Countless thousands of people today, including many genuine Christians, flock to various churches, seminars, and conferences in search of personal benefits—practical, emotional, and spiritual—that they hope to receive. They do just the opposite of what Paul so plainly emphasizes in Romans 12:1-2. In this forceful and compassionate exhortation, the apostle does not focus on what more we need to receive from God but on what we are to give Him. The key to a productive and satisfying Christian life is not in getting more but in giving all.
Jesus said, “True worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23). God gave Himself for us in order that we might give ourselves to Him. Paul defines Christians as those “who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3).
Every Christian is like Melchizedek, “a priest of God Most High” (Gen. 14:18). Together, we are a spiritual priesthood, as much so as the Levitical and Aaronic priesthoods of the Old Covenant. The church is “a holy priesthood,” whose calling is “to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… [It is] a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:5, 9).
Our supreme calling is to serve God with all our being, first and foremost in worship. Through Christ, the writer of Hebrews tells us, we are to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Heb. 13:15).
True worship includes many things besides the obvious ones of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. It includes serving God by serving others in His name, especially fellow believers. Sacrificial worship includes “doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:15-16; cf. Phil. 4:14). But above all else, our supreme act of worship is to offer ourselves wholly and continually to the Lord as living sacrifices.
Tragically, that is far from the approach that is so common today by which believers seek the key to the abundant life. We are told that victory in the Christian life is to have more of God and to have more from God—although “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, [already] has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3, emphasis added). And in Christ, we already have “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” so that in Him we “have been made complete” (Col. 2:3, 10). Peter said that in the true and saving knowledge of Christ, we have “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). And we have the resident truth teacher, the Holy Spirit, whose anointing, John says, “teaches [us] about all things” (1 John 2:27).
In the deepest, eternal sense, therefore, we cannot have more of God or from God than we now possess. It is more than obvious, however, that most of us do not have the fulness of joy that this fulness of blessing should bring. The joy and satisfaction for which so many Christians are vainly striving can be had only by surrendering back to the Lord what He already has given to us, including our inmost being. The first and greatest commandment is what Jesus said it has always been: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37; cf. Deut. 6:5).
Paul moves from a doctrinal discussion to a practical discussion, for Christian doctrine translates into action. The first eleven chapters of this letter reveal God’s mercy to sinners in that he sent his Son to die on the cross for our sins. The last five chapters explain our obligation to God. If the early message of the letter is the way we all can come to God through Christ, then the closing part of the letter is the way we all can live for God in Christ. In view of all God has done for us, how can we respond in a way that is pleasing to him?
In all of his letters, Paul concluded with a list of practical duties that were based on the doctrines he had discussed. In the Christian life, doctrine and duty always go together. What we believe helps to determine how we behave. It is not enough for us to understand Paul’s doctrinal explanations. We must translate our learning into living and show by our daily lives that we trust God’s Word.
The key idea in this section is relationships. The term “relational theology” is a relatively new one, but the idea is not new. If we have a right relationship to God, we will have a right relationship to the people who are a part of our lives. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20).
Our Relationship to God (Rom. 12:1-2)
This is the fourth “therefore” in the letter. Romans 3:20 is the “therefore” of condemnation, declaring that the whole world is guilty before God. Romans 5:1 is the “therefore” of justification, and Romans 8:1 the “therefore” of assurance. In Romans 12:1, we have the “therefore” of dedication, and it is this dedication that is the basis for the other relationships that Paul discussed in this section.
What is true dedication? As Paul described it here, Christian dedication involves three steps.
You give God your body (v. 1). Before we trusted Christ, we used our body for sinful pleasures and purposes, but now that we belong to Him, we want to use our body for His glory. The Christian’s body is God’s temple (1 Cor. 6:19-20) because the Spirit of God dwells within him (Rom. 8:9). It is our privilege to glorify Christ in our body and magnify Christ in our body (Phil. 1:20-21).
Just as Jesus Christ had to take on Himself a body in order to accomplish God’s will on earth, so we must yield our bodies to Christ that He might continue God’s work through us. We must yield the members of the body as “instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13) for the Holy Spirit to use in the doing of God’s work. The Old Testament sacrifices were dead sacrifices, but we are to be living sacrifices.
There are two “living sacrifices” in the Bible and they help us understand what this really means. The first is Isaac (Gen. 22); the second is our Lord Jesus Christ. Isaac willingly put himself on the altar and would have died in obedience to God’s will, but the Lord sent a ram to take his place. Isaac “died” just the same—he died to self and willingly yielded himself to the will of God. When he got off that altar, Isaac was a “living sacrifice” to the glory of God.
Of course, our Lord Jesus Christ is the perfect illustration of a “living sacrifice,” because He actually died as a sacrifice, in obedience to His Father’s will. But He arose again. And today He is in heaven as a “living sacrifice,” bearing in His body the wounds of Calvary. He is our High Priest (Heb. 4:14-16) and our Advocate (1 John 2:1) before the throne of God.
The verb “present” in this verse means “present once and for all.” It commands a definite commitment of the body to the Lord, just as a bride and groom in their wedding service commit themselves to each other. It is this once-for-all commitment that determines what they do with their bodies. Paul gives us two reasons for this commitment: (1) it is the right response to all that God has done for us—”I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God” (italics mine); and (2) this commitment is “our reasonable service” or “our spiritual worship.” This means that every day is a worship experience when your body is yielded to the Lord.
WHAT IS SACRIFICIAL LIVING?
Romans 12 offers an outline for breaking the world’s mold. To put these directions in motion means going against the flow of society. Yet God does not hesitate to confront us with the choice. The option is not whether we will conform; rather, the choice is to whom will we conform? Will our lives follow the pattern of this world or God’s pattern? The following are components of God’s pattern:
Offer our bodies—Delivering both the inner and outer self into God’s control. Divers and gymnasts know that where their head goes, the rest of their body will eventually follow.
Be nonconformists—Consciously resisting the suggestions and pressures of the world around us.
Renew our minds—Constantly asking God to teach us to think as he thinks
Estimate ourselves honestly—Having neither false humility nor inappropriate pride in our serving relationships with others.
Utilize our gifts—Identifying those gifts to be used in helping others; finding a purpose, a place, and a position to serve other believers.
12:1 Therefore, brothers and sisters.NRSV Therefore, because of God’s great compassion on both Jews and Gentiles in offering salvation through Christ, Paul urges believers to please God in their daily lives. The evil world is full of temptation and sin. Paul helps believers understand how they can live for God.
By the mercies of God.NKJV Or, literally, “through the compassions [oiktirmon] of God,” refers to all that Paul has already written. Our Christianity is not based on pride in what we can do, but entirely on God’s mercy to forgive us.
Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.NRSV Paul had already told the Roman believers, “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness” (6:13). Our bodies are all we have to offer—we live in our bodies. The body enfolds our emotions, our mind, our thoughts, our desires, and our plans. Thus, the body represents the total person; it is the instrument by which all our service is given to God. In order to live for God, we must offer him all that we are, represented by our body. The word offer has also been translated “give,” “yield,” or “present.” If our body is at God’s disposal, he will have our free time, our pleasures, and all our behavior.
When sacrificing an animal according to God’s law, a priest would kill the animal, cut it in pieces, and place it on the altar. Sacrifice was important, but even in the Old Testament God made it clear that obedience from the heart was much more important (see 1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 40:6; Amos 5:21-24). God wants us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices—daily laying aside our own desires to follow him, putting all our energy and resources at his disposal, and trusting him to guide us (see Hebrews 13:15-16; 1 Peter 2:5). Our new life is a thanks-offering to God. Offering our body as a living sacrifice is holy and pleasing to God.NIV To be a holy sacrifice is to be completely set apart for God and dedicated to his service. Those who are dedicated to God are pleasing to God because they can participate in his service. If we are not set apart from our old life, we will not be useful to God.
|In the old sacrifices||But for the new sacrifice|
|An altar was required||There is no altar|
|Animals were slain||The sacrifice lives|
|Sacrifices were cut up||The sacrifice is whole|
|Sacrifices were burned up||The sacrifice serves|
|It was based on a legal obligation||It is based on mercy and gratitude|
|Death was not defeated||Eternal life is celebrated|
This is your spiritual act of worship.NIV The Greek word for “worship” (latreian) here refers to any act done for God, such as work that priests and Levites performed. Spiritual (logiken) can also mean “reasonable” (nkjv). To serve God is the only reasonable way to respond to his mercy.
The Soul Has Been Given to God
I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, (12:1a)
Urge is from parakaleō, which has the basic meaning of calling alongside in order to help or give aid. It later came to connote exhorting, admonishing, or encouraging. In His Upper Room discourse, shortly before His betrayal and arrest, Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the Paraklētos, our divine Helper (also translated Comforter, Counselor, Advocate). He would be “another Helper,” who in this present life takes the place of the incarnate Lord (John 14:16; cf. v. 26; 15:26; 16:7).
Paul is speaking as a human helper or counselor to his Christian brethren in Rome. His admonition is a command that carries the full weight of his apostleship. It is not optional. Yet he also wanted to come alongside those brethren as a fellow believer, to lovingly encourage them to fulfill what already was the true inner desire and bent of their new hearts—to dedicate themselves without reservation to the Lord who had redeemed them. He reflects the same humble tenderness seen in his admonition to Philemon, to whom he wrote, “Though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do that which is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you” (Philem. 8-9).
The gentle command [urge] that Paul proceeds to give can only be obeyed by brethren, by those who already belong to God’s family. No other offering is acceptable to God unless we have first offered Him our souls. For Christians, that first element of “a living and holy sacrifice” has already been presented to God.
The unregenerate person cannot give God his body, his mind, or his will, because He has not given God himself. Because he has no saving relationship to God, “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14). Only the redeemed can present a living sacrifice to God, because only the redeemed have spiritual life. And only believers are priests who can come before God with an offering.
“For what will a man be profited,” Jesus said, “if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). The soul is the inner, invisible part of man that is the very essence of his being. Therefore, until a man’s soul belongs to God, nothing else matters or has any spiritual significance.
The loving generosity of the Macedonian churches was made possible and was acceptable to God and praised by Paul because the believers in those churches “first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God” (2 Cor. 8:5). Before anything else worthwhile and acceptable can be given to God, the self must be given to Him in saving faith toward Jesus Christ for regeneration.
Earlier in the epistle Paul has made clear that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). No matter what his personal feelings might be, the unredeemed person cannot worship God, cannot make an acceptable offering to God, cannot please God in any way with any offering. That is analogous to what Paul meant when he said, “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). If a person does not possess the love of God, all of his offerings, no matter how costly, are worthless to Him.
Because an unbeliever’s soul has not been offered to God, he cannot make any other sacrifice that is acceptable to Him. The unredeemed cannot present their bodies to God as living sacrifices because they have not presented themselves to God to receive spiritual life.
Therefore refers back to the glorious doxology just given in the previous four verses (11:33-36). It is because “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things,” that to Him belongs “the glory forever.” We can only glorify the Lord—we can only want to glorify the Lord—if we have been saved by the mercies of God.
As noted above, God already “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). The mercies of God of which Paul speaks here include the many gracious blessings, or grace gifts (cf. 11:29), that he has discussed in the first eleven chapters of Romans.
Perhaps the two most precious mercies of God are His love and His grace. In Christ, we are the “beloved of God” (Rom. 1:7; cf. 5:5; 8:35, 39), and, like the apostle, we all “have received grace” through Jesus Christ our Lord (1:6-7; 3:24; 5:2, 20-21; 6:15). The mercies of God are reflected in His power of salvation (1:16) and in His great kindness toward those He saves (2:4; 11:22). His mercies in Christ bring us the forgiveness and propitiation of our sins (3:25; 4:7-8) and also freedom from them (6:18; 7:6). We have received reconciliation with Him (5:10), justification (2:13; 3:4; etc.) before Him, conformation to His Son (8:29), glorification (8:30) in His very likeness, eternal life (5:21; 6:22-23) in His very presence, and the resurrection of our bodies (8:11) to serve Him in His everlasting kingdom. We have received the mercies of divine sonship (8:14-17) and of the Holy Spirit—who personally indwells us (8:9, 11), who intercedes for us (8:26), and through whom “the love of God has been poured out within our hearts” (5:5). In Christ we also have received the mercies of faith (mentioned thirty times in Romans 1-11), peace (1:7; 2:10; 5:1; 8:6), hope (5:2, 8:20, 24). God’s mercies include His shared righteousness (3:21-22; 4:6, 11, 13; 5:17, 19, 21; etc.) and even His shared glory (2:10; 5:2; 8:18; 9:23) and honor (2:10; cf. 9:21). And, of course, the mercies of God include His sovereign mercy (9:15-16, 18; 11:30-32).
Such soul-saving mercies should motivate believers to complete dedication. The New Testament gives many warnings about God’s chastisement of unfaithful and disobedient believers. “The one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption” (Gal. 6:8), and “Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:6). One day “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). But the most compelling motivation for faithful, obedient living should not be the threat of discipline or loss of reward but overflowing and unceasing gratitude for the marvelous mercies of God.
The Body Must Be Given to God
to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. (12:1b)
The second and consequent element of presenting ourselves to God is that of offering Him our bodies. After it is implied that believers have given their souls to God through faith in Jesus Christ, they are specifically called to present their bodies to Him as a living and holy sacrifice.
In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), paristēmi (to present) was often used as a technical term for a priest’s placing an offering on the altar. It therefore carried the general idea of surrendering or yielding up. As members of God’s present “holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5), Christians are here exhorted to perform what is essentially a priestly act of worship. Because the verb is in the imperative, the exhortation carries the weight of a command.
The first thing we are commanded to present to God is our bodies. Because our souls belong to God through salvation, He already has the inner man. But He also wants the outer man, in which the inner man dwells.
Our bodies, however, are more than physical shells that house our souls. They are also where our old, unredeemed humanness resides. In fact, our humanness is a part of our bodies, whereas our souls are not. Our bodies incorporate our humanness, our humanness incorporates our flesh, and our flesh incorporates our sin, as Romans 6 and 7 so clearly explain.
Our bodies therefore encompass not only our physical being but also the evil longings of our mind, emotions, and will. “For while we were in the flesh,” Paul informs us, “the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death” (Rom. 7:5). Long after he was saved, however, the apostle confessed, “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:22-23). In other words, the redeemed soul must reside in a body of flesh that is still the beachhead of sin, a place that can readily be given to unholy thoughts and longings. It is that powerful force within our “mortal bodies” that tempts and lures us to do evil. When they succumb to the impulses of the fleshly mind, our “mortal bodies” again become instruments of sin and unrighteousness.
It is a fearful thing to consider that, if we allow them to, our fallen and unredeemed bodies are still able to thwart the impulses of our redeemed and eternal souls. The body is still the center of sinful desires, emotional depression, and spiritual doubts. Paul gives insight into that sobering reality when he said, “I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). In order to maintain a holy life and testimony and to minister effectively, even the great apostle had to exert himself strongly and continually in order to control the human and sinful part of himself that persistently wanted to rule and corrupt his life and his work for the Lord. In Romans 8, we learned that he had to kill the flesh. Paul also said that God had given him a “thorn,” or a stake, on which to impale his otherwise proud flesh (2 Cor. 12:7).
It is helpful to understand that dualistic Greek philosophy still dominated the Roman world in New Testament times. This pagan ideology considered the spirit, or soul, to be inherently good and the body to be inherently evil. And because the body was deemed worthless and would eventually die anyway, what was done to it or with it did not matter. For obvious reasons, that view opened the door to every sort of immorality. Tragically, many believers in the early church, who have many counterparts in the church today, found it easy to fall back into the immoral practices of their former lives, justifying their sin by the false and heretical idea that what the body did could not harm the soul and had no spiritual or eternal significance. Much as in our own day, because immorality was so pervasive, many Christians who did not themselves lead immoral lives became tolerant of sin in fellow believers, thinking it merely was the flesh doing what it naturally did, completely apart from the soul’s influence or responsibility.
Yet Paul clearly taught that the body can be controlled by the redeemed soul. He told the sinful Corinthians that the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body” (1 Cor. 6:11-13).
Scripture makes clear that God created the body as good (Genesis), and that, despite their continuing corruption by sin, the bodies of redeemed souls will also one day be redeemed and sanctified. Even now, our unredeemed bodies can and should be made slaves to the power of our redeemed souls.
As with our souls, the Lord created our bodies for Himself, and, in this life, He cannot work through us without in some way working through our bodies. If we speak for Him, it must be through our mouths. If we read His Word, it must be with our eyes (or hands for those who are blind). If we hear His Word it must be through our ears. If we go to do His work, we must use our feet, and if we help others in His name, it must be with our hands. And if we think for Him, it must be with our minds, which now reside in our bodies. There can be no sanctification, no holy living, apart from our bodies. That is why Paul prayed, “May the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23).
It is because our bodies are yet unredeemed that they must be yielded continually to the Lord. It was also for that reason that Paul warned, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts” (Rom. 6:12). Paul then gave a positive admonition similar to the one found in our text (12:1), preceded by its negative counterpart: “Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom. 6:13). Under God’s control, our unredeemed bodies can and should become instruments of righteousness.
Paul rhetorically asked the believers at Corinth, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19). In other words, our unredeemed bodies are temporarily the home of God! It is because our bodies are still mortal and sinful that, “having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). Our spiritual “citizenship is in heaven,” Paul explained to the Philippians, “from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).
We cannot prevent the remnants of sin from persisting in our mortal bodies. But we are able, with the Lord’s power, to keep that sin from ruling our bodies. Since we are given a new, Spirit-indwelt nature through Christ, sin cannot reign in our souls. And it should not reign in our bodies (Rom. 8:11). Sin will not reign “if by the Spirit [we] are putting to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13; cf. 6:16). (For a complete discussion of Romans 6-8, see the Romans 1-8 volume in this commentary series.)
Paul admonishes us, by God’s mercies, to offer our imperfect but useful bodies to the Lord as a living and holy sacrifice. As noted above, Paul uses the language of the Old Testament ritual offerings in the Tabernacle and Temple, the language of the Levitical priesthood. According to the Law, a Jew would bring his offering of an animal to the priest, who would take it, slay it, and place it on the altar in behalf of the person who brought it.
But the sacrifices required by the Law are no longer of any effect, not even symbolic effect, because, “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11-12).
Sacrifices of dead animals are no longer acceptable to God. Because the Lamb of God was sacrificed in their place, the redeemed of the Lord are now to offer themselves, all that they are and have, as living sacrifices. The only acceptable worship under the New Covenant is the offering of oneself to God.
From the very beginning, God’s first and most important requirement for acceptable worship has been a faithful and obedient heart. It was because of his faith, not because of his material offering, that “Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain” (Heb. 11:4). It is because God’s first desire is for a faithful and obedient heart that Samuel rebuked King Saul for not completely destroying the Amalekites and their animals and for allowing the Israelites to sacrifice some of those animals to the Lord at Gilgal. The prophet said, “Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22).
David, Saul’s successor to the throne, understood that truth. When confronted by the prophet Nathan concerning his adultery with Bathsheba, David did not offer an animal sacrifice but rather confessed, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17). David offered God his repentant heart as a living sacrifice—apart from outward, visible ceremony—and he was forgiven (2 Sam. 12:13).
A helpful illustration of the difference between a dead and a living sacrifice is the story of Abraham and Isaac. Isaac was the son of promise, the only heir through whom God’s covenant with Abraham could be fulfilled. He was miraculously conceived after Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was far past childbearing age. It could only be from Isaac that God’s chosen nation, whose citizens would be as numberless as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore (Gen. 15:5; 22:17), could descend. But when Isaac was a young man, probably in his late teens, God commanded Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen. 22:2). Without question or hesitation, Abraham immediately began to obey. After reaching Moriah and having tied Isaac to the altar, Abraham was ready to plunge the knife into his beloved son’s heart.
Had he carried out that sacrifice, Isaac would have been a dead offering, just like the sheep and rams that later would be offered on the Temple altar by the priests of Israel. Abraham would have been a living sacrifice, as it were, saying to God in effect, “I will obey you even if it means that I will live without my son, without my heir, without the hope of your covenant promise being fulfilled.” But Isaac, the son of promise, would have been a dead sacrifice.
Hebrews 11:19 makes clear that Abraham was willing to slay Isaac because he was certain that God could raise him from the dead if necessary to keep His promise. Abraham was willing to commit absolutely everything to God and to trust Him, no matter how great the demand and how devastating the sacrifice, because God would be faithful.
God did not require either father or son to carry out the intended sacrifice. Both men already had offered the real sacrifice that God wanted—their willingness to give to Him everything they held dear.
The living sacrifice we are to offer to the Lord who died for us is the willingness to surrender to Him all our hopes, plans, and everything that is precious to us, all that is humanly important to us, all that we find fulfilling. Like Paul, we should in that sense “die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31), because for us “to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). For the sake of his Lord and for the sake of those to whom he ministered, the apostle later testified, “Even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all” (Phil. 2:17).
Because Jesus Christ has already made the only dead sacrifice the New Covenant requires—the only sacrifice that has power to save men from eternal death—all that remains for worshipers today is the presentation of themselves as living sacrifices.
The story is told of a Chinese Christian who was moved with compassion when many of his countrymen were taken to work as coolies in South African mines. In order to be able to witness to his fellow Chinese, this prominent man sold himself to the mining company to work as a coolie for five years. He died there, still a slave, but not until he had won more than 200 men to Christ. He was a living sacrifice in the fullest sense.
In the mid-seventeenth century, a somewhat well-known Englishman was captured by Algerian pirates and made a slave. While a slave, he founded a church. When his brother arranged his release, he refused freedom, having vowed to remain a slave until he died in order to continue serving the church he had founded. Today a plaque in an Algerian church bears his name.
David Livingstone, the renowned and noble missionary to Africa, wrote in his journal, “People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of the great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay? Is that a sacrifice which brings its own reward of healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? …Away with such a word, such a view, and such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering or danger now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause and cause the spirit to waver and sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not talk when we remember the great sacrifice which He made who left His Father’s throne on high to give Himself for us. (Livingstone’s Private Journal: 1851-53, ed. I. Schapera [London: Chatto & Windus, 1960], pp. 108, 132)
Like Livingstone, Christians who offer a living sacrifice of themselves usually do not consider it to be a sacrifice. And it is not a sacrifice in the common sense of losing something valuable. The only things we entirely give up for God—to be removed and destroyed—are sin and sinful things, which only bring us injury and death. But when we offer God the living sacrifice of ourselves, He does not destroy what we give Him but refines it and purifies it, not only for His glory but for our present and eternal good.
Our living sacrifice also is to be holy. Hagios (holy) has the literal sense of being set apart for a special purpose. In secular and pagan Greek society the word carried no idea of moral or spiritual purity. The man-made gods were as sinful and degraded as the men who made them, and there simply was no need for a word that represented righteousness. Like the Hebrew scholars who translated the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), Christianity sanctified the term, using it to describe God, godly people, and godly things.
Under the Old Covenant, a sacrificial animal was to be without spot or blemish. That physical purity symbolized the spiritual and moral purity that God required of the offerer himself. Like that worshiper who was to come to God with “clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4), the offering of a Christian’s body not only should be a living but also a holy sacrifice.
Through Malachi, the Lord rebuked those who sacrificed animals that were blind and otherwise impaired. “When you present the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you present the lame and sick, is it not evil? Why not offer it to your governor? Would he be pleased with you? Or would he receive you kindly?” (Mal. 1:8). Those people were willing to give a second-rate offering to the Lord that they would not think of presenting as a gift or tax payment to a government official. They feared men more than God.
Although we have been counted righteous and are being made righteous because of salvation in Jesus Christ, we are not yet perfected in righteousness. It is therefore the Lord’s purpose for His church to “sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25-27). That was also Paul’s purpose for those to whom he ministered. “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy,” he told the Corinthian Christians; “for I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin” (2 Cor. 11:2).
Sadly, like those in Malachi’s day, many people today are perfectly willing to give God second best, the leftovers that mean little to them—and mean even less to Him.
Only a living and holy sacrifice, the giving of ourselves and the giving of our best, is acceptable to God. Only in that way can we give Him our spiritual service of worship.
Logikos (spiritual) is the term from which we get logic and logical. Our offerings to God are certainly to be spiritual, but that is not what Paul is speaking about at this point. Logikos also can be translated reasonable, as in the King James Version. The apostle is saying that, in light of “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God” and of His “unsearchable… judgments and unfathomable… ways”; and because “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Rom. 11:33, 36), including His immeasurable “mercies” that we already have received (12:1a), our only reasonable—and by implication, spiritual—service of worship is to present God with all that we are and all that we have.
Service of worship translates the single Greek word latreia, which refers to service of any kind, the context giving it the added meaning of worship. Like paristēmi and hagios (mentioned above), latreia was used in the Greek Old Testament to speak of worshiping God according to the prescribed Levitical ceremonies, and it became part of the priestly, sacrificial language. The priestly service was an integral part of Old Testament worship. The writer of Hebrews uses latreia to describe the “divine worship” (9:6 nasb), or “service of God” (kjv), performed by Old Testament priests.
True worship does not consist of elaborate and impressive prayers, intricate liturgy, stained-glass windows, lighted candles, flowing robes, incense, and classical sacred music. It does not require great talent, skill, or leadership ability. Many of those things can be a part of the outward forms of genuine worship, but they are acceptable to God only if the heart and mind of the worshiper is focused on Him. The only spiritual service of worship that honors and pleases God is the sincere, loving, thoughtful, and heartfelt devotion and praise of His children.
During a conference in which I was preaching on the difference between true and false believers, a man came to me with tears running down his cheeks, lamenting, “I believe I’m a sham Christian.” I replied, “Let me ask you something. What is the deepest desire of your heart? What weighs heaviest on your heart? What occupies your mind and thoughts more than anything else?” He answered, “My greatest desire is to give all I am and have to Jesus Christ.” I said, “Friend, that is not the desire of a sham Christian. That is the Spirit-prompted desire of a redeemed soul to become a living sacrifice.”
12:2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.NIV When believers offer their entire self to God, a change will happen in their relation to the world. Christians are called to a different life-style than what the world offers with its behavior and customs, which are usually selfish and often corrupting (Galatians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:14). Christians are to live as citizens of a future world. There will be pressure to conform, to continue living according to the script written by the world, but believers are forbidden to give in to that pressure.
Many Christians wisely decide that much worldly behavior is off limits for them. After all, it is not our objective to find out just how much like the world we can become yet still maintain our distinctives. But refusing to conform to this world’s values must go even deeper than the level of behavior and customs—it must be firmly planted in our minds—be transformed by the renewing of your minds.NRSV The Greek word for “transformed” (metamorphousthe) is the root for the English word metamorphosis. Believers are to experience a complete transformation from the inside out. And the change must begin in the mind, where all thoughts and actions begin. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “You were taught with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24 niv). One of the keys, then, to the Christian life is to be involved in activities that renew the mind. Renewing (anakainosei) refers to a new way of thinking, a mind desiring to be conformed to God rather than to the world. We will never be truly transformed without this renewing of our mind.
Much of the work is done by God’s Spirit in us, and the tool most frequently used is God’s Word. The Bible claims the ability to judge “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 niv). As we memorize and meditate upon God’s Word, our way of thinking changes. Our minds become first informed, and then conformed to the pattern of God, the pattern for which we were originally designed.
What causes us to conform to the world’s pattern?
- We believe that the world is more likely to allow us pleasure than God is.
- We find a certain exhilaration in rushing along with the world.
- We are afraid of what might happen if we really think about life and change.
- We are crippled by pride or a negative self-image and believe there really isn’t an alternative.
- We reject the life of service and humility necessary to conform ourselves to God’s pattern.
Conforming to the world’s pattern will involve the following ways of thinking:
- We have a right to have all our desires fulfilled (see Romans 8:5; 1 Peter 4:3-4).
- We have a right to pursue and use power (see Mark 10:42-45).
- We have a right to abuse people (see Luke 11:43, 46-52).
- We have a right to accumulate wealth for purely selfish reasons (see Matthew 16:26).
- We have a right to use personal abilities and wisdom for self-advancement rather than for serving others (see 1 Corinthians 3:19).
- We have a right to ignore or even hate God (see James 4:4).
|Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.niv When believers have had their minds transformed and are becoming more like||The main problem with a living sacrifice is that it keeps crawling off the altar.
Christ, they will want God’s will, and not their own will, for their lives. And only as they are being transformed will they be able to know, do, and enjoy what God desires for them. Knowing God’s will isn’t always easy, and even less so when it is not defined in every aspect by a set of laws and regulations. But it is possible if we willingly submit to and depend on God. Only then can we know it; only then can we begin the even more difficult task of doing it.
His good, pleasing and perfect will.NIV In the Greek text the three adjectives good, pleasing, and perfect are used as substantives (nouns). God’s will is what is good, what is pleasing (to God), and what is perfect for each believer. Believers who are being transformed, who know and do God’s will, also discover that what God plans for them is good, pleasing to God, and perfect for them.
The Mind Must Be Given to God
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, (12:2a)
The third element of our priestly self-sacrifice is that of offering Him our minds.
It is in the mind that our new nature and our old humanness are intermixed. It is in the mind that we make choices as to whether we will express our new nature in holiness or allow our fleshly humanness to act in unholiness.
Be conformed is from suschēmatizō, which refers to an outward expression that does not reflect what is within. It is used of masquerading, or putting on an act, specifically by following a prescribed pattern or scheme (schēma). It also carries the idea of being transitory, impermanent, and unstable. The negative mē (not) makes the verb prohibitive. The verb itself is passive and imperative, the passive indicating that conformation is something we allow to be done to us, the imperative indicating a command, not a suggestion.
Paul’s gentle but firm command is that we are not to allow ourselves to be conformed to this world. We are not to masquerade as a worldly person, for whatever the reason. J. B. Phillips translates this phrase as “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.” We must not pattern ourselves or allow ourselves to be patterned after the spirit of the age. We must not become victims of the world. We are to stop allowing ourselves to be fashioned after the present evil age in which we live.
New Testament scholar Kenneth Wuest paraphrased this clause: “Stop assuming an outward expression which is patterned after this world, an expression which does not come from, nor is representative of what you are in your inner being as a regenerated child of God” (Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955], 1:206-7).
World translates aiōn, which is better rendered “age,” referring to the present sinful age, the world system now dominated by Satan, “the god of this world (aiōn)” (2 Cor. 4:4). World here represents the sum of the demonic-human philosophy of life. It corresponds to the German zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) and has been well described as “that floating mass of thoughts, opinions, maxims, speculations, hopes, impulses, aims, aspirations, at any time current in the world, which it may be impossible to seize and accurately define, but which constitute a most real and effective power, being the moral, or immoral atmosphere which at every moment of our lives we inhale, again inevitably to exhale” (G. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973], pp. 217-18).
It is not uncommon for unbelievers to mask themselves as Christians. Unfortunately, it also is not uncommon for Christians to wear the world’s masks. They want to enjoy the world’s entertainment, the world’s fashions, the world’s vocabulary, the world’s music, and many of the world’s attitudes—even when those things clearly do not conform to the standards of God’s Word. That sort of living is wholly unacceptable to God.
The world is an instrument of Satan, and his ungodly influence is pandemic. This is seen in the prideful spirit of rebellion, lies, error, and in the rapid spread of false religions—especially those that promote self and come under the broad umbrella of “New Age.” “We know that we are of God,” John wrote nearly two thousand years ago, “and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). It clearly still does.
Instead, Paul goes on to say, you should rather be transformed. The Greek verb (metamorphoō) connotes change in outward appearance and is the term from which we get the English metamorphosis. Matthew used the word in describing Jesus’ transfiguration. When “He was transfigured [metamorphōtheē] before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matt. 17:2), Christ’s inner divine nature and glory were, for a brief time and to a limited degree, manifested outwardly. Our inner redeemed nature also is to be manifested outwardly, but as completely and continually as possible, in our daily living.
Like the preceding verb (be conformed), be transformed is a passive imperative. Positively, we are commanded to allow ourselves to be changed outwardly into conformity to our redeemed inner natures. “We all,” Paul assured the Corinthians believers, “with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Although we are to aspire to this outward change, it can be accomplished only by the Holy Spirit working in us, by our being “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).
The Holy Spirit achieves this transformation by the renewing of the mind, an essential and repeated New Testament theme. The outward transformation is effected by an inner change in the mind, and the Spirit’s means of transforming our minds is the Word. David testified, “Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee” (Ps. 119:11). God’s own Word is the instrument His own Holy Spirit uses to renew our minds, which, in turn, He uses to transform our living.
Paul repeatedly emphasized that truth in his letter to Colossae. As he proclaimed Christ, he was “admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28). By receiving Christ as Lord and Savior, we “have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him” (3:10). Consequently, we are to “let the word of Christ richly dwell within [us], with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (3:16).
The transformed and renewed mind is the mind saturated with and controlled by the Word of God. It is the mind that spends as little time as possible even with the necessary things of earthly living and as much time as possible with the things of God. It is the mind that is set “on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). Whether good or bad, when anything happens in our lives, our immediate, almost reflexive response should be biblical. During His incarnation, Jesus responded to Satan’s temptations by hurling Scripture back into His adversary’s face (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). Only the mind that is constantly being renewed by God’s Spirit working through God’s Word is pleasing to God. Only such a mind is able to make our lives “a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual service of worship.”
The Will Must Be Given to God
that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (12:2b)
An implied fourth element of presenting ourselves to God as a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice is that of offering Him our wills, of allowing His Spirit through His Word to conform our wills to the will of God.
The Greek construction makes that you may prove a purpose/ result phrase. That is to say, when a believer’s mind is transformed, his thinking ability, moral reasoning, and spiritual understanding are able to properly assess everything, and to accept only what conforms to the will of God. Our lives can prove what the will of God is only by doing those things that are good and acceptable and perfect to Him.
In using euarestos (acceptable), Paul again borrows from Old Testament sacrificial language to describe the kind of holy living that God approves, a “living sacrifice” that is morally and spiritually spotless and without blemish.
Perfect carries the idea of being complete, of something’s being everything it should be. Our wills should desire only what God desires and lead us to do only what He wants us to do in the way He wants us to do it—according to His will and by His power. Our imperfect wills must always be subject to His perfect will.
A transformed mind produces a transformed will, by which we become eager and able, with the Spirit’s help, to lay aside our own plans and to trustingly accept God’s, no matter what the cost. This continued yielding involves the strong desire to know God better and to comprehend and follow His purpose for our lives.
The divine transformation of our minds and wills must be constant. Because we are still continuously tempted through our remaining humanness, our minds and wills must be continuously transformed through God’s Word and by God’s Spirit.
The product of a transformed mind is a life that does the things God has declared to be righteous, fitting, and complete. That is the goal of the supreme act of spiritual worship, and sets the stage for what Paul speaks of next—the ministry of our spiritual gifts.
You give Him your mind (v. 2a). The world wants to control your mind, but God wants to transform your mind (see Eph. 4:17-24; Col. 3:1-11). This word transform is the same as transfigure in Matthew 17:2. It has come into our English language as the word “metamorphosis.” It describes a change from within. The world wants to change your mind, so it exerts pressure from without. But the Holy Spirit changes your mind by releasing power from within. If the world controls your thinking, you are a conformer; if God controls your thinking, you are a transformer.
God transforms our minds and makes us spiritually minded by using His Word. As you spend time meditating on God’s Word, memorizing it, and making it a part of your inner man, God will gradually make your mind more spiritual (see 2 Cor. 3:18).
You give Him your will (v. 2b). Your mind controls your body, and your will controls your mind. Many people think they can control their will by “willpower,” but usually they fail. (This was Paul’s experience as recorded in Rom. 7:15-21). It is only when we yield the will to God that His power can take over and give us the willpower (and the won’t power!) that we need to be victorious Christians.
We surrender our wills to God through disciplined prayer. As we spend time in prayer, we surrender our will to God and pray, with the Lord, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” We must pray about everything, and let God have His way in everything.
For many years I have tried to begin each day by surrendering my body to the Lord. Then I spend time with His Word and let Him transform my mind and prepare my thinking for that new day. Then I pray, and I yield the plans of the day to Him and let Him work as He sees best. I especially pray about those tasks that upset or worry me—and He always sees me through. To have a right relationship with God, we must start the day by yielding to Him our bodies, minds, and wills.
Relationship to Other Believers (Rom. 12:3-16)
Paul was writing to Christians who were members of local churches in Rome. He described their relationship to each other in terms of the members of a body. (He used this same picture in 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:7-16.) The basic idea is that each believer is a living part of Christ’s body, and each one has a spiritual function to perform. Each believer has a gift (or gifts) to be used for the building up of the body and the perfecting of the other members of the body. In short, we belong to each other, we minister to each other, and we need each other. What are the essentials for spiritual ministry and growth in the body of Christ?
Honest evaluation (v. 3). Each Christian must know what his spiritual gifts are and what ministry (or ministries) he is to have in the local church. It is not wrong for a Christian to recognize gifts in his own life and in the lives of others. What is wrong is the tendency to have a false evaluation of ourselves. Nothing causes more damage in a local church than a believer who overrates himself and tries to perform a ministry that he cannot do. (Sometimes the opposite is true, and people undervalue themselves. Both attitudes are wrong.)
The gifts that we have came because of God’s grace. They must be accepted and exercised by faith. We were saved “by grace, through faith” (Eph. 2:8-9), and we must live and serve “by grace through faith.” Since our gifts are from God, we cannot take the credit for them. All we can do is accept them and use them to honor His name. (See 1 Cor. 15:10 for Paul’s personal testimony about gifts.)
I once ministered with two men who had opposite attitudes toward their gifts: the one man constantly belittled bis gifts and would not use them, and the other man constantly boasted about gifts that he did not possess. Actually, both of them were guilty of pride, because both of them refused to acknowledge God’s grace and let Him have the glory. Moses made a similar mistake when God called him (Ex. 4:1-13). When the individual believers in a church know their gifts, accept them by faith, and use them for God’s glory, then God can bless in a wonderful way.
12:3 By the grace given to me I say.NRSV Paul is here speaking as an apostle (see 1:5). The authority he was about to exercise was not his own by right, but was an evidence of God’s grace. He firmly claimed to speak for another.
|Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.niv Inflated pride has no place in a believer’s life (see 3:27; 11:18, 20). This is especially significant in light of Paul’s teaching up to this point in his letter. The Jews are not better than the Gentiles; the Gentiles are not better than the Jews. Rather, all are dependent on God’s mercy for their salvation, thus there is no room for pride. Any such pride would undermine the oneness vital to the growth of the church.||Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in Practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands, and moves towards the goal of true maturity (Romans 12:2).
J. B. Phillips
Think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.NIV Each believer’s personal appraisal ought to be honest. Neither an inflated ego nor a deflated person is free to obey. God has given each believer a measure of faith with which to serve him. This expression refers to the spiritual capacity and/or power given to each person to carry out his or her function in the church. The concept of “measure” is described further in 12:6, where Paul uses the terminology “different gifts, according to the grace given us.” It is God’s discernment, not ours, that gives out the measure for service. Whatever we have in the way of natural abilities or spiritual gifts all should be used with humility for building up the body of Christ. If we are proud, we cannot exercise our faith and gifts to benefit others. And if we consider ourselves worthless, we also withhold what God intended to deliver to others through us.
|Healthy self-esteem is important because some of us think too little of ourselves; on the other hand, some of us overestimate ourselves. The key to an honest and accurate evaluation is knowing the basis of our self-worth—our identity in Christ. Apart from him, we aren’t capable of very much by eternal standards; in him, we are valuable and capable of worthy service. Evaluating ourselves by worldly standards of success and achievement can cause us to think too much about our worth in the eyes of others and thus miss our true value in God’s eyes.|
Faithful cooperation (vv. 4-8). Each believer has a different gift, and God has bestowed these gifts so the local body can grow in a balanced way. But each Christian must exercise his or her gift by faith. We may not see the result of our ministry, but the Lord sees it and He blesses. Note that “exhortation” (encouragement) is just as much a spiritual ministry as preaching or teaching. Giving and showing mercy are also important gifts. To some people, God has given the ability to rule, or to administer the various functions of the church. Whatever gift we have must be dedicated to God and used for the good of the whole church.
It is tragic when any one gift is emphasized in a local church beyond all the other gifts. “Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?” (1 Cor. 12:29-30) The answer to all these questions is no! And for a Christian to minimize the other gifts while he emphasizes his own gift is to deny the very purpose for which gifts are given: the benefit of the whole body of Christ. “Now to each man the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7, NIV).
Spiritual gifts are tools to build with, not toys to play with or weapons to fight with. In the church at Corinth, the believers were tearing down the ministry because they were abusing spiritual gifts. They were using their gifts as ends in themselves and not as a means toward the end of building up the church. They so emphasized their spiritual gifts that they lost their spiritual graces! They had the gifts of the Spirit but were lacking in the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, etc. (Gal. 5:22-23).
12:4 We have many members in one body.NKJV Replacing the national identity that had once set apart God’s people,
|Paul gives a new picture of the identity of God’s redeemed people. They are like a body. Each of us has one body, but it has many parts—eyes, ears, fingers, toes, blood vessels, muscles. And all the members do not have the same function.nkjv Not every part of our body can see; not every part hears. Instead, each part has a specific function, and they all must work together if the body is going to move and act correctly. (See also 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.)||We are called to bear that image as a Body because any one of us taken individually would present an incomplete image, one partly false and always distorted, like a single glass chip hacked from a mirror. But collectively, in all our diversity, we can come together as a community of believers to restore the image of God in the world.
12:5 In Christ we who are many form one body.NIV Just as our physical bodies are composed of many parts, so the “body of Christ” is made up of many believers who all perform different yet vital functions. And as our bodies cannot be taken apart, so each member, each believer in the body of Christ, belongs to all the others.NIV The members work together to make the body work; the body doesn’t exist to serve the members, and the body is not dependent on one or two of its members to run the show. Every person has his or her part to do. When it is not done, the body suffers.
Even a superficial grasp of this one body imagery demolishes much of the individualized religion of our day. The overemphasis given to personal opinion tends to create an all-too-fragile unity, given the real nature of those being brought together. As sinners, we are naturally divisive; so it is only through the presence and work of Christ that we can remain together. Only in Christ is there basis for unity that transcends differences. Perhaps more churches and relationships between believers would be preserved if we ended every disagreement with a genuine question, “Are we still together in Christ?”
The Ministry of Spiritual Gifts–part 1 (Romans 12:3-5)
For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (12:3-5)
After World War II, a group of German students volunteered to help rebuild an English cathedral that had been severely damaged by German bombs. As work progressed, they became concerned about a large statue of Jesus, whose arms were outstretched and beneath which was the inscription: “Come unto Me.” They had particular difficulty trying to restore the hands, which had been completely destroyed. After much discussion, they decided to let the hands remain missing and changed the inscription to: “Christ has no hands but ours.”
It is the basic truth of that phrase that Paul emphasizes in Romans 12. The work of Jesus Christ in the world is in the hands of those who belong to Him. In that sense, He has no hands but our hands, no feet but our feet. The Lord commissioned His earthly ministry to His followers, saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). His present ministers to the world in His name are those described in the previous eleven chapters of Romans, who had been freed from the bondage of sin and become children of God and bond-servants of Jesus Christ. On the human side, it is upon their faithfulness, obedience, and usefulness that the work of His kingdom now depends.
As we have seen, the first obligation of the bond-servant of Christ is the supreme worship expressed in offering himself to his Lord as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). That is God’s fundamental requirement for every believer. Only as a living sacrifice can we be what He wants us to be, do what He wants us to do, and thereby “prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). That act of spiritual worship marks the Christian’s entrance into divine usefulness. God’s order of obedience for His people has always been worship and then service.
But our present passage (Rom. 12:3-8) adds the marvelous truth that, although Christ sends forth His servants with a common commission to serve Him, He equips them for that responsibility with greatly diverse gifts. His divine plan for believers is unity in message and commitment but diversity in service. The primary purpose of these verses is to make clear that, although we must enter the place of usefulness for Christ with the same total self-sacrifice, we are equipped to fulfill that usefulness in uniquely distinct ways.
The purpose of offering ourselves to God as living sacrifices is not mystical or monastic but eminently practical. Devotion to the Lord and active, faithful ministry for Him are inseparable. We cannot be truly sacrificed to Him and be inactive in His work. And, on the other hand, we cannot be truly successful in His work without being genuinely devoted to Him. Service to God brings honor to Him and blessing for us only when it is the outflow of our worship in offering ourselves as living sacrifices. Such commitment naturally and inevitably produces effective ministry. There is no godly commitment without God-blessed ministry, and no God-blessed ministry without godly commitment.
This passage utterly destroys the notion that a Christian can be committed to Christ but be inactive in His service, that he can love the Lord but not obey the Lord, that he can be surrendered to the Lord but not minister for the Lord. True worship cannot be divorced from service.
Unfortunately, the church has always had members who piously claim closeness and devotion to the Lord but whose lives exhibit no service for Him. It also has always had those who are busily active in the work of the church but who exhibit little personal depth of devotion to the Lord of the church. Both are a shame to the Lord and are a hindrance to His work, because they thwart the spiritual maturity of the saved and the evangelism of the lost.
I received a letter from a man who expressed concern about what is surely a common problem. He wrote, “Please meet with me and pray with me. I’ve driven my wife away because I taught her by example how to be a Sunday saint and to live any way you want during the week. I’ve lived outwardly as a Christian and been active in the church, but the rest of the time I’ve lived a lie. When our relationship started to fall apart, I tried to get us into Bible reading and prayer, but she thought that was just another one of my facades and wanted nothing of it.” Such situations are a familiar feature in the church today.
It is true, of course, that God can work even through unfaithful and disobedient believers. He may use the preaching and witness of a hypocrite to bring sinners to Himself. But in such cases it is the truth of the message that He blesses, not the hypocritical effort of the one who gives it. Hypocrites, although they cannot limit the power of the truth which transcends duplicity, accrue no blessing from God for what He may do through them, because their true motive is to serve their own ends and glory, not His. If we perform on the outside but are not devoted on the inside, our service is limited and our reward is forfeited. More importantly, the name of God is not honored and His work is limited and made less effective with a dirty vessel than with a clean one (cf. 2 Tim. 2:20-22).
But the unity of believers is not limited to their common commitment. Although our gifts are diverse, our obligation to use them in the Lord’s service is not. The person with one seemingly insignificant gift is as much obligated to use that gift faithfully and fully as the one who has several prominent and seemingly more important gifts. Just as no believer is exempt from being a living sacrifice, no believer is exempt from using his divine giftedness, whatever it is. In this chapter Paul makes clear that he is admonishing “every man” (v. 3), that is, every believer. He also makes clear that, although we do not have the “same function” (v. 4) and although our gifts “differ according to the grace given to us” (v. 6a), we all have a function in Christ’s church and we all have gifts from His Holy Spirit and the obligation to “exercise them” (v. 6b) in His behalf and in His power.
Total surrender to the Lord is also foundational to Christian service in another way. Without genuine, selfless commitment to Him, we not only will lose the desire and forfeit the power needed to serve Him effectively but also will never experience what God has intended for us to do when our gifts and calling are used to the fullest. God does not give His children gifts without letting them know what those gifts are. Therefore, if we are not sure of our gifts from God, it is most likely because we are not close to God. We come to know our gifts more fully as, through worship in spiritual truth, we come to know Him more fully. When our lives are on the altar of sacrifice, we will have no problem discovering or using our spiritual gifts. They cannot be recognized except as we use them. When a believer walks in holy obedience to the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit and serving God, it will become apparent to him and to others what his gift is and how it blesses the body of Christ.
It is estimated that even the brightest people use only about eleven percent of their brain capacity—leaving nearly ninety percent unused. A similar ratio probably applies to most Christians’ use of their spiritual gifts. When a believer has trouble understanding how the gifts mentioned in Romans 12:6-8 apply to him personally, it is not because he cannot figure out what his gift is but because he has not come to terms with the dedication and requirements of the preceding five verses. And, on the other hand, when a believer is used powerfully in the Lord’s work, it is not because he has perfectly understood and analyzed his gift, but rather because his life is “a living and holy sacrifice,” which is “acceptable to God” as a “spiritual service of worship” (v. 1), and God’s Spirit is moving through him in serving power.
The noble American preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards was so fearful that his personal mannerisms and inflections might interfere with the power of God’s Word, that he not only read his sermons but often delivered them almost mechanically. Yet the Holy Spirit strongly used those messages, and listeners were sometimes so convicted of sin that they screamed for God’s mercy and tightly gripped their pews for fear of falling immediately into hell. God was able to use him in such ways because he lived up to the following resolutions (abbreviated) that he made early in his ministry:
Resolved, to live with all my might while I do live.
Resolved, never to lose one moment of time,
to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.
Resolved, never to do anything which I should despise or think meanly of in another.
Resolved, never to do anything out of revenge.
Resolved, never to do anything which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.
(See Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography [Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987], p. 43)
The following beautiful prayer, used at the end of the communion services in the Church of England, accurately reflects the total dedication of which Paul speaks in Romans 12. It reads, “And here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable holy and living sacrifice unto Thee.”
Our absolute usefulness to the Lord depends on the three things Paul mentions in our present text: proper attitude (v. 3), proper relationship (vv. 4-5), and proper service (vv. 6-8).
The Proper Attitude: True Humility
For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. (12:3)
For indicates a transition from what the apostle has just commanded, tying spiritual service to spiritual dedication, the bridge between them being spiritual attitude.
The Christian’s proper attitude is humility, not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think. Lack of that foundational virtue causes many believers to stumble. No matter how well grounded we may be in God’s Word, how theologically sound we may be, or how vigorously we may seek to serve Him, our gifts will not operate so that our lives can be spiritually productive until self is set aside. From self-denial in the spiritual worship of God flows self-surrender to the will of God, and from self-surrender flows selfless service in the work of God. No believer is exempt from this call to humility, because Paul is speaking to every man among you—a universal command to all who are Christ’s.
The basis of everything worthwhile that a Christian has and does, from salvation to service, is the grace given to him by God. Just as we are saved only by God’s grace, so we can serve Him only by that same grace. But the specific divine grace of which Paul speaks here is that from which he was ordained as God’s apostle and authorized to reveal God’s Word (Rom. 1:1-5; cf. 15:15; 1 Cor. 3:10; Gal. 2:9).
Yet in this passage on humility, it is not surprising that Paul appeals only indirectly to his apostolic rank, calling attention rather to the divine authority from which his own authority was derived. He is humble even in relationship to his own apostleship, which was conferred on him solely on the basis of God’s grace, and on no merit or worth of his own. “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me,” he informed Timothy, “because He considered me faithful, putting me into service; even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. And yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:12-14, emphasis added). As an apostle of Jesus Christ, he calls for humility—the most basic Christian virtue, and the one that opens the door to love, power, and unity.
To emphasize the necessity of meekness, Paul uses a form of phroneō (to think) four times in verse 3. A Christian is not to overestimate himself, to think more highly (huperphroneō) of himself than he ought to think, but is to think of himself as he really is. He is not to overvalue his abilities, his gifts, or his worth but make an accurate estimate of himself. “For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing,” Paul elsewhere cautions, “he deceives himself” (Gal. 6:3). And an honest estimate will be very low (cf. 1 Tim. 1:12-16).
Referring to self-examination and judgment of other Christians, Paul told the Corinthian church, “Now these things brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:6-7; cf. vv. 1-5). Peter admonished all elders in the church, young and old, to “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5).
To have sound judgment translates a compound (sōphroneō) of that verb and has the basic meaning of “to think with a sound mind, to think soberly” (as the kjv). To think of ourselves with sound judgment leads us to recognize that, in ourselves, we are nothing at all, but that, in Christ, we can be used to the glory of God through the gift of the Spirit bestowed on us. We must realize that from ourselves, from our fleshly humanness, nothing eternal can be produced, but that in the power of the Spirit we can be used to build the kingdom and honor the King.
People do not suffer from low self-esteem. Rather, they are proud. That is the essential attitude of human nature. Selfish pride dominates the flesh. To be useful to our Lord, we must honestly recognize our limits as fallen men and women as well as our abilities as new creations in Christ, keeping both in proper perspective.
Such humility, which is essential for all spiritual matters, is not easily found or maintained. In New Testament times, some churches were characterized by members who desired to have the more showy and spectacular gifts, the church at Corinth being the chief offender. Paul therefore warns them rather to “earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way,” the way of humble love (1 Cor. 12:31; cf. 13:1-13). With a clearly-implied rebuke, the apostle John identifies a self-seeking believer by name, a man named Diotrephes, “who loves to be first” (3 John 9). Sadly, the church is still well-saturated with members who proudly seek personal preeminence and thereby forfeit the power of humility.
Modern society looks down on true humility. It is instead characterized by brash, and even exalted, self-centeredness, ego building, pampering the body, and striving to fulfill every personal lust and ambition, with little regard for who may be harmed. It is small wonder that depression and emotional chaos are so prevalent. In his book Psychological Seduction, the Failure of Modern Psychology, professor William K. Kilpatrick writes, “Extreme forms of mental illness are always extreme cases of self-absorption… The distinctive quality, the thing that literally sets paranoid people apart is hyper-self-consciousness. And the thing they prize most about themselves is autonomy. Their constant fear is that someone else is interfering with their will or trying to direct their lives” ([Nashville: Nelson, 1983], p. 67).
Long before the advent of modern psychology, theologians confronted the devastating effects of self-love. In the early days of the church, Augustine wrote in his classic work The City of God, “Two cities have been formed by two loves; the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God, the heavenly by the love of God even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord” (Civitas Dei, XIV, 28. Cited by John Warwick Montgomery, The Shape of the Past [Minneapolis: Bethany, 1975], p. 46).
John Calvin observed, “For so blindly do we all rush in the direction of self-love that everyone thinks he has a good reason for exalting himself and despising all others in comparison… There is no other remedy than to pluck up by the roots those most noxious pests, self-love and love of victory… This the doctrine of Scripture does. For it teaches us to remember that the endowments which God has bestowed upon us are not our own, but His free gifts, and that those who plume themselves upon them betray their ingratitude. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, 2 vols. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966], 2:10)
Addressing the problem in a positive way, the writer of Hebrews admonishes, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).
Although they are not mentioned in the text, proud attitudes toward spiritual gifts can be placed into five categories. Several already have been mentioned. The first wrong attitude is that of using a prominent gift—or any other gift, for that matter—boastfully. As Paul admonished the Corinthian believers, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you'” (1 Cor. 12:21), which is what a Christian does by implication whenever he boasts of his own gifts and accomplishments.
A second wrong attitude is that of depreciating ourselves and our gifts in false humility (see 1 Cor. 12:11-12, 19). Such an attitude is a poorly disguised effort to get praise. At the other end, when a person is clearly gifted above most Christians, it is tempting to feign humility when genuinely praised, thereby belittling what God has given to and is doing through him or her. All spiritual gifts are necessary and perfectly designed by God for His glorious purpose.
A third wrong attitude about spiritual gifts is that of claiming gifts, especially the more impressive ones, which we do not possess. Doing that not only is dishonest but denigrates God’s wisdom and sovereignty in belittling by implication the gift or gifts that we do have from Him. “All are not apostles, are they?” Paul asks rhetorically. “All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?” (1 Cor. 12:29-30). If God has not chosen to give us any of the more notable gifts, we should neither feign nor covet them.
A fourth wrong attitude is that of failing to use an inconspicuous gift out of jealousy, resentment, or shame. To purposely disregard and neglect a spiritual gift is to disdain God’s sovereign grace. “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body” (1 Cor. 12:15-16). God has a plan for each of His children, and every plan is good, perfect, and appropriate.
A fifth wrong attitude is failing to use one’s gifts at all, for whatever reason—whether out of neglect, bitterness, jealousy, shame, or simply indifference. Every spiritual gift of God is to be used to its fullest, because every gift is divinely ordained and meant to be divinely empowered and employed. Certainly Paul is concerned with this issue when, in verses 6-8, he urges that all gifts be used.
The humility that God requires and honors does not overestimate or underestimate His gifts but estimates them rightly and uses them rightly. Every Christian can attest, “God has gifted me. He has gifted me graciously and lovingly and will give me everything I need to use my gifts effectively to His glory. I thank Him and bless His name.”
There also are certain right attitudes toward our spiritual gifts. First, we must correctly recognize them and acknowledge that the Lord Himself provides exactly what He wants for us and everything we need to serve Him according to His will, just as [He] has allotted to each a measure of faith. In this context, a measure of faith seems to refer to the correct measure of the spiritual gift and its operating features that God sovereignly bestows on every believer. Every believer receives the exact gift and resources best suited to fulfill his role in the body of Christ.
A fictitious article published some years ago in the Springfield, Oregon, public school newsletter illustrates this principle very well.
Once upon a time, the animals decided they should do something meaningful to meet the problems of the new world. So they organized a school.
They adopted an activity curriculum of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.
The duck was excellent in swimming; in fact, better than his instructor. But he made only passing grades in flying, and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to drop swimming and stay after school to practice running. This caused his web feet to be badly worn, so that he [became] only average in swimming. But average was quite acceptable, so nobody worried about that—except the duck.
The rabbit started at the top of his class in running, but developed a nervous twitch in his leg muscles because of so much make-up work in swimming.
The squirrel was excellent in climbing, but he encountered constant frustration in flying class because his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of from the treetop down. He developed “charley horses” from overexertion, and so only got a C in climbing and a D in running.
The eagle was a problem child and was severely disciplined for being a non-conformist. In climbing classes he beat all the others to the top of the tree, but insisted on using his own way to get there…
The point of the story is obvious. Like the animals, every person has his own special but limited set of capabilities. Trying to operate outside those capabilities produces frustration, discouragement, guilt feelings, mediocrity, and ultimate defeat. We fulfill our calling when we function according to God’s sovereign design for us.
Paul is not here referring to saving faith, which believers already have exercised. He is speaking of faithful stewardship, the kind and quantity of faith required to exercise our own particular gift. It is the faith through which the Lord uses His measured gift in us to the fullest. It encompasses all the sensitivity, capacity, and understanding we need to rightly and fully use our uniquely-bestowed gift. Our heavenly Father does not burden us with gifts for which He does not provide every spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional resource we need to successfully exercise them.
Because every believer is perfectly gifted, no gift that God has not given should be sought and no gift He has given should be neglected or denigrated. “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” Paul explains in his first letter to Corinth, and “one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills” (1 Cor. 12:7, 11).
Following are nine guidelines that can be helpful in fulfilling the purpose of our spiritual gifts. We should present ourselves as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1); recognize that all believers, including ourselves, are gifted (v. 3); pray for wisdom; seek for nothing (Acts 8:18, 24); examine our heart’s desire (1 Tim. 3:1); seek confirmation; look for the blessing of God; wholeheartedly serve Him; and cultivate the gift as it becomes obvious.
Even when all that is done, it still may be impossible to fully analyze and specifically identify our spiritual gift. It is often not possible to distinguish between God-given natural talent, God-given spiritual abilities, and Holy Spirit power. When a Christian’s life is a living sacrifice to God and he is walking in the Spirit of God, he has no reason to make precise distinctions, because everything he is and has is committed to the Lord. Oversimplifying and overdefining spiritual gifts can cause great confusion, frustration, discouragement, and limitation of their usefulness. Focusing too much on the gifts themselves can hinder their faithful use in the Lord’s service.
The New Testament does not promise that our gift will come neatly packaged and labeled. Nor does it precisely identify the specific gift of any New Testament believer, including the apostles. Believers in the early church were never classified by gifts. On the contrary, the New Testament makes clear that God endows His children with many combinations and degrees of giftedness. He mixes these gifts much as an artist mixes colors on his palette to create the exact shade he desires for a particular part of the painting.
Peter said, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it…” (1 Pet. 4:10a). He used the definite article (the), indicating a single gift for every believer. But clearly that single gift will be unique in the life of each believer, because it is a combination of the manifold and multicolored categories of speaking and serving giftedness (vv. 10b-11) from which the Spirit colors the believer, and which are then blended with the uniqueness of the mind, the training, the experience, and the effort of the individual—the result being that every Christian is like a snowflake, with no other having the same pattern.
The thrust of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, the two central passages on spiritual gifts, is not on a believer’s precisely identifying his gifts but on his faithfully using them. It is also significant that each of these passages mentions gifts that the other does not. This leads us to believe that the categories are basic colors, as it were, from which the Lord mixes the unique hue of each of His children.
All of this must produce humility, because our spiritual usefulness is a purely sovereign work of God, none of which can be attributed to man. Our spiritual usefulness is in spite of and in contrast to our unworthiness and uselessness in the flesh, in which nothing dwells that is good or is capable of glorifying God.
The Proper Relationship: Unity in Diversity
For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (12:4-5)
In verse 1 Paul urges his fellow believers to present their physical bodies as “a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Now he uses the figure of the body to represent the church, the Body of Christ, of which every believer is a member. He focuses on its unity in diversity—one body (mentioned in both verses) representing its unity, and many members that do not have the same function, representing the diversity. Just as it is in nature, unified diversity in the church is a mark of God’s sovereign and marvelous handiwork.
A football team may have forty to fifty men on the roster. If all of them decided to be the quarterback, the team would have no unity and no effectiveness. True unity arises when each team member is willing to play the specific position assigned to him.
Paul now focuses specifically on the diverse uniqueness and importance of each member to the body’s proper performance. He points out the obvious truth that, although we have many members in one body, nevertheless all the members do not have the same function.
Function translates praxis, which has the basic meaning of a doing of something, that is, a deed. It later came to connote something that was ordinarily done or practiced, a normal function.
Spiritual gifts do not always correspond to what we commonly refer to as church offices—such as apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor-teacher, or deacon—as the King James rendering suggests (“all members have not the same office,” emphasis added). Most church members do not have a specific office or title. But every believer, from the youngest to the oldest and from the newest to the most mature, has a Spirit-given ability to minister to the body of Christ through some spiritual gift. It is the use of the gift that is his God-ordained function in the kingdom.
In the spiritual organism that is Christ’s church, every constituent part—whether obvious and important, such as the arm, or hidden and unnoticed, such as the small blood vessels and glands—is critical to its proper functioning as a whole. So we, who are many, Paul explains, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. It is diversity working in unity and in harmony that enables Christ’s Body to be and to do what He directs it to be and to do.
Because it is so normal and dependable, the great wonder of the proper operation of our bodies is seldom appreciated or even noticed. We have but to think, and our hands, feet, or eyes immediately do what we want them to do. Because we have trained them to respond in certain ways, they do many things almost automatically. Our most critical bodily functions—such as our hearts’ beating and our lungs’ breathing—require no thought at all. They simply do their jobs, performing their divinely-designed functions minute after minute, day after day, year after year. The interrelationship of the parts of our bodies is so unbelievably intricate that medical science continually discovers new functions and relationships. It is often only when our bodies cease to function properly that we appreciate how marvelously God has designed them.
In his book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, the internationally renowned surgeon Dr. Paul Brand writes of the amazing diversity and interrelationship of the parts of the human body. Speaking of the body’s cells, he says:
I am first struck by their variety. Chemically my cells are almost alike, but visually and functionally they are as different as the animals in a zoo. Red blood cells, discs resembling Lifesaver candies, voyage through my blood loaded with oxygen to feed the other cells. Muscle cells, which absorb so much of that nourishment, are sleek and supple, full of coiled energy. Cartilage cells with shiny black nuclei look like bunches of black-eyed peas glued tightly together for strength. Fat cells seem lazy and leaden, like bulging white plastic garbage bags jammed together.
Bone cells live in rigid structures that exude strength. Cut in cross section, bones resemble tree rings, overlapping strength with strength, offering impliability and sturdiness. In contrast, skin cells form undulating patterns of softness and texture that rise and dip, giving shape and beauty to our bodies. They curve and jut at unpredictable angles so that every person’s fingerprint—not to mention his or her face—is unique.
The aristocrats of the cellular world are the sex cells and nerve cells. A woman’s contribution, the egg, is one of the largest cells in the human body, its ovoid shape just visible to the unaided eye. It seems fitting that all the other cells in the body should derive from this elegant and primordial structure. In great contrast to the egg’s quiet repose, the male’s tiny sperm cells are furiously flagellating tadpoles with distended heads and skinny tails. They scramble for position as if competitively aware that only one of billions will gain the honor of fertilization.
The king of cells, the one I have devoted much of my life to studying, is the nerve cell. It has an aura of wisdom and complexity about it. Spider-like, it branches out and unites the body with a computer network of dazzling sophistication. Its axons, “wires” carrying distant messages to and from the human brain, can reach a yard in length.
I never tire of viewing these varied specimens or thumbing through books which render cells. Individually they seem puny and oddly designed, but I know these invisible parts cooperate to lavish me with the phenomenon of life…
My body employs a bewildering zoo of cells, none of which individually resembles the larger body. Just so, Christ’s Body comprises an unlikely assortment of humans. Unlikely is precisely the right word, for we are decidedly unlike one another and the One we follow. From whose design come these comical human shapes which so faintly reflect the ideals of the Body as a whole?
The Body of Christ, like our own bodies, is composed of individual, unlike cells that are knit together to form one Body. He is the whole thing, and the joy of the Body increases as individual cells realize they can be diverse without becoming isolated outposts.
Dr. Brand also describes the unity of the seemingly endless diversity of the cells.
What moves cells to work together? What ushers in the higher specialized functions of movement, sight, and consciousness through the coordination of a hundred trillion cells?
The secret to membership lies locked away inside each cell nucleus, chemically coiled in a strand of DNA. Once the egg and sperm share their inheritance, the DNA chemical ladder splits down the center of every gene much as the teeth of a zipper pull apart. DNA reforms itself each time the cell divides: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 cells, each with the identical DNA. Along the way cells specialize, but each carries the entire instruction book of one hundred thousand genes. DNA is estimated to contain instructions that, if written out, would fill a thousand six-hundred-page books. A nerve cell may operate according to instructions from volume four and a kidney cell from volume twenty-five, but both carry the whole compendium. It provides each cell’s sealed credential of membership in the body. Every cell possesses a genetic code so complete that the entire body could be reassembled from information in any one of the body’s cells…
Just as the complete identity code of my body inheres in each individual cell, so also the reality of God permeates every cell in [Christ’s] Body, linking us members with a true, organic bond. I sense that bond when I meet strangers in India or Africa or California who share my loyalty to the Head; instantly we become brothers and sisters, fellow cells in Christ’s Body. I share the ecstasy of community in a universal Body that includes every man and woman in whom God resides. (Taken from Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancy. Copyright © 1980 by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancy. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House)
There are also rebellious cells, as it were, in the Body of Christ. Some are benign, in the sense that they do not destroy the church. They simply gorge themselves on blessings and benefits at the expense of the rest of the body. They become fatter and fatter, always taking in, seldom giving out. The focus of their whole existence is self-service. Their creed is: “I will get all I can from God and all I can from the church.” In their unfaithfulness to the Lord and to His people, they sap the church of its vitality and can so weaken it that it becomes emaciated and cannot function normally.
The church also has “cells” that are mutinous to the point of destruction. Through outright heresy and flagrant immorality, these malignant members openly attack the rest of the body, eating away at its very life.
As believers, we are all interrelated in a spiritual unity. Christ has designed us to work uniquely but harmoniously as His Body on earth—to be His own hands, His own feet, His own voice. We share a common life, a common ministry, a common power, and, above all, a common Head. We are endowed in countless different combinations of the specific gifts mentioned here and elsewhere in the New Testament. But it is our Lord’s design and desire that our diversity in spiritual gifts be manifested in unity of spiritual service.
12:6 Different gifts.NIV We must be humble and recognize our partner ship in the body of Christ. Only then can our gifts be used effectively, and only then can we appreciate others’ gifts. God gives us gifts so we can build up his church. To use them effectively, we must:
- realize that all gifts and abilities come from God
- understand that not everyone has the same gifts nor all the gifts
- know who we are and what we do best dedicate our gifts to God’s service and not to our personal success
- be willing to utilize our gifts wholeheartedly, not holding back anything from God’s service.
According to the grace given to us.NRSV God’s gifts differ in nature, power, and effectiveness according to his wisdom and graciousness, not according to our faith. The “measure of faith” (12:3) or the “proportion” of faith means that God will give the spiritual power necessary and appropriate to carry out each responsibility. We cannot, by our own
|effort or willpower, drum up more faith and thus be more effective teachers or servants. These are God’s gifts to his church, and he gives faith and power as he wills. Our role is to be faithful and to seek ways to serve others with what Christ has given us.||It is only rarely that prophecy in the New Testament has to do with foretelling the future; it usually has to do with foretelling the word of God.
Prophesying . . . in proportion to his faith.NIV The gifts Paul mentions in this list fall into two categories: speaking and serving. Gifts are given that God’s grace may be expressed. Words speak to our hearts and minds of God’s grace; acts of service show that grace in action. This list is not exhaustive; there are many gifts, most of them hidden from the public, those “behind the scenes” words and actions that serve and magnify God.
Prophesying, according to the New Testament, is not always predicting the future. Often it means effectively communicating God’s messages (1 Corinthians 14:1-3). Another translation of in proportion to his faith would be “in agreement to the faith”; in other words, the message communicated must be true to the tenets of the Christian faith. The way that Paul refers to each of these gifts focuses on their importance in use. These gifts are not for having, but for using. In other words, God’s gifts fulfill their value as they are utilized for the benefit of others. Discovery of God’s gifts to us ought to be followed by putting them to work.
12:7-8 Serving . . . serve. If a person has the gift of serving, then he or she should use it where and when it is needed, and use it to its best and fullest capacity. The same goes for the other gifts that Paul mentions: teaching . . . encouraging . . . contributing to the needs of others . . . leadership . . . [and] showing mercy.NIV Whatever gift a believer has, he or she should faithfully use it in gratitude to God. By focusing on the application of the gifts, Paul is removing the tendency toward unhealthy self-congratulation in the discovery of gifts. If we are busy using our gifts, we will be less taken up with concerns over status and power. Genuine service controls pride.
When studying this list of gifts, one might imagine the characteristics of the people who would have them. Prophets are often bold and articulate. Servers (those in ministry) are faithful and loyal. Teachers are clear thinkers. Encouragers know how to motivate others. Givers are generous and trusting. Leaders are good organizers and managers. Those who show mercy are caring people who are happy to give their time to others.
This list of gifts is representative, not exhaustive. It would be difficult for one person to embody all these gifts. An assertive prophet usually would not make a good counselor, and a generous giver might fail as a leader. When people identify their own gifts and their unique combination of gifts (this list is far from complete), they should then discover how they can use their gifts to build up Christ’s body, the church. At the same time, they should realize that one or two gifts can’t do all the work of the church. Believers should be thankful for each other, thankful that others have gifts that are completely different. In the church, believers’ strengths and weaknesses can balance each other. Some people’s abilities compensate for other people’s deficiencies. Together all believers can build Christ’s church. But all these gifts will be worthless if they are used begrudgingly out of duty, or if they are exercised without love (see also 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Believers will respond differently in the same circumstances. Recognizing what our initial response might be will help us identify the general nature of our gifts. For example, imagine that a destitute family attends your worship service next Sunday. How will different believers respond? The responses that are most similar to what you would do will give you clues to your gifts.
|The prophets will ask the congregation . . .||“What went wrong here that needs to be corrected? What caused this family to experience these problems?”|
|The servers will ask the person . . .||“Are there others we need to help?”|
|The teachers will ask the person . . .||“What can we do for you?”|
|The encouragers will say to the person . . .||“How can we help you avoid this situation in the future? What skills, wisdom, and spiritual insights will give you better direction?”|
|The givers will ask the person . . .||“You must be feeling bad. Please know that we will care for you any way we can. Before you know it, you will be helping someone else.”|
|The leaders will ask the church . . .||“How much will you need to meet your needs? How can we respond to this need in the most effective manner?”|
|The merciful . . .||will probably not ask any questions, but welcome the person with smiles, hugs, warm acceptance, and understanding.|
The Ministry of Spiritual Gifts–part 2 (Romans 12:6-8)
The Proper Service: Exercising Our Gifts
And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. (12:6-8)
No gift or ability, spiritual or otherwise, is of value if it is not used. I read the account of a retired farmer in a small prairie town in Saskatchewan, Canada, who owns a large collection of rare and valuable violins. It is highly unlikely that anyone will play those marvelous instruments as long as they are simply stored, protected, and admired. But in the hands of accomplished musicians, those violins could be making beautiful music to inspire and bless countless thousands of hearers.
It is infinitely more tragic that many Christians keep their spiritual gifts stored, rather than using them to serve the Lord who gave them the gifts.
It has been remarked that American mothers often preserve their children’s first shoes in bronze, perhaps to represent freedom and independence, whereas many Japanese mothers preserve a small part of the child’s umbilical cord, to represent dependence and loyalty. Dependence and loyalty beautifully describe the interrelationship the Lord desires for the members of His Body, the church.
The spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament, primarily in Romans 12 and in 1 Corinthians 12, fall into three categories: sign, speaking, and serving. Before the New Testament was written, men had no standard for judging the truthfulness of someone who preached, taught, or witnessed in the name of Christ. The sign gifts authenticated the teaching of the apostles—which was the measure of all other teaching—and therefore ceased after the apostles died, probably even earlier. “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance,” Paul explained to the Corinthian church, “by signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Cor. 12:12). The writer of Hebrews gives further revelation about the purpose of these special gifts: “After [the gospel] was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Heb. 2:3-4). Even during Jesus’ earthly ministry, the apostles “went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed” (Mark 16:20).
First Corinthians was written about a.d. 54 and Romans some four years later. It is important to note that none of the sign gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:9-10—namely, the gifts of healing, miracles, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues—is found in Romans 12. The other two New Testament passages that mention spiritual gifts (Eph. 4:7, 11; 1 Pet. 4:10-11) were written several years after Romans and, like that epistle, make no mention of sign gifts. Peter specifically mentions the categories of speaking and serving gifts (“whoever speaks” and “whoever serves,” v. 11) but neither the category nor an example of the sign gifts.
It seems evident, therefore, that Paul did not mention the sign gifts in Romans because their place in the church was already coming to an end. They belonged to a unique era in the church’s life and would have no permanent place in its ongoing ministry. It is significant, therefore, that the seven gifts mentioned in Romans 12:6-8 are all within the categories of speaking and serving.
It is also important to note that in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses the term pneumatikos (v. 1, lit., “spirituals”) to describe the specific divinely-bestowed gifts mentioned in verses 8-10. He explains that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (v. 4), and that “the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills” (v. 11).
But in Romans 12, the apostle uses the term charisma (gifts), which is from charis (grace). In First Corinthians, Paul emphasizes the nature and authority of the gifts—spiritual endowments empowered by the Holy Spirit. In Romans he simply emphasizes their source—the grace of God.
Paul introduces this list of gifts by referring back to the unity in diversity he has just pointed out in verses 4-5. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly. Differ relates to the diversity, and grace to the unity. Under God’s sovereign grace, which all believers share, we have gifts that differ according to the specific ways in which He individually endows us. Just as verse 3 does not refer to saving faith, verse 6 does not refer to saving grace. Paul is speaking to those who already have trusted in Christ and become children of God. To His children, the apostle explains, “God has allotted to each a measure of faith” (v. 3) and has bestowed on them gifts that differ according to the grace given to each one. Grace is God’s favor, unmerited kindness on His part, which is the only source of all spiritual enablements. They are not earned or deserved, or they would not be by grace. And the grace is sovereign, in that God alone makes the choice as to what gift each of His children receives. Each believer, therefore, is to exercise his gifts accordingly.
Paul next lists some categories of giftedness as examples.
if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; (12:6b)
The first spiritual gift in this list is prophecy. Some interpreters believe this was a special revelatory gift that belonged only to the apostles, and, like the sign gifts, ceased after those men died. While it certainly had a revelatory aspect during Old Testament and apostolic times, it was not limited to revelation. It was exercised when there was public proclamation of divine truth, old or new. In 1 Corinthians 12:10 it is linked with sign gifts, supernatural and revelatory. Here it is linked with speaking and serving gifts, leading to the conclusion that it had both revelatory and non-revelatory aspects. The Old Testament or New Testament prophet (or apostle) might speak direct revelation, but could and did also declare what had been revealed previously. The gift of prophecy does not pertain to the content but rather to the means of proclamation. In our day, it is active enablement to proclaim God’s Word already written in Scripture. Paul gives no distinction to this gift among the other six, which are clearly ongoing gifts in the church, thus not limiting it to revelation.
Prophēteia (prophecy) has the literal meaning of speaking forth, with no connotation of prediction or other supernatural or mystical significance. The gift of prophecy is simply the gift of preaching, of proclaiming the Word of God. God used many Old and New Testament prophets to foretell future events, but that was never an indispensable part of prophetic ministry. Paul gives perhaps the best definition of the prophetic gift in 1 Corinthians: “One who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:3). Peter’s admonition also applies to that gift: “Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God;… so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever” (1 Pet. 4:11).
When God called Moses to deliver Israel out of Egypt, Moses gave the excuse, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since Thou hast spoken to Thy servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex. 4:10). Although angered at Moses’ lack of trust, God said, “Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he speaks fluently… You are to speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I, even I, will be with your mouth and his mouth, and I will teach you what you are to do” (vv. 14-15).
The gift of prophecy is the gift of being God’s public spokesman, primarily to God’s own people—to instruct, admonish, warn, rebuke, correct, challenge, comfort, and encourage. God also uses His prophets to reach unbelievers. “If all prophesy,” Paul explained to the Corinthians, “and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you” (1 Cor. 14:24-25).
God used certain prophets at certain times to give new revelation and to predict future events, but He has used and continues to use all of His prophets to speak His truth in His behalf. They are God’s instruments for proclaiming and making relevant His Word to His world. John Calvin said that, by prophesying, he understood not the gift of foretelling the future but of interpreting Scripture, so that a prophet is an interpreter of God’s will.
In his commentary on this text, Calvin wrote: “I prefer to follow those who extend this word wider, even to the peculiar gift of revelation, by which any one skillfully and wisely performed the office of an interpreter in explaining the will of God. Hence prophecy at this day in the Christian Church is hardly anything else than the right understanding of the Scripture, and the peculiar faculty of explaining it, inasmuch as all the ancient prophecies and the oracles of God have been completed in Christ and in his gospel. For in this sense it is taken by Paul when he says, “I wish that you spoke in tongues, but rather that ye prophecy,” (1 Cor. xiv. 5:) “In part we know and in part we prophecy,” (1 Cor. xiii. 9). And it does not appear that Paul intended here to mention those miraculous graces by which Christ at first rendered illustrious his gospel; but, on the contrary, we find he refers only to ordinary gifts, such as were to continue perpetually in the Church. (Calvin’s Commentaries, v.xix, “Romans” [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991], p. 460)
In sixteenth-century Switzerland, pastors in Zurich came together every week for what they called “prophesying.” They shared exegetical, expositional, and practical insights they had gleaned from Scripture that helped them more effectively minister to their people in that day.
The book of Acts speaks of many prophets besides the apostles. Agabus, part of a group of prophets (the others are unnamed) from Jerusalem, predicted a famine that would plague Judea during the reign of Emperor Claudius (Acts 11:27-28) and later foretold Paul’s arrest and imprisonment (21:10-11). “Judas and Silas,” on the other hand, “also being prophets themselves,” gave no predictions or new revelation but simply “encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message” after Paul and Barnabas had delivered the letter from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:32; cf. vv. 22-31). (For a fuller discussion of prophecy, see the relevant section on 12:10 in the author’s commentary on 1 Corinthians in this series [Chicago: Moody Press, 1984].)
Whatever the form his message may take, the prophet is to minister it according to the proportion of his faith. Because the Greek includes the definite article, faith may here refer to the faith, that is, the full gospel message. In that case, according to the proportion of his faith would relate objectively to the prophet’s being careful to preach in accordance with the gospel revealed through the apostles—”the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). It could also relate subjectively to the believer’s personal understanding and insight concerning the gospel—to his speaking according to the individual proportion of… faith that God has sovereignly assigned to him for the operation of his gift.
Whether it relates to revelation, prediction, declaration, instruction, encouragement, or anything else, all prophecy was always to proclaim the Word of God and exalt the Son of God, because “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). Paul’s specific charge to Timothy applies to all proclaimers of God’s Word, including prophets: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).
if service, in his serving; (12:7a)
The second spiritual gift is that of service, a general term for ministry. Service translates diakonia, from which we also get deacon and deaconess—those who serve. The first deacons in the early church were “men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” who were placed in charge of providing food for the widows in order to free the apostles to devote themselves “to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3-4).
Service is a simple, straightforward gift that is broad in its application. It seems to carry a meaning similar to that of the gift of helps mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:28, although a different Greek term (antilēpsis) is used there. This gift certainly applies beyond the offices of deacon and deaconess and is the idea in Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders to “help the weak” (Acts 20:35). The gift of service is manifested in every sort of practical help that Christians can give one another in Jesus’ name.
or he who teaches, in his teaching; (12:7b)
The third spiritual gift is that of teaching. Again, the meaning is simple and straightforward. Didaskōn (teaches) refers to the act of teaching, and didaskalia (teaching) can refer to what is taught as well as to the act of teaching it. Both of those meanings are appropriate to this gift.
The Christian who teaches is divinely gifted with special ability to interpret and present God’s truth understandably. The primary difference between teaching and prophesying is not in content but in the distinction between the ability to proclaim and the ability to give systematic and regular instruction in God’s Word. The gift of teaching could apply to a teacher in seminary, Christian college, Sunday school, or any other place, elementary or advanced, where God’s truth is taught. The earliest church was characterized by regular teaching (Acts 2:42). The Great Commission includes the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,… teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Paul’s spiritual gift included features of both preaching and teaching (2 Tim. 1:11).
Later in the epistle just cited, Paul charged Timothy: “And the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Barnabas had that gift and ministered it in Antioch beside Paul, where they were “teaching and preaching, with many others also, the word of the Lord” (Acts 15:35). Likewise “a certain Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man,… had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:24-25).
Jesus, of course, was both the supreme Preacher and supreme Teacher. Even after His resurrection, He continued to teach. When He joined the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures… And they said to one another, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?'” (Luke 24:27, 32). Both diermēneuō (“explained,” v. 27) and dianoigō (“explaining,” lit. “opening up,” v. 32) are synonyms of didaskōn (teaches) and didaskalia (teaching) in Romans 12:7.
Regular, systematic teaching of the Word of God is the primary function of the pastor-teacher. As an elder, he is required “to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and to hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). Above all, Paul entreated Timothy, “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). Pastors are not the only ones the Lord calls and empowers to teach. But if a pastor’s ministry is to be judged, among other things, on the soundness of his teaching—as the passages just cited indicate—then it seems reasonable to assume that, in some measure, he should have the gift of teaching.
or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; (12:8a)
As with the previous three gifts, the connotation of exhortation is broad. Both the verb parakaleō (exhorts) and the noun paraklēsis (exhortation) are compounds of the same two Greek words (para and kaleō) and have the literal meaning of calling someone to one’s side. They are closely related to paraklētos (advocate, comforter, helper), a title Jesus used both of Himself (“Helper,” John 14:16) and of the Holy Spirit (“another Helper”; John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). In 1 John 2:1, this word is translated “Advocate,” referring to Jesus Christ.
The gift of exhortation, therefore, encompasses the ideas of advising, pleading, encouraging, warning, strengthening, and comforting. At one time the gift may be used to persuade a believer to turn from a sin or bad habit and at a later time to encourage that same person to maintain his corrected behavior. The gift may be used to admonish the church as a whole to obedience to the Word. Like the gift of showing mercy (see below), exhortation may be exercised in comforting a brother or sister in the Lord who is facing trouble or is suffering physically or emotionally. One who exhorts may also be used of God to encourage and undergird a weak believer who is facing a difficult trial or persistent temptation. Sometimes he may use his gift simply to walk beside a friend who is grieving, discouraged, frustrated, or depressed, to give help in whatever way is needed. This gift may be exercised in helping someone carry a burden that is too heavy to bear alone.
Paul and Barnabas were exercising the ministry of exhortation when “they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God'” (Acts 14:21-22). This ministry is reflected in Paul’s charge to Timothy to “reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).
It is the ministry of exhortation of which the writer of Hebrews speaks as he admonishes believers to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25). The sentiment that motivates this gift is also exhibited in the beautiful benediction with which that epistle closes: “Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (13:20-21).
In summary, it might be said that, just as prophecy proclaims the truth and teaching systematizes and explains the truth, exhortation calls believers to obey and follow the truth, to live as Christians are supposed to live—consistent with God’s revealed will. In many servants of Christ, all of these abilities are uniquely and beautifully blended.
he who gives, with liberality; (12:8b)
The fifth category of giftedness is that of giving. The usual Greek verb for giving is didōmi, but the word here is the intensified metadidōmi, which carries the additional meanings of sharing and imparting that which is one’s own. The one who exercises this gift gives sacrificially of himself.
When asked by the multitudes what they should do to “bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance,” John the Baptist replied, “Let the man who has two tunics share [metadidōi] with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise (Luke 3:8, 11).
In the opening of his letter to Rome, Paul expressed his desire to “impart [metadidōi] some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established” (Rom. 1:11). And in his letter to Ephesus he makes clear that, whether or not a believer has the gift of giving, he is to have the spirit of generosity that characterizes this gift. Every Christian should “labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share [metadidōi] with him who has need” (Eph. 4:28). It seems certain that Paul had elements of such generosity in his gift. And nowhere is it reflected more than in his service to the saints at Thessalonica. After having ministered to them for a relatively short time, he could say with perfect humility and sincerity that the gospel that he, Sylvanus, and Timothy brought them “did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake” (1 Thess. 1:5; cf. 1:1). “Having thus a fond affection for you,” he continued a few verses later, “we were well-pleased to impart [metadidōi] to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (2:8).
Liberality translates haplotēs, which has the root meaning of singleness and came to connote simplicity (as in the kjv), singlemindedness, openheartedness, and then generosity. It carries the idea of sincere, heartfelt giving that is untainted by affectation or ulterior motive. The Christian who gives with liberality gives of himself, not for himself. He does not give for thanks or recognition, but for the sake of the one who receives his help and for the glory of the Lord.
Those who give with liberality are the opposite of those who “sound a trumpet before [themselves], as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men” (Matt. 6:2). Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead by God for lying to the Holy Spirit, and behind their lie was the selfish desire to hold back for themselves some of the proceeds from the sale of their property (Acts 5:1-10). In that tragic instance, failing to give with liberality cost the lives of the givers.
Ananias and Sapphira were exceptions in the early church, which was characterized by those who voluntarily possessed “all things in common; and [who] began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need” (Acts 2:44-45). Because the inns could not begin to house all the Jews who came to Jerusalem at the feast of Pentecost, most of them stayed in homes of fellow Jews. But those who trusted in Christ immediately became unwelcome. Many wanted to stay within the community of believers in Jerusalem but had no place to stay. Some had difficulty buying food to eat. In that crisis, Christians who had the means spontaneously shared their homes, their food, and their money with fellow believers in need.
Many years later, the churches of Macedonia had an abundance of believers who exercised the gift of giving to its fullest. “In a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality,” Paul said. “For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability they gave of their own accord, begging us with much entreaty for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God” (2 Cor. 8:2-5). They gave with great liberality, believing that sowing bountifully meant reaping bountifully (2 Cor. 9:6).
he who leads, with diligence; (12:8c)
Leads is from proistēmi, which has the basic meaning of “standing before” others and, hence, the idea of leadership. In the New Testament it is never used of governmental rulers but of headship in the family (1 Tim. 3:4, 5, 12) and in the church (1 Tim. 5:17). In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul refers to the same gift by a different name, “administrations” (kubernēsis), which means “to guide.” In Acts 27:11 and Revelation 18:17, it is used of a pilot or helmsman, the person who steers, or leads, a ship.
Although it is not limited to those offices, the gift of church leadership clearly belongs to elders, deacons, and deaconesses. It is significant that Paul makes no mention of leaders in his first letter to Corinth. Lack of a functioning leadership would help explain its serious moral and spiritual problems, which certainly would have been exacerbated by that deficiency. “Free-for-all” democracy amounts to anarchy and is disastrous in any society, including the church. The absence of leaders results in everyone doing what is “right in his own eyes,” as the Israelites did under the judges (Judg. 17:6; 21:25; cf. Deut. 12:8).
Effective leadership must be done with diligence, with earnestness and zeal. Spoudē (diligence) can also carry the idea of haste (see Mark 6:25; Luke 1:39). Proper leadership therefore precludes procrastination and idleness. Whether it is possessed by church officers or by members who direct such things as Sunday school, the youth group, the nursery, or a building program, the gift of leadership is to be exercised with carefulness, constancy, and consistency.
he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. (12:8d)
The seventh and last spiritual category mentioned here is that of showing mercy. Eleeō (shows mercy) carries the joint idea of actively demonstrating sympathy for someone else and of having the necessary resources to successfully comfort and strengthen that person.
The gifted Christian who shows mercy is divinely endowed with special sensitivity to suffering and sorrow, with the ability to notice misery and distress that may go unnoticed by others, and with the desire and means to help alleviate such afflictions. This gift involves much more than sympathetic feeling. It is feeling put into action. The Christian with this gift always finds a way to express his feelings of concern in practical help. He shows his mercy by what he says to and what he does for the one in need.
The believer who shows mercy may exercise his gift in hospital visitation, jail ministry, or in service to the homeless, the poor, the handicapped, the suffering, and the sorrowing. This gift is closely related to that of exhortation, and it is not uncommon for believers to have a measure of both.
This enablement is not to be ministered grudgingly or merely out of a sense of duty, but with cheerfulness. As everyone knows who has had a time of suffering or special need, the attitude of a fellow believer can make the difference between his being a help or a hindrance. The counsel of Job’s friends only drove him into deeper despair.
“He who despises his neighbor sins,” the writer of Proverbs tells us, “but happy is he who is gracious to the poor” (Prov. 14:21); and “He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him” (Prov. 14:31). The key word in those verses is gracious. The genuine helper always serves with gracious cheerfulness, and is never condescending or patronizing.
Reading from the book of Isaiah, Jesus testified of Himself that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). The very Son of God in His incarnation showed great mercy with gracious cheerfulness.
Would that all Christians with this gift not only would minister it cheerfully but also regularly and consistently. There would be far fewer needy who have to depend on a godless, impersonal government or social agency. And if Christ’s people patterned their lives after His gracious example, far more people would hear and respond to the saving gospel that meets their deepest need.
In regard to that gift and every other, believers should “kindle afresh the gift of God which is in [them]” (2 Tim. 1:6).
The prolific Puritan John Owen wrote that spiritual gifts are that without which the church cannot subsist in the world, nor can believers be useful to one another and the rest of mankind to the glory of Christ as they ought to be. They are the powers of the world to come, those effectual operations of the power of Christ whereby His kingdom was erected and is preserved (see The Holy Spirit [Grand Rapids: Kregel, n.d.]).
Although we obviously must pay attention to our gift, we can never faithfully exercise it by focusing on the gift itself. They can be used fully of the Lord only as “with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). We can serve Christ only as we become like Christ, and we can exercise the Spirit’s gifts only as we present ourselves as living sacrifices and submit to His continuing transformation and sanctification of our lives.
B. Simpson’s beautiful hymn expresses what the true attitude about our spiritual gifts and all the rest of our lives should be:
Once it was the blessing, Now it is the Lord. Once it was the feeling, Now it is His Word.
Once His gifts I wanted, Now the Giver alone. Once I sought healing, Now Himself alone.
Loving participation (vv. 9-16). As it has done elsewhere (1 Corinthians 12-13), Paul’s thinking progresses from the use of gifts to the motivation behind those gifts—love, Whereas the previous section pointed to individual contributions that each believer can make to the body, this section includes practical commands that require application by all believers. These commands cover two distinct concerns: among believers, there must be evidence that love is being practiced and that evil is being defeated. In verse 9, Paul presents the theme of this section, in verses 10-13 he applies it to the relationship among the believers, and in verses 14-21 he applies it to the relationship believers have with unbelievers.
Here the emphasis is on the attitudes of those who exercise the spiritual gifts. It is possible to use a spiritual gift in an unspiritual way. Paul makes this same point in 1 Corinthians 13, the great “love chapter” of the New Testament. Love is the circulatory system of the spiritual body, which enables all lie members to function in a healthy, harmonious way. This must, be an honest love, not a hypocritical love (Rom. 11:9); and it must be humble, not proud (Rom. 11:10). “Preferring one another” means treating others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:1-4).
Serving Christ usually means Satanic opposition and days of discouragement. Paul admonished his readers to maintain their spiritual zeal because they were serving the Lord and not men. When life becomes difficult, the Christian cannot permit his zeal to grow cold. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rom. 12:12, NIV).
Finally, Paul reminded them that they must enter into the feelings of others. Christian fellowship is much more than a pat on the back and a handshake. It means sharing the burdens and the blessings of others so that we all grow together and glorify the Lord. If Christians cannot get along with one another, how can they ever face their enemies? A humble attitude and a willingness to share are the marks of a Christian who truly ministers to the body. Our Lord ministered to the common people, and they heard Him gladly (Mark 12:37). When a local church decides it wants only a certain “high class” of people, it departs from the Christian ideal for ministry.
12:9 Let love be genuine.NRSV The key ingredient in interpersonal relationships is love—God’s love (agape). This kind of love is a self-sacrificial love, a love that cares for the well-being of others. All the gifts that are exercised in the body should be expressed in this love. This love is the most accurate indicator of spiritual health in the body of Christ. To the Ephesians Paul wrote, “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:15-16 niv). Believers have God’s love within because “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (5:5). For our love to be different from most of what is called “love” in the world, it must be genuine—without hypocrisy, deceit, falseness. Sincere love is genuine love. Jesus was referring to this kind of love when he said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35 niv).
|Most people know how to pretend to love others—how to speak kindly, avoid hurting their feelings, and appear to take an interest in them. We may even be skilled in pretending to feel moved with compassion when we hear of others’ needs, or to become indignant when we learn of injustice. But God calls us to real and sincere love that goes far beyond politeness. Sincere love requires concentration and effort. It means helping others become better people. It demands our time, money, and personal involvement. No individual has the capacity to express love to a whole community, but the body of Christ in your town does. Look for people who need your love, and look for ways you and your fellow believers can show your Christian love to others.|
Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.NIV The words here are clear and forceful, and they continue the thought of the first phrase. The whole might be translated, “Your love must be genuine, hating what is evil, clinging to what is good.” Genuine love is not blind, but able to recognize evil and good. To hate and cling call for emotional involvement and energetic action. Believers are to hate evil (see Psalm 97:10; Proverbs 8:13). Turning from evil means turning toward what is good and clinging to it. This principle is practiced when we are able to detest an evil act while practicing compassion toward the one who has done it. This principle is also important regarding the exercise of spiritual gifts. Believers must always be careful that the use of their gifts does not lead them to unloving or evil motives, attitudes, or actions.
12:10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.NIV Paul’s charge goes against the value of rugged individualism—the attitude of “doing it all by myself.” Believers are to show brotherly love to fellow believers, and respect all the gifted people in the church, not just those whose gifts are visible. That’s the only way that the body of Christ can function effectively and make a positive impact on the unbelieving world. The Greek word for “be devoted” (philostorgoi) means the type of loyalty and affection that family members have for one another. This kind of love allows for weaknesses and imperfections, communicates, deals with problems, affirms others, and has a strong commitment and loyalty to others. Such a bond will hold any church together no matter what problems come from without or within.
Honor one another above yourselves. God’s command for us to honor others also involves love. To honor means to give a person high value and respect. As Christians, we honor people because they have been created in God’s image, because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and because they have a unique contribution to make to Christ’s church (see also Ephesians 5:21; Philippians 2:3).
12:11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor.NIV These two phrases are opposites. As believers are serving the Lord,NIV they should never become lazy or lose their diligence. Instead, their service should be enthusiastic. Paul is not advocating activity for activity’s sake. Rather, we should consistently use our spiritual gifts to serve the body. We have been called (1:6-7), challenged (12:1-2), and equipped (12:4-6) for serving the Lord. Fatigue may be part of the cycle of service, but apathy (lack of zeal) should not be part of a believer’s life. Christians must fight against discouragement, depression, and negativeness; they must do their utmost to keep their spiritual temperature high.
12:12 Rejoicing in hope.NKJV This means that we should look forward with happy anticipation to all that God has in store for us. We don’t have to fear our future when it is in God’s hands. Christ is the reason that we can be joyful.
Patient in suffering.NRSV When believers face trials or persecution, they are to endure patiently, for they know God is in control (see also 5:2-5).
Faithful in prayer.NIV A trademark of believers is prayer, for it is their lifeline to God. They must be persistent in praying, both individually and corporately.
The only way we can be patient in affliction is by faithful prayer and joyful hope. When afflictions come our way, the only joy may be our hope for the future unveiling of God’s plan (8:18-27).
12:13 Share with God’s people who are in need.NIV For believers, the challenges of the Christian life are constantly shifting between what we experience personally and what we experience because we are part of the body of Christ. Gifts, love, hope, patience, and prayer are valuable, but they do not take precedence over other believers’ needs. Because we are members of Christ’s body, we must take care of one another in every way. When some are in need, others who have the means should share what they have in order to meet that need (whether financial or daily necessities). This was another trademark of believers, and it was often what drew nonbelievers to Christianity (see Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-37; 11:27-30).
Practice hospitality.NIV Hospitality means being friendly to strangers, not just having friends over. Christian hospitality differs from social entertaining. Entertaining focuses on the host—the home must be spotless; the food must be well prepared and abundant; the host must appear relaxed and good-natured. Hospitality, in contrast, focuses on the guests. Their needs—whether for a place to stay, nourishing food, a listening ear, or acceptance—are the primary concern. Hospitality can happen in a messy home. It can happen around a dinner table where the main dish is canned soup. It can even happen while the host and the guest are doing chores together. Believers should not hesitate to offer hospitality just because they are too tired, too busy, or not wealthy enough to entertain. The word practice is instructive, for it reminds us that hospitality improves with practice.
Both of Paul’s commands are generally unheeded today. We would do well to return to biblical Christianity by taking inventory of what we can do without. Do we have clothes to spare? Can we give away a used car rather than sell it to buy a new one? Do we have toys or other possessions that others need more than we do? Can we help with ready cash or gifts of food’? Above all, can we help without expecting to be thanked or rewarded ourselves?
Supernatural Living–part 1 (Romans 12:9-13)
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. (12:9-13)
Our society is obsessed with sports, recreation, entertainment, and emotional gratification, and it is paying the consequences of that unbalanced preoccupation. When such pursuits exceed their reasonable roles, they become conspicuous marks of the shallow, superficial, and often decadent society that cultivates them. “Bodily discipline is only of little profit,” Paul cautions, “but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
Teddy Roosevelt once commented, “The things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price, peace at any price, safety first instead of duty first, the love of soft living and the get-rich theory of life.” That observation is still valid.
The only productive life, as well as the only truly satisfying life, is the self-disciplined life. That is certainly true of the Christian life. Although our spiritual guidance and power come from the Lord, He can only work effectively through lives that are subjected to Him. “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things,” Paul reminded the church at Corinth. “They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:25-27).
Only the disciplined mind can think clearly and be used of the Lord to properly understand and present His truth to the world. Only the disciplined mind can effectively evaluate and challenge the world’s ideals and standards in the light of that truth. By the same token, only the disciplined Christian life can be a persuasive and effective example, both within the church and before the world.
In his book The Disciplined Life, Richard Shelley Taylor writes,
Disciplined character belongs to the person who achieves balance by bringing all his faculties and powers under control… He resolutely faces his duty. He is governed by a sense of responsibility. He has inward resources and personal reserves which are the wonder of weaker souls. He brings adversity under tribute, and compels it to serve him. When adversity becomes too overwhelming and blows fall which he cannot parry, be bows to them, but is not broken by them. His spirit still soars. The strong character of Madam Guyon [the early eighteenth-century French evangelical] enabled her, though imprisoned, to rise in spirit and sing:
My cage confines me round; Abroad I cannot fly.
But though my wing is closely bound, My heart’s at liberty.
My prison walls cannot control The flight, the freedom of the soul. (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 1962, p. 22)
Simply put, self-discipline is the willingness to subordinate personal desires and objectives to those that are selfless and divine, to subordinate that which is attractive and easy to that which is right and necessary. For the Christian, self-discipline is obedience to the Word of God, the willingness to subordinate everything in our lives—physical, emotional, social, intellectual, moral, and spiritual—to God’s will and control, and for God’s glory.
It is as absurd as it is unbiblical to believe that anyone can live a faithful, fruitful Christian life on mere good intentions and warm feelings for the Lord and His work. The Christian life is an accountable life, and, by definition, accountability is based on specific principles and standards. For the Christian, they are the divinely-revealed principles and standards to which God holds each of His children. It is because we are accountable that the Lord disciplines us when we disobey His Word and ignore His will.
“You have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons,” the writer of Hebrews reminds us: “‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.’ It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?… All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:5-7, 11; cf. Prov. 3:11-12).
The nineteenth-century Englishman Robert C. Chapman wrote, “Seeing that so many preach Christ and so few live Christ, I will aim to live Him.” His good friend J. N. Darby said of him, “He lives what I teach.”
It was said of the popular nineteenth-century English author William Arnot, “His preaching is good. His writing is better. His living is best of all.” Would that it could be said of all Christians that their living is best of all.
A young man once asked me, “How can you know if you are truly a Christian? How can you know if your decision for Christ wasn’t just an emotional experience?” I replied, “The only way to know if we have experienced justification, been made right with Him and been brought into His family, is by looking at our heart and our lives. If Christ is our Savior and Lord, the deepest desire of our hearts will be to serve and to please Him, and that desire will be expressed in a longing for holiness and a pattern of righteous living.” It is not that our lives will have become perfect or that we will never waver in our commitment and obedience, but that the direction of our lives will be godward, that our supreme desire will be to become more and more like Christ.
Although he rejected both the Bible and God, Julian Huxley correctly noted that “it doesn’t take much of a man to be a Christian, it just takes all of him.” Henry Drummond, a close friend of D. L. Moody, said, “The entrance fee to God’s kingdom is nothing, but the annual dues are everything.”
A person who has been justified by God’s grace, who has presented his body as “a living and holy sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1), and who is exercising the spiritual gifts the Lord has given him (vv. 3-8), will experience an outflowing of sanctified, spiritual living. In other words, a person who is truly saved will evidence his salvation by the way he lives. And because the obedient, disciplined, and productive Christian life is directed and empowered by God’s own Spirit, Christian living is supernatural living. In that sense, it is abnormal, unnatural living—living that is not natural to and cannot be attained by the unregenerate man.
Supernatural living is conducted “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). Supernatural living is “to have this attitude in [ourselves] which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5) and humbly to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12). But the working out of our salvation is no more accomplished in our own power than the new birth was accomplished in our own power. “It is God who is at work in [us], both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (2:13).
In short, supernatural living is conforming our outer lives to our inner lives, living out the redeemed, purified, and holy nature we have in Jesus Christ, becoming in practice what we are in position and new creation.
But supernatural living is not a mystical, undefined life based on elusive good impulses and sincere intentions. It is practical living that results from conscious obedience to God’s standards of righteousness, a life lived within divinely-ordained parameters. It is thinking, speaking, and acting in daily conformity with God’s Word and will.
Supernatural living is free in that it is no longer under the bondage of sin. But it also is enslaved, in that it is unalterably bound to the righteous will of God. “Thanks be to God,” Paul has declared earlier in this letter, “that though [we] were slaves of sin, [we] became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which [we] were committed, and having been freed from sin, [we] became slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:17-18). With Martin Luther, every Christian should be able to say, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
Through Romans 12:8, Paul has laid the doctrinal foundation of the justified, sanctified, and dedicated Christian life. In the rest of the epistle, he focuses on specific ways in which believers must live their lives in obedience to God’s Word and to the glory of His name. The call to practical, holy living is the climax of this rich epistle.
In 12:9-21, Paul gives a comprehensive, but not exhaustive, list of the basic characteristics of the supernatural Christian life. In essence, he is giving the same admonition he had given to Corinthian believers a year or so earlier: “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). It is because of all that God has done for us and all that He has equipped us with that we are to respond by faithful, obedient, Spirit-empowered living. We are God’s “workmanship,” Paul explained to the church at Ephesus, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Salvation is designed to produce in us an unmistakable pattern of godly, righteous living. We will bear some fruit, but the Lord wants us to bear much fruit to his glory (John 15:8). All of these characteristics will be the desires of the inner new creation, and Paul urges believers to submit the flesh to these inner holy longings and to manifest these virtues as a regular pattern of life. These qualities are not foreign to our nature but to what we desire, so that, as our will submits to the Word and Spirit, the qualities become reality.
In the present text (12:9-21), Paul gives some twenty-five distinct but closely related exhortations. Any believer who honestly appraises his life by these standards cannot help being convicted of falling far short of the perfection the inner person desires. On the other hand, however, the believer who is walking in the Spirit will see the Spirit working out these precepts in his life to a greater and greater extent. An honest look at our lives in light of these precepts will bring conviction about our failure to keep some of them and confidence about our success in keeping others. Where we fall short, we should ask the Lord’s help. Where we have been faithful, we should give Him thanks and praise.
The specific exhortations fall under four general categories or phases, which form an ever-increasing circle, as it were, that expands from personal attitudes to the widest social applications. They are: personal duties (v. 9); family duties (vv. 10-13); duty to other people in general (vv. 14-16); and duty to those who are avowed personal enemies (vv. 17-21).
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. (12:9)
In one of several triplets (see also vv. 11, 12, 16), Paul mentions three personal duties of supernatural living.
Love Without Hypocrisy (12:9a)
The first duty is, Let love be without hypocrisy. The greatest virtue of the Christian life is love. The use of agapē (love) was rare in pagan Greek literature, doubtless because the concept it represented—unselfish, self-giving, willful devotion—was so uncommon in that culture it was even ridiculed and despised as a sign of weakness. But in the New Testament it is proclaimed as the supreme virtue, the virtue under which all others are subsumed. Agapē love centers on the needs and welfare of the one loved and will pay whatever personal price is necessary to meet those needs and foster that welfare.
God Himself “is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16). Jesus made unequivocally clear that in both the Old and New Testaments the two greatest commandments are: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39). In fact, He went on to say, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (v. 40). Echoing that same truth, Paul later admonishes in his letter to Rome, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (13:8; cf. v. 10).
Love is more important to a Christian than any spiritual gift he may have. “But now abide faith, hope, love, these three,” Paul explained to the Corinthian believers, “but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13; cf. 12:31). It is therefore not surprising that the first “fruit of the Spirit is love” (Gal. 5:22) and that it is by our love for our fellow believers that “all men will know that [we are Jesus’] disciples” (John 13:35). In behalf of the Thessalonian believers, Paul prayed, “May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another” (1 Thess. 3:12; cf. 1 John 3:18). Suffering “much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger,” Paul himself served the Lord’s people “in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love” (2 Cor. 6:4-6).
It is that same unfeigned love of one another that Peter admonishes all believers to exhibit: “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart” (1 Pet. 1:22). Later in the same letter, the apostle repeats the command: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).
Genuine love is so integral to supernatural living that John declares, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). In other words, a person who shows no evidence of agapē love has no claim on Christ or on eternal life.
A Jewish woman who lived near our church was refused marriage counseling by her synagogue because she had not paid her dues. She was upset and determined to go to the nearest religious institution to get help. As she walked past our church one Sunday morning, she soon found herself inside. As she explained later, she was drawn to her Messiah and Savior that day because she could sense the great love manifested by our members for each other.
The love of which Paul, Peter, and John speak is genuine love, the sincere and fervent love that is completely without hypocrisy and untainted by self-centeredness. Christian love is pure, guileless, and unaffected.
Hypocrisy is the antithesis of and completely incompatible with agapē love. The two cannot coexist. Hypocrisy is exceeded in evil only by unbelief. The consummate hypocrite in Scripture, Judas, was also the consummate egoist. He feigned devotion to Jesus to achieve his own selfish purposes. His hypocrisy was unmasked and his self-centeredness was made evident when he betrayed Jesus for the thirty pieces of silver. Commenting on this verse in Romans, the theologian John Murray writes, “If love is the sum of virtue and hypocrisy is the epitome of vice, what a contradiction to bring the two together.”
Hate Evil (12:9b)
The second longing of the new nature and personal duty of supernatural living is to abhor what is evil. Hatred of evil is the other side of love, which, by its very nature, cannot approve of or “rejoice in unrighteousness” (1 Cor. 13:6). Evil is the antithesis of holiness and therefore the antithesis of godliness. Just as “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), “Fear of the Lord [also] is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13). The child of God abhors evil because God abhors evil.
Evil is the enemy of God and the enemy of love, and it is to be as fervently abhorred as love is to be fervently coveted. It is for that reason the psalmist commands, “Hate evil, you who love the Lord” (Ps. 97:10). The Christian who genuinely loves will genuinely abhor what is evil. Because of his great love for God, David determined, “A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will know no evil” (Ps. 101:4). The faithful believer can strike no settlement with evil, every form and degree of which will be avoided.
Even the great apostle struggled against sin. Earlier in this letter to Rome, Paul confessed, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate… For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good” (Rom. 7:14-15, 19-21). In other words, when believers fall back into sin, their inner, godly self will resolutely disapprove.
Jude admonishes, “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. And have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 20-21, 23). In other words, when we witness to the unsaved, we must be careful that in our zeal to win them we do not allow ourselves to be drawn into sins from which they need deliverance. Doctors and nurses are dedicated to helping those who are ill, even from the deadliest diseases, but they take every precaution to protect themselves from those diseases, lest they, too, become infected.
“Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me,” Paul sadly reported to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:10). Demas’s love of sin was greater than his love for the Lord, the Lord’s people, and the Lord’s work.
Someone has said that the only security against sin is to be shocked by it. The constant bombardment of our senses through TV, newspapers, magazines, movies, and books with the immoralities, violence, and perversions of modern society makes it difficult to be shocked by anything. Tragically, many Christians regularly entertain themselves with sheer ungodliness, perhaps rationalizing that, simply by being a Christian, they are somehow immune from sinful infection.
Genuine hatred of evil engenders avoidance of evil. In his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope wisely observed that,
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face, We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
That stanza reflects the progression found in the first Psalm: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers!” (1:1). We cannot flirt with sin and escape falling into it. Refusing to be enticed even by the first, seemingly harmless attractions of sin, the righteous man delights “in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (v. 2).
Even among pagans, Corinth was known as “sin city,” and many believers in the church there had great difficulty giving up the ways of their old life. Paul warned that their only safe response to the allures of sexual immorality and idolatry was to “flee” from them (1 Cor. 6:18; 10:14). He warned Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang” (1 Tim. 6:10). Again his advice was simple and direct: “Flee from these things, you man of God; and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness” (v. 11). Paul repeated that counsel to Timothy in the second letter: “Flee from youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22). It is impossible to pursue righteousness while we tolerate evil.
“There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him,” the writer of Proverbs tells us. They are: “Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers” (Prov. 6:16-19). Obviously, that is not an exhaustive list, but a representative sampling of the countless sins that man has devised to disobey the Lord and reject His ways.
Greater exposure to evil should invoke greater resistance to it, no matter how often or how intensely we are confronted by it. We must “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good [and] abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22). Because “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), we must, like Him, love righteousness and hate sin (Heb. 1:9). We are to love what He loves and hate what He hates.
Hold on to the Good (12:9c)
The third personal duty of supernatural living is to cling to what is good. The verb kollaō (to cling) is from kolla (glue) and came to be used of any bond—physical, emotional, or spiritual. As servants of Jesus Christ, we are to bind ourselves to what is good (agathos), that which is inherently right and worthy.
The good is “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute.” And “if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise,” Paul continues, “let your mind dwell on [or cling to] these things” (Phil. 4:8).
In 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, the apostle gives similar instruction: “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” That is clearly a call to discernment, the thoughtful, careful evaluation of everything, so we can decide, judged against God’s Word, what to reject and what to cling to.
As Paul has already explained, the key to finding and following what is good is in not being “conformed to this world, but [being] transformed by the renewing of [our] mind, that [we] may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). As we separate ourselves from the things of the world and saturate ourselves with the Word of God, the things that are good will more and more replace the things that are evil.
Duty to the Family of God
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. (12:10-13)
The second phase of supernatural living concerns a wider dimension—largely pertaining to the believer’s duty to fellow members in the family of God.
Be Devoted in Brotherly Love (12:10a)
Paul’s list of ten “family” obligations begins with the command: Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.
Be devoted to and brotherly love carry synonymous ideas. Devoted translates philostorgos, a compound of philos (friend, friendly; friendship love) and storgē (natural family love, which is not based on personal attraction or desirability). Brotherly love translates philadelphia, another compound—phileō (to have tender affection) and adelphos (brother). We are to have a loving filial affection for one another in the family of God.
Devoted… brotherly love is one of the marks by which the world will know that we belong to Christ. “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). This love is not optional for believers. It not only is required but is inescapable, because “whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him” (1 John 5:1). In fact, as John has just declared, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (4:20).
Brotherly love reflects the nature of Christians. That is why Paul could say, “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another” (1 Thess. 4:9). Being “taught by God,” the true child of God knows intuitively that he is to love his spiritual brothers and sisters. For the very reason that God is our common heavenly Father, love for each other should be as natural and normal as family members’ affectionate love for each other.
The apostle John forcefully affirms that truth. “The one who says he is in the light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:9-2:11). In the next chapter the apostle uses even stronger words: “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother… But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before Him” (1 John 3:10, 17-19).
Prefer One Another in Honor (12:10b)
If we are truly “devoted to one another in brotherly love,” it almost goes without saying that we will give preference to one another in honor. The virtue here is humility, not thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (Rom. 12:3). It is doing “nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind,” regarding “one another as more important than” oneself (Phil. 2:3).
Proēgeomai (give preference) has the basic meaning of going before, or leading. But the idea here is not that of putting ourselves before others in regard to importance or worth but the very opposite idea of giving honor to fellow believers by putting them first.
To honor is not to flatter, to give hypocritical praise in hope of having the compliment returned or of gaining favor with the one honored. Again, the very opposite is in mind. To honor is to show genuine appreciation and admiration for one another in the family of God. We are to be quick to show respect, quick to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, quick to demonstrate genuine love by not being jealous or envious, which have no part in love, whether agapē or philadelphia.
Do Not Lag in Diligence (12:11a)
Not lagging behind in diligence could be rendered, “not lazy in zeal and intensity.” A few verses earlier, Paul declares that the Christian who has the gift of ruling, or leading, should exercise it with diligence (v. 8).
In the context of Romans 12, diligence refers to whatever believers do in their supernatural living. Whatever is worth doing in the Lord’s service is worth doing with enthusiasm and care. Jesus told His disciples that He “must work the works of Him who sent Me, as long as it is day; night is coming, when no man can work” (John 9:4). The Lord knew His time of ministry was limited and that every moment in His Father’s service on earth should count for the most possible. Paul admonished believers in the Galatian churches: “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10; cf. 2 Thess. 3:13).
There is no room for sloth and indolence in the Lord’s work. “Whatever your hand finds to do,” Solomon counseled, “verily, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol [the grave]” (Eccles. 9:10). Whatever we do for the Lord must be done in this present life.
Slothfulness in Christian living not only prevents good from being done but allows evil to prosper. “Therefore be careful how you walk,” Paul charged the Ephesians, “not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). “He also who is slack in his work is brother to him who destroys” (Prov. 18:9). For weeds to prosper, the gardener need only leave the garden alone.
The Lord rewards those who serve Him with diligence. “God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:10-12).
Be Fervent in Spirit (12:11b)
Whereas diligence pertains mainly to action, being fervent in spirit pertains to attitude. Literally, zeō means to boil and metaphorically to be fervent. The idea here is not of being overheated to the point of boiling over and out of control but, like a steam engine, of having sufficient heat to produce the energy necessary to get the work done. That principle is reflected in the life of Henry Martyn, the tireless missionary to India, whose heart’s desire was to “burn out for God.”
One of the oldest blights on earth is lack of enthusiasm. Most people could make a sizable list of their failures that were simply casualties to indifference and lack of commitment. Fervency requires resolve and persistence, not mere good intention. “Let us not lose heart in doing good,” Paul admonishes, “for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary” (Gal. 6:9).
Even before he had a full understanding of the gospel, Apollos was “fervent in spirit,… speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:25). But no believer in the early church was more fervent in spirit, more indefatigable in the work of the Lord than Paul himself. “Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim,” he said; “I box in such a way, as not beating the air” (1 Cor. 9:26); “And for this purpose also I labor” (Col. 1:29).
Serve the Lord (12:11c)
Like fervency in spirit, serving the Lord has to do with perspective and priority. Everything we do should, first of all, be consistent with God’s Word and, second, be truly in His service and to His glory. Strict devotion to the Lord would eliminate a great deal of fruitless church activity.
Paul never lost sight of that foundational mission. He begins this letter with the affirmation that he served God “in [his] spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son” (Rom. 1:9).
In Romans 12, Paul uses three different words to describe Christian service. In verse 1 he uses latreia, which is translated, “service of worship,” and emphasizes reverential awe. The second word is diakonia, which pertains to practical service. In verse 11, he uses douleuō, which refers to the service of a bond-slave, whose very reason for existence is to do his master’s will.
Above all else, Paul considered himself a bond-slave of Jesus Christ. It is with that description that he first identifies himself in this letter (Rom. 1:1), as well as in Philippians (1:1) and Titus (1:1).
Yet we do not serve the Lord in our own power any more than we came to Him in our own power. Our supreme purpose is to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, and our power to fulfill that service is from Him. “For this purpose also I labor,” Paul testified, “striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (Col. 1:29).
Rejoice in Hope (12:12a)
Living the supernatural life inevitably brings opposition from the world and sometimes even sparks resentment by fellow Christians. Even after years of faithful service to the Lord, some see few, if any, apparent results from their labors. Without hope we could never survive. “For in hope we have been saved,” Paul has already explained, “but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Rom. 8:24-25).
Rejoicing in that hope, we know that, if we are “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” our “toil is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). We can therefore look forward to one day hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21). We know that “in the future there is laid up for [us] the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to [us] on that day; and… to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).
Persevere in Tribulation (12:12b)
It is because we can rejoice in hope that we also can persevere in tribulation, whatever its form or severity. Because we have perfect assurance concerning the ultimate outcome of our lives, we are able to persist against any obstacle and endure any suffering. That is why Paul could declare with perfect confidence that “we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:2-5).
Be Devoted to Prayer (12:12c)
Doubtless one of the reasons the Lord allows His children to go through tribulation is to drive them to Himself. The believer who has the strength to persevere in trials, afflictions, adversity, and misfortune—sometimes even deprivation and destitution—will pray more than occasionally. He will be devoted to prayer, in communion with his Lord as a constant part of his life. So should we all be, no matter what the circumstances of our lives.
Proskartereō (devoted) means literally to be strong toward something, and it also carries the ideas of steadfast and unwavering. It was with such devoted… prayer that early Christians worshiped, both before and after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:14; 2:42). It was to enable the apostles to devote themselves “to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4) that deacons were first appointed in the church.
Devoted, steadfast prayer should be as continual a part of a Christian’s spiritual life as breathing is a part of his physical life. The victorious Christian prays “with the spirit and… with the mind” (1 Cor. 14:15). As he prays with his own spirit, he also prays “in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20; cf. Eph. 6:18). He prays “without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Paul therefore admonished Timothy to have “the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands” (1 Tim. 2:8).
Contribute to the Needs of the Saints (12:13a)
The next two principles Paul mentions in this list seem rather mundane. But they are qualities that the Lord personified during His earthly ministry and for which Paul himself was lovingly known. The flow of the supernatural life is outward, not inward, and meeting the needs of fellow believers is more important than meeting our own.
Contributing is from koinōneō, which means to share in, or share with, and the noun koinōnia is often translated “fellowship” or “communion.” The basic meaning is that of commonality or partnership, which involves mutual sharing. The spirit of sharing was immediately evident in the early church, as believers after Pentecost “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship [koinōnia], to the breaking of bread and prayer… And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common [koina]” (Acts 2:42, 44; cf. 4:32). Peter used that term in speaking of our sharing [koinōneō] in “the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet. 4:13).
But because the emphasis in the present text is on the giving side of sharing, the term is here rendered contributing. Paul also used a form of that word in the same sense when he admonished Timothy to “instruct those who are rich in this present world… to be generous and ready to share [koinōnikos]” (1 Tim. 6:17-18).
In the eyes of society, we rightfully own certain things, but before the Lord we own nothing. We are simply stewards of what He has blessed us with. And one of our most important responsibilities as His stewards is using our personal resources to contribute to the needs of the saints, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus made clear that we have a responsibility, to the best of our ability, to help anyone in need whom we encounter. But we have a still greater responsibility to serve fellow Christians. “So then, while we have opportunity,” Paul says, “let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Practice Hospitality (12:13b)
The last responsibility to fellow believers that Paul mentions in this list is that of practicing hospitality. The literal meaning of that phrase in the Greek is, “pursuing the love of strangers.” In other words, we not only are to meet the needs of those people, believers and unbelievers, who come across our paths but are to look for opportunities to help. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” the writer of Hebrews admonishes us, “for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).
In our text, Paul is speaking to all believers, but he also makes clear that leaders in the church should set an example by their own hospitality. Elders are to be “hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled” (Titus 1:8).
As with all virtues, this one must be exercised without hypocrisy or self-interest. Jesus’ admonition to His Pharisee host applies to all of His followers: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).
Because inns in New Testament times were scarce, expensive, and often dangerous, Christian families commonly opened their homes to believers who passed through their towns. Unlike Paul, who insisted on paying for most of his own expenses, most itinerant preachers and teachers relied entirely on the support of fellow Christians. John commended Gaius for his generosity in this regard: “Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers; and they bear witness to your love before the church; and you will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. For they went out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support such men, that we may be fellow workers with the truth” (3 John 5-8).
We are to “be hospitable to one another without complaint,” Peter admonishes (1 Pet. 4:9). That is, we should look upon our hospitality as a happy privilege, not a drudging duty. Onesiphorus demonstrated that sort of beneficence in ministering to Paul, about whom the apostle wrote, “He often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chains; but when he was in Rome, he eagerly searched for me, and found me—the Lord grant to him to find mercy from the Lord on that day—and you know very well what services he rendered at Ephesus” (2 Tim. 1:16-18).
The Christian Life in Everyday Action (Rom 12:9-13)
12:9-13 Your love must be completely sincere. Hate that which is evil and cling to that which is good. Be affectionate to one another in brotherly love. Give to each other priority in honour. Do not be sluggish in zeal. Keep your spirit at boiling point. Seize your opportunities. Rejoice in hope. Meet tribulation with triumphant fortitude. Be persevering in prayer. Share what you have to help the needs of God’s dedicated people. Be eager in giving hospitality.
Paul presents his people with ten telegraphic rules for ordinary, everyday life. Let us look at them one by one.
(i) Love must be completely sincere. There must be no hypocrisy, no play-acting, no ulterior motive. There is such a thing as cupboard love, which gives affection with one eye on the gain which may result. There is such a thing as a selfish love, whose aim is to get far more than it is to give. Christian love is cleansed of self; it is a pure outgoing of the heart to others.
(ii) We must hate that which is evil and cling to that which is good. It has been said that our one security against sin lies in our being shocked by it. It was Carlyle who said that what we need is to see the infinite beauty of holiness and the infinite damnability of sin. The words Paul uses are strong. It has been said that no virtue is safe which is not passionate. He must hate evil and love good. Regarding one thing we must be clear—what many people hate is not evil, but the consequences of evil. No man is really a good man when he is good simply because he fears the consequences of being bad. As Burns had it:
“The fear o’ Hell’s a hangman’s whip To haud the wretch in order;
But where ye feel your honour grip, Let that ay be your border.”
Not to fear the consequences of dishonour, but to love honour passionately is the way to real goodness.
(iii) We must be affectionate to one another in brotherly love. The word Paul uses for affectionate is philostorgos (<G5387>), and storge (<G0>) is the Greek for family love. We must love each other, because we are members of one family. We are not strangers to each other within the Christian Church; much less are we isolated units; we are brothers and sisters, because we have the one father, God.
(iv) We must give each other priority in honour. More than half the trouble that arises in Churches concerns rights and privileges and prestige. Someone has not been given his or her place; someone has been neglected or unthanked. The mark of the truly Christian man has always been humility. One of the humblest of men was that great saint and scholar Principal Cairns. Someone recollects an incident which showed Cairns as he was. He was a member of a platform party at a great gathering. As he appeared there was a tremendous burst of applause. Cairns stood back to let the man next him pass, and began to applaud himself; he never dreamed that the applause was for him. It is not easy to give each other priority in honour. There is enough of the natural man in most of us to like to get our rights; but the Christian man has no rights—he has only duties.
(v) We must not be sluggish in zeal. There is a certain intensity in the Christian life; there is no room for lethargy in it. The Christian cannot take things in an easy-going way, for the world is always a battleground between good and evil, the time is short, and life is a preparation for eternity. The Christian may burn out, but he must not rust out.
(vi) We must keep our spirit at boiling point. The one man whom the Risen Christ could not stand was the man who was neither hot nor cold (Rev 3:15-16). Today people are apt to look askance upon enthusiasm: the modern battle-cry is “I couldn’t care less.” But the Christian is a man desperately in earnest; he is aflame for Christ.
(vii) Paul’s seventh injunction may be one of two things. The ancient manuscripts vary between two readings. Some read, “Serve the Lord” and some read, “Serve the time.” that is, “Grasp your opportunities.” The reason for the double reading is this. All the ancient scribes used contractions in their writing. In particular the commoner words were always abbreviated. One of the commonest ways of abbreviating was to miss out the vowels—as shorthand does—and to place a stroke along the top of the remaining letters. Now the word for Lord is kurios (<G2962>) and the word for time is kairos (<G2540>), and the abbreviation for both of these words is krs. In a section so filled with practical advice it is more likely that Paul was saying to his people, “Seize your opportunities as they come.” Life presents us with all kinds of opportunities—the opportunity to learn something new or to cut out something wrong; the opportunity to speak a word of encouragement or of warning; the opportunity to help or to comfort. One of the tragedies of life is that we so often fall to grasp these opportunities when they come. “There are three things which come not back—the spent arrow, the spoken word, and the lost opportunity.”
(viii) We are to rejoice in hope. When Alexander the Great was setting out upon one of his eastern campaigns, he was distributing all kinds of gifts to his friends. In his generosity he had given away nearly all his possessions. “Sir,” said one of his friends, “you will have nothing left for yourself.” “Oh, yes, I have,” said Alexander, “I have still my hopes.” The Christian must be essentially an optimist. Just because God is God, the Christian is always certain that “the best is yet to be.” Just because he knows of the grace that is sufficient for all things and the strength that is made perfect in weakness, the Christian knows that no task is too much for him. “There are no hopeless situations in life; there are only men who have grown hopeless about them.” There can never be any such thing as a hopeless Christian.
(ix) We are to meet tribulation with triumphant fortitude. Someone once said to a gallant sufferer: “Suffering colours all life, doesn’t it?” “Yes,” said the gallant one, “it does, but I propose to choose the colour.” When the dreadful affliction of complete deafness began to descend on Beethoven and life seemed to be one unbroken disaster, he said: “I will take life by the throat.” As William Cowper had it:
“Set free from present sorrow, We cheerfully can say.
‘Even let the unknown tomorrow Bring with it what it may,
It can bring with it nothing But he will bear us through.'”
When Nebuchadnezzar cast Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the burning fiery furnace he was amazed that they took no harm. He asked if three men had not been cast into the flames. They told him it was so. He said, “But I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods” (Dan 3:24-25). A man can meet anything when he meets it with Christ.
(x) We are to persevere in prayer. Is it not the case that there are times in life when we let day add itself to day and week to week, and we never speak to God? When a man ceases to pray, he despoils himself of the strength of Almighty God. No man should be surprised when life collapses if he insists on living it alone.
(xi) We are to share with those in need. In a world bent on getting, the Christian is bent on giving, because he knows that “what we keep we lose, and what we give we have.”
(xii) The Christian is to be given to hospitality. Over and over again the New Testament insists on this duty of the open door (Heb 13:2; 1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:8; 1 Pet 4:9). Tyndale used a magnificent word when he translated it that the Christian should have a harborous disposition. A home can never be happy when it is selfish. Christianity is the religion of the open hand, the open heart, and the open door.
12:14 Bless those who persecute you . . . do not curse them.NRSV Paul now broadens his perspective to the world where the believers live—in this case, the capital of the empire, Rome itself. The community of believers was a tiny segment, vulnerable to the edicts of pagan emperors and persecution by any who disagreed with them. Paul, aware of these realities, counsels believers to avoid trouble by refusing to retaliate when persecuted and—to respond with good when they are treated with evil.
By doing this, believers would be obeying Christ’s words, for he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 niv). They would also be imitating Christ, who when he was on the cross said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 niv). Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, said nearly the same thing as he was being stoned, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60 niv).
|Most of us have trouble visualizing exactly what Paul had in mind when he commanded us to bless persecutors. This trouble intensifies when we are under personal attack. If we decide beforehand how we will respond in times of crisis, we will not be delayed by trying to define what we ought to be doing. Instead, we will simply have to do it.|
|In context, to bless means to not curse. Instead of hoping for the worst to happen to our enemies, we are to willfully hope that the best will befall them. Instead of speaking words of hatred, we are to choose to speak words of truthful good towards those intending to hurt us. Finally, we are to pray for those who we feel are preying on us.|
12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice. Believers need to be able to empathize with others—to join in with the feelings of others as if we were experiencing it ourselves. Christians should rejoice with others, with no hint of jealousy; and they should mourn with those who mourn (niv), offering kindness, concern, compassion, and a shoulder to cry on if needed. The believers needed to have this as they dealt with the ups and downs of daily life in their surroundings.
Following Jesus will mean that believers will pass through a kaleidoscope of experiences in life. Christianity is neither denying life’s hardships, nor dulling life’s excitements. Our perspective of eternity in Christ can free us to enter into the full variety of living. Both laughter and tears are appropriate before God. Each has an important place in representing our feelings. Identifying with the joys and heartaches of others is also an important way to show them our love.
12:16 Live in harmony.NRSV In order to live in harmony with others, and especially with fellow believers, we cannot be proud (niv). Instead, we are to be willing to associate with people of low position. In other words, do not be conceited, for then empathy and harmony are impossible. James leveled a scathing indictment on believers who were practicing favoritism and elitism in the church (James 2:1-9). People of low position are only identified as such by the world’s standards. Christ thought they were worth dying for, and so we can associate with them.
|BE WILLING TO ASSOCIATE|
|Many people use their contacts and relationships for selfish ambition. They select those people who will help them climb the social ladder. Christ demonstrated and taught that we should treat all people with respect—those of a different race, the handicapped, the poor, young and old, male and female. We must never consider others as being beneath ourselves. Are we able to do humble tasks with others? Do we welcome conversation with unattractive, nonprestigious people? Are we willing to befriend newcomers and entry-level people? Or do we relate only to those who will help us get ahead?|
Paul offers a series of rules and principles wherewith to govern our relationships with our fellow men.
(i) The Christian must meet persecution with a prayer for those who persecute him. Long ago Plato had said that the good man will choose rather to suffer evil than to do evil; and it is always evil to hate. When the Christian is hurt, and insulted, and maltreated, he has the example of his Master before him, for be, upon his Cross, prayed for forgiveness for those who were killing him.
There has been no greater force to move men into Christianity than this serene forgiveness which the martyrs in every age have showed. Stephen died praying for forgiveness for those who stoned him to death (Ac 7:60). Among those who killed him was a young man named Saul, who afterwards became Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles and the slave of Christ. There can be no doubt that the death scene of Stephen was one of the things that turned Paul to Christ. As Augustine said: “The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen. Many a persecutor has become a follower of the faith he once sought to destroy, because he has seen how a Christian can forgive.”
(ii) We are to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep. There are few bonds like that of a common sorrow. A writer tells of the saying of an American negro woman. A lady in Charleston met the negro servant of a neighbour. “I’m sorry to hear of your Aunt Lucy’s death,” she said. “You must miss her greatly. You were such friends.” “Yes’m,” said the servant, “I is sorry she died. But we wasn’t no friends.” “Why,” said the lady, “I thought you were. I’ve seen you laughing and talking together lots of times.” “Yes’m. That’s so,” came the reply. “We’ve laughed together, and we’ve talked together, but we is just ‘quaintances. You see, Miss Ruth, we ain’t never shed no tears. Folks got to cry together before dey is friends.”
The bond of tears is the strongest of all. And yet it is much easier to weep with those who weep than it is to rejoice with those who rejoice. Long ago Chrysostom wrote on this passage: “It requires more of a high Christian temper to rejoice with them that do rejoice than to weep with them that weep. For this nature itself fulfils perfectly; and thee is none so hard-hearted as not to weep over him that is in calamity; but the other requires a very noble soul, so as not only to keep from envying, but even to feel pleasure with the person who is in esteem.” It is., indeed, more difficult to congratulate another on his success, especially if his success involves disappointment to us, than it is to sympathize with his sorrow and his loss. It is only when self is dead that we can take as much joy in the success of others as in our own.
(iii) We are to live in harmony with one another. It was Nelson who, after one of his great victories, sent back a despatch in which he gave us the reason for it: “I had the happiness to command a band of brothers.” It is a band of brothers that any Christian Church should be. Leighton once wrote: “The mode of Church government is unconstrained; but peace and concord, kindness and good will are indispensable.” When strife enters into any Christian society, the hope of doing any good work is gone.
(iv) We are to avoid all pride and snobbishness. We have always to remember that the standards by which the world judges a man are not necessarily the standards by which God judges him. Saintliness has nothing to do with rank, or wealth, or birth. Dr James Black in his own vivid way described a scene in an early Christian congregation. A notable convert has been made. and the great man comes to his first Church service. He enters the room where the service is being held. The Christian leader points to a place. “Will you sit there please?” “But,” says the man, “I cannot sit there, for that would be to sit beside my slave.” “Will you sit there please?” repeats the leader. “But,” says the man, “surely not beside my slave.” “Will you sit there please?” repeats the leader once again. And the man at last crosses the room, sits beside his slave, and gives him the kiss of peace. That is what Christianity did; and that is what it alone could do in the Roman Empire. The Christian Church was the only place where master and slave sat side by side. It is still the place where all earthly distinctions are gone, for with God there is no respect of persons.
(v) We are to make our conduct fair for all to see. Paul was well aware that Christian conduct must not only be good; it must also look good. So-called Christianity can be presented in the hardest and most unlovely way; but real Christianity is something which is fair for all to see.
(vi) We are to live at peace with all men. But Paul adds two qualifications. (a) He says, “if it be possible”. There may come a time when the claims of courtesy have to submit to the claims of principle. Christianity is not an easy-going tolerance which will accept anything and shut its eyes to everything. There may come a time when some battle has to be fought, and when it does, the Christian will not shirk it. (b) He says, as far as you can. Paul knew very well that it is easier for some to live at peace than for others. He knew that one man can be compelled to control as much temper in an hour as another man in a lifetime. We would do well to remember that goodness is a great deal easier for some than for others; that will keep us alike from criticism and from discouragement.
(vii) We are to keep ourselves from all thought of taking revenge. Paul gives three reasons for that. (a) Vengeance does not belong to us but to God. In the last analysis no human being has a right to judge any other; only God can do that. (b) To treat a man with kindness rather than vengeance is the way to move him. Vengeance may break his spirit; but kindness will break his heart. “If we are kind to our enemies,” says Paul, “it will heap coals of fire on their heads.” That means, not that it will store up further punishment for them, but that it will move them to burning shame. (c) To stoop to vengeance is to be ourselves conquered by evil. Evil can never be conquered by evil. If hatred is met with more hatred it is only increased; but if it is met with love, an antidote for the poison is found. As Booker Washington said: “I will not allow any man to make me lower myself by hating him.” The only real way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.
Supernatural Living–part 2 (Romans 12:14-16)
Our Duty to All People
Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. (12:14-16)
The third circle in Paul’s list of basic characteristics of the supernatural Christian life widens broadly to include our duty to everyone in general, believers and unbelievers.
Bless Those Who Persecute You (12:14a)
This section begins with a very difficult admonition, one that is completely contrary to unredeemed human nature: Bless those who persecute you. The obedient Christian not only must resist hating and retaliating against those who harm him but is commanded to take the additional step of blessing them.
Paul is essentially paraphrasing the Lord’s own words: “I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28; cf. Matt. 5:44). Jesus referred to the same self-giving, heartfelt, unhypocritical, willing love (agapē) that Paul admonishes in Romans 12:9. Lest anyone think he was speaking simply of kind feelings, the Lord gave several specific illustrations of what genuine love does in response to mistreatment. “Whoever hits you on the cheek,” He commands, “offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:29-30). Commenting further about our attitude in such situations, He explains, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (vv. 32-33). To truly bless those who persecute us is to treat them as if they were our friends.
Some years ago, in the store where he was working, a nephew of mine was murdered by an addict looking for drug money. Although deeply grieved by this tragic loss, my brother-in-law has refused to become bitter or hateful. Instead, his continued desire and prayer has been for the salvation of the man who took his son’s life. He even visited him in prison to give him the greatest blessing, the gospel. Such is the kind of distinctive Christian love that seeks to bless those who do us terrible harm.
As we would expect, the supreme example of blessing one’s persecutors was given by our Lord Himself. As the sinless Son of God hung in great sin-bearing on the cross, He prayed with unimaginable mercy, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). As he lay beneath the bloody stones that were crushing the life out of him, Stephen echoed those words of his Savior, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60). “For you have been called for this purpose,” Peter wrote many years later, “since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:21-23).
Bless and Do Not Curse Them (12:14b)
Although it should go without saying, Paul makes certain to explain that true blessing of those who persecute us is comprehensive and permanent. Not only are we to bless them, we are not at all or ever to curse them.
Because of the general tone of religious freedom in modern western society, physical or political persecution for one’s Christian faith is rare. Our temptations to curse are more likely to be in reaction to hostility that does us no life-threatening harm but causes us inconvenience or embarrassment. Some studies have indicated that much high blood pressure and other anxiety-related disease is caused not by serious, long-term problems and life-threatening pressures but by persistent attitudes of resentment and hostility that eat at people who habitually react negatively to unpleasant situations and people. It is often a host of “little foxes” that do the most damage in our spiritual and emotional “vineyards” (cf. Song of Sol. 2:15).
Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice (12:15a)
In a much more positive vein, Paul next counsels us to rejoice with those who rejoice. At first thought, that principle would seem easy to follow. But when another person’s blessing and happiness is at our expense, or when their favored circumstances or notable accomplishments make ours seem barren and dull, the flesh does not lead us to rejoice but tempts us to resent.
The person “who rejoices at calamity” displeases God and “will not go unpunished” (Prov. 17:5). But it is distinctively Christian to rejoice in the blessings, honor, and welfare of others—especially fellow believers—no matter what may be our personal circumstances. As always, Paul followed his own counsel. Just as he had formerly told the Corinthian believers that “if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26), he later assured them, “My joy would be the joy of you all” (2 Cor. 2:3).
Weep with Those Who Weep (12:15b)
It is also distinctively Christian to be sensitive to the disappointments, hardships, and sorrows of others, to weep with those who weep. That is the duty of sympathy, empathy, entering into the suffering of others. Compassion has in the very word the idea of suffering with someone. God is called a compassionate God (Deut. 4:31; Neh. 9:17; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). He is so compassionate, so tender toward His people, that “His compassions never fail” (Lam. 3:22). James speaks of Him as being “full of compassion” (James 5:11). We see this compassion, sympathy, and tenderheartedness of God in the tears of Jesus over the grave of Lazarus. He mingled His tears with those of Mary and Martha (John 11:35). Reminding us that we should reflect our Lord’s character, Paul said, “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col. 3:12).
Surely one of the most touchingly profound testimonies to God’s heart of tender sympathy toward His children who weep is found in Psalm 56, where the writer implores the Lord, “Put my tears in Thy bottle” (v. 8). The Lord stores up our tears as treasures. If we are to be like our Father and His Son, we, too, must enter into the sorrow of others.
A lovely illustration of that attitude is seen in a custom practiced in ancient Jerusalem. When the great temple built by Herod stood on the temple mount, it had only one entrance, located at the base of the southern wall, the remains of which are still recognizable today. Farther east on the same wall was the exit. The people would enter through the opening that allowed them to go through the wall, ascend the stairs to the temple area, and then exit by the other passage. Huge crowds flowed in and out in steady streams. There was one exception, however, to that pattern. One group of worshipers was to go the opposite way, entering by way of the exit and leaving through the entrance. As they bumped into and squeezed by each other, the two groups came face to face. The sad faces of those who were experiencing sorrow could be seen by those going the opposite direction, and, in those brief moments, the grief could be shared.
In addition to weeping for those who do weep, we should, like Jeremiah grieving for sinful Israel (Jer. 9:1-3) and Jesus looking out over unbelieving Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44), also weep for those who should weep but do not.
Do Not Be Partial (12:16a)
The virtue expressed in the words be of the same mind toward one another is that of impartiality. Later in this epistle Paul repeats the admonition, saying, “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5).
The most explicit New Testament teaching on impartiality is given by James. “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism,” he warns. “For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?… But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:1-4, 9).
Speaking about honoring and correcting elders, Paul told Timothy, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality” (1 Tim. 5:21).
If “there is no partiality with God” (Rom. 2:11; cf. Acts 10:34; 1 Pet. 1:17), shouldn’t the same be true for us?
Avoid Haughtiness and Associate with the Humble (12:16b)
Closely related to not being partial is not being haughty in mind, as James makes clear in the passage cited above.
Haughty in mind translates hupsēla phronountes, which literally means “minding high things.” But the things to which Paul refers here are not lofty in the spiritual sense but in the sense of self-seeking pride.
As James also makes clear in the passage mentioned above, partiality is closely related to a reluctance to show respect for, or even to associate with the lowly, such as “a poor man in dirty clothes” (James 2:2). The idea is not that we should avoid associating with those in high positions of wealth or influence. But as far as our service to them is concerned, we typically have more obligation to associate with the lowly, not because they are more important but because they are more needy.
The point is that there is no aristocracy in the church, no place for an elite uppercrust. As mentioned in the previous commentary chapter in relation to hospitality (v. 13), the Lord beautifully and explicitly illustrated that truth. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner,” He said, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).
Jesus, of course, was not speaking about the act itself but the motive behind it. It is not sinful or unspiritual to invite family, friends, or the wealthy and influential to a meal at our house. The wrong comes in inviting them for a self-serving purpose, to be invited back, a wrong that is magnified by ignoring those who have no means for repaying us.
Do Not Be Wise in Your Own Eyes (12:16c)
A conceited, self-promoting Christian is a serious contradiction. Every believer should be humbly submissive to the will of God found in the Word of God, having no confidence in himself or in his own wisdom and talent. And sure there should be no social aristocracy in the church, neither there should be intellectual aristocracy. There are no castes of any sort in the Body of Christ. We must not be wise in our own estimation in any regard, thinking we are in any way superior to fellow Christians.
In recent years, certain church growth professionals have advocated building churches on the basis of homogeneous units, each congregation being composed of members who are as alike in as many ways as possible. Because many churches have indeed grown and prospered on that basis, it is somehow assumed that the pattern is right and should be imitated. Apparently little, if any, consideration is given to the biblical soundness of such a philosophy or to the matter of whether the growth and prosperity are the result of spiritual faithfulness or of unspiritual worldliness.
A church that is seeking to faithfully serve Christ will pursue and eagerly accept all genuine believers into its fellowship and consider them all alike, regardless of superficial human distinctions. The only required common ground should be a saving relationship to Jesus Christ and unqualified submission to the Word of God.
Our Duty Toward Personal Enemies
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (12:17-21)
The fourth circle in Paul’s list of basic characteristics of the supernatural Christian life widens again to include our responsibilities to personal enemies.
Never Return Evil for Evil (12:17a)
First, we are never to pay back evil for evil to anyone, reiterating and extending the second aspect of the principle taught in verse 14. We not only are to bless those who persecute us and not curse them, but certainly are never to move beyond a verbal curse to an act of revenge.
The Old Testament law of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Ex. 21:24; cf. Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21) pertained to civil justice, not personal revenge. Not only that, but its major purpose was to prevent the severity of punishment from exceeding the severity of the offense. In other words, someone guilty of destroying another person’s eye could not be punished with any greater penalty than that of forfeiting one of his own eyes.
A few verses later in this letter Paul declares that civil authority “is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). But that very authority, which not only is divinely permitted but divinely mandated for civil government, is divinely forbidden for personal purposes.
“See that no one repays another with evil for evil,” Paul warned the Thessalonian believers, “but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men” (1 Thess. 5:15). Peter echoes the same truth in nearly the same words: “To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:8-9).
Always Respect What Is Right (12:17b)
A right attitude toward enemies involves respect of what is right in the sight of all men. If we genuinely respect others, including our enemies, we will have a “built-in” protection against angrily repaying them evil for evil and will be predisposed to doing what is right toward them.
Such respect will help us develop the self-discipline necessary to prepare ourselves beforehand for responding to evil with what is good instead of with what is bad. Believers should respond instinctively and spontaneously with what is pleasing to God and beneficial to others.
Kalos (right) refers to that which is intrinsically good, proper, and honest (as in the kjv of this verse). It also carries the idea of being visibly, obviously right, as emphasized in its being fitting and proper in the sight of all men. Paul is not speaking of hidden feelings but of outwardly expressed goodness. Our forgiving, gracious behavior toward our enemies should commend us to them and to others who witness that behavior. It will also “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect” (Titus 2:10).
Live in Peace with Everyone (12:18)
Fulfillment of the next characteristic is conditional, in that it partly depends on the attitudes and responses of our enemies. If possible, Paul therefore says, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Whether between nations or individuals, peace is two-way. By definition, a peaceful relationship cannot be one-sided. Our responsibility is to make sure that our side of the relationship is right, that our inner desire is genuinely to be at peace with all men, even the meanest and most undeserving. Short of compromising God’s truth and standards, we should be willing to go to great lengths to build peaceful bridges to those who hate us and harm us. We must forsake any grudge or settled bitterness and fully forgive from the heart all who harm us. Having done that, we can seek reconciliation honestly.
Never Avenge Yourself (12:19)
The last two characteristics Paul lists here are both reiterations. He again denounces returning evil for evil, declaring, Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God. If a wrong has been done to us, no matter how serious and harmful it may have been, we are never qualified for or have a right to render punishment for the offense ourselves. We are to leave that to the wrath of God. Quoting from the Mosaic law (Deut. 32:35), the apostle reminds his readers that it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (cf. 2 Sam. 22:48; Nah. 1:2; Heb. 10:30). In His divine time, the wrath of God will come (Col. 3:6), and just retribution awaits the unforgiven.
Overcome Evil with Good (12:20-21)
But merely not returning evil for evil does not fulfill our responsibility. And sometimes the positive part is more difficult. To withhold vengeance is one thing. It requires only doing nothing. But to actually return good for evil is quite another.
Yet that was the obligation of the godly man even under the Old Covenant. Paul quotes from Proverbs 25:21-22, citing God’s centuries-old injunction: “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”
The phrase heap burning coals upon his head referred to an ancient Egyptian custom. When a person wanted to demonstrate public contrition, he would carry on his head a pan of burning coals to represent the burning pain of his shame and guilt. The point here is that, when we love our enemy and genuinely seek to meet his needs, we shame him for his hatred.
The admonition Do not be overcome by evil has two meanings and applications. First, we must not allow the evil done to us by other people to overcome and overwhelm us. Second, and even more important, we must not allow ourselves to be overcome by our own evil responses. Our own evil is infinitely more detrimental to us than is the evil done to us by others.
In each case, it is the evil itself that must be overcome, and that can be accomplished only with good.
Our Relationship to Our Enemies (Rom. 12:17-21)
12:17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil.NRSV The commands in verses 17-21 relate mainly to dealings with unbelievers. When people do evil against us, we are not to repay in kind, as much as we might like to (see also 1 Peter 3:9). Repaying evil for evil makes us participants in an evil economy. We will not be able to hate evil (12:9) while actively using it as a method of exchange with others. Instead we are to be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybodyNIV (see 1 Peter 2:11-12). The word for right could also be translated “noble” or “honorable.” Paul is certainly not using the word everybody as it is used in the common expression “Everybody’s doing it.” Paul’s standard for behavior was not common consensus, but godliness. The point being made here is that the behavior of believers must be such that no one can rightfully make a claim of wrongdoing. To commit the same evil that was committed against us makes us indistinguishable from the original offenders.
12:18 Live at peace with everyone.NIV Paul counsels believers to have as peaceful relations as possible with their unbelieving neighbors and associates. In a perfect world, all people could live peacefully together. Realistically this is impossible in our imperfect world. However, believers, as the salt of the earth, should do their best if it is possible and as far as it depends on them.NIVThey certainly are not to be the cause of dissension. Believers should do their utmost to seek reconciliation.
12:19 Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.NRSV We may want to take revenge and repay evil for evil (12:17), but Paul reminds us to leave that in God’s hands. Refusing to take revenge avoids grudges and feuds. This attitude makes possible the actions Paul recommends in 12:20. In human practice, revenge is repaying evil for evil, with interest. Because our personal demands for justice are mixed with wounded pride, hatred, and sinfulness, opportunities for revenge ought to be consciously turned over to God. This advice is helpful to us not only in dealing with opponents, but in family situations. It is so easy to strike back verbally (or in our minds) when a family member dominates, criticizes, or belittles us. Paul’s advice is to not act vengefully.
It is written. Quoting from Deuteronomy 32:35: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.NIV Vengeance, when taken into human hands, only serves to destroy the good it tries to defend and make evil grow by feeding on itself. Paul challenges believers to trust that ultimately God will ensure that his just vengeance will be given.
12:20 On the contrary.NIV Just the opposite of repaying with evil and taking revenge is caring for our enemies. Believers are not simply expected to abstain from evil; rather, they are expected to actively pursue opportunities to benefit their enemies.
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink”NIV (see Proverbs 25:21-22). The principle here is that we should care for our enemy’s needs. God invites us to observe our enemies and at the very points of weakness, where a counterattack of revenge might be most effective, we should mercifully meet that need.
|These verses summarize the core of Christian living. If we love someone the way Christ loves us, we will be willing to forgive. If we have experienced God’s grace, we will want to pass it on to others. And remember, grace is undeserved favor. By giving an enemy a drink, we’re not excusing his misdeeds. We are recognizing him, forgiving him, and loving him in spite of his sins—just as Christ did for us.|
By doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.NRSV This statement comes from Proverbs 25:21-22. It has been interpreted in at least three ways: (1) It may refer to an Egyptian tradition of carrying a pan of burning charcoal on one’s head as a public act of repentance. By referring to this proverb, Paul is saying that we should treat our enemies with kindness so that they will become ashamed and turn from their sins. Even if they don’t, we are doing right. (2) It could signify an act of kindness that would increase an enemy’s sense of guilt. But this interpretation doesn’t fit the context,
|wherein Paul is encouraging believers to love their enemies. (3) It could mean befriending an enemy so as to win him or her to Christ. Of the three interpretations, the first seems the most plausible.||Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.
C. S. Lewis
12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.NIV Do not give in to your desire to take revenge or retaliate with evil; instead, act in a positive way. Paul comes full circle back to his point of verse 9. To hate evil is to overcome it with good. When we hang on for dear life to those things that are good and to God, we will be overcoming evil. All of this will be accomplished to the degree that we allow God to create in us sincere love.
|When someone hurts you deeply, instead of giving him what he deserves, Paul says to befriend him. Why does Paul tell us to forgive our enemies? (1) Forgiveness may break a cycle of retaliation and lead to mutual reconciliation. (2) It may make the enemy feel ashamed and change his or her ways. (3) In contrast, repaying evil for evil hurts you just as much as it hurts your enemy. Even if your enemy never repents, forgiving him or her will free you of a heavy load of bitterness.|
The believer who seeks to obey God is going to have his enemies. When our Lord was ministering on earth, He had enemies. No matter where Paul and the other apostles traveled, there were enemies who opposed their work. Jesus warned His disciples that their worst enemies might be those of their own household (Matt 10:36). Unfortunately, some believers have enemies because they lack love and patience, and not because they are faithful in their witness. There is a difference between sharing in “the offense of the cross” (Gal. 5:11; 6:12-15) and being an offensive Christian!
The Christian must not play God and try to avenge himself. Returning evil for evil, or good for good, is the way most people live. But the Christian must live on a higher level and return good for evil. Of course, this requires love, because our first inclination is to fight back. It also requires faith, believing that God can work and accomplish His will in our lives and in the lives of those who hurt us. We must give place to “the wrath”—the wrath of God (Deut. 32:35).
A friend of mine once heard a preacher criticize him over the radio and tell things that were not only unkind, but also untrue. My friend became very angry and was planning to fight back, when a godly preacher said, “Don’t do it. If you defend yourself, then the Lord can’t defend you. Leave it in His hands.” My friend followed that wise counsel, and the Lord vindicated him.
The admonition in Romans 12:20 reminds us of Christ’s words in Matthew 5:44-48. These words are easy to read but difficult to practice. Surely we need to pray and ask God for love as we try to show kindness to our enemies. Will they take advantage of us? Will they hate us more? Only the Lord knows. Our task is not to protect ourselves but to obey the Lord and leave the results with Him. Paul referred to Proverbs 25:21-22 as he urged us to return good for evil in the name of the Lord. The “coals of fire” refer perhaps to the feeling of shame our enemies will experience when we return good for evil.
As children of God, we must live on the highest level—returning good for evil. Anyone can return good for good and evil for evil. The only way to overcome evil is with good. If we return evil for evil, we only add fuel to the fire. And even if our enemy is not converted, we have still experienced the love of God in our own hearts and have grown in grace.