One February day five hundred years ago Martin Luther walked from the University of Wittenberg to the Schlosskirche and there nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church. By God’s providence, with this simple and otherwise unremarkable act, the Reformation of the church was launched, and the people of God were called to return to their confidence in Scripture alone as God’s revelation, and to turn away from the corrupting traditions and practices it had fallen into.
So it’s fitting that this morning I was in Romans, that singular book by the Apostle Paul that revolutionized Luther’s understanding of justification by faith alone. Reading Romans 12, I was struck by how it seemed to compress the whole of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount while at the same time expanding on the Beatitudes. Basically, Romans 12 simultaneously provides a bird’s eye view and a X-ray magnification of Matthew 5-7. Both passages, of course, are specifically addressed to followers of Christ.
So we find in Romans 12 the meaning and application underlying the somewhat enigmatic nine Beatitudes (Matt. 5: 3-12).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”: Taking “poor in spirit” to mean being “at the end of your rope”(MSG), we see in Romans 12:12 Paul paints a portrait of the believer in dire straits “rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer,” activities that make us kingdom-dwellers, not bound by our earthly plight.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”: Called to be “devoted to one another in brotherly love,” as “one body in Christ,” we comfort one another and “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), sharing the comfort we ourselves are given by the God of all comfort.
“Blessed are the gentle [meek], for they shall inherit the earth”: Paul tells us “not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think” (Rom. 12:3), to “give preference to one another in honor; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (12:10-11), and to “not be haughty in mind but associate with the lowly” (12:16), which when put into practice unites us with our brothers and sisters across class, culture, race, and geography so that the body of Christ possess as one all the riches of the earth for each other’s good.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied”: What child of God does not seek to be holy as her Father in heaven is holy? In this striving we help one another as “many members in one body” though “all the members do not have the same function;” we are “individually members of one another” as “one body in Christ.” So we encourage and help one another on the path to holiness with our
gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Rom. 12:6-8)
In this way we are “satisfied” by God’s Spirit working in each one of us for our mutual growth in righteousness.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy”: When we “are of the same mind toward one another” (Rom. 12:16), we care for one another lavishly even as God lavished His love and mercy on us through Jesus Christ. We “let love be without hypocrisy” (12:9), “contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality” (12:13), and find in return that we ourselves receive mercy in time of need.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”: Paul begins Romans 12 by urging us “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies, a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1). It is through worship we are transported into God’s presence where we stand clothed in Christ’s righteousness. In Him we “abhor what is evil [and] cling to what is good” (12:9), keeping our hearts and minds free of the lies of the devil and the world. Paul tells us to
not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12:2)
This renewal of our minds, this constant shedding of all the worldliness and sin that clings to our hearts, is how we live as a “holy sacrifice,” our “spiritual service of worship” coram Deo, before the face of the living God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God”: Elsewhere in Romans, Paul calls our Lord “the God of peace” (15:33; 16:20). So as we believers are the children of God, we are recognized as such by our behavior when we “respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible,” Paul continues, “so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (12:17-18); “do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21).
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5: 10-12)
Just as all of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teachings seem counterintuitive in one sense or another, so are Paul’s instructions to us on how to live out those teachings. So it’s no surprise that he tells us to “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rom. 12: 14). What’s surprising is that blessing those who curse and persecute us, blesses us, for in that moment we prove that we are indeed true citizens of the kingdom of heaven, as Christ said, having been born again through the Spirit of God. Paul instructs us,
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Rom. 12: 19-20)
Neither do we sorrow over the wrongs done to us, but we rejoice that in Him we can indeed bless people who attack us for being Christians because the future is ours in heaven eternally and we follow in the steps of the persecuted men and women of faith who have gone before us. As members of the one body of Christ, we rejoice and are glad: “our reward in heaven is great.” Hallelujah!
“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 15:13)
Scripture quotations from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) unless otherwise cited.