If you were here for the last few weeks in our study of Romans 12, then you will remember that chapter 12 deals with the practical application of the doctrine espoused in the first eleven chapters. And practically speaking, chapter 12 is focused on the life of the church. Paul says how we are live out the doctrines of justification and sanctification and glorification is by presenting our bodies physically to the church body, as a living sacrifice which is our worship to the Lord.
And the dominate focus of the chapter deals with how we live out our Christianity in the church in community with one another. Paul delineates how we are to exercise our spiritual gifts in the church not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of one another. How we are to exercise humility in our relationship with one another, and most importantly, how we are to love one another. And in that context he talks about contributing to one another’s needs as the church.
So it’s all about the church. The church is Christ’s body, a corporate, communal, and local assembly of believers who are connected as a family, born of the same Father, filled with the same spirit. So that as Jesus said; they will know that you are my disciples by your love for one another. Who will know? The watching world will know.
It’s interesting to notice that in the first NT church, they were all living together in Solomon’s portico which was in the temple compound in Jerusalem, and they had adapted that spot as the site of their church. They had about 5000 people assembled there and they had all things in common. And though I don’t think the point of that is to teach that communal living is God’s plan for the church, I do think there were a lot of things that we can take away from that. One is they were studying the word of God at the apostle’s feet daily.
It says of this church in Acts 2:46-47 that they were “Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” And the point I want emphasize this morning is that it says they had favor with all the people. I think that is speaking of the people outside of the church – all the Jews that visited the temple, that were witnesses to this great revival that was going on in their midst. As they saw this church living together, they saw the love that Jesus spoke of, they saw the way they conducted themselves in the community, they saw a new type of person that was no longer conformed to the world, but transformed, and this church was viewed favorably by the world. And as a result, it says that there were added to their number day by day those that were being saved. In other words, the church’s daily testimony of life caused the world to want to be saved, caused the world to want what they had.
Now that is appropriate to what Paul is saying in this chapter. He has urged the church to be transformed, to no longer be conformed to the standard of the world. He has told them how to live together and love one another. And now Paul tells the church how they are to deal with outsiders. Those that are outside the church. How we are to live in the world as transformed Christians. And the point is that we might be like Christ to the world. We might win the world to Christ by the way we communicate, by the way we respond, by our compassion and by our condescension to the world. Paul uses that word condescension, but not in the way we think of, which is to look down upon someone, but in the sense of coming down off your high horse and having compassion for the people who are outside of the church. And the goal is that the way we respond to the world is the means by which the world may come to know the gospel and be saved.
Paul then gives a series of exhortations or encouragements in how we are to act towards outsiders, people in the world. Now the key in this series of exhortations is the same as it was in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul is talking to, as Jesus also was referencing, a people who have a new nature, who have been born again and are operating in the power of the Spirit. An indication of that is found back in the first part of the chapter when Paul talks about spiritual gifts. In order for the church to be able to fulfill this kind of behavior, there must have first been a change of heart, a new nature, having received the power of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, the admonitions Paul gives are no better or more effective than the teachings of Socrates or Confucius or any number of other secular and religious leaders throughout history that have taught on the subject of ethical behavior. And men and women through the ages have attempted to follow such teachings, but for the most part have found it unattainable, and perhaps really only see it as an ideal that cannot be maintained.
It’s possible to have that sort of attitude as a Christian as well. We hear Paul in this passage or Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and we say that such behavior is impossible to maintain and so we claim God’s grace and mercy and don’t even really try to do it. But these attitudes and behaviors are not given as an unattainable ideology, but they are intended to be a reality in the life of the believer. And they can be a reality when we do what Paul says in the first verse; to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. When we die to self and walk in the Spirit.
But that doesn’t mean that such behavior comes naturally, that it will happen instinctively, that we don’t have to work on these things. That’s why in regards to the spiritual gifts listed earlier in the passage the indication is that we are to exercise them. It takes a deliberate, conscious effort to make what we know to be true, a reality in our life. To do what Jesus commands us to do takes commitment, resolve, dedication, perseverance, even a sense of duty. And so we listen to this list, but we also must receive it, we must apply it, we must practice it, so that it eventually becomes a part of our nature. But don’t be deceived into thinking that it’s just going to happen naturally. This behavior that Paul is talking about is completely alien to human nature. But it must be learned behavior of our spirit.
Now the first principle in this list of seven sets the standard for all which follow: vs 14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” What Paul says here is an echo of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount; Matt. 5:44 “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Anyone that thinks this is easily done simply isn’t living in the real world or they are living in an ivory tower. Paul is not simply saying to not take revenge. He will say that later in vs 19. But this is even more difficult than that. This is talking about praying a blessing on those who persecute you. This is praying for God to bless someone that has just stolen from you, or beat you, or persecuted you, or in the example of Christ, someone who just drove nails into your hands. Jesus prayed on that occasion; “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Paul adds, “Bless and do not curse.” We should have not even the slightest desire for vengeance to those who do us harm, not on my part or even desiring God to exact revenge for us. This is so contrary to our nature that such behavior can only come as a result of a transformed, renewed mind, that has been made new by the power of the Spirit working in us.
He’s not just saying don’t call the offending person a bad name, though using foul language should certainly not be a characteristic of us, but not even wishing ill upon them. And then even taking it a step beyond that; bless them, pray for them.
The next principle of how we are to deal with outsiders is in vs 15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” This is not only to be true with other believers, but with our neighbors, with unbelievers, with those of the world with whom we come in contact with. I think this is speaking of compassion. Compassion for the unbeliever not only includes concern about their soul, but concern for their person. To identify with them, to feel sympathy for them, and then also to be happy for them when things go well for them. Perhaps that aspect is easier to understand by saying don’t be envious of them when things go well for them.
I know that it’s easier to be sympathetic with an unbeliever when they are going through hard times than it is to be happy for them when things are going well for them. When your neighbor who lives a life without a care for God or the things of God, gets a windfall and buys a brand new Mercedes, it’s hard to be really happy for him, isn’t it? It’s easier to be a little envious of the fact that he was able to live the way he wanted and yet gets to have this great new toy. Now maybe that illustration is a little too crass for most of you to identify with. I hope so. But I believe that if it’s hard to have sincere sympathy and compassion for the unbeliever in hard times, it’s just as hard to be able to rejoice with them when they rejoice. But real Christian love for the world must have a compassion that is not hypocritical or insincere.
The third exhortation to love the outsiders of the church is found in vs 16; “Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.” Now at first glance this seems contrary to the earlier exhortation we were given in vs 2 to not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind. We were told there not to think like the world, and now Paul says have the same mind as those outside the church. So what are we make of this?
Well, the answer might be in translation. Some of the words in the original might be better understood in one of the other translations. For instance, in the RSV it reads; “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited.” Living in harmony with your neighbor is more in keeping with the general context of Paul’s list here, especially in light of vs 18 which says be at peace with all men.
How can you be a witness to your neighbor if you are in a war with him? I have been in a turf war with a neighbor before. It was long ago, right after my wife and I were married. We bought our first house and found out later that our neighbor was a stark raving mad lunatic. I really think that they were the ones who were wrong and the offender. But I will tell you that regardless of who was right, it was a terrible thing. After a week or so, it became impossible to even speak to them.
But had I truly applied this principle right at the very beginning, I think things might have gone differently. My neighbor would still have been a crazy person, but things might not have progressed to the point that they did. And it hurt me when I tried to sell my house a couple of years later. She had put signs and fences up all around my property that rivaled a federal maximum security prison. No one would buy my house.
Now the key to living in harmony is found in the remainder of the text; don’t be haughty. Don’t act out of pride. Humble yourself in your relationship with others. Associate with the lowly. The lowly can mean those that are depressed, or humble, but also those who are of low estate. That may include those that don’t have very high standards of conduct. They may not be the nicest people, the most refined people. They may even be a stark raving mad lunatic. But as one translation says, condescend to such people. It doesn’t mean look down on them, but yield to them. Get along with them. Don’t act like you’re better than them. If you have a humble attitude towards them, it is much more likely that you can live in harmony with them.
The fourth principle for loving your neighbor is in vs 17, “Do not return evil for evil to anyone.” What Paul is speaking of here is a desire to get even – vindictiveness. This is a principle that is often spoken of in scripture. For instance, in 1Thess. 5:15 it says, “See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.” Notice it says for all people. Not just fellow believers but all people.
Peter says something similar in 1 Peter 3:9, “not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.” Peter says that when you bless the one who insulted you, you receive a blessing as well.
Some might say well the OT says there is to be retribution, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But that was in reference to the public administration of criminal law and it was issued as such in order to discourage the practice of personal revenge.
Going back to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained this principle saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”
There is no place for vindictiveness in Christian behavior, whether in the church or to outsiders, not even to your enemies. So tagged on to that principle of never returning evil for evil is the thought that we must “Respect, or take thought for what is right in the sight of all men.” Here is the principle behind what I said was the characterization of the church in Acts 2, that they were having favor with all the people. Our attitudes, or conduct and behavior should be right before men, that by living right before men, they might be drawn to Christ.
It’s telling that the common complaint of most unbelievers about church is that it is full of hypocrites. People that pretend to be righteous on Sunday morning, but live unrighteously in sight of the community the rest of the week. Our business dealings should be right, our interactions with the community should be right. They should see us dealing fairly and right with all that we come in contact with. Never should it be said that we were vindictive, that we took advantage, nor even that we took revenge. Never could that be said about Christ, and we are ambassadors for Him and so we should model His behavior.
Along that same line of reasoning is the fifth principle in vs 18 which we have already alluded to; “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” I am grateful for the practicality of this exhortation. “If possible, so far as it depends on you.” There are times when you have done all you can to treat your neighbor or your enemy as God has told you to. You have tried to be compassionate, you have tried to conciliate, to humble yourself, to do the right thing. And yet they insist on hating you. They insist on persecuting you or even making war with you.
But Paul says as far as it is possible with you, be at peace with all men. Do all you can to be at peace, to not give offense, to not be the cause of trouble. If they insist in attacking you, then so be it, but don’t let it be because of you. The goal is to live in peace with the world. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peace makers, for they shall be called the sons of God. Once again we see the world’s witness to our peace as a means by which they will know we are Christians.
The sixth principle for how we should love others is found in vs19 and 20: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath [of God,] for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.”
This principle has already been alluded to in vs 14, 17, and now 19 and then again in vs 21. Different applications, but the same underlying principle. It must be considered then to be of utmost importance. It is fundamental to Christian living.
So we should be familiar with this principle, to never take our own revenge, and to that Paul adds, but leave room for the wrath of God. In other words, we must not play God or take the place of God by usurping what should be HIs prerogative alone. Paul quotes from the OT here as evidence that in exacting our own revenge we are usurping God’s place. He quotes from Deut. 32:35, 41, saying, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. God sees all, and He will bring every act, every thought to judgment. That is the prerogative of the Lord, and we must not take from Him what is His alone to render to every man according to his deeds.
Once again we see Jesus as our example, who according to 1 Peter 2:23 “while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting [Himself] to Him who judges righteously.” God is the only One able to judge righteously. That why we are told to judge not, lest we be judged. God is the judge.
For our part, we must remember James 2:3 which says that mercy triumphs over judgment. Our part is mercy, by which we hope to save some. Failing that, every man will stand before the judgement seat of God and receive the penalty due for his actions. And also we, if it were not for the mercy of God, would be condemned with the rest. But Christ suffered in our place, in our place He stood condemned and suffered and died, so that we might be shown mercy. So must we show mercy.
And so rather than taking revenge, Paul says, “on the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” Show mercy rather than judgment. Show kindness. Go with him the extra mile even though he asks too much of you.
“For by so doing you will heap coals of fire upon his head.” I always thought that this meant that if you treated someone nice who was treating you badly, you were in a backhanded sort of way making hell a whole lot hotter for him. Now maybe there is a little bit of truth in that, but that probably isn’t the way this should be interpreted.
The interpretation that I recently came across I must confess I did not care for initially. But what that interpretation said was it was a reference to a neighbor coming to ask for fire. In that day they carried live coals with them as a means of starting a fire later. They did not have matches or lighters and so it was a troublesome thing to make a fire. So the response should be to that person who asks for fire coals, to heap them upon their head. To fill up a jar full of hot coals which they would then carry on their head back to their home.
Now I liked my interpretation better. I liked getting revenge, even if it meant that it had to wait for hell to do it for me. But that goes against the admonition to never take revenge. So I am warming up to the interpretation that it is actually speaking of an act of benevolence, giving live coals to someone in need that is being spoken of here.
Let’s conclude then with the the seventh exhortation, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.” Don’t let the enemy get you down, don’t let persecution or trials get you to sin, to return evil for evil, But overcome evil with good.
To over evil by good mean to continue living a life of faith in God and have love for everyone, so that when you do good to that person who meant it as evil, they end up becoming your brother. God did good for us when we did evil towards Him, didn’t He? How then can we do any less? We can win over our neighbors, and win over even our enemies, by our love for them, doing good to them, even when they meant it for evil. That should be our goal, and the ultimate expression of sacrificial love, that we do good for their benefit, that they might be drawn to Christ, that they might be saved. Oh, to lead a lost person to Christ so that they might be saved is the ultimate act of love that we can show the world. Let’s live in such a way with the world that they will want what we have; a new nature, a new way of living by the strength of the Spirit of Christ working in us.