This week, we pick up our study of Romans chapter 12 where we left off last time when we looked at verses 1-2. You’ll recall that after Paul spends 11 chapters fleshing out elements of the gospel, in chapter 12, he shows us that a crucial tenet of the gospel is a transformed life in people who have genuinely accepted it. Verses 1-2 told us the gospel produces a person whose heart is inclined to be totally committed to God—a living sacrifice. That is the fruit of the gospel as we saw it last time. As we move to 12:3 and following, Paul begins to more specifically treat what it is to live out this gospel—what it means to be totally devoted to God. Let’s read Romans 12:3-8 as Paul addresses this first area of Christian living impacted by the transformed life produced by gospel.
In verse three we read, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.”
The very first issue Paul raises as an example of what it means to be totally devoted to God is the issue of living in Christian community. Of all the topics about Christian living Paul could have chosen to begin this treatment of what it means to be totally committed to Christ, Paul chooses NOT our personal holiness, not the spiritual disciplines. The first major issue Paul treats with regard to the practical outworking of being “in Christ” is the truth that when we are in Christ, we are also placed “In community.” This section we begin today deals with how we are to relate to those in the church and our role and responsibilities within this community of fellow believers. This high priority Paul places on being a part of a larger believing group is so needed today in the church at the end of the 20th century.
In America, as in no other place in the world, (I am told) there is within the church a strange perversion of the gospel. I’m not talking about a doctrinal perversion, (though all perversions are rooted in bad doctrine) but a sociological perversion. That is, we, in a unique way, have tried to make Christianity a private religion. We see this in our lack of willingness to share the gospel with others and we are rightly critical of that. But this privatization of Christianity is also seen in the way in which we try to reduce our faith to an exclusively personal and private entity. Our corporate life in the North American church is like that uniquely American product, individually wrapped cheese slices. Have you ever thought about what a strange product that is? Not only is the product pre-sliced and wrapped as a unit, but each individual slice has its own little plastic domicile. Each slice is kept separate from every other slice in its air tight, individual enclosure. You only see that kind of product in America. Most of the rest of the world is just glad to have a source of uncontaminated protein. The church in North America is like that cheese product. We meet together on Sundays (as a package,) but we maintain our own individual wrappings so that no one else will be able to really rub up next to us and truly get to know us—how we think and live.
Now, there are elements of our walk with God that are personal, between God and us alone. But the New Testament knows absolutely nothing of a Christianity that is fundamentally personal or private that has only brief excursions into superficial, artificial corporate contact with one another. Think about it at the most basic level. When we are united with Christ, we are also united to others who have been united with Christ. Being united with Christ means we are, of necessity and by nature, united with others who are in Christ. Our common bond to Christ also bonds us together. We are ONE in Christ. The clear implication is that we should have a profound, deep bond with others who are in Christ.
The distorted believer of today, so common in the church in North America, who goes to church and on Sunday morning spends two emotionally detached hours with his “brothers” and “sisters,” but has little if any other intimate contact with the body of Christ is a mutation. The fact that this practice is so widely accepted in the church doesn’t mean it still isn’t a mutation. People who say they love God and love his word, but don’t enjoy being with the body and who can give you 10 reasons to justify their detachment are, at that level, practicing another religion apart from Christianity. The gospel knows nothing of that kind of glaringly inconsistent behavior. Those folks are walking contradictions from what we see here as Paul begins his treatment of the totally devoted Christian life in Chapter 12.
So, knowing that the context of this text is the practical expressions of what it means to be wholly devoted to God, Paul’s basic message in verses 3-8 is, Believers who live all out for God are committed to living in close, Christian community. The fact that Paul begins his treatment of living totally devoted lives to God with the issue of community is only consistent with the priority Jesus places on this issue in the gospels. He says in John 13, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The identifying mark, the emblem of a Christian is not evangelism, not even personal ethics (as crucial as those things are), it’s the way we relate to each other in Christian community. So, Paul is simply reiterating the high priority of community Jesus established.
Notice the fascinating way Paul handles this topic in verse three. He says, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” Isn’t it intriguing that in a section where Paul speaks of living in community as an expression of our devotion to God, he begins with a verse exhorting us to have the right opinion of ourselves? The point he makes is simply this. God-honoring community begins with believers thinking rightly about themselves. In this verse in the original Paul uses a form of the word we translate “think” three times. Do you see how that fits the context he sets in 12:2 where he tells us that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds? This transformation comes through allowing our minds to be shaped by the truth of Scriptures and fundamental to that process of mind renewal is having a biblically accurate understanding of ourselves. Only right thinking about God is more important than right thinking about ourselves.
The fact that Paul begins this section on Christian community with a text urging us to a proper self-understanding only makes sense. The essence of community is living in harmony and submission to one another and that is utterly impossible if you think you are better than other people. Pride shatters unity because unity is only seen when there is mutual respect and love and you can’t respect and love someone when you look down your nose at them. You will not sacrificially give yourself away to someone you don’t love and love, according to 1 Corinthians 13 “is not proud.”
Paul tells us we are to think of ourselves with “sober judgment.” “Sober” here means simply that we are to think of ourselves in accordance with truth. So, what’s the truth about ourselves from the Scriptures as it relates to community? There is much to say here, but let’s take the most appropriate biblical snapshot of ourselves that is especially helpful to us as we think about this issue of community. That is, we are to see ourselves primarily as servants. Paul says in Philippians two that Jesus came to earth, “taking the very nature of a servant” and he calls us to follow Him in that role. He tells us in Matthew 23, “the greatest among you will be your servant.” One of Paul’s primary designations for himself is that of a bond servant. In Romans 1:1 he identifies himself as first as “a servant of Christ Jesus.” In Galatians 5:13 he tells the church to “…serve one another in love.”
Paul’s primary understanding of himself was a servant and Jesus saw himself as a servant. If someone were to ask us what we see our primary designation or job title on earth to be, how many of us would answer that question, “Me? Oh, I’m a servant. I exist to serve others for the glory of God.” Is this the way we think of ourselves? This kind of self understanding necessitates a humble heart. This is the kind of heart Paul speaks of in Philippians 2:3-4 when he exhorts us to “…in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Can you imagine the kind of Christian community we would have if everyone primarily conceived of themselves as servants, considering every other person as better than themselves? We would spending time discussing whether you could serve me or I could serve you. It would be like Chip and Dale without the campiness. It would be like heaven and that is precisely the goal. To be in community as Paul spells it our here would show the world what heaven is like. And that cannot happen unless it is done out of a sold out devotion to God—that is the only motivation sufficient to manifest this and this kind of community living is possible ONLY as we think rightly about ourselves as servants.
Paul says we are to think of ourselves “in accordance with the measure of faith God has given us.” In light of the context, the stress here should be placed in the phrase, “God has given us.” God has given different levels of faith to different people. We see this in 14:1 where it says, “Accept him who is weak in faith.” We know that faith is given by God because in Ephesians 2:8 Paul says that faith (in this case saving faith) “…is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…so that no one can boast.” Paul is simply saying that we are to think about who we are and what we do in service to God as being totally dependent upon God who gives us the faith to serve Him acceptably. You cannot be, at one and the same time, both genuinely dependent upon God and prideful. This biblically conditioned humility is an absolute prerequisite for genuine Christian community to develop and nothing kills genuine community faster than pride. The reason is because, as we have seen, community is all about living for others while pride is all about living for ourselves.
This is all tied up together nicely in verses four and five. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Paul here uses the human body to illustrate the diversity and unity of the body of Christ. We all have these physical bodies with all their constituent parts which exercise their different functions. That’s diversity. But notice, after Paul brings out in verse four the diversity of the body, when he takes the illustration and applies it to the church, he instead emphasizes the unity. “so, in Christ we who are many form one body.” Why is it, that after showing the diversity of the body, Paul then heads in the other direction and highlights the unity of the body in Christ? Again, I think its because he is trying to show us how we should think of ourselves from verse three.
Here’s who I am and how I should think of myself in Christ—I am one part of a larger whole. I do not exclusively exist independently—I am one part of something much bigger than I am. This kind of thinking is utterly foreign to most Americans who take pride in rugged individualism and innovative entrepreneurialism. Our culture saves its highest honor for the person who breaks out of the pack and sets their own course, not the one who, without glamour, spends his life contributing to needs of the group. But we are to think of ourselves not only as individuals, but in the context of the body. Here’s who I am—I play this role in the body—I do this job in the body—in the body I fill this need. Do you hear that we are to think of ourselves in relationship to the body? Paul implies this when he says, “each member belongs to all the others.” There is this profound inter-dependency in the body of Christ. God has designed it is such a way that we are forced to need each other. Just as the eye needs the optic nerve which needs the brain to function properly, the individual parts of the body need each other if they are to fulfil their God-placed desire to glorify God to the maximum.
When we think about our mission in life to bring God glory, most of us are conditioned to think of that in relationship to our own individual lives. That is not biblical. That betrays the notion that we are part of something bigger than just ourselves. Think of it in relationship to team sports. A baseball team most magnifies or shows how brilliant the owners and managers are NOT by having brilliant individual performances. NO! Those just highlight the brilliant individual. The team brings the most glory to the ownership and managers when they win the World Series with each member playing with the goal of playing as part of the team. The home run hitter who wants his team to win the game doesn’t showcase his power by swinging for the fence when all the team needs him to do is simply advance the runner to second base. It’s when the players work together, at times sacrificing their own personal statistics in order to WIN, that the owners and managers are most glorified.
The church, as a unity of different members works by the same principle. The body working together can bring much more glory to God than a few gifted individuals within the body who are faithful. If we are used to thinking soberly of ourselves as servants, then it is no stretch to think of yourself as a small part of a body working together to magnify God. Why would Jesus, in John 17 have prayed three times to his Father that his church would “be one, as we are one?” Christ’s passion was the glory of the Father and his own glory so it only follows that the church brings him and the Father the most glory when they are united, working together. Let me ask you, when you think about yourself, do you think in the context of the body of Christ? Is your self-understanding tied to the context of the larger church or is it, like most people, rooted in your own individual gifts, attributes and accomplishments? There is a big part of our identity that should be formed in relationship to the church. We should not lose our individuality, but we should glory that God has placed us within His body and wants to use our individual gifts for His glory in the church. God honoring community begins with believers thinking rightly about themselves.
The second point Paul makes here is found in verses 6-8. He says, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” Paul’s second point about community here is: God-honoring community is strengthened as each member uses their grace-gifts faithfully and diligently. Paul here applies the truth he has laid the foundation for in verses 3-5. In this group of totally devoted, humble, servant-oriented people who see themselves as part of a larger whole, God has given each person areas of giftedness or grace whereby they can express their devotion to God within the body.
Paul treats seven gifts here. In doing so, he is only giving a representative listing. He speaks of the gifts in two other places and only two of the gifts mentioned here, prophecy and teaching are mentioned in these other texts. There are many other areas of gifting and they almost certainly exceed the 20 plus gifts treated in the New Testament. His point is not to give an extended teaching on spiritual gifts but rather to show how people who are totally devoted to God how to live in community in a God-honoring way. Let’s just highlight two principles he brings out here. The first principle is We should do much of our ministry in areas where we have been gifted by God to serve. This is not to say that we should never serve in areas where we are not gifted. A person who primarily sees themselves as a servant who exists for God and others will not arrogantly turn up their nose at a job because it is outside their “gift cluster.” We should not be so specialized in our service that we become
unwilling to do just about anything for King Jesus.
Paul is merely pointing out that we should especially devote ourselves in ministry to the areas where we have been gifted. There are at least three reasons for this. First, the body functions supernaturally when the people are serving in areas where they have been supernaturally equipped. If a person is gifted by God—is given grace to minister, they have the capacity to do that at a supernatural level because they are serving in the power of God’s grace. The Greek word for spiritual gift has the word translated “grace” as a root part of it. God is telling us by that that these gifts are not fundamentally to be thought of as areas of personal passion for us—that is a man centered understanding of spiritual gifts. These gifts are GRACE gifts—they exist BY Him and FOR Him and THROUGH Him. They are not centered in us but are God-given for God’s glory. There is a world of difference theologically between saying “I have real passion to do this” and “God has gifted me to do this?” Do you hear the difference in focus there? The passion is NOT the gift, it is only a manifestation of the gift. As the body members function according to God’s supernatural enabling, the body is able to function supernaturally expressing God’s power.
A second reason we should operate primarily in areas where we are gifted is we serve with more joy in areas of giftedness. To quote the Christian Olympic gold medallist Eric Little, we “feel his pleasure within us” when we serve in areas of giftedness. We serve with “maximum inspiration and minimum perspiration” in areas of giftedness thanks to the grace of God operating in our lives. As the community is serving one another in joy, God is honored and community life is so much more enriched when we are surrounded by people whose work in the community brings them joy and not misery. Also, if we are persistently serving in areas where we are not gifted, we are robbing others of joy. We are robbing the others who serve with us of joy because we are probably not very effective and that can be frustrating. Second, we are robbing joy from the person who IS gifted in that area and might be compelled to serve if we weren’t there taking up space.
A third reason we should serve in areas of giftedness is because when we do that God is honored because the body is working according to his design. In first Corinthians 12 Paul tells us that God gives each person gifts “so that the body of Christ would be built up.” When we function according to his design and the body is strengthened, his wisdom is magnified because when His design is followed things work so much better. People see how brilliant God is when the body is ministering so joyfully and supernaturally that it can’t be explained any other way except that God’s blueprints are being followed. A second and final principle Paul brings out here is this: we are to exercise our gifts faithfully and diligently.
This principle is only consistent with the larger context. If this life within Christian community (as Paul lays it out here) is an expression of how people express their total commitment by God given by the gospel, then it only follows that when you express your gifts, you do it with all your heart. Paul says that he who “contributes to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” Paul is simply saying that it is not the mere presence of gifts within the body that enable God-honoring community, it is the faithful and diligent excursive of those gifts which provide for biblical Christian community. There are people in the body who have, by comparison, modest gifts, but they work and they pray and they are faithful. Those people contribute to community far more than the person who may have enormous gifting, but who coast. There are people who have tremendous gifts, but use such a small percentage of them because they are lazy and they can look good with not much work because they are very gifted. Those people aren’t contributing to biblical Christian community and they needed to be regularly reminded of Christ’s parable of the talents. If we are to see genuine Christian community, we must not only express our gifts but to work with great effort as we express them. This honors God and enables us to fulfill our place within the body.
Paul has much more to say about this high priority issue of Christian community, but the rest of it will be utterly impossible unless we take these words to heart. Do we think about ourselves soberly—as servants who define themselves by their place in the body? The individualism of our culture which has infected all of us is toxic to Christian community. Do we know where God has gifted us? If we don’t the best way to find out is to start ministering within the body and ask God to show you. In verse three Paul addresses this teaching to “every one of you.” Christian community is impossible if 20% of the body does 80% of the ministry. If we are totally sold out to God, which is the desire the gospel creates within a person—if we are being transformed by the renewing of our minds, we WILL want Christian community and we WILL become involved in ministry in the body of Christ. In months to come, the leadership of the church will work toward enabling genuine Christian community here at Mount of Olives. But we must together, by the Spirit, want it and we must follow Paul’s foundational exhortation here in verses 3-8 if we are to see it grow here at Mount of Olives. May God give us the grace to be transformed by this truth as we allow it to penetrate our hearts and Christ’s church.
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