Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Romans 12:9-21



Romans 12:1-8 establishes the foundation upon which 12:9-21 is built. Paul appeals to Roman Christians “to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God” (v. 1). He says, “Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (v. 2). He tells them “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think reasonably” (v. 3). He introduces the idea that each is a member in the body of Christ, and all members are uniquely valuable (v. 4-5). He speaks of “gifts differing” (v. 6), and lists a number of particular gifts—prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and compassion (vv. 6-8). Then he says, “Let love be without hypocrisy” (v. 9).

In verses 1-8, therefore, Paul paints with a broad brush, showing us generally what Christian discipleship requires. In verses 9-21, he steps closer to the canvas, working with a finer brush to color in detail regarding specific attitudes and actions that must grow out of the principles established in verses 1-8.

We should also note the similarity between vv. 6-9 and 1 Corinthians 12-13. In both, Paul moves from a discussion of varying gifts to a love imperative. We are familiar with 1 Corinthians 13, the great love chapter, but often forget that it grew out of a discussion of varying gifts. So it is here in Romans 12:6-9. Paul wrote Romans from Corinth, the church to which he earlier wrote the epistle that included his great love chapter. It is natural that he would include here some of the thoughts that he expressed there.


9Let love (Greek: agape) be without hypocrisy (Greek: anupokritos). Abhor (Greek: apostugountes) that which is evil. Cling (Greek: kollomenoi—from kollao) to that which is good. 10 In love (Greek:philostorgoi) of the brother be tenderly affectionate one to another (Greek: philadelphia); in honor preferring one another; 11not lagging in diligence; fervent in spirit; serving (Greek: douleuontes—from douleuo) the Lord. 12rejoicing in hope; enduring (Greek: hypomenontes—persevere) in troubles; continuing steadfastly (Greek: proskarterountes—be constantly diligent) in prayer; 13contributing to the needs of the saints; given (Greek: diokontes) to hospitality.

In these five verses, Paul lists thirteen behaviors that the Christian should adopt. The list begins with love.

Let love (agape) be without hypocrisy” (anupokritos) (v. 9a). There are four words for love in Greek—agape, philos, eros, and storge. Agape is a high form of love, often used to describe God’s love for people (5:5, 8; 8:39). Paul uses it here to describe our love for each other. Anupokritos means genuine—sincere—not hypocritical—the opposite of the actor (hypokritos—from which we get our word “hypocrite”) who hides behind a mask and expresses feelings that come from a script instead of from the heart.

Genuine agape is love without a selfish agenda—love that seeks what is good for the beloved. Much of what the world calls love is self-serving.  Consider how much romantic love is oriented to fulfilling one’s personal needs (sex, security, etc.) rather than the needs of the other. Consider the salesperson who feigns interest in a person’s family as a way of gaining trust and selling product. Even the pastor is tempted to give too high a priority to filling pews and meeting budgets.

Paul lists love first among the thirteen desired behaviors, and love is more than first among equals. Love sets the tone, and the other dozen desired behaviors grow out of love—are natural expressions of love.

Abhor (apostugountes) that which is evil” (v. 9b). Apostugountes is a strong word meaning to dislike, to abhor, or to have a horror of (Thayer, 68). The proper Christian response to evil is not simply to avoid it, but to be viscerally repelled by it.

However, living as we do in a kosmos-world–a world opposed to God–it is difficult to keep the edge on our moral sense.  The kosmos-world grinds us down and softens us our concern for the spiritual–pulls us into its sticky web–demands that we agree with the prevailing culture, no matter how far removed that culture is from Godly values.

If we are to “abhor that which is evil,” we must practice the spiritual disciplines of scripture reading, prayer, and Christian fellowship. To “abhor that which is evil” requires daily re-grounding in the faith so that we can accurately discern the line between good and evil.

It is easier to be repelled by some evils than by others. We find it easy to hate genocide, terrorism, and child molestation. We find it easy to abhor our daughter’s casual dalliance with a young man not of our liking. We find it easy to have a horror of our son’s drug addiction. We find it less easy to hate those evils that tempt us personally, whether sex, alcohol, money, ambition, narcissism, self-indulgence, or passivity in the face of evil.

Paul calls us to hate all evil—to hate it in all its forms—to hate each instance of it—to hate the evil within us as well as the evil within our neighbor—to hate evil as the firefighter hates the hidden ember that threatens to undo his/her work—to hate evil as a mother hates the drugs that she finds in her son’s bedroom—to consider evil the enemy—to hate it passionately—to oppose it—to search it out and eliminate it—to practice tough love against it—to engage in a lifelong war against evil.

There is a tension between “Let love be without hypocrisy” (v. 9a) and “Abhor that which is evil” (v. 9b). We must hate the sin while loving the sinner—a tough balancing act—but evil-hating is one of the ways that we demonstrate genuine-loving. We hate evil, because evil has the potential to destroy the beloved.

Cling (kollomenoi—from kollao) to that which is good” (v. 9c). Kollao is the Greek word meaning to glue together (Thayer, 353), and is the word from which we get our English word collagen, the fibrous protein found in bones, skin, tendons, and cartilage (Encarta). What Paul is calling us to do here, then, is to glue ourselves “to that which is good”—to connect ourselves “to what is good” as inseparably as tendons bind bone to muscle. When we injure a tendon, disconnecting bone from muscle, the injury is physically crippling. So, also, is any rupture of our bond “to that which is good” spiritually crippling.

Verses 10-13 are composed of ten injunctions bracketed by three forms of the Greek philos love-word—philadelphia and philostorgoi—brotherly love and family love (v. 10) and philoxenian—family love (v. 13). If we allow the Spirit to guide us to observe these behaviors, we will find our overwhelming concern to be for others rather than self.

In love (philostorgoi) of the brother be tenderly affectionate one to another” (philadelphia) (v. 10a). Paul shifts here from the agape love-word to the storge and philos love-words. Storge is the Greek for family love (Barclay, 164), and philos is the Greek for brotherly love. In his call for us to love one another, then, Paul pulls out all the stops—uses all the Greek love words (except eros, sexual love, which is appropriate in some relationships but not in others).

Family love is special, because the family is special. Members of healthy families know each other’s warts, but love each other anyway. The healthy family is a place where family members can speak frankly about their most intimate concerns. When trouble looms, the family is a refuge and strength second only to God.

Christians are members of their nuclear families (father, mother, brothers, sisters), but are also members of their Christian family. Sharing philostorgoi (family love) and philadelphia (brotherly/sisterly love) with other Christians is a great source of comfort and strength to the Christian. We talk about pillars of the church, by which we mean Christians who contribute a great deal to the church’s work, but we might also consider another pillar metaphor—i.e., Christians standing together as family are like closely placed pillars under a roof—strong—unshakable.

in honor preferring one another (v. 10b). When love is absent, we want to outdo other people in the sense that we win and they lose. We want to defeat them—to win the prize—to snatch away the promotion. We want to win, in part, so that we can feel better about ourselves and, in part, to have people admire us. At its core, much ambition-behavior is an attempt to win approval so that we might feel valued and loved. But ambition-behavior drives wedges between people. The person who wins the prize often does so at the cost of the admiration that he/she would like to win. The winner must often settle for second prize—being feared instead of being loved.

Paul calls us to different kind of ambition-behavior. He calls us to “be tenderly affectionate one to another in honor”—to focus on satisfying the other person’s need for approval—to facilitate the other person’s victory—in sports lingo, to make an “assist” instead of a goal. There are many ways to accomplish this: remembering birthdays—saying thanks—telling other people that they did a good job—encouraging them to understand that they have important gifts—helping them to get the job done—making it possible for them to further their education—listening—participating in an activity that they enjoy.

Some of us find it difficult to praise people. Fathers, in particular, find it difficult to praise their sons—fearing, perhaps, that the son might feel that he has accomplished enough and can let down his guard. The opposite, however, is usually true—praise encourages people to run harder.

I once heard Ken Blanchard of the Hershey-Blanchard management team tell senior executives to praise subordinates as a way of getting the best from them. He told us to maintain a ten-to-one ratio of praise to criticism—to give at least ten praises for each criticism. He told us to look for opportunities to give honest praise so that we could occasionally offer criticism without getting the praise/criticism ratio out of kilter. Blanchard’s perspective was practical rather than theological. Working with many excellent and not-so-excellent companies, he had learned that excellent companies encourage employees with awards, praise, and promotions while not-so-excellent companies fail to do so. Mr. Blanchard received a high fee—many thousands of dollars—for that lecture. We can save ourselves a basketful of money and learn the same thing by taking Romans 12:10 seriously.

not lagging in diligence (v. 11a)—literally “in zeal not lazy or slothful”—or perhaps “in zeal not burned out.” That is a challenge for pastors and other Christian leaders. We say, “A woman’s work is never done,” and that is true. It is also true that a pastor’s work is never done. There is always more church work than willing hands. The willing are always in danger of being consumed by their efforts and discouraged by the lack of clear results. We must be on guard against burnout. While there is no certain burnout preventative, certain principles apply:

• First is to recognize the importance of the mission—ours is life and death work. It is easier to accept our sacrifices when we know that we are engaged in saving lives.

• Second is to recognize the importance of our own health, so that we discipline ourselves to take time for family, recreation, meals, sleep, physical exercise, and prayer.

• Third is to recognize that we can do part of the job—planting or watering—but it is “God who gives the increase” (1 Cor. 3:7). We must remind ourselves that God is working behind the scenes in ways that we will not know until the day that we see him face to face. On that day, God will show us how our small efforts bore fruit in ways that we could never imagine. There we will learn that our ordinary lives were, by the grace of God, extraordinarily important.

fervent in spirit (v. 11b)—literally, “in spirit burning or boiling.” It is difficult to overestimate the importance of enthusiasm in ministry. I have heard many an otherwise good sermon fall flat because the preacher failed to convey passion—enthusiasm—conviction.

serving (douleuontes—from douleuo) the Lord” (v. 11c). Douleuo speaks of slave-like service—service under bondage. As Christians, we serve under obligation.

There is a textual problem with verse 11c. Some manuscripts read, “serve the Lord” (kurios), while others read, “serve the time” (kairos). Either is possible, and both make sense. Most scholars prefer “serve the Lord.”

rejoicing in hope (v. 12a). Both joy and hope are frequent themes in the New Testament, even though life for early Christians was anything but easy. People looking at the church from the outside today are often puzzled by the joy and hope that they find there. They sometimes assume that Christians are putting on an act, because joyful, hopeful Christians often lack the things (money, power, prestige) that, in the eyes of the world, produce joy and hope.

The irony is that many people who possess money, power, and prestige are nevertheless quite miserable—always moving from deal to deal, conquest to conquest, marriage to marriage, and psychiatrist to psychiatrist in an attempt to find the joy that eludes them. They might experience joy with each new deal or conquest, but the joy fades quickly, leaving them as restless as ever.

Christians, however, have one foot planted in this world (where we do, indeed, need food, clothing, shelter, and a host of other material things) and the other foot planted in the kingdom of God. We find joy and hope in the assurance that our “heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” and that, if we “seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:32-33). We also find joy and hope in the assurance that our lives count, not just now, but also for eternity.

enduring (hypomenontes—persevere) in troubles (v. 12b). The word, “patient” may give the wrong impression. Hypomenontes has to do with tough endurance—perseverance. Paul is not calling us to hunker down and accept the tyrant’s blows, but is instead calling us to keep the faith, even though suffering.

continuing steadfastly (proskarterountes—be constantly diligent) in prayer” (v. 12c). The thought here is much like Paul’s earlier admonition to the church at Thessalonica, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer is a channel through which the Christian receives strength. First century Christians, suffering persecution, required constant prayer to gain the strength to keep the faith. So do we.

contributing to the needs of the saints (v. 13a). Early Christians took seriously the needs of widows and other vulnerable people, particularly within the church (Acts 6:1; 2 Corinthians 8:13-14; Galatians 6:10; 1 Timothy 5:3-16; James 1:27).

given (diokontes) to hospitality” (v. 13b). Diokontes is a strong word, having the sense of pursuing or pressing forward. Paul is advocating that we actively look for opportunities to provide hospitality.

Abraham was the model for hospitality because he entertained three visitors so graciously (Genesis 18).  The author of Hebrews alludes to Abraham’s hospitality when he says: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

The New Testament also emphasizes hospitality.  Jesus emphasized the importance of hospitality to those in need (those who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison), and warned that failure to show hospitality will have eternal consequences (Matthew 25:31-46).  Paul includes hospitality among the qualifications for a bishop (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8).  Peter says, “Be hospitable to one another without complaining” (1 Peter 4:9).  John highly commends Christians who show hospitality to visiting Christians, saying “for they began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers.  Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth” (3 John 1:7-8).


14Bless those who persecute you; bless, and don’t curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. 16Be of the same mind one toward another. Don’t set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Don’t be wise in your own conceits.

Bless those who persecute you; bless, and don’t curse (v. 14). The really terrible Roman persecution had not yet started, but Paul’s counsel is useful even in gentler circumstances. Devoted Christians will often attract opponents, and some opponents will be violent. Paul calls us to meet violence, not with violence, but with blessing—a startling idea, but not original with Paul:

• Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:38-44).

• He calls us to forgive so that we might be forgiven (Luke 6:37).

• At the cross, Jesus set the example, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

• As they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

• Paul wrote, “When people curse us, we bless. Being persecuted, we endure” (1 Corinthians 4:12).

• Peter advised, “Not rendering evil for evil, or insult for insult; but instead blessing; knowing that to this were you called, that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).

The idea of blessing has its roots in the OT, where blessings were treated as having great substance—great value (Gen. 27:30 ff.). In that context, the person bestowing a blessing was, in a sense, asking God to bless the other person. In the NT, “blessing” translates the Greek makarios, which conveys the idea of fortunate or happy. To meet persecution with blessing turns “eye for eye” legalism on its head (see Exodus 21:24; Matthew 5:38-41).

Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep (v. 15). Our text began, “Let love (agape) be without hypocrisy” (v. 9). Agape love desires what is good for the beloved, so it would follow that we would rejoice or weep with the beloved. Such is often not the case, however, because we find ourselves jealous of other people’s good fortune and judgmental about their bad fortune. To “rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep” requires a high degree of discipleship—something to which we can aspire and for which we must pray.

Be of the same mind one toward another (v. 16a)—to auto eis allelous phronountes—literally, “thinking the same thing toward one another.” While this does not require us to agree at every point, it does require us to be agreeable.

Don’t set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble (v. 16b). The central thesis of this epistle is that we are all sinners (3:9) and are saved by the grace of God rather than by anything that we have done (3:24). We are, therefore, equals under God’s grace.

Don’t be wise in your own conceits (v. 16c). This is good advice for every human relationship. Humility draws people near, but conceit repels. Quiet competence trumps loud semi-competence—perhaps not immediately, but certainly in the long run.


17Repay no one evil for evil. Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men. 18If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. 19Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.” 20Therefore

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him.
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.”

21Don’t be overcome (Greek: niko—be conquered) by evil, but overcome (Greek: nika—conquer) evil with good.

Repay no one evil for evil (v. 17a) is similar in meaning to “Bless those who persecute you; bless, and don’t curse” (v. 14).

Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men (v. 17b). We must be careful, not only about proper conduct, but also about appearances. I understand that Billy Graham asked that the door to the dining room remain open when he had lunch at the White House with Hillary Clinton. He explained that he had for many years observed the rule that he should never be alone behind closed doors with any woman other than his wife—one of many rules that he followed for the sake of his reputation. Whether that story is true or apocryphal, it illustrates the care with which Christians must “respect what is honorable in the sight of all men” (v. 17b). The more visible our position, the more careful we must be.

If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men (v. 18). Throughout this text, Paul has given short, to-the-point commands without qualification—i.e., “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil. Cling to that which is good” (v. 9). However, when he calls us to “be at peace with all men,” he inserts two qualifications—”If it is possible” and “as much as it is up to you”. There are, unfortunately, people who will not allow us to live in peace, and Paul does not require that we be at peace with them.  He requires only that we do our part to establish peaceful relationships.  He doesn’t hold us responsible for the other person’s response to our efforts.  After all, we can’t control the other person.  We can control only ourselves.

Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord‘” (v. 19). This is the third time in a handful of verses (see vv. 14, 17) that Paul tells us that we should not seek vengeance. The reason is simple—we can trust God to do the right thing. If a person deserves punishment, God will take care of it, whether now or in the Day of Judgment. Leaving the matter in God’s hands solves a host of problems. For one thing, God is a perfect judge, and will not make a mistake. For another, God is in a position to insure that justice is served, whereas we might put ourselves in physical or legal jeopardy by seeking vengeance. When Paul says, “Vengeance is mine,” he is quoting Deuteronomy 32:35.

Therefore If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink;

for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head'” (v. 20). Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22 almost exactly (see also Hebrews 10:30), except that he leaves out the last half of 25:22, “and Yahweh will reward you”—perhaps to avoid any suggestion that he is advocating self-serving behavior.

When Paul tells us to feed and to give drink to our enemy, he is using food and drink as metaphors for any kind of needed help. If we were to see our enemy stuck in a ditch, this verse would call us to lend a helping hand.

you will heap coals of fire on his head” (v. 20c). There have been any number of interpretations of this phrase, but most scholars agree that it means that the recipient of our grace will burn with shame at having treated us badly, and might therefore become our friend. The best way to conquer an enemy is to make him/her our friend.

Don’t be overcome (niko—be conquered) by evil, but overcome (nika—conquer) evil with good (v. 21). Does the end justify the means?  This verse says that it doesn’t.  If we use evil means to achieve a worthwhile end, our evil means will compromise both our character and our witness.  If we are to accomplish what Christ has called us to do, we must accomplish it through the ultimate Christian virtue, love.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)

Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)

Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9-16, Vol. 38B (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)

Jewett, Robert, in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)

Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)

Mounce, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Romans, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995)

Thayer, Joseph Henry, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York, American Book Company, 1886).

Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)

Copyright 2008, 2011, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan