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Romans 12:1-8 Biblical Commentary:
ROMANS 12:1-2: PRESENT YOUR BODIES A LIVING SACRIFICE
1Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable (Greek: euareston—well-pleasing) to God, which is your spiritual (Greek: logiken—rational, genuine, true) service (Greek: latreian—service). 2Don’t be conformed to this world (Greek:aioni—age), but be transformed (Greek: metamorphousthe) by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove (Greek: dokimazein—prove, test) what is the good, well-pleasing (Greek: euareston—well-pleasing), and perfect will of God.
These verses are densely packed, and require that we examine them phrase-by-phrase. If we will do that, this passage will reward us with one unexpected treasure after another—as if we were pulling a beautiful silk scarf from its container only to find another one behind it—and another, and another.
“Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God” (v. 1a). The word, “therefore,” links this chapter to what went before—namely, Paul’s treatise regarding God’s grace and our faith. The reader might have assumed that faith is the only required response to God’s mercy, although chapter 6 should have dispelled that notion. In that chapter Paul said, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? May it never be! We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer?” (6:1-2). Now Paul re-emphasizes that our faith should issue forth in holy lives—that faith and faithfulness are forever linked. In this chapter, Paul offers practical counsel regarding faithful discipleship.
“to present your bodies (Greek: soma) a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable (euareston—well-pleasing) to God“ (v. 1b). There are two Greek words for body: (1) Sarx, often translated “flesh”and (2) soma. While the two are similar, sarx is the external, physical body that was seen as worldly and opposed to God. Soma is similar to sarx in many ways (physical, mortal, weak), but as Paul uses it in his epistles soma is not external to the person but is rather one aspect of the person, who is inited as body and spirit. This understanding reflects Paul’s Jewish background, which viewed the person holistically.
So Paul said, “Don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey its lusts” (6:12). In his view, there is nothing incompatible in body and spirit. Both are important. Both are sacred. Both are essential to human life, and both are compatible with Christian discipleship and our relationship to God.
This understanding of the body is quite different from that of Greek dualism, influenced by Plato, which separated the world into its visible (physical, material) and invisible (spiritual) aspects. For the Greeks, the physical, material world was something to be endured until the soul could be freed of it. Greek dualists could never have suggested offering our bodies to God as a living sacrifice, because such an offering would be inherently unworthy of God.
Gnosticism was a form of Greek dualism that bedeviled the early church. Gnostics took Greek dualism one further step, saying that the physical material world was evil. They accordingly denied the incarnation and deity of Jesus.
“a living sacrifice” (v. 1b). Torah law required Jews to observe a complex system of animal sacrifices to atone for sin and to remind the people of the significance of their sins. Only animals without blemish were acceptable offerings (Leviticus 23:18).
The Christians in Rome to whom Paul is writing this epistle are for the most part Gentiles, and feel no obligation to offer animal sacrifices. Paul says, however, that they have a sacrificial obligation that, in fact, surpasses that of the animal sacrifices required by Torah law. Christians are not allowed to substitute an animal’s life for their own, but are instead required to sacrifice their own lives. The requirement, however, is no longer ritual slaughter, but is instead the presentation of the living person to God—a living sacrifice—a life dedicated to the service of God—a life committed to doing God’s will—a life lived in faith and lived out in faithfulness. They are to present their bodies for God’s purposes on Sunday in worship and on Monday in the workplace. There is no moment or circumstance in which the obligation does not apply.
This living self-sacrifice, Paul declares, is “holy, acceptable (euareston well-pleasing) to God” (v. 1). Animal sacrifices were holy, because they required taking something precious (a life) and offering it to God. In our antiseptic world, where we buy meat shrink-wrapped from a refrigerated case, we must stretch to imagine what it must be like to raise an animal from birth—and then to see that animal slaughtered—and then to eat a portion of the meat as an act of worship. It had to be sobering—wrenching. To watch an animal die violently is repulsive, and the rendering process is even more so.
The slaughter of the animal reminded the person that, apart from the grace of God, it would be his/her life required on the altar. Now Paul tells Roman Christians that it is indeed their lives that are required, but not on the temple altar. Instead, they are to offer themselves as living sacrifices. Such sacrifices are holy and pleasing to God, even as animal sacrifices, offered in the right spirit, were holy and pleasing to God. Living sacrifices are holy in that they represent lives lived in accord with the will of God.
“which is your spiritual (logiken—rational, genuine, true) service” (latreian—service) (v. 1). The word logiken has a variety of meanings, and it would seem that Paul chose it for its breadth. To present our bodies to God as living sacrifices is, indeed, a spiritual act. To live lives dedicated to God’s service, whether as clergy or laity, is genuine worship—the logical outcome of a decision to follow Christ.
“Don’t be conformed to this world (aioni—age), but be transformed (metamorphousthe) by the renewing of your mind“ (v. 2). The word that is translated “conformed” has to do with conformation that is malleable—that can change from day to day or year to year. The person who is “conformed to this world (aioni)” is free to embrace the next popular philosophy or fad at will. Being “conformed to this world” is rather like being a leaf blown by the wind, never knowing exactly where you are going next—or why.
The word that is translated “transformed,” however, is quite different, and involves transformation at the core of one’s being (Barclay, 157-158 and Dunn). If being “conformed” would leave us adrift like a leaf, being “transformed” leaves us with feet on the ground—anchored—steady. Paul is calling us not to be caught up in every fad or wafted by every breeze, but instead to let the Spirit transform us at our core so that we can have a faith strong enough to maintain course in spite the winds of popular opinion.
What are the things of this age that mold and shape masses of people? They include popular culture, such as motion pictures, movies, music, and sports. They include popular philosophies, such as New Age and PC thinking. They include incentives to succeed, even at the expense of vulnerable people. They include racism, nationalism, sectarianism, and denominationalism—forces that teach that our tribe is good and other tribes are bad. There are surely many other examples of the things of this age that would mold us into shapes not suited for the kingdom of God. Meditate on this and see what comes to mind.
“but be transformed (metamorphousthe) by the renewing of your mind“ (v. 2b). In verse 1, Paul called us to give God our bodies. Now he calls us to give God our minds.
Metamorphousthe is the word from which we get our English word, metamorphosis. The example of metamorphosis that comes to mind is the caterpillar, which is transformed into a butterfly. For a time, it is one thing, but then it becomes, by the grace of God, a wholly different thing. The caterpillar is not beautiful, but the butterfly is. The caterpillar crawls, but the butterfly flies on gossamer wings. Gardeners don’t like caterpillars, but plant special plants to attract butterflies. So it is by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit that we who were one thing (conformed to this age) can be transformed (metamorphosized) into something wholly different—people who are Godly and holy.
“but be transformed (metamorphousthe) by the renewing of your mind“ (v. 2b). Today, we would be more likely to speak of a “change of heart” than a renewal of the mind. Paul, however, calls us to permit the Spirit to transform our minds, knowing that the person who learns to think Godly thoughts will soon experience a changed heart as well. Godly thoughts transform every aspect of our being. As an example, the person who adopts Godly thinking often enjoys improved health, because he/she learns to regard his/her body as a temple of the Holy Spirit and is therefore more likely to treat his/her body with new respect. That is not to say that Christians do not engage in unhealthy practices, but the more Godly our thinking, the less likely we are to become victims of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, tobacco, promiscuous sex, workaholism, worry, and other unhealthy practices.
“so that you may prove (dokimazein—prove, test) what is the good, well-pleasing (euareston—well-pleasing), and perfect will of God “ (v. 2c). The renewing of our minds enables us to “discern the will of God” (v. 2). The world is full of people who assume that God’s will mirrors their own—people who try to force God into the mold of their own thinking. Republicans and Democrats alike assume that God endorses their respective party platforms. Denominations often assume that their particular slice of the church has discovered truths that make them superior to other Christians. But these are examples of the ways that we allow this age (aioni) to shape our thinking. If we are to discern God’s will, it will not be by trying to remake God in our own image—by having God conform to our prejudices—but by allowing the Spirit to renew our thinking—by becoming putty in God’s hands, so to speak—by allowing God to shape our thinking and our lives.
ROMANS 12:3-8. WORD PLAY
There is a lovely play on words in the Greek. Paul speaks of the “grace (charitos) that was given to me” (v. 3) and the “gifts (charismata) differing according to the grace (charin) that was given to us” (v. 6).
Paul appeals to the Roman Christians to think of themselves realistically—humbly—and bases his appeal on the fact that any grace (charitos) that he enjoys and any gifts (charismata) that they enjoy have been given to them by God. The person who is the beneficiary of a gift from God has no right to feel superior to another person who has received a different gift from God. Paul models here the kind of life that he is advocating. He could approach Roman Christians as an apostle with authority to dictate their faith and practice. Instead, he approaches them humbly as a fellow beneficiary of God’s grace.
ROMANS 12:3: NOT TO THINK OF HIMSELF MORE HIGHLY
3For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man who is among you, not to think (Greek: phronein) of himself more highly (Greek: hyperphronein) than he ought to think; but to think (Greek: phronein) reasonably (Greek: sophronein), as God has apportioned to each person a measure of faith.
“For I say, through the grace that was given me“ (v. 3a). The word, “for,” connects what follows (“think reasonably”) with what went before (“be transformed by the renewing of your mind”).
“to every man who is among you, not to think (phronein) of himself more highly than he ought to think (hyperphronein); but to think (phronein) reasonably” (sophronein) (v. 3b).
Note the similarity of the Greek words in this verse, and their relationship to each other:
• Phronein means think.
• Hyperphronein combines hyper (over, above, beyond) with phronein, and in this context means to think oneself to be above other people.
• Sophronein combines sophos (wisdom) with phronein and means to think wisely.
Paul had come from a background where Jews thought of themselves as God’s chosen people (true)–chosen for privilege rather than service (false). He want to make sure that Christians don’t take on that superior attitude (Dunn). Unfortunately, Christians often fall heir to that failing nevertheless, even to the point that we tend to disparage other Christian brothers and sisters whose views differ from ours.
In verses 6-8, Paul will spell out specific gifts that Christians enjoy. Again unfortunately, Christians have often succumbed to the temptation to believe that their particular gifts make them superior to Christians with differing gifts, to the detriment of the church and its mission to proclaim the Gospel.
“as God has apportioned to each person a measure of faith“ (v. 3c). Just as God has given grace to Paul (v. 3) and Roman Christians (v. 6)—and has given gifts that differ (v. 6), so also God has assigned to each person some measure of faith (v. 3). None of this provides them occasion for boasting, because grace, gifts, and faith are gifts from God rather than something that they have achieved on their own.
ROMANS 12:4-5. SO WE ARE ONE BODY IN CHRIST
4 For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members don’t have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
“For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members don’t have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another”(vv. 4-5). Paul further appeals to the Roman Christians to think of themselves realistically—humbly—by comparing the church to a human body. He uses this same metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, where he speaks of the interdependence of the various parts of the body. He even talks there about our practice of clothing more carefully those parts of the body that we deem less honorable, thereby conferring greater honor on the less honorable parts. Each member of the human body has a specialized purpose, whether a hand, foot, eye, ear, or nose. The various members do not compete for prominence, but cooperate for mutual benefit. Each member contributes to the body’s welfare in accord with its ability, and each member enjoys the benefits of contributions made by other members. If the various members were to be of a different frame of mind—competing rather than cooperating—seeking to gain advantage instead of contributing unselfishly—the body would cease to function effectively, and all the members would suffer as a result.
So it is with the church, which has many members, each with differing gifts and able to contribute in particular ways “according to the grace (charin) that was given to us” (v. 5). Instead of competing or quarreling, which would render the church body less effective to the detriment of all its members, the church works best when all its members work in harmony—just as members of the human body work in harmony.
ROMANS 12:6-8. HAVING GIFTS DIFFERING ACCORDING TO GRACE
6Having gifts (Greek: charismata) differing according to the grace (Greek: charin) that was given to us, if prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; 7or service (Greek: diakonian—ministry, service), let us give ourselves to service (Greek: diakonia); or he who teaches, to his teaching; 8or he who exhorts (Greek: parakalon—encourager), to his exhorting: he who gives, let him do it with liberality; he who rules, with diligence; he who shows mercy (Greek: eleon—the one showing mercy), with cheerfulness.
“Having gifts (charismata) differing according to the grace (charin) that was given to us“ (v. 6a). Paul mentions seven specific gifts in these verses—prophecy, ministry (or service), teaching, exhortation (or encouragement), giving, leadership, and compassion (or showing mercy).
Some have thought of these seven gifts as corresponding to official church offices, but many of these gifts have been distributed generally to believers without respect to church offices. The fact that Paul addresses himself “to every man who is among you” (v. 3) makes it unlikely that he intends these gifts to apply only to holders of official church offices. God grants grace (charis) and gifts (charismata) to every Christian, and the church is best served by honoring and celebrating each person’s grace and each person’s gift.
We tend to think of a “charismatic” as one who has the gift of speaking in tongues, but the word charismata is broader than that. It refers to gifts generally rather than just the gift of speaking in tongues. Significantly, in this list of charismata, Paul does not even mention the gift of tongues, but deals with that gift at length in 1 Corinthians 13-14, where he treats love as the supreme gift, and faith, hope, and prophecy as the next tier of gifts (13:1 – 14:1)—and treats speaking in tongues as a clearly subordinate gift, fraught with problems (14:2 ff.). Here he considers all Christians to be charismatic in the sense that God gives each of us one or more gifts (charismata) to be used in service to Christ and his body, the church.
Difficulties arise not only when Christians begin “to think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (v. 3)—in the sense that they value their personal gifts more highly than they value the gifts of others. Difficulties also arise when, like James and John, Christians seek seats of honor for selfish purposes (Mark 10:35 ff.). Our motives in seeking or accepting church offices are crucial. If we serve out of love for Christ, we can expect that Christ will bless our service (but not that he will make it easy for us). If we serve for selfish reasons, we cannot expect that our service will be a blessing to anyone.
“let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith” (v. 6b). Prophets act as God’s spokespersons—serve as bearers of God’s message—deliver God’s word. Paul suggests here that there are greater and lesser gifts of prophecy—or, perhaps, limits on the prophecy of individual prophets, based on the depth of their faith. A prophet should exercise the gift of truth-telling that he/she has received from God, but must not venture forth beyond God-revealed truth into personal opinion or speculation.
“or service (diakonian—ministry, service), let us give ourselves to service“ (diakonia) (v. 7a). Diakonian is the word from which we derive the word “deacon.” Diakonian has to do with practical service. While Acts 6 is not specific in this regard, it is generally assumed that Acts 6:1-7 tells the story of instituting deacons. The immediate problem was the equity of food distribution—in particular to Greek widows. The apostles said, “It is not appropriate for us to forsake the word of God and serve tables” (Acts 6:2). They therefore had the church appoint “seven men of good report” to do that kind of service. We usually consider these seven to have been the first deacons. To translate diakonian as “minstry” can be confusing, because many Christians consider the first order of “ministry” to be the proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments. Diakonia, however, is more oriented to service than to the administration of word and sacrament.
“or he who teaches, to his teaching” (v. 7b). We cannot grow in discipleship without learning many things—especially what the Bible says. While we can learn a great deal by reading the Bible on our own, much of the Bible will remain opaque unless we have a teacher who can help us to understand. Teaching is an important gift, whether we are seminary professors or teachers of small children. Parents should cultivate especially the gift of teaching so that they can teach their children about all the things their children need to know—but especially about Christ and the Christian faith.
“or he who exhorts (parakalon—encourager), to his exhorting“ (paraklesei—encouragement) (v. 8a). The exhortation called for here is encouragement. This exhorter is somewhat a coach and somewhat a cheerleader. Coaches sometimes have to correct, but good coaches do so in a way that encourages rather than discourages.
“he who gives, let him do it with liberality” (v. 8b). We are prone to pass by this phrase quickly, assuming that it applies to wealthy members of the congregation. In truth, however, many of the great, generous givers are people of modest means. While it is true that people of ordinary means do not, as individuals, have millions of dollars at their disposal, it is also true that such people, working together by the grace of God, have great resources at their disposal. The gifts of millions of ordinary but generous Christians do great service for the kingdom.
“he who rules, with diligence” (v. 8c). Leadership is, indeed, a gift. If you are a sports fan, you know the difference that a good coach can make. Businesses pay top dollar for top leadership (but do not always get it). Leaders need a vision for what needs to be done and the ability to work well with other people. But, most especially, a leader needs to be diligent—persistent in pursuit of the goal—careful to do the work well. We have all suffered through church board meetings where committee chairpersons do no work between meetings, so that their only contribution is to make their monthly report—a report that reveals that nothing has been done and that we cannot expect that anything will be done. In such cases, the pastor or another leader needs to show diligence in training and supervising chairpersons to help them become diligent leaders.
“he who shows mercy (eleon—the one showing mercy), with cheerfulness“ (v. 8d). While “shows mercy” has a wide range of meanings, Paul probably intends it here to refer to providing help for those who are vulnerable in some way (poverty, illness, etc.). The word, cheerfulness, calls for the person exercising the gift of mercy to do so joyfully rather than disagreeably.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans, revised edition (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, Vol. 38A (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Talbert, Charles H., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Romans (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2002)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
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