We are studying Romans 12:1-8 for Sunday, May 26. This is the opening portion of Paul’s conclusion to the letter to the Romans, the introduction to the moral instruction that follows from the theological presentation of the first part of the letter. [Study questions on the text have been added here.] Here are my notes on this (amazing) text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: It might be a good idea for us to review the material from Romans that we’ve studied over the past three weeks, to remind ourselves of where Paul has been that has led up to what he says here. Because those preceding chapters are the immediate literary context for these couple of paragraphs.
We probably need to recall that Paul seems to be addressing the specific situation of the Roman church, which includes the presence, and presumably tensions between, Jewish and Gentile Christians in the same church organization.
He’s laid out the general human situation, the way God has revealed a plan of salvation by grace through faith in the faithful Jesus Christ, who is in himself the revelation of God’s righteousness, which is a kind of righteousness that is fulfilled in the reconciliation of a sinful humanity. [Wow.] This, according to Paul, is God’s means of grace for everyone, regardless of ethnic or religious background – that is, Gentile and Jew alike. One consequence of this equality of dependence on grace is that no one has any bragging rights when it comes to salvation. Except, perhaps, Jesus.
A couple of weeks ago, in studying chapter 8 in particular, we spent some time thinking about Paul’s discussion of “the flesh” and “the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” This seems to be Paul’s shorthand for two different ways of life, with very different consequences for the people who live those ways. “To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6) and “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)
Then, last week, we saw Paul doing his best to understand what this means for the Jewish understanding of election, the special position of Israel in God’s scheme of things. As we noted last week, this mainly boils down to encouraging the Gentiles to be grateful for their inclusion in the first place, and, once again, not to let that inclusion go to their heads, so to speak. Don’t boast.
Now, he starts out with a “therefore” clause. “Therefore” usually points back to a reason that has been given for what is being said next. We probably need to think about what that reason is.
That’s the literary context, but we have a church-ly and personal context for our reading, too – for instance, this is probably one of the most frequently quoted Bible verses in our class. So we know we love it. Or at least one of us does. That means this text is extremely familiar to us, or part of it is. That’s a delight, but also sometimes a kind of peril – just because we think we already know what it says! And maybe we do. But maybe we don’t know everything it says. So we may need to think about that, as well.
I also keep thinking about Psalm 1, and the wisdom of the two ways. Paul would have known that one, and (as is his pattern) he has developed some contrasts pretty strongly so far in his letter. We may want to have that ancient pattern in mind, as well.
CLOSER READING: I am curious, yes, curious about that therefore. Does it refer to “the mercies of God” in v1? Does it refer to the immediately preceding material – something or everything in chapters 9-11? Does it refer to something before that? Like material in chapter 8? Or to everything before that?
There might be some clues. There’s body language in verse 1. We saw that back in chapter 8 – our mortal bodies are dead because of sin, but made alive by God through the Spirit of Christ. And now, here are the “mercies of God” connected to “living” bodies to be presented as “holy and acceptable” sacrifices … this all feels connected at least to the argument about the flesh and spirit, and the two different kinds of minds, in chapter 8.
The phrase translated in the NRSV as “spiritual worship” could also be and has been translated “reasonable worship”, and I think is hard for us to fathom. It uses a word from the realm of philosophy, that points to the inner human faculty of reason – at its root, the same reason (logos) that is what holds creation together, and that is the identity of Jesus Christ the Word of God. I doubt this is a coincidence, I think Paul means us to notice that humans are this special way – that is, inner and rational or log-ical, and so need to engage in this special type of worship: rational-spiritual (from the inside) worship, worship that accords with the underlying nature of reality.
This reminds me: Paul is a smart guy, a learned guy, an academic, even. Thinking matters to him.
V2 uses a word for “mind” that has given us the English word “noetic,” a word that specifically refers to the intellect, to that part of the human person that can think and reason. This is what needs to be “renewed” – a characteristically Pauline word – and that renewal will re-form us. That metamorphosis will be a contrast to just following the pattern, the “schema” of the world, or more precisely, the age in which we live. (Whatever age we’re living in, it has a pattern.)
The grace given to Paul (v3) includes being good with words and ideas!! He proceeds to construct a tight little chiasm based on a Greek word for thinking that contrasts over-thinking – thinking too highly of yourself – with wise, prudent, sensible, moderate, excellent thinking – the very kind of virtuous thinking you would recommend to people if you were Aristotle. Verse 3 is a little brilliant gem.
This virtuous thinking needs to proceed from “each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Do we suppose this means each person gets a different measure of faith? Or should we rather recall that all are justified by faith? (Romans 3:30) The word for measure here could mean an instrument (like a ruler or a measuring cup), or it could mean the reading on that instrument. I admit, I am inclined to think of the faith as the ruler or the measuring cup, so, the standard for good thinking. But others may have a different thought about this.
Verses 4-5 are presented as a further rationale for this good kind of thinking. It is a little meditation on the relationship of the one and the many (a preoccupation of the ancient … philosophers) – one body, many members with their many, different, practical functions. Not the only time we’ve heard this kind of thinking from Paul – think of his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12) for instance. Lots of implications of this line of thinking – we are not isolated, independent, self-sufficient, better and more indispensable than the other integral parts, etc. etc. “We are members one of another”.
Here’s an argument to think about with our minds: If the body of Christ was a living sacrifice, then rather obviously – when we think about this logically, as Paul is pointing out here – we, who are members of the one body of Christ, will need to present our bodies as living sacrifices as a consequence of our membership in that particular body. Which is a living sacrifice.
Verses 6-8 then list some examples of what this means practically-functionally. Note the repetition of “grace given to us” from verse 3: Paul has just been doing what everyone needs to do, namely, using the “grace given” to him for the purpose for which it seems to have been given to him.
This section is all nouns, no verbs. The gifts are just … there. Sort of like the bones without the breath. (So … what animates them? We might wonder …) The word for gifts contains the word “grace” – clunkily literally, we have “grace-gifts” according to given-as-a-gift-to-us grace. Prophetic activity, servanthood (ministry), teaching, exhortation or encouragement.
There may be a figure of speech going on here, in which we are supposed to understand the “in proportion to” as applying to all the examples.
Some of the pairings, of gift and appropriate attitude, might strike us as strange: sharing or giving, in simplicity – one suggestion is “single-minded generosity,” but it might imply lack of ostentation as well.
The word translated “leader” is an ambiguous one that could mean something to do with administration, or something to do with assistance – and maybe we should think of administration as a kind of assistance, really. Administration or assistance is in proportion to a word that might mean diligence or enthusiasm or earnestness or speed or urgency – a whole range of possibilities, all of which might suggest a kind of getting down to business.
The compassionate or merciful, [perhaps in proportion to] cheerfulness, gladness. The work of compassion or mercy is envisioned here as a cheerful function.
Because we need to let love be genuine. (Romans 12:9)
Paul has so much more advice. We’re just focusing on a little bit of it … this Sunday.