Following the exuberant exclamation and doxology of Romans 11:33-36, Paul gets to the practical consequences of his gospel for the saints in Rome. This is where he outlines the nature of the “obedience” required of those from among the nations who have been called to identify with Christ Jesus (1:5-6), for their “offering” to be acceptable to God (15:16).
The imagery is drawn from cultic practice, either Jewish or pagan, but it is not an unthinking act of devotion: it is a “rational (logikēn) worship,” their minds are to be renewed and transformed in order to discern the will of God, they should not think of themselves more highly than is appropriate (12:2-3).
The “age” to which they must not be conformed is not the period of human existence in a general sense but the “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4) of late second temple Judaism, characterised by Jewish revolt and Greek-Roman repression. See my recent Catholic Biblical Quarterly article. Jewish believers must stop thinking and behaving like first century Jews; Greek believers must stop thinking and behaving like first century Greeks.
One body in Christ
The teaching in 12:3-21 presupposes both internal inequalities and divisions and external pressures, and presumably there is an important connection between these two aspects. The ideal enthusiastic, charismatic unity of the body would be jeopardised by the obvious sociological tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers, between rich and poor, strong and weak, etc., but also by persecution and “tribulation.”
This prompts the instructions not to repay evil for evil, not to seek vengeance, to overcome evil with good. It seems to me likely that at the front of Paul’s mind, as he makes this argument, is his experience of violent opposition from the synagogues, as an extension of his “dialogue with the Jews.” This is the background for the sayings about vengeance and heaping burning coals on the heads of their enemies. He urges the church to maintain good relations with the wider Greek-Roman culture in order to isolate the Jews as “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (9:22). They should not retaliate against their opponents but should “give place” to the wrath of God (12:19).
He may well be thinking of the recent disturbances over a certain “Chrestus” which led to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, including Jewish believers in Jesus, under Claudius (cf. Acts 18:2; Suetonius, The Deified Claudius 25.4).
Be subject to the governing authorities
This very pragmatic and strategic concern for the stability and security of the believing community then also explains his teaching about subjection to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-7). The distinction that Paul makes between the socially and ethically corrosive effect of Greek religion and the God-given status of predominantly Roman government is striking. There will be wrath against the Greek, but the pagan authority figure, whether imperial or provincial, has been put in place as a “servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4).
The thought is of the individual criminal or antisocial wrongdoer, in the first place, because “every person” is in principle addressed (13:1). But it may not be too much of a stretch to suppose that Rome as executor of God’s wrath against Israel is also in view. The language of opposition and resistance rather hints at political conflict: “the one resisting (antitassomenos) the authority opposes (anthestēken) the order of God, and those opposing (anthestēkotes) will receive judgment on themselves” (13:2*).
At the time of the Maccabean revolt, in defence of the holy places and the Law, Simon son of Mattathias and his brothers “put themselves in danger and resisted (antestēsan) those opposing their nation” (1 Macc. 14:29*). Josephus uses antitassō for the resistance of the Jews to Rome:
while all the nations in subjection to them had placed the images of Caesar in their several cities, among the rest of their gods,—for them alone to oppose (antitassesthai) it, was almost like the behaviour of revolters, and was injurious to Caesar. (War 2:194)
Wrath against the rebellious Jew, first, is by the hand of the powers that be, appointed by God for that purpose, whether that is in the form of the destruction of Jerusalem or through the suppression of Jewish unrest across the empire.
Paul concludes the moral exhortation with a simple insistence on love among believers as the fulfilment of the Law: ‘For the commandments… are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law’ (13:9-10). He may be drawing on the Jesus tradition (Matt. 22:34–40; Mk. 12:28–34; Lk. 10:25–28), but it’s also possible that Jews at the time already regarded Leviticus 19:18 as a natural summary of the Law. In any case, the relevance of the passage for Paul’s teaching about vengeance and wrath is clear:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:18)
You know what time it is…
The eschatological outlook of the practical teaching or parenesis is made clear in 13:11-14: they have known the time, the hour has come to wake from sleep, the night is far gone, the day is at hand. This “day” has usually been understood in positive terms. Moo says, for example:
Basic to Paul’s application is the OT/Jewish “the day of the Lord,” adapted by the early Christians to denote the time of Christ’s return in glory and the believer’s final redemption.[fn]D. J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (1996), 820-21[/fn]
It will be a day of salvation, to be sure, but this misses the real point of the metaphor. The contrast is not the standard bland one between this age and the next, it is between a period of nocturnal thoughtlessness or debauchery and daytime conflict.
Paul urges his readers to get ready for the coming of light when battle will be engaged. They need to wake from sleep or they need to abandon their revelries, and they must put on the “armour of light.” That is not a normal getting dressed—against Byrne, who thinks that the context “clearly suggests the image of changing from night apparel to day apparel.”[fn]B. Byrne, Romans (1996), 402.[/fn]
It is preparation for persecution, and we remind ourselves that within a decade many of those who heard these words, adherents of what Tacitus would call this “pernicious superstition,” would be arrested by Nero’s guards and savagely killed for entertainment in the palace gardens.
The more pressing problem, however, may be closer to home. The warning against “rivalry and zeal” (eridi kai zēlōi) may allude to the sort of intra-communal conflicts among the Jews—perhaps between believing and non-believing Jews—that got them expelled under Claudius. “Let us walk properly (euschēmonōs)” is a call to a level of public decency and respectability that will safeguard against prosecution in their conflicts with the Jewish community in Rome.
To “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14), finally, is not to assume a new Adamic humanity but to adopt the attitude of Jesus when confronted with persecution. New creation is not in view here, only the eventual vindication of the eschatological community, which has been baptised specifically into the death and resurrection of Jesus, following severe affliction.