When we arrive at chapter 12 we have reached the beginning of this letter’s Practical Application, covering chapters 12-16. Chapter 12 consists of three well-defined sections, the second of which readily divides itself into two parts.
In the first of the three sections the apostle lovingly-note the word “brothers”-exhorts those whom he addresses to offer themselves to God as sacrifices which, in his sight, are living, holy, and well-pleasing. This first section, accordingly describes what should be the attitude of believers to God. They should render the wholehearted spiritual worship that is due him in view of “the great mercy” he has bestowed on them. As chapters 1-11 have shown, solely on the basis of divine grace, that is, the unmerited divine favor manifested in Christ’s substitutionary self-sacrifice, believers have been declared righteous before God.
In keeping with this need of responsive wholehearted devotion, to be rendered by those who had been so abundantly blessed, is the exhortation that the addressed-which includes us all-in their life-style must no longer allow themselves to be outwardly conformed or fashioned after the pattern of this (evil) age, but instead must permit themselves to undergo a progressive and positive inner change, so as to become more and more Christlike. The goal and result of this inner transformation will be that they will prove-that is, will perceive, experience, and delight in-that which in the sight of God is good, well-pleasing, and perfect; that is, that which is in accordance with his will (verses 1 and 2).
In the first part of the second section-the section in which Paul describes what should be the attitude of believers to fellow-believers-it is made clear that progressive transformation will be impossible for those who, in their arrogance, imagine that they have already arrived. “Be and remain humble,” is the essence of the exhortation. The saints must realize that the church resembles the human body, in which each part has a distinct function and none is self-sufficient. Similar is the situation in the church: each member needs the others. Each member should use his divinely imparted gift or gifts for the advantage of all the others. A list of seven gifts-functions follows, namely, that of prophesying, rendering practical service (probably in the capacity of deacon), teaching, exhorting, contributing to those in need (private benevolence), exercising leadership (probably as an elder), and showing mercy (as a visitor to the sick, etc.).
These tasks should be performed in accordance with the standard of faith (mentioned in connection with prophesying), without ulterior motive (in contributing to the needs of others), with diligence (in this manner exercising leadership), and (in connection with showing mercy) with cheerfulness (verses 3-8).
In the second part of this same section Paul emphasizes the supreme importance of love, here especially “brotherly love.” Believers should prefer one another in honor. For further light on this see Phil. 2:3. The exercise of this virtue is possible only when believers have learned to know themselves.
This exhortation is followed by a miscellaneous group of admonitions, urging the exercise of Spirit-imparted virtues; such as enthusiasm, joy, hope, endurance, and prayer. The necessity of helping to relieve the needs of the saints is again stressed (see what has been said on this subject in connection with verses 7 and 8). In view of the fact that Paul will soon be starting out on his journey to Jerusalem with gifts (collected from several churches) for the poor saints in that city (Rom. 15:25; Acts 24:17), this emphasis is not surprising. Moreover, when Paul thinks about traveling-not just his own but that of many gospel witnesses-the exhortation, “Eagerly practice hospitality,” fits in very well at this point (verses 9-13).
The final section (verses 14-21) shows what should be the believers’ attitude to outsiders, including even enemies. In the midst of his own people, and even of people in general, the Christian should rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, remain humble, showing this by readily associating with humble folk, and, as far as consonant with Christian principles, should live in peace with everybody. He should see to it that his affairs are right, so that nobody can accuse him of wrong-doing, and all will be impressed by his lofty moral-spiritual idealism.
In this connection there is one virtue Paul praises above all else, and, in varying phraseology, mentions again and again (verses 14, 17, 19-21). It is the virtue of never returning evil for evil but always good for evil. One should invoke God’s blessing on persecutors, and by means of kindness strive to “heap coals of fire upon the heads” of those who had made the saints the objects of their cruelty. Yes, one should try to make these bitter opponents ashamed of themselves, so that, as a result they, in sorrow, flee to God for refuge. In this connection study the example of Joseph (Gen. 45:1-15; 50:15-21); Elisha (II Kings 6:20-23); Stephen (Acts 7:59, 60), and, above all, Jesus (Luke 23:34).