Paul and the Letter to the Romans, Part 4
By David Hulme
This is the final installment of a series on the book of Romans, using Cranfield’s International Critical Commentary as the template. We begin with Romans 12.
The following section of the book of Romans (12:1–15:13) contains practical details and principles of how followers of Christ are to live as called-out people who have been granted the gift of the Spirit of God in their lives — how they are to apply the underlying truth of the good news of God’s way of life.
The Obedience of Those Who Are Called
“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. 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” (Romans 12:1–2).
The word therefore in this introduction means that this section follows from what has gone before in the whole book; as a result of God’s calling and the receiving of the Holy Spirit, life has to be lived a certain way by the follower of Christ. This is not optional: “I beseech you” is making a claim on the believer’s obligation to obey God in living this new life. The self is to be offered as a sacrifice. This life is holy in that it now belongs to God and is set apart.
It is acceptable to God because it is right, and service is reasonable (Greek, logikos: rational, spiritual) in that the new life springs from a right attitude of mind, consistent with God’s truth. Inner belief is evident in outward practice.
The distinction between former ways and the new life is highlighted in the contrast between “conform” and “transform.” A better rendering would be “Stop allowing yourselves to be conformed and continue to let yourselves be transformed.” One behavior has to stop and the other has to go on continuously through life by the work of the Holy Spirit in partnership with the human spirit. As this process continues, followers discover what is right before God — by doing.
And with obedience comes understanding. Believers do not always see why God’s ways are right and best, but part of the lesson is learning to trust God’s instruction, to grow and to learn the next lesson. Progress comes by exhibiting faith, by doing.
A Spirit-Led Community
The next section deals with how to relate to others in the congregation: “I say . . . to everyone . . . 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. 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” (verses 12:3–5).
Each person should have a humble estimation of self in relation to others, though each one has different talents and roles within the body of Christ. Followers are to be moderate, balanced and realistic in their self-assessment, understanding the value of everyone’s differing contribution in the Church as part of a functioning Spirit-led community. When each one considers the other, the community works as designed. It is God who gives the abilities and gifts, and He expects that His people will use them to benefit everyone, to effectively serve others.
Romans 12:6–8 offers advice for individuals. Four of seven gifts are to do with practical assistance — serving, giving, leading, being merciful. It’s by this demonstration of outgoing godly love that all men will know the followers of Christ (John 13:34–35).
The next section contains a series of exhortations to the Church as a whole. It is to become a community of very different people — Christlike and genuine as a result. After the initial instruction on love, the instructions come in six pairs, provided here as a numbered list for clarity:
“Let love [Greek, agape] be without hypocrisy [be genuine].
1) Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.
2) Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love [Greek, philadelphia], in honor giving preference to one another;
3) not lagging in diligence [zealous], fervent in spirit [fired up],
4) serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope,
5) patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer;
6) distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality” (verses 9–13).
There’s a lot to do in this listing, and each pair is worthy of study.
Living Peaceably With Others
Next, we read about how to relate to persecutors and opposition, as well as the right attitude toward people in general, both inside and outside the Church.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (verse14). The natural inclination is
to retaliate to opposition. This is the wrong response. Followers can stop themselves and decide on the right response.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (verse 15). Getting along with people, appreciating where they are and being empathetic is an important quality. To feel what they feel is invaluable in helping them and in appreciating their blessings with them. It means listening carefully to the other; the giving of undivided attention is made impossible by self-centeredness.
In the Church, members are to agree with each other in general about calling and the truth: “Be of the same mind toward one another. . . . “ And although in this world, the pursuit of status, wealth, position, possessions, and getting ahead of others is normal, this should not be where members are coming from: “Associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion” (verse16).
Returning to the desire for retribution, Paul advises: “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men [do the right thing by others, setting a good example]” (verse 17).
In terms of living with other people both inside and outside the Church: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves . . . ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him’” (verses18–20).
This is a state of mind. Anger and belligerence toward others is not God’s way; they must be replaced, with God’s help, with an attitude that doesn’t seek retaliation. This was Christ’s approach.
Finally, there is a return to the theme with which the section began in verse 9: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (verse 21).
Fulfilling the Law
Chapter 13 discusses dealing rightly with outside authorities. When there is conflict between man’s law and God’s law, then Acts 5:29 applies (“We ought to obey God rather than men”). However, as Paul makes clear, followers of Christ are to heed this instruction: “let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. . . . Whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, . . . For rulers are not a terror to good works. . . . For he is God’s minister to you for good. . . . Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear [God], honor to whom honor [the Emperor]” (Romans 13:1–7).
The Church membership is to have an approach to civil government that demonstrates a law-abiding people. Lack of cooperation or rejection of authorities is not part of the godly way of life, because the authorities are allowed to be there by God and generally operate for good. In that sense, they are God’s servants (compare with 1 Peter 2:17).
Next, Paul moves from paying taxes to paying what is owed to fellow man. What can never be fully repaid is the debt of love toward others: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).
Fulfilling the law means loving all others, not just one another. The focus is on the connection between law, love and other human beings generally: “For the commandments . . . are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (verses 9–10).
Paul brings the discussion to what is essential as members live in a world that is coming to its end.
The Church must be spiritually alert so that they are ready for the eventuality of Christ’s return: “And do this [be law-abiding in respect of others], knowing the time. . . . For now, our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. . . . Put on the Lord Jesus Christ [the armor of light]” (verses 11–12).
Boundaries of Conscience
In the next section, Paul, writing from Corinth which had a history of problems, knew that similar difficulties could arise about foods, abstinence, judging others and the need for unity. While there are parallels with 1 Corinthians 8–10, the main subject matter in Romans 14 is not the same.
How do believers get along when they are trying to live up to a high standard and see others who, for various reasons may not do the same? What are the boundaries of conscience? These can be trying individual issues that cause rifts. They are where the day-to-day business of living according to God’s way is tested. What about someone who is weaker in faith on an issue?
“Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes [has faith that] he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables” (Romans 14:1–2).
Openness to those who may be weaker in faith to do certain allowable things is essential, but not to argue or force understanding on them.
This section is about avoiding meat and eating only vegetables — asceticism, demonstrated by vegetarianism. People from pagan society had these ideas, whereas those from Jewish/Israelite backgrounds did not. According to Paul, those members whose consciences had been affected by this practice and could not rise above it were weak. Godly love for such brethren should be demonstrated by refraining in their presence even from what is allowable, if it would offend them. Self-restraint for the good of others is a key evidence of the godly mind at work.
The subject here is not clean and unclean food. Nor is it food offered to idols: the Greek term is nowhere used here. Paul deals with that subject in 1 Corinthians 8–10, where he expresses the same overall concern: causing someone to stumble is not a demonstration of godly love (1 Corinthians 8:7–13).
Determinations of Behavior
Paul now extends the problem of judging to both sides: “Let not him who eats [meat] despise
him who does not eat [meat], and let not him who does not eat [meat] judge him who eats [meat]; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? . . . For God is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:3–4).
Next, another area of conscience-based difference is about setting days aside for abstaining from food — a further aspect of asceticism. Some were still doing so, trapped by their religious past, and others said there was no such distinction between days according to God’s way. The context is still food, not the Sabbath and holy days: “One person esteems one day above another [for abstaining from food according to social practice]; another esteems every day alike [does not make such distinctions]. Let each [act according to conscience]. . . . He who eats [meat], eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat [meat, but is a vegetarian], to the Lord he does not eat [meat], and gives God thanks” (verses 5–6).
To settle such differences, Paul shows that believers, weak and strong, are all God’s people: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. . . . For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (verses 8–9).
Judging others of God’s people in these matters is not wise. Making determinations about the behavior of others is necessary, but not to condemn them: “Why do you judge your brother? . . . So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. . . . There is nothing unclean of itself [eating meat or drinking wine is not defiling]; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean [i.e., if someone with a weak conscience thinks it’s unclean, then for him to or her to go against conscience would be sin; see verse 23]” (verses 10–14).
The word for unclean here is the same as, or related to, the word translated “common” in Acts 10:14–15 and 28, “[Peter] said to them, . . . ‘God has shown me that I should not call any man common [ordinary, impure, not set apart] or [ritually] unclean.’”
No one should look on anyone else in the Church as unclean or ordinary before God. This was the lesson Peter had to learn about the rest of mankind. God does not view uncalled humanity that way — they are all His children and sooner or later will have access to Him.
The real debate here is about approach to others in the Church: “Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. . . . The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. Therefore let us pursue the things that make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. . . . It is good [not to] do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended. . . . Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. . . . But he who doubts is condemned if he eats [against his conscience], because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:15–23).
The context does not end with the chapter break but extends into another line of thought: “We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself” (Romans 15:1–3). Members should be actively seeking to build up their brethren, not tear them down. Christ was the ultimate servant, which is recalled each year at Passover.
“For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another . . . that you may with one mind . . . glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God” (verses 4–7).
The Bible should be read with this in mind: that all the events and happenings are recorded for learning and example. The journey through this way of life is not easy; it is the narrow way and is difficult at times. But the fact that followers are all on the same path should cause them to want to serve and help each other with a deep affection that springs from God’s love at work. Unity within the Church springs from that godly love in action.
Paul refers again to the Jews and gentiles who have become members of spiritual Israel (verses 8–9). Christ, at His first coming, was recognized as fulfilling promises to the fathers as well as prophecies in Isaiah about all of mankind being reconciled to the Father (Luke 2:25–32). Paul then reminds his audience, probably primarily gentiles, that he is their apostle; he quotes four passages, which span the Old Testament canon, about God calling the nations (verses 9–13).
In coming to his conclusion, Paul tells the brethren that he is confident of them, even though he has written very directly to them (verses 14–19).
He was about to begin a journey from Corinth to Jerusalem with food aid collected for the hungry brethren there. But he planned after that to pass through Rome en route to Spain, because he considered the phase of the work he had done in the eastern region to be complete (verses 20–33).
Dealing With Dissention
The next section discusses what the Church members are to do when dissension strikes.
“Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions [in Greek, dichostasia: “separations, factions, divisions, schisms”] and offenses [skandalon: “causing people to be trapped, to sin, or to be ruined”], contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid [ekklino: “get out of the way of”] them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple [innocent, unsuspecting]” (Romans 16:17–18).
Paul is telling the congregations to recognize and stay away from people who bring divisive ideas among them contrary to the gospel, because they lead to people stumbling and cause them to be trapped. Discernment and action are required of all in applying what other passages instruct: “If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself” (1 Timothy 6:3–5).
“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 John 10–11).
These instructions about people who bring dissenting ideas are very clear. The brethren are to have nothing to do with them, lest they share in their evil. It isn’t just that they teach wrong ideas; they also in some cases flatter and speak in persuasive ways to draw away people after themselves because it may give them financial or other rewards. If it is known that someone has done or is doing such, withdrawal from them is the only option, because by giving them the hand of friendship, followers of Christ may inadvertently aid those who are trying to destroy other brethren.
Throughout his epistles, Paul gave instructions about how to handle people who do not walk according to the way of life to which they have committed themselves: “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:10–11).
“But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
“I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the . . . immoral people of this world, . . . since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person” (1 Corinthians 5:9–11).
How did Paul deal with such people?
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles. . . . And you . . . have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I . . . have already judged (as though I were present) him. . . . In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:1–5).
In this case, the lesson seems to have been learned and the person returned to the fellowship (2 Corinthians 2:1–11). In another case, we do not know the final outcome: “This charge I commit to you, son Timothy . . . [have] faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected . . . have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:18–20).
There are clear instructions given in various circumstances to protect the Church, and to help bring erring individuals back to spiritual equilibrium.
The onus is on each individual to determine the boundaries of such relationships. What cannot be tolerated is the diluting of the identity of God’s people and the security of that identity. Unclear thinking about relationships with people who have left the Church, yet who still seek contact as if nothing has happened, should not blur identity.
Think of the situation as a continuum, with various actions required according to the circumstances of what is known and what might become known.
At one end are the openly divisive, seeking to draw people away from the Church and to introduce unscriptural ideas that are promised to liberate. Believers would have nothing to do with them.
There are those who are living a life opposed to God’s way. They too would be avoided.
There are those who have departed — perhaps out of weakness — and pose no threat because they say nothing against the Church and its teachings. If such people seek help or offer help, followers would give and receive it.
There are departed family members whose closeness means that followers must determine the boundaries of their relationships and thoughtfully determine on what basis to have contact. When husbands and wives have gone separate ways and have become divisive, there are limits on what level of avoiding there can be. This is where each must make a determination for his or her own spiritual welfare. It will be necessary to define the terms of the relationship.
Each of these situations requires that members individually make determinations and take the right action.
Paul’s letter to Rome is more than just an interesting philosophical or scriptural discussion. It contains much that relates to the lives of those of called out — summoned — today. Just as his first-century audience — the members in Rome — was to draw lessons for their day and circumstances, so are followers today.
The letter concludes with these encouraging words: “Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith — to God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen” (Romans 16:25–27).
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