Power brings with it the responsibility to exercise it wisely and appropriately, even when faced with impropriety. In Scripture we discern times when God expresses His frustration with human folly and persistent rebellion. He announces His intention to wipe out humanity and start again. He actually did this according to Genesis 6-8 when He sent the flood as judgment because the human heart “was only evil all the time” (Gen.6:5). But when this episode concludes, we discover God promising “never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done” (Gen. 8:21). Restraint will govern His power and the rainbow becomes the sign of this commitment (Gen. 9:12-13).
The Golden Calf debacle led God to plan Israel’s destruction. He told Moses that He would destroy them all and start again with Moses as the founding father of a new people of God. It was only Moses’ impassioned intercession on behalf of Israel that convinced God to choose another course of action (Exodus 32:9-10,14). As Israel’s theological understanding developed, they came to put great stock in God’s restraint. In the Wisdom of Solomon we find several references to this belief:
15:1 But you, our God, are kind and true, patient and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin, we are yours, knowing your power.
The author refers to the inhabitants of Canaan as Israel conquered their land and says that God judged “them little by little” and “gave them opportunity to repent” (12:10)
At the beginning of his argument in Romans Paul talks about the reality of God’s wrath that “is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who ‘claim an interest in truth but are disinterested in justice’” (1:18). Yet, he also affirms that during the era of the Mosaic covenant, God has exercised restraint (anoche) (Romans 3:26), even to the point of “being lenient towards sins previously committed” (3:25). So that while God has acted in judgment against human sin, He has not acted as severely or frequently as He might have.
The term Paul chooses to describe God’s restraint or forbearance (anoche) only occurs twice in the New Testament (Romans 2:4; 3:26). It has various nuances, including relief, pause, and forbearance/restraint. We find it used in 1 Maccabees 12:25 to describe the actions of the Jewish commander Jonathan to give “no relief” (anoche) to the Syrian forces so they could invade Judea. Josephus retells the story of Jabeshgilead whose inhabitants ask for a seven day respite (anoche) period in order to mount a defense against Nahash, the Ammonite.
Danker notes an inscription from the first century AD that describes the great gods who sit in the holy temple and “do not restrain (anexontai) those who transgress the precepts”. He comments that in Romans 3:26 “God was exercising forbearance, not tolerance or lenience, and He was holding off demonstration of His righteousness so that in the present time…He might be able not only to prove that He is just…but at the same time justify anyone who believes in Jesus.”
The cognate verb (anechomai) occurs several times in the Greek translation of Isaiah. For example, in 1:13 God says that he cannot tolerate (anechomai) Israel’s Sabbaths or feasts because the people’s hands are “full of blood”. When God announces His actions to restore Israel, He says that he cannot be silent any longer or restrain himself (anexomai) (42:14). Sometimes, as in Isaiah 63:15, the prophet asks God no longer to hide Himself from His people, because he has “withheld (aneschou) himself from us”.
When we come to Romans then, Paul’s usage of this term occurs in his discussion of the need for the atonement offered by Jesus Christ (3:26), even though God has previously exercised ‘restraint’ and “been lenient towards prior sins”. Something has happened that brings God’s restraint over Israel’s sin to a conclusion. The Messiah has come and his death has provided the full redemption for sin. God has to exercise forbearance because He has provided for all peoples a full, perfect remedy in Jesus Messiah. Whereas up to the time of the cross Jews might have relied upon “the wealth of God’s kindness, forbearance (aneches) and patience” (2:4), this no longer pertains. Jew and Greek alike must seek clemency from God now by putting their repentant confidence in Jesus Christ as their Saviour. God’s forbearance demonstrates the depth of His grace and mercy as applied to Israel in the Old Testament covenant context. It also gives us some insight into the degree of suffering that Christ experienced on our behalf.
Paul uses the cognate verb to urge Christians to act with restraint and forbearance towards one another. In Ephesians 4:2 believers are to “bear with (anechomenoi) one another in love”, with humility, patience and gentleness. The character of God in His restraint towards sinful human beings is now to characterize the Messiah’s followers in their attitudes and actions towards one another. Love is the operational means. The same idea finds expression in the parallel passage in Colossians 3:13 where forbearance (anechomenoi) is linked with the kind of forgiveness that the Lord has demonstrated to us. Paul clusters the attributes of kindness, patience and forbearance here and requires Christians to robe themselves with them. These are the same attributes that God has shown to the Jewish people prior to the Messiah’s coming (Romans 2:4).
God’s restraint towards sinful human beings becomes the pattern for our restraint towards other believers in God’s family. If God did not act with immediate judgment and punishment against His people in the Old Testament era and now has provided a means to receive divine forgiveness, we should not respond with anger and irritation towards other believers when they do or say things that upset us, but similarly respond with forgiveness. God’s Spirit can empower us to show restraint and in love to exercise patience and kindness.
- 1. Probably this writing is the product of the Jewish community in Alexandria from the first century B.C. It is part of what we term the ‘Apocryphal books’.
- 2. This translation is proposed by F. W. Danker in “Under Contract. A Form-Critical Study of Linguistic Adaptation in Romans”, published in Festschrift to Honor F.Wilbur Gingrich, ed. by E.H. Barth and R.E.Cocroft (Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1972):93.
- 3. Danker, p.102-103, footnote 1. He also speculates that the term may be “a play on the Latin word iustitium, used of a ‘legal vacation’. In any case, the stress here in Romans 3:26 is on ‘delay’ in God’s action…, as the use of the parallel phrase ‘in the present time (vs.26), suggests.”
- 4. Danker, p. 103.