Right relationships in Christ (preaching resource for 11/27/22)

This post exegetes Romans chapters 12 and 13, providing context for the RCL Epistles reading for 11/27/22 (the first Sunday of Advent). This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary") and John Stott ("The Message of Romans").

"The Way of Joy" by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)

Introduction

As he does in most of his epistles, Paul concludes Romans with a list of practical duties (imperatives) that flow out of his presentation of the gospel, with its indicatives of grace. This is Paul's Christ-centered,  gospel-focused and grace-based approach to Christian living where behavior flows from belief; doing flows from being. The ethics to which Paul now turns focuses on relationships—beginning with our relationship with God and extending into our relationships with people. By grace, we are rightly related to God in Christ, and now through Christ we are (also by grace) rightly related to people and even to the State. This is the transformation that occurs not through the law (a rules-based life) but through the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.

Our relationship to God (12:1–2)

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Paul begins with the key word therefore. This is the fourth “therefore” in Romans. Romans 3:20 is the “therefore” of condemnation, Romans 5:1 of justification, and Romans 8:1 of assurance. Now in Romans 12:1 it is the “therefore” of our consecration (devotion) to God, which bears the fruit of right relationships with God and with people (including the State). Because the gospel is true for us (we are beneficiaries of God’s mercies), our behavioral response is one of consecration to God, which is expressed in right living (right relating). God's lavish grace is the wellspring and foundation of the consecration (commitment-devotion) to him of our whole being: body, mind and will.

1. Give God your body (1)

Before we trusted Christ, we used our body for sinful pleasures and purposes, but now that we know we belong to Him, we consecrate our body for His glory. According to Paul, the Christian’s body is God’s temple (1Cor. 6:19–20) because the Spirit of God dwells within us (Rom. 8:9). Indeed, it is our privilege to glorify and magnify Christ in our body (Phil. 1:20–21). 

Just as Jesus Christ took 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 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, serving as our High Priest and Advocate before the throne of God. 

The verb "offer" in verse 1 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 two reasons for this commitment: (1) it is the right response to all that God has done for us—“I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy”; and (2) this commitment is our “true and proper worship.” This means that every day is a worship experience when our bodies are yielded to the Lord. 

2. Give God your mind (2a)

The world wants to control your mind, but God wants to transform it. 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. 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 being, God gradually makes your mind more spiritual (see 2 Cor. 3:18). 

3. Give God your will (2b) 

Your mind controls your body, and your will controls your mind. Many people think they can control their will by “willpower,” but that approach inevitably fails. It is only when we yield our 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. Through the spiritual disciplines (prayer, Bible Study, meditation, fasting, etc.) we surrender our wills to God, praying, as did Jesus, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” 

Our relationship to other believers (12:3–16)

3 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. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 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; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Paul was writing to Christians who were members of house churches in Rome. He described their relationship to each other in terms of the members of a single body. The basic idea is that each believer is a living part of Christ’s body, and each has a particular spiritual function to perform. Each believer has a gift (or gifts) to be used in building up of the body of Christ and the perfecting of the other members of that body. In short, we belong to each other, we minister to each other, and we need each other. Paul addresses the essentials for spiritual ministry and growth in the body of Christ: 

1. Honest evaluation (3) 

Each Christian must know what his spiritual gifts are and what ministry (or ministries) he is to have in the local church. We should neither overrate our giftedness (boast of our gifts); nor should we undervalue them (belittle or deny what God has given to us). Both of these wrong attitudes come from a false pride—refusing to properly acknowledge God’s grace and give Him the credit. 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 credit for them, all we can do is accept them and use them to honor God.  

2. Faithful cooperation (4–8)

Each believer has a different gift (or gifts), 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. Whatever gift we have must be dedicated to God, respected by all, and used for the good of the whole church. 

3. Loving participation (9–16)

Here the emphasis is on the attitudes of those who exercise the gifts. It is possible to use a spiritual gift in an unspiritual way. Paul makes this same point in 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter” of the New Testament. Love is the circulatory system of the spiritual body, which enables all the 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). We are to honor others above ourselves. 

Serving Christ usually brings 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). 

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. When a local church decides it wants only a certain class of people in its midst, it departs from the Christian ideal for ministry. 

Our relationship to our enemies (12:17–21)

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 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. 20 On the contrary: “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.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The believer who seeks to obey God is going to have 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 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. 

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 in urging 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; other commentators note that in the first century, to give your neighbor the coals from your fire (which they would carry home in a pan or basket placed on their head) was a highly valued and generous gift. Jesus says to do good to those who persecute us. 

Our relationship to the State (13:1–14)

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.

Paul was writing to believers who resided at the very heart of the Roman Empire. At that time, Christianity was still considered a Jewish sect, and the Jewish religion was approved by Rome—the great persecution of Christians by the Roman government had not yet begun. Yet, some Christians were refusing to obey Roman law. In Romans chapter 13, Paul presents four reasons that Christians are to be in subjection to the laws of the State. 

1. For wrath’s sake (1–4)

It is God who has established the governments of the world. This does not mean He is responsible for the sins of tyrants, but only that the authority to rule comes originally from God. As noted in the book of Daniel, it was this lesson that Nebuchadnezzar had to learn the hard way. To resist the law is to resist the God who established government in the world, and this means inviting punishment. 

God established human government because man is a sinner and must have some kind of authority over him. God has given the sword to rulers, and with it the authority to punish. Even though we cannot always respect the man in office, we must respect the office, for government was ordained by God. On more than one occasion in his ministry, Paul used the Roman law to protect his life and to extend his work. Even though government officials are not believers, they are still the “servants [ministers] of God” because God established the authority of the State. 

2. For conscience’s sake (5–7)

We move a bit higher in our motivation now. Any citizen can obey the law because of fear of punishment, but a Christian ought to obey because of conscience. Of course, if the government interferes with conscience, then the Christian must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). But when the law is right, the Christian must obey it if he is to maintain a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:5, 19; 3:9; 4:2; Acts 24:16). 

Romans 13:7 commands us to pay what we owe: taxes, revenue, respect, honor. If we do not pay our taxes, we show disrespect to the law, the officials, and the Lord. And this cannot but affect the conscience of the believer. We may not agree with all that is done with the money we pay in taxes, but we dare not violate our conscience by refusing to pay. 

3. For love’s sake (8–10)

Paul enlarged the circle of responsibility by including other people besides government officials. Paul writes “Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another" (8a). We are to pay our taxes and not incur debt in that way.  But there is one debt which we can never ‘pay off’—our duty to love. We can never say 'I have loved enough.' 

 “Love one another (as I have loved you)” is the basic principle of the Christian life. It is the “new commandment” that Christ gave us (John 13:34). When we love others with Jesus’ self-sacrificial love, our behavior is being directed by Christ through the indwelling Spirit and we have no need of an external law code. If we love others, we will not sin against them. 

As believers, we do not live under the Law of Moses; our ‘law’ is the love of Christ, which is ‘shed abroad’ in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. What the law was to the old covenant, Jesus and his love through the Holy Spirit are to the new covenant. After all, the law can not change a human heart—only the Spirit can do that. But because the heart of unregenerate man is sinful, God established government as his agent to maintain some degree of stability.  

4. For Jesus’ sake (11–14)

We are also to relate rightly to the State (and to all others in the full breadth of our relationships) because Jesus’ is coming back. As His servants who are saved by grace, we desire to be found faithful every day, including on the great day of Jesus' return in glory. Paul gives three admonitions in the light of the Lord’s return: 

  • Wake up! (11): Relate this with 1 Thess. 5:1–11 and Mat. 25:1–13. 
  • Clean up! (12): We want to be found living in the light, not expressing the deeds of darkness. 
  • Grow up! (14): To “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ" means to receive by faith all that He is for our daily living—to become more like him in every aspect of our being. We grow on the basis of the food we eat. This is why God warns us not to make provisions for the flesh. If we feed the flesh, we reap the ‘fruit’ of the flesh; but if we feed our human spirit with the nourishing things of the Holy Spirit, we will reap His glorious fruit.

Conclusion

Thank God that we are saved by grace apart from the law! Let us, therefore, in gratitude present our bodies and our whole beings to God as living sacrifices, consecrated to the Lord's service, all for His glory. By the same grace that saved us, God will transform us. As we await the fulness of that transformation to come in the resurrection at Jesus' return, let us yield ourselves daily to our Lord's good work in our lives. Amen.