5.1 – The Church’s Identity in the World (Romans 12)

Home Learning Hub Reflections in Romans 5.1 – The Church’s Identity in the World (Romans 12)
In the next two chapters, Paul continues his Israel in exile theme, but from another perspective. Israel didn’t only bring blessing to the gentile world through the crucifixion of Christ, but their fall brought blessing in other ways as well. Their exile into the nations was called the diaspora. As Israel were spread among the nations, they brought with them the leaven of the word of God. The synagogues they built became centres from which the Old Testament scriptures became known to the world.

These scriptures were translated into Greek hundreds of years before Christ came and they had a huge influence on the gentile world. They pollinated all world religions, from Greek ideas, to far eastern ideas, even in Asia and India. And even before Christ came, many gentiles turned to the God of the Old Testament scriptures. They forsook their idols and worshiped Yahweh. These were known either as full circumcised proselytes, or as the uncircumcised lesser welcome God-fearers, such as Cornelius. (Acts 10) So, in this sense also, the fall of Israel, their judgment, sufferings and dispersion among the nations, became a huge blessing to the world. This is part of the Servant theme in Isaiah, showing how the sufferings of God’s people brought blessing to the world. The Servant Songs in Isaiah need to be understood in this way, as not only pointing to the sufferings of Christ, but also to the sufferings of Israel. (Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1–13, Isaiah 50:4–11, Isaiah 52:13—53:12) Christ enters into Israel’s sufferings and carries their calling to suffer for the world. He takes their judgment upon himself, allowing the gentiles (Rome) to slay him, and brings salvation to all the world.

This is the theme that Paul takes up in Romans 12- 13. This is the story behind the text in these two chapters. The church also identifies with Israel’s diaspora, their sufferings in the world, in which the church also brings renewal to the whole creation. This would have been clear to the Jewish readers of Paul’s text in his day.

Peter also took up this theme in his letters. Peter was writing to the Jewish believers, “scattered throughout the gentile world.” (1 Peter 1:1) Peter called them “pilgrims” and the word here meant ambassadors. They were not of this world, but as ambassadors in this world, they were bringing the kingdom of heaven to rule within the nations. This is what the term “missionaries” means, bringing another culture to take over, like leaven takes over the lump of dough, renewing the whole lump.

Peter also spoke of the sufferings of the church, because the un-renewed, covetous cultures of the world would be against the non-violent, caring inclusion of all peoples, that the church would be living. While Israel were in exile because of their sins, the church as forgiven restored people, were in a kind of exile, dispersed as ambassadors in a fallen world, bringing the good news of peace. The exile of Israel bringing blessing to the world, served as a type of the life of the believers in the nations, bringing huge transforming blessing, making all things new.

Therefore, Paul was drawing on Old Testament narrative, for example from Jeremiah, about the Jew’s exile in Babylon, and reflecting on what that meant for the church scattered through the Romans Empire in Paul’s day.

Jeremiah told Israel not to resist the Babylonian captivity. He said the Babylonians were sent by God and to resist them would mean Israel’s own destruction. (Jeremiah 27:12-15, 38:17- 18) Jeremiah told Israel to rather go peacefully to Babylon and when there, to pray for the peace of Babylon. (Jeremiah 29:7) They were to live out their faith within the Babylonian Empire, bringing transformation to the brutal pagan world. Daniel also forms a part of this picture of the church renewing the pagan powers, counselling Nebuchadnezzar to use his power to restore the oppressed. (Daniel 4:27) This background forms the way in which we are to understand Romans 12- 13.

One of Paul’s summary statements in Romans 11 was, “Lest you be wise in your own conceit.” (Romans 11:25) This false wisdom promotes fracturing, corruption, greed and violent breakup of the community and creation. On the other hand, it is humility that can bring Jew and gentile together by grace to serve each other. This service is their renewing leaven in a pagan world.

Romans 12 starts to deal with the issue of what the church’s identity is, as ambassadors within the world. The chapter begins with, “I appeal to you therefore…” This appeal comes directly as a result of the preceding chapter, about the Jews and gentiles living graciously towards each other, rather than in the pride, self-interest and self-asserting violence of the world around them. The church’s transforming identity in the world is to be one of humility. This is the trait that Paul explains though Romans 12. Humility is the opposite identity that the world shows, and this is the only way the church brings genuine change. As Philippians 2 shows, the humility of the Son of God is Paul’s call to the church.

The believers are to “offer themselves to the Lord as living sacrifices.” (Romans 12:1) Offering ourselves to the Lord, means offering ourselves to serve each other. This shows the New Testament understating of sacrifice. It isn’t blood shedding, in the way the Old Testament saw it. It isn’t offering up the life of others for our own sin. Rather, it is the offering of ourselves, to serve others. This is how evil is defeated, as Paul said later in the chapter, “overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

The idea was prevalent throughout pagan culture, that evil is defeated by violence, by sacrifice, by blood shedding, by offering someone else, whether animal sacrifice, or killing others, to heal our own troubles. This is prevalent throughout pagan religion. In Christ, it is the opposite. He offered himself. This is to become the culture of the whole Christian community. We don’t scapegoat. We don’t shed blood. Instead, we are to lay down our own lives as the way of peace in the face of violence and greed. This is “holy and acceptable” to the Lord, not the former blood shedding sacrifices. (Romans 12:1)

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of the mind.” (Romans 12:2) We have heard preaching from this text that says, if we want riches or health we must see ourselves this way first. It is said that this is renewing our mind by our confession, to become what we want in life. This is the exact opposite of what Paul meant.

This is the preaching of self, that Paul was seeking to stop, that has corrupted lives today.

We are not to take what we like to hear, as the meaning of Paul. As we read on through Romans 12, we see what Paul meant by the “renewing of the mind.” He spelled it out very clearly. He starts with humility in our relationships in the church. Then he continues by describing the church’s nonviolent role in a violent world. This is the transformation Paul was instructing the church about.

Paul then talks about the charisma in the church, “not to think of our self, more highly than we ought to think.” (Romans 12:3) The believers aren’t to see “charisma” as an opportunity to promote self, or our church group, above another. This is the way charisma is often used today, to draw members from other churches, claiming, “We grow green grass for the sheep.” This personal demonstration of “power” has become dominate in our “worship.” To Paul, this isn’t genuine worship. We are called to build up others, other churches, not ourselves.

Charisma is commonly used to claim power for a person over the people; too often used to enhance position and moneymaking opportunities. This is not how we are to serve God.

We are to serve with our gifts in a team, not exalting ourselves above anyone else. Charisma isn’t our opportunity to become popular among the people. All of this is “thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought.” Instead, we are supposed to think of ourselves as servants. We use charisma to serve, not to be at the front of the flock. The Servant Songs of Isaiah show Christ as our servant, and so we are called to be the servants of others as Christ’s body.

Then Paul goes on to speak of genuine love, both inside the church and the love of the church within the community at large. “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection.” (Romans 12:9-10)

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:14-21)

This is the “mind renewal” Paul spoke of. The church answers the violence of the world with caring-help for those in need, even towards their enemies. This touches the conscience of the world and this brings repentance and renewal to our communities. This is how the church is to “renew its Babylon,” when in exile among the heathen.

Only God brings vengeance, not the church. We are not God’s instrument of vengeance, of retributive justice. We are instruments only of mercy. God brings vengeance his way, and his way is not through doing violence to others himself. His way is to give people up to their own violence, but he never is the one who does violence against them.

Paul instructs the church towards enemy-love and helping the weak and outcast. The cross shows Christ was outcast, and this shows us to bring in the outcast, as an expression of our love for Christ. The church’s call in the world is to help the lowly, the child, the woman, the powerless, the ones the world treads under foot. We are called to condescend to help the despised, because Christ was despised. This is what we learn from the cross. We are not called to be big, or popular in the world’s sight, or we are doing just as the world does. This is Paul’s instruction in Romans 12. This is the opposite of Roman power and pride.

If we want to win the world to Christ, we don’t do it the world’s way, by being big and popular. We do it Christ’s way, as Isaiah, Paul and Peter outline for us. If we win the world to the church the world’s way, then the church is no longer the church.

This is the primary way in which our mind is to be renewed.

This is the primary distinction between the church in exile and the world around us. And if we suffer to bring this love, then, just as Peter also said, we are followers of Christ in his suffering. This is our call. It was our call in the early church, and it’s still our call today. Even though the church has often armed itself with the powers of the world, as satan also offered Christ these powers for his kingdom purposes, using these powers this way is to abandon our call, and instead become a whore, like Babylon herself. (Matthew 4:8-9)

Our identity is not the power of Babylon, but the Suffering Servant, bringing in a new kingdom that is not of this world.

The exilic Servant Songs continue in the church. Just as Jesus bore the exile of the world, in his sufferings, being cast out by the world, so the church continues in Messiah’s call and identity. Our call isn’t any different to Jesus’ call. We aren’t any better than Jesus, to exempt ourselves. In suffering, Christ reflects the forgiving love of God to the world, reconciling the world and drawing the world back into fellowship with God and with each other.

This is the image the church also bares to the world, following Christ in reconciling the world through sufferings. This is the new life the church brings to the world, as Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount, and as Paul spoke of: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24) We don’t bare the sins of the world as the spotless Son of God, as Christ did, but we still walk in his same vocation, as his body in the world.

Let’s read the Servant Songs as also applying to our own service in the world, as members of Christ. We too are called to shine the same light in the darkness. We turn our check to the smiters, to show a condescending love and service, to lift the world around us.

“Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely, he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—everyone—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:1-6)

Christ did this for the world once and for all. But Israel also walked in this calling, even though it was due to their own sins, bringing blessings to the world through their own sufferings, that is, their captivity by expulsion from their land. And the church also, redeemed and loved by God, still suffering in a foreign world, and yet bringing the light to the nations by our enemy love, just like Jesus did on the cross.

Quoting the same Servants Songs, speaking of the church as pilgrims in the world, this is exactly what Peter calls the church to follow: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:21-25)

Christ bore our sins: he took our sin, our violence against him in his flesh and did not repay it back to us. He answered instead with forgiveness and care. This, we are to follow. We once went astray, following the world in its self-centredness, but now we see and follow the true life in Christ.

Let’s understand Romans 12 as part of the Servant Song heritage to Israel and learn from that the church’s identity in this fallen world. Paul and Peter both draw from Israel’s exile and Servant Songs to speak of the church’s identity. The Servant Songs are the context in which Paul wrote Romans 12, so when we read Romans 12, we read it with the Servant Song, to understand Paul’s message to us.

The renewing of the mind is what Paul was speaking about, and the Servant Songs are the biblical framework showing us the mind we are supposed to have: a mind of condescension, to lift those around us in need, rather than think of ourselves.

This is what renews our world. Nothing else can.