Putting Others First

Romans 12:9-10

September 20, 2009 | Brian Bill

I heard a story about a pastor who was an avid golfer.  He woke up one Sunday and realized that it was a perfect day for golfing.  The sun was out, there were no clouds in the sky and the temperature was just right.  He was in a quandary about what to do because he really wanted to go golfing instead of going to church.  He called his associate pastor and told him he was sick and couldn’t preach that day.

He quickly threw his clubs in the trunk and drove three hours to a golf course where no one would recognize him.  He took a few practice swings and was really enjoying himself.  An angel was watching this pastor and was quite perturbed about all this and so he went to God and said, “Look at that preacher.  He should be punished for what he’s doing.”  God nodded in agreement.  

He teed up on the first hole and swung away.  The ball sailed effortlessly through the air and landed right in the cup 350 yards away.  He had never had a hole-in-one before.  The angel was shocked, turned to God and said, “Begging your pardon, but I thought you were going to punish him.”  God just smiled and then said, “Think about it.  Who can he tell?”

While God may have gifted some of you in golf, He is much more interested in having us serve Him with the spiritual gifts that we’ve been given.  Ephesians 4:16 emphasizes that our church will grow and be built up in love only if each of us do our part: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”  It’s really a contradiction in terms to find a Christian who is not using his or her spiritual gifts.  1 Peter 4:10 says that Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”  

Are you flickering or burning bright for Him? 

It’s my prayer that every one of us will be fired up to serve.  Paul had a concern for a young believer named Timothy who was neglecting his gift and so he wrote two letters to him.  Here’s what he said in 1 Timothy 4:14: “Do not neglect your gift” and in 2 Timothy 1:6 he wrote this: “I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God.”  Are you flickering or burning bright for Him?  You’re needed in this church!  God has gifted you and now He wants to use you.  No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.

In our continuing emphasis on how we can help families build faith at home, I came across an article about the topic of gifting as it relates to our children.  Erik Rees describes what he learned in a book called, “Pinocchio Parenting: 21 Lies We Tell Our Kids” by Chuck Borsellino: “Guess what one of the top lies is that parents tell kids? ‘You can be anything you want to be.’  Have you heard that phrase before?  I have.  Did you hear it growing up?  I did.  If you have kids now, have you ever told them that?  I sure have.  The truth is, you can’t be anything you want to be.  When you were born, you were given a specific set of talents and passions and a unique personality.  Then as you grew, you went through a series of experiences—some good and some not so good…all these things are tools God uses to make you into the unique you he’s had in mind from the start.”  I would add that once our kids come to Christ they are given spiritual gifts and part of our responsibility and joy is to help them figure out their gift mix and how God has shaped them for service.

Our text for today contains only two verses from Romans 12:9-10.  This begins a section that strings together various exhortations that continue until the end of the chapter.  Douglas Moo writes: “These verses contain a volley of short, sharp injunctions with little elaboration.”  This was a common way of teaching called a paranesis in Greek writings.  In our culture we might refer to them as axioms or maxims which are sayings that are widely accepted.  Here are some that I’ve heard…

  • Disagree without being disagreeable 
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff or Sweat the small stuff
  • Fight for your family
  • Don’t say someone’s ‘no’ for them 
  • Begin with the end in mind
  • First things first
  • Keep the main thing the main thing
  • You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (I don’t know what this means but I like saying it)

According to my count, there are at least 25 “ministry maxims” in Romans 12 that cover the conduct of a Christian.  We’re going to look at five of these practical precepts this morning from verses 9-10: “Love must be sincere.  Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.   Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honor one another above yourselves.”  I should mention that these maxims can be lived out only in the power of the Holy Spirit and through the “renewing of our minds” as stated in verse 2.

1. Love must be sincere. 

The word here for “love” is the word “agape,” which means unconditional and sacrificial love.  Because love is the supreme quality of a Christ-follower, Paul begins with love at the top of the list, like he does in Galatians 5:22: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love…”  I want you to also notice that the context for lifting up love comes immediately after the list of seven spiritual gifts.  While Paul doesn’t spend much time defining these gifts, he does concentrate on the spirit in which they are to be exercised.  

Human nature is more prone to tear down, than it is to build up.  We’d rather kick people than labor in love with them and for them.  Jonathon Swift once said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”  Spiritual gifts, no matter how exciting and wonderful, are useless and even destructive if they are not unleashed in love.  We could demonstrate this with a mathematical equation: 

  A Gift of the Spirit – The Fruit of the Spirit = 0

Love is the key to practical Christianity.  Would you notice that love is to “be sincere?”  This word comes from two Latin words: “sine” and “cere” which literally means “no wax.”  In ancient times potters would sometimes take wax and fill in the gaps in broken or cracked pottery.  Then they would paint over the wax and sell it.  The only problem was that when someone bought this pottery and put something hot in it the wax would melt and it would leak.  Good potters distanced themselves from this practice by saying that their pottery was “sine-cere,” meaning it was pure with no wax.  Likewise, our love must not have cracks in it, or wax that is simply a cover-up.

The Greek word is where we get “hypocrisy,” and it literally means “no mask.”   In the days before elaborate scenery, Greek actors played a number of different roles by simply holding up various masks in front of their faces.  Psalm 55:21 is very descriptive of someone wearing a disguise: “His speech is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart; his words are more soothing than oil, yet they are drawn swords.”  One pastor can remember hearing people say this phrase when he was a kid: “We love so-and-so in the Lord.”  That used to mean, “I personally can’t stand them but I’m under spiritual obligation to love them.”

Brothers and sisters, one of the charges leveled against us as Christians is that we’re hypocrites.  The only way to change this charge of counterfeit Christianity is for each of us to practice sincere love in our attitudes and in our actions.  Let’s not be like the person who wrote this letter: “Dearest Jimmy, no words could ever express the great unhappiness I’ve felt since breaking our engagement.  Please say you’ll take me back because no one could ever take your place in my heart.  Please forgive me.  I love you, I love you, I love you!  Yours forever, Marie.  P.S.  And congratulations on winning the lottery.”  

The first ministry maxim is that our love must be sincere.  The second one also found in verse 9 may seem abrupt but it’s actually linked to love.

2. Hate what is evil. 

The commentator Morris points out that “True love involves a deep hatred for all that is evil…The person who really loves with the deep fervor of Christian agape will have a holy hatred for every evil thing.”  The word “hate” is very strong.  It’s the idea of abhorring what is evil and means “to shudder” with utter hatred. That makes me think of the Grinch when he was flipping through a phone book: “Hate, hate, hate.  Hate, hate, hate.  Double Hate!  LOATHE ENTIRELY!”  The word also means to “turn from and to avoid” and it’s in the present tense – “Be constantly hating that which is evil.”  One pastor compared this to our reaction to a really messy diaper: “I want nothing to do with it and I want it out of my house and life as soon as possible.”

We live in a culture where tolerance is the highest virtue but we must remember that there are some things that are morally wrong and others that are morally right.  It was Edmund Burke who once said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Abortion is murder.  Homosexuality is a sin.  Gossip is a sin.  Lying is wrong.  Ignoring the plight of orphans is indefensible.  Adultery is a sin.   Tolerating injustice is wrong.  There is such a thing as “evil” and there is such a thing as “good.”   I’m afraid that we’re so enmeshed in evil as a culture, that many Christ-followers have become numb and passive to it.  Too many of us are no longer shocked by sin.  Some of us are so inoculated by evil that it’s difficult to even know what’s right or wrong anymore.  George Barna points out that only 4% of Americans have a biblical worldview.  No wonder we’re in the trouble we’re in as a country.  

We are called to hate the horrors of that which is evil.  I didn’t say we’re to hate those who do evil, but we are to loathe evil itself.  Keith Brooks nails it when he says, “Anger is implanted in us as a sting to make us gnash our teeth against the devil, not to set us in array against each other.”  Jude 22-23 helps us balance how to love the sinner and yet hate the sin: “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy…”  That’s the “loving the sinner” part.  And here’s the “hating the sin” part: “…mixed with fear–hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”  When Jesus addressed the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:6, He had some strong words for them because they had left their first love but they did get something right: “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”  Notice that they didn’t hate the people; they hated their practices.

On a personal level, every one of us needs to step up our abhorrence of evil and to recognize and repent if we have embraced that which is evil.  Let’s be honest.  Most of us don’t hate sin, in fact, we like sin because it’s pleasurable…for the moment.  Sin should cause us to shudder.  Put this picture in your mind from Genesis 4:7 when the Lord spoke to Cain: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?  But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”  Psalm 101:3 tells us that we need to be active in our hating of evil: “I will set before my eyes no vile thing.  The deeds of faithless men I hate; they will not cling to me.”  Peter makes a similar appeal to our wills in 1 Peter 2:11 “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.”

I’m challenged by what Pastor Matt Chandler from Village Church in Highland, Texas said in an interview in Leadership Journal: “That is what drives me mad in evangelical circles…there is often a sit-on-the-couch-and-wait-for-God-to-do-something mentality that is unbiblical…there seems to be so little war when it comes to sin…there’s a strong victim mentality in my generation.  I think its spiritual laziness…I preach hard…and plead with people to make war against sin.  I tell them that it’s not going to be easy…let’s fight.  Let’s do something besides just complain.” 

Isn’t it easy to find something humorous on TV or in a movie or on the web without thinking that the Lord might find it heartbreaking?  Proverbs 8:13 says, “To fear the Lord is to hate evil…”  1 Peter 3:10-11, which is a quote from Psalm 34, says this: “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.   He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it.”  One writer puts it like this: “Our only security against sin is to be shocked by it.”  Alexander Pope wisely observed: “Vice is a monster of so frightful mean, as to be hated needs but to be seen; Yet seen so oft, familiar with her face, we first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

How can you and I address the evils in our society?  One pastor offers these wise words: “When morality is determined by popularity, depravity becomes normality and the death of that culture becomes inevitability.” What is it that God wants you to do?  Do you need to speak up and speak out against evil when you’re with your friends, fellow students or co-workers?  Is there any area in your life in which you have compromised?  Is there a habit that you need to stop?  According to the Internet Filter Review (2006), “Every second 372 Internet users are typing adult search terms into search engines.”  If you don’t have a filter on your computer, you need to get one.  Is there a sin that is making you shudder right now that you have yet to turn from?   Is there an evil that God’s calling you to abhor?  Remember the truth of Romans 8:6: “The mind set on the flesh is death; but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”  

2 Timothy 2:22 tells us that the best defense is to get out of the way of wickedness: “Flee also from youthful lusts…” (See also 1 Corinthians 6:18; 1 Timothy 6:11 and Genesis 39:12).  The author Sinclair Lewis tells about the time he was crossing the Atlantic and saw an elderly lady reading his latest book, a book that had caused quite a bit of controversy and stirred up some heated discussion.  By the number of pages she had read, he judged that she was approaching the shocking passage that had caused the most trouble for his readers.  He kept an eye on her to see how it would affect her.  After a few minutes, the lady got up, walked to the rail and threw the book far into the ocean.

Friends, remember that sin will take your further than you were planning to go and will keep you longer than you planned to stay.  Ruth Copeland says it even stronger: “When you have finished committing sin, sin is not finished with you.  The first cost is high, but it is only the down payment.  You keep paying in your conscience, in your body, in the suffering you produce for your family, your friends and your community.”

Ministry maxim #1 is to have sincere love.  Ministry maxim #2 is to hate evil.

3. Cling to what is good. 

To cultivate a healthy hatred of sin, we must first remove ourselves from its presence and then we must unite ourselves to that which is good.  1 Thessalonians 5:21-22: “Test everything.  Hold on to the good.  Avoid every kind of evil.”  We’re to stop clutching on to evil and start clinging to what is good.  

The word “cling” is quite descriptive.  It means to stick to something like glue; to hold fast, to join or keep company.  It has the idea of tying ourselves to what is good.  The word is also used to describe the union of a man and woman and is expressed with the word “to cleave.”  We’re to hate evil and embrace that which is good.  This is a really important point.  While it’s necessary to abhor evil and stop sinning, we must replace that which we remove with that which is good.  To borrow the marriage metaphor, we’re to leave and then cleave to the Savior.

Don’t sit out when God calls you to serve

We must focus our minds on what is good and make sure that we keep company with people who will build us up, make sure we’re connected to church, and that we’re equipped to serve.  We can flip it because they are really two sides to the same coin. The more you cling constantly to what is good, the easier it will be to hate what is evil.  The word “good” was used of things that were morally good and beneficial or useful for a productive Christian life.  Remember, in order for these good things to stay in your life, you must “cling” to them.  Don’t bail on church.  Don’t sit out when God calls you to serve.  Plug into a small group and stay there.  Don’t be a spiritual slacker but instead stick to those good things.  I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: “If you unplug, you will unravel.”

I did a search in my concordance for the word “good” and discovered that the word appears 601 times in the Bible.  Philippians 4:8 is a good filter to determine what the good is that you and I need to be glued to: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”  Allow the Word of God to clean you up as Ephesians 5:26 says, “…Cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.”

4. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. 

The first ministry maxim calls for us to exhibit agape love.  Now we’re challenged to love as family members love – it’s the word phileo.  We could translate it this way: “Love one another warmly” or “Be kindly affectioned” or “Love other Christians as part of the family.” John MacArthur offers this possibility: “Be lovingly loving with one another with loving love.”  Here’s the deal.  When you become a Christian you not only get a birthday present called a spiritual gift, you also become part of a new family.  You are a child of God and you’re also a spiritual sibling to other brothers and sisters in Christ.  It’s interesting that in the original Greek the phrase “brotherly love” is first in the sentence for emphasis.  I saw an ad on TV recently for a restaurant that caught my attention: “When you’re here, you’re family.” I think that’s copyright infringement because that’s what God has said about the church for two thousand years: “When you’re here, you’re family.”

The Christian community has always been diverse as it forged a radical relationship between Greeks and Jews, barbarians, Scythians, slaves and free men, men and women and enfolded them into one family where we are all spiritual siblings (see Galatians 3:28).  The sense behind “brotherly” is literally “from the same womb.”  That means you and I are blood relatives who are called to build up and brighten up our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Hebrews 13:1 calls us to “Keep on loving each other as brothers” and Galatians 6:10 raises the bar by reminding us that family members are to take care of each other: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

In an issue of Newsweek, Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Billy Graham, talks about some bad experiences she’s had in churches.  She was kicked out of one church for insisting on the inerrancy of Scripture and more recently she left another church when there was a fight concerning a new pastor.  She’s referred to herself as a “believer in exile” and for more than a year she wandered from church to church looking for a home: “I’ve had Christians treat me in a way that is so wrong and so vicious; I realized that there’s a difference between God’s people and God.”  I like how the article ends: “Church may not be necessary for knowing God, she says, but it keeps the relationship going; ‘You can really love the Lord, but after a while, if you’re all by yourself, the fire grows cold’.” 

Do you know that we can grow in our love for each other and for those in our community and for those who live on the continents?  I love how Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica in his first letter.  Check out 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10: “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.  And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia.  Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.”  And then some time later, he wrote a second letter to them and affirmed them for their growing love in 2 Thessalonians 1:3: “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.”  May that be said of us!

Love must be sincere.  Hate what is evil.  Cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.

5. Honor one another above yourselves. 

The final maxim we’ll look at today is found in the last part of verse 10 where we see the “one another” phrase again.  The Philips Paraphrase renders it like this: “Be willing to let other men have the credit.”  This is family language where we seek to give preference to one another in honor.  It’s the idea of trying to outdo each other by giving others honor.  Honor is the most important ingredient in any family relationship.  As husbands and wives honor each other they can have a marriage that moves toward oneness and intimacy.  When parents honor their children, their kids will know that they’re accepted, that they’re unique, that they’re secure, and that they have a purpose in life.  And, when children honor their parents, the family will be healthy as kids learn and grow in an environment of love and acceptance.

A great biblical example of this is when Abram said to his extended family member Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.  Is not the whole land before you?  Let’s part company.  If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”

The word “honor” literally means a “heavy weight.”  It implies that we assign the greatest possible weight to a person in terms of respect by holding them in “high regard.”  To honor someone is to measure his or her value on a scale and conclude that it is “heavy.”  On the other hand, to “dishonor” means to treat someone as if they were “light or insignificant.”  It would be used to describe a child that treats his parents lightly because he or she does not value them.  We’re called to prefer others above ourselves.  The idea is that we will take the lead in showing the honor that is due to each other in the family of God.

Some of you who follow sports know that Michael Jordan was recently inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and rightfully so.  There were others who joined him but I was particularly struck by David Robinson’s acceptance speech.  While MJ talked about himself, David Robinson, a born-again believer, began by giving personal and loving words to each of his three sons, telling them how much he loved and treasured them.  Here was a man who had just received the highest honor in sports and he turned it into a father/son moment that his boys will never forget.  He spoke to each son by name, acknowledging their unique gifts, and his unique relationship with each of them.  He then spoke lovingly to his wife, honoring her publicly.  And then he took the time to honor others who were there to support him.  He called George Gervin “the original Mr. San Antonio” and Spurs legend Larry Brown a “basketball genius.”  He called Avery Johnson the spiritual force behind the Spurs and gave Tim Duncan these words of honor: “The greatest power forward to play the game.”   That’s a man who knows how to honor God and others as more important than himself.

At 5:00 a.m. one snowy morning, a missionary candidate rang the bell at the missionary examiner’s home.  He was ushered into the office, where he sat until 8:00 a.m. waiting for his interview to start.  The examiner, a retired missionary, finally showed up and began his interrogation.  “Can you spell?”  Rather mystified, the candidate answered, “Yes, sir.”  All right; spell baker.”  “Baker – b-a-k-e-r.”  The examiner continued: “Fine.  Now do you know anything about numbers?”  The candidate replied, “Yes, sir.  I know some things.”  “OK, add two and two.”  “That would be four,” answered the candidate.  “That’s, fine,” commented the examiner.  “I believe you have passed.  I’ll tell the board tomorrow.”  

At the board meeting, the examiner reported on the interview, “He has all the qualifications of a missionary.  First, I tested him on self-denial, making him arrive at my house at 5:00 a.m.  He left a warm bed and came out in the snow without any complaint.  Second, I tested him on promptness.  He arrived on time.  Third, I examined him on patience.  I made him wait three hours to see me.  Fourth, I tested him on temper.  He failed to show any signs of aggravation or anger at the delay.  Fifth, I tried his humility by asking him questions that a seven-year-old child could answer, and he showed no indignation.  So, you see, I believe the candidate meets the requirements.  He will make the missionary we need.”

We need missionaries who love sincerely, who hate what is evil, who cling to what is good, who are devoted to one another in brother love and who honor others above themselves.  That’s not an easy assignment, is it?  Here’s the good news.  You don’t have to hit a spiritual hole-in-one because Jesus had done that for you.  His score of perfect righteousness is transferred to those who trust Him by faith through the new birth.  And, all your sins are paid for by his death on the Cross.  And you don’t have to keep this quiet – you can tell everyone about His perfect score and your resulting salvation!

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?