Paul devoted himself in chapters 9 to 11 of Romans to the penetrating truths of election and divine sovereignty. This was particularly in connection with God’s purposes for Israel and the apostle’s own longing for their salvation. Now in chapter 12 he picks up the thread of his main discourse which had led him to rejoice in the truth that nothing can separate the believer from the love of Christ.
So chapter 12 opens with, ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship’. We have moved into the latter part of Paul’s letter now, and find theology and doctrine matched perfectly with intensely practical teaching and exhortation for the Christian life. He first sets out a rich panorama of Christian virtues in this lovely, yet challenging, passage. Then the apostle passes in chapters 13, 14 and 15 to their application; first, in relation to secular government and society; then in some detail to day by day relationships with fellow believers in the church, as well as to men and women in general.
But first, this ringing challenge to total dedication, a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, our reasonable service, or spiritual worship. Paul sets his sights very high for the disciples in Rome – and for us. ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’. So J.B. Phillips renders the text very expressively. We are to be transformed by mind renewal. All of us who love the Saviour and live in this wicked and seductive world, know well enough what the Holy Spirit is saying to us here. Can we accept the challenge? Is it away beyond our feeble reach? No, says Paul. Certainly ‘do not think of yourself more highly than you ought’ but, at the same time, understand that God has given each what He calls a ‘measure of faith’. And, he says, ‘we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others’.
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul expounds this fascinating comparison with the human body. Here in Romans it is simply stated to establish in our minds that each member has a function, an endowment, a gift to use for the Lord. Let any Christian who is tempted to wonder what gift he, or she, has comparable to preaching or teaching, come to Romans 12 and they will soon find out to their great encouragement.
We cannot go through this comprehensive list of Christian virtues – for that is what they are – in detail. They touch every aspect of life and show that no-one is left out in their capacity to serve and please the Lord. Look at verse 8, ‘encouraging; contributing to the needs of others;’ or verse 9, showing sincere love. A talent I may deploy for the Master, you ask? Yes, indeed. And so on – do read through this colourful portrait of the positive, holy Christian life. ‘Joyful in hope … faithful in prayer’, practising hospitality; not necessarily lavish entertaining, just sharing what you have. ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn’. Perhaps it’s not over important whether we see some of these as gifts or as natural endowments sanctified to God’s glory. They all conspire to provide a lovely picture of Christlikeness. ‘Do not be proud … Do not repay anyone evil for evil’. Remember Peter’s words about the Lord Jesus, ‘When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats’. (1 Peter 3:23) ‘”It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord’. But you, ‘”If your enemy is hungry, feed him.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.
Chapter 13 of Romans begins with spiritual instruction about the Christian and secular government. ‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities … The authorities that exist have been established by God.’ This teaching of submission to governmental authority is not only to avoid punishment. More importantly, it is ‘also because of obedience’. It is true Christianity in action, and lies in Scripture alongside the Master’s own teaching. ‘”Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”‘ There came a point when a Caesar demanded worship as deity, and noble Christians went to the arena and the lions in rendering only to Jesus Christ the title ‘Lord’. But they went there as honourable disciples of Christ who had acknowledged and honoured the emperor to the limit of his God-given authority.
Our earnest prayers are called for today for believers in some countries where wisdom is needed to recognize these limits in immensely complex situations. God grant them the faith and courage to honour the Lord by their actions.