Notes on Romans 12:9-21

Romans 12:9‑21  •  8 min. read  •  grade level: 9
The apostle now goes out into broader ground and enjoins on the saints every sort of Christian duty, not in outward conduct only, but perhaps even more as to the tone, temper, and spirit in which the Lord would have all done by them. “Showing mercy” or compassion naturally serves as a link of transition, and prepares the way for the more general exhortation to love, lowliness, and patient grace.
“Let love be unfeigned.” (Ver. 9.) Love is of God. Therefore it is of the deepest moment that it should ever he genuine and incorrupt: for the higher its source, nature, and character, the more dangerous where that which is spurious usurps its place and name, misleading others and oneself under a fair but false pretension. It is not the same as the brotherly kindness of verse 10; and the reality of the distinction reappears in 2 Peter 1:77And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. (2 Peter 1:7). On the other hand it is far from being that kindness to all men, the perfection of which we know in the Savior God as witnessed in Christ the Lord. Love is the activity of the divine nature in goodness, and hence is inseparable from that nature as reproduced in the children of God. Nevertheless this does not absolve them from the need of self-judgment that it be sincere and undefiled, seeking others' good according to God's will unselfishly. The letting in of hopes, fears, or objects of our own falsifies it.
Hence in the same verse the connected injunction, “abhorring evil; cleaving to good.” It is a word the more needful in our own day especially, because we live in Laodicean times of sickly sentiment where latitudinarian charity abounds, the essence of which is a spirit of indifferentism toward evil, in particular evil against Christ. And the danger as well as the sin is the more extreme, because it is and has long been that “last hour” of which John warns so solemnly, the hour not of Christianity prevailing but of many antichrists, though not yet of the Antichrist. But where love is real, there is and must be the detestation of evil, no less decidedly than the close attachment to good. If the latter attracts, the former offends and is often ill received in the world as it is. But the Christian must cherish the instincts of the new nature and he subject to God's word who has called him out to be a witness of Christ here below where evil meets him at every step and turn. The amiability which would shirk difficulties and apologize for sin is thus proved to lack the salt of the covenant of God, and will soon be seen to be honey and to end in leaven, instead of being the flour and oil which God looks for in such offerings.
“In brotherly kindness affectionately kind one toward another; in honor anticipating each other; in diligence not slothful; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;1 in hope rejoicing; in tribulation enduring; in prayer persevering; distributing to the necessities of the saints, studious of hospitality.” (Ver. 10-13.) Here we begin with the call to tender interest among brethren mutually; and so also not exactly to prefer or esteem others better than ourselves, as in Phil. 2:33Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. (Philippians 2:3), important as such lowliness of mind is, the mind that was in Christ Jesus. It is here a question of not merely repaying the courtesy of others, but of taking the lead in treating them with honor and thus by example leading them on in these comely ways. Then, instead of allowing slothfulness, the apostle insists on zealous diligence. Lest this however should be only outside work, he immediately adds “in spirit fervent,” and these with a blessed motive to both, “serving the Lord.” It is well known that Griesbach, following a few MSS, versions, and fathers, joined with Erasmus in reading καιρῷ for Κυρίῳ, contrary to the mass of authorities and almost all other editors. It was, we may boldly say, infirmity in judgment; especially as the internal evidence is at least no less adverse than the external. Serving the time (rather “season” or “opportunity") seems at least somewhat unworthy, is little suited to the context in itself,” and easily susceptible of the worst abuse. It is no fair instance of a more difficult and therefore preferable reading. The two words may have been confounded by an ignorant scribe, who took the abbreviated form of κω as meaning καιρῷ instead of Κυρίῳ. Possibly it may have been willfully altered, but we should be slow to suspect this when we can otherwise account for a change.
Further, the mention of the Lord and of His service appears to me the link in the mind of the Spirit with the bright future ("in hope rejoicing"), as this again very simply connects itself with present suffering ("in tribulation enduring”), and with the grand support of the soul, come what may meanwhile, “in prayer persevering.” This portion concludes with the remembrance of the poor saints, which stands in a similar relation here, as the third clause to the two former in the preceding verse, in which (we know from his own touching account in Gal. 2) the apostle was ever diligent, as well as the pursuit of hospitality, which the conventionalities of modern life should not enfeeble if we would be wise in the Lord.
In verse 14 practical grace to enemies in power (or at least having the means of harassing the saints) is urged with emphasis. “Bless those that persecute you; bless and curse not.” So did Jesus.
Sympathy in joy and sorrow next finds its place (ver. 15): “Rejoice with [any] rejoicing, and weep with [any] weeping; having the same mind one towards another, not minding high things, but going along2 with the lowly.” (Ver. 15, 16.) Spite of the antithesis tempting one to take the last word in the same gender as in the clause before, which is grammatically easy, I think that the differing form is both more in keeping with the fullness of the apostle's style and better in this passage, though “lowly things” may yield a sense not to be despised.3 What a contrast with the self-exalting and disdainful spirit of the world! How blessed to see it exemplified in the human path of the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy, and enjoined by a servant of His whose qualities of mind and heart have found few if any equals, among men! Nowhere perhaps, where they let out their thoughts and feelings, can one find the very opposite so painfully as among the Rabbis. Their scorn for the unlettered poor is unbounded. But indeed it is too natural to man as such. Here we have exhortations to Christians. He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself so to walk even as He walked.
Following up this the apostle says, “Be not wise in your own eyes; recompensing to none evil for evil; providing things good before all men: if possible, as far as concerneth you, being at peace with all men: not avenging yourselves, beloved, but give place to wrath, for it is written, To me [belongeth] vengeance: I will recompense, saith [the] Lord. If therefore thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for, doing this, thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Ver. 16-21.)
Self-confidence is another and kindred danger, which in such a world as this would soon ensnare the saint in retaliation. In every way contrariwise we are called to be witnesses, not of the first man, nor of the law, but of Christ, and hence to be above suspicion before all men in providing things good or comely (for such is the true sense here, rather than benevolent); and this too] in a spirit of peace with all, as far as depends on us. It is a solemn thought that wrath and vengeance belong to God. It becomes us, instead of avenging ourselves, to bend before the blast, looking to God; nay, to render service to an enemy in need and distress. This will bring him to a point with God or with you: if he melt, so much the better for all; if he harden himself, so much the worse for him. For the Christian it is exercise in the divine nature, that is in faith and patience and love. For the Christian rule is Christ, not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome it with good. So God, in our own case as with all who love Him, overcame our evil with His good in Christ our Lord; and now also He gives us to be imitators of Him in grace, which wins the victory in His sight and to our own consciousness, even when we may seem most downtrodden before the world. For this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith—of course faith working through love.