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Romans 13:8-14 Biblical Commentary:
ROMANS 12-15: THE CONTEXT
Earlier, Paul admonished, “Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God” (12:1-2). He then went on to explain in detail what that means (chapters 12-15). Christians are to love their enemies (12:9-21); to subject themselves to authorities (13:1-7); and to love one another (13:8-10). Then Paul says that faith must give rise to appropriate conduct. Christians must “throw off the works of darkness, and let’s put on the armor of light” (13:12).
ROMANS 13:8-10. LOVE FULFILLS THE LAW
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not give false testimony,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other commandments there are, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love (Greek: agape) doesn’t harm a neighbor. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.
“Owe no one anything” (v. 8a). In verse 7, Paul said, “Give therefore to everyone what you owe: taxes to whom taxes are due; customs to whom customs; respect to whom respect; honor to whom honor.” “Owe no one anything,” then, continues that thought. The word, “owe” is present tense, which in Greek conveys the sense of continuing action, and could be translated, “Do not keep on owing anyone anything.” Morris notes that fact along with the fact that Jesus permitted borrowing (Matthew 5:42). He concludes that Paul was not forbidding Christians to borrow or to loan, but was rather saying that we must settle debts promptly (Morris, 467).
“except to love one another” (v. 8b). While we should not be a party to financial obligations that go on and on, we do have another obligation—the obligation to love—that does go on and on. Just as we receive ongoing love from God, as God’s agents we are to give ongoing love “one another.” Most scholars agree that, in this context, Paul does not mean to limit “one another” to other Christians, but rather means to extend it to all with whom we come in contact—our neighbors in the broadest sense.
The idea that “one another” extends beyond the Christian community is certainly in keeping with what Paul said in chapter 12: Extend hospitality to strangers (12:13)—”Bless those who persecute you; bless, and don’t curse” (12:14)—”Repay no one evil for evil. Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men” (12:17)—”If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men” (12:18)—”Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved” (12:19)—and “If your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink” (12:20). It is also in keeping with what he says next: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 9; see also Galatians. 6:10; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 5:15).
The giving of love fulfills three purposes. First, it blesses the person who receives love. Many people are desperately in need of a kind word or some small demonstration that someone cares about them. Second, the Christian who shows love for his/her neighbor becomes a powerful witness for Christ. Third, as Paul states next, love fulfills the law.
“for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law“ (v. 8c). The law prescribed in great detail how Israelites should deal with each other and with others beyond their community. When a lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus replied, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments”(Matthew 22:36-40; see also Leviticus 19:18). Paul’s comment that love fulfills the law is a restatement of this principle.
“For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not give false testimony,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandments there are“ (v. 9a). Paul mentions four of the commandments (from the Ten Commandments) that deal with our relationships with other people (rather than our relationship with God). Jewett believes that Paul selects these four commandments because “of their particular relevance for life in the urban environment of Rome, where interpersonal relations were tense, volatile, and full of temptations and provocations” (Jewett, 126). Life in close quarters would make adultery, murder, theft, and covetousness especially tempting.
Paul leaves out “Honor your father and mother” and the prohibition against false witness. He then adds, “and whatever other commandments” to acknowledge that his list of four commandments is only illustrative and not exhaustive.
“are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself‘” (v. 9b; see also Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31). When a lawyer, seeking to test Jesus, asked, “And who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29), Jesus replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37)—saying, in effect, that every person whom we encounter is our neighbor.
When Paul says that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, he is not commanding self-love but is acknowledging that we tend to love ourselves in the sense that we try to act in our best interest—at least that is true for healthy people. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” then, means that we should also act in our neighbor’s best interest.
“Love (agape) doesn’t harm a neighbor. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law“ (v. 10). The person who loves his/her neighbor will not commit adultery with the neighbor or the neighbor’s spouse; will not murder the neighbor; will not steal from the neighbor; and will not covet the neighbor’s possessions. The reason is simple: Any action that would harm the neighbor is inconsistent with love.
Paul uses the agape love-word throughout this passage. Agape is one of four Greek words for love (the other three being philos, storge, and eros). Agape is a high form of love that is devoted to the well being of the beloved, and is the kind of love with which God loves us. In our culture, with its emphasis on eros (sexual) love, it is quite possible to misunderstand “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” as endorsing sexual license. Since the English word, love, is imprecise, we should be careful to clarify the kind of love that we mean by agape.
ROMANS 13:11-12. TIME TO AWAKEN OUT OF SLEEP
11Do this, knowing the time (Greek: kairon—from kairos), that it is already time for you to awaken out of sleep, for salvation is now nearer to us than when we first believed.
“Besides this”—or “Do this” (v. 11a). Paul calls us to do the things that he outlined above.
“knowing the time” (kairos) (v. 11b). Greek has two words for time—chronos and kairos. Chronos has to do with chronological time—clock time—the time by which we keep daily appointments. Kairos has to do with special time—special moments in time—the forks in the road that make all the difference—moments with the potential to determine destinies. Paul uses kairos here, signaling that he is speaking of a significant moment in time.
What kairos is it? It is the dawning of the new age that follows Christ’s resurrection.
“that it is already time for you to awaken out of sleep“ (v. 11c). Night is the time for sleep, but “the night is far gone” (v. 12). Before electric lights, people rose early to take advantage of every moment of sunlight and to accomplish as much as possible before the coming of the afternoon heat. People awoke late at their own peril. Paul says, “the day is near” (v. 12). He wants believers to be awake and alert to greet the coming of the dawn.
“for salvation is now nearer to us than when we first believed“ (v. 11d). It seems clear that Paul is referring to the Second Coming and that he believes it to be imminent. Two thousand years later, we can see that it was not immanent. Paul, however, never claimed that Jesus would appear in his lifetime, but said instead that Jesus “comes like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). He did not predict the time of Christ’s coming, but counseled Christians to keep souls and bodies sound and blameless so that they would be ready (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
Paul does not speak of salvation as present, but says only that it is “now nearer”. In some sense, salvation is both present and future.
ROMANS 13:12. LET’S THROW OFF THE WORKS OF DARKNESS
12The night is far gone, and the day is near. Let’s therefore throw off (Greek: apothometha—put off) the works of darkness, and let’s put on the armor of light.
“The night is far gone, and the day is near“ (v. 12a). Christ has come, and has pierced the darkness. The day has begun to dawn, but light is not yet shining full force. That will occur when Christ comes again. In the interim, we live in an in-between world where our “behavior must be appropriate for the day, not the night” (Wright, 727).
“Let’s therefore throw off (apothometha—put off) the works of darkness, and let’s put on the armor of light” (v. 12b). It is not enough to put off works of darkness. We must put on armor of light to prevent the darkness from returning. We must be armored for battle, because we can expect frequent temptations—a constant probing of our defenses—dangers arising from unexpected quarters—a lifelong battle against evil.
ROMANS 13:13. LET US WALK PROPERLY, AS IN THE DAY
13Let us walk (Greek: peripatesomen) properly, as (Greek: hos) in the day; not in reveling (Greek:komois—carousing) and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity (Greek: koitais—sexual immorality) and lustful acts (Greek: aselgeiais—unbridled lust), and not in strife and jealousy.
“Let us walk (peripatesomen) properly (euschemonos– honestly or decently), as in the day” (v. 13a).
The Greek word peripateo literally means “walk around” (peri means “around”–as in our English word “perimeter”–and pateo means “to walk.”).
From very early times, Jews used the word “walk” to speak of the manner in which one conducted one’s life:
- Enoch and Noah walked with God (Genesis 5:22, 24; 6:9).
- The Psalmist said, “Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners” (Psalm 1:1; see also Psalm 119:3).
Paul admonishes us to behave honorably, honestly, decently. For one thing, such behavior is appropriate to who we are—to whose we are. We are “children of light, and children of the day. We don’t belong to the night, nor to darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5). Secondly, such behavior is important to our Christian witness. Nothing turns people away from Christ like a person who claims to be a child of the light but who behaves like a child of darkness. Nothing attracts people like a person of faith who loves them as Christ taught us to love—and whose personal life bears the stamp of integrity—the stamp of Christ.
Paul lists three pairs of sins that we must be especially careful to put off:
• “not in reveling (komois—carousing) and drunkenness” (v. 13c). Seeking pleasure in alcohol and/or drugs—partying with wild abandon. Such behavior not only wrecks Christian witness, but also bears within it the seeds of self-destruction. Wild partying can seem wonderfully exciting at first, but becomes less so as the person slowly loses control. What initially seemed glamorous and sophisticated slowly spirals downward, wrecking relationships, careers, finances, and health. The drunk is usually the last to recognize the problem, and often fails to pull his/her life together again.
• “not in sexual promiscuity and lustful acts“ (v. 13d). These have to do with sexual sins. “This is an excellent sequence; for gluttony and drunkenness are the fertile soil in which unchastity or debauchery thrive. For this reason the pious Fathers declared that whoever desires to serve God must root out, above all, the vice of gluttony. That is a prevailing vice which causes much trouble…. Hence fasting is a most excellent weapon for the Christian, while gluttony is an outstanding pit of Satan” (Luther, 191).
The first two pairs of sins, reveling/drunkenness and debauchery/ licentiousness would be familiar to Roman Christians. The ruling classes of Rome were famous for drunken orgies, and lower classes copied such behavior insofar as they were able. The church at Corinth was beset with similar problems (1 Corinthians 5-6).
• “and not in strife and jealousy“ (v. 13e). We are surprised to see these apparently minor sins in Paul’s short list of poisonous sins. Christians who would never be guilty of drunkenness or sexual immorality seem little concerned with quarreling and jealousy. Unfortunately, some congregations seem to think of quarreling almost as an in-house sport—but Paul lumps it in with drunkenness and immorality as one of the principle works of darkness.
Paul includes a similar but more complete list of perilous sins in Galatians 5:19-21.
ROMANS 13:14. PUT ON THE LORD JESUS CHRIST
14But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, for its lusts.
“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ“ (v. 14a). Paul puts “Lord” first in this threefold title, placing emphasis on the Lordship of Christ. When we “put on” Christ (in the sense that we make him Lord over our lives) temptation loses much of its power. When we look first to Christ for guidance in major decisions, he helps us to avoid dead ends and blind alleys. When we seek to honor Christ in our relationships, he will help us to avoid hurting others and destroying ourselves. Temptation continues, but we can face it in the confidence that Christ will help us to overcome it.
“and make no provision for the flesh (sarx), for its lusts“ (v. 14b). Sarx is an ugly-sounding word that depicts an often ugly reality––a focus on bodily indulgence rather than on Godly service. In the New Testament, sarx is most frequently used as a contrast with that which is spiritual (John 3:6; 6:63; Romans 7:18; 8:3-6). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul contrasts “the works of the flesh” (adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, etc.) with “the works of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, etc.) (Galatians 5:16-23).
To make a space in our lives for the sarx-flesh would reveal a lack of resolve to live a Godly life. In doing so, we would be taking the first step onto a slippery slope that would almost insure that we would succumb to fleshly temptations.
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.
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