David Guzik Commentary on the Bible
Romans 12:1-21 - LIVING THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
A. The foundation for Christian living.
J.B. Phillips has an outstanding and memorable translation of Romans 12:1-2 :
With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give Him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to Him and acceptable by Him. 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.
1. (Romans 12:1) The living sacrifice.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.
a. I beseech you: This reminds us that Paul appeals to our will. God calls us to make a choice about the way that we live for Him.
b. Therefore brethren: It is Paul’s pattern to begin a letter with a strong doctrinal section and follow with exhortations to Christian living. Paul begs Christians to live a certain way in light of what God did for them.
i. “When he uses this pattern Paul is saying that the Christian life is dependent on the great Christian doctrines.” (Morris)
c. By the mercies of God reminds us that we do this because of the mercy shown to us by God (described well in Romans 1:1-32; Romans 2:1-29; Romans 3:1-31; Romans 4:1-25; Romans 5:1-21; Romans 6:1-23; Romans 7:1-25; Romans 8:1-39; Romans 9:1-33; Romans 10:1-21; Romans 11:1-36), and that we are only able to offer ourselves to God as He works His mercy in us. God commanded us to do this, and He makes it possible for us to do it.
i. “Whereas the heathen are prone to sacrifice in order to obtain mercy, biblical faith teaches that the divine mercy provides the basis of sacrifice as the fitting response.” (Harrison)
ii. Think of all the mercies of God Paul has explained to us thus far:
· Adoption in Jesus and identification with Christ
· Set under grace not law
· The gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit
· Help in all affliction
· Standing in God’s election
· The certainty of coming glory
· The confidence of no separation from the love of God
· Total confidence in God’s continued faithfulness
iii. In light of all this mercy - past, present, and future - Paul begs us to present your bodies a living sacrifice. “We must believe that these Divine mercies have persuasive powers over our wills.” (Newell)
d. Present your bodies: Connected with the idea of a living sacrifice, this calls to mind priestly service. Spiritually speaking, our bodies are brought to God’s altar.
i. It is best to see the body here as a reference to our entire being. Whatever we say about our spirit, soul, flesh and mind, we know that they each live in our bodies. When we give the body to God, the soul and spirit go with it. Present your bodies means that God wants you, not just your work. You may do all kinds of work for God, but never give Him your self.
ii. The previous appeal to the will (I beseech you) means that the will is to be the master over the body. The thinking of our age says that our body must tell the will what to do; but the Bible says that our will must bring the body as a living sacrifice to God. The body is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. Keeping it at God’s altar as a living sacrifice keeps the body where it should be.
iii. A Greek would never think of presenting his body to God. They thought that the body was so unspiritual that God was unconcerned about it. Paul shows here that God is concerned about our bodies. 1 Corinthians 6:20 reminds us that God has bought our bodies with a price.
e. A living sacrifice: First century people, both Jews and pagans, knew first hand what sacrifice was all about. To beg that they make themselves a living sacrifice was a striking image.
· The sacrifice is living because it is brought alive to the altar
· The sacrifice is living because it stays alive at the altar; it is ongoing
f. Holy, acceptable to God: When we offer our body, God intends it to be a holy and acceptable sacrifice. The standard for sacrifices made to God under the New Covenant are not any less than the standard under the Old Covenant.
i. In the Old Testament, sacrifice had to be holy and acceptable to God
· He shall bring a male without blemish (Leviticus 1:10)
· But if there is a defect in it, if it is lame or blind or has any serious defect, you shall not sacrifice it to the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 15:21)
· An offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD. (Leviticus 1:9)
ii. The idea of a sweet aroma to the LORD is almost always linked to the idea of an offering made by fire. There is a “burning” in this matter of a living sacrifice. It also shows that Paul has in mind the burnt offering, in which the entire sacrifice was given to the Lord. In some sacrifices, the one offering the sacrifice and the priest shared in the some of the meat; but never in the burnt offering.
iii. The holiness we bring to the altar is a decision for holiness, and yielding to the work of holiness in our life. As we present our bodies a living sacrifice, God makes our life holy by burning away impurities
g. Reasonable service: The ancient Greek word for reasonable (logikos) can also be translated “of the word” (as it is in 1 Peter 2:2). Reasonable service is a life of worship according to God’s Word.
i. The sacrifice of an animal was reasonable service, but only for the one bringing the sacrifice - not for the sacrifice itself. Under the New Covenant we have far greater mercies, so it is reasonable to offer a far greater sacrifice.
2. (Romans 12:2) Resisting conformity to the world and embracing the transformation that comes in Jesus Christ.
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
a. Do not be conformed to this world warns us that the “world system” - the popular culture and manner of thinking that is in rebellion against God - will try to conform us to its ungodly pattern, and that process must be resisted.
b. But be transformed by the renewing of your mind: This is the opposite of being conformed to this world. The battle ground between conforming to the world and being transformed is within the mind of the believer. Christians must think differently.
i. “I don’t want to be conformed to this world. I want to be transformed. How do I do it?” By the renewing of your mind. The problem with many Christians is they live based on feeling, or they are only concerned about doing.
ii. The life based on feeling says, “How do I feel today? How do I feel about my job? How do I feel about my wife? How do I feel about worship? How do I feel about the preacher?” This life by feeling will never know the transforming power of God, because it ignores the renewing of the mind.
iii. The life based on doing says, “Don’t give me your theology. Just tell me what to do. Give me the four points for this and the seven keys for that.” This life of doing will never know the transforming power of God, because it ignores the renewing of the mind.
iv. God is never against feeling and doing. He is a God of powerful and passionate feeling, and He commands us to be doers. Yet feelings and doing are completely insufficient foundations for the Christian life. The first questions cannot be “How do I feel?” or “What do I do?” Rather, it must be “What is true here? What does God’s Word say?”
c. Transformed: This is the ancient Greek word metamorphoo - describing a metamorphosis. The same word is used to describe Jesus in His transfiguration (Mark 9:2-3). This is a glorious transformation!
i. The only other place Paul uses this word for transformed is in 2 Corinthians 3:18 : But we all, 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 by the Spirit of the Lord. For Paul, this transformation and renewing of our minds takes place as we behold the face of God, spending time in His glory.
d. Prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God: As we are transformed on the inside, the proof is evident on the outside, as others can see what the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is through our life.
i. Paul here explains how to live out the will of God:
· Keep in mind the rich mercy of God to you - past, present, and future (by the mercies of God)
· As an act of intelligent worship, decide to yield your entire self to Him (present your bodies a living sacrifice)
· Resist conformity to the thoughts and actions of this world (do not be conformed)
· By focus on God’s Word and fellowship with Him, be transformed by the renewing of your mind
ii. Then, your life will be in the will of God. Your life will prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
iii. You may know what the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is, but you can’t prove it in your life apart from the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
B. Living out the spiritual gifts God has given.
1. (Romans 12:3) A warning to live in humility.
For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.
a. To everyone among you: Paul will soon speak about how we should exercise spiritual gifts in the body of Christ; but a preface warning about humility is in order, given the inordinate pride that often arises from those who regard themselves as spiritually gifted.
i. We should remember that spiritual giftedness does not equal spiritual maturity; just because a person has substantial spiritual gifts does not mean that they are necessarily spiritually mature or a worthy example to imitate.
b. Not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think: Paul does not advise any kind of masochistic attitude, but rather he tells us to see the truth about ourselves. When we see ourselves as we really are, it is impossible to be given over to pride.
c. The idea of as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith is probably that we should see even our saving faith as a gift from God, and that we have no basis for pride or a superior opinion of ourselves.
2. (Romans 12:4-5) Unity and diversity in the body of Christ.
For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.
a. Many members in one body: The church is a unified whole (one body), yet we are distinct within that one body (individually members). In the body of Christ there is unity but not uniformity.
b. We err when we neglect either aspect; unity should never be promoted at the expense of individuality, and individuality should never diminish the church’s essential unity in Christ; He is our common ground, we are one body in Christ.
3. (Romans 12:6-8) An exhortation to use (and how to use) the gifts God has granted to the individual members of the church.
Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
a. Having then gifts: The difference and distribution of gifts is all due to the grace that is given to us. Spiritual gifts are not given on the basis of merit, but because God chooses to give them.
i. This idea is related in the ancient Greek word for “spiritual gifts”: charismata, which means a gift of grace. This term was apparently coined by Paul to emphasize that the giving of these spiritual gifts was all of grace.
ii. Spiritual gifts are given at the discretion of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:11 says, But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.
iii. Knowing this should be an insurmountable barrier to pride in the exercise spiritual gifts. However man, in the depravity of his heart, finds a way to be proud about spiritual gifts and insists on exalting men for how God has gifted them.
b. If prophecy: Prophecy must be practiced in proportion to our faith. God may give us something to say to an individual or church body that stretches our faith. If we can’t prophecy in faith and trust that God has really spoken to us, we shouldn’t do it at all.
i. We are reminded that prophecy, in the Biblical understanding, isn’t necessarily “fore-telling” in a strictly predictive sense. It is more accurately “forth-telling” the heart and mind of God, which may or may not include a predictive aspect.
ii. This warns us against flippant, “stream of consciousness” prophecy that has no difficulty saying, “Thus says the Lord” at the drop of a hat.
iii. In proportion to our faith actually has the before faith. Paul may be cautioning that prophecy must be according to the faith, in accord with the accepted body of doctrine among believers.
iv. Some take the proportion of faith to be the proportion of the faith of the audience of the prophecy; this has truth also.
v. Prophecy does not have to be practiced in an ostentatious, “heavy” manner, but it does need to be taken seriously by those who prophesy if it is ever to be taken seriously by those who hear.
c. Ministry has in view the broader picture of simply serving in practical ways. Paul sees this as important ministry from the Holy Spirit as well.
d. Teaching has in mind instruction, while exhortation encourages people to practice what they have been taught; both are necessary for a healthy Christian life.
i. Those who are taught but not exhorted become “fat sheep” that only take in and never live the Christian life. Those who are exhorted but not taught become excited and active, but have no depth or understanding to what they do and will burn out quickly or work in wrong ways.
e. He who gives refers to someone who is a channel through whom God provides resources for His body. This is an important spiritual gift that must be exercised with liberality. When someone who is called and gifted to be a giver stops giving Iiberally, they will often see their resources dry up - having forgotten why God has blessed them.
f. He who leads must show diligence. It is easy for leaders to become discouraged and feel like giving up, but they must persevere if they will please God by their leadership.
g. He who shows mercy must have cheerfulness. It can be hard enough to show mercy, but even harder to be cheerful about it. This reminds us that the gift of showing mercy is a supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit.
C. A series of brief instructions on living like a Christian with others.
This section shows one thing clearly: Paul knew the teaching of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount
1. (Romans 12:9-13) Relating to those in the Christian family.
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.
a. Let love be without hypocrisy: Of course, love with hypocrisy isn’t real love at all; but much of what masquerades as “love” in the Christian community is laced with hypocrisy, and must be demonstrated against.
b. In some ways, it is often easier for us to either abhor what is evil or cling to what is good rather than doing both. The godly person knows how to practice both.
c. Be kindly affectionate to one another: This is a command, that Christians should not have a cold, stand-offish attitude. In honor giving preference to one another shows that the displays of affection are genuine.
i. We should see in this, as much as anything, a call to simple good manners among Christians.
d. Not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord: If we are called to warm relations and good manners, we also know that we are called to hard work. The church is no place for laziness.
i. Fervent in spirit could be translated, “with respect to the spirit, boiling.”
e. Rejoicing in hope: The call to hope usually has in mind our ultimate reward with Jesus. Paul says we serve God rejoicing in hope, not rejoicing in results. This shows how we are commanded to do all these things with an eye towards heaven. This how we fulfill the command for hope, patience and steadfast character described here.
f. Patient in tribulation: Difficult times do not excuse us when we abandon hope or patience or continuing steadfastly in prayer. Trials do not excuse a lack of love in the body of Christ or a lack of willingness to do His work.
i. Patience “denotes not a passive putting up with things, but an active, steadfast endurance.” Tribulation “denotes not some minor pinprick, but deep and serious trouble.” (Morris)
g. Our care and concern will demonstrate itself in practical deeds done for others, either going to them (distributing to the needs of the saints) or inviting them to come to us (given to hospitality)
i. The ancient Greek word for hospitality is literally translated “love for strangers.” In addition, “given” is a strong word, sometimes translated “persecute” (as in Romans 12:14). The idea is to “pursue” people you don’t know with hospitality. This is love in action, not just feelings.
2. (Romans 12:14) Relating to those outside of the Christian family.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
a. Bless those who persecute you: We are not to have a hateful attitude towards anyone, not even towards those who persecute us.
b. Jesus spoke of this same heart in Matthew 5:46 : For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? The surpassing greatness of the love of Jesus in us is shown in that it can be extended to our enemies.
c. Who persecute you: Of course, not all persecution comes from outside the church. Jesus told us the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. (John 16:2)
3. (Romans 12:15-21) How to get along with people both inside and outside the church.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
a. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: This is how we can fulfill the command to be of the same mind toward one another. It is a simple command to be considerate of the feelings of others instead of waiting for them to be considerate of your feelings.
b. Paul also cautions us to have a humble mind-set. In refusing to set our mind on high things and in associating with the humble, we simply imitate Jesus. Do not be wise in your own opinion reminds us of how far we still have to go in actually being like Jesus.
c. Repay no one evil for evil recalls Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:38-45. We are to love our enemies and treat well those who treat us badly.
d. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men is a way to live out the idea of praising what is good. People should be able to see what is good and what is not based on our conduct.
e. Live peaceably with all men reminds us that though we are in contrast to the world, we do not seek out contention. If it is possible, we will be at peace with all men.
i. “If it be possible indicates that it may not always be possible.” (Murray)
f. Do not avenge yourselves: The one who trusts in God will not think it necessary to avenge themselves. They will leave the issue of vengeance to God, and give place to wrath - giving no place to their own wrath, and a wide place to God’s wrath.
g. With this mind-set, we will do good to our enemies, looking for the most practical ways we can help them. This is the way we are not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
i. Is the heaping coals of fire on his head something good in the eyes of our enemy or is it something bad? It most likely refers to a “burning conviction” that our kindness places on our enemy. Or, some think it refers to the practice of lending coals from a fire to help a neighbor start their own - an act of kindness that would be appreciated.
ii. Nevertheless, we see that we can destroy our enemy by making him our friend.
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