Commentary on Romans 12:9-21
We are tempted to skip a passage like this in preaching. Verse 9 has no logical connection to what precedes.
Then in verses 9-21 Paul discharges a series of rapid-fire exhortations that whiz by without much connection or clarification.
But a closer look shows that the passage is not arbitrary, but loosely tied to what precedes it in 12:1-8. Paul continues to call for the kind of behavior produced by a renewed mind and that is the proper response to the mercies of God. As he exhorted his audience to use their renewed minds to think rightly towards one another in verse 3, he does so again in verse 16, “Think the same thing toward one another; do not think highly of yourself, but associate with the lowly; do not become proud in your own estimation.”
Love is the overarching paradigm for the whole passage. Paul echoes Jesus in calling attention to love as the key moral norm for God’s people. Jesus had said that all the law and the prophets hang on two commands: love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). Paul echoes something similar in Romans 13:8-10. Here in 12:9, Paul assumes that his audience knows that they are to love; he exhorts them to make their love for each other genuine.
Paul begins this section of 12:9-13 with the exhortation to “let love be genuine” (verse 9), and then shows what this love looks like. Generally, true love is summed up like this: Hate what is evil and cling to what is good (verse 9b). Those who have offered their bodies as a living sacrifice and renewed their minds may discern what is good (verses 1-2).
Now Paul gives examples of how to cling to the good (verses 10-13). He uses the word agape for love in v. 9, but becomes more specific by using phileo in verse 10 to refer to the family love of those living in community. The images are powerful: let your love be heartfelt; be eager to show each other honor; be set on fire by the Spirit; be devoted to prayer; contribute to — literally “participate in” — the needs of the saints, and pursue hospitality. To “participate in” others’ needs is to give of yourself and your own resources for their material needs, like food, clothing, and shelter. True love is fervent, relentless, and practical.
In 1:18-32, Paul describes those caught in a downward spiral of unfit worship and given over to debased minds. The result is a pattern of anti-social behaviors that bring disorder to community (verses 29-32) — quite the opposite of true love. Now in 12:14-16 Paul asks his audience to exhibit an attitude fitting for those with transformed minds (see 12:1-2), reversing anti-social patterns.
Humility and empathy are required for living alongside others in such a way as to bless those who persecute, to rejoice with those who rejoice, to weep with those who weep, and to associate with the lowly. Paul echoes the teaching of Jesus, who said “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28; see also Matthew 5:44).
Paul addresses how to love those outside the Christian community, by living in such a way that fosters peace. Verses 17 and 21 act like bookends, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil … Do not be overcome by evil.” These ideas are connected: we ourselves are overcome by evil when we let spite infect and spread through us like a disease.
In the middle of the section, the NRSV captures the force of Paul’s imperative: “Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,” (Deuteronomy 32:35). This could mean that Christians choose not to avenge themselves when they are wronged because they know that God will repay their opponents one day. But this interpretation works against the shape of the passage.
In this context, Paul’s purpose is not to comfort struggling Christians with the promise of future vindication (though see, e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12). Instead, it is to press Christians to live in light of God’s mercies (12:1; cf. 11:31-32). Their job is to show love, not to act as judge. Paul showed what happens when people pass judgment on others: they end up falling under judgment themselves (2:1-10).
Because Paul’s audience has been shown mercy, they show mercy by tending to enemies in need, the way they provide for the material needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ (verse 20; see verse 13). By treating opponents like family, opponents are shamed (Proverbs 25:21-22a in verse 20): the image of heaping of burning coals on the enemy’s head suggests making him red in the face.
Notice that Paul is not asking his audience simply to practice self-control when provoked. They are to do more than refrain from repaying evil; they are to initiate doing good to opponents. This is much harder. But in doing so, Christians overcome evil with good, showing that they “cling to what is good,” expressing the definition of true love.
Moreover, we come full circle back to 12:1-2, in which Paul calls his audience to present themselves as living sacrifices and to be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that they may approve what the will of God is, namely, what is good.
True love expresses what it means to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” It requires us to engage with others in practical and physical ways. This kind of engagement is a challenge since technology and social media make us feel that we can maintain virtual relationships inside and outside the Christian community. We may be able to maintain some connections, but we cannot express genuine love. True love requires us to live alongside and engage with others in a full-bodied way.