Commentary on Romans 12:9-21

Notes (NET Translation)

9 Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good.

It is noteworthy that these verses comprise a series of clauses employing only participles (rather than finite verbs). These participles are generally regarded as equivalent to imperatives (so, e.g., NIV, NRSV), a usage that is thought to reflect a Semitic origin. It is possible to construe the whole passage as descriptive rather than prescriptive — as a statement about love followed by examples of how this love expresses itself. The passage would then read: ‘love is genuine, abhorring the evil, clinging to the good, devoted to one another with brotherly love, outdoing one another showing honor, not lacking in zeal, being fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, being patient in affliction, persevering in prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality’.1

Love without hypocrisy (anypokritos) means genuine, sincere love (2 Cor 6:6; 1 Pet 1:22) as opposed to merely being externally kind or nice.

The early Christians chose a relatively rare term to express the distinctive nature of the love that was to be the foundation of all their relationships: agapē. This is the term Paul uses here, the definite article (in the Greek) signifying that he is speaking about a well-known virtue. In fact, so basic does Paul consider love that he does not even exhort us here to love but to make sure that the love he presumes we already have is “genuine.” In urging that our love be genuine, Paul is warning about making our love a mere pretense, an outward display or emotion that does not conform to the nature of the God who is love and who has loved us.2

The terms “abhor” and “cling” are very strong terms.

10 Be devoted to one another with mutual love, showing eagerness in honoring one another.

The first command in verse 10 brings to the forefront the family affection that should characterize the people of God. The word ϕιλόστοργοι (philostorgoi, loving dearly) denotes warm, familial love, as does the term ϕιλαδελϕίᾳ (philadelphia, brotherly and sisterly love). Paul conceives of the church as a family that is even closer than one’s biological family, for all are united to Christ as brothers and sisters (cf. 1 Tim. 5:1-2). Thus warm affection should course among the members of the body.3

The general meaning of the second exhortation in this verse is clear enough: Christians are to be anxious to recognize and give credit to other believers. But its exact meaning is debated. The verb Paul uses here means “go before,” often with the additional nuance that one goes before to show the way to someone else. Taking the verb in this basic sense, many early translations and commentators as well as more recent ones think Paul means something like “surpassing one another in showing honor.” Others, however, suggest that the verb might here have an unusual sense, “consider better,” and so translate “in honor preferring one another.” Each interpretation has its weaknesses; I, however, prefer the former since the second assumes an otherwise unattested meaning for the verb. Paul is then calling on Christians to outdo each other in bestowing honor on one another; for example, to recognize and praise one another’s accomplishments and to defer to one another.4

In an honor and shame culture, honoring oneself or establishing one’s own and one’s family’s or tribe’s honor was a paramount concern. One honored others, but Paul is talking about a sort of mutual honoring of one another that pays no attention to hierarchical pecking orders or social status. Paul, in fact, is deconstructing or redirecting some of the major values of the culture. A good way of rendering the command here is “go first and lead the way in showing honor to one another.”5

11 Do not lag in zeal, be enthusiastic in spirit, serve the Lord.

The first positive exhortation is: but keep your spiritual fervor (lit. ‘be on the boil in spirit’). A similar expression is found is in Acts 18:25, in which Apollos is described as one who ‘spoke with great fervor’, indicating that the alternative rendition, ‘Be aglow with the [Holy] Spirit’, is unlikely. Some see the mention of ‘the spirit’ here as a reference, not to the human spirit, but the Holy Spirit. In this case Paul’s exhortation would be ‘to allow the Holy Spirit to “set us on fire”; to open ourselves to the Spirit as he seeks to excite us about the “rational worship” to which the Lord has called us’. However, as the other exhortations in the series relate to the attitude of believers as they serve the Lord, it is probably best to stay with the view that Paul is speaking about the need for believers to maintain fervor in their own spirits.6

Zeal and enthusiasm can carry people away in different directions. Paul reminds the reader that serving the Lord is to be the goal of zeal and enthusiasm.

12 Rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, persist in prayer.

The word translated ‘be patient’ means to maintain one’s belief or course of action in the face of opposition, that is, to stand one’s ground, to hold out, or to endure.7

One way to endure in suffering is to persist in prayer.

13 Contribute to the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality.

Contributing to the needs of the saints means financial and material support for those in need (Acts 2:44; 4:32; Rom 15:26-27; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:13; Gal 6:6; Phil 1:5; 4:15; 1 Tim 6:18; Heb 13:16).

The exhortation to hospitality is common in early Christian literature, and it is interesting that much of such exhortation seems to be directed to the church in Rome (cf. Heb. 13.2; 1 Clement 1.2; 10.7; 11.1; 12.1; Hermas, Mandate 8.10), perhaps because it was particularly fragmented.8

Hospitality may be defined as ‘the process by means of which an outsider’s status is changed from stranger to guest’. It is not something a person provides for family or friends but for strangers. Strangers need hospitality, for otherwise they will be treated as non-human because they are potentially a threat to the community. Strangers had no standing in law or custom, and therefore needed a patron in the community they were visiting. There was no universal brotherhood in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Certain ‘rules’ of hospitality had to be observed by guests and hosts. Guests must not (i) insult their host or show any kind of hostility or rivalry; (ii) usurp the role of their host in any way, for example, making themselves at home when not invited to do so, ordering the dependents of the host about, and making demands of their host; (iii) refuse what is offered, especially food. Hosts, for their part, must not (i) insult their guests or make any show of hostility or rivalry; (ii) neglect to protect their guests’ honor; (iii) fail to show concern for the needs of their guests.

Hospitality was not reciprocated between individuals (because once people became guests they were no longer strangers), but it was reciprocated between communities. And it was to the strangers’ own community that they were obliged to sing the praises of their hosts if they had been treated well (cf. 3 John 5-8) and to which they would report adversely if they had not been welcomed properly (cf. 3 John 9-10). Communities would repay hospitality to strangers from another community if that community had treated their own people well.

Letters of recommendation were important in the matter of hospitality. Their function was ‘to help divest the stranger of his strangeness, to make him at least only a partial stranger, if not an immediate guest’. To refuse to accept those recommended was to dishonor the one who recommended them, and in the Mediterranean culture of the first century the one dishonored had to seek satisfaction or bear the shame heaped upon him by the refusal of his commendation.9

14 Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse.

Verse 14 is a paraphrase of Matt 5:44/Luke 6:27-28 (cf. 1 Cor 4:12; 1 Pet 3:9).

Matt 5:44: But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you

Luke 6:27-28: But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Paul seems to combine these two forms of Jesus’ saying from the “Sermon on the Mount/Plain,” suggesting perhaps that he quotes here a pre-Synoptic form of one of Jesus’ best-known and most startling kingdom demands. For Jesus’ command that his followers respond to persecution and hatred with love and blessing was unprecedented in both the Greek and Jewish worlds. Paul’s dependence on Jesus’ teaching at this point is bolstered by the fact that he appears to allude in this same paragraph to other portions of Jesus’ teaching on love of the enemy from this same “sermon” (cf. vv. 17a and 21). Paul does not, of course, identify the teaching as coming from Jesus. But this may indicate not that he did not know its source, but that the source was so well known as to require no explicit mention.10

There is little evidence for non-retaliation as a code early Jews lived by, outside the community of Jesus. What few such exhortations there are refer to vengeance not being exercised against fellow Jews. Jesus’ exhortation goes further than that. As Dunn says, Paul treats Jesus’ words as something familiar and as a living tradition, so there is no need to cite it verbatim or identify the source.11

In the Scriptures, “blessing” is typically associated with God; he “possesses and dispenses all blessings.” To “bless” one’s persecutors, therefore, is to call on God to bestow his favor upon them. Its opposite is, of course, cursing–asking God to bring disaster and/or spiritual ruin on a person. By prohibiting cursing as well as enjoining blessing, Paul stresses the sincerity and single-mindedness of the loving attitude we are to have toward our persecutors.12

15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

These two actions are concrete indications of genuine love. Cf. 1 Cor 12:25-26; Sir 7:34.

16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited.

Living in harmony involves living with one mind (Acts 4:32; Phil 2:2-4). “The sense of these instructions is not that believers should hold exactly the same opinions but that they should think and act in ways that promote harmony and agreement.”13

Paul wants a wholehearted and self-effacing kind of service that embraces the lowly and takes on even menial tasks. Paul is speaking against both Roman patrician notions about menial labor being beneath one’s dignity and the stratifying tendencies of the culture. He is particularly speaking to Gentiles for whom humility and treating all the same were not familiar and widespread virtues.14

The last injunction in verse 16 is probably related to the previous one. Those who do not associate with the humble are “wise in their own estimation.” They refuse to associate with others because they deem themselves to be superior in wisdom. The redeemed community should be marked by humble concern for one another and all should be treated as valued persons made in the image of God and redeemed by him.15

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people.

Verse 17a echoes Jesus’s words in Matt 5:38-45/Luke 6:27-35 (cf. Ex 23:4-5; Prov 17:13; 20:22; Sir 28:1; TGad 6:1-3, 7; TJos 18:2; TBen 4:2-3; Jos. As. 28:5; 1 Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 3:9). Verse 17b echoes Prov 3:4 (cf. Matt 5:16; 2 Cor 8:21; 1 Pet 2:12, 15; 3:16). Thomas Schreiner connects v. 17b to v. 17a and takes it to be saying that even unbelievers recognize that refraining from revenge is good. If v. 17b stands on its own we should understand that, while our behavior is not to be determined by public opinion, we should be careful not to unnecessarily offend others.

18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.

This may allude to Matt 5:9 or Mark 9:50. Paul realizes that conflict may still come to the believer but he does not want the believer to be responsible for the conflict.

One cannot violate the truth of the gospel and devotion to Christ in order to make peace with those who resist the truth. Further, one may desire to be at peace with others, but they do not extend the same hand of charity back. In this instance peace is unattainable, not because we have failed to strive for peace but because the other person refuses to reconcile.16

19 Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.

Verse 19 echoes Lev 19:18 and Matt 5:39 (cf. 2 Thess 1:3-10).

The prohibition of vengeance is found in both the OT and Judaism, but it tends to be confined to relations with co-religionists. Paul’s prohibition of vengeance even upon enemies is an extension of the idea that reflects Jesus’ revolutionary ethic.17

It is hard to imagine in what circumstances the politically powerless Christian minority in Rome might be tempted to take revenge against their persecutors, but as Dunn points out, ‘the growing and increasingly desperate activity of the Zealots in Palestine was warning enough of how an oppressed people or persecuted minority might turn to acts of revenge, and the Christian congregations would not need reminding of how vulnerable they were to hostile pressures’.18

The quotation is based on Deut 32:35 LXX.

20 Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head.

Verse 20 quotes Prov 25:21-22 and Matt 5:43-44; Luke 6:27, 35. Food and drink stand for doing good of every kind to our enemies.

The meaning of “heaping burning coals on his head” is disputed. One unfruitful line of interpretation connects the phrase to an ancient Egyptian reconciliation ritual:

Isaak describes the ritual as follows: ‘Apparently, by giving coals of fire to the one you have wronged, you show that you are sorry for hurting them (fire is a valuable commodity for desert people where wood for cooking and heating is not in abundance). Paul takes this ancient figure (Prov 25:21-22) and modifies it for his purpose here — such life-giving demonstrations of restored relationships are regularly used to characterize the hope the Christian community brings to all interactions. . . . “Heaping burning coals on the head” is not manipulative. It is a significant life-giving act to heap fire-starting coals into the neighbor’s — and even enemy’s — pot so that they may carry them on their heads back to their campsites to use and enjoy. In this way, the community is not “overcome with evil, but overcomes evil with good”‘. There are two problems with this interpretation. First, it is questionable that Paul would have been familiar with Egyptian reconciliation rituals, and second, in Paul’s exhortation it is the one who is wronged who does the act of kindness, not the one who did the wrong as in the Egyptian ritual.19

Several early church fathers and perhaps the majority of recent commentators take the phrase “heaping burning coals on his head” to refer to the burning pangs of shame that acts of kindness may cause. Acts of kindness may lead the enemy to become ashamed and repent.

This second interpretation is not entirely convincing because “burning coals” is a negative metaphor in the OT often associated with God’s judgment (2 Sam 22:9, 13 = Ps 18:8, 12; Job 41:20-21 [41:12-13 LXX]; Ps 140:10; Prov 6:27-29; Isa 47:14; Ezek 24:11; Sir 8:10; 11:32). We should also consider 2 Esdras (4 Ezra) 16:53: “Sinners must not say that they have not sinned; for God will burn coals of fire on the head of everyone who says, ‘I have not sinned before God and his glory'” (NRSV). In light of these passages, Paul seems to be telling the reader to leave the punishment to God.

Most scholars today reject this view because how can one do good to others if one’s ultimate motivation is that God will heap coals of fire on them in the eschaton? The difficulties of this interpretation are exaggerated by most scholars, for the reference to God’s judgment here parallels the promise of God’s vengeance in verse 19. Indeed, that verses 19-20 are parallel strengthens the case for “coals of fire” being a reference to God’s judgment. Just as readers are to refrain from revenge because God will judge (v. 19), so too they are to do good because he will punish their enemies (v. 20). Dunn says that ἀλλά indicates that verse 20 stands in contrast to verse 19, so that God’s judgment cannot be in view in both cases. But he misses the point of the contrast. The contrast between the two verses is found in the actions of believers, not in the judgment of God. In verse 19 believers are commanded not to take vengeance, but in verse 20 they are now commanded to do good. But is it not psychologically improbable that the promise of God’s judgment would free believers to do good to their opponents? Not any more improbable than the argument found in verse 19, where God’s future vengeance frees believers from taking revenge on their enemies. In both cases, believers are liberated from taking justice into their own hands and are free to do good because they know that God will right all wrongs in the end. Those who continue to resist repentance must experience God’s wrath, for otherwise he cannot remain faithful to his name. Similarly, Jesus could refrain from cursing his adversaries because he entrusted himself to God, “who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). The sure realization that God will vindicate us frees us to love others and to do good to them, and even to pray that God will bless them (Rom. 12:14) and bring them to repentance. Believers will not chafe at any oppressor being brought to repentance, because they trust the goodness and justice of God, knowing that he does all things well and that they themselves were deserving of wrath (1:18-3:20).20

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Evil can overcome us when we allow the pressure put on us by a hostile world to force us into attitudes and actions that are out of keeping with the transformed character of the new realm. Paul urges us to resist such temptation. But, more than that, sounding a note typical both of this paragraph and of the teaching of Jesus that it reflects, he urges us to take a positive step as well: to work constantly at triumphing over the evil others do to us by doing good. By responding to evil with “the good” rather than with evil, we gain a victory over that evil. Not only have we not allowed it to corrupt our own moral integrity, but we have displayed the character of Christ before a watching and skeptical world.21

[T]he ringing call to “overcome evil with good” (νίκα ἐν τῷ ἀγαθῷ τὸ κακόν, nika en tō agathō to kakon) is a restatement of 12:20a. The evil to be overcome is not the evil that lodges in the heart of believers. It is the evil of their enemies that inflicts such misery on them. Believers should not let the evil they experience at the hands of others master them, so that they fall prey to evil (v. 21a). They are called to surmount every evil by doing good, and what gives them the courage and strength to do so is the belief that God is a righteous judge who will set straight every wrong that is done.22

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Kruse 2014, 474-475) 
  2. Moo 1996, 775 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12892-12896 
  4. Moo 1996, 777–778 
  5. Witherington III 2004, 293 
  6. Kruse 2014, 476 
  7. Kruse 2014, 477 
  8. Witherington III 2004, 294 
  9. Kruse 2014, 478-479 
  10. Moo 1996, 781 
  11. Witherington III 2004, 295 
  12. Moo 1996, 780 
  13. Kruse 2014, 481 
  14. Witherington III 2004, 296 
  15. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12988-12991 
  16. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13066-13069 
  17. Moo 1996, 787 
  18. Kruse 2014, 483 
  19. Kruse 2014, 484-485 
  20. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13108-13124 
  21. Moo 1996, 789–790 
  22. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13124-13128 

Commentary on Romans 12:3-8

Notes (NET Translation)

3 For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.

The word “for” suggests that this passage provides concrete examples for the transformed way of life mentioned in vv. 1-2.

Paul emphasizes his apostolic authority (“For by the grace given to me I say”). He is passing on authoritative teaching, not mere personal opinion. He realizes his apostolic office is due to God’s grace, not his own accomplishments. This exhortation is for “every one” in the church without exception.

It is wrong . . . to see the material here as just generalized exhortations, with Paul hoping that some will strike the mark. He is talking about an appropriate estimate of oneself. No one should overestimate himself or herself, or esteem himself or herself higher than is necessary. This echoes what Paul has already said specifically to Gentiles in 11.25. The Greco-Roman world used much hyperbolic rhetoric about one’s status and standing and abilities, as on the honorific columns and in the imperial decrees. A sound or sober mind neither over- nor underestimates itself. It is interesting that sober-mindedness was among the virtues Aristotle stressed (Nicomachean Ethics 1117b 13). The essence of the meaning is soundness of mind, discretion, and moderation with regard to things.1

The meaning of “measure of faith” is disputed. One option is that it does not refer to saving faith, but to a kind of faith that gives one a gift (Rom 12:6; 2 Cor 10:13; Eph 4:7-13). Another option is that it refers to the grace common to all believers and from which the gifts stem. A third option is that it refers to a standard, either the gospel or Christ. The believer should judge himself in light of this standard. The following verses indicate the “measure of faith” plays out differently in the lives of different believers.

4 For just as in one body we have many members, and not all the members serve the same function, 5 so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members who belong to one another.

This counters divisions in a very similar way to the argument in 1 Corinthians 12. If one understands oneself as but one member among many in the body of Christ, then one will not have an overinflated view of oneself. And, further, if one recognizes that there is no gift or function that should be exalted over others, there need be no competition to do particular tasks, for not all persons have the same function in the body.2

Paul’s point is that while members of the church, like the parts of the human body, have different functions, they belong to one another and therefore are to serve and promote the well-being of one another. The apostle gives instructions about how this should be put into practice in relation to seven different gifts (charismata) in the next few verses.3

6 And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith.

In Greek charismata means “gifts” and charis means “grace”. Here Paul says the gifts are given to us by God (12:3), in Eph 4:7 he says they are given by Christ, and in 1 Cor 12:7-11 he says they are given by the Spirit. Other gifts are mentioned in 1 Cor 12:8-10, 28-30; Eph 4:11. This passage is merely a representative list of gifts.

According to 1 Cor 14:29-33 prophets received revelations and then shared them with the congregation. The congregation was to judge the validity of the prophecy (1 Thess 5:19-22). What is meant by prophesying in proportion (right relationship) to one’s faith? One option is that it means prophecy should not contradict the norms of the Christian faith. A second option is that it means one should prophesy in dependence on God. The act of prophecy only comes about because of the grace of God. The prophet should not try to impress others and go beyond what God has revealed to him.

7 If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; 8 if it is exhortation, he must exhort; if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity; if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do so with cheerfulness.

The believer is to devote himself to his gifts and not try to emulate the gifts of others out of envy. This is not to say that a teacher cannot show mercy, for example, it just means more of his attention should be on study and teaching than someone with other gifts.

Elsewhere in Paul’s letters “service” (diakonia) means giving general assistance to believers (1 Cor 16:15), the financial support provided by Gentiles to the saints in Jerusalem (Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 8:4, 19-20; 9:1, 12-13), and the building up of the body of Christ (Eph 4:11-12). Service/ministering involves organizing and providing for the material needs of the church.

Teaching involves the explanation of the OT, the life of Jesus, and apostolic teaching (the original audience did not have the NT).

The verb translated “exhort” can also mean “encourage”. Positive exhortation and encouragement are closely related so we can take a both/and approach in understanding the term. Exhortation involves stirring someone to live out the truth of the gospel.

Contributing involves giving or sharing. The noun translated “sincerity” (haploteti) can also mean “generosity” or “simplicity”. The one who shares should do so generously and straightforwardly and without any ulterior motives.

The verb meaning “to lead” can also mean “to care for/give aid”. “To lead” is the meaning Paul uses most of the time in his letters (1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 3:4-5, 12; 5:17; Titus 3:8, 14). One should lead with diligence/zeal (en spoude).

The Christian who shows mercy imitates the God who shows mercy. Showing mercy cheerfully makes it a ministry of grace to the recipient.

The one who shows mercy must not have a begrudging spirit that communicates to the person on the receiving end that the mercy given is a debt instead of a joy (cf. Prov. 22:8a LXX; Sir. 35:11 [35: 8 LXX]; Philo, Spec. Laws 4.13 §74; T. Job 12.1). The kind of mercy that honors God and shows love to the recipient is filled with joy and finds it a greater blessing to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).4

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Witherington III 2004, 288 
  2. Witherington III 2004, 289 
  3. Kruse 2014, 470 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12840-12843 

Commentary on Romans 12:1-2

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice — alive, holy, and pleasing to God — which is your reasonable service.

The “therefore” indicates that 12:1-15:13 should be understood in light of chapters 1-11. Chapters 1-11 teach that both Jews and Gentiles are on equal footing before God. Paul is trying to create a united people of God, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. “The Christian faith and praxis which the Roman Christians share in common should distinguish them from others more than their differences divide them from each other.”1 Rom 12:1-15:13 addresses matters that did or could divide Roman Christians.

The reader is to respond to Paul’s exhortations “because of” the mercies of God. The mercies of God are described in the preceding chapters.

It would be incorrect to deduce that exhortations are limited to this part of Romans, for parenesis also punctuates chapters 5-8, especially chapters 6 and 8. Yet it is certainly the case that the exhortation section here is predominant and more sustained than in any earlier section of the letter. The reason for this is doubtless that the indicative of God’s grace and mercy — telling what God has done for sinful humans — must underlie the imperatives outlining one’s duty and obligation to God. Carrying out the imperatives would be an impossibility without the indicative. Indeed, those who strive to fulfill the commands in Rom. 12-15 apart from the gospel enunciated in chapters 1-11 have truncated the Pauline gospel. The indicative is the basis for the imperative, and the latter should never be separated from the former. It is also the case that those who proclaim the gospel without any parenetic element do an injustice to the Pauline gospel, for parenesis is a vital and central element of the Pauline gospel (cf. 1 Thess. 4:1-2). The mercies of God summon us to active effort, but this active effort (if it is based on the indicative of God’s grace) should never be confused with legalism. The energy of God’s grace summons human beings not to passivity but to exertion. But it is an exertion rooted in faith and energized by the power of the Holy Spirit.2

We are to present our bodies, meaning our whole selves, as living sacrifices. Animal sacrifices are no longer required/acceptable.

The sacrificial dimension of the text emerges with clarity when the presentation of the body is described as “a sacrifice, living, holy, and well pleasing to God” (θυσίαν ζῶσαν ἁγίαν εὐάρεστον τῷ θεῷ, thysian zōsan hagian euareston tō theō). Cranfield observes rightly that many English readers gain a wrong impression of the text since some English versions translate the phrase “living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God,” which suggests that “living sacrifice” is somehow separable from the adjectives “holy” and “well pleasing” in the Greek text. In fact, all three adjectives (“living,” “holy,” and “well pleasing”) follow θυσίαν, and thus there is no exegetical warrant for isolating the word “living.” Nor is it likely that ζῶσαν is intended to contrast the state of humans with animals since the latter were alive when sacrificed as well. Rather, the word “living” denotes the spiritual state of believers. They are now “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11, 13; 8:13). It is precisely those who are alive in Christ who are called to give their lives to him as a sacrifice. The terms ἁγίαν and εὐάρεστον have cultic associations as well. The former term denotes the idea that the sacrifice is dedicated to God, while the latter evokes OT notions of sacrifices that are pleasing and fragrant to God.3

Those who have presented their bodies to God as a sacrifice belong no longer to themselves but to God. The offerer no longer has the final say over his behavior. He or she is now God’s property and must behave according to God’s dictates. But God does not want a dead human sacrifice but a living and lively one. He does not want something from us; he wants us.4

This self-offering is our “reasonable” or “logical” worship (cf. 1 Pet. 2.2, 5). Here the Jerusalem Bible is helpful with its paraphrase: “worship worthy of thinking beings.” Worship, that is, reflective of what we know and recognize to be true of God and what God has done. Humans are capable of being rational and recognizing that God is worthy of worship. Paul here is again perhaps drawing on a connection with thought that would be familiar to his Roman audience. Epictetus 1.16.20-21 says: “If I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan as a swan. But as it is I am a rational (logikos) being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God.” Paul is also in some respects close here to Philo, who says “The soul . . . ought to honor God not irrationally nor ignorantly, but with knowledge and reason” (Special Laws 1.209).

But there may be more meaning. As Wright suggests, Paul may mean the worship to which our logic or arguments have been pointing. Paul’s arguments have led to doxology at the end of chs. 8 and 11. Furthermore, oun, the connective “therefore,” means that what Paul says in 12.1 is based on what he has argued previously. It is a conclusion based on the preceding arguments. So he can be saying “in light of what we have argued in chs. 1-11 about the compassion of God, I appeal to you to present yourselves to God in a form and sort of worship toward which our logic or arguments have been pointing.” This does full justice to the connection, especially between the end of ch. 11, with its theme of mercy, and what we find here.5

The word λατρείαν is another cultic term. What is remarkable is that Paul has applied the language of the cult to everyday existence. The worship described does not relate to public assemblies but to the yielding of one’s whole life to God in the concrete reality of everyday existence. Paul’s application of the OT is of immense importance here. Activity and language that focused on the cult in the OT is now extended to embrace every facet of the believer’s existence. Neusner has emphasized how the Pharisees expanded their conception of purity so that it included everyday life. Paul does much the same thing but in a very different way. The worship and sacrifices of the OT can no longer be confined to the cult. The cultic language is spiritualized to include the whole of one’s existence. In Judaism the spiritualization of sacrifices was never understood to replace literal sacrifices and was a necessary condition after A.D. 70, whereas Paul rejected literal sacrifices in principle. We must also see that the term “spiritualize” alone does not do justice to Paul’s reshaping of cultic language. He understands the OT cult as now being fulfilled because the new age is inaugurated. In other words, Paul’s understanding of the cult is fundamentally eschatological. The call to worship (λατρεία) causes the theme of the letter to resurface, for the fundamental sin is the failure to worship (λατρεύειν, latreuein; see 1:25) God. Those who worship God give their entire lives over to him so that he is honored and praised in everything they do.6

Regular meetings together of Christians for praise and mutual edification are appropriate and, indeed, commanded in Scripture. And what happens at these meetings is certainly “worship.” But such special times of corporate worship are only one aspect of the continual worship that each of us is to offer the Lord in the sacrifice of our bodies day by day.7

2 Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God — what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.

Rom 12:2 is a continuation of the sentence in 12:1 and so provides a clue as to the kind of worship the believer should perform. Stated negatively, believers are not to be conformed to or guided by the present sinful world (literally, age). Stated positively, believers are to be transformed by the renewing their mind. The present tense of the verb “renewing” suggests that this is an ongoing process.

“The renewing of your mind” is the means by which this transformation takes place. “Mind” translates a word that Paul uses especially to connote a person’s “practical reason,” or “moral consciousness.” Christians are to adjust their way of thinking about everything in accordance with the “newness” of their life in the Spirit (cf. 7:6). This “re-programming” of the mind does not take place overnight but is a lifelong process by which our way of thinking is to resemble more and more the way God wants us to think. In Rom. 1:28 Paul has pointed out that people’s rejection of God has resulted in God’s giving them over to a “worthless” mind: one that is “unqualified” (adokimos) in assessing the truth about God and the world he has made. Now, Paul asserts, the purpose of our being transformed by the renewing of the mind is that this state might be reversed; that we might be able to “approve” (dokimazō) the will of God. “Approving” the will of God means to understand and agree with what God wants of us with a view to putting it into practice. That Paul means here by “the will of God” his moral direction is clear from the way Paul describes it: this will is that which is “good,” “acceptable [to God],” and “perfect.”8

In this context Paul does not explain how the renewal of the mind takes place. However, in Ephesians 4:21-24 he urges his audience: ‘be made new in the attitude of your minds’ in accordance with ‘the truth that is in Jesus’. Linking this with what the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 4:3-4 about believers being transformed as the veil is lifted from their minds to see the glory of Christ in the Scriptures, we may conclude that Paul understood the renewal of the mind to take place as people encountered and embraced the teaching of Scripture. Cranfield correctly notes that what Paul says implies that the mind, ‘so far from being an unfallen element of human nature, needs to be renewed, if it is to be able to recognize and embrace the will of God’.9

Paul describes the will of God as his good, pleasing and perfect will. It is axiomatic that the will of God is both ‘good’ and ‘perfect’, but in what sense and to whom is it ‘pleasing’? Paul employs the word ‘pleasing’ regularly in his letters (12:1, 2; 14:18; 2 Cor 5:9; Eph 5:10; Phil 4:18; Col 3:20; Tit 2:9) to refer to what is pleasing to God; therefore, we conclude that he is using it in this sense here also. He is exhorting his audience, then, to be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that they may practice what is good, perfect, and pleasing to God. Paul certainly made it the aim of his life to be pleasing to God (2 Cor 5:9).10

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Witherington III 2004, 280 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12437-12446 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12519-12529 
  4. Witherington III 2004, 284-285 
  5. Witherington III 2004, 285-286 
  6. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12555-12568 
  7. Moo 1996, 754 
  8. Moo 1996, 756–757 
  9. Kruse 2014, 465 
  10. Kruse 2014, 466 

Science. It Works. #5

fMRI bugs could upend years of research

A whole pile of “this is how your brain looks like” fMRI-based science has been potentially invalidated because someone finally got around to checking the data.

The problem is simple: to get from a high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging scan of the brain to a scientific conclusion, the brain is divided into tiny “voxels”. Software, rather than humans, then scans the voxels looking for clusters. . . .

Now, boffins from Sweden and the UK have cast doubt on the quality of the science, because of problems with the statistical software: it produces way too many false positives.

In this paper at PNAS, they write: “the most common software packages for fMRI analysis (SPM, FSL, AFNI) can result in false-positive rates of up to 70%. These results question the validity of some 40,000 fMRI studies and may have a large impact on the interpretation of neuroimaging results.” . . .

Further: “Our results suggest that the principal cause of the invalid cluster inferences is spatial autocorrelation functions that do not follow the assumed Gaussian shape”.

The researchers used published fMRI results, and along the way they swipe the fMRI community for their “lamentable archiving and data-sharing practices” that prevent most of the discipline’s body of work being re-analysed.

Commentary on Romans 11:33-36

Notes (NET Translation)

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways!

“Oh” is an exclamation of awe. The “depth of the riches” probably refers to God’s grace in bringing about the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles (Rom 11:12; Eph 3:6-8). The “knowledge of God” means God’s knowledge of us, not our knowledge of God.

God’s great plan of salvation is something that no one could have conceived. No one would have anticipated that God would effect salvation through the death of his Son on a cross. No one would have anticipated that God would bring salvation to Gentiles through the disobedience of Israel, or that the blessings enjoyed by Gentiles would lead to salvation for Israel.1

34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?

This verse is taken from Isa 40:13 LXX (with minor changes).

Paul also cites Isa. 40:13 in 1 Cor. 2:16, where he claims that believers have the mind of Christ. This assertion on first glance seems to contradict Rom. 11:34, but the two notions are compatible, for the main thesis of 1 Cor. 2:6–16 is that no one can know the mind and thoughts of God’s Spirit apart from God’s free and gracious revelation. Apart from the revelation of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9–10), no human being knows what God has prepared for those who love him, but the Spirit has granted that revelation to believers. The theme in Rom. 11 is remarkably similar. No human being has the wisdom or knowledge to discern (much less to advise) God on the course that human history should take. His wisdom and plan are inaccessible to us. Nonetheless, the point of this section is ultimately not that God’s plan is a mystery to us and beyond our comprehension. That observation is true insofar as it goes. Human beings cannot understand God’s mind or plan, since their capacities are restricted. But Paul goes on to say that this inaccessible wisdom of God has been revealed to us, even though we are still unable to plumb the depths of it. Human beings cannot discern God’s wise plan for history on their own, nor would they ever devise a scheme like God’s. Nonetheless, in Rom. 9–11 Paul has communicated the main strokes in that plan, so that believers can discern the wisdom of God as it unfolds. This is not to say that comprehensive and exhaustive knowledge is granted to believers, only that the chief lineaments of his plan are made known to them. Romans 11:34 is therefore remarkably similar in theme to 1 Cor. 2:16: human beings cannot know God’s wisdom unaided, but they can access it as the Holy Spirit reveals it.2

35 Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him?

This verse quotes Job 41:11 MT. God is under no obligation towards humanity. He implements his salvation plan as a matter of grace (Rom 3:24; 4:4-8; 11:6).

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.

God is the source of all things, the means by which all things are accomplished, and the goal of all things. Since he is the source and means of all things, no one could possibly function as his counselor or expect payment for some service rendered. God is the giver, not the recipient, of wisdom to human beings; God is the one who gives all things to us, not the one who receives benefits from human hands. Not only is God the source of all things and the means by which all things are accomplished, he is also the goal (εἰς) of all things. The purpose for which the world was created is God’s purpose. It is fitting, therefore, that the text ends with an acclamation of God’s glory. The one from whom and through whom and to whom are all things deserves all the glory. The theme of Romans emerges clearly at the end of the discussion on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in salvation history. The salvation of Jews and Gentiles is penultimate. What is ultimate is the glory of God. As Schlatter says, “worship is the concluding word.” God has arranged redemptive history to bring the maximum glory to himself. He has arranged it so that it is clear that all things are from him, through him, and to him. The “amen” (ἀμήν, amēn) in the text indicates Paul’s intense wish that God’s purpose to receive glory and praise will be realized.3

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23 says: “From thee are all things, in thee are all things, unto thee are all things” (cf. Seneca, Epistulae 65.8). God is the source, the means, and the goal of all things, all historical purposes, and all salvific events. Paul’s largely Gentile audience may well have known this familiar saying, and he may have used it here precisely because, rhetorically speaking, it would help him to win over his audience to his remarkable view of Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation. The God Gentiles had known only vaguely through sources like nature (Romans 1) and Stoic thought, Paul is now glorifying because he is the God of all peoples in all ages. God’s plan is for Jews and Gentiles to be saved in and by Jesus Christ and to be united in Christ.4

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Kruse 2014, 458 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12365-12378 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12406-12417 
  4. Witherington III 2004, 278 

Commentary on Romans 11:25-32

Notes (NET Translation)

25 For I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.

Hope that the natural branches will be grafted in again is justified for Paul has been given knowledge of a mystery. The term “mystery” implies that a divine revelation has been given to Paul. The Gentiles should not be conceited and think that God has chosen them instead of ethnic Israel. The phrase “partial hardening” could also mean “temporary hardening”. The hardening of Israel will last until the full number of the elect from among the Gentiles has come in. “Coming in” probably refers to entrance into the kingdom of God.

26 And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion; he will remove ungodliness from Jacob.

What is meant by “all Israel”?

It does not refer to the elect, both Jews and Gentiles. In the surrounding context “Israel” always refers to ethnic Israel. In this passage Paul is countering the tendency of the Gentiles to appropriate for themselves exclusively the rights of God’s people and so calling the church “Israel” here would be counter-productive.

It probably does not refer to all the elect from Israel because that would involve a shift in the meaning of “Israel” between v. 25b and v. 26a. Verse 25b refers to Israel as a nation and so we should understand v. 26a to be doing the same.

The next issue is whether “all Israel” refers to the nation as a whole as it has existed throughout history (diachronic sense) or to the nation as a whole as it exists at one moment in time (synchronic sense). According to Douglas Moo, no occurrence of “all Israel” has a clearly diachronic meaning and so we should go with the synchronic meaning.

In light of the context (11:12, 15, 24-25, 30-31), it seems that many non-Christian Jews at the end of the age will be saved. When this happens all Israel, meaning the full number, will be saved. This need not mean that each individual Israelite will be saved.

Paul quotes Isa 59:20-21a but says “from Zion” instead of “for the sake of Zion”. He may do this to state that the Deliverer will come from the new Jerusalem (Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22). If this is correct, he is saying the final deliverance will be accomplished by Christ at his parousia.

27 And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.”

The first half of the verse (“And this is my covenant with them”) may refer to the covenant with the patriarchs or to the new covenant mentioned in Jer 31:31-34. The second half of the verse (“when I take away their sins”) is from Isa 27:9 LXX, where Isaiah speaks of God restoring the exiled Israelites.

28 In regard to the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but in regard to election they are dearly loved for the sake of the fathers.

Unbelieving Jews are enemies of God because they reject the gospel. They are enemies for the sake of Christian Gentiles because their rejection of the gospel has extended salvation to the Gentiles (11:11-12, 15, 17).

It is a bit surprising on first glance that Israel is said to be beloved “because of the fathers.” Is Paul thinking of the treasury of merits that the patriarchs accrued for later Israelites in accord with the conception in rabbinic literature? Such a notion would certainly contradict the Pauline gospel of justification by faith and would demonstrate that an incompatible element has been imported into Pauline theology, presumably because of his devotion to his ethnic heritage. But the charge of incompatibility should not be accepted. Indeed, the γάρ (gar, for) in verse 29 (“for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”) indicates that this verse functions as the ground or explanation for verse 28. Before explaining the relationship between verses 28 and 29, I need to unpack some of the elements of verse 29. The χαρίσματα (charismata, gifts) most likely refer to the list found in Rom. 9:4–5: Israel’s adoption, glory, covenants, law, service, and promises. The emphasis here lies on the promise of salvation. As usual in Paul (cf. 8:28, 30; 9:12), κλῆσις (klēsis, calling) denotes God’s effective call to salvation, and here Paul reflects on the call of Abraham and Israel (Gen. 12:1–3; Deut. 7:6–7; Ps. 135:4; Isa. 41:8–10; Ezek. 20:5). The word ἀμεταμέλητα (ametamelēta, irrevocable) is a legal term (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10) indicating the unbreakable nature of God’s gifts and calling. Discerning the connection between verses 28 and 29 helps us understand what the phrase “beloved because of the fathers” means. We can rule out the idea that they were beloved because of the fathers’ merits since verse 29 grounds God’s love for the fathers in his gifts and gracious call. God did not summon the fathers because of their virtue but because of the glorious freedom of his grace. Nor is the appeal to his past promises a constraint that binds God contrary to his freedom, for God freely made the promises from the beginning, and the fulfillment of the promises represents the constancy of his word. The salvation of Israel at the end of history, then, is the fulfillment of the covenantal promises that were made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God will not forsake his people but has pledged, in accordance with his covenantal love, to graft them again onto the olive tree. Israel’s ancestry does not amount to a claim on God. God freely pledged to bestow his grace upon Israel as an expression of his lovingkindness.1

29 For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.

That God’s gifts are ‘irrevocable’ does not mean that all Israelites will automatically be included among the elect. What it does mean is that God has not forgotten his promises to the patriarchs, his promise to bless their seed. Israel is still loved on account of the patriarchs, and this means that God has not rejected Israel in his preference for the Gentiles. It also means that he will fulfill his promises to the patriarchs. Paul is encouraged by this that many of his kinsfolk, though currently ‘enemies’ of God, will yet experience God’s blessing as God makes up the full number of the Jewish elect.2

30 Just as you were formerly disobedient to God, but have now received mercy due to their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.

The choice between textual variants in 11:31 influences the way this verse is understood. The NIV and NRSV adopt the variant that includes a second ‘now’ (‘so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy’). Two other variants involve either omitting the second ‘now’ or replacing it with ‘later’. The textual evidence supporting both the inclusion and the omission of the second ‘now’ is ‘evenly balanced’. If the second ‘now’ is omitted, Paul could be implying that the time when Israel receives mercy is still in the future. If the second ‘now’ is retained, he could be implying that, just as the Gentiles are ‘now’ receiving mercy through Israel’s disobedience, so too Israel is also ‘now’ receiving mercy as a result of God’s mercy to the Gentiles. Paul then would be seeing the effects of his ministry among the Gentiles, provoking Israel to jealousy and motivating them to repent and believe in the Messiah and so experience God’s mercy in the present time. Some who retain the second ‘now’ still interpret Paul’s statement in terms of a future reception of mercy by the Jews. In this case, as Moo suggests, Paul’s ‘now’ is ‘an expression of imminence, expressing his conviction that this final manifestation of God’s mercy to Israel could take place “now, at any time”‘. If the second ‘now’ is replaced by ‘later’, clearly Paul would be envisaging a future experience of God’s mercy by the currently unbelieving Israel, and therefore the passage would have an eschatological sense.3

32 For God has consigned all people to disobedience so that he may show mercy to them all.

[God] structured history so that his mercy to the Jews would be highlighted in the period in which the Gentiles rejected God. With the arrival of the gospel, however, the situation has been reversed. Now the greatness of his mercy to the Gentiles is unveiled, whereas the Jews are blinded and disobedient. Nonetheless, this is not the last word for Israel. God will lift the darkness and shine on them in a saving way again. Thereby they will recognize that their salvation is truly a merciful gift and not deserved. Both the “imprisoning” and the extension of mercy are the work of God. The verb for “imprison” (συγκλείειν, synkleiein) emphasizes God’s work in “enclosing” all people under sin (cf. Gal. 3:22–23; in the LXX, Exod. 14:3; Josh. 6:1; 1 Macc. 5:5; 6:18). Similarly, God’s graciousness in bestowing mercy on both Jews and Gentiles is trumpeted.

Some scholars conclude that either universalism is taught here or it cannot be ruled out since the text says that God shut up “all” (πάντας, pantas) to disobedience in order to extend his mercy upon πάντας. They argue that πάντας must have the same denotation in both parts of the verse and thus all people without exception are included. Such an interpretation does not abide by the contextual limits of the Pauline discussion, for the previous verses clarify that the second πάντας refers to Jews and Gentiles as groups. The purpose is not to teach that all people without exception are recipients of God’s mercy, but that all people without distinction (i.e., both Jews and Gentiles) are the beneficiaries of his saving grace. God’s unexpected mercy is the theme that dominates history. He intervenes to save both Jews and Gentiles when they are plunged in sin. Moreover, the oscillation between the salvation of the Jews, then the Gentiles, and then the Jews again hammers home the point that no ethnic group deserves salvation and that God’s saving work is a result of his merciful grace.4

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12179-12197 
  2. Kruse 2014, 446 
  3. Kruse 2014, 447 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12234-12250 

Commentary on Romans 11:16-24

Notes (NET Translation)

16 If the first portion of the dough offered is holy, then the whole batch is holy, and if the root is holy, so too are the branches.

Both metaphors in this verse are making the same point: “God’s choice of the patriarchs indicates that the people of Israel as a whole are consecrated to him.”1

In according such significance to the patriarchs, Paul of course does not mean that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob possessed any qualities that earned spiritual benefits for themselves and their descendants. As both the OT and Paul make clear (see esp. Rom. 4 and Gal. 3), the patriarchs convey spiritual benefits on their descendants only as recipients and transmitters of the promises of God. Their “holiness” consists in their having been set apart by God for this salvation-historical role. Moreover, the word “holy” (hagios) is taken from OT sacrificial language. The word will not, then, have the technical sense of “set apart by God for salvation” that it usually has in Paul but will connote a being “set apart” by God for special attention in a more general way. Paul is not here asserting the salvation of every Israelite but the continuing “special” identity of the people of Israel in the eyes of the Lord.2

The “first portion of the dough” may allude to Num 15:17-21, where Israelites are commanded to offer a donation from the first fruits of the lump of dough. The following verses indicate the tree in question is an olive tree, a symbol of Israel (Jer 11:16-17; Hos 14:6-7).

Who or what is the “root”? Verses 17-18 say both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians participate in the richness of the root. Hence, the root is neither Jewish Christians nor Gentile Christians. Verses 28-29 speak of the fathers/patriarchs. Thus, if the root is the patriarchs, we should see the natural branches as the Jews who followed in the footsteps of the faith of Abraham (4:12) and the wild olive shoots as Gentile Christians.

17 Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among them and participated in the richness of the olive root, 18 do not boast over the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.

Paul is not giving a lesson in horticulture so it makes no sense to attack or defend his comments about grafting in branches and how it relates to ancient practice. He is giving a metaphor about the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the people of God.

The passive “were broken off” implies that God broke some of the natural branches off. Note that not all of the natural branches were broken off; only the unbelieving Jews were removed from the people of God (11:20). The singular “you” indicates that the individual Gentile is being addressed as a “wild olive shoot”. The Gentiles are among the Jewish Christians as opposed to in place of them. The continuity of the people of God is maintained from the patriarchs, to Christ, and to the Jewish Christians.

Thus Paul reminds the Gentiles: you were grafted into them and became fellow sharers in the fatness (that is, the sap) of the root of the olive tree. This is presumably a symbol of the blessings of that religious heritage and the promises that go with it. How this works is made abundantly clear in Galatians 3-4. Wild olive trees never produce useful oil. Since Paul clearly identifies the Gentiles with wild olive branches that have been grafted in, he is seeking to put overweening Gentile Christians in their place in two ways: He makes it clear that Jewish Christians, and before them the patriarchs, are the natural part of the tree, thus giving Jews precedence in the people of God, and that as wild olive branches the Gentiles bring nothing into the union. God simply grafts them in by pure grace. They should not exult over the broken-off branches or over Jewish Christians because they do not carry the Jewish heritage. Rather, “the root carries you.” On the basis of 1 Enoch 93.5, 8; Philo, Quis rerum divinarum heres 279; and Jubilees 21.24, “root” probably refers to the patriarchs, perhaps Abraham in particular. This conclusion may be supported by Rom. 4.1-2, where Abraham is called “our father according to the flesh.”3

19 Then you will say, “The branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.”

20 Granted! They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but fear!

Paul grants that unbelieving Jews were removed from the people of God but he does not agree that the salvation of Gentiles is the sole purpose of God cutting off the natural branches. The following verses speak of Israel’s restoration.

What Paul says here to the Gentile Christian echoes what he said earlier to the Jews. In response to the Jews’ tendency to boast in their status and accomplishments, Paul emphasized that the gracious nature of God’s dealings with human beings excluded all boasting. It is faith, and faith alone–characterized by humility and receptivity–that is the only way to establish or to maintain a relationship with God (3:27-4:5). Recognizing that every spiritual benefit comes as a sheer gift from our gracious God, the Gentile Christian must stop thinking so highly of his or her accomplishments and take up an attitude of fear. This basic biblical concept combines reverential respect for the God of majesty and glory with a healthy concern to continue to live out of the grace of God in our lives (see esp. Phil 2:12; also 2 Cor. 5:1; 7:1, 11, 15; Col. 3:22).4

21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.

Unbelieving Gentiles will not be spared.

22 Notice therefore the kindness and harshness of God — harshness toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.

Paul often warns his readers of the necessity of continuing in the faith in order to be saved (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-12; Gal. 5:2-4, 21; Col. 1:23; 1 Thess. 3:1-5). One should never conclude from Paul’s teaching on divine election that he downplayed the necessity of human beings continuing to exercise faith in order to obtain eschatological salvation. Those who do so impose an alien system upon the Pauline writings. The warnings are grammatically hypothetical but are seriously intended for believers. Those who do not continue in faith will face God’s judgment. Neither would it be correct to conclude that some of those that God elected will fail to continue in the faith. Murray observes rightly that “God’s saving embrace and endurance are correlative.” When we look at it retrospectively (cf. 2 Tim. 2:11-21; 1 John 2:19) we discover that those who fail to persevere thereby reveal that they were never actually part of the elect community. But we must beware of imposing this retrospective comment upon the warnings so that they lose their function for believers. We must take seriously the words of this text: if we fall away, we shall face final judgment. Those who brush aside the warnings as unnecessary, concluding that they are protected from God’s wrath no matter how they behave, are presuming upon God’s grace.5

23 And even they — if they do not continue in their unbelief — will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.

Belief/Faith is what is necessary for unbelieving Jews to be grafted back into the tree.

24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree?

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 11729-11730 
  2. Moo 1996, 700-701 
  3. Witherington III 2004, 271 
  4. Moo 1996, 705-706 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 11876-11886