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 
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