Thursday, May 17, 2012

It’s All in the Hands (Exodus 17:9-13)

What did Moses do during the battle of Rephidim? Stayed on top of a hill holding up his hands with the rod of God in them (Exodus 17:9-12)

While wandering in the wilderness, Israel not only faces challenges from nature (Exodus 16:1-8, 9-36, 17:1-7) but also from new military rivals. The nascent nation’s first battle comes when the Amalekites ambush them at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8).

Presumably between gradual attacks, Moses instructs Joshua to piece together a makeshift army with the assurance that he would remain perched atop a hill holding the staff of God (Exodus 17:9). The Bible records that Moses’ posture was the deciding factor in a seesaw daylong battle (Exodus 17:11).

So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. (Exodus 17:11 NASB)
To ensure that Moses’ hands remain raised, he is propped up on a stone and realizing that six hands are better than two, Aaron and Hur hold his hands prostrate (Exodus 17:12). Israel wins the battle (Exodus 17:13).

The narrator leaves much to the imagination. Though both will play prominent roles later in the Exodus story, Joshua and Hur enter the biblical text for the first time with no introduction. The Amalekites also appear as a people for the first time (Genesis 14:7, 36:12). Not only is no introduction given them but no reason is given for their assault.

John Goldingay (b. 1942) speculates:

Exodus gives no reason for the attack. Perhaps they thought they could appropriate the Israelites’ flocks and herds. Living in the wilderness south of Canaan, perhaps they felt threatened by the Israelites’ advancing their way. Greed, resentment, and fear have often fueled anti-Semitism. But Exodus gives no reason and this underlines the link between the mystery of hostility to Israel and the Jewish people that has been a recurrent aspect of Israelite and Jewish experience. (Goldingay, Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone, 73)
The Amalekites, presumed to be a hostile nomadic tribe, are traditional enemies of Israel and they simply enter the story donned in their customary black hats (Judges 6:3-4; I Samuel 15:1-9, 27:8). They serve almost as stock characters in the Bible and are not referenced outside of it. The Israelites would later remember the attack as a cowardly affront to a vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). In appearing from seemingly out of nowhere, the text captures the unexpectedness of the attack felt by the original victims.

Perhaps the passage’s most glaring omission is that no explanation is given as to how Moses’ flagging equates to victory. The reader is left to speculate as to what he is doing or saying while raising his arms and why he is positioned high above the battlefield.

John I. Durham (b. 1933) notes that Moses’ position is conducive to his activity:

The reason for Moses’ position on the brow of the hill can be seen in what he does during the battle. Moses lifted his hands, in symbol of the power of Yahweh upon the fighting men of Israel, surely, but in some miraculous way Moses’ upraised hands became also conductors of that power. (Durham, Exodus (Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 3), 236)
Military historian Richard A. Gabriel (b. 1942) does not find Moses’ isolation irregular for a military commander:
Here we see the ancient dictum that commanders must be seen by their soldiers to be effective. Egyptian pharaohs were always portrayed as leading their troops in battle, as was Alexander. Caesar, it was said, wore a red cloak so his men could easily identify him during battle, and both George S. Patton (who seriously contemplated wearing a red cloak!) and Irwin Rommel were both known for their presence on the battlefield in plain sight of their soldiers. (Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel, 82)
The real question is not Moses’ placement but what his actions symbolize -what is he doing with his hands? Many explanations have been posited.

Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) explicates:

Both Jewish and Christian commentators have been quick to assume that Moses’s stance was that of prayer. What else would he be doing? However, there is no indication whatever in the text which would confirm this. No words are spoken, but the battle is decided simply by the raising and lowering of his hands. The same effect results from Moses’ stance even when his weary arms are physically supported by others. Hugo Gressmann [1877-1927] and Georg Beer [1865-1946] have described the scene as magical, with Moses playing the role of cult magician. Additional parallels from the Ancient Near East have been suggested...Without discussing at length the validity of these extra-biblical parallels, certainly the Old Testament offers the closest parallel in the figure of Balaam (Numbers 22:1ff). He is hired to curse Israel, and the point of the narrative turns on the automatic effect of a curse (or a blessing) which, once it has been unleashed, continues relentlessly on its course. In Exodus 17 the hands are the instruments of mediating power, as is common throughout the Ancient Near East...This amoral element of the unleashing of power through an activity or a stance is still reflected in the story. Nor can it be rationalized away, as already in the Mekilta, by assuming that Moses’ role was essentially psychological. His uplifted hands encouraged the Israelites to exert themselves fully, whereas without the encouragement they slackened in battle. (Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (The Old Testament Library), 314-15)
Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005) admits:
The significance of this gesture is unclear. The hand, often the symbol of action and power, is also the instrument of mediation. The expression “the laying on of the hands” exemplifies this idea. Moses’ action might therefore be interpreted as a sort of mysterious focusing of super natural power on Israel. If so, it is noteworthy that Moses is here presented as being subject to ordinary human frailties, in possession of no superhuman or innate magical powers. Another interpretation, highly plausible, is that of Rashbam, according to which Moses held up a standard bearing some conspicuous symbol that signified the presence of God in the Israelite camp. (Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, 95)
Peter Enns (b. 1961) summarizes:
Some commentaries suggest this is some sort of “magical” feat” performed by Moses, perhaps some power emanating from the staff. Others assign to Moses’ gesture a psychological explanation, that his raised hands are a sign of encouragement to the troops. Neither explanation seems satisfying...But can a better explanation be found?... No proposed explanation is problem-free. This problem is a classic example of what interpreters run into when attempting to explain a cryptic text. (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 348)
Moses has raised his hands previously to produce miraculous results but not for an extended period (Exodus 9:22, 10:12, 14:16). Many have looked to the staff for answers as it is now called the “staff of God”, a term that has not been used since the item’s introduction in Exodus 4:20.

J. Gerald Janzen (b. 1932) describes:

Up to this point Moses’ use of the staff has been a simple matter of raising it and accomplishing the result, whether sign, plague, parting of the waters, or water from the rock. But this time the struggle is drawn out, to the point where Moses becomes so tired that from time to time he has to lower his arms...Interestingly...when Moses gets tired, the help does not come directly from God, but through Aaron and Hur, as each one supports one of Moses’s arms after seating him on a stone. What is this symbolism, of Moses seated on a stone, holding up his and God’s staff, and supported on both sides by Aaron and Hur? (Janzen, Exodus (Westminster Bible Companion), 122)
As Moses intervenes for the people and Aaron and Hur raise Moses’ hands, not their own, it is not surprising that many interpreters have seen this passage as an image of intercessory prayer.

Maxie D. Dunnam (b. 1934) comments:

The soldiers on the field of battle were not determining the issue of victory by themselves, but the intercessors on the mountain were playing an integral role. See that beautiful picture of those intercessors on the mountain in your imagination?...It’s a stirring picture—a picture of the Lord’s intercessor. (Dunnam, Exodus (Mastering the Old Testament), 214)
Many popular books on prayer prominently feature this story. In Too Busy Not To Pray, Bill Hybels (b. 1951) writes:
More than any other biblical passage, one story in the Old Testament has persuaded me that prayer yields significant results. It is found in Exodus 17:8-13...Moses stretches his arms toward heaven again and brings the matter to the Lord...Moses discovered that day that God’s prevailing power is released through prayer. (Hybels, Too Busy Not To Pray, 18-19)
In his book on intercessory prayer, Dutch Sheets (b. 1954) analyzes:
The victory was not decided by the strength or power of Israel’s army. If this had been the case, they would not have faltered when the staff was lowered. Nor was it a morale thing – they weren’t watching Moses for inspiration while in hand-to-hand conflict! An unseen battle in the heavenlies actually decided the outcome on the battlefield. And when the rod, representing the rule or authority of God, was lifted by the authorized leader of Israel, Joshua and the army prevailed. In other words, it was not power on the battlefield – though it was necessary – that was the deciding factor, but authority on the mountain. Authority is the key issue; power never had been. (Sheets, Intercessory Prayer: How God Can Use Your Prayers to Move Heaven and Earth, 190)
While the mechanics of how Moses’ arms correlated to victory are speculative, the text is clear that they did. In Israel’s first battle as a nation, the focus is on the hill, not the battlefield. The direction off stage upstages the actors on the stage. In modern sports terms, the camera is focused on the fans changing their posture or switching to their rally caps as it is the deciding factor in the contest. No exploits on the battlefield are remembered; only the result is recorded: victory.

How long can you hold up your arms? What would a national leader in Moses’ era have been expected to do during battle? Who is most responsible for the Israelites’ victory at Rephidim? Whose part in the story do you most relate to: the warriors, Aaron/Hur, Moses, Joshua? Who can you prop up spiritually when they are weakened? Who is praying for you? Where is God in this story?

God is not explicitly involved in this text. William H.C. Propp (b. 1957) acknowledges:

Unlike the previous wilderness episodes, Moses responds to the crisis without seeking divine instructions, at least so far as we are told. But he gives God proper credit in the end. (Propp, Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Notes and Comments (Anchor Bible), 617)
Terence E. Fretheim (b. 1936) adds:
After Amalek starts the battle, the initiative for the defense of Israel is taken entirely by Moses, demonstrating the leadership role he has assumed. God does not become the subject of a sentence until Exodus 17:14 but is not uninvolved in the prior verses. (Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 192)
Despite not being referenced categorically, in Moses’ actions, there is little doubt that the battle is God’s. Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) comments:
Exodus 17:11 does not teach the efficacy of “prayer without ceasing” but rather the fact that Israelite holy war was God’s war. God reinforced this in the consciousness of Moses, Aaron, and Hur as well as the Israelite army by correlating the position of the staff with the fortunes of the army. It was important that the Israelites understand unmistakably that the only reason they could win against the Amalekites was that God was fighting for them, giving them the victory. The staff functioned in the case of this battle just as it had in the case of the plagues. As long as the staff of God was raised high, just as in the miraculous plagues and the miracle of the water from the rock immediately preceding, God’s decisive role was properly acknowledged symbolically and the army prevailed. When the staff was lowered (because Moses grew tired, as Exodus 17:12 makes explicit), “the Amalekites were winning.” Thus the staff portrayed God’s sovereignty in the consequences of battle. (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary, Vol. 2), 398)
Thomas B. Dozeman (b. 1952) concludes:
The circumstances indicate that the power to wage holy war resides in the magical staff of God, not in Moses, and certainly not in Joshua or the Israelite warriors. The staff of God, is like a lightning rod at the summit of the hill channeling power down to the Israelites in the battle. When the antenna is down, the power ceases. The eventual weakness of Moses even to raise his arms underscores further that the power in the battle does not reside with him but with God. (Dozeman, Exodus (Eerdmans Critical Commentary), 395)
Victory did not rest in Moses’ hands, but rather in the hands that they represented.

If Moses is a conduit of God’s power, why is he himself weakened in channeling it (Exodus 17:12; Mark 5:30)? Does God still decide wars today? What do you need to relinquish and place into God’s hands?

“I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess.” - Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

It’s All Good!?!?! (Romans 8:28)

What works for good with those who love God? Everything (Romans 8:28)

Romans 8 is one of the most encouraging chapters of the Bible. Its thrust is assurance and its most famous verse is Romans 8:28.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28 NASB)
Romans 8:28 marks the beginning of the end of a prominent section of the epistle (Romans 8:18-30) and is, not surprisingly, one of the Bible’s most beloved verses.

Robert J. Morgan (b. 1952) acclaims:

Romans 8:28 is the favorite verse of millions around the world. It’s arguably the greatest promise in the Bible, for it summarizes all the others. It’s the biblical basis for optimism and the promise that morphs us into resilient sanguines, whatever our temperament. It’s God’s darkroom in which negatives become positive. It’s His situation-reversal machine in which heartaches are changed into hallelujahs. (Morgan, 100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Know by Heart, 114)
This same affirmation can also be one of the Bible’s most difficult lines. D. Edmund Hiebert (1910-1995) explains:
Faced with the sufferings and catastrophic experiences of life, many believers and even Christian leaders have found it difficult to accept this categorical assertion. During World War II a prominent preacher designated Romans 8:28 as “the hardest verse in the Bible to believe.” (Zuck, “Romans 8:28-29 and the Assurance of the Believer”, Vital Biblical Issues: Examining Problem Passages of the Bible, 142)
The verse is also one of the most Bible’s misunderstood and misused passages. Larry Osborne (b. 1952) tantalizes:
No verse gets misquoted more often when it comes to trying to make sense out of life’s trials. Christians and even non-Christians who have a nodding acquaintance with the Bible quote it more often than all other verses combined. It’s the favorite proof text for the everything-is-good-if-you-wait-long-enough crowd. It’s plastered on coffee mugs, posters, greeting cards, and all kinds of junk...It sounds well. It sells well...But Romans 8:28 doesn’t say or mean what most people think it does. It doesn’t even apply to a large percentage of those who turn to it for comfort. (Osborne, 10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe, 89)
Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) agrees:
It is a statement whose precise meaning is obscure in any case but has also become dangerously distorted by being used out of context. For some Christians the verse has become a kind of pious slogan used to mollify grief or assuage anger in the face of hard experience, having the bromidal effect of, “Don’t worry, God will make everything turn out all right.”...In fact, Paul does not claim that absolutely everything works out fine for every person, whether they “love God” (one of the few times he uses this traditional designation for the pious; see I Corinthians 2:9; James 1:12, 2:5) or not. (Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 141-42)
A lot of the misunderstanding is attributed to the passage’s traditional translation, particularly the King James Version. Robert Jewett (b. 1933) discloses:
The old-fashioned translation of Romans 8:28 is somewhat misleading: “Everything works together for good to those who love God.” This translation often led to the false conclusion that God causes everything, including all evil, and that every evil intent has a specific purpose in the divine plan. Paul is actually stating something much more limited and more reasonable. It is not that God causes all evil, but that in everything, whether good or bad, God works for good. (Jewett, Romans (Basic Bible Commentary), 100)
Most modern translations have altered the wording to demonstrate this reality.

The verse begins with the appeal to a shared understanding - “we know.” Paul uses this expression six times in Romans (Romans 2:2, 3:19, 7:14, 8:22, 26, 28). Solomon Andria(tsimialomananarivo) (b. 1950) supposes:

Paul uses the words we know to introduce a truth that would be well known to both Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Rome. But knowing something intellectually is not the same as understanding it and grasping its implications. So Paul sets out to explain the truth. (Andria, Romans (Africa Bible Commentary Series), 157)
Some have seen this shared understanding as emanating from an accepted axiom. Peter Stuhlmacher (b. 1932) informs:
The tradition concerning which the apostle reminds the Romans extends...further. According to a common Jewish teaching, a person should get in the habit of saying, “Everything which the All-merciful does, he does for the good” (Babylonian Talmud Berakoth 60b). Paul takes up this tradition and applies it to the matter...discussed. (Stuhlmacher, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary, 136)
Consequently, Romans 8:28 did not represent an entirely new paradigm for the Romans. Even so, though similar expressions were prevalent during the period, Paul is not appealing to tradition as the basis for his statement is something new - Jesus.

Leon Morris (1914-2006) determines:

It is not difficult to cite sayings from the ancient world of the “In the end everything will turn out all right” type, and it is urged that Paul is not simply repeating a commonplace, and moreover one that leaves God out. Nor is it likely in the sense in which we find this thought in the Old Testament and Jewish writings (cf. Genesis 50:20; Ecclesiastes 8:12; Sirach 39:24-27), in the first instance because they do not say what Paul is saying and in the second because of necessity they omit what Christ is doing and that is central in Paul’s present argument as it moves on to the way of salvation. (Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 330)
As Morris alludes, some have seen the Joseph saga (especially Genesis 50:20) as an exemplar of Romans 8:28. Matthew N.O. Sadiku (b. 1955) compares:
Joseph is a good example of how God works evil plans for good for those who love him. All things worked together for Joseph’s good because God’s purposes could not be thwarted. Like in the case of Joseph, what happens to us at times may not be “good,” but God has a way of making it work for our ultimate good. (Sadiku, Romans: A Pentecostal Commentary, 131-32)
Donald R. Sunukjian (b. 1941) disagrees:
The story of Joseph does not really fit the teaching of Romans 8:28. The point of Genesis 50:20 is that God used the brothers’ evil intentions to bring about good circumstances in Joseph’s life. But that’s not the point of Romans 8:28...The point of Romans 8:28-30 is that God will work in your sufferings and weaknesses to produce the good character of Christlikeness. (Sunukjian, Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth With Clarity and Relevance, 133)
Paul is not drawing from popular wisdom, Old Testament experience or brilliant conjecture. Romans 8:28 is developed from conviction and personal experience.

Manfred T. Brauch (b. 1940) reminds:

Apart from anything else which might be said about this text, it is clear within the context of Romans 8 that it expresses Paul’s deep faith and trust in the loving purposes of God. We must remember that this affirmation is not the result of abstract rationalization or theologizing. It is, furthermore, not a word which emerges from the lips of one whose life coasted along in serenity, uninterrupted by the stresses and strains, the pains and perplexities, the turmoil and tragedies which most human beings experience to one degree or another. (Brauch, Hard Sayings of Paul, 48)
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) adds:
‘We know’ that this is so, says Paul, speaking as one who had proved its truth in his own experience, finding, for example, that his hardships turned out for the furtherance of the gospel (Philippians 1:12) and that his sorest and most disagreeable trials were the means by which the power of Christ rested on him (II Corinthians 12:9-10). (Bruce, Romans (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 162)
Given Paul’s experience and the context, there has been discussion as to what is included in the term “all things” and even what part of speech it entails. This expression could technically be the grammatical subject of the verse (instead of “God”). Some manuscripts eliminate the confusion.

F. Leroy Forlines (b. 1926) explains:

Some Greek manuscripts have a longer reading, adding “God” (Greek, ho theos) as the subject of the verb “works together”...Neither the Textus Receptus, the Majority Text nor the United Bible Society Text includes this...The commonly accepted reading is referred to as the “shorter reading.” (Forlines, Romans (Randall House Bible Commentary), 230)
Contextually, God is the more likely subject. Romans 8:28 marks a turning point in the chapter as the prime mover shifts from “the Spirit” to “God”. God is the subject of most of the verbs, evidence that God is also the one doing the work in the processes discussed.

As to what “all things” entails, Brendan Byrne (b. 1939) defines:

“All things” could refer to or at least include the non-human created world (“creation” [Romans 8:19-22]) and the Spirit (Romans 8:26-27). But Paul is more likely to have in mind the sufferings of the present time (Romans 8:18) that form the context for hope. Other things being equal, these would normally be considered “evil.” But for those whose lives are enveloped in God’s love even these things work for “good”. (Byrne, Romans (Sacra Pagina Series) , 267)
Kenneth Boa (b. 1945) and William Kruidenier (b. 1948) concur:
The suffering (Romans 8:17) and groaning (Romans 8:23) that Paul has been discussing is what is in view in Romans 8:28. When we find ourselves in trying circumstances in life, we can know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Boa and Kruidenier, Romans (Holman New Testament Commentary), 259)
Thomas R. Schreiner (b. 1954) determines:
In saying that all things work together for good πάντα [“all things”] focuses especially on sufferings and tribulations, but the all-encompassing character of the term should not be ignored. What is remarkable, though, is that even suffering and tribulation turn out for the good of the Christian. The idea expressed here cannot be compared to Stoicism or to a Pollyanish view of life. The former is excluded in Paul’s creational theology, which posits God as the Lord, creator, and personal governor of the world. The latter is a misunderstanding of the text, for the text does not say all things are intrinsically good or pleasant, but instead that the most agonizing sufferings and evils inflicted on believers will be turned to their good by God. (Schreiner, Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 449-450)
Given that suffering is included prominently beneath the umbrella of “all things”, many find the passage difficult to stomach. Anne Graham Lotz (b. 1948) admits:
You may immediately question how the pregnancy of your unmarried daughter can work for your good, or how God can work even a divorce for your good, or how the loss of your job can be for your good, or how your terminal illness can be for your good. If, by “good,” Romans 8:28 meant your comfort, convenience, health, wealth, prosperity, pleasure, or happiness, we would all question it! But your ultimate good is conformity to the image of Jesus Christ. And when you are in God’s will—“called according to his purpose”—everything God allows into your life is used by Him to make you like Christ. Everything! (Lotz, The Vision of His Glory, 27)
As Lotz underscores, one of the keys to interpreting the verse is one’s definition of good. Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998) acknowledges, “In the underlying tradition of antiquity it means the happy outcome of strange earthly events, and the use in Judaism is much the same (Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 243).”

In this context, the term takes on a different meaning. Karl Barth (1886-1968) defines:

The Good is the beholding of the Redeemer and of Redemption, the attainment of the living Point beyond the point of death, the beginning of that awaiting which is no awaiting, of that not-knowing which is the supreme apprehending, and of that apprehending of sin and death, devil and hell, which is the supreme not-knowing. The Good is the very love of God towards men who stand before Him rich and well-clothed, because they are still poor and naked. (Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 320)
D. Stuart Briscoe (b. 1930) distinguishes:
It is eternal rather than temporal good which God has in mind. He works “according to His purpose,” which is far grander than the alleviation of the unpleasantness of the present or a guarantee of plain sailing under cloudless skies in the foreseeable future. He is in the “good” business of making redeemed sinners like their elder brother, the Lord Jesus, and even a cursory glance at the way the Father exposed the Son to the realities of life and death should be sufficient to remind us that we can expect the same kind of processes to work in our lives with the identical and ultimate result—conformity to Him. (Briscoe, Romans (Mastering the New Testament), 176)
Randy Alcorn (b. 1954) clarifies:
Romans 8:28 declares a cumulative and ultimate good, not an individual or immediate good...When Paul says, “for good,” he clearly implies final or ultimate good, not good subjectively felt in the midst of our sufferings. As his wife, Joy, underwent cancer treatments, C.S. Lewis [1898-1963] wrote to a friend, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will due the best for us: we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”...We define our good in terms of what brings us health and happiness now; God defines it in terms of what makes us more like Jesus. (Alcorn, If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil, 288-89)
An improper view of what is “good” has led to an improper understanding of the passage. Henry T. Blackaby (1935) and Richard Blackaby (b. 1961) note:
People often misunderstand Romans 8:28. Some assume that this promise means God will turn every bad situation into a good situation. But the Bible doesn’t say that. It says that God can use any situation—even the worst experience—to produce good results in a Christian’s life. (Blackaby and Blackaby, TruthQuest: TQ120a, 40)
While this discussion of “good” does not eliminate suffering, it is equally comforting. R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) advises:
These words have eternal rather than our temporal good in mind...The specific good will be seen when we are glorified as we are conformed to the image of Christ. The Christian should not view present distresses and reversals as ultimately destructive. In some manner they are preparing us for the future revelation of God’s glory. (Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven (Preaching the Word),167)
Not all actions are good, but they are being worked towards a good purpose. This is a powerful promise but its benefits are not universal. Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) cautions:
It is crucial to the argument here that Paul is talking about Christians. For Christians who are called, all things work together. Paul is not talking about some evolutionary or inevitable process that happens like magic for believers. He is referring to the sovereignty and providence of God over all things and processes. God is the one who works things out, as the alternate textual reading, which inserts ho theos, “God,” makes even clearer. (Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 226-27)
Grant R. Osborne (b. 1942) analyzes:
This is promised to those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. In the Greek, the two frame the promise, with “to those who love him” at the beginning of the verse. The question is whether this is restrictive (it works only for Christians when they love God) or comforting (by nature all Christians love God and are called). The latter is far more likely, for this is a passage of encouragement rather than warning. (Osborne, Romans (IVP New Testament Commentary), 220)
Paul J. Achtemeier (b. 1927) sees a parallel in a parable:
There is another parable of Jesus appropriate to this passage from Romans...and that is the parable of catching and sorting of fish (Matthew 13:47-50). It is a parable of final judgment, when good is separated from bad. To those who find in Jesus the expression of God’s faithfulness to his commitment to the redemption of creation, anticipation of such a judgment is a matter of joy rather than fear, since judgment is another expression of the certainty of the future being in God’s hands. That of course is the point emphasized in Romans 8:28-30. Judgment that apart from Christ can only induce fear can, with the guarantee of his presence provided by the Spirit, be a cause of joyful anticipation. Taken together, these two passages tells us of a coming judgment (Matthew 13:47-50) which we may face with confidence. (Achtemeier, Romans (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 147)
Arland J. Hultgren (b. 1939) summarizes:
Paul is saying that God works for the good of all who love him in every conceivable situation. Whatever one faces (including suffering), God is present and active to work for a good outcome, which may well be realized only eschatalogically in final salvation, but ultimately the promise is sure. That perspective coheres theologically with the rest of this section (Romans 8:18-30), which sees suffering – both on the part of humans and of the rest of creation – in light of eschatalogical hope. (Hultgren, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary, 326)
Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984) adds:
Returning to Romans 8:28, it is not that in some magical way everything really is fine, even when our observation and experience sees and feels the sorrows of the present world. No, it is because God is the infinite God He is that in spite of the abnormality of all things now, He can in the midst of the battle bring good for His people out of abnormality. (Schaeffer, A Christian View of Spirituality, 206)
The verse presumes a God who is not only active in the world but present with us in our suffering. N.T. Wright (b. 1948) illumines:
Romans 8:28 is a much-loved promise for many who have learned by it to trust God in the many varied and often troubling circumstances of our lives. The world is still groaning, and we with it; but God is with us in the groaning, and will bring it out for good. (Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part One, 156)
This should provide the Christian with blessed assurance. John Piper (b. 1946) expounds:
Once you walk through the door of love into the massive, unshakable structure of Romans 8:28 everything changes. There come into your life stability and depth and freedom. You simply can’t be blown over any more. The confidence that a sovereign God governs for your good all the pain and all the pleasure that you will ever experience is an incomparable refuge and security and hope and power in your life. When God’s people really live by the future grace of Romans 8:28—from measles to the mortuary—they are the freest and strongest and most generous people in the world. (Piper, Future Grace, 123)
How would you put this verse into your own words? How do “we know” the truth of Romans 8:28? Is this a hard verse for you to believe? What is the hardest Bible verse for you to accept? Have you ever found comfort in Romans 8:28? What is your favorite part of Paul’s affirmation? Does “all things” include our own sinful acts? Whose good is being worked towards? What do all things work towards to those who do not believe? Does this verse imply that everything falls within the scope of God’s will? What elements are working together to produce good?

Much ink has been spilled as to what is working together for the ultimate good. John Murray (1898-1975) recounts:

Some of the ablest expositors maintain that “work together” does not mean that all things work in concert and cooperation but that all things work in concert with the believer or with God. But it is unnecessary and perhaps arbitrary to depart from the more natural sense, namely, that in the benign and all-embracing plan of God the discrete elements all work together for good to them that love God. It is not to be supposed that they have any virtue or efficacy in themselves to work in concert for this end. Though not expressed, the ruling thought is that in the sovereign love and wisdom of God they are all made to converge and contribute to that goal. Many of the things comprised are evil in themselves and it is the marvel of God’s wisdom and grace that they, when taken in concert with the whole, are made to work for good. Not one detail works ultimately for evil to the people of God; in the end only good will be there lot. (Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes, 314)
C.E.B. Cranfield (b. 1915) counters:
The...rendering ‘work together’ makes too much of the separate meanings of the components of the Greek compound verb: it is better translated by some such expression as ‘prove advantageous’, ‘be profitable’. Paul’s meaning is that all things, even those which seem most adverse and hurtful, such as persecution and death itself, are profitable to those who truly love God. (Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary, 204)
Douglas J. Moo (b. 1950) concurs:
This verse may not be promising that all things will work together for good. I have heard the verse preached with just this point as the central emphasis. God, so the preacher argued, does not promise to bring good to us in every situation. Rather, as a cook combines ingredients to make a tasty dish of food, so God mixes together the circumstances of life in such a way as to ultimately bring good to us...There are two reasons for hesitating to embrace this “mixing” idea. (a) The verb used here (synergeo) may not mean “work together.” To be sure, in its three other New Testament occurrences, it does seem to have this meaning (see I Corinthians 16:16; II Corinthians 6:1; James 2:22). But the verb often lost the “with” idea in the period Paul was writing...(b) Even if we do translate “work together,” it is by no means clear that “all things” are working with each other. It is equally plausible that Paul means that all things work together with the Spirit, with God, or with believers to produce good. (Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary, 277)
The practical question is whether the believer has a part in the working out of all things together for good. Dale Moody (1915-1992) descries:
Romans 8:28 says that God “co-operates for good with those who love God, and are called according to his purpose” (NEB), yet for centuries now the KJV of 1611 has been followed which says “all things work together for good,” as if human co-operation is excluded from God’s purpose. The human co-operation of faith, hope and love has been blasted as synergism, yet Paul uses the Greek verb synergei! (Moody, The Word of Truth: A Summary of Christian Doctrine Based on Biblical Revelation, 314)
David L. Bartlett (b. 1941) concludes:
Paul is not saying that for Christians everything is always for the best. He is saying that in everything God works towards the best in partnership with those who love God...Christians do not need to say that every tragedy or loss is part of God’s plan. We can say that in every tragedy or loss God is still God and still moves our lives and all of history toward what is good...Even when contemplating the enormous tragedies of human history, natural disaster, or human viciousness, faith reminds us that God is still at work in the midst of evil, working toward the good. The question, Why did God let this happen? is unanswerable. The questions we may begin to answer are, What can God do with this evil to help bring about the good? How can we be God’s partners, God’s servants in the work? (Bartlett, Romans (Westminster Bible Companion) 78)
“If all things do not always please me, they will always benefit me...This is the best promise of this life.” - Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)