Romans 12:9-21 Having Empathy And Doing Good To All.

“Let love be without hypocrisy.” (v. 9a) Hypocrisy in classical Greek was like an actor wearing a mask playing a part. It is having the heart or core one place and words and acts simply play acting. So love must be sincere, but it is also not divorced from ethics or morality (Cf. I Tim. 1:5; 5:1-2). We should shake off anything that is evil, but cling to what is good. ‘kollao’ translated ‘cling’, has the idea of sticking too like glue. ‘apostugeho’ is also only used here and carries the idea of utterly detesting something. This love is also “kindly affection,” like which should exist in a family, “in honor giving preference to one another.” (v. 10 Cf. Phil. 2:3; Heb. 13:1).

In serving the Lord we should be “fervent in spirit” and not “lagging in diligence.” (v. 11) The KJV translates this as “not slothful in business,” but the NKJV is much closer to the Greek, for it encompasses the whole of the Christian’s life, especially in the body of Christ. This is a word of encouragement for the weary (Cf. Gal. 6:9; II Th. 3:13). We rejoice in hope, because with the Lord we have hope and a future, including having our names written in heaven (Cf. Jer. 29:11; Lk. 10:20). It is because we have this hope that we can be “patient in tribulation” (v. 12b Cf. Lk. 21:19).

It is precisely because God is in sovereign providential control of our futures that we have grounds to pray, for He predestines this means to accomplish His ends (Jer. 29:10-13). “Men ought always to pray and not lose heart.” (Lk. 18:1) Again, the focal point is the body, the church. Paul was not content to leave things at prayer alone. We should also be “distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.” (v. 13 Cf. I Cor. 16:1) However, these are needs or necessities, not necessarily wants. We are to bless instead of curse, because by so doing we mirror God’s mercy to all men (v. 14 Cf. Mt. 5:43-48).

Our conceptions of wrongdoing can be tainted by our own sinful pride, but the Lord knows precisely what is due. Again, knowing that God is sovereign and in control of all things gives us motivation to do as He has commanded us. We are to have empathy with others. This means being mindful of what they are feeling and going through in their current circumstances. We are to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (v. 15). We rejoice and suffer together (Cf. I Cor. 12:26), therefore we should be of the same mind toward each other (Cf. Phil. 2:2). We should not discriminate but treat all equally (v. 16).

We should also not think too highly of ourselves. The truly wise give place for God to act. The world says that we should do unto others as they have done unto us, but the world does not believe in a sovereign God who acts in history on behalf of His people and for His own glory and goodness (Cf. Lk. 6:27-31). Having regard for good things means providing these to all men. God provides good things to all men, and therefore so should we. We are really just stewards of what He has given us anyway. We can’t control others, but we can influence those around us. So as much as this is possible and depends on us, we should seek to “live peaceably with all men.” (v. 18 Cf. Heb. 12:14).


Again, we must give way to God’s sovereign control and wrath where wrath is due. The Lord promises to exact vengeance where vengeance is due. To take matters in one’s own hands is unbelief, a fundamental lack of faith and trust in His word. This is not something new to the new testament. In fact, it is a belief that the law still applies in all its fullness into the new covenant era, for Paul appeals to the law itself with two scriptural witnesses (v. 19; Lev. 19:18; Dt. 32:35 Cf. Dt. 17:6). “O LORD God, to whom vengeance belongs-O God, to whom vengeance belongs, shine forth!” (Ps. 94:1 Cf. Heb. 10:30).


Some suggest, in keeping with doing good to others including one’s enemies, that the heaping of coals of fire on another’s head is giving them coals for cooking the food and boiling the water given (v. 20; Prov. 25:21-22). But this is not consistent with the syntax of the verse-there is a cause and effect. What we do is give food and water and the coals are a result. Some suggest that the coals of fire is the shame that they will feel for showing them good. However, this also does not fit with the overriding idea of vengeance. The idea seems to be that by doing good we are providing the Lord with further cause for the justification of vengeance on His part.


Burning coals on the head carries nothing but judgment wherever else it is used in the scriptures (Cf. Pss. 11:6; 18:7-8, 12-13; 140:9-11). The word Paul uses is ‘anthrax’ from which we get the English word for the same since the skin blisters and boils give the appearance of burning coals, as it were. Love and doing good to all is our motivation, but further grounds for judgment is also an inescapable result, “for in so doing.” (v. 20) To be motivated by vengeance is to be overcome by evil. Instead, we are to overcome evil with good (Cf. Mt. 5:43-48; Lk. 6:27). This is all about having our minds renewed and our lives transformed (12:1-2).

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