How do you want to be remembered? Reflect on that question for just a moment. Imagine that you have passed away and are able to be a heavenly spectator at your own funeral. What would your pastor be able to say about your life? More importantly, what would people from church, work, and your neighborhood say about you? What would your family and friends say? What would you want them to say? When your life is all said and done, I believe that you will want to be remembered as a loving person. You won’t wish that you had spent more time at work. You won’t wish you would have made more money. You won’t wish that you would have had a nicer home. You won’t wish you could have played more golf or purchased nicer clothes. You will wish that you had loved people with God’s love.
Romans 12:9-21 is a practical “how-to” guide on God-like love. In this passage Paul demonstrates that love is an action not an emotion. Consequently, you can love those who are unlovely and unlovable. You can even love your enemy or persecutor. Paul’s thesis is simple: Love without action is not love. This text calls for two radical, yet biblical displays of love.
1. Display sacrificial love (12:9-16)
In 12:9a Paul writes, “Let love be without hypocrisy.” These are unusual opening words because they are not linked to anything in the previous context, and there is no verb in the Greek. If you notice in the NASB the words “Let” and “be” are in italics. This means that these words are not a part of the original Greek; rather, the translators, for clarity, supplied them. Paul literally says, “Love without hypocrisy” or “Sincere love!” These words serve as the title or heading for the entire passage. Paul assumes that you will manifest “love” (agape); however, he wants to ensure that your love is free from hypocrisy.
The word “hypocrisy” was used in the Greek world of the actor who wore masks to portray the emotion of his character. The facial expression could change with the move of a mask. Paul’s point is: Sincere Christians wear no masks. Instead, we should exemplify true love.
So how can we live out true love? In 12:9b Paul defines true love with two participles that function like commands: “Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.” Although this verse is a broad Christian principle, Paul seems to apply it to all that follows in 12:10-21. The word translated “abhor” (apostugeo) is only used here in the entire NT. It means “to have a vehement dislike for something, hate strongly.” True love does not tolerate evil. In the same breath, Paul says you are to also “cling [or cleave] to what is good.” The verb “cling” (kollao) is used elsewhere by Paul only with reference to sexual relations. In extrabiblical Greek, the word can mean “to glue.” Paul wants you to be intimately glued to that which is good.
I challenge you to spend some time this week meditating on 12:10-21. Ask yourself repeatedly, “Do I ‘abhor what is evil?’” Am I enraged over pride, selfishness, favoritism, revenge, and other ungodly behaviors? Then ask yourself, “Do I ‘cling to what is good?’” Am I enthralled with humility, selflessness, generosity, and servanthood? Love without action is not love.
In 12:10 Paul shares two exhortations concerning your attitude towards fellow believers (see the twofold use of “one another”). He writes, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (12:10a). The word translated “be devoted” (philostorgos) refers to a special kind of love. It’s used only here in the whole New Testament. The term was a common word in wills to denote “tender affection” within a family. Paul is saying that you should have a tender affection and concern for your fellow believers like you would have for your family members. He then compounds this thought with the term “brotherly love.” This phrase is the Greek word philadelphia. Paul expects you to exercise warm affection, family love, and brotherly love toward believers. After all, the Spirit is thicker than blood. Do you have family-like relationships in your local church? Do you miss your brothers and sisters when you are out of town or separated from them? Are you able to express your love for other members of your church family verbally, physically, emotionally, and even financially? Would those in your small group, Sunday school class, or ministry team say that you are “devoted” to them? Love without action is not love.
You may be thinking, “Paul is asking too much. I just can’t love so-and-so; the only feelings I have for him or her are disgust.” While that may be true, you can’t excuse yourself from 12:10b: “give preference to one another in honor.” For lexical reasons, I prefer the NASB alternate translation: “outdo one another in showing honor” (see also ESV, HCSB, NRSV). Paul issues a friendly competition to treat one another well. He wants you to lead the way in showing honor for other believers.
In every sphere of your life, you ought to seek to “outdo” other believers.
Look for ways to honor other believers before they honor you.
Recognize other believers’ accomplishments before they honor yours.
Defer to other believers before they defer to you.
Look for what you can provide in a relationship rather than what you can receive. Be aggressive in giving yourself away.
You’ll be surprised how quickly you can start liking someone when you begin to treat him or her with honor and respect. Love without action is not love.
In 12:11 Paul goes on to deal with your attitude towards God’s work. Paul writes, “not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit [the Holy Spirit], serving the Lord.”
You’ve heard, perhaps, about the guy who was asked if he thought ignorance and apathy were the two greatest problems of human nature. He responded, “I don’t know and I don’t care!” Well, Paul doesn’t want to see that kind of attitude in the church; rather he urges us to be diligent and fervent in our love and service for others. The word that is translated “fervent” (zeo) means “to boil or seethe.” To be “fervent in Spirit” is to allow the Holy Spirit to set you on fire. He is the one who will give you strength to love and to serve.
Why not pray this verse for yourself and your loved ones? God loves to set His people on fire for Him.
In 12:12-13 Paul offers five exhortations dealing with your attitude towards difficult circumstances. In 12:12 he states that we display true love when we are “rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer.” There is a logical progression of thought here. Rejoicing in the certain hope of God’s promises that leads to persevering through tribulation, and one advantage in tribulation is that tribulation makes it easier to pray! Nothing will make you love a person so much as praying for him or her. A simple adage is: The person who prays best is the person who loves best. Are you having a struggle loving another brother or sister in Christ? Today, will you begin praying for him or her? The Lord can often resolve the issues as you turn to Him in prayer. When V. Raymond Edman was president of Wheaton College, he often exhorted the students, “Chin up and knees down.” That’s good advice.
There is a connection between 12:12 and 12:13: “contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.” Times of tribulation demand a spirit of generosity and hospitality when others are in need. The word translated “contributing” (koinonia) means “to have in common or to share.” You are to share your material resources to help meet “the needs” of other saints.
In addition to generosity, troublesome times require hospitality. Some would say hospitality is “making people feel at home when you wish they were. The word “hospitality” (philoxenia) is more expressive than the English, for it means “love for strangers.” The word translated “practicing” (dioko) is also not strong enough. The Greek word means “pursue” or “persecute.” Paul wants you to pursue hospitality. Yet, the average American views his home as his castle, reserved exclusively for his own pleasure, but God says our homes are all leased from Him and are to be used as places of support and strength for others. While it is often easier to meet the material needs of someone by writing a check or giving a possession, God expects you to open up your home.
There is something special about being invited into someone’s home. It is one of the greatest expressions of love and acceptance. Yet, very few of us do this on a regular basis. Why? Many of us would complain that it’s too much work. Yet, what’s really required? Surprisingly, very little. Just kick the toys into a corner and make sure you have some microwave popcorn, paper plates, and water. Or just invite people over for dessert instead of an elaborate six-course meal. Don’t get fancy. There’s no need to try to impress anybody. You don’t have to be Martha Stewart or Betty Crocker; you just have to be full of love. Why not pick an evening that works well for you and make a goal to have others over weekly or monthly. You might just change someone’s life with an evening of Christian fellowship.
In 12:14-16 Paul returns to your attitude towards fellow believers. He writes in 12:14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” I believe this commandment relates primarily to persecution you might receive from other believers. Taking shots from someone we consider a friend is perhaps the toughest kind of persecution to handle. The Greek word for “bless” (eulogeo) means “to speak well of a person.” Our English word “eulogize” is taken from this Greek word. Here, to bless your persecutors is to eulogize them, to speak well of them. This requires incredible self-control and grace.
Paul continues his motif of gracious living in 12:15 when he states: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” An old Swedish proverb reads: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” The Swedes had it right! Here, Paul wants you to show fellow believers sympathy and understanding. Which is more difficult? For most of us, rejoicing with those who rejoice. We can show sympathy when believers (and unbelievers) are hurting, but it is often another thing when we are called to rejoice in the blessings of others. We are to look for opportunities to love.
If we were to share in the lives of others by experiencing their joy and feeling their grief, all kinds of walls would come crashing down. By the way, one of the practical ways we can fulfill this command is to attend weddings and funerals. That might seem like an odd exhortation, but I have noticed over the past twenty years that attending weddings and funerals is becoming less and less of a priority to many Christian people.
Paul concludes this first section with a power-packed verse. In 12:16 he writes, “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.” Paul is calling all believers to a common mindset. He is not suggesting that we must all think in just the same way or that we must think exactly the same thing about every issue. Instead, we are to agree to disagree agreeably over non-essentials. In doing so we demonstrate the love, unity, and sacrifice that can only be found in Christ. Paul commands us not to be haughty in mind. Rather, to associate with the lowly. The word translated “lowly” (tapeinos) refers to those first-century Christians who could boast of little in the way of worldly goods or social position.
The command, “Do not be wise in your own estimation” implies that we need to recognize that often the socially “lower” Christian has much more to give than the rich Christian. Indeed, all Christians have something to share with other Christians; and all Christians have things to learn from other Christians. The problem is that we can often think like Archie Bunker who said, “I’m not prejudiced, I love all those inferior people.” We need to get over ourselves! We need to see our fellow believers accurately and biblically. We need to exercise humility (cf. 12:3, 10b). If we’re humble, we’ll never look down on anyone. We can only look up to them. May we begin to regard others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). May we ensure that our Christian relationships are healthy and whole. Love without action is not love.
[Paul has called you to display sacrificial love. In 12:17-21 he kicks it up another notch. He now tells you to …]
2. Display supernatural love (12:17-21)
We’re going to embark on what is likely the most challenging teaching in the entire Bible. This concept is not hard; it’s flat out impossible! But that’s good because supernatural behavior forces us to go back to Jesus Christ on a moment-by-moment basis. In this section, Paul has one theme: “Don’t fight fire with fire.”
In 12:17a he writes, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.” This statement is a general summary statement for the next five verses. Notice Paul uses the word “Never” (meden). This provides you with no loopholes. “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.” Anyone here a Charles Bronson fan? Bronson is an actor who has been in ninety different movies. He is especially well-known for his roles in the Death Wish series where he plays Paul Kersey, an unimpressive, mild-mannered, middle-aged vigilante. Each of these movies begins with Kersey being the victim of a tragic crime. The storyline is then filled with his escapades to avenge his family and friends. In my flesh—I enjoy these movies. Yet, Paul says this is unbiblical. This is not how God’s kingdom operates.
Instead, in 12:17b the apostle exhorts us to “Respect what is right in the sight of all men.” The word translated “respect” (pronoeo) literally means “take thought beforehand.” If you are to respond biblically to your enemy, you must thoughtfully prepare before a crisis arises. In other words, carefully and deliberately think through how you will respond if someone does something to you or one of your family members. If you fail to do so, you will respond according to your fleshly impulses. Conflict, however, ought to be in spite of you not because of you. Hence, it is critical to think carefully of how you should respond in every situation so that even unbelievers observe your life and glorify God.
Paul goes a step further in 12:18 when he says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Notice the conditional nature of this verse. The phrases “if possible” and “so far as it depends on you” reveal that you can’t force others to do what is right. Once you have done everything within your power to resolve a conflict, you have fulfilled your responsibility to God. Now, if circumstances change and there seems to be a new opportunity for peace with an enemy, you should pursue it. In the meantime, you should not waste time, energy, and resources with a person who refuses to be reconciled.
Therefore, (1) don’t blame yourself. Some people are just antagonistic.
(2) Trust God to change the other person. He prepares and softens hearts. Often it takes a great deal of prayer and many months or years before a person is willing to reconcile. We must be patient and wait on God.
(3) Get the help of a third party. Some conflicts require mediation from a mature Christian.
In 12:19 Paul returns to his forceful use of the word “Never.” He writes, “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.” It was John Kennedy who said, “Don’t get mad, get even.” However, Paul again slams the door shut for revenge. Rather, he states that you must “leave room for the wrath of God.” The verb translated “leave room” (didomi) literally means “give place.” In other words, “get out of the way and leave room for something else.”
Paul wants you to give God His job description back. By refusing to take revenge, you are leaving room for God to exercise His wrath. The wrath of God is likely both temporal and eternal in this context. Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35 to serve as a reminder that no one can avenge you quite like God. Therefore, if you want Him to avenge you, step out of His way. If you want to avenge yourself, God will remove His hand from your situation. I don’t know about you, but I would rather have God avenge me and act on my behalf.
Paul now wraps up this chapter with a series of commands. In 12:20 he writes, “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.’ These verses are a quote from Proverbs 25:21-22, which show that Paul understood the classic military principle that the best defense is an effective offense. He does not encourage a passive response to evil. Instead, he commands you to go on the offensive—not to beat down or destroy your opponents, but to lavish your enemy with love.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend.” Augustine said, “If you are suffering from a bad man’s injustice, forgive him lest there be two bad men.” Does this mean that you are called to be a doormat? No, you are not called to be a doormat; you are called to be an elevator. You are to lift people up into the presence of God by graciously giving your enemy food and drink in his or her time of need. Paul says, in so doing “you will heap burning coals on his head.” This phrase is offered as the motivation for the kindness shown to an enemy, so I think it is very important that we understand the meaning of this statement.
Some have traditionally seen it as simply meaning “you will burn him.” If you’ve got an enemy and you really want to see him burn, be extra nice to him or her—he or she won’t be able to stand it! Now that’s hardly in the spirit of this passage. A better interpretation, I think, takes the burning coals as a figure of God’s judgment that will come on your enemy if he or she persists in antagonism. The figure of “coals of fire” in the Old Testament consistently refers to God’s anger and judgment (cf. 2 Sam 22:9, 13; Ps 11:6; 18:13; 140:9-10; Prov 25:21-22). Thus the meaning appears to be that you can return good for evil with the assurance that God will eventually punish your enemy, if you don’t want him or her by your lovingkindness.
Paul concludes with a summary in 12:21: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Unlike 12:20b, 12:21 is straightforward and very easy to interpret. However, in our flesh, this is not a verse we want to obey. We would rather overcome evil with evil. To return evil for evil is natural; to return good for evil is supernatural. But this is how God’s economy operates. Evil cannot overcome the Christian by doing us harm or even by killing us. Evil will only overcome us if it makes us use evil ourselves. Evil cannot be overcome by a stronger force of the same kind. May you and I refuse to be overcome by evil, but may we overcome evil with good.
How do you want to be remembered? My hope is that you now want to be remembered as a believer who loved other believers. When you stand before Jesus Christ, I believe that one of the first questions Jesus may ask is: “Did you love my children?” Remember Jesus’ words, “all people will know that we are His disciples if we have love for one another” (John 13:35). Love was VERY important to Jesus; it compelled Him to give up His life for us! He wants us to imitate Him in how we love others. Before you stop reading this sermon, identify those relationships where you need to grow in love—it may be a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor, or a person at church. Target specific people, not just everyone in general. Then commit to begin loving those people as Christ has commanded.