Romans chapter twelve marks the transition from theology to practice. We should notice the large
number of commands. Romans, like many of Paul's letters, can be divided into two distinct sections: first
doctrine, then how this doctrine should be applied into the everyday life of the believer, especially in their relationships.
The Bible is not a book of abstract theology, and is not intended to be used for theoretical
speculation, but the “word of God is living and active ...” (Heb 4:12). It is theology with a
purpose, or applied theology. In the NT letters, Paul and the other writers always apply the great Christian truths into real situations in churches of the first century.
It seems to be a fundamental truth of the way that we are created that what we believe sooner or
later affects our behaviour. Morality soon becomes distorted and corrupted when society stops believing
in God and rejects the idea of human accountability before him at the final judgement (see Rom 1:18ff).
The Bible consistently shows the close connection between what we believe and how we behave. Truth
and action always need to go together, and the Scriptures show the importance of both. Correct doctrine
is extremely important, but correct doctrine should always result in a godly lifestyle, which is also a
witness to unbelievers of the truth of the gospel.
Life in the body as living sacrifices (12:1-21)
The correct response to the great truths of the Gospel, is for the believers to present themselves
as living sacrifices to God, totally dedicated and committed to him. This new life is lived out in the
context of the church, the body of Christ, in which each person has their special part to play.
Present your bodies as living sacrifices (12:1-2)
Paul begins his practical section with an appeal to his readers to consecrate themselves to God
by presenting their bodies as a living sacrifice, an allusion to the burnt dead sacrifices in the OT, showing total dedication to God. This is the personal response to the mercies of God, which were described in the previous eleven chapters. It is through the physical body that the Christian life is lived out practically, in relationships with other people. This living sacrifice of service to God is described as reasonable or spiritual worship, which is acceptable to God. so true worship is expressed in a godly lifestyle.
He calls for the renewing of the mind. We have been transferred from kingdom of darkness to kingdom of light, therefore we should think accordingly. We need to change from thinking in worldly ways, to think in godly ways. We need to check the way we think about different issues - are we thinking in a godly way, with Biblical values?
One body, gifts that differ (12:3-8)
As in 1 Cor 12, Paul uses the analogy of the human body to describe the body of believers in the
church (v4). In the same way that the different parts of the human body each have their special part to
play, every believer has their special part to play in the church. However, each of these different parts
are still part of a single body. Every person has very different and varied gifts to enable them to contribute to the life of the body of Christ, but together they are all part of a single body. So Paul calls for diversity within the unity of the church, rather than uniformity.
He begins with a call to humility, not to think of yourself more highly than you ought (v3). Within the church, there is no place for pride or competitiveness. The motivation of the believer should always be to serve out of love for Christ and for the benefit of the church as a whole, rather then to build
our own empires. The unity of the church is of the greatest importance to Christ (Jn 17:22), and it should be for us also.
He calls us to think of ourselves with sober judgement (v3), to look at ourselves objectively, as
God sees us. Not to be proud, but not false humility either. Every one of us have been given gifts, and
all have an essential part to play in the life of the church. Each of us has the measure of faith that God has assigned. Each one of us needs to recognise the way that God has gifted us, and begin to exercise
those gifts for the benefit of the body of Christ as a whole. The church is one body with many members,
and not all members have the same function (v4-5). This is a call to unity, but not uniformity. We are one, but all different.
We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us (v6). Spiritual gifts are gifts, given to us out of the grace of God. They are not merely practical skills, but have a supernatural element, to
enable us to fulfil our spiritual calling as members of the body of Christ. We need to discover what gifts God has given us, and then to develop them, receiving training if necessary, as we serve God,
and are a blessing to others in the context of the church.
He gives a list of seven particular spiritual gifts (v6-8). Some appear more practical rather than
spiritual. However, all gifts and all life is spiritual. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of spiritual gifts, as other gifts are listed elsewhere (1 Cor 12-14, Eph 4:11). The exercise of the gifts
should always have the motivation of giving to others. Our aim should always be to bless others in the
Exhortation to zealous service (12:9-12)
Next comes a long string of practical commands and exhortations. The first group concern relationship with God, the fitting response to God’s grace and mercy described in chapters one to eleven. He calls for an almost competitive desire to serve God, and to express his love to others (v10).
Live in harmony with each other (12:13-17)
The second group mostly concern relationships within the body of Christ. He notes the importance of hospitality, both to other believers, but also to strangers (v13). Hospitality is a high priority in the list of ministry qualifications (1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:8, Heb 13:2). In the OT, Rahab and her family were saved because of their hospitality to the Hebrew spies (Josh 2). During the ministry of Elisha, a woman made a room on top of her house available for the prophet to stay in (2 Kg 4). As a result, the childless woman was given a son, who was later raised from the dead.
He calls us to bless our persecutors, following the example of Jesus (Lk 23:34), as taught in the
Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:38-41). There is a call to humility and words against the pride which can
break the harmony he calls for.
Leave vengeance to God (12:18-21)
This is followed by some instructions concerning the most difficult relationships, with enemies. Again, these develop the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul acknowledges that it is not
a sin to have enemies, even Jesus had enemies. It is not always possible to live in harmony, but we need
to do what we can (v18). It takes two people to make a quarrel. We cannot control what the other person
does, but we can make sure that our attitudes and actions are righteous before God.
The reaction of the flesh is to retaliate, but instead of seeking vengeance, we should do all we can to seek reconciliation, then we can trust God to avenge (v19). Ultimately, each person has to stand
before God where they will give account for their actions and will receive the wrath they deserve. In the
meantime, we can do good deeds to enemies, “Heap burning coals on their heads” (v2, Prov 25:21-22). If we bless our enemy, by repaying evil with good, then they may feel guilty about the way they treat us, and thereby we can bring reconciliation.
Relationship with the civil authorities and neighbours (13:1-14)
After looking at relationships within the church, Paul now looks outside, giving teaching on how
to relate to the civil government and to neighbours. Government is established by God, so we should
submit to them. The only debt we should owe to others is to love them, as Jesus would.
Be subject to governing authorities (13:1-7)
Paul first looks at the Christian’s relationship with the civil government. This would mostly be
an issue with Jews. Jews were exempted from Roman taxes and military service, but severely resented
the authority of Rome. Jews were often seen as being unsubmissive to Roman rule. Only a few years
previously, the Jews had been expelled from Rome following riots (Acts 18:2). Paul said that Christians
should respect the government and pay their taxes. The Gentiles did not have such a problem with the
Roman government until later in Nero's reign.
Paul states here that the civil governing authorities are instituted by God. Repeatedly in this
paragraph, he says the government is God’s servant (v4, 6). Ultimately, God is in control of nations (Dan
2:21, Deut 32:8). We have to remember that the emperor at this time was Nero, who ultimately persecuted
the church and caused Paul to be executed. Up until this time, the Roman government had not persecuted
the church, but had frequently been a source of protection for Paul against Jewish opposition (eg: Acts
18:12-17), especially when he used his Roman citizenship to protect himself (Acts 16:37, 25:11).
In writing this passage, Paul is assuming that the governing authorities are exercising their rule
with wisdom, justice and righteousness, according to the will of God. He does not mention the possibility
that they would not, and what Christians should do in that eventuality. We should obey governing
authorities, as long as they do not command us to do something which is disobedient to God. Paul is
saying here that we only need to fear the government if we are doing wrong.
However there are times, when governments overstep their authority and make laws and demands which are contrary to God's will. One example is when the apostles were commanded by the Jewish rulers to stop preaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18), a command contrary to the great commission. In response, the apostles had to obey the higher authority of Jesus, and to continue to preach the gospel, in disobedience to the Jewish authorities (Acts 4:19-20), and be willing to face the consequences. Examples of civil disobedience in the OT include Daniel’s three friends refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, and being thrown into the fiery furnace (Dan 3). Later Daniel refused to pray to king Darius and was thrown into the lion’s den (Dan 5). God is to be our highest authority. Our first allegiance should always be to him. We are citizens of the kingdom of God, as well as being citizens of our own country, and there may sometimes be a conflict between the two.
Paul says that the power of sword is given to the state (v4). It is the God-given duty of the civil
authorities to bring justice, and to punish the offender. We can debate here about the merit or otherwise
of capital punishment.
Paying taxes (v6-7) is an example of practical submission. Jesus paid tax (Mt 17:24-27), when the money was found in the mouth of a fish. We all benefit from civil government, therefore we should
pay what is demanded from us.
We need to respect the government and other authorities. There is always a tendency to disrespect
authority, which will ultimately lead to anarchy and lawlessness, which is worse than a bad government.
We should also watch how we speak about the government. We may disagree with them, but we should
One practical question that arises from passages like this is whether a Christian should serve in
the army? It is a matter of conscience, with different Christians having opposing viewpoints. Some say
that all fighting is contrary to God's will, so become conscientious objectors, refusing to bear arms, and often suffer penalties for their refusal. Others will fight with a clear conscience, saying the war is a just war to prevent the spread of evil, and so will support their country and government. Other
questions would include: Should a Christian ever be involved in overthrowing a tyrannical government?
Is it right for Christians to smuggle Bibles into nations where the Bible is forbidden?
Owe nothing but love (13:8-10)
Paul now focusses on relationships with neighbours. We are not to be in debt to the civil authorities through not paying tax, the only debt permitted is love - the fulfilment of the law. Affirming the statement of Jesus that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbour, loving one another is the fulfilment of the law. He lists four of the last six of the ten commandments (Ex 20:13-15,17), which are summarised by, “love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18). In the context
of the Book of Romans, this need to be understood in relation to the tensions between the Jewish and
Gentile believers in Rome.
We should also consider carefully what it means not to owe anyone anything (v8). Although the context is love, there are some financial lessons here as well. The Bible is consistently gives very strong
warnings against getting into debt.
Salvation nearer, so put on Lord Jesus Christ (13:11-14)
He summarises this section with a call to a right lifestyle in light of the second coming. The coming of Jesus is sooner than when we first began, so lay aside the sins of the Gentiles (as ch 1), and
put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and not gratify the desires of the flesh (as ch 6). This is a common message in the NT: Jesus is coming back soon, so make sure you are living a holy life. The quarrelling
and jealousy should be seen in the context of the disunity between Jewish and Gentile believers.
This too needs to be corrected in the light of eschatology.
Toleration of the weaker brother (14:1 - 15:13)
In this passage Paul refers to two groups of people, the weak and the strong. The weak observe
special days and eat special foods, while the strong do not observe these special days or eat special foods. As noted in the introduction, the weak would refer to the Jewish believers who are still trying
to obey the law. However, it is possible that some Gentile believers could also be trying to keep the Jewish law, and should be grouped with them. The strong would mostly be Gentile believers, who do not
think they need to keep the Jewish law. There would also be some Jewish believers who now realise they are free from the law, and would come under the category of the strong. Paul includes himself in this group (15:1). So the weak would mostly be Jewish believers, with some Gentiles; and the strong would mostly be Gentile believers, with some Jews.
There is a problem of disunity between the two, so Paul says they are to welcome those who are
weak in faith (14:1). The weak (mostly Jews) are passing judgement on the strong (mostly Gentiles),
while the strong (mostly Gentiles) are despising the weak (mostly Jews) (14:3,10). After having shown
that both Jews and Gentiles stand equal before God in judgement, and that both are now made righteous
by their faith, he now seeks to see the outworking of these truths in their relationships, bringing harmony where there is currently disunity.
Eating meat - not despise or pass judgement (14:1-4)
The first example Paul gives is food, especially eating meat. Paul particularly addresses the strong, who were eating anything, while the weak were only eating vegetables. Even though the law of Moses does not forbid the eating of meat, it appears that Jewish believers were abstaining from meat altogether. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that the meat purchased in the marketplace would have the blood in it, the other is that it may well come from an animal that had been offered as a sacrifice in a pagan temple. Paul addresses this problem in 1 Corinthians (ch 8-10). Because of these problems, many Jewish believers may have avoided eating meat altogether.
It appears that the Gentile believers were despising the Jewish believers for refusing to eat meat.
Perhaps they mocked the Jewish believers for not realising the freedom we now have in Christ (Mk 7:19).
On the other side, the Jewish believers were judging the Gentile believers, criticising them for eating unclean meat, perhaps claiming that they could not follow a holy God if they ate unclean food. Paul calls
the strong to welcome the weak, and not to quarrel over opinions (v1). God has welcomed the weak (v3),
so the strong should do also (v1).
Observe Sabbath - in honour of Lord (14:5-6)
The second example is the keeping of the Sabbath. Jewish believers would still think the Sabbath
Day was special, and abstain from working, while Gentile believers would not see anything special about
that day. Paul points out that both groups either observe or abstain in honour of the Lord, and both have
died so they can live to serve God.
Each accountable to God (14:10-12)
Addressing Jews, he asks why they pass judgement on their brother; then asks Gentiles why they
despise their brother. He reminds them that both will stand before the judgement seat of God, where they
will be held accountable to him (quoting Is 49:18, 45:23).
Do not destroy work of God for sake of food (14:13-23)
After describing the problem, Paul now begins to give his solution, seeking to show what the higher priorities are. The work of God and the love between believers is more important than what we eat: "The kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (v17). He identifies himself with the strong, not believing any food to be unclean (v14), but urges the
strong not to put a hindrance or stumbling block before the weak through what they eat. If they injure the weak, they are not showing love, and are damaging the work of Christ. It is not worth destroying the work of God for the sake of food.
Even though everything is clean, it is wrong to cause the weak to stumble. It is better to refrain
for the sake of others. The strong have their conviction before God and are blessed for having no reason
to condemn themselves, while the weak condemn themselves if they eat because they are not acting
according to their faith (v22-23).
Strong put up with failings of weak (15:1-6)
Addressing the strong, he calls them not to live to please themselves, but to put up with the failings of the weak, for the sake of unity, and for the building up of their neighbour. They should follow
the example of Christ, who did not please himself, but put up with insults (quoting Ps 69:9). This leads
into a prayer for unity, that God will enable the two groups to live in harmony, and together in one voice may glorify God (v5-6).
Welcome each other as Christ welcomed you (15:7-13)
He urges his readers to welcome each other, just as they had been welcomed by Christ (5:10). Christ came to the Jews in order that the Gentiles may glorify God too. He strings together four quotations from the OT, in which the Gentiles are called to come to God and praise him (v9 - Ps 18:49, v10 - Deut 32:43, v11 - Ps 117:1, v12 - Is 11:10). Christ has welcomed both Jew and Gentile, so they can worship God together in unity. He prays that God will fill both with joy and peace, so both can abound in hope.
Some thoughts about the strong and weak
Today, different Christians have very different standards of behaviour. Sometimes there are differences in culture, and between various denominations. There are many ways of behaving which some
Christians feel are taboo, while others find no problem with them. The people Paul describes as weaker
Christians refuse to do certain things because their conscience will not let them, while the strong do not find anything to worry about. The person who refuses to do certain things can give the impression of
being the stronger Christian, but Paul describes this person as weak. However, the strong Christian must
adjust to the weaker brother.
There are dangers with each side: The stronger Christian can become a stumbling block to others.
As Paul says elsewhere, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor 10:23).
The stronger Christian needs to be motivated by love for others, and needs to be willing to forsake their
liberty in Christ for the sake of others. It is a form of giving up of rights, refraining from doing what a brother believes to be wrong, for the sake of unity. According to Paul, the strong brother has to do the moving. The weak Christian needs to seek God to help him in his weakness, and to ask God to adjust
his conscience. The challenge is for us to work together in our differences, and not to allow these
peripheral issues to split the church.
It is easy to think of some modern issues which we can apply these chapters to. These could include shopping or working on Sunday, what clothes we wear, what sort of programmes we watch on television, which films we watch, or what music we listen to. An important one is the issue of drinking alcohol. In many non-western cultures and in some denominations it is completely unacceptable for Christians to drink alcohol. Any Christian seen drinking alcohol would be thought of as having fallen away from the faith. By contrast, in many western nations, it is not seen as a problem for a Christian to drink in moderation. They would claim that the Bible is against drunkenness, but not against drinking altogether. Paul would say that each person needs to make up their own mind, but for the sake of unity, to avoid being a stumbling block to people’s consciences, there will be times when it is best to refrain.