We spent our time last time on verses 1 and 2 of Romans 12 where Paul urged his readers to offer themselves to God as a living sacrifice. We’re not to offer him a dead sacrifice now. We’re not to offer him a bull or a goat, as the people did in the days of the Old Testament in order to demonstrate their gratitude and their wholehearted commitment to the Lord. No, we’re to offer ourselves so that we’re dedicated to the glory of God and we’ll live our lives for him.
And do you remember? Paul said this is your reasonable act of worship. It’s your reasonable act of worship because — in view of God’s grace and mercy and kindness to us — it makes sense that we should now live for him.
And then Paul told his readers not to conform any longer to the pattern of this world. Instead, he said, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. And we thought about how the Holy Spirit changes the way we think through the reading and preaching of God’s word. He uses God’s word to renew our minds and to make us more and more willing and able to know and to do God’s will. He works from the inside out to change us.
And, we didn’t think about this last time, but go back to the beginning of verse 2 where Paul instructs us not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, or to the pattern of this age. Now do you remember? Paul referred in his letter to the Galatians to this present evil age. And he said the Lord Jesus rescues us from it. How does he rescue us from it? Well, through faith in the Lord Jesus who died for us and who was raised, we’re raised up with him to the heavenly realms. And so, we belong no longer to this present evil age, because we belong now to Christ’s heavenly kingdom. By faith in Christ, we become citizens of heaven. That’s the way Paul put it when he was writing the letter to the Philippians. We’re citizens of heaven; that’s where we now belong. And we’re to set our minds on things above, and not on earthly things. We’re to set our minds on things above, because our life is now hidden with Christ who is seated above. That’s how Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians.
Now, we still live in the world. We still live in this present evil age. But even though we live in the world — and we’re waiting for the Lord Jesus to come again to renew all things — even though we live in the world, we’re to live a heavenly life. We’re to live as those who belong in heaven. And what does this heavenly life look like? Well, Paul goes on to describe it in the verses which follow.
When I preached on the book of James some time ago, I mentioned how we should get out a pen and some paper and write down what James was saying, because he was giving us a to-do list, a list of things we’re to do. ‘Does any of you lack wisdom?’ Well, do this: ‘Ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault.’ And there are a number of things James tells us to do. Well, there are lots of things in this chapter which Paul tells us to do. Up until now, in chapters 1 to 11 of Romans, there have been very few instructions, very few commands. But now, having told us about the grace of God in Christ Jesus, Paul turns to the imperatives, the commands, the things we’re to do in order to live this heavenly life while we wait for Christ to come again.
But as we think about this list of things we’re to do, we need to remember all that Paul has said before, otherwise we’ll get crushed by a sense of guilt and failure for having fallen short of doing all that Paul says we should do.
So, we need to remind ourselves of the good news again and again. Paul said: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; but are justified freely by his grace. Paul said: There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Paul said: Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Paul said: God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. Every day we sin and fall short. Every day we disobey. But for those who are united with Christ through faith, there’s the assurance of sins forgiven forever.
So, having said all that, let’s turn to these verses which can be divided easily into two sections. First of all, there’s verses 3 to 8 which are about how we’re to serve the Lord, humbly. Secondly, there’s verses 9 to 21 which are about sincere love. And we’ll look at verses 3 to 8 today and come back to verses 9 to 21 next time.
And one of the interesting features about verse 3 is how frequently Paul uses words which are related to the word for ‘think’. He writes:
For by the grace given me [and Paul is referring here to his status as an apostle, given to him by the grace of God] I say to every one of you [so this is for all of us]: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think of yourself; but rather think of yourself with sober thinking.
Paul has just said we’re to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. And so, the Holy Spirit works through the preaching of God’s word to change the way we think. And, of course, one of the things he changes is the way we think about ourselves. He enables us to think of ourselves with sober-thinking. So, instead of being full of ourselves, and instead of being full of our own importance, we’re to think sensibly about ourselves.
And Paul adds:
in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.
When Paul says ‘measure’ here, he’s referring to the standard by which we’re to measure ourselves. And what’s the standard by which we’re to measure ourselves? Well, it’s the faith God has given us. The standard by which we measure ourselves is faith. And what Paul seems to mean is that we need to remember that we’re all the same. We’re all the same because we’re all believers. And so, no one should be boasting about himself or herself and about how important they are, and about how much better they are than others, because we’re all the same: we’re all believers, who have received faith as a gift from God. So, before we talk about gifts — and Paul is about to talk about gifts — but before we talk about gifts we’re to remember to think about ourselves sensibly; and we’re to think about how, really, we’re all the same, because we’re all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Verses 4 to 6a
And so, in verse 4 Paul uses this image, which is a familiar one, because he uses the same image in other letters. And it’s the image of the local church as the body of Christ, made up of many members with different gifts. But look at the end of verse 5 where Paul teaches us that each member belongs to all the others. So, we’re not to use whatever gift we have for our own benefit only. We’re not to use our gifts selfishly. Since we belong, one to the other, we’re to use our gifts for the good of the others. And, of course, whatever gift or gifts we may have, have been graciously given to us by God. That’s Paul’s point at the beginning of verse 6: there are different gifts, but they all have the same source, because God has graciously given them to us.
And then Paul lists the gifts. Now, this is not an exhaustive list, because Paul lists other gifts or other roles and functions in other New Testament letters. But presumably he mentions these ones here, because this particular list was relevant to the church in Rome. And, in any case, the point he seems to want to make here is to teach his readers that we ought to use whatever gift we have in the right way. So, after he mentions a gift, he adds a rule to show how this gift ought to be used.
And he mentions prophesying first. In the apostolic era, before the Bible was complete, there were apostles and prophets, by whom God revealed his will to his people. And in verse 6 Paul instructs such prophets to use their gift ‘in proportion to their faith’. It’s not entirely clear what Paul means by this rule, but perhaps he’s saying that the prophet must not say anything that would contradict or undermine ‘the faith’. That is, the prophet must not say anything that would contradict or undermine the Christian message. Think of what we read in 1 John, for instance, where John warns his readers about false prophets who were contradicting the basic doctrines of the gospel. Well, Paul might be saying:
Make sure you don’t ever do that.
Or perhaps he means that the prophet should never speak on his own authority, but he should only say what he believes has been revealed to him by God. The prophet’s job was not to make up his own message; he was to teach only what God had revealed to him. So, that’s prophecy.
Verses 7 and 8
Paul mentions ‘serving’ next. And the word he uses is related to the word for ‘deacon’. We read about the deacons in Acts 6, those seven men who were appointed to ensure that the needy widows in the church in Jerusalem received the food they needed each day. So, Paul is referring here to those who hold an office in the church: they’ve been appointed to look after the practical well-being of the members. And what rule are they to use? Well, it’s very simple: they’re to serve. In other words, instead of lording it over the other members — and we can easily imagine someone abusing their position — so instead of lording it over the others, they’re to love and serve the members of the church. On the other hand, those who have this responsibility may neglect the work, because they’re under the wrong impression that because it’s a practical role, and not a spiritual role, then it’s not important. We can imagine someone saying:
I’ve rather be a teacher, up at the front.
I’d rather be a leader, making important decisions.
I’d rather be a prophet.
But Paul says:
Those who are called to serve as deacons, should serve as deacons.
So, who are the deacons today? Well, in the Presbyterian Church, the members of the Congregational Committee do the work of the deacons.
Paul then mentions those who teach and those who encourage. A better word for ‘encourage’ is ‘exhort’. Now, some people have a particular gift for teaching God’s people from God’s word. Others have a particular gift for exhorting God’s people to do God’s word. Some people are very good at explaining what the Bible means. You know, I’ll go to a conference for ministers, and the main speaker is just great at opening up the Scriptures. And he’s able to uncover things that I’ve never noticed before in the Bible. And he’s able to explain difficult passages and it all becomes so clear. But I’ve also heard other people at a conference; and perhaps they don’t explain things as well as others do. And they’re not able to dig deep into the text. And I don’t really learn anything new from them about the Bible. But they’re great at exhorting us. And after they’ve spoken, everyone is fired up and they’re ready to get up and get out there and do something for the Lord. Well, says Paul, the one who teaches should teach. That’s the rule they’re to follow. And the one who exhorts, should exhort. That’s the rule they’re to follow. And isn’t that interesting? It’s very easy for a teacher or an exhorter to get distracted by other things. A minister, for example, who is called to teach God’s people, can so easily get distracted by other things; and they then neglect their primary calling which is to teach God’s people. And, of course, if that happens, then the whole church suffers, because the people aren’t being fed on God’s word. And so, the teacher must teach and the exhorter must exhort.
Paul then returns to practical matters and to the one who contributes to the needs of others. The word Paul uses means ‘shares’. So, this person shares what he owns, this person shares what she owns, with others. And such a person is to do this generously. That’s the rule for this particular kind of person. And the word Paul uses which is translated ‘generously’ really means ‘with simplicity’. So, with no ulterior motive. You know, one person gives you something, but only because they’re hoping to get something back in return:
I’ll do you a favour if you do me a favour.
But no, says Paul. Whoever gives, should give generously, not hoping to get anything back, and not for any other reason. The only reason they give is because of a desire to share what they have with those who are in need.
Paul then mentions leadership. And he’s probably referring to the elders, because from the New Testament it’s clear that the elders are the leaders in the church, the ones called and appointed to oversee God’s people and to shepherd them. Now, it’s easy for an elder to become cranky and weary and to go about his duties half-heartedly. But, says Paul, the one who leads, the elder in the church, should govern ‘diligently’. He should do his work eagerly.
In the same way, the person whose role in the church is to show mercy by visiting the sick, or by caring for the needy, or by doing other acts of kindness, should carry out their role with cheerfulness. Isn’t that often hard? Caring for a needy person is so often demanding on a person’s time and energy. Often you long for a break, but you know that a break isn’t coming. Or someone agrees to visit the sick; and they soon discover that the list of people who are sick never comes to an end, because as soon as one gets better, another is ill; as soon as one person is discharged from hospital. another is admitted. It’s hard work. And it’s endless. But the rule this person is to follow is to do this work with cheerfulness.
So, as we live the heavenly life, here on earth, we’re to serve the Lord and his people by performing the tasks and using the gifts he has given us. There are other gifts and other roles which Paul has not mentioned here. But these ones were particularly relevant to the church in Rome. However, what Paul wrote in verse 3 applies to whatever gift we have and to whatever role we perform. Whatever we do, we’re not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think of ourselves. We’re not to be full of ourselves and our own importance. We’re not to boast about ourselves. Instead we’re to think of ourselves with sober, sensible thinking. So, we’re to be humble. And we’re to remember that we’re all the same, because we all believe in the Saviour. And instead of being self-serving and self-seeking, we want to serve him.