Coming out of Romans 11 into chapter 12 is the idea that through God all men can be united. He has made all. He has had mercy upon all. He has not set one man to be of greater worth than another. Therefore, when we come to Christ we transform! The old man of sin dies and born in his place is someone no longer clothed in jealousy, pride, and selfishness. Christians are transformed people, serving mankind in good works and glorifying God. This is the atmosphere discussed in Romans 12:13-21, the passage under consideration here.
Often when the concept of change is discussed beyond self, the first place mentioned where it must be apparent is at home. The home of the Christian is the church. Love for our brothers and sisters strengthens the church. These are not simply people with whom we worship God and then walk away until our paths cross again. These are people who are relying upon us to help encourage them, comfort them, prop them up in times of struggle, and keep them from sin (1 Thess. 5:14; Gal. 6:10; James 5:19-20). We are one another’s accountability partners. We need to draw close to one another. What are the physical and spiritual needs of our Christian family? It may be announced that so-and-so is ill or traveling or has a death in the family, but do you know when they are struggling to pay the bills, have work at home they are unable to accomplish, hurt inside because they fell their faith is weakening, or feel empty and alone? There are a plethora of needs brothers and sisters have. We cannot help them unless we invite them into our lives with kindness and hospitality. We cannot develop a friendship unless we are willing to be friends. This is the presentation of verses 13 and 15. A living sacrifice reaches out and seeks out what good he or she may do, and then engages. It may mean we are doing something as simple as holding a hand while tears are shed, but this can be huge for those in need.
Some Jews, Pharisees, and Judaizers felt as if they were better than Gentile Christians. They had established their own righteousness, traditions added to the Word of God which were supposed to make them even more pure but instead drew them further from God. Certainly Gentile Christians struggled with pride and ego at times as well (Lk. 18:9-14; 1 Cor. 11:17-22; James 2:1-9). As a Christian living today, perhaps you’ve heard something like the following:
“Oh, you only worship in the morning on the first day of the week? We worship x times on Sunday and x more times during the week! (How pious we are!)”
“Mr. ___________ with all his credentials is our preacher, and we wouldn’t accept less.”
“We are a KJV-only congregation.”
“I am a trustee, so I determine what we will do.” “That elder is president of ___________ Corporation.”
There are many comments which could demonstrate the arrogance to which some people cling, supposedly lifting their worth above other Christians. This was an issue in the first century and it is an issue today. Thus, we are able to identify with the instruction given in verse 16. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God due to sin (Rom. 3:9, 23). All of mankind must put themselves at the feet of their Savior and accept his reign over their lives to be saved. Superiority over any brother due to race, sex, social status, or other means is simply a dangerous illusion from which we must simply flee. We all must submit to God and serve one another (James 4:7).
The concept presented in verses 14 and 17-19 center on the friction which sometimes arises between men. This may be conflict between brethren in the church, or it can be trouble outside the body of Christ. It can be persecution from those who stand against God or it can be frustrations between neighbors or co-workers. No matter with whom we come into contact, we have a responsibility to be kind and not cause the relationship to deteriorate even further. We should neither seek to instigate conflict, extend it, or cause harm to others for what we perceive is injustice committed on their part. This is God’s realm and he knows the hearts of men. It certainly has been my personal and observed experience that when we seek to retaliate we often end up in no better position than when we began. Furthermore, any hope of influence for the cause of Christ which we once might have had upon those whom we have come into conflict is likely snuffed out.
Consider the great influence wielded by Joseph under Pharaoh. He could have destroyed his family when they came for help, struggling with the famine in the land. Where would Israel have been then? Consider Daniel under Nebuchadnezzar. He could have lashed out because Babylon had destroyed his homeland and the people he loved. He could have been angry over having been turned into a eunuch. However, he served Nebuchadnezzar and others and thus provided a profound example as a faithful follower of God. Consider Paul and Silas being thrown into jail for sharing the gospel. They could have run from imprisonment, abandoning the Philippian jailer when their bonds were unfastened. Yet their Christian behavior which they demonstrated throughout the ordeal brought the jailer and his household to Christ. The Bible provides multiple examples of how to live at peace with men. There is no exception for hardships, persecution, or discomfort which may be experienced. Retaliation and taking judgment into our own hands should not be an option.
Taken together, verses 13-19 discuss the way we ought to treat mankind properly. We should be humble servants in all cases, desiring peace and allowing wrongs to be judged by the hand of God. This is all driven by a heart which is aware of God’s grace and mercy, a heart that wants to glorify God.
This context is somehow forgotten in the attitude and understanding some hold when they cite verse 20: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink, for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Some view this as a way to get back at those by whom they have been wronged in perception or reality. “Be sugary sweet to them and they will just feel guilty and small.” Such an understanding of this verse contradicts what the entire text has attempted to convey. It would promote a vindictive heart and cruel behavior instead of a heart of Christian love and holy hands.
Verse 20 relates to the custom of one’s neighbor who has allowed his home fire to burn out. The hearth is the center of the home for cooking and heat. In such a situation where the fire is extinguished, the neighbor would travel to other homes in search of coals for the fire. When he was able to procure some coals, he would carry them home upon his head stored in a clay vessel. At that point, he would be able to rekindle the fire of his dwelling to the joy of his household. Thus, someone who would heap coals upon an individual’s head was doing him a service. They were being kind and showing a loving heart. This understanding is in harmony with the text of Romans 12. It fits in proper succession with providing food and drink to one who is in need, even if they are your enemy. It also agrees with Proverbs 25:21-22 which is parallel to this passage, save that the Proverbs passage ends with expressing that such behavior is rewarded by God. If this behavior was one of retribution, it certainly would not be rewarded by God.
Verse 21, the final verse of this passage, continues the understanding of the transformation a man makes when he gives himself to Christ. As a living sacrifice, his example of love, hospitality, encouragement, and peace do not allow evil to conquer, but rather cause good to flourish. May we all as followers of Christ who are called to imitate him and reflect his goodness to the world take this charge to heart!
Travis and his family live and worship in Missouri.