In Romans 12, Paul gives us a lengthy list of haphazard commands. If read too quickly, you might be convinced you read a passage out of Proverbs. What is the connection between all these bits of wisdom? Is there a main motif or pattern? Douglas Moo, author of the New International Commentary on Romans, says there is. Moo believes that, with some literary and historical study, we’ll see Paul’s lesson on love and its manifestations.


First, let’s read the passage. Below is Moo’s translation of the Greek. You can find this in the NICNT (New International Commentary on the New Testament).

ROMANS 12:9-21
Let love be sincere.
Abhor what is evil;
cling to what is good.
10 In brotherly love, be heartfelt in your love to one another;
in honor, go ahead of one another;
11 in zeal, do not be lazy.
Be set on fire by the Spirit;
serve the Lord.
12 Rejoice in hope;
bear up under tribulation;
be devoted to prayer.
13 Participate in meeting the needs of the saints;
pursue hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you;
bless and do not curse.
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice;
weep with those who weep.
16 Think the same thing toward one another;
do not think highly of yourself, but associate with the lowly;
do not become proud in your own estimation.

17 Do not repay evil for evil.
Take thought for what is good in the sight of all people.
18 If possible, to the extent that it depends on you, be at
peace with all people.
19 Do not avenge yourselves, beloved ones, but give
place to wrath; for it is written, “I will avenge,
I will pay back,” says the Lord.
20 But “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he thirsts, give
him something to drink; for by doing this you will be
heaping coals of fire on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with the good.

LOVE AND ITS MANIFESTATIONS: Commentary on Romans 12

Before writing verse-by-verse commentary, Moo provided this article on the above passage in his Romans volume: 

Four features of Romans 12 are particularly noteworthy.

(1) Its style. Paul fires off a volley of short, sharp injunctions with little elaboration. The omission of finite verbs in most of these injunctions in the Greek text makes the abruptness of these injunctions even more pronounced. Related to the rapid-fire style of this section is (2) its loose structure. There are few conjunctions or particles to indicate the flow of thought, and it is often not clear on what principle (if any) Paul has organized his various admonitions. And the connections among several of the sayings appear to be verbal rather than logical.

The apparently haphazard arrangement makes it especially difficult to pinpoint (3) the theme of the passage. Many commentators content themselves, therefore, with a very general heading: for example, “Maxims to Guide the Christian Life” (S-H). Finally, (4) the text reflects several diverse texts and traditions: the OT (vv. 16c, 19c, 20), the teaching of Jesus (vv. 14, 17, 18, and 21, especially), early Christian instructions to new converts, and various Jewish and even Greek ethical and wisdom sayings.


Some scholars offer a simple explanation for these features: Paul is using a style known as “parenesis.” Found in both Greek and Jewish writings, parenesis “strings together admonitions of a general ethical content.” Parenesis is characterized by eclecticism (borrowing from many sources) and by a lack of concern for sequence of thought and development of a single theme. That this passage resembles and may even deserve categorization as parenesis is clear. But parenesis is so broad a category that, even if we make this identification, several key issues remain unresolved.

One such issue is the relationship between these admonitions and the Roman congregation. Parenesis is usually thought to have a very general audience; and this could also fit Romans 12:9–21 very well since many commentators think that Paul in chaps. 12–13 is providing a general summary of his ethical teaching. However, several scholars have recently argued that the admonitions in this section have the situation of the church in Rome very much in view. Such a focus would explain why Paul excludes certain important ethical topics (e.g., holiness in sexual relations) while focusing on issues that affect personal relationships: love and care for fellow Christians (vv. 10a, 13), humility and a common mind-set (vv. 10b, 15–16), and love toward our enemies (vv. 14, 17–21).


I think the evidence suggests that we steer a middle course between these positions. Paul’s selection of material suggests that he may have at least one eye on the situation of the Roman church. But there are no direct allusions; nor does he use the vocabulary characteristic of his discussion of the weak and the strong in 14:1–15:13.

Moreover, the parallels between the sequence of exhortations here and in other Pauline texts also suggest that Paul may be rehearsing familiar early Christian teaching. Note especially how Paul, as in 1 Cor. 12–13, follows a discussion of gifts with a reminder of the importance of love. And, as we have seen, many of Paul’s specific exhortations find parallels in other early Christian material. These parallels do not suggest that Paul has taken over one or more “blocks” of traditional material but that he is weaving together from many different sources central emphases in the early church’s catechetical instruction.


A second issue that requires further examination is the matter of structure. Many scholars are convinced that the text is not as loosely organized as has been previously thought, particularly when style and not just content is considered. The most persuasive proposal has been set forth by D. Black, and I reproduce his scheme as best I can in my translation of the text above.

Black’s Structure

According to Black, “let love be genuine” (v. 9a) is the heading for the entire section. There follows in vv. 9b–13 a chiastically arranged series of exhortations, in a 2-3-2-3-2 pattern. Verses 14, 15, and 16 each display internal stylistic and verbal unity but are relatively unrelated to each other. The text concludes with another chiasm devoted to the issue of the Christian treatment of enemies. At the extremes of the chiasm are vv. 17a and 21, which share the key word “evil.” Moving in one step, we find in vv. 17b–18 and v. 20 exhortations about the way Christians are to treat non-Christians. And at the middle of the chiasm is v. 19, which contains the key prohibition of vengeance.

Black’s rhetorical analysis follows many more traditional analyses in dividing the text into two major sections, vv. 9–13 and 14–21. But some uncertainty about this division was always present because the content of these sections did not seem to match this division. Particularly troublesome is the way in which Paul seems to move from inner-Christian relationships (vv. 9b–13) to relationships with non-Christians (v. 14), back to inner-Christian relationships (vv. 15–16), and back again to relationships with non-Christians (vv. 17–21). Black’s analysis provides something of an answer to this problem by recognizing that the middle of the passage, vv. 14–16, consists of three relatively independent exhortations.


Two final and related unresolved matters are the issues of theme and relationship to context. Black’s structural proposal highlights the opening call for genuine love in v. 9a as the overall topic of the section. And most scholars would agree that love, which Paul spotlights again in 13:8–10 as the fulfillment of the law, is basic to the section. But it is basic not in the sense that every exhortation is a direct exposition of what love is, but basic in the sense that it is the underlying motif of the section. Paul is not always talking specifically about love, but he keeps coming back to love as the single most important criterion for approved Christian behavior.

What relationship does this section have to what has come before it? A few scholars think that vv. 9–21 continue the discussion of community relationships in vv. 3–8, perhaps with special reference to the community’s exercise of gifts. But v. 9, which is not tied syntactically to vv. 3–8, creates a break, both in style and in content. We are, then, to view vv. 9–21 as a further elaboration of that “good” which the person who is being transformed by the renewing of the mind approves of (v. 2).

Learn More About Romans with Douglas Moo

Olive Tree’s New International Commentary (NICOT & NICNT): Old and New Testament Reference Set provides the current published volumes of both NIC sets, and additionally provides access to four previous New Testament volumes that can still provide value for study and citation: Gospel of John (Morris)First Epistle to the Corinthians (Fee)Epistle to the Hebrews (Bruce); and The Letter of James (Adamson). Olive Tree users can get both value and convenience by purchasing this combination set.

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