Romans (Part 14) - Chapters 12-13: Presenting our Bodies
Romans 12 opens with a call to present our bodies sacrificially to God. But that call is based on what Paul has discussed before. Paul’s argument is that since God has accomplished salvation and applies it through faith (Romans 1-8) and since God’s sovereignty controls all creation to accomplish His prioritized will so that Jews and Gentiles will be joined as one body in Christ through faith (Romans 9-11) and since God is rich in wisdom and knowledge, sovereignly directing all things from, through, and to Christ (Romans 11:33-36), therefore—because of all that—we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God. And that means living in accordance to the purity of God.
I think Paul here has in mind his conclusion in chapter 7. Remember there he says in verse 25 that “I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” That’s why here in Romans 12 he emphasizes the body. He is not suddenly changing his mind to conclude Christianity is a works-based religion. Rather, he has already argued that our souls (spirit/mind) have, in faith, been brought to Christ, settling salvation. But because that is true we should present our bodies to God as well while we continue in this state of corrupted flesh among a corrupt world. That is, indeed, the focus of this last section of the epistle. Romans 12-16 teaches practical living based on our position in Christ.
Notice that verse 1 says specifically that presenting our bodies is our “spiritual worship.” The words translated here spiritual worship, I think, are better translated in the KJV as “reasonable service.” The connotation here is that it is a reasonable or rational deduction that the previous discussion should impel us toward giving ourselves not only in mind but in body as well to God’s service. Verse 2 appears to say the same thing in a slightly different manner. Paul urges us not to continue doing (using the body) those things of the world—those things that are at enmity with God. But rather “by the renewal of the mind” (remember 7:25 and the service of the mind), dedicate our conduct to those things good and acceptable to God. This is a perfect transition from the concept, logic, and philosophy of Christianity to the practical, living out of our Christianity.
Verse 3 continues the transition. Chapters 9 through 11 clearly helped us understand the gathering together of Jews and Gentiles within the covenant. Paul now tells us to live like we understand that concept. Under the emperor Claudius, Jews had been expelled from Rome (~AD 49). After Claudius’ death in AD 54, Jews were allowed back in Rome. The epistle to the Romans was written by Paul somewhere between AD 55 and 57, thus after the return of Jews to Rome. This is probably one of the reasons Paul wrote the letter and emphasized the one body of believers. Gentile Christians in Rome were undoubtedly influenced by their society (as Christians of today are influenced by ours). Lingering thoughts of being “better” than the Jews may have lived in their conscious or subconscious minds. Claudius and the Romans had preached that the Jews were untrustworthy, malevolent, and generally not on par with proper society. Now the Jews were filtering back into Rome, and Jewish Christians were filtering back into the Roman churches. The Gentile Christians undoubtedly accepted them, but perhaps not without some disdain.
On the other hand, many Jewish Christians still carried their baggage of privileged heritage. They, as a people, had for generations held the “oracles of God.” They were known as “God’s people.” And this attitude of superiority certainly brushed up against the Gentile Christians’ own superior attitude creating tension. Throughout the epistle so far, Paul has been telling them they are one group in Christ. Now at the beginning of his section on practical living, Paul quickly addresses this particular problem. In verse 3 he tells them individually not to think of themselves as better than anybody else. If you are a Jew, don’t look down on Gentiles. If you are Gentile, don’t disregard the Jew. All make up the body. All bring the gifts that God has given for the betterment of each other in common and united fellowship before God.
Furthermore, Paul goes on in verses 9 through 13 to urge conduct in love. Love is the uncoerced desire for the benefit of another that outweighs all other desires, including those for self. This understanding of love is important not only in our relationship with God but in our relationship with others as well. We are to act toward others for their benefit. Notice this doesn’t mean simply not doing them wrong. It means seeking their benefit.
I think we can see the concept best in the marriage relationship. Marriages work best when following Scripture’s instructions. Ephesians 5 tells us first to submit to one another. Further, it specifies that wives are to submit to their husbands, and husbands are to love their wives. Notice carefully that these instructions are encouraging the same conduct. In both submission and love, we perform to the benefit of the other. In Ephesians 5, Paul is not setting up some hierarchy for marriage management. He is not enamored with the corporate structure that sets a CEO up to control an organization. Paul is giving relationship instruction, highlighting love. Paul says to love as Christ loved the church. How?—by giving Himself for it. That is uncoerced desire for the benefit of another; that is love. And it is not the exclusive conduct of the wife in a marriage to submit any more than it is the exclusive conduct of the husband in a marriage to love. In a mutual love relationship in which each spouse seeks the benefit of the other, the marriage succeeds. And thus it is in the church as well.
Chapter 13 begins with another appropriate topic for the Christians in Rome. The Roman government was not perfect. But Paul discusses the attitude of the Christian toward government. Ideally, government is established to maintain societal order, upholding good and punishing evil. But governments are made of people, and people are fallible. Paul’s point here is that the Christian, in accepting government order, cannot pick and choose to disobey or follow based on either whim or grievance with a specific function. Live at peace and under the law. Although not always right, governments are controlled by our sovereign God. Work to change government in the ways you can. But disobeying law (except in cases of following God’s law) should not be an option for the Christian.