In the letter to the Romans, Paul the apostle gives a detailed explanation of the gospel, which he describes as “God’s power of salvation” (ch 1.16). In the closing section of the letter, as in all his writing, Paul looks at the implications of obeying the gospel for the life of a believer. He examines, in other words, the basics of discipleship, summed up in the words: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (ch. 12.1). At first this is a difficult notion to understand because of the opposite ideas in it. A sacrifice, by definition, is something which has been killed. How then can anyone become “a living sacrifice”? What Paul goes on to say helps to explain what he means: a disciple has to learn to change both thinking and behaviour to bring them in line with the requirements of God. And this means walking away from things that until then have been important to us.
1. CHANGE YOUR THINKING (12.1&2)
The first thing that must change is the disciple’s thinking. Before we understand the gospel message, our ideas are influenced by the values of the world we live in. Paul says that that can no longer continue. Instead of ‘conforming’, or fitting in as we used to, we must now allow the Word of God to ‘transform’ or completely change the way we think. We must move away from ordinary human standards and learn to embrace God’s standards. This can only be done through a change of mind-set and thinking,
2. CHANGE YOUR ATTITUDE (12.3-8)
Human beings have a built-in tendency to measure their own abilities against those of other people. From early childhood we are quick to notice our advantages over others and take pride in being stronger, faster, prettier or cleverer than others. That kind of thinking, Paul teaches, must now been left behind. Nevertheless, we should identify our particular strengths and use them in God’s service for the good of others. That way, all the different abilities within the community of believers are focussed on one goal.
3. LEARN ‘AGAPE’ LOVE (12.9-21)
It is essential for disciples to learn the role of love in their new relationship. But this love is neither sentimental nor shallow. It is the kind of love Jesus showed, for which the apostle John had to find a new Greek word, agape. The way Jesus Christ demonstrated it, agape leads to sweaty effort and exhaustion. It included the humble task of washing the feet of others and it ended in death on the cross. Disciples have to learn this kind of love, which never boasts, never retaliates but always tries to overcome evil with good.
4. RESPECT AUTHORITY (13.1-7)
One of the problems across society facing our present world is a lack of respect for people in authority. Paul tells us that disciples of Christ must take a different view. As the prophet Daniel particularly was shown, all earthly authority comes from God. This does not, however, mean that those who hold it are godly people whose motives are always noble, as the examples of king Nebuchadnezzar Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, clearly demonstrate. But because God has (for His own reasons) placed such people in power, disciples are required to respect them and follow their lawful instructions. This rule applies at every level. Parents, teachers, employers and government officials are also leaders to be honoured. So a disciples obeys road rules, pays taxes and does all the other things that contribute to a stable society. When we fail to remember this principle, we show disrespect for God. But, as the apostle Peter demonstrated (Acts 5.29), if anyone orders us to disobey God, then we must respectfully decline. That is the only exception to the general rule.
5. RESPECT THE RIGHTS OF OTHERS ((13.8-14)
This respect for authority is part of a general requirement to respect the rights of others. So disciples pay any outstanding debts and demonstrate concern for those around them. Paul shows that this principles underlies all the social requirements of the Ten Commandments. Demonstrating agape love towards one’s neighbours will prevent murder, theft and marital unfaithfulness, all of which stem from a selfish disregard for the entitlement of other people. In short, when we seek to please God, we cannot please ourselves.
6. SHOW TOLERANCE FOR OTHER DISCIPLES (14.1-12)
The requirement to show agape love even extends to respecting the opinions of other believers. The community of disciples is made up of people from different backgrounds, with different experiences, facing different problems. So we may not pass judgement on each other in areas on which we differ. We need to remember that all disciples are going to be judged by their Master and that he will make no mistakes. So even if the behaviour of other disciples sometimes upsets us, we must leave the judgement to Jesus.
7. DON’T CREATE PROBLEMS EITHER (14.13-23)
Because we are all different, we often have different ways of coping with the demands of discipleship. Most of us start by making rules for ourselves to follow. We should never, however, try to impose our own rules on others. Nor should we ever make light of another disciple’s rules, even if we do not follow them ourselves. In fact, when we are aware of another believer’s concerns, we should modify our own behaviour so that we do not create problems for that believer, even if it means giving up something that we believe is harmless. Our Master did not please himself. We must learn from his example.
8. USE YOUR STRENGTH FOR OTHERS (15.1-7)
Everything Jesus of Nazareth did demonstrated his own spiritual strength. We in turn must learn to use our own strengths to build up the faith, endurance and courage of our fellow believers, so that we are united in harmony and hope, doing all we can every day to bring glory to God now. The whole purpose of discipleship is to prepare ordinary men and women to develop extraordinary qualities which the Lord Jesus Christ will be pleased to use when he returns to set up God’s kingdom on the earth, which is what the good news of the gospel promises.