Romans (Part 36) – Rightly Apprehending (12:1–13)
Paul has ended the major discussion of redemption’s plan, but he’s still writing. And that means that although a topic change of sorts is coming up, it is a flow from what he has said—not simply opening a new door. Romans isn’t built as a topical series (although some of his other letters are). Paul has just completed discussing the result of God’s redemptive plan—the Israel of God. Chapter 12 addresses that Israel of God in discussion of how we are now to live. How should we bear this image we hold now that we have returned to relationship with God? The answer lies very much in what this image is.
Paul begins in verse 1 by urging his brothers by those mercies of God he has just discussed in chapter 11. Even before we settle our minds on those mercies, however, we notice that Paul is saying this to those he calls brothers. Several translations insert “and sisters” although that is not in the Greek. And the insertion almost seems corrective by these translators—corrective of a cultural skew.
Paul was no misogynist. He worked alongside women in the presentation of the gospel. This very letter, we will learn in chapter 16, was delivered by a woman, and Paul urges the church in Rome to welcome her, recognizing her worth and providing her assistance. In fact, of the first seven mentions of fellow workers and people to greet given in chapter 16, the majority of those on his mind are women. And in an age which was still dominated by men, a full third of the entire list mentioned are women. So Paul does not slight women from either lack of respect or simple forgetfulness.
So why does Paul mention only brothers back here in chapter 12? Are our modern translators right to correct the text to include sisters? Well, I think maybe yes and no. Here’s what I mean: I think Paul does presume women as included in his comments. But by using the word brothers, he draws on cultural support to make a point of perspective. Yes, we call fellow Christians brothers and sisters because Christianity is about relationship, and we are born into the family of God. Yet beyond the actual relationship in this family is a feeling of relationship such as what is often established when facing a struggle or set of circumstances banded together with others in (or maybe, against) a situation. We see it in sports teams, troops in war, and in other instances where people are grouped for a common cause. A camaraderie develops that unites them. And that developed closeness and community and comradeship is often noted as forming a brotherly bond (e.g., brothers in arms). And here is where culture fits in with Paul’s use of the word. There were just too many and too exclusively male bondings of this type for Paul to get his point across by simply saying brothers and sisters. Doing so would lose—not solidify—his point of comradeship. As we will see through the next few chapters, it is indeed Paul’s intention to point out that we, who are together united in God as brothers and sisters born through Christ, must think of ourselves and act with each other as comrades—as a tightly knit community—as brothers, so to speak.
So are the translators wrong? Well, again, yes and no. No, they are not wrong in that Paul’s intention is definitely to include Christian women as well as Christian men. But they could be wrong in watering down Paul’s point of a bond of heart and mind he appears to want to develop. If you want to translate to get both these points across (inclusion of both males and females and the brotherhood concept), I think a better word to use here is comrades. (Of course, that word has already been shanghaied by the Communists. Language is difficult. Translation is even more so.)
As mentioned, Paul’s appeal is on the basis of what he has discussed in chapter 11 (and in chapters previous): by the mercies of God. Now that we have been rescued by our Redeemer, we should present our bodies as living sacrifices. Paul’s point is to draw attention to the same understanding of restored spirit living within the still sin-infested physical creation of our bodies. He noted in chapter 6 that we have died with Christ and are reborn in him. Yet our physical bodies, which we should consider dead (6:11), remain. Instead of allowing (as is the unwavering circumstance of humankind other than Christ) to allow the body to influence the spirit toward sin, Paul urges the spirit’s influence on the body for the purposes of God—the holy and God-pleasing sacrifice (just as he urged in 6:12–13 and 19–22).
Notice here that because of the direction—because the sacrifice is born from within, from the spirit—the result is no mere legalistic activity of duty. A relationship of legalism is obedience to God’s instruction out of a sense of duty. It seeks to please God and deny self, all in recognition of God as master, king, and sovereign. Saying it like that, however, may make us pause to wonder, “What’s wrong with that?!” Shouldn’t we seek to please God? Isn’t denying self good? And certainly we should recognize God as master, king, and sovereign, shouldn’t we? Well, yes, all that is true. But the problem with legalism is that it puts those elements in the driver’s seat, focusing almost exclusively on them to the dismissal of other—important and necessary—relational concerns.
When our performance in life is driven primarily out of a sense of duty to God, we do so either (1) for selfish motive or (2) without recognition of God’s purpose for creating and rescuing in the first place. Consider the selfish motive. We see it displayed in Israel’s activity over and over in the OT. Israel performed the commanded sacrifices because, well, God said to do it, and they wanted God’s blessing so they could live selfishly at ease and in dominion over neighboring nations. That attitude had much to do with the skewing of the idea of the Messiah to be simply a champion for earthly domination. And God, labeling Judah the wretched city of Sodom, reacted to this attitude of Israel in Isaiah 1 in one of the most intense reproaches in all Scripture:
"Hear the word of the Lord, you ruler of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 'What are all your sacrifices to Me?' asks the Lord. 'I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams and the fat of well-fed cattle; I have no desire for the blood of bulls, lambs, or male goats. When you come to appear before Me, who requires this from you—this trampling of My courts? Stop bringing useless offerings. Your incense is detestable to Me. New Moons and Sabbaths, and the calling of solemn assemblies—I cannot stand iniquity with a festival. I hate your New Moons and prescribed festivals. They have become a burden to Me; I am tired of putting up with them. When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will refuse to look at you; even if you offer countless prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.'” (Isaiah 1:10–15)
Can you imagine the stunned and wondering looks on their faces? In their hardness, they would probably be thinking, “But Lord, you are the one that ordered us to perform these sacrifices and festivals! Why would you order us to perform them and then complain that we are doing so?” The reason for God’s disappointment in them was that they were obediently doing their duty while their hearts were set on themselves and their selfish way of living. God had not given them the sacrificial system because God is pleased by mere rote, prescribed activity. God gave them the system as a teaching tool to understand relationship and to give their hearts to him as Father.
And that leads to the second motive for the relationship of legalism—obedience without recognition of God’s purpose for creating and rescuing in the first place. God created for everlasting love relationship based on his truth, goodness, and beauty. And that’s the needful part of relationship that is missing in the relationship of legalism.
In the beginning, God created three major relationships: God with us, us with each other, and us with the rest of creation. All three relationships were broken in the fall. And returning to dutiful obedience to God alone does not rectify those relationships. In fact, we cannot think of our relationship to God as being fully restored if it does not effect a love relationship with both our God and with others who belong to God. Isaiah pictures this attitude as well. In Isaiah 58:3–7, God complains that the mindless but dutiful activity of fasting is useless without understanding of sacrificing self for the benefit of others:
“'Why have we fasted, but You have not seen? We have denied ourselves, but You haven’t noticed!' 'Look you do as you please on the day of your fast, and oppress all your workers. You fast with contention and strife to strike viciously with your fist. You cannot fast as you do today, hoping to make your voice heard on high. Will the fast I choose be like this: A day for a person to deny himself, to bow his head like a reed, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord? Isn’t the fast I choose: To break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood?'”
Imagine a father having a family, building a home of security and comfort, providing toys for his children, and sitting back to enjoy the happy circumstance. Imagine the satisfaction and joy as he watches one daughter playing and laughing, happy and involved, sharing her joy with her siblings, coming over to her father as well to express her love, and to enjoy her play with him as well. But then the father looks out the window to see a son sitting on the ground in the heat of the day. The father goes to his son and asks why he is there and not embracing the joy of the other children. The son tells the father that he wants to be sure never to disappoint the father, so he will sit there in a miserable existence because he doesn’t deserve any of those gifts of love, security, and happiness. He will deny himself and ensure he doesn’t break any rules by doing absolutely nothing at all. Which child brings actual joy to the heart of the father? Is the son’s mere desire to please the father, deny himself, and recognize the father as master enough for the father to smile and say, “Ah yes, this is my perfect will for you”? Dutiful obedience alone (legalism) will not satisfy our Father God any more than it will the earthly father. The relationship of love is joying in relationship with God and his family on the basis of God’s offered truth, goodness, and beauty.
Paul speaks of presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice as our reasonable (also meaning, from the spiritual inside) service. The emphasis is not that we should sacrifice because it is reasonable to do so, but rather in a body-to-spirit connection, Paul says the activity of our sacrifice should be in reasoned service. That idea goes along with what we have just discussed—the rote duty of legalism is not what is urged here. We engage our minds and hearts in reasoned service as we employ our activity for God’s kingdom.
Paul very well may have in mind the Jews’ dutiful but less than mind- and heart-engaged service as he says this. And just as well, Paul wants the Gentiles not merely to turn away from Jewish practice to assume the sophisticated culture of the Mediterranean world as the goal. No, Paul says, don’t operate based on current cultural norms. Rather be transformed by renewing your minds. In other words, serve with a mind changed from this world’s thinking to kingdom-of-God thinking. What is kingdom-of-God thinking? Paul actually immediately answers that by relating it to discerning the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
Think again of Jesus standing before Pilate, telling him that his kingdom is not of this world. Of course, he was planning to return to redeem the physical world, refining it through the eradication of sin and presenting those refined, new heavens and new earth to his people for inheritance. So Jesus was not talking about physical creation to Pilate. He was talking about the world structure—society, culture, attitude.
How do we change from the world’s thinking to kingdom-of-God thinking? Remember our image-bearing qualities of apprehension. God made us to desire truth, goodness, and beauty (TGB)—that TGB that is sourced in him. But as we learned in Romans 1, in sin we shrouded over God’s revelation and sought TGB in ourselves. In that finite and selfish circumstance, our world order of society, culture, and attitude has been established. Paul says to reject that by setting our minds back on God for his infinite source and satisfaction in TGB. In that way, we may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
From rightly apprehending in verses 1 and 2, Paul moves to rightly acting in verses 3 through 13. He connects the sections with the word for (meaning because) as he explains that reasoned service.
In verse 3 Paul notes, “For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.” Usually we see a warning against arrogance in this verse, but I actually don’t think arrogance is the thrust. If it were, it would seem strange that the idea of thinking too highly of oneself pops in and out of Paul’s discussion so quickly with little to no contextual connection. But it is right there, isn’t it? You should not think too highly of yourself, Paul warns. Actually, while several translations say “of himself” (KJV, ESV, HCSB, NASB), several others say “of yourself” (NIV, AMP, NRSV, NET). Is Paul speaking in third person or second? That should be easy to resolve: what does the Greek say? Well, here’s where the problem comes in. The Greek says neither. The Greek doesn’t have that prepositional phrase in it at all. So, if we lifted those two words out of our translations, we’d be left simply with “I tell everyone among you not to think more highly than he should think.” Hmm. Already the necessity for interpreting this statement as arrogance is gone. What is it that we should not “think more highly” of?
N. T. Wright says that phrase should be translated “overthink above,” although that doesn’t really clear it up; it still sounds awkward. Bringing the idea into more common expression, I think we can understand it as “think beyond.” But the thinking here is not mere brain function. This word (according to Thayer’s Lexicon) is a concluding word—directing your mind or regarding. Therefore, we could adjust this part of our verse some more as “For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to direct your mind beyond what should be regarded.”
We are still left wondering about Paul’s intent. What would directing our minds beyond what we should look like? The second half of the verse should help us. There we see Paul tell us in contrast (“instead”) to direct our minds “sensibly, as [or since] God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.” Sensibly here as more of the KJV idea of soberly. The word means to act in self-control (just as soberly is the opposite of drunkenly).
Okay, then, instead of directing our minds beyond what we should, we should reign them in in self-control. Still, however, we don’t yet have an understanding of what directing our minds beyond looks like. Beyond what?
Paul explains that each of us has been given a measure of faith. That clause seems odd. Does it mean that I have some certain measurement of faith and you have maybe more or less? But isn’t faith belief? And if belief, is it God that hands out this belief in varied amounts? That simply does not match with everything Paul has said about belief so far and elsewhere. Paul also speaks of faith as our common Christian belief system, as in I Timothy 5:8: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, that is his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Therefore, Paul could be talking about “a measure of the Christian faith.” Paul uses the term “measure” elsewhere. Probably the place that matches the present use best is in Ephesians. Ephesians 4:7 reads, “Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the Messiah’s gift.” After referencing the OT passage about the Messiah’s gift, Paul continues in verses 11 and 12, “And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry.” Therefore, this measure spoken of in verse 7 is explained as the several gifts (or abilities or means of working together) given in regard to the Christian faith. In fact, as we continue in Ephesians 4 getting to verse 16 we find, “From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.” That word working is the very same one that is translated measure in verse 7 (and also measure back in Romans 12:3). So we can go back to verse 3 with a better idea of what Paul is talking about. In speaking of the measure of faith, he is actually talking about what we more commonly refer to as gifts of the Spirit, or our gifts in the Christian faith.
Let’s put everything together, then, that we have concluded from the Greek, lexicon, and other passages. The wording still sounds awkward, but before we smooth it out, we’ll first read it in its revised but awkward wording: “For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to direct your mind beyond what should be regarded. Instead, direct your ind in self-control as God has distributed a separate working ability for the faith to each one.”
Yes, very awkward. But at least now we have ideas that can be understood. Revising the awkwardness to more readable English, we can understand the verse this way: “For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to engage your reasoned service beyond what you should. Instead, engage in self-control because God has distributed to each one a calling (gift) for the mission of our faith.” Not only do we have a verse now that makes sense, it is also a verse that perfectly flows from verses 1 and 2 of this chapter. And the idea of that calling or those gifts (the measure) for each of us flow out from the verse as Paul discusses the many parts of the body of Christ and the separate gifts listed in verses 4 through 8.
Paul is telling us here that in the community of Christ we need to trust each other—depend on each other—for the gospel-living mission to the world. I shouldn't do everything (and that not well) on my own. I should focus on my strengths—my gifts—while allowing you to focus on your gifts so that by joining together we can accomplish for Christ what needs to be accomplished in the most effective manner. This reasoning is why Paul started verse one with the call to "brothers" or "comrades." We are a community of Christians, and we should work within that relationship.