Love in community
Paul next teaches us how to love each other. This is one of my favorite passages, but we’ve covered it in detail before, and so I’ll resist the temptation to go verse by verse.
Here’s the big deal. These simple instructions are the very core of the Torah of the Spirit of life. This is how we become living sacrifices. This what we become when God transforms our minds. This is how the gifts of service, mercy, etc. play out in church.
(Rom 12:9-21 ESV) 9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Notice how easy it is to see that the commands add up to “be like Jesus.” Indeed, it’s simple work to tie these teachings to teachings of Jesus. This is just so very Jesus.
The one exception is “never avenge yourselves.” This is one place where we are not to be like God, but it’s not that we aren’t to judge people (1 Cor 6:2 says we’ll judge the world), but that it’s not yet time. When it’s time for God to judge and exact vengeance, we’ll be there with him (1 Cor 6:2; Rev. 20:4; 22:5). But for now, we wait.
Love Your Neighbor
(Rom 13:8 ESV) 8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
I get in just all sorts of trouble for taking this one seriously. Think about it. Paul has absolutely no reason to worry about keeping the Law of Moses. Rather, he’s got to be speaking of the Torah of the Spirit of life — the law as fulfilled and transformed in Jesus and by the Spirit.
He is not a rabbi speaking abstractly about how a Jew might honor Moses. He’s an apostle telling his readers how to honor God’s law written on their hearts!
Therefore, he means it. If we love each other, we’ve fulfilled the law for which we’re accountable. Period.
Of course, the “each other” means that we’re in community with our fellow Christians. We can’t “love each other” if there’s no each other. Nor can we define “each other” as only those 20 people who agree with me on every niggling point of doctrine. No, “each other” is defined in Romans 15:7 —
(Rom 15:7 ESV) 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
That is, we must accept (or welcome as fellows Christians) all whom Jesus has welcomed. And who are those? Well, what did Paul write in the preceding 14 chapters? I think it was something about everyone with faith in Jesus being saved.
(Rom 13:9 ESV) 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul’s reference to “any other commandment” is strongly emphatic. This is really the whole law.
The Greek translated “sum up” is also found in Eph 1:10, where it means “gather together” or “bring unity to.” The word is most literally used of totaling a column of figures.
Add it all up, take the sum, and when you get done, the Torah of the Spirit of the life equals “love your neighbor.” And this observation ends all worries about circumcision, feast days, and mixing wool with linen.
What bothers many people, of course, is that Paul doesn’t include the Greatest Command — to love God — nor does he include many inferential truths about fellowship halls and how many cups we use for the Lord’s Supper, which “rules” appear nowhere in Romans.
Indeed, if one of our missionaries were to write a letter to a mission church he’d never been to, wouldn’t he feel obliged to discuss the Five Acts of Worship and plurality of elders as marks that define the boundaries of the Kingdom? But Paul is content with very different commands, but just the sort of commands that we find God writing on our hearts.
It’s easy to minimize Paul’s words to leave room for the rest, and yet Paul is addressing a critically important question — how do we honor Torah in light of Jesus? He gives the answer in plain and simple terms. And we don’t like the answer.
But, of course, he is not remotely suggesting that we don’t have to love God. After all, we are defined by our faith in Jesus, and we can’t believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah and Son of God without also believing in God. And belief in God necessarily equates with loving God (or else we worship an unknown god!). Paul is not abandoning his previous 12 chapters on faith! Or on the righteousness of God. Or on the necessity that we be conformed to the image of Jesus. He’s telling us how.
Therefore, what he says here must be taken as derived from what he’s said before, not as erasing all that he’s said before. Let’s do be serious.