Commentary on Romans 12:1-8
When Christ’s great emissary to the nations pivots from expounding the extraordinary good news message about the justice and mercy of God, Paul turns our attention to body-language. This body-language matches the appropriate mind-set for those who “live according to the [Holy] Spirit” (Romans 8:5b).
Paul’s theo-political vision of the Christian community, acting in response to God’s grace and embodying God’s hospitality, portrays a vision of humanity which has been redeemed and of the body which portends the life of the age to come in its social relations. Redeemed bodies are the composition of the Body of Christ (Romans 6:12–13, 19, 22); redeemed minds are the reflection of the Mind of Christ (see also 1 Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5) discerning “the good” which pleases God (Romans 12:2) who has lavished mercy upon all (Romans 11:32). Everything that follows in the ethical exhortation is grounded in “the mercies of God” (12:1; see also 11:32), and this leads to a direct transformation of the story of humanity reflected in the argument that began in 1:18 and following.
The portrait of the community that Paul paints here in his exhortations stands in stark contrast to the impious, imploding vision of humanity that comes in 1:18-3:20. In that damning exposé of humanity who refuse to proffer appropriate worship to God and who “exchanged” the glory of God for an image (1:23), the truth of God for a lie (1:25), and natural sexual interactions for unnatural (1:26, 27), we have a vision of human being as foolish, futile, self-serving, violent, and corrupt. All of this is rooted in misplaced worship (1:21–23, 28). Improper worship leads to degraded bodies and deformed passions. By glaring contrast, we’ll see Paul’s moral vision for the community of faith is to “present [their] bodies a living and holy sacrifice to God” (12:1). Before, the “mind” (nous) was “depraved” (1:28), but here it is “renewed,” which means a full makeover (12:2).
It is also striking to note that Paul’s vision of the moral life is wholly encompassing of body and mind. Paul’s appeal for the believers to “present” (parastēsai) their bodies as a living sacrifice recalls his earlier counsel in chapter 6 for them to “no longer present (mēde paristanete) their body-parts to Sin as instruments of wickedness” but rather to “present (parastēsate) your body-parts to God as instruments of righteousness” (6:13). This image of the body as a living sacrifice is the opposite side of the agonizing “body of death” (7:24). Paul’s discussion of the contrast between “walking according to the flesh” versus “walking according to the Spirit” (8:4)—with the marks of the life of believers being comprised of the latter because “[they] are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in [them]” (8:9)—is realized in this offering of bodies in communal sacrifice. And, this “living sacrifice” is expounded in terms of a morally virtuous life of a body-politic. The vertical relationship between God and humanity has inextricable consequences for the horizontal relationships between people.
Paul describes the believer’s bodies presented for a “living sacrifice” as their “reasonable service” (logikē latreia, 12:1b). However, it is commonly noted that this has the potential to dangerously misconstrue Paul’s vision here as an interior, “merely mental” action confined to the private sphere. This is clearly not the case for Paul. Body and mind are interconnected in a social and relational matrix that includes collaborations within the house-churches of Rome, and in interactions with the community of believers and wider society. Paul clarifies what he means by this active “reasonable worship” of believers performed through the “offering of [their] bodies as a living sacrifice” with two passive imperatives. That is, what they are to do is paralleled by what they are to let happen to them. A positive demand (“be transformed”) comes after a negative command (“do not be conformed”).
The world all around the believers in Rome was saturated with images, practices, ideas, and social pressures that inscribed and inculcated a way of life which was incubated in the ways of “the flesh” and antagonistic to the ethos of God’s Spirit. There were schemes of representation and relationality that fed the appetites and imaginations of, what were for Paul, idolatrous and destructive divisions. The specifics can be discerned from the particular exhortations Paul offers in what follows. Paul is concerned about arrogance (12:3, 16; see also 11:18), destructive competition (12:4–5), retaliation (12:17, 19–20), and discriminating judgmentalism (14:1 and following).
“Reasonable worship” entails an ocular conversion as well. The believers now see the world differently and encounter the world through a new set of lenses. Reading history and experience and future hope through this interpretive perception leads to new habits and practices.
The standard of moral virtue is defined by Paul as “that which pleases God.” Paul expects that believers will be shaped in such a way that they will be able to discern (to dokimazein) what God desires. There is a sense of Spirit-led improvisation required to live well in the time during the inauguration of the new creation and its culmination. Apart from this ability to discern the will of God, humanity is described as “those who do not see fit (ouk edokimasan) to acknowledge God” (1:28). Or, worse, apart from the renewed mind, there is the possibility that one knows God’s will and is able to discern (dokimazeis) and determine what is right because he has been instructed in the law, but still does not obey the Law of God (2:18; see also 7:14–24).
Paul continues with the topic of “right thinking” by first exhorting “each one among you all” “not to think more highly of himself than he ought” (12:3). Proper discernment of the “good and pleasing and perfect” (12:2) will of God is a disposition of appropriate humility. There is a new way to posture oneself in relation to one’s fellow believers.
As Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthian church (see also 1 Corinthians 12:12–31), he again uses the imagery of “the body” to describe the different roles of each believer within the corporate whole. The common deployment of the body-language in the wider Greco-Roman world was used to subjugate the general populace for the benefit of the aristocracy. Paul, however, has turned this image upside-down. He configures body-language to be entirely mutually beneficial and to give special benefit to those who had less honor or status within the community.
The previous state of humanity was portrayed as embodied with corrupted throats/tongues/lips/mouths (Romans 3:13–14, quoting Psalms 5:9; 10:7; 59:7) and destructive movements and violent kicks and spurts (Romans 3:12, 15–17), with haughty eyes (Romans 3:18). Now these redeemed and transformed bodies, gesturing as “living sacrifice,” move toward one another in redeemed speech (prophesying, teaching, encouraging), nurturing gestures (service, giving, leading), all in a God-like cheerful mercy (Romans 12:6–8; see also Romans 9:15–16, 18; 11:30, 32).
The “transformed thinking” must take the shape of communally oriented enrichment. Intertwining these God-given roles and functions for the sake of the benefit of fellow believers is a safeguard from allowing one individual’s ego to become overinflated. In this way, Paul exploits and reconfigures the status quo Roman sensibilities toward honor and status. Paul commences the choreography of his spiritual body-language with directions for kindly gestures and service-oriented attitudes which follow the lead of God’s grace-filled movements.