Romans 13:8-14

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on September 10, 2017.

Paul’s vision for how to live like a citizen of heaven in the world of the Roman Empire blends theology and ethics. He is concerned with what Christians are to do in the world and why they are to do it. Romans 13:8-14 deals with personal conduct in such a manner.

From Paul’s perspective, the ideal Christian life leaves us with only one ongoing debt: that we love others. Paul, of course, has agape, self-giving love for the sake of the other, in mind.

Such love builds and protects genuine community, whether between God and humanity or among humans. Paul points to some of the injunctions found in the second table of the Ten Commandments as negative examples of community building agape in action. When we love one another, we do not break relationships by committing adultery, taking lives, coveting others’ possessions and the like. Instead, we consciously and vigorously treat others as we might wish them to treat us.

Paul’s vision of love as the fulfillment of the law deserves attention.  At the very least, he follows the lead of Jesus in making love central to a God-honoring life. What we may miss is that doing so challenged the core assumptions of Roman culture. The Roman world, at its best, regarded law and duty as the twin anchors of a meaningful life. In practice, Romans often measured life in terms of status, social advancement, power, and wealth. I suspect the average first century Roman would have regarded Paul’s perspective on love as silly and no doubt dangerous if put into practice in daily life.

Paul is not naive, but he is a revolutionary. Romans 13:11-12 spells out why: Paul believes the new age has dawned even as the darkness of the old age persists. With each passing moment, the night fades a bit more and the new day brightens.  Christians, he insists, know this is so and are to live accordingly.

The Apostle continues to use the image of darkness and light. He calls upon the Roman Christians to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light (Romans 13:12). He then defines the armor of light with the phrase, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14).  Based on Paul’s history, the phrase might carry several meanings: put on the mindset of Christ, imitate the actions of Christ, embrace the suffering of Christ, or identify fully with Christ. Perhaps Paul is invoking baptismal imagery, especially the notion of being buried with Christ and raised to new life with Christ.

Doing so enables a Christian to live in ways which honor Christ. Paul provides negative examples of what such a life might look like in practice. Christians will consciously put away practices that debase themselves and other humans and fracture community.

Paul warns the Roman Christians to “make no provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14). He knows our tendency to compartmentalize, justify exceptions to the rules in the service of our desires, manufacture loopholes, and the like. Paul admits the new age is only dawning at present, but he insists Christians consistently turn their face from the darkness toward the light.

One way to approach crafting sermons based on the text might focus on the power of practice. A friend of mine, a Jewish rabbi, often tells me we Christians underestimate the power of right actions to reshape our minds and hearts. I suspect Paul shared my friend’s perspective. He called the Roman Christians not to wait upon ideal conditions to begin to live as if Christ is Lord but instead to start to act now as if Christ is Lord. Paul believed doing so would honor God, reshape individuals in the image of Christ, strengthen the church, and make God’s light shine brighter in a dark world.

Another approach might explore the obvious and crafty ways we attempt to blend life in the light and life in the darkness. Put another way, where are the disconnects in our lives when it comes to legitimate versus illegitimate pleasure, acquiring and using wealth, proclaiming the power of love while indulging in hate, or celebrating the Lordship of Christ while lording it over areas of life we reserve as our own?

A third option is to ask what it might mean if we choose to “owe no anything, except to love one another” (Romans 13:8).  For example, what would family life look life if we seek the good of one another even at expense to ourselves? Ask the same question about congregational life. Refocus the question with regard to our neighborhoods, institutions, and the worlds of business and government. Expand it to include such matters as how we select what clothing, food products, and services to buy.  What would life look like if, at the very least, we decided to try and live in such a way as to do no wrong to anyone?


Michael A. Smith
Senior Pastor
Central Baptist Church of Fountain City, Knoxville, TN





Tags: love, community, ethics, economics, Lordship of Christ,

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