Commentary on Romans 12:9-21
We love because….
Perhaps the first thing to keep in mind when preparing to preach on Romans 12:9-21 is a word from 1 John: “We love because he first loved us” (4:19).
While Paul is never quite so quotable on this order of things as John, Paul does write of God first loving us.
Romans 5:8 notes that, “God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 8:35-39 assures readers that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (verse 39).
Surrounded and upheld by this undeserved and steadfast love, then, the community of Jesus Christ practices love. “Let love be genuine,” Paul says in Romans 12:9a, and then he spends the rest of the chapter describing sincere, non-hypocritical love in various spheres of the Christian life.
The imperatives in this reading relate to four circles of relationships: (1) kinship within one’s own Christian community, (2) hospitality to “the saints,” that is the Christian community beyond one’s own closest brother and sisters in Christ, and to strangers, (3) blessing directed to one’s enemies, and (4) peaceable interactions with everyone.
All the Imperatives
There are, depending on the English translation one is using, upwards of 30 imperatives in this reading. There is no reason to believe Paul is addressing particular problems in Rome. As Arland Hultgren observes, “The sheer number of admonitions collected here in one place should caution one against concluding that Paul is addressing specific problems in Rome.”1 Rather, the exhortations speak to any community patterning its life after that of the crucified and risen Christ.
All of the verbal forms are plural. The words are a window on what life in Christ looks like in community. One is tempted to imagine Paul saying with his syntax, “Don’t try this alone.” His advice is addressed to a bunch of people, and much of it concerns their shared life.
Furthermore, this group of people is gathered and empowered by the Spirit of the one they follow. To avoid preaching moralism (recognizable by the uses of “we must,” “we should,” and “let us” in your sermon manuscript) it will help to remember that the Spirit of Christ shapes the common life of those in Christ so that “the just requirement of the law is fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:4). As God shapes the shared life of the saints, that life is characterized by genuine love.
Concentric Circles of Involvement
While there is no need to force a degree of tidiness onto Paul’s advice by which he himself was not constrained, it is possible to see his words here related to four general types of interactions.
The Immediate Community
“Be devoted to one another, with mutual love” (New English Translation). The combination of words for love and brother results in a Greek word familiar to American English speakers (philadelphia). Romans 12:12, with its references to hope, suffering, and prayer, hearkens back to Romans 8, where Paul speaks of both suffering and hope that characterize the Christian life and adds that the Spirit helps us, in the midst of these things, to pray.
In other words, the people who are told to “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” (12:12) are the same people who have already learned that “the sufferings of this present time are not to be compared to the glory about to be revealed to us” (8:18), and that “the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (8:26b).
“The Saints” & Those Needing Hospitality
Romans 12:13 exhorts, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Paul uses “the saints” in at least two ways: sometimes the plural refers to those in Jerusalem for whom he is collecting funds (e.g. Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 9:12). Other times it seems to refer to the church more generally (e.g. Romans 16:2; 1 Thessalonians 3:13).
Whether Paul is referring to the members of the Jerusalem church, or to the church more generally, in Romans 12:13 generosity extends beyond the immediate community to others, i.e., both saints and strangers, with whom one interacts.
In verse 14, the circle expands again, this time to include enemies. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Readers of the gospels will remember that Jesus had said something almost identical: “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28; cf. Matthew 5:44).
To describe what he meant, Jesus pointed to God sending rain upon both the just and the unjust. To be children of such a God is to love not only the people who love us, but to love even those who mean us harm.
Like Jesus, Paul speaks of such love in the context of God’s prior, similar action. Speaking of God’s work on behalf of sinners, Paul had said that God reconciled him and his readers to God’s self “while we were enemies” (Romans 5:8). Now Paul tells those same readers, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food” (Romans 12:20).
Verse 20, with its reference to heaping burning coals on the head of one’s enemy, requires comment. The language comes directly from Proverbs 25, and there it is also in the context of advice about doing good to one’s enemy. Scholars disagree on whether Paul has a particular penitential rite, featuring live coals, in view.
The reference may be metaphorical; pointing to the way that returning good for evil has the effect of shaming one’s enemy and thus possibly motivating a change in behavior. Either way, it is true that returning evil for evil has the effect of escalating conflict and reinforcing the sense of righteous indignation on both sides, while showing hospitality to enemies is at least confusing to them and may disarm them altogether.
The circle of those to whom Christians relate in genuine love expands finally to include everyone in verse 18. One of the most common outcomes of defining a group over against others in its environment is that insiders to the group receive particular benefits, while outsiders are left out. Frequent flyers are upgraded to business class. Employees of the month get better parking spots. “Members” get special discounts, and on and on.
Yet such distinctions are absent in the ethic Paul describes. The Christian ethic of Romans 12 results, finally, in relationships marked by humble, generous love, no matter the character or status of those to whom Christians relate.
1Arland Hultgren, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 453.