I am therefore appealing to you my brothers [and sisters], from out of [what] God’s tender loving care [has done for me], that you [step forward to] volunteer your bodies for living, holy sacrifice to God which is [simply] your kind of service. Don’t go being trendily-fashioned to this era, but give yourself to being re-made by [such] refreshment of your [entire] thinking so that the good and delightful and perfect purpose of God can be given the stamp of confirmation by your life. This is to say to everyone of you [again through the grace given to me] not to go getting carried away with thinking more highly of yourself than you should, but think about yourself with discretion, each one of you doing so according to the measure of faith God has portioned out to you. For just as in any body we have many members, and all members do not have the same function so, in Christ we are [members] of one [kind of] body, members one of another having [specific] gifts apportioned to us according to what has been given freely to us; whether it be in prophecy, according to the [given] measure offaith; as a minister, in administration; as a teacher in teaching; as an appellant in making an appeal; transparent in not-for-profit distribution; earnest in giving oversight; cheerful in rendering assistance. Love just has to be genuine. Avoid evil [like the plague]; cling [for dear life] to what is good. Let familial love for one another flourish [in a respectful atmosphere] allowing the other person to take precedence. And in your keenness do not grow weary. Shine with the spirit; serve the Lord; rejoice hopefully; persist despite troubles; face affliction with courage; persist in prayer; meet the needs of the saints; find new ways of extending a welcome.
To those persecuting you give your blessing; bless them with no rancour [even] in your prayers about them. Celebrate with those celebrating; mourn with those mourning. Develop a common way of viewing things among yourselves. Don’t let yourselves focus upon high and mighty things, but instead accommodate yourself to what is humble. Don’t be conceited about yourselves.
On no account are you to render evil for evil [instead] ensure that opportunities for good are increasingly made available to all people. If it be possible, in so far as it is within your power, live by seeking peace with all. My dear friends it’s not in your brief to take revenge and so step aside [resolutely] from [any presumption that it might be your task to show] wrath. For it is written: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, declares the Lord.” But [what does it say?] “If [the one who has made himself] your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty give him drink. This is the way you are to heap burning coals upon his head.” [In other words] Do not be overcome by evil; overcome evil with good.
Among the first readers of this letter there would be those intimately aware of Paul’s experiences. They would not only be aware of Paul’s former life as one who persecuted believers in Christ, but they would also know him as the one who made his appeal (see 12:1) to his fellow Jews with a presentation at the temple that provoked a riot which threatened his life and led to his incarceration. They would come to learn about his being taken into custody and languishing at the Roman Governor’s pleasure for some years. When he wrote this Paul assumed his initial readers were waiting for him to make his way to Rome but by the time they received it, or some time after, they will have also received news of his detention and impending visit, under armed guard, to present his appeal to Caesar. So, we can guess that this was written some time before the events recorded in Acts 21 because it written as one who is free to travel to them and not as one under arrest (15:22-23).
However, we do not know by how much, nor do we know the extent to which he edited, what I have called his “curriculum”, when he was under house arrest. That probably does not matter all that much, because what this passage confirms is what the letter in its entirety reveals, namely Paul’s heightened awareness of how he has been called to proclaim Good News in order to demonstrate God’s mercy to all humankind, to Gentiles as well as to his own people, the belovéd children of Israel. And he, in all humility, knows himself to be a prime exhibit of God’s mercy. Here is a disciple of Jesus who has had to learn that he should not try to second guess what his Master will require of him in the days ahead.
For every point in this comprehensive encouragement of godly conduct, we can, perhaps, cite instances from the biblical record of Paul’s life where he was indeed called upon to live by the very same precepts that he has outlined here. He had to withstand intense violence to his person; he was in situations that were extremely intense; his life had often been in danger. He was embroiled in deep controversy. He was used as a political football. And he writes as one who has been made keenly aware that what he has to say may well be distorted and misrepresented. And still, he has come to understand that his message will not be understood if he retaliates in kind to the hate thrown at him. He has met Jesus the Messiah. He has learned from the One who did not retaliate in kind to the hate that was directed at Him. Paul ought to know. That is what Jesus had said to Him!
Paul knew that any instinctive responses of his “flesh” had to be tamed and suppressed, put to death (6:11-16; 13:14). He had been in the midst of mayhem, anarchy and violence. Opposition had erupted from those frantically opposed to his message, whether Jews or Greeks. The Jewish mob became ballistic when Paul explained that Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, had sent him to the Gentiles (Acts 22:22). Demetrius, the silver-smith of Ephesus, was very much aware of the threat posed by Paul’s message to their cultic craft and its business off-shoots, and he whipped up the frenzy of the city’s idol-makers and idol-worshippers (19:14).
So what was his advice? The believer is to “avoid evil like the plague”. Be zealous yes, but not to insist upon your own rights. Get refreshed from the heart; let God’s good and delightful and perfect purposes fill every nook and cranny of your thinking, of your life. That’s the focus for living, for service, for putting others first. Heed the Lord’s mercy. Avoid all trendy fashions that divert you from taking your place among the other members of Christ’s body.
This should not be read as a random listing of virtuous characteristics that Paul feels compelled to articulate as the practical aftermath now that he has presented his readers with his “theory”. I say this explicitly because I suspect that such a literary division is often presumed in the analysis of this Letter to the Romans. And as a result, though verses 1-2 may often be explained in relation to Chapter 11’s doxology (33-36) as Paul’s explicit encouragement of a “Christian world-view”, the discussion should not be left unconnected with what has been previously discussed. Using 12:1-2 to commend a “Christian world-view” is good as far as it goes but refusing to allow oneself to be “trendily fashioned to this era” confirms the continuity with all preceding it in this letter. Such a phrase, it seems to me, is another way of explaining how “hardening” will take place when God’s grace is resisted by those to whom God is showing His mercy. Moreover, the purpose of having one’s thinking in all its aspects refreshed has to do with living truly as God’s image-bearer, living in such a way that our life gives a stamp of approval to the good and delightful and perfect purposes of God for the cosmos, His creation. This is all about living in step with the renewal brought by God’s true Image-Bearer, Jesus Christ.
Our focus for life is renewed. We set about doing what, according to our profession, God has done by associating with us through His Son. So we bend, gladly accommodating to what is humble and of low degree. That is what God in Christ did. We have our own things to do, our own gifts to deploy and, as we do so, we find ourselves working together as the richly skilled, diversely authorised members of Christ’s body.
Just as the Lord has maintained His mercy to those cutting themselves adrift from His loving purposes, so those who have volunteered their bodies for living, holy sacrifice, are to live mercifully. This is Paul’s own version of the teaching which His Lord delivered in the Sermon on the Mount.
A blessing rests upon on those whose spirit makes them think but poorly of themselves; the kingdom of heaven shall be theirs.
A blessing rests on those whose lives are full of sorrow; they shall find themselves comforted.
A blessing rests on those who are gentle in spirit; they shall be ones to possess the earth.
A blessing rests on those who hunger and thirst that right may be done; they shall have satisfaction.
A blessing rests on those who are compassionate, they shall receive compassion.
A blessing rests on those whose hearts are full of innocence; they shall see God before their very eyes.
A blessing rests on those who are bent on establishing peace; Sons of God is the name that shall be given them.
A blessing rests on those who suffer persecution in defence of the right; the kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.
A blessing rests on you when they revile you, when they persecute you, when they speak evil of you in every way, when they tell falsehoods against you, and all on my account. Be glad, be full of joy. It is a rich reward that awaits you in heaven. And indeed, in just the same way they made the prophets before you suffer persecution.
(Matthew 5:3-12 version of Heinz Cassirer God’s New Covenant 1988).