Romans 12
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

(1) At this point the Apostle turns from the speculative, or doctrinal, portion of his Epistle, and begins a series of practical exhortations to his readers as to their lives as Christians. In the first two verses of the chapter he speaks of this in general terms, but then goes on to give a number of special precepts in no very distinct arrangement or order.

Therefore.—We may well believe that the Apostle having brought his argument up to a climax at the close of the last chapter, would make a pause in his dictation, and perhaps not resume it until another sitting. The one prevailing impression left on his mind, both by the argument just ended and by the whole previous portion of the Epistle, is a profound sense of the merciful and benevolent purposes of God, who, out of seeming evil, only educes the highest good. This sense is still strong upon him, and he makes it the link of transition by which the earnest practical exhortations which follow are bound to what precedes. The sequence is as much one of feeling as of ratiocination.

Your bodies.—Not merely a periphrasis for “yourselves,” but in the strict sense “your bodies,” i.e., the very part of you which is apt to be “an occasion of falling.” The Apostle takes the two main parts of human nature separately. In this verse he deals with the bodies of men, in the next verse with the “mind,” or the intellectual and spiritual faculties.

A living sacrifice.—“How is the body to become a sacrifice? Let thine eye look upon no evil thing, and it hath become a sacrifice; let thy tongue speak nothing filthy, and it hath become an offering; let thy hand do no lawless deed, and it hath become a whole burnt offering. But this is not enough, we must do good works also; let the hand do alms, the mouth bless them that despitefully use us, and the ear find leisure evermore for the hearing of Scripture. For sacrifice can be made only of that which is clean; sacrifice is a firstfruit of other actions. Let us, then, from our hands, and feet, and mouth, and all our other members, yield a firstfruit unto God” (St. Chrysostom).

The idea contained in sacrifice is that of dedication. We are to dedicate our bodies to God. But there is to be this distinction between the old Jewish sacrifices and the Christian sacrifice: the one was of dead animals, the other of the living man. The worshipper must offer, or present, before God, himself, with all his living energies and powers directed consciously to God’s service.

Holy, acceptable unto God.—The qualification sought for in the Jewish sacrifices was that they were to be unblemished, without spot. In like manner the Christian’s sacrifice must be holy and pure in God’s sight, otherwise it cannot be acceptable to Him.

Reasonable service.—The English phrase is somewhat ambiguous. It might mean “a service demanded by reason.” Such, however is not the sense of the Greek, but rather “a service of the reason,” i.e., a service rendered by the reason. Just as under the old dispensation the mind expressed its devotion through the ritual of sacrifice, so now under the new dispensation its worship takes the form of a self-dedication; its service consists in holiness of life, temperance, soberness, and chastity.

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
(2) Be not conformed . . . but be ye transformed.—Here the English is somewhat misleading. It would naturally lead us to expect a similar play upon words in the Greek. But it is not so; indeed, there is a clear distinction between the two different words employed. It is the difference between an outward conformity or disguise and a thorough inward assimilation. The Christian is not to copy the fleeting fashions of the present time, but to be wholly transfigured in view of that higher mode of existence, in strict accordance with God’s will, that he has chosen.

This world.—Not here the same word as that which is used, e.g., in 1John 2:15-17, but another, which signifies rather the state of the world as it existed at the Coming of Christ, as opposed to the newly-inaugurated Messianic reign. “To be conformed to this world” is to act as other men do, heathen who know not God; in opposition to this the Apostle exhorts his readers to undergo that total change which will bring them more into accordance with the will of God.

By the renewing of your mind.—“The mind” (i.e., the mental faculties, reason, or understanding) is in itself neutral. When informed by an evil principle, it becomes an instrument of evil; when informed by the Spirit, it is an instrument of good. It performs the process of discrimination between good and evil, and so supplies the data to conscience. “The mind” here is not strictly identical with what we now mean by “conscience;” it is, as it were, the rational part of conscience, to which the moral quality needs to be superadded. The “renewed mind,” or the mind acting under the influence of the Spirit, comes very near to “conscience” in the sense in which the word is used by Bishop Butler.

Prove.—As elsewhere, “discriminate, and so approve.” The double process is included: first, of deciding what the will of God is; and, secondly, of choosing and acting upon it.

What is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.—The “will of God” is here, not the divine attribute of will, but the thing willed by God, the right course of action. Are we to take the adjectives “good, and acceptable, and perfect” (with the Authorised version), as in agreement with this phrase, or are they rather in apposition to it, “that we may prove the will of God, that which is good, and acceptable, and perfect”? Most of the commentators prefer this latter way of taking the passage, but it is not quite clear that the former is impossible, “that good, and acceptable, and perfect thing, or course of action which God wills.” “Acceptable,” that is to say, to God Himself.

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.
(3) Having thus stated the broad principle which is to govern the conduct of the Christian, the Apostle now goes on to apply it to certain details, and, first, his object is to secure that temper in the members of the Roman Church which will best enable them to act with union and efficiency.

Through the grace given unto mei.e., in virtue of his apostolic authority.

To every man that is among you.—A rather more pointed expression than simply “to you all,” “to each one of you severally and individually.”

Not to think of himself . . .—There is a play upon words in this phrase, and those which follow, which is not preserved, and can hardly be preserved, in the English. “Not to be high-minded beyond that which he ought to be minded, but to be minded unto sober-mindedness.” Our words, “to be minded,” “high-minded,” &c., very nearly express the sense of the Greek, which is to have the thoughts and feelings habitually turned in a certain direction. This is brought out with emphatic repetition in the phrase “to be minded unto the being sober-minded,” i.e., to keep sobriety of mind constantly in view as the object or ideal towards which all the thoughts and feelings converge.

According as God hath dealt to every man.—The standard of action which each Christian ought to propose to himself should be in proportion to the amount of his faith as given to him by God. He who has the strongest faith may assume the highest standard, and offer himself for the highest offices, and so on down the scale. It is, however, essential that the estimate which each man puts upon the strength of his own faith, should be thoroughly single-minded and sincere, nor biased by self-love. The Apostle assumes that this will be the case.

For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office:
(4, 5) In the church there must be a graduation, a hierarchy, a division of labour, every one doing that for which he is best fitted, just as in the body one member has one office assigned to it, and another another. All Christians, viewed collectively, make up one body, the unity of which is supplied by their relation to Christ. Viewed individually, they stand to each other in the same sort of relation as the different limbs and organs of the natural body, as foot and hand, or hand and eye.

(4) Members in one body.—This figure of the body and the members is worked out more fully in 1Corinthians 12:12-27.

So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.
(5) In Christ.—Christ is the unifying principle in the Church, just as the personality or will is the unifying principle in man.

Every one.—A somewhat peculiar phrase in the Greek, not found in this form in classical writers, meaning “as individuals.”

Members one of another.—Strictly speaking, the members are called members in their relation to the body, and not in their relation to each other. We should say, rather, “fellow-members with one another.”

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith;
(6) Gifts differing according to the grace.—The English loses a point here. The word translated “gifts” means specially “gifts of grace,” grace standing here for the operation of the Spirit. Different kinds of grace, with different forms of expression, are given to different individuals, and they are to be cherished and used accordingly.

Prophecy.—The gift of prophecy is treated at length in 1 Corinthians 14. From the detailed description there given, we gather that it was a kind of powerful and inspired preaching which, unlike the gift of tongues, was strictly within the control of the person who possessed it. What precise relation this bore to the prediction of future events, mentioned in Acts 11:27-28; Acts 21:10-11, does not appear.

According to the proportion of faith.—It seems best to take this, not as having reference to the objective rule of faith or doctrine, the due proportions of which are to be preserved, but rather of the active faculty of faith present in him who prophesies. It would then be very nearly equivalent to the condition above—“according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” The prophet is to let his utterances be regulated strictly by the degree of faith of which he is conscious in himself. The inward inspiration and the outward deliverance must keep pace, and advance step by step together. Preaching in which this proportion is not observed is sure to become rhetorical and insincere.

Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching;
(7) Ministry.—The word used is the technical term for the discharge of the office of deacon. The institution of this office is described in Acts 6:1-5. Its object was to provide for the practical business as opposed to the spiritual ministrations of the Church. It included more especially the distribution of alms and the care of the poor, the sick, widows, etc. The functions of the diaconate are called “serving tables” (i.e., in the literal sense, “providing food” for those who needed it) in Acts 6:2-3, and “helps” in 1Corinthians 12:28.

Let us wait on . . .—These words are supplied in the English, “Let us be absorbed in, devoted to, our ministering.”

He that teacheth.—Comp. 1Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11; 1Timothy 5:17. It would seem from the first of these passages (“thirdly teachers”) that teaching was considered as a special office, though not, perhaps, confined to special persons.

Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.
(8) He that exhorteth.—It will be observed that in the apostolic writings, the one idea of “preaching” is divided into its several branches, “speaking with tongues,” “prophesying” (which appears to have had reference to the more recondite portions or relations of the faith), “teaching,” “exhortation.” This last form of address, corresponding perhaps rather to our word “encouragement,” would be especially needed in the troubled circumstances of the early Church.

He that giveth.—In this and the following phrases the Apostle passes on from considering the definite functions of the ministry to those which were common to all members of the Church; “giveth” is therefore here to be taken in a wide sense.

Simplicity.—With singleness of motive, desiring only God’s glory, and to benefit the object for which he gives, and with no secret thought of self-exaltation. He who gives “to be seen of men,” or with any selfish motive, exhausts thereby the merit of the act, see Matthew 6:2 et seq.

He that ruleth.—He who holds any position of prominence or importance in the Church. The same word is applied to “presbyters” in 1Thessalonians 5:12; 1Timothy 5:17; and to heads of families in 1Timothy 3:4-5; 1Timothy 3:12.

He that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.—A happy combination which is an instance of the Apostle’s fresh and genuine view of human nature. The kindness of charity is doubled when it is done in a cheerful and kindly way. There is a class of religious minds which is especially apt to forget this. Cheerfulness is not merely a matter of temperament, but to be cultivated as a duty.

Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.
(9-21) Now follow to the end of the chapter a number of general exhortations, not addressed to particular persons or classes, but to the Church at large.

(9) Without dissimulation.—The same Greek word is translated “unfeigned” in 2Corinthians 6:6; 1Timothy 1:5; 2Timothy 1:5, and “without hypocrisy” in James 3:17. This last is the most literal rendering, and brings out the resemblance to Matthew 23:13, et al.

Abhor that which is evil.—This clause seems linked on to the last through the word “without hypocrisy”: “Let your love arise from genuine and deep emotion; let the basis of your character be an intense hatred of evil and as strong an adhesion to good.” The Apostle does not here enter into the more difficult question as to how those in whom these emotions are naturally weak are to strengthen them. Perhaps no shorter advice is to be given than “become Christians.”

Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;
(10) With brotherly love.—Better translated as in the margin, In love of the brethren (fellow Christians) be kindly affectioned. The word for “kindly affectioned” is specially used of the family relation, and is, therefore, appropriately applied to the brotherhood of the Christian family.

Preferring one another.—Rather, perhaps, anticipating one another. The Christian is to take the initiative, and show honour or respect to others without waiting for them to show it to him.

Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;
(11) In business.—Rather, in zeal; the reference is to the spiritual and not to the practical life, as the English reader might suppose.

Fervent.—In the literal and etymological sense boiling or seething. The temperament of the Christian is compared to water bubbling and boiling over the flame.

In spiriti.e., not “in the Holy Spirit,” but “in that part of you which is spirit.”

Serving the Lord.—Some of the extant Græco-Latin codices, and others known to Origen and Jerome, read here by a slight change of vowels “serving the time”; no doubt wrongly, though the expression might be compared with 1Corinthians 7:29; Ephesians 5:16, et al.

Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer;
(12) In hope.—The Christian’s hope, of which we have had more in Romans 8:20-25.

Patient in tribulation.—This virtue was, of course, specially needed in the troublous times through which the Church was passing. So, again, in the next verse, the “hospitality” of which the Apostle speaks is something more than the ordinary entertainment of friends. The reference is to a state of things in which the Christian was liable to be persecuted and driven from city to city, and often compelled to seek for shelter with those who held the same faith as himself.

Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.
(13) Distributing to the necessity of saints.—By “saints” is here meant simply “Christians.” So, in Ephesians 1:1, we find the salutation addressed to the “saints which are at Ephesus.” (Comp. Acts 9:13; Acts 26:10.) The reference is to the well-known poverty of the early Christian communities.

Necessity.—Some of the Græco-Latin manuscripts and fathers here read, memories, or commemorations, by a slight change of letters, “taking part in the commemorations of the saints,” as if the allusion was to the later ecclesiastical usage of holding festivals in honour of martyrs. The best manuscripts are wonderfully free from corruptions of this kind, and even inferior manuscripts admit them to a much smaller extent than might have been expected. Other examples would be the insertion of the phrase “and fasting” in Mark 9:29, and the addition of the doxology to the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:13.

Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.
(14) Bless them which persecute you.—Apparently with allusion to Matthew 5:44. It was probably just about the time that St. Paul was writing this Epistle, or at most a year or two later, that the series of compositions which ultimately took the shape of our present Gospels began. It is not, however, necessary to suppose that St. Paul had actually seen one of these. The record of our Lord’s teaching was no doubt at first preserved and circulated in the Church orally, and it would be in this form that St. Paul first became acquainted with the precept to which he here seems to allude. There is, perhaps, another reference to the Sermon on the Mount in 1Corinthians 7:10. Such references occur (as we should expect) more frequently in the Epistle of St. James.

Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
(15) Rejoice with them that do rejoice.—The feeling of sympathy is perhaps more under the control of the will than might be supposed. It becomes so, however, not so much by isolated efforts as by a conscious direction given to the whole life. The injunction in this verse is one of those that have been perhaps most fully carried out in modern times. It has entered into the social code, and belongs as much to the gentleman as the Christian. The danger, therefore, is that the expression of sympathy should be unreal and insincere. This will be prevented by the presence of the Christian motive.

Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.
(16) Be of the same mind . . .—In every Christian community there should be that harmony which proceeds from a common object, common hopes, common desires.

Condescend to men of low estate.—Probably, on the whole, rightly translated in our version; “Let yourselves be carried on in the stream with those who are beneath yourselves in rank and station; mix with them freely; be ready to lend them a helping hand if ever they need, and do this in a simple and kindly way; do not let any social assumptions keep you at a distance.” “Accommodate yourselves,” or “condescend”—of course without any conscious idea or appearance of condescension. Another rendering would be “condescend to lowly things,” in which case the sense would be nearly equivalent to that of Keble’s well-known and beautiful lines—

“The trivial round, the common task,

Will furnish all we ought to ask;

Room to deny ourselves, a road

To bring us daily nearer God.”

The scholar will observe that in this way of taking the passage, the Greek word for “condescend” (sunapagomenoi) has to be a little forced, or at least is not so expressive and natural as in the other. On the other hand, in the Epistles of a writer like St. Paul, it does not by any means follow that because the word for “high” is neuter that for “low estate” must be neuter too.

Be not wise in your own conceits.—Comp. Romans 11:25, and Proverbs 3:7. Humility is necessary to the Christian not only in his dealings with others, but also to keep his mind open and teachable. He sees his errors, and learns from them.

Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
(17) Provide things honest . . .—Let your purposes be such that all men shall recognise their complete integrity. Do not engage in enterprises of a doubtful character, that might bring not only yourselves but the Christian body into ill repute. (Comp. Matthew 5:14-16; 2Corinthians 8:21.)

If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
(18) The Christian can only be responsible for himself. So far as he is concerned, he is to do his best to maintain peace. The history of St. Paul himself, which is one of almost constant conflict, shows that this would not always be possible.

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
(19) Give place unto wrath.—It seems best to understand this of “the wrath of God” (indicated in the Greek, here as elsewhere, by the use of the article). Stand aside yourself as a mere spectator, and let the wrath of God have free course to accomplish itself as He shall think well. The other most plausible interpretation would be, “Give room to the wrath of your adversary; let it spend itself; resist not evil,” etc., as in Matthew 5:39. The sense, “Allow time for your own anger to cool,” cannot be got out of the Greek. The view first stated is to be preferred.

Vengeance is mine; I will repay.—The form of this quotation, which differs both from the LXX. and from the Hebrew, is precisely similar to that in Hebrews 10:30. This should be noted as a point of resemblance between St. Paul and the author of that Epistle, but its strength as an argument for the identity of the two is much diminished by the fact that other marked coincidences are found in the literature of this age, which seem to point to the conclusion that forms of text were current (perhaps confined to a few familiar quotations) of which no direct representations have come down to us.

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
(20) Thou shalt heap coals of fire.—Comp. Psalm 18:12-14, where the phrase “coals of fire” is used of the divine vengeance. So here, but in a strictly metaphorical sense, it means, “Thou shalt take the best and most summary vengeance upon him.” There may be the underlying idea of awakening in the adversary the pangs of shame and remorse.

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
(21) Be not overcome of evil, but . . .—A fine sentiment. The infliction of vengeance is not a sign of strength, but of weakness. To repress the desire for revenge is to gain a victory over self, which is not only nobler in itself, but will also be much more effectual. It will disarm the enemy, and turn him into a friend.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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