Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 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 haughty, 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 honorable 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 12:9-21 ESV
As Paul did in his letter to the believers in Corinth, he follows a discussion on the spiritual gifts with an emphasis on love. Chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians contains one of Paul’s most detailed treatments regarding the spiritual gifts, which he follows up with chapter 13, his incredible exposition on love. And in our verses for today, Paul stresses the need for genuine love within the body of Christ, when utilizing our Spirit-given gifts or in our daily interactions with one another. This is the point in his letter where Paul gets painfully practical, illustrating the characteristics of true Christ-likeness. Christianity is not to be some esoteric or academic pursuit, practiced in privacy and lived out in seclusion. It is to be relational and practical. The grace that God has shown us is to be shown to others. We are to love as we have been loved, to forgive as we have been forgiven. And our love is to be without hypocrisy. The Greek word Paul used is anypokritos and, as you can see, it is very similar to our word, “hypocrisy.” In the Greek world, a hypocrite was a literal play-actor, someone pretending to be something he wasn’t. It usually required wearing a mask or disguise. Paul tells his readers that their love is to be without hypocrisy. There is to be no play-acting or pretending. Our love is to be genuine and heart-felt, and it is to be practical. And Paul gives us a long list of examples of what that kind of love looks like for the believer.
Interestingly enough, in speaking of love, Paul tells us we are to hate what is evil or wicked. Notice that Paul does not tell us to hate the wicked, although we are to despise the impact of wickedness on the lives around us. Our animosity is not to be directed toward people per se, but against evil itself and its devastating effect on their lives. If our love is to be without hypocrisy, we must know the difference between what is truly good and what is evil. We must learn to see things the way God sees them. At its core, wickedness is anything that stands opposed to God and His will. That’s why, in the book of Proverbs, we read “There are six things the Lord hates—no, seven things he detests:” and then we are given the list – “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that kill the innocent, a heart that plots evil, feet that race to do wrong, a false witness who pours out lies, a person who sows discord in a family” (Proverbs 6:16-19 NLT). Notice that these are all relational issues. They end up having a negative impact on others. And in Paul’s list, he provides a counterpoint to these very things. We are to love one another like brothers. We are to outdo one another in showing honor, instead of demanding it for ourselves. We are to be zealous and enthusiastic in serving the Lord by loving, honoring and serving others. Our lives are to be marked by hope that translates into patience even in the midst of tribulation. We are to pray, give, and show hospitality to one another.
And here is where it gets really interesting. Paul tells us to bless those who persecute us. This should sound familiar, because Paul is simply expanding on the words of Jesus Himself. In His great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told His audience, “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way” (Matthew 5:11-12 NLT). Jesus would go on to say…
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” – Matthew 5:43-48 NLT
Paul goes on to promote a lifestyle marked by empathy, harmony, the pursuit of peace, a trust in God and a willingness to suffer for the sake of our faith. These things are not easy. They are certainly not the ways of the world in which we live. But they are the characteristics of Christ. They are contradictory to the self-centered focus that marks fallen man. God has placed His Spirit within us so that the love and life of Christ may become evident through us. Our faith in Christ is to be evident to those around us, both believers and non-believers, by the way we live our lives in front of them. Faith is to have fruit. Which is why James wrote, “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions?” (James 2:14 NLT). Fruitless faith is no faith at all. God saved us in order to transform us into the likeness of His Son. We are to exhibit His character and model His behavior. Not through our own self-effort, but through the power of God’s indwelling Spirit. Salvation isn’t just our ticket to heaven, but the key to our sanctification, our ongoing holiness, in this lifetime.