Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Romans 12:1
In the last chapter we saw that Paul had reached the mountaintop of theology which he had been pursuing for eleven chapters. Now with the word “therefore” he makes the great transition from theology to ethics. Since all of these wonderful theological things are true, how should we then live? In several of Paul’s epistles we see this same kind of transition. In Ephesians, the first three chapters make up some of the greatest theology in the New Testament, followed by the final three chapters of ethics, or as the Jews would say, halakhic teaching. A similar pattern is seen in Colossians and in other books. The word halakhic is taken from the Hebrew word “walk” (ha-lak). In the Jewish faith there is what is called halakhah, which includes all the body of commandments and traditions that make up Judaism. It describes how a Jewish person should walk or live his everyday existence in the world.
Well, it might surprise us to learn that there is also a Christian halakhah. We see this in 1 John 2:6 where we read: “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” We observe in the remainder of Romans how this “walk” is spelled out for us. It seems clear that the early Christians of Paul’s day didn’t just “talk the talk” but they “walked
Wiersbe sees that the key to this section is the concept of relationships. He notes that while the term “relational theology” is a relatively new one, the idea itself is not new at all and is seen clearly in statements like the one in 1 John 4:20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar…” 1
We have mentioned before that there is something amiss when there is theology without application; when there is orthodoxy without orthopraxy. In such a case, the theologian is not too much better off than the philosopher. Both have only cold and barren speculations without practical applications. Paul would have none of this. In fact, the Hebrew people are not too much given to the theoretical. They always want to know “does it work,” or “what good is it?”
Paul, like a father, exhorts us (parakalō) or urges us, to present our bodies as “living sacrifices” to God. Paul was not urging us to do something that he himself had not done. In fact, Paul was a model “living sacrifice,” a soul aflame in God’s service. Paul is no doubt using the picture of the whole burnt offering (o-lah) of Leviticus chapter 1. In many of Israel’s offerings the priests were able to receive their allotted portions from the offering itself but not in the case of the o-lah. It was wholly consumed in the flames with nothing held back.
What a picture of service to God! We are to be people aflame who are able to set others aflame with the gospel. Like a candle that gives light and warmth, we ourselves are consumed in the process. This has been the picture of a number of luminaries in the history of the church. In more modern times we think of George Whitefield, the Anglican itinerant minister who did so much to spread the Great Awakening in America. We also think of John Wesley the founder of Methodism who inspired great revivals on two continents. Because such huge crowds were attracted to his open-air meetings, Wesley was often asked about this enormous success. His much repeated response was, “Every morning I set myself alight and people come for miles to watch me burn!”
The presentation of our bodies as sacrifices must have been a repulsive idea in the Greek world where Paul preached. To the Greeks the spirit was the most important thing and the body was a sort of prison house for the spirit. The body was something to be ashamed of or even something to be despised. 2 This was not the case in the Hebrew world where the body was considered a special creation of God and even regarded as the temple of God.
For most of us the smell of our own fat in the fire is repulsive and alarming but to God the offering up of ourselves is holy, quieting and soothing. In the Old Testament the fragrance of the burnt offering was called a re-akh ne-ho-akh, or “an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Lev. 1:9). It is our “spiritual act of worship.” The Greek adjective here is logikos which can mean “spiritual” but can also mean our “reasonable” or “logical” response to the grace of God that has been revealed to us so far in Romans. 3 Stott adds this note: “No worship is pleasing to God which is purely inward, abstract and mystical; it must express itself in concrete acts of service performed by our bodies.” 4
Paul continues: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (12:2). What necessary advice this is for twenty-first century saints! The whole program of this present evil age is designed to make us conform our minds to its ideas and patterns. We are daily bombarded with its humanistic precepts and manipulations. We are told that our happiness is the greatest aim and goal of life. Therefore we can do what we please, whatever makes us the happiest. We can watch porn; sleep around; casually break marriage vows; be greedy for gain; lie; cheat; and steal, and it is all OK providing it makes us happy. This is total nonsense.
This whole approach is at loggerheads with scripture and with reality as well. After a half-century of this “new” morality we are beginning to reap its grim results. The US has propagated this line of thinking to the whole world, but this thinking doesn’t work. For instance, America, the “land of the free” now has more of its citizens in prison per-capita than any nation on earth, even more than Communist China. We have seen half our homes destroyed by divorce. We have seen forty million of our babies murdered through abortion. Our youth are also decimated with hallucinogenic drugs and venereal disease. Obviously, we cannot continue with such thinking and we must be aware that this present evil age with its thinking is coming to a disastrous end. In 1 John 2:17 we read: “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”
We must not be conformers but transformers, allowing our minds to be transformed and changed by the living Christ and by his Holy Spirit’s work within us. The world wants to change us from without but Jesus wants to conform and change us from within. The Lord wants to give us a “mind transplant,” even the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). He wants us to undergo a change, a metamorphosis (metamorphoomai in Greek, v.2). Then and only then will we begin to perceive the perfect will of God for our lives.
MEMBERS TOGETHER IN THE CHURCH
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Romans 12:3
It is interesting that the New Testament always speaks about togetherness in our spiritual experiences. It is very important that we see ourselves in the right perspective. It is also important that we see ourselves always in relation to others in the Body of Christ. We are living sacrifices together; we are transformed together; we are the Body of Christ together; and we make up the holy temple of God together. There is no such thing as “Lone Ranger” Christianity. We must not think proudly or too highly of ourselves. In fact, Robertson views the self-conceit treated here “as a species of insanity.”5
We must learn to think of ourselves soberly in relation to the measure of faith God has given each of us. Having a correct appraisal of ourselves and seeing ourselves in relation to others in the Body of Christ is extremely important. We cannot think for a moment that we can do without others in the Body, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 12:21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!’” We need every part of the body and if any part of it hurts it all hurts.
Paul makes plain in this chapter that a certain amount of grace is given to each of us (vs. 3 and 6). He also makes plain in verse 3 that each of us has his or her own measure of faith. While it seems proper for us to ask, as the disciples did, that our faith be increased (Lk. 17:5), we may never attain the measure of faith that some others have. This can be a cause for discouragement if we put our eyes on men and not on Jesus. It is fine to be encouraged by the faith of others but it is destructive for us to envy their faith or their gifts and compare ourselves to them.
“Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (12:4-5). It is obvious here that diversity and not uniformity is the mark of God’s handiwork. This may be observed throughout God’s great creation. Of all the multiplied billions of leaves there are not two exactly alike. This same characteristic of God’s work is also noted in the church. Although there are many members they are all different. Yet despite the difference they are all part of the same body
(cf. 1 Cor. 12:14-26).
In recent years Dr. Paul Brand, who gained fame for his groundbreaking work with leprosy, has co-authored a book on the wonders of the human body. His book is called Fearfully and Wonderfully Made. 6 He brings out many interesting and amazing truths about the body’s function. He remarks how “Each cell is flooded with communication about the rest of the body… The body’s cells have a nearly infallible sense of belonging.” He says: “Unlike a social or political body, membership in it [Christ’s Body] entails something as radical as a new coded imprint inside each cell. In reality, I become genetically like Christ himself because I belong to his Body.” 7 He says: “As a result of this stuff-exchange, we carry within us not just the image of, or the philosophy of, or faith in, but the actual substance of God. One staggering consequence credits us with the spiritual genes of Christ: as we stand before God, we are judged on the basis of Christ’s perfection, not our unworthiness.”8
Dr. Brand concludes: “Just as the complete identity code of my body inheres in each individual cell, so also the reality of God permeates every cell in his Body, linking us members with a true, organic bond.”9
We note in this close body connection that “each member belongs to all the others” (v. 5). As the famous meditation by John Donne goes, “No man is an island, entire of itself.”10 We do not belong to ourselves despite what humanistic doctrine proclaims. We were bought with a price and redeemed by Jesus for his purposes (1 Cor. 6:20). This is a shocking truth, but we actually belong to Christ and to others in the Body of Christ. We simply must function harmoniously in this arrangement.
We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.” Romans 12:6
The gifts Paul is speaking of are not natural gifts but spiritual gifts (charisma). These gifts are supernatural in nature and allow each member to serve the whole body of Christ in a spiritual manner. The spiritual gifts are also dealt with 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 28 and in Ephesians 4:11, but nowhere do we have a really comprehensive list. While some of the gifts are showered generally among all believers, other gifts seem to be shared with only a select few. Paul first deals with the gift of prophecy. We know from other references (1 Cor. 14:5) that prophecy is the greatest of these gifts and we are instructed to especially desire it (1 Cor. 14:1).
As the church has drifted away from the Holy Spirit over the centuries the gift of prophecy has become increasingly rare. Today some try to identify the gift with preaching but this identity is misleading. The author Philippi summarizes the prophetic office well:
The New Testament idea of the prophetic office is essentially the same as that of the Old Testament. Prophets are men who, inspired by the Spirit of God, remove the veil from the future; make known concealed facts of the present, either in discovering the secret will of God, or in disclosing the hidden thoughts of man, and bringing into light his unknown deeds; and dispense to their hearers instruction, comfort, exhortation in animated, powerfully impassioned language. 11
Many years ago an old pastor of mine was blessed with the gift of prophecy. At the time, my home town where he resided had a population of about 3000 souls. This old pastor perceived and declared publicly that there would soon be a great disaster in the town. It was not long until a railroad car carrying explosives detonated and devastated some eastern portions of the city. My father was in the insurance business there at the time and it seems like he was dealing with claims for many months after this explosion. Still we cannot expect a prophet to know everything or to know all the details of a certain event. The Bible says: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part…” (1 Cor. 13:9).
In the closing portion of Romans Paul mentions an offering he had taken from many of the Mediterranean churches. That offering was to assist needy saints in Jerusalem due to a great famine that had struck in Israel. This famine seems to have caught the church by surprise. However, on an earlier occasion the prophet Agabus had predicted a famine that would cover the whole Roman world. On this occasion the saints were ready and gathered immediate help for those in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). This famine actually happened in the reign of Claudius.
It is sad indeed that prophecy was stolen away from the church over the centuries and is only recently making its reappearance. A similar thing happened in Judaism. Shulam relates how biblical prophecy was deliberately replaced with the rabbinic (Pharisaic) office being substituted in its place. During the Tannaitic Period (AD 70-200) the Sages declared that all prophecy had ceased. Soon the Sages regarded prophecy as something for only fools and children. 12
Paul continues on with the spiritual gifts. He says of the next two gifts: “If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach;” (12:7). The Greek word for serving (diakonos) can mean merely waiting on tables and distributing food as we see in Acts 6:1-6. Keener suggests that the positioning of this gift between prophecy and teaching may indicate that a particular office of “servant” or “deacon” is indicated. 13 It should be noted that of the seven “servants” chosen in Acts 6, Stephen and Philip became two of the most charismatic figures in the New Testament. The scripture testifies of Stephen that he was “…full of faith and of the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 6:5). Of course, he went on to become Christianity’s first recorded martyr. We cannot help but note the difference in the New Testament pattern of “deacon” and the office of deacon today. So seldom is the power of the Holy Spirit involved in the lives of present-day deacons and, in fact, there is often not much serving either.
The gift of teaching is a much more common one for us. Of course, we all know of bad teachers and we also likely know of some good ones. We probably don’t know too many teachers who have a miraculous spiritual gift to teach, though. Many years ago I remember a very young man who had an exceptional gift as a teacher. He could hold us all spellbound for an hour and a half at a time. He seldom picked up the Bible when he spoke but he mostly quoted it from memory. After this young man would teach, it would seem that many Bible concepts would simply explode in our minds even weeks after the teaching. I will always be indebted to this young man with his miraculous spiritual gift for much of what I understand and teach at present.
Although there are more teachers per capita today than other spiritual gifts, we may not be doing such a good job in this area. The late popular professor, Bible teacher and writer, William Barclay, once remarked that one of the great failures of the modern church has probably been in this area of teaching. 14
Paul continues with the gifts: “if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully” (12:8). We could use a lot more of the gift of encouragement in our churches today. So many Christians, it seems, are discouraged and depressed, with a goodly number being on medications for these very problems. We read in the scripture that Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, was called “Barnabas” by the disciples. The name Barnabas is interpreted “a son of consolation, comfort, exhortation, or encouragement.” I can only say that we need a lot more Barnabases in the church today.
Then there is the spiritual gift of giving. The Hebrew people just naturally gave a lot more than we do today. If we total all the numerous offerings of Israel there is no way it could be less than 50-60 percent of a person’s income. Of course, the tithe alone was ten percent, not counting the many required sacrifices. We see in Acts 4 that Barnabas himself had a real gift of giving. He had just sold a field and brought the whole price, laying the money at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:36-37). He inspired some others to give but one notorious couple, Ananias and Sapphira, mimicked Barnabas in selling their property, but they neglected to bring the whole price to the apostles. They probably didn’t have a spiritual gift of giving and the end result was disastrous. Stedman tells of once hearing a man who stood up in a meeting saying, “I want to give $100 anonymously.”15 Obviously, he was also lacking the gift of giving.
It is also possible that Paul is speaking here of a spiritual position in the church which was charged with distribution of financial aid. We remind ourselves that there were no welfare or other such social agencies in the first-century Roman world. The church had the whole task of caring for the sick and needy.
Paul then speaks of the gift of leadership. He says that those who have this gift should govern diligently. We have probably all known some charismatic leaders in our experience. Such leaders are so easy to follow. We have also no doubt known a few who were un-charismatic. Obviously, God gives to some people the spiritual gift of leadership. Perhaps young Timothy had a gift such as this. He was young but still was very effective. On one occasion Paul reminded him to stir up the gift that was in him (2 Tim. 1:6). Perhaps he had been a little slack in using his great leadership gift. 16
It seems likely that the earliest church was patterned somewhat after the synagogue. Shulam informs us that in the synagogue there was a president who conducted worship, taking responsibility for all those participating in Torah readings and the like. He also maintained the building. The synagogue itself functioned under the authority of some three to seven archaoi, or a council of elders. 17 We actually do see some of these patterns in early New Testament church leadership.
Finally, Paul mentions the spiritual gift of showing mercy, saying that it should be done cheerfully. Almost every Christian can show mercy in some measure. We are, however, not always happy in doing it. One of the best examples of the gift of showing mercy in the New Testament is Dorcas or Tabitha, who lived in Joppa (Acts 9:36-43). She was always busy doing good and helping the poor. When this devout woman died, many people gathered around her body crying and showing all the clothing and robes she had made for them. God decided to show mercy to this merciful woman and had Peter raise her from
Well, these are but a few of the spiritual gifts that are available for Christians. It is true that some of them seem almost like natural gifts. There actually may be some way in which God empowers the natural gifts in certain cases and turns them into truly spiritual and miraculous gifts. We have to conclude that spiritual gifts are not so common today. Some years ago the Barna Research Group did a survey of spiritual gifts in the church. 18 They discovered that the most popular gift was teaching and 12 percent of Christians claimed that gift. Next was the gift of helps or service with 9 percent claiming that one. Interestingly, only 3 percent claimed the gift of giving and a mere 2 percent claimed the gift of prophecy. So obviously, a lot of attention needs to be directed to this whole area of spiritual gifts.
LOVE, THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Romans 12:9
Just as he did in his discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14, Paul here inserts the gift of love which he says in Corinthians is the greatest gift of all. Love must be genuine, sincere and without hypocrisy (anupokritos). Interestingly, it is said that our English word “sincere” comes from the Latin sincerus, meaning “without wax.” Apparently there was a practice among the Roman merchants to patch their earthen and porcelain jars with wax of the same color as the jar. Through this subterfuge small cracks in the jars would not be apparent to the buyers. 19
We cannot help but note the staccato style of the following ethical instructions. It is believed by several scholars that Paul is here summarizing what might have been the church’s set of catechetical instructions relating to love. It is also apparent that these instructions are very close parallels to the teaching of Jesus, particularly as reflected in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7. Many date the book of Matthew later than the ministry of Paul but even if this is so there certainly must have been some early compilations of ethical guidelines taken from Jesus’ teaching, particular from his Sermon on the Mount.
This section may also be a sort of summary of the fruit of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22 and almost every fruit is mentioned here. 20 Of course, Paul should have had little trouble recalling what he had written in the Book of Galatians which, according to some scholars, must have been in circulation among the churches by this date. It was very important for Paul to emphasize love in view of the many simmering resentments between Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church.
We are also instructed here to “hate what is evil.” Hatred is obviously a very strong response and some may question the necessity of its usage. Yet it has been said that “no virtue which is not passionate is safe.” 21 In order to be protected from this pervasive world system, we must have a strong response to evil. With a similar intensity we must love the good and cling to it. We might think of this as a sort of “Velcro” response. The word used here has the meaning of “gluing, or uniting firmly by glue.” 22
Paul continues with his staccato instructions: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (12:10). This is the only time in the New Testament that the word “devoted” occurs, but it was a commonly-used word in the Greco-Roman world. It speaks of the tender affections found in family life. 23
Not only are we to be devoted but we are to seek the honor of our brothers and sisters. We are even to seek their honor above our own. Usually we don’t mind honoring other church members providing we ourselves get some honor in the process. We remember the words of Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Also in 1 Peter 5:5, we are told to wear humility as we would wear a cloak.
“Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (12:11). The word translated “lacking” is oknēros, and means “to delay, to feel loath, to be slow, to hesitate.”24 The word for “fervor” (zeontes) has the idea of “being fervent” or even “boiling.” Interestingly, the same word was used of the zealous Apollos in Acts 18:25. 25 Obviously, this is a picture of very eager service for the Lord Jesus; of even being set on fire in our service to him.
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (12:12). We live in a very hopeless age and countless millions are without hope. However, we believers not only have hope but we have a joyous hope. There are many aspects of this hope: the hope of the resurrection; the hope of a glorified body; the hope of his coming; the hope a new heaven and earth; and the hope of everlasting life, to name a few.
Because of our hope we are able to be patient in affliction. The Greek word for patience is a popular one, hupomenō, and it has the meaning of “steadfast endurance.”26 In Romans we keep on seeing the idea of Christian suffering and the necessity of our endurance in such suffering. Paul presents kingdom suffering as a sure thing for the Christian, yet we have somehow gotten ourselves far removed from this concept.
Then there is the matter of being faithful in prayer. Jesus prayed so earnestly that his sweat was like great drops of blood falling on the ground (Lk. 22:44). Few of us have probably ever worked up a sweat praying. Yet, at this moment in history we need to be devoted to prayer and to be fervent in prayer. We think of faithful Simeon and Anna as they prayed and waited at the Temple for the revelation of the Messiah on his first visit. Their prayers were rewarded and they both saw him. How much more important is it for us to pray and wait for his promised second coming. Paul says in Colossians 4:2: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” He also gives us this advice in Ephesians 6:18: “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”
Paul then gives us another injunction which is very important. He says: “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (12:13). Even today the Jewish people feel a strong need to take care of their own community. No doubt the early church, in coming out of a Jewish milieu, had similar feelings. In ancient times when the Passover meal was served it was customary to place a napkin outside the door as long as extra food was available. Strangers could see this welcome sign and feel free to join the celebration. It was customary in Bible times to put up travelers (without charge) in one’s home. Unlike today, in the first century the inns and other places of lodging were scarce, expensive, often filthy, and sometimes even dangerous. 27
The early church father Origen had this to say about hospitality: “We are not just to receive the stranger when he comes to us, but actually to enquire after, and look carefully for, strangers, to pursue them and search them out everywhere, lest perchance somewhere they may sit in the streets or lie without a roof over their heads.”28 Early Christians knew something we have forgotten in our affluent age. Hebrews 13:2 speaks about it: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” In Matthew 25:43 even Jesus himself says: “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in…”
Briscoe remarks: “The infant churches were dependent on homes being open to them as places of worship, and those who became ostracized from home and family because of their newfound faith in Christ were in danger of destitution unless the generous spirit of believers opened both heart and hearth.” 29
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (12:14-15). Once more we realize that Paul has reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:44-45 Jesus says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven…” It is easy to rejoice with those rejoicing, unless perhaps we are somewhat envious of their blessing. Of course, weeping along with mourners was a normal and proper expression of sympathy in Bible times.
“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (12:16). Harmony is possible in the church when believers gain a proper perspective of themselves in Christ. I often play a little harp in our worship times at home. However, if only one string out of 36 is off in pitch it ruins the sweet sound of all the other strings. We should live not only in harmony but in humility. God is always opposed to proud people but he gives grace to the humble (Prov. 3:34). If there is a rush among Christians it should be a rush for the lowest seat (Lk. 14:8-11). We should also try to seek out and befriend the lowly in our congregations and in everyday life.
WATCH YOUR REACTIONS!
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. Romans 12:17
It doesn’t take much of a mathematician to figure out that if we return evil to one who does evil to us, we have doubled the amount of evil. Jesus’ idea is that we absorb evil and thus reduce the amount of evil in the world (cf. Mt. 5:39). “This is probably one of the most difficult precepts of Christianity; but the law of Christ on the subject is unyielding.”30 This was obviously a new thing for the ancient world. Even in Judaism “revenge was possible in some cases with non-Israelites and in cases where there was personal injury.”31 The overall idea was that in not executing revenge we would be doing right in the eyes of others (cf. Prov. 3:3-4). Long ago when King Saul realized that his life had been spared by his supposed enemy, David, he said, “‘You are more righteous than I,’ he said. ‘You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly’” (1 Sam. 24:17).
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (12:18). Here the apostle seems to realize that it is not always possible to please everyone or live at peace with everyone. Yet our Christian job is to try. There is a scripture that I have used over the years when it comes to my rights, my honor or my position being violated. In Psalm 9:4 David says of God: “For you have upheld my right and my cause; you have sat on your throne, judging righteously.” God will take care of his people and we don’t have to worry about maintaining our position or avenging ourselves.
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (12:19). This statement is a quote from Deuteronomy 32:35. Also in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7 we read: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.”
When we do evil to others or when we return evil for evil we initiate a cycle that may have very unpleasant results in the end. Ray Stedman tells the following story:
I remember hearing of some officers during the Korean War
who rented a house for themselves and hired a Korean houseboy to work for them. He was a cheerful, happy soul, and they were young and had a lot of fun playing tricks on him. They would nail his shoes to the floor, and they would put water up over the door so that when he pushed it open the bucket would fall on him. They played all kinds of tricks, but he always took them in such a beautiful, good humor that they finally became ashamed for themselves. They called him in one day and said, “We’ve been doing all these mean things to you and you have taken it so beautifully. We just want to apologize to you and tell you that we are never going to do those things again.” He said, “You mean no more nail shoes to floor?” They said, “No more.” He said, “You mean no more water on door?” They said, “No more.” “Okay then,” he said, “no more spit in soup!” 32
Paul says: “On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head’” (12:20). Here Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22. He may also have a reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:44. If we only do good to our friends or other Christians, how are we any different from the world? What makes us different is when we give food and drink to
There has been much speculation about the business of heaping burning coals on the head. If taken literally it would, of course, undo all the good we just did. Obviously there is something spiritual involved here. Some have thought it might refer to our dealing them emotional misery by our goodness, but even this seems to be a bit out of the spirit of
Perhaps Pett has the best explanation of this verse. He says that it probably refers to the practice of helping a neighbor start his fire on a cold night. This was done by giving him a pot of burning coals. Of course, the logical place to carry such things in the Middle East was on the head [using a small cushion, of course, as is still done]. Giving the pot of coals was therefore an act of great generosity. 33
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21). God has called us to overcome the world through our faith (1 Jo. 5:4). In the Book of Revelation we see this become reality as valiant Christians through Christ overcome the devil and his program and stand triumphantly with their Savior on Mount Zion. Revelation 12:11 says: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”