX) in the synagogue (Ac 13:44–48) before hearing the gospel and putting their trust in Christ.
The use of the Scriptures, Paul adds, promotes “endurance” (hypomonē, GK 5705) and supplies “encouragement” (paraklēsis, GK 4155). Both may be seen in these records of the past. And these two elements are intimately connected with a third, namely, “hope” (elpis, GK 1828), for the endurance is worthwhile only if it takes place on a course that leads to a glorious future, and the encouragement provides exactly that assurance.
4 In a brief detour from his main argument, Paul reminds his readers that the use he has just made of the OT is entirely appropriate: “for whatever was written beforehand was written for our instruction.”32 Paul here crisply enunciates a conviction basic to his ministry and to the early church generally. The OT, though no longer a source of direct moral imperative (6:14, 15; 7:4), continues to play a central role in helping Christians to understand the climax of salvation history and their responsibilities as the New Covenant people of God.
The instruction Christians gain from the Scriptures has many purposes. One of these, Paul asserts in the second part of the verse, is that “we might have hope.” The introduction of hope at this point might also seem to be a detour in Paul’s argument. But two connections with the context may be noted. First, hope is especially needed by Christians when facing suffering (cf. 5:2–5; 8:20, 24–25). And Paul has broached the general problem of Christian suffering by citing the reproaches born by Christ as a model for the “strong” believers to imitate. The subordinate phrases Paul adds to his main purpose statement bear out this emphasis: “through [i.e., with] endurance” and “through the comfort37 of the Scriptures.” Reading the OT and seeing its fulfillment in Christ and the church fosters the believer’s hope, a hope that is accompanied by the ability to “bear up” under the pressure of spiritually hostile and irritating circumstances. But to return to the initial point: Paul signals his intention to talk about Christian suffering by using here two key terms, “endurance” and “comfort,” that he regularly uses when discussing the trials of believers.39
A second reason for Paul to bring “hope” into the discussion here emerges when we remember that many, perhaps most, of the “strong” were Gentiles. As such, apart from Christ, they were “without hope” (Eph. 2:12). Now, however, they have been “brought near,” wild branches grafted into the promises and people of God (cf. Rom. 11:17–24). By strengthening their “hope,” therefore, the Scriptures help these “strong” believers become more secure about their place in the people of God. At the same time, they are given the very practical reminder that this hope focuses on one people of God, made up of both Jews and Gentiles and of “strong” and “weak” (a point that Paul develops in vv. 8–13). If the “strong” believers, therefore, wish to maintain their hope, they must work to put into effect the unity of the people of God, within which they experience their own salvation.
4 The “for” at the beginning of this verse intimates the reason for the propriety of appeal to Scripture for support. Paul vindicates the use of Psalm 69:9 in verse 3 by the purpose which Scripture is intended by God to subserve: “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:6, 10; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17). The extent to which Paul’s thought was governed by this truth is evident from the frequency of appeal to Scripture in this epistle. The form of statement here and in the parallels cited above shows that in Paul’s esteem Scripture in all its parts is for our instruction, that the Old Testament was designed to furnish us in these last days with the instruction necessary for the fulfilment of our vocation to the end, and that it is as written it promotes this purpose. The instruction which the Scriptures impart is directed to patience and comfort. Patience is endurance and stedfastness. Both the stedfastness and the comfort are derived from the Scriptures and are, therefore, dependent upon these Scriptures and draw their character and value from them. These are generated by Scripture and their quality is determined by Scripture. However, the stedfastness and consolation are said to be the means of something more ultimate, namely, hope. Hope in this case is to be understood of that which the believer entertains, the state of mind. There cannot be the exercise of hope except as it is directed to an object, that hoped for. But to “have hope” is to exercise hope (cf. Acts 24:15; 1 Cor. 3:12; 10:15; Eph. 2:12, 1 Thess. 4:13; 1 John 3:3). In this text the instruction, stedfastness, and consolation derived from Scripture are all represented as contributing to this exercise of hope and thereby is demonstrated the significance for the believer and for the fellowship of the saints of the prospective outreach which hope implies (cf. 8:23–25 and vs. 13).
4 In a brief detour from his main argument, Paul reminds his readers that the use he has just made of the OT is entirely appropriate: “for whatever was written beforehand was written for our instruction.”701 Paul here crisply enunciates a conviction basic to his ministry and to the early church generally. The OT, though no longer a source of direct moral imperative (6:14, 15; 7:4), continues to play a central role in helping Christians to understand the climax of salvation history and their responsibilities as the New Covenant people of God.
The instruction Christians gain from the Scriptures has many purposes. One of these, Paul asserts in the second part of the verse, is that “we might have hope.” The introduction of hope at this point might also seem to be a detour in Paul’s argument. But two connections with the context may be noted. First, hope is especially needed by Christians when facing suffering (5:2–5; 8:20, 24–25). And Paul has broached the general problem of Christian suffering by citing the reproaches borne by Christ as a model for the strong believers to imitate. The subordinate phrases Paul adds to his main purpose statement bear out this emphasis. Paul’s syntax at this point is not clear. He uses two prepositional phrases, each introduced with the Greek preposition dia: “through endurance” and “through comfort/encouragement.”706 The second is clearly modified by “the Scriptures”: encouragement comes through [reading and meditating on] the Scriptures. The first, however, could be independent;708 and, if so, “endurance” is probably something that accompanies our hope: “so that we might have hope accompanied by, or bolstered by, endurance” (see NLT).709 On the other hand, “the Scriptures” could be construed with both words, so that, in some sense, both endurance and encouragement are provided by the Scriptures (see, e.g., NIV: “through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide”); and both are instrumental in fostering hope. The former option may be preferable, but the difference is not great. In any case, reading the OT and seeing its fulfillment in Christ and the church fosters the believer’s hope, a hope that is accompanied by the ability to “bear up” under the pressure of spiritually hostile and irritating circumstances. But to return to the initial point: Paul signals his intention to talk about Christian suffering by using here two key terms, “endurance” and “comfort,” that he regularly uses when discussing the trials of believers.
A second reason for Paul to bring “hope” into the discussion here emerges when we remember that many, perhaps most, of the strong were Gentiles. As such, apart from Christ, they were “without hope” (Eph. 2:12). Now, however, they have been “brought near,” wild branches grafted into the promises and people of God (Rom. 11:17–24). By strengthening their “hope,” therefore, the Scriptures help these strong believers become more secure about their place in the people of God. At the same time, they are given the very practical reminder that this hope focuses on one people of God, made up of both Jews and Gentiles and of strong and weak (a point that Paul develops in vv. 8–13). If the strong believers, therefore, wish to maintain their hope, they must work to put into effect the unity of the people of God, within which they experience their own salvation.
15:4 / For the early Christians the holy Scriptures (everything that was written in the past) were what we today call the Old Testament. In the modern world the Hebrew Scriptures are read from many different perspectives. “Bible as Literature” courses read the ot as a repository of Hebrew saga, poetry, and narrative. Some theologians are interested in the ot’s layers of oral and written traditions, and others read it as a record of Hebrew social history. Some Christians see it as a book of law analogous to a moral counterpart of the gospel, and others relegate it to a book of preparation and prediction, now superseded by Christ. And, of course, there have always been Christians who have sought to reject the ot (and its God) as inferior and vengeful.
Whatever the merits (or lack thereof) of these various approaches, none of them aptly describe Paul’s approach to the Hebrew Scriptures, for he did not read them as a source book for a particular theory or ideology. The Scriptures were not something he referred to, but something he lived from, for what was written in the past was written to teach us. The Scriptures were, of course, ancient, but not in the sense of being “dated.” In his day, what was oldest was normally thought to be truest because it had survived the most difficult of all tests—time! We do not know what external interests (if any) Scripture held for Paul. We know only that he considered it a living, dynamic tradition which was breaking into his own time, through which God was acting and revealing himself in Christ. Scripture was an unfolding drama wherein what God communicated to one generation became valid for another, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Of all contemporary approaches, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” would have found perhaps greatest resonance from Paul. This question does not exclude historical and literary questions, although it limits them to a secondary status. The validity of such questions would depend on their leading to a renewed understanding of the meaning of the Scriptures for each generation. Bengel’s saying might also speak for Paul, “Apply yourself wholly to the text, and apply the text wholly to yourself.”
Through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. In these words Paul introduces the theme of hope with which he will conclude the epistle (v. 13). We might have expected that Scripture would impart knowledge or salvation, but the apostle views its essential message as one of hope. Hope is the claiming of Christ’s coming triumph and reign by saving faith (8:24–25). Of course, Paul speaks of hope that comes not from the Scriptures per se but from the “God of hope” (v. 13), to whom the Scriptures bear witness.
15:4 through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. Paul further appeals to the Old Testament as a whole to motivate the strong to be sensitive to the weak. Paul believed that the Old Testament witnessed to Christ and his church (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 10:1–11). Here Paul says that the Scriptures produce “endurance” and “encouragement” (or “comfort”) and thereby “hope” for believers. In light of the new-covenant theme that informs “encouragement” and “hope,” I suggest that Paul has the story of Israel in mind here (cf. again 1 Cor. 10:1–11): Israel’s sin and exile (“endurance,” hypomonē) will give way to restoration (“encouragement, comfort,” paraklēsis) and therefore hope (elpis). But this message of the restoration of Israel includes Gentiles (see 15:9–12 to follow). Recalling the lack of hope that Gentiles endured because they were outside of the covenant (see again Eph. 2:11–13), we may chart Romans 15:4 this way:
|Gentiles were in exile because they were outside the covenant and without hope.
|Gentiles are in the new covenant and have hope.
We can thus summarize 15:3–4 by saying that since Christ’s sacrificial death brought Gentiles into the new covenant, the least that the strong in faith at Rome (Gentiles) can do is to sacrifice for their weak Jewish Christian brothers and sisters there at Rome.
4. For whatever was written in former times was written for our instruction, in order that, through patient endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.
A very practical and unforgettable passage! In brief it informs us that if religion is going to mean anything to us we must practice it. Whatever was written in the Scriptures—which for Paul meant what we now call The Old Testament—was written “for our instruction.”
As often, so also here, that word “instruction” indicates far more than impartation of intellectual knowledge. The emphasis, in fact, is on practical knowledge, knowledge that can be, and should be, applied to living the life of a Christian.
Two things are necessary if the sacred writings are going to be of benefit to us:
Anyone who diligently studies Scripture, asking God to apply its teachings to his heart and life, will be hurt by it again and again, for he will become more and more conscious of the fact that the distance between his own conduct and the ideal held before him in Holy Writ is great indeed. Nevertheless, he must pray for strength to persist in this study, learning more and more how to apply it to his life.
- the encouragement of the Scriptures
Those who by God’s grace and power persist in such a practical study will discover that these sacred writings, written in former times, not only hurt but also heal. In fact, they are filled with encouraging promises, which, when accepted by God-given faith, result in the birth and growth, within men’s hearts, of firmly rooted Christian hope. See on verse 12.
What Paul is saying therefore is that the way in which Scripture will become a blessing for ourselves and through us also for others, is to put it into practice.
In a thrilling conclusion to his book Col. E. W. Starling emphasizes that for the sake of the welfare of ourselves and of our nation we must begin to take to heart that Christianity is not just a theory to be believed but a living force.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 2, pp. 311–313). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The New Humanity (Vol. 4, pp. 1803–1809). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 214). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (pp. 869–871). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Murray, J. (1968). The Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 2, pp. 199–200). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Moo, D. J. (2018). The Letter to the Romans. (N. B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. D. Fee, & J. B. Green, Eds.) (Second Edition, pp. 885–887). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Edwards, J. R. (2011). Romans (pp. 337–338). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Pate, C. M. (2013). Romans. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (p. 280). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 12–13, p. 472). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.