The chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles are quite handy for finding references; but they weren’t put in till centuries after the texts were originally written, and sometimes they can be a bit misleading. The division between Romans 12 and 13 is just such a case – all too often we start with Romans 13 as if it were the start of a new bit of the epistle not directly connected to what went before, whereas in reality it is part of a longer exposition which begins… well, really at the start of Romans 12, though it does shift focus significantly partway through that chapter.
In Chs 9-11 Paul has dealt with the relationship between Israel and the Gentile Church as represented by the Romans, and has also taught a great deal about God’s sovereignty, ending in a paean of praise to God’s wisdom and rich grace. Then he moves on; “I beg you therefore (i.e. in light of that teaching, appreciating the wonder of God’s grace to you as Gentiles now incorporated into his people)… present your bodies a living sacrifice… do not conform to the present world scheme, but be transformed by a complete renewal of mind, so as to sense for yourselves what is the… perfect will of God”. (I really like the JB Philips translation in v2, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mould”!) Then Paul expounds how this will work out in various areas….
He warns them not to value themselves higher than they should, but to be humble. Then he looks at how to apply this in the Church, among your fellow-Christians….
For precisely as in one body we have many members, but not all the members have the same function, so the many of us form one body in Christ, while each is related to all the others as a member, but possessed of varied talents according to the grace bestowed on us
Though this is true of the local congregation, Paul clearly also has a wider meaning; this one body is the worldwide church – ‘the many of us’ throughout the world ‘form one body in Christ’, on the one hand united in our Lord, on the other hand very practically acting as his body in the world, his feet to go to people, his hands to do his work. The state we live in may well try to claim our primary loyalty – but as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, our first loyalty must be to God, to Jesus as Lord, and to the body of Christ the church. We must not let the world divide us from our fellow Christians, or set us against one another. Paul spells out the ‘church-and-state’ issues more specifically in chapter 13, but when we get there, remember that this point about the body of Christ must be part of that context.
Paul then briefly refers to various gifts including prophecy, teaching, charity work, then shows how we must love one another….
Let your love be perfectly sincere, clinging to the right with abhorrence of evil; joined together in a brotherhood of mutual love; allowing one another to enjoy preference of honour; never slacking in interest; as the Lord’s servants keeping spiritually aglow; joyfully hoping as you endure affliction; persistent in prayer; contributing to the needs of the saints; practising hospitality.
Much of this also applies to or affects our relationships with people outside the Church; now in v14 and to the end of the chapter he moves on to consider those external relations, which is why these verses are part of the context of the teaching that continues in chapter 13…
Bless your persecutors; yes, bless and do not curse.
‘Bless’ is ‘eulogeite’; the same basic word as ‘eulogy’ or ‘eulogise’, though presumably in this context it means ‘good speaking’ to and for the persecutors rather than merely about them as in a funeral eulogy, and so means ‘wish them well’. I think, though my NT Greek skills are limited, that this is not just that we individually bless our persecutors – the church is to work together in this, supporting one another in avoiding the temptations to hatred and ill-wishing which arise from persecution, together in wishing well to the persecutors (though not wishing them ultimate success, of course!), together in loving the enemy as Jesus taught.
Share the joy of those who are glad, and share the grief of those who grieve. Harmonise with others in your thinking; do not aspire to eminence but humbly adjust yourselves to humble situations; do not become wise in your own conceits.
Sharing the grief and joy of others; Paul may have written elsewhere that Christians are to ‘come out from among the pagans and be separate’ but it seems he is not advocating that Christians be totally separate from the surrounding society
In no case paying back evil for evil, determine on the noblest ways of dealing with all people; if possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
This is basic; it looks back to Jesus’ teaching and example of ‘turning the other cheek’. ‘Living in peace with everyone’ constantly comes to my mind when I’m hearing news from Ulster of those parades and the civil disturbance which so often attends them. There is no New Testament command or requirement to stage these triumphalist and intimidating events, and much including this passage that says we shouldn’t. How is it ‘living in peace with everyone’ to have hundreds, occasionally thousands of Protestants marching noisily through a Catholic neighbourhood celebrating, in effect, that Protestants won the 17th century wars and now dominate over their Catholic fellow-citizens? Neither the marches nor the massive protests when they are refused sound to me like ‘providing for good things before all men’ (as my ‘interlinear’ Greek/English version literally renders the phrase about ‘noblest ways’), even when the protests are peaceful, which too often they aren’t!
Of course, if Christians are following the idea of a ‘Christian country’ it seems natural to do such things; that’s how ‘kingdoms of this world’ operate! Those who thus break peace with their neighbours think that in asserting their ‘Protestant country’ they’ve got a legitimate exception to passages like Romans 12; but all they’re actually doing is contradicting the Lord who said explicitly that His kingdom is ‘not of this world’!
Do not revenge yourselves, dear friends, but leave room for divine retribution, for it is written “It is Mine to punish; I will pay them back, the Lord says.”
Instead, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; in case he is thirsty, give him drink; for doing so you will pile burning coals on his head. Be not overpowered with evil, but master evil with good.
I don’t really need to add much to that! The ‘burning coals’ refer to the shame that should be induced when the enemy finds his evil met with such generosity; though it may also refer to the ultimate judgement awaiting an unrepentant persecutor. We should remember that as a former persecutor Paul will have felt that shame when Jesus met him on the Damascus road, and would understand better than most the effect on the persecutor of victims who love in return. In this context ‘Be not overpowered with evil’ seems to me to mean not letting the evil of revenge overpower us and make us as evil as the enemy.
This seems an appropriate place to tell one of the classic stories of Anabaptism. The Anabaptist leader Dirk Willems was on the run in wintry Holland; with pursuers close behind, he ran across a frozen river on the ice. One of the pursuers fell through the ice and was at risk of drowning. While the man’s colleagues were fearful and hung back, Dirk Willems rescued the man and hauled him out – and the rescued man then arrested Dirk, who eventually suffered martyrdom! That is the way of Christ; holy wars, riots, the bombs and guns of paramilitaries, are the exact opposite. As Paul said elsewhere, ‘Our warfare is not with physical weapons’, and as Jesus said and showed by example we are to love our enemies even to the point of dying for them. Theories of ‘Church-and-State’ which lead us to other courses of action should be regarded with extreme suspicion….
And when we come to Romans 13, this chapter is its context; we must be careful that we do not interpret Chapter 13 in ways which contradict chapter 12. That in turn means don’t isolate chapter 13, don’t treat it as a separate subject.