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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary
Romans 12

 

 

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Verse 3

HUMILITY

‘I say … to every man who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.’

Romans 12:3

Humility is the pre-eminent Christian virtue. Pagan teachers required their followers to be brave, just, and true, but over all as a sort of guard Christianity sets humility.

I. What is humility?—Humility is different from contrition. The man convinced of sin is contrite. There is no one of us who does not know the humility which comes of contrition. But Christian humility is not of necessity connected with repentance and contrition. It is a habit of the mind as bravery is. It is a feature of character as generosity is. Our Lord had not sinned and yet He was humble, and His humility was consistent with a dignity which awed the crowd, with a bravery which impressed His judges, and with a daring which feared no results. The Roman officer was humble. Christian humility is not the servile attitude of a Uriah Heep; it is not the cringing fear of the discovered wrongdoer; it is not the repentance of the proud; it is not the dependence of the man who has no place in the world. Humility is the lowly and true estimate of self; it is acceptance of the place appointed by God, whether it be in the front or the rear; it is simple acquiescence in God’s order to suffer or to act without thought of rights or of reputation. It is the emptiness of self which God fills. Humility is the courtliness of soul, the secret of beauty among men. It is also the secret of progress.

II. Two obstacles hinder the growth of society towards peace and happiness.

(a) One is pride. Because each nation thinks highly of itself, and will not forgo its rights over weak or subject races, the hopes of peace are lowered. Because employers are supercilious and workmen arrogant, wealth is wasted. Because class is suspicious of class, because brother will not forgive brother, there is sorrow and unrest. Pride bars human progress.

(b) But there is perhaps another obstacle which is even more fatal than pride. It is the self-complacency of good people. Christian congregations see with undisturbed minds the long line of their degraded, starved brethren waiting for food; they are content that children should be born and die in sunless courts; they read unmoved of suicides, of disgraceful trials, and of equally disgraceful extravagances. They may, indeed, as individuals, be able to do nothing, but it is their complacency which damps other actions and creates a cold atmosphere in which nothing grows. It is not, it has been truly said, the antagonism of the selfish and wicked so much as the glacier-like apathy of the good which hinders social reform. Good people think too highly of themselves to learn the truth.

III. How can men learn humility?

(a) Meditate on God. Meditate on the Power in Whose grasp all men and all nature lie. Watch the miracle of the spring; stand under the stars, look up, and be humble. Meditate on the purpose of God manifest in history, His purpose of progress as through the ages the human race is led from height to height, ever growing in knowledge, in righteousness and love. Survey the onward march of mankind and go softly. Meditate on the Presence Which enters man’s heart as ever self goes out calling on each human being to co-operate to increase peace and goodwill, holding before each one who surrenders himself great hopes and great ideals, making each one ashamed of desertion, ashamed of cowardice, ashamed of selfishness. Commune with Him Who, being good, loving, and lowly, is ascended to the King of kings and Lord of lords. Commune with the Christ you worship and be still. The man who meditates on God’s power and God’s love cannot be jealous, self-assertive, boastful, proud, or complacent. Let us think of God and learn humility.

(b) Consider the social body, the nation, the community of which you are members. Thinkers and doers, students and labourers, statesmen and tradesmen, soldiers and sailors all work together. No one individual however rich, no workman however skilled, no one class could live by itself. Each honest Englishman does his own work, and each one lives by means of others’ work. Consider further that each one doing his own work is helping to create a whole, a city, a nation, an empire which itself is to be an image of Christ, our England, every nation to be on earth, to be as one which God serveth, to be humble, to co-operate with God in the increase of love.

—Rev. Canon Barnett.

Illustration

‘Abraham Lincoln may be accepted as one who in this latter day has accomplished great things. He is among the nation-makers. He was brave, sagacious, loyal, vigorous; but readers of his life are most struck by his freedom from self-regard. He felt no malice, he asserted no rights, and took no vengeance, yet he controlled mighty passions, and in the midst of war sowed the seeds of peace.’


Verse 4-5

UNITY

‘For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.’

Romans 12:4-5

It is one of the nobler impulses of mankind to reverence that which has been reverenced by those who are esteemed as saints. Many a man has remained in the religious communion in which he was born, not because it the most nearly answers to his ideal, but from a sense of loyalty to his forefathers. That for which they agonised, even though it has lost its force, he clings to, lest the renunciation of it should seem to imply that he slights their memory. Can we therefore be surprised, if to the Jewish Christians of St. Paul’s day it seemed impossible to give up the historic ordinances of the Church of their nation?

Under these circumstances, how was the unity of the Church to be maintained?

It must not be supposed that the freedom of the Gentile Christians was won at no cost to the Church. If it was a blessing to the Gentiles to be freed from the bondage of legalism, it was a calamity to be cut off from those who had not only inherited a far higher standard of righteousness, but who were also by language and mode of thought best able to understand the teaching of the Prophets and Apostles, nay, even of the Lord Jesus Himself. The Christian Church will receive a fuller blessing when it is reinvigorated with Jewish faith and Jewish spiritual insight and Jewish power of devotion. ‘If the casting away of’ the Jews ‘was the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be but life from the dead?’

I. Is not the problem with which the primitive Church was confronted almost the same as the problem which confronts us English Christians in this twentieth century? As the Church in those days was torn asunder by the differences between Jews and Gentiles, so to-day it is torn asunder by the differences between Anglicans on the one hand and many Nonconformist bodies on the other. In the case of some of those who are separated from us there are, it may be, differences of so fundamental a character as for the present, at all events, to preclude the possibility of any sort of union; but in the case of the great majority, that which separates us is not fundamental difference in the essentials of the faith, but merely differences as to Church order—difference of opinion not so much as to the facts of God’s grace, but rather as to the best methods of putting it into the possession of mankind. Now we Anglicans, like the Jewish Christians, have inherited a great tradition, a liturgy and a form of Church government, which, though we freely acknowledge that in some respects they are imperfect and need reformation, as a whole we feel to be good and not lightly to be given up. We rightly reverence our liturgy, consecrated as it is to us by a thousand associations; we rightly value the historic episcopate and the organisation which provides that none shall take upon himself the cure of souls unless he be duly called and sent. But we must be careful that we do not claim for these good things more than is their due. The utmost that we can claim for those things which are perhaps the greatest bar to unity—I mean the historic episcopate, the threefold order of the ministry, and the liturgy—is that the germ of them was in existence at a time when the last of the Apostles had not yet passed away.

II. The things which I have mentioned are good, and the sweeping away of them would be a terrible calamity, but I also believe that we have no more right to refuse to recognise as members of the Body of Christ those who have rejected them than the Jewish Christians had the right to say to their Gentile brethren, ‘Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.’ Let us not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think; but let us think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office; so we, being many, Anglicans and Nonconformists, whether Romanist or Protestant, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.

III. A call to unity.—Men cannot be made by Act of Parliament, or by any other means, lightly to give up all that they have inherited from the past. The most drastic legislation will not effect the unity of the churches, nor convert one single sect. God grant, then, that it may seem good to us, as I believe it seems good to the Holy Ghost Himself, that on the one hand we English Churchmen should loyally and unreservedly acknowledge those who love the Lord Jesus Christ as true members of the Catholic Church, that ‘blessed company of all faithful people,’ and that on the other hand those who have been separated from us should recognise that we are not necessarily less sincere than they because in the minor matters of religion—the great matter, that which is of supreme importance, is the communion with God through our Lord Jesus Christ—we cannot see altogether eye to eye with them. If we will but respect each other’s position, the way will be paved for that perfect fellowship and unity to which we believe the Church must ultimately attain.

IV. Let us humbly determine that by God’s grace we will endeavour to promote the unity of Christians.—Let no political exigency, no prospect of some party advantage, make us deviate from the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. Had He stooped to think of political expediency, had He trimmed and mutilated His Gospel to suit Pharisees on the one hand or Sadducees on the other, the nations of the world would still walk in darkness. Let us cease from bitter memories and from angry recriminations. Let us not think of ourselves or of the particular branch of the Church to which we belong more highly than we ought to think. What is each Church, each individual, apart from the rest, but a ‘broken arc’? Only when the broken arcs are welded together into a ‘perfect round’ will there shine upon the earth the full brightness of heaven.

—Rev. Canon Kennett.


Verse 5

‘MEMBERS ONE OF ANOTHER’

‘So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.’

Romans 12:5

There are some moral and spiritual truths which it seems to be almost impossible to impress upon the practical life of the world, although they meet with a sort of universal acceptance.

I. The purpose of Christ’s revelation is to crucify the selfish instinct in us, and to rouse us to the life of self-devotion, to the idea of consecrated energies; and this being so, all Christian life is of the nature of a warfare; and a warfare which begins afresh with each generation of men; because selfishness, with all its tribe of attendant appetites and passions, springs afresh in every single soul, and is nurtured, strengthened, cultivated, by so many of the conditions of life. If, then, the Spirit of Christ is really to prevail in our life, it must be by effecting our emancipation from selfish instincts, and rousing in us the spirit of devotion to the good of other lives.

II. In proportion as you diminish selfishness in your own life or in any other, by fostering generous affections and cultivating the spirit of social duty and religious aspirations, by walking in the footsteps of Christ and living in the light of His presence, you are laying the only possible foundation of any lasting progress, you are following the one true method by which the mystery of sin is to be overcome.

III. We may wonder that this should be so difficult; for of selfishness we should say that we all dislike it. In its grosser forms we repudiate it. The very word is one which we articulate with a certain accent of contempt. But when we come to its refined and subtle workings in our nature, when we think of its Proteus-like changeableness, its power of assuming the various guises even of duty or religion; when we reflect how it can clothe itself in the choicest garb of art, or science, or Divine philosophy, we find very likely that we are always in danger of being enslaved by it.

And we do well to pray in all sincerity that grace may expel our selfishness; for indeed the influence of true religion is to be gauged by the extent to which this prayer is being fulfilled in us. The fulfilment of it is what we mean by the regenerate life.

—Bishop Percival.

(SECOND OUTLINE)

UNIVERSAL BROTHERHOOD

We who realise our brotherhood remember what it is to be children of the one true Father Whose name is Love, members of that one body with the life of Christ pulsing in our souls and drawing us into a constant union.

I. Brotherhood of nations.—Look at some of its widest and clearest issues. Look at the pictures of all families, families of men north, south, east, and west. We preach the Christ and we profess the Christ, and then we fight, and the most hideous witness against our Christ is war. God made of one blood all the nations of men on the face of the earth. The hideousness of war comes home to us, and we ought not to forget nations at war. We should pray for them and do more. We should so live, so strive, that the world may learn to be Christian, to hate war.

II. Brotherhood in the Church.—Can I narrow it down? There is the family of the Church with fuller responsibility and with fuller knowledge. And that family, the sacred immaculate Body of Christ, is rent and torn asunder by our unhappy divisions. Nay, it is much worse than that, it is by our deliberate sin, by our slothfulness, our carelessness, our refusal to spend any time or trouble upon religion. Those divisions in Christendom are criminal. Do we realise what this disunion means? It means utter confusion, it means many a soul sent to the despair and abyss of perplexity, and it means that many a soul is not won for Christ because the world does not know what He teaches. We must pray for the reunion of Christendom. There is much we might do with sure conviction, and do it in all charity. Do not condemn; do not reject; maybe you are condemning and rejecting Christ. Then by the sweetness and the purity of your own faith speak the truth in love.

III. Brotherhood in the parish.—In our own parish there is the awful need for brotherhood and love, and for sympathy, and all of you may spend your energy in Christ’s service. We have lost our inspiration, we have lost our enthusiasm because we do not believe in the Christ. If you did you could not sit still; if you did you would offer yourself for His work; you would go out from your homes and churches, and you would bring some one single child, man, or woman to the Christ. Realise your brotherhood. Start it in your own homes. If you are parents, do not put anything in the way of your children when they want to go to Christ; and if you are children bear your witness faithfully, and let father and mother see that you are Christ’s. In your work, too, you might give some witness to the Christ. Take one single friend each week and lead him nearer to Jesus. You might let him know that you care for God, and you might make your profession of God a living reality. If this were done the papers and the statisticians would not then have to talk about our empty churches, because every one would come and do his homage to Christ.

Rev. E. Rogers.


Verse 11

ENTHUSIASM

‘Fervent in spirit.’

Romans 12:11

Without the intense fire of God burning in enthusiastic hearts, the moral, the spiritual world, yes, the whole world of man, would sink into a universe of death!

I. Think what enthusiasm has done even in spheres not immediately religious.—The enthusiasm of the student, of the artist, of the discoverer, of the man of science—what else could have inspired their infinite patience, their unlimited self-sacrifice?

II. Again, there is the enthusiasm of the reformer.—Think how low the nations might have sunk if their decadence had not been again and again arrested, and their criminalities again and again rebuked!

III. Again, there is the enthusiasm of the missionary.—In the first centuries the world was full of missionaries. In those days every Christian felt that he was not a Christian if he were not in some form or other God’s missionary. And for centuries the Church produced many a noble missionary: men like Ulfilas, men like Boniface, men like Columba. Then began the ages of neglect and darkness and superstition, and for whole centuries there was only found here and there a man like St. Louis of France, or St. Francis of Assisi, with a mission spirit strong within him. In modern days it is to Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians, to William Carey and the Baptists, that we owe the revival of missionary zeal.

IV. Then, once more, think of the glowing and beautiful enthusiasm of our social philanthropists.—What man has done more for a multitude of souls than John Pounds, the poor Portsmouth cobbler, who, in the simple enthusiasm of ignorant love for the poor ragged children of the streets, became the ultimate founder of Ragged Schools! What a light from heaven was shed upon countless wanderers by the Gloucestershire printer, Robert Raikes, who saw the children wasting their Sundays idly in the streets. Go to the Embankment and see his statue there, and read the inscription: ‘As I asked, “Can nothing be done?” a voice answered, “Try”; I did try, and lo! what God hath wrought.’

—Dean Farrar.

Illustration

‘Like the words “Utopian,” “Quixotic,” “impractical,” “enthusiasm” is one of the mud-banks reared by the world to oppose the swelling tide of moral convictions. The famous saying of Prince Talleyrand, “Surtout, point de zèle”—“Above all, no zeal”—concentrates the expression of the dislike felt by cold, calculating, selfish natures for those who are swept away by the force of mighty and ennobling aspirations. Throughout the eighteenth century—by way of protest first against the sobriety of the Puritans, and afterwards against the waking up of deep religious emotions by Wesley and Whitfield—the sermons of all comfortable, full-fed, wealthy conventionalists were filled with deprecations of enthusiasm. Men did not like the glow of reality, the blaze of deep feeling, the rushing winds of prophecy, harbingers of the dawn bursting over cold, grey lives. What they wished for was the calculating religion of compromise; or an orthodoxy which slumbers because it will not inquire; of a conventionality which never broke their leagues with death or their convenants with hell. They dreaded the throb of a startled conscience, the agony of a revealing light.’


Verse 16

A MUCH-NEEDED PRECEPT

‘Set not your mind on high things, but condescend to things that are lowly.’

Romans 12:16 (R.V.)

I. Here, in the text, is one of those precepts which, rightly understood, is one of the most practical we can set ourselves to master (in the formation of Christian character). The wording is taken advisedly from our New Version, which is nearer to the original than that of the Authorised Version, but nevertheless fails to convey its full meaning. ‘Set not your mind on high things, but be carried away with the lowly’ (not ‘condescend to men of low estate’). That word ‘condescend’ had no place in St. Paul’s vocabulary; it is utterly alien from his thought. Condescension to men of low estate is an idea, not only abhorrent to his mind, but it is totally at variance with the spirit of Christianity. No such thing is contemplated in the Gospel as possible or permissible—this patronage of inferiors, a self-conscious stooping on the part of the more fortunate, wealthy, or nobler-born, to the brother of low degree. There was only One Act of condescension which the Apostle knew, and that one act had made any other impossible and inconceivable. He knew of One Who had stooped from an infinite height, and, in the presence of that self-chosen humiliation of the Divine, all human condescension vanished. The Gospel is the great leveller, not indeed of earthly rank, but of proud hearts.

II. But it is more than doubtful whether St. Paul is here thinking about persons at all.—The authors of our New Version have decided that he was not. ‘Set not your minds on high things, but be swept away, or carried along by, things that are lowly.’ The word used signifies an irresistible pressure or fascination. In the mind of the man who used it, we cannot doubt to what it pointed. Surely to His example, Who for our sakes took up with the things that were lowly; Who deliberately declined what the world covets and admires, and cast in His lot with the needy, the nameless, and the homeless. It is this preference that has consecrated the humble side of life. ‘If He, your Lord and Master, made so lowly a choice,’ St. Paul would say, ‘then lowly things must attract you. You cannot despise what He accepted.’

III. But how far does the Apostolic precept carry us?—Is there no limit to the preference for lowly things? Are we to draw from the text a warning against all high aims in the work of life; does the Gospel condemn ambition in every form? Does it discourage that strong desire in the best of men to succeed? Assuredly not. On the contrary, Christianity, the religion of humility, sets our minds on the very highest things that can kindle the ambition of human hearts. Ours is described by St. Paul as a ‘high calling,’ and we are bidden to rise to the full height of it. In the formation of character, in spiritual attainments, we have no leave to take up with the things that are lowly; we are urged to be ever adding grace to grace, to be growing from strength to strength, to leave the past behind, to press onward to the things that are before; to covet earnestly the best gifts (see also Philippians 4:8-9). He puts before us as objects of thought and endeavour all that is highest and noblest in the world. The Gospel of Christ, rightly understood, sanctions all effort to acquire the best things, and turn them to account by honest endeavour to appreciate the works and to interpret the thought of God.

—Rev. Canon Duckworth.

Illustration

‘The Apostle in this chapter shows in detail what he means by the transformation (of life) referred to in the second verse. He pursues into every region of conduct that renewal of life and character for which he pleads, insisting upon love as its one all-sufficient inspiration. He sees no possibility of vital change save through recognition of the great truth of Christian brotherhood: “We being many are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.” This is the cardinal doctrine of Pauline Christianity, this conviction of unity and variety of the one and the many in the Christian body. He proceeds to develop it, and to point out its manifold applications. He shows how it is to leaven all our views of obligation, to effect our fulfilment of everyday duty, to elevate our motives, to quicken our sense of responsibility for every gift and opportunity we enjoy; how, in a word, it is to inspire every part of the secret and personal life.’

(SECOND OUTLINE)

SYMPATHY ONE WITH ANOTHER

Evidently, neither in Church nor State did God intend men to be upon a dead level. There are between those who constitute a Church real, substantial, heaven-ordained differences, of mental calibre, circumstances of birth and education, physical development, vocation, qualification, tastes, pursuits. How, in view of these, not only separating, but even repelling, forces, can the command here addressed to the members of a Christian community, to sympathise with one another, be practised?

I. The injunction is not that Christians agree in the one creed, or be like-minded in relation to some third object.—It is not unanimity that is here enjoined, but agreement in our state of mind towards one another.

II. ‘Mind’ here includes the feelings as well as the thoughts.—The same word is translated ‘set your affections,’ in the familiar exhortation, ‘set your affections on things above.’

III. The same reference teaches us that the word ‘mind’ expresses the prevailing thoughts, and the strongest desires and affections.—To ‘mind the same thing mutually’ is to give our chief attention and take the liveliest interest in, some one thing found in each of us.

IV. It is evident that limits must be set to the meaning of the injunction before us, much narrower than what the grammatical sense would demand if we take the version in our translation.—Otherwise it would teach anger, jealousy, and misapprehension. The Apostle, then, meant us to take the saying in a limited sense. Holiness, we see, is one limit. The law of apprehension is another. My thoughts and feelings towards a man should be according to the truth. Thus, by appreciating one another’s Christian character Christians are made of the same mind one to another, and drawn together by sympathy. Let not ambition make you blind to Christian worth, but recognise it, and honour it, and do homage to it wherever found. Acting thus, Christians will be of the same mind one toward another, and share in each other’s joys and sorrows. They will not trample on all conventionalities, or despise providential and social distinctions, but they will overcome them, so as to know each other, and bless each other as brethren in Christ.


Verse 18

RESENTMENT

‘If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.’

Romans 12:18

Not with all Christians, you observe, but with all men. They were to act as leaven in the world, and to bring their Christian influence to bear upon it, until the whole be leavened.

I. Christians are not to withdraw themselves altogether from the world, but to mix with it, that ‘others may take knowledge of them’ and see the ‘beauty of holiness’ and the peace and blessedness of Christianity. This attitude is not an easy one. To confess Christ before men is oftentimes a difficult task. The temptation of most men is to follow the line of least resistance. The days of open and active persecution may have passed away, but sneers and ridicule remain—and to sensitive natures they are very galling and exasperating, and their first impulse is to resent such gross impertinence. St. Peter and St. Paul both tell us we must take this form of persecution patiently.

II. We are following in the path of our Divine Master, Who ‘left us an example that we should follow in His steps.’ ‘When He was reviled, He reviled not again,’ ‘When He suffered, He threatened not.’ ‘Avenge not yourselves,’ says St. Paul, ‘but rather give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’ This advice is of a piece with the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Resist not evil.’ Rather than give ‘an eye for an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth,’ or as we should say—‘pay others back in their own coin,’ and actively resent an injury, we should ‘turn to them the other cheek’ or let them ‘take our cloak also.’ Leave vengeance to God. Our weapons are kindness and forbearance. Armed with these we shall the sooner convert an enemy into a friend.

III. We shall find these tactics of great value if we wish to ‘live peaceably with all men.’ We have said that it takes two parties to make peace. It takes two also to make a quarrel. The teaching of the text, we take it, is: Don’t seek or provoke a quarrel, and if it seeks you—well, prove yourself the better man of the two, by showing your opponent the ‘more excellent way.’ If you are wrong, acknowledge it, and you disarm him at once. If you are right, then you can the better afford to wait until the heat has subsided, and when the scales of wrath, which have blinded your opponent for the moment, have fallen away, he will see his mistake and acknowledge it.

—Rev. C. Rhodes Hall.

Illustration

‘The foremost blessing promised by the Gospel is that of peace. One of our Lord’s last promises to His disciples was “My peace I give unto you.” He forewarned them that in the world, to which He was sending them as ambassadors of peace, they would have tribulation. He foretold them that the path on which they were to travel to bear witness of Him was not a path strewn with roses. On the contrary, He told them they would be brought before governors and kings for His sake, and that they should be hated of all men, for His Name’s sake. Still, through all their privations and trials for His sake and the Gospels, they would be sustained and comforted by a “peace which passeth all understanding.” But it was essentially an inward peace. Outside themselves they were to expect war and tumult.’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Romans 12:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/romans-12.html. 1876.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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