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Romans 12, 1-21

Peter A. Chamberas

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of god - what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly, do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble, in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Orthodox Christian life is by no means characterized only by doctrines and beliefs that are of a theoretical nature. Christianity is a way of life imbued by the Word of God in the sacred scripture of the church. Orthodoxia (right or true belief) must be complemented by orthopraxia (right or true action or way of life). As Christians, we cannot live as we wish nor do those things which are often prompted by our fallen nature. We are challenged to transcend our human inclinations that draw us into conformity with this world, and to be transformed by the renewal of our mind and way of life according to the stature of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Commentary and interpretation

In his great letter to the Romans, St. Paul, having concluded his rather systematic theological argument in chapters 1-11, turns typically, in chapter 12, to the moral and ethical consequences of Christian doctrine for practical living in the Christian community. Christian faith is inseparable from Christian conduct. In trying to understand the relationship between faith and life, doctrine and ethics, it is important to avoid a common misunderstanding by arranging these two elements too neatly under the notions of "theory" and "practice", as if there is a system of maxims and directions for Christian living as distinct from Christian theology. In fact, St. Paul wants us to understand that every action of the believer is based upon the previous action of God in Christ: It is precisely because of what God has done in Christ that Christians are called to respond in a faith that works itself out in live and service. This means that St. Paul's exhortations for Christian living are really another way of expressing the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.

When St. Paul, in Romans 12:1, begins his appeal to the Roman Christians "by the mercies of God", he is in effect reminding them of the entire previous doctrinal part of his letter. His saying that all subsequent counsel about conduct springs from the previous declaration of doctrine. The new relationship between God and humanity, established by the love of God in Christ, awakens in the faithful an appropriate response, obliging them to be consecrated to God's service.

The vitality of a Christian is seen in a new life that is offered to God, and dedicate to serving the will of God in all we are and do. The truest sacrifice is to live according to God's will, and the truest freedom is found in the most dedicate service and worship of God. The Christian gospel requires that lives must be cleansed by repentance and renewal; they must be marked by holiness that is expressed by discipline of ordinary experiences in daily life. To worship God in truth and spirit is to dedicate ourselves to him without reserve, so that the moral quality of our life may correspond consistently with the will of God.

The prevailing weakness in the Christianity of our day is increasing acceptance of the dominant intellectual, moral and social atmosphere of the age. We too readily conform to the outward fashions and conventions which our society dictates. When our alertness to evil is disarmed, we drift into agreement with the ever changing things the world demands. Therefore, St. Paul reminds Christians of every age: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God". The new age which God has inaugurated in Christ requires a new and risen life in the Christian community. This newness is not a matter of chronological time, but a newness of character and nature. The children of the world have been made the children of God, and they must live accordingly. When Christ comes into a man's life he is a new man; when Christ comes into a woman's life she is a new woman; his/her mind is different, transforming essentially because the mind of Christ is in him/her. It is the very decisive power of God's Spirit, with God's transforming effect upon our lives, that makes it possible for us to discern and to prove "what is the will of God". Thus we discover in our actual situation what God would have us do, as we find our place and discharge our responsibilities in the reconciling and healing Christian community.

While it is a personal obligation of every Christian to discover and experience the possibilities of the new life in Christ, it is certainly not an individual achievement. "Unus Christianus - nullus Christianus" (One Christian is no Christian). Nobody could be a Christian alone, as an isolated individual, but only together with the other brothers and sisters in Christ. From the very beginning Christianity existed as a corporate reality; to be a Christian meant that one belonged to the church. But it was not a community based on social cohesion, mutual affection, or any other natural attraction. Christian existence presumes an incorporation, a membership in the apostolic community, which was gathered and constituted by Jesus himself. Christians are united not only among themselves, but first of all they are one in Christ. This prior communion with Christ makes the communion of all the brothers and sisters first possible in him.

A favorite thought of St. Paul is of the church as a body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-27). The members of the body neither argue with each other, nor envy each other, nor dispute about their relative importance. Each part of the body carries out its own function, however humble that function may be. The Christian community, Paul believed, should be like that. Each member has a task to do; and it is only when each contributes the help of his own task that the body of community functions as it should.

Any inflated notion of our importance distorts our self-awareness and jeopardizes our proper relationship with others. Christian fellowship requires modesty, sober judgement and true insight, which spring from real. Christian humility, which in turn comes to us with the standard of faith given to us as a gift of grace from God. An honest assessment of our own capabilities, without conceit and without false modesty, is one of the first essentials of a useful life. We are to use the gift God has given us, as best as we can, even if it is a humble one. We are not to envy some one else's gift, and regret that some other gift has not been to us. Every charisma comes from God and must be used, not for our own prestige, but with the conviction that it is our duty and privilege to make our contribution, however humble, for the common good of the whole community and of the individual members. A sense of interdependence with others and the proper understanding and discharge of our responsibilities within the Christian community will not only teach us to use the aptitudes committed to us by God for welfare of the whole body, but it will also lift us up to a closer and more authentic relationship with Christ.

While St. Paul had no sympathy with spectacular exhibits of religious gifts that do not edify the faithful, he was quick to emphasize that gifts be used to achieve the purpose for which it is intended. Even the very practical gifts of helpfulness must be practiced in the appropriate spirit of kindness and cheerfulness, and never be degenerated into lifeless and disagreeable duties.

In verses 9-13, St. Paul lists many practical rules for ordinary, everyday Christian living. First in this list is the virtue of true and authentic love, which is always the ultimate goal of our Christian life, both within the church and outside of it. St. Paul has much to say about the appropriate response of all believers. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). This love must be extended not only to God (verses 1-2) and to other believers (verses 3-13.15-16), but also to those outside the church and particularly to enemies, wherever they may be (verses 14.17-21). Here again, these timeless exhortations to practice a variety of virtues remind us that true Christian faith must work itself out in genuine and profound love. Christian love must be absolutely sincere; pretense and hypocrisy can never co-exist with genuine and authentic love. Love also must not be relegated to a superficial sentimentalism that is devoid of any moral and spiritual reality that clearly discerns and discriminates between the basic forces of good an evil.

The presence of true love has many practical results: we respect others and treat them with brotherly affection; we avoid false estimates of ourselves and given proper and prompt recognition and honor to the worth of others, we acquire not only the ability to sympathize with those who suffer but also to rejoice in the success of others; we contribute to the needs of others and provide gracious hospitality, we live in harmony with others. A Christian will give himself to any task, however humble, with zeal and earnest commitment, knowing that it is motivated by the Spirit of God, who sets us aglow, and that through such tasks he or she can truly and effectively serve the Lord.

What God has done for us illuminates what God will do for us in the future. Christians are persuaded that God loves them, that Jesus Christ has made possible a more abundant and richer life for them in his church. This kind of hope leads to joy, because where there is spiritual growth and true life in God, there is also radiance and joy. Because St. Paul knew that adversity is not absent from life and that it often provides spiritual good and growth, he exhorts all Christians to be patient in their tribulations and constant in their life of prayer. Christian faith is not a guarantee of deliverance from misfortune; it is the promise that in the midst of tribulation and suffering we shall be sustained and strengthened. Half-hearted and slothful attitudes in practicing the presence of God, particularly in prayer and worship, will never suffice to create and maintain a Christian life. Throughout his letters, St. Paul places great emphasis on the demand for sustained and strenuous effort in our Christian life.

In the final verses (14, 17-21) of chapter 12, St. Paul turns his attention to another series of rules and principles to govern our relationship with our fellow human beings, who may be outside of the church or who may be our enemies. Rather than curse, we are to bless, to speak well of and pray for those who persecute us. In this stark contrast we are prompted by the love of Christ. What are we to do if we suffer evil? At last we are not to repay the transgressor in kind, evil for evil. Christian love requires that is transcend evil and manifest itself in the good that transforms (cf. Mt. 5:46-47; 1 Cor. 13:5-7). On the question of vengeance (v.19), St. Paul raises the problem to the level of God's relationship with all of us. If we resort to reprisals we are encroaching on the prerogatives of God; we are seizing powers which do not belong to us. We must leave this matter to the righteous judgement of God. The ultimate overthrow of evil is in God's hands. We must therefore resist the temptation to retaliate by reflecting on the high truths of Christian doctrine regarding God's righteous and beneficent purpose in a universe where moral and spiritual as well as physical and material laws pursue their appointed course.

In authentic Christian living, it is not enough simply to refrain from judgement and retaliation; we must also be prepared to offer active aid to our enemy where his need is most acute. If he is hungry, we must feed him; if he is thirsty, we must give him drink. This is the Christian law of love which allows the sinner to see himself with hope and mercy, without an emotional need to defend himself. Through this act of love an enemy is confronted with the holy will of God, who, in such circumstances, is like "a consuming fire" for the purpose of cleaning and purity.

In the final exhortation of this passage: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good", St. Paul wants to express the overarching Christian truth that victory remains with love. Goodness can be overcome by evil, if evil is allowed to take control and dictate to us the terms on which human relations will be conducted. The element of hope in our entangled and difficult human situations is goodness of Christian living. As children of God, we do not rely on our clever skills but on spiritual powers which we can apprehend and appropriate through our belief that God co-operated for good with those who love him. This closing counsel of St. Paul sums up everything he has been saying about our relationship with those who are opposed to us. It is epitome of the characteristic attitude of the entire New Testament to all problems of human conduct. This attitude expresses so faithfully all that is most distinctive in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, who is the inspiration of all the thought and conduct of St. Paul. In the final analysis, the essence of Christian discipleship is a personal commitment to God's will in Jesus Christ.

When believers function authentically as described by St. Paul in Romans 12, we can indeed have reconciled and healed Christians, who hopefully will be able to create reconciling and healing communities. This can indeed happen not only because "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (2Co. 5:19), but also because we in turn have reconciled ourselves to God. Not only in Christ in our midst, but we too are manifestly in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. While this is a present reality here and now, it is also our constant, fervent hope and prayer for the future: come, Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile! We want to be transfigured into that wonderful way of life, which truly transforms us into healing and reconciling communities.

Suggestions and questions for further reflection:

  1. Each member of the study group should read and study the biblical passage in advance by becoming familiar with its general context in the Bible. Other familiar and related passages may be sought out for comparison.
  2. The study group may approach the text in a meditative and prayerful attitude by starting with a prayer for guidance and enlightenment to understand and to appreciate the Word of God.
  3. Each person may attempt to read the passage as a message from God directed personally to each of us, requiring a personal response of obedience.
  4. Is a personal response of obedience possible to the exhortations of our passage? Which exhortations do you think are easier to apply to our life, and which are more difficult and why?
  5. If we accept the Bible as the authoritative Word of God in human language, as having both, a divine and a human nature, what elements in our passage may be considered to be divine element and which the human?
  6. In Orthodox Christianity, the church and the Bible are interdependent and inseparable. In what ways, if any, do you think the passage under discussion bears this truth out?
  7. If, as many Christians believe today, Christianity has reached an impasse because Christians have failed to be truly Christian, how does our passage shed light on our predicament? How does it point to the formation of a new humanity? How can it help us create healing and reconciling communities?
  8. The beautiful icon of Saints Peters and Paul, embracing and offering the kiss of peace, is a most expressive image. What does it express to you? How can it serve as an inspiration for us to understand and appreciate the passage we are studying?