In his letter to the Romans, Paul has presented the gospel — from our need for divine rescue to the glorious future that Jesus Christ offers us. In chapter 12, Paul explains that the gospel has implications for the way we should treat one another. He begins with attitudes and principles rather than specific actions.
Paul begins with the word therefore, indicating that he is drawing a conclusion. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship” (12:1). Since God is giving us mercy, we should submit ourselves to him.
Our bodies are to be given to God in worship — not to be killed, but as a living and continuous response to God. We are set apart for him, to serve him — and as we do his will, he is pleased.
A literal translation of the last clause says, “this is your reasonable service.” Sensible people respond to God’s mercy by serving him.
What does this involve? Paul explains: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (v. 2). Our standard of behavior is no longer the society around us. We do not just continue doing what we have always done. Rather, we are to change, and this change begins in the mind. It takes conscious effort — thinking about how God’s way is different from the world around us. “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
After we stop looking to the world, we will see what God wants, and we will find that his way is better. His instructions are not arbitrary rules just to test our loyalty — they are to help us avoid causing pain for ourselves and for others.
Serving with our gifts
Paul first describes how the Roman Christians are to work together as a worship community: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (v. 3). By grace, God authorized Paul to give commands, and this first command is a call to humility. Take a realistic look, Paul says. Whatever faith you have, has come from God. We have value only because God chooses to give us value; no one has any reason to boast.
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others (vv. 4-5). Not only do various members have different functions, they also belong to each other. We have duties to each other, according to the way God has blessed us.
“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement” (vv. 6-8). God has given us different abilities, so some people serve through words, and some through their hands. Those who prophesy should stick to the faith, not their own opinions, to strengthen, encourage, comfort and edify the church (1 Cor. 14:3-4). Each person should do what he or she does best.
For the next three gifts, Paul adds an adverb to emphasize the way we should serve: “If it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully” (v. 8). Paul summarizes by saying, “Love must be sincere” (v. 9). All service should be sincere — gifts should be motivated by generosity; mercy should be given joyfully.
Paul does not give these commands as requirements for salvation. Rather, these are what we should do after being saved, after God has shown us his mercy.
Harmony in the body of Christ
In verse 9 Paul begins to list some qualities that should characterize Christian love. He begins with a general principle: “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” Love is not a vague feeling, but it discerns the difference between good and bad.
He is focusing on attitudes within the Christian community: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (v. 10). Most people struggle to get more honor, but as we imitate our Savior, we should try to excel in humility and give more honor. Our status is secure in Christ, so we do not need to fight for it.
“Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (v. 11). Or as Paul says in Galatians 6:10, Do not grow weary in doing good. It’s not always easy or fun; we have to remember that we are serving God.
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (v. 12). When life is difficult, don’t give up hope — be patient and keep on praying, looking to God for a way to deal with the problems.
“Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (v. 13). Our possessions, like other gifts, should be used to serve others. Even if we don’t own a home, we can be hospitable. At church, for example, we can be hospitable by welcoming others, being easy to approach and willing to help.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (v. 14). Most people want revenge, but that is a destructive approach. If we respond to people in the way that Christ has treated us, then we will respond with good rather than evil.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another” (vv. 15-16). If other Christians are blessed, rejoice with them, rather than being jealous. If they are suffering, empathize with them rather than looking down on them.
“Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (v. 16). Some Christians are in a high position; others are low — that has not changed. But those external matters are not the basis of a person’s real value. If people are less fortunate than you, don’t think less of them for it. Count them as an equal.
Responding to enemies
In verse 17, Paul returns to the way that we should respond to persecution or injustice: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.” In other words, do not harbor grudges, and be sensitive to social values.
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (v. 18). We should do our best to avoid offense. Sometimes that means accepting restrictions on what we can do (1 Cor. 9:20). At other times, it is necessary to stand up for the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:11).
“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (v. 19, quoting Deut. 32:35). Let God take care of whatever punishment is needed — that will stop the cycle of violence.
Instead of vengeance, Paul assigns us a different job: “On the contrary,” Paul says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” (v. 20, quoting Prov. 25:21-22). Various suggestions have been made about why it might be good to put burning coals on someone’s head, but the expression is probably figurative, meaning simply that if we treat our enemies well, they may blush with shame.
Paul concludes the discussion by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21). That is the way of Christ. Evil cannot be beaten by more evil — it can be conquered only by good.
Things to think about
- What steps can I take so that my mind is being conformed to God’s will? (vv. 1-2)
- Am I using my abilities to serve others? (vv. 6-9)
- In what ways can I give honor to others? (v. 10)
- What social values do I need to pay more attention to? (v. 17)
Author: Michael Morrison, 2004, 2011