NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson IV)
Karl Barth notes that Paul brings up the subject of ethics here. Every day our thinking is encompassed and influenced by the busy world around us. So any conversation with God is not initiated on its own, it must be logically done by an ethical decision of our will. And it is not done for our sake, but for the sake of His will. Such unplanned thoughts about God insert themselves in all that we are doing, trying to be, and longing for. So we can see how our conversation about God can be an ethical challenge in that it reminds us of what we should be doing, trying to be, and longing for. In that way, it can take what we are thinking about, transform it, and reconstruct it in order to give it its proper direction.
In other words, something first must die in order for it to be made alive. For Barth, this is the meaning of the words: “I beseech you, therefore, brethren.” To put it another way, everything Paul has been talking about on how we should think, act, and live as believers, boils down to the reality that we cannot use our way of reasoning as the only standard available for us as a guide for Christian living. That’s why Paul calls on all believers to submit every thought, action, word, and deed to God for His approval. That means, some things will make it and some won’t. Not just one time, but on a constant daily basis. This describes: yielding our whole selves – body, soul, mind, and spirit, to Him as a living human being.
John Stott also sees this as an ethics issue as well. Paul’s appeal not only concerns spiritual factors but ethical matters. He learned from his own experience that there is no greater incentive for us to be holy in our living than to contemplate the mercies of God. That’s because it deals with both our bodies and our minds. This is carried out by presenting our whole being to God so we can be transformed by the renewal of our minds. In order for Paul to maintain the sacrificial imagery throughout the sentence, he uses five technical terms. He views us as brethren, responding in gratitude to God for His mercy by presenting our bodies as living sacrifices. They must be holy in order to be pleasing to God. Nothing less will qualify because this is only reasonable as we present ourselves in service to Him. Just like the sacrifices in the First Covenant were to be physically unblemished or without defect so that it resulted in a pleasing aroma to the Lord. In the same way, when we present ourselves as living sacrifices to God, we should be holy and acceptable.
But Stott feels there is more to be understood when we see this living sacrifice as a spiritual act of service. Going back to the Greek adjective logikos, which can be used to mean either “reasonable” (KJV, LEB, NMB) or “proper” (NIV), or even ‘rational’. Some translations call it “spiritual” (ASV, NASB, NRSV), “sensible” (CEV), “intelligent” (Darby Translation, J.B. Phillips NT), “and others “appropriate” (CEB). The Complete Jewish Bible has “logical.” When looking at all these different ways to express logikos, then the offering of ourselves to God is seen as the only sensible, logical and appropriate response to Him in view of His freely given mercy. If we accept “rational,” this would imply service offered by heart and mind (REB). In other words, spiritual as opposed to ceremonial. This would mean that we are both physically and intelligently involved in our worshipful service. There is a delightful quotation from the first-century Stoic philosopher, Epictetus that shows how he uses this Greek word. He said: “If I were a nightingale, I would do what is proper for a Nightingale and if I were a swan, what is proper for a swan. In fact, I am logikos, so I must praise God.”
Jewish theologian David Stern joins the conversation by noting that this is logical “Temple worship” for believers. But he looks at the Greek noun latreia, which is translated as “service” by the KJV. Being a Jew, Stern notes that latreia corresponds to the Hebrew word ‘abodah. It is used to describe “work” or “service,” in an everyday sense. No reader of this text today should mistakenly use the Hebrew expression to interpret this Greek word latreia “service.” Instead, this same ‘abodah is also the technical term for the religious “service” performed in the Temple. That is the context in which the word is used here.
Another Jewish writer asks us to consider that when we see the word “therefore” we should find out what it is “there for.” In this case, “therefore” segues from the concerns Paul expressed in chapters 9-11 into chapter 12. In those chapters, Paul stated that in spite of their disbelief and rejection of the Messiah, Israel is still God’s chosen people and that He is not done dealing with them. Paul also makes it clear that the plan of salvation extended to the Gentile, is tightly linked with that of the Jews and their future. As this Jewish writer sees it, the term “a living and holy sacrifice” as a mirror image of what went on in the Temple, and the phrase “house of living stones” implies that God’s people will be made of both Jews and Gentiles, so that together they will be serving the Lord and each other.
Verse 2: Don’t let the people of this world change you to think like them, but let God change you with a new way of thinking. Then you will be able to understand and accept what God wants for you. You will be able to know what is good and pleasing to Him and what is perfect.
Now Paul uses some more interesting words to describe what he is talking about with regard to our rational spiritual service to God and the purpose it serves. First, he tells us not to conform but be transformed. The Greek verb syschēmatizō that Paul uses for “conform,” in simple terms means, “to conform oneself to another’s pattern,” or “be a copy.” It is only used once more by the Apostle Peter. Then Paul uses the Greek verb metamorphoō translated as “transformed.” which is the root word from which we get “metamorphose,” which means “to change into another form, to transfigure.” We see this word used in three other Scriptures. So to put it in plain terms: Take the wrong form in your mind that you are imitating and have it transformed into the right form you should be copying.
Being anti-worldly will save no one. To scoff at modern fashions will not be counted as being holy. When one withdraws from the world in monastic fashion it still does not make one a special sheep in Jesus’ fold. Being a nonconformist does not necessarily mean to be transformed. And, furthermore, this transformation is not a part of fashion, lifestyle, or once’s social climate. Rather, the mind must be transformed, re-wired, so to speak, functioning with a new mindset. The old psychological cliche, “It’s all in the mind,” isn’t so far from the truth here. Under the First Covenant of the Law, it was what the body was subject to and trained to do that influenced the heart to treasure and have the mind assent to. But under the Last Covenant of Grace it is the other way around: What the mind is set on and adapts as truth the heart is influenced to treasure and the body to become obedient to. And this being changed from the old way to the new way can only take place through the miracle-working power of God’s Word, Christ’s blood, and the transforming force of the Holy Spirit.
Was Paul introducing some new concept to the church in Rome? Not by a long shot. We find the same call for holiness when Moses addressed the children of Israel: “Do not follow the crowd when it does what is wrong and don’t allow the popular view to sway you into offering testimony for any cause if the effect will be to pervert justice.” And before they were ready to enter the Promised Land, here is what the LORD told them to be aware of: “When you enter the land Adonai your God is giving you, you are not to learn how to follow the abominable practices of those nations… For whoever does these things is detestable to Adonai, and because of these abominations Adonai your God is driving them out ahead of you. You must be wholehearted with Adonai your God.”
Jesus was not quiet about this subject. He told His disciples: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. You do not belong to the world. I have chosen you out of the world and the world hates you.” Paul saw the reasoning behind Jesus’ instructions. He told the Corinthians: “The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” The Holy Scriptures say, “He is the One Who gets them in a trap when they use their own wisdom.” They also say, “The Lord knows how the wise man thinks. His thinking is worth nothing.”
As a Christian, do not be imitators of other people just because of what they can do and get away with. We can see the trap that Paul spoke of even more clearly today. When believers are planted and nourished in the Word of God, they have little trouble seeing the contrast between the world’s philosophy of morality and what the Scriptures say. But when they drift away from the Bible, the humanistic discipline practiced by the world seems less abhorrent, and they allow it to have a growing influence in their lives every day.
By the time Paul wrote the Corinthians again, he admonished them further that the same thing that blinded the world to immorality, would happen to them if they did not heed his warning: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the Gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” So, if Satan was able to confuse and mislead the world because he convinced them to shut their eyes to the light of truth emanating from the Word of God, the same will happen to believers if they let it. That’s why Paul sent them this final word of advice: “Do not be joined together with those who do not belong to Christ. How can that which is good get along with that which is bad? How can light be in the same place with darkness?” Thayer, in his Lexicon, tells us that the Greek verb heterozygeō Paul uses here about being unequally joined together involves being in a yoke. That would infer, that the stronger and more stubborn partner in the yoke would lead the other less assertive partner astray. In Paul’s day, this was a clear reference of believers fellowshipping with idolaters in their houses of worship.