Sunday School Notes: Romans 12:9-13
9 Let [your] love be genuine. Hate evil; join tightly to good. 10 With regard to brotherly love, be devoted to one another; with regard to honor, outdo one another; 11 with regard for eagerness, do not be lazy; with regard to the Spirit, be fervent; with regard to the Lord, serve; 12 with regard to hope, rejoice; with regard to tribulation, be steadfast; with regard to prayer, be devoted; 13 with regard to the needs of the saints, share, pursuing hospitality.
There is a definite change between verses 8 and 9 with regard to subject matter (though I think there’s still a relationship between them), and then between 9 and the rest of this section in terms of the grammar. I’ve tried to bring out the grammatical similarities in verses 10-13 in my translation–which makes it a bit of an awkward rendering, but hopefully the notes will help with the meaning.
This section contains a series of commands. The connection between 3-8 and 9-13 may not, at first be clear. However, I think there is a connection at least in terms of attitude. In 3-8, Paul’s emphasis was on unity in the midst of diversity of gifts, and that unity was to be built upon a recognition that each person is gifted by the same God with abilities God wishes them to have. There should be no boasting or attitudes of superiority among God’s people. Instead there should be a recognition that all are children and servants of the same Lord.
In a sense, then, verses 9-13 go one step further: don’t merely tolerate each other, but love one another. And that love should be real. The opening words of verse 9, “Let [your] love be genuine,” could be translated as a title for this section: “Genuine Love.” Either way, this is certainly the theme of what follows.
“Genuine” translates the Greek word anupokritês. This consists of the word hupokritês with an “alpha privative” attached to the beginning. We have something similar to the alpha privative in English. Think, for example of the word “atypical.” This is simply the word “typical” with an “a” at the beginning. That initial “a” serves to negate the usual meaning of the word. Something that is “typical” is something that follows a particular norm or pattern. With the “a” at the beginning, it becomes something apart from the norm, or something unusual–atypical.
In Greek culture, the hupokritês was an actor or a pretender, and the word hupokrisis referred to an outward show, or a pretense. In English, we have the words “hypocrite” and “hypocrisy,” which both derive from these Greek terms. But while “hypocrite” refers to someone who says one thing and does something else, the Greek goes a little deeper. It speaks to a heart attitude that just wants to appear to be doing the right thing. Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 are good examples of this. They wanted to make a show of giving to the church, so they could be like everyone else. But their attitude was selfish, wanting first and foremost to look good, as demonstrated by their deception.
So the kind of love Paul exhorts his readers (and us) to here is love that is sincere, genuine, not just a show, but the real deal. The problem we face is that’s not something we can conjure up of our own accord. It comes from the renewed mind we read of in verse 2, and is a work that the Spirit must cultivate in our hearts. This doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and give up, though. We should never be satisfied with love that is anything but genuine, and we should pray for that kind of sincere love for the brethren. The commands Paul gives in the following verses can be understood as ways to cultivate that kind of love, with perhaps, prayer being the most effective. There’s nothing like praying for someone to establish true love for that person–and this is a work I have seen the Spirit of God do in my own life as well as the lives of others through prayer.
Having just exhorted his readers to love, Paul now tells them to hate–and with a very deep, intense kind of hatred, too. A loathing, even. And the object of that hate is that which is evil. We can’t be on the fence with regard to the things of this world–and the things in our own heart–that are contrary to God’s holiness. Note: we’re talking about evil according to God’s definition, not some generic concept of “evil” that we are free to define for ourselves. Whenever we talk about good and evil, these terms can only have meaning as they relate to the character of God. This is why we should have the same hatred for evil that God does, and we should attach ourselves to (the Greek word is the same used of sexual union in 1 Corinthians 6:16-17, and marriage in Matthew 19:5) good. Indeed, I translated the term “join tightly” because that’s the kind of intense attachment we ought to have to that which is good. Again, we are talking about “good” as God defines it (look back to verse 2–the renewed mind enables us to know God’s good and perfect will).
Continuing the theme of love, we should be devoted to one another with “brotherly love’ (philadelphia). The Greek word I have translated “be devoted” refers particularly to the devotion that comes out of the family bond. It is a combination of two Greek words for love: philia and storgê (it’s interesting to notice that in less than two verses we have already encountered 3 out of the 4 loves that C. S. Lewis speaks of in his book THE FOUR LOVES!), the first of which can be a general word for love, sometimes seen more specifically in terms of friendship-love, and the second more specifically related to familial love (e.g., parents to children). Combining these two into one concept of love gives us an idea of the depth of devotion that should exist between Christian brethren.
Next, Paul says that the church should “outdo” one another with honor. Some translations understand Paul to be saying we should “give preference” to others in terms of honor. This is certainly consistent with the kind of attitude Paul commands in Philippians 3:2, for example. And it certainly avoids the competitiveness that lies behind the idea of people trying to “one-up” each other in how much honor they give. But it’s also possible that Paul intends this to be tongue-in-cheek. Our natural inclination is to try to outdo others for our own benefit, to try to get ahead by beating others. Here, Paul may well be using the same language to point to the opposite attitude: instead of outdoing others for your own gain, why not outdo others for someone else’s honor? This points to the kind of humility we should have before others (as underscored in the previous section).
I think the next three commands are related: don’t be lazy, be fervent in the Spirit, and serve the Lord. Paul’s exhortation is to an enthusiasm for the things of God that is not complacent or apathetic. “Fervent” translates a Greek word that literally means “to boil, or seethe” (it’s how Luke speaks of Apollos in Acts 18:25). Any kind of inclination to laziness should be countered with spiritual exuberance, but tempered with the recognition that we are serving the Lord. Sometimes we can get carried away in our ministries and service. In our excitement, we might get territorial: “this is my program, my ministry, and I love to do it so much, I don’t want anyone else messing with it.” If we remember that, in fact, it’s the Lord we are serving, and we serve by His grace and at His discretion, then there is no room for us to be possessive over the work we do in His name. Acknowledging that the Lord is the one for whom we do whatever we do should help us to serve with both eagerness and humility.
There is also, I think, a connection between the final three commands in this section: rejoice in hope, be steadfast in tribulation, be devoted to the needs of the saints. Romans 8:24-25 spoke of hope as something we can’t see, but await eagerly. We also saw in Romans 11 how Paul appears to be encouraging his readers not to judge the will of God with regard to the Jews and the Gentiles by present circumstances. They should look to the promises and character of God, and hope in that, not on what they see going on. In this way we can rejoice in hope: not by rejoicing in what’s going on around us (in fact, there’s not much to feel joyful about in our sin-drenched world), but in what God is doing as he works out His purpose in our lives and the lives of those around us.
This rejoicing in hope is what can help sustain the believer during times of tribulation. Notice, Paul doesn’t say “avoid tribulation,” or “fight tribulation”–he says endure or be steadfast in tribulation. We may suffer tribulation in life, whether by means of illness, natural disaster, loss of work, or even through persecution of some kind, but we are called to stand firm, recognizing God’s hand behind the scenes working all things for the good of His people (Romans 8:28). If we add to this persistent prayer, which was the hallmark of the early church (see Acts), and even the life of Christ, then we are sure to keep our eyes fixed on the eternal, and can ride the storms of life with confidence that our God is sovereign and good, and all that happens is for His glory and our best.
Along with this, Paul says that the congregation should take care of the needs of the saints (i.e., believers) by sharing. The Greek verb here is a form of the noun koinônia, which is used frequently in the New Testament with regard to sharing, participating, and fellowshipping–either with one another, or with Christ (and his sufferings). In Acts 2, the church shared materially with those in need, and that, I think, is the primary thought here. One means of sharing in the needs of the body is through hospitality: giving of one’s living space to help someone else. It’s interesting that Paul doesn’t say “be willing to be hospitable if the need arises,” but pursue hospitality. Seek out opportunities to welcome others into your home and make them feel welcome.
As believers were sent out to preach and plant churches in cities where the Christian population may be in hiding, or at least not easy to find, their next meal may depend on Christians identifying themselves and offering them food and lodging for a few days. But I don’t think we should limit Paul’s intention here to itinerant preachers and church planters. The Christian home should be welcoming to strangers looking for the hospitality of fellow believers. Whether it’s a guest speaker, or a family just moved into the area, we should be willing to open our homes and our pantries to make sure they feel welcome and loved. Indeed, this is just another way we express the genuine, sincere love we should have for all God’s people.