In my formative years of Pastoral training, I became familiar with a writer that had a real influence on my life. His name was Gordon MacDonald, and you may have read some of his books. I found his insights helpful and his style of writing something really I connected with. Part way through my college career, his spiritual life appeared to have “flat lined.” He fell into sin and it became public exposed. For a number of years he stopped writing (at least so far as I was aware). After a time, another book came out. This time, a fallen, broken, publicly humbled and then gracefully restored man presented his journey over the edge and back – writing in a way that was both helpful and (I have to believe) deeply personal and embarrassing.
In an even later work, he reflected with these penetrating words:
“My perception is that broken-world people exist in large numbers, and they ask similar questions over and over again. Can my world ever be rebuilt? Do I have any value? Can I be useful again? Is there life after misbehavior. My answer is yes. That is what grace is all about. A marvelous, forgiving, healing grace says that all things can be new. The escape route from sin is Jesus. The wellspring of forgiveness is Jesus. The power to mend broken lives and set us on our feet again is Jesus. The one who can guard us against the devastation of sin is Jesus.“
Over the years, MacDonald has written a number of impacting works. Personally, I have been challenged as he has publicly probed and examined his inner life (like few others since C.S. Lewis did so in his grief). He wrote titles like: Ordering Your Private World, Rebuilding Your Broken World, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, Mid-course Correction and A Resilient Life – and these are just a few. He serves, now nearly 80, at Denver Seminary as its head.
I mention his testimony and his pain to remind you of what is at stake when we play church but don’t deal with what lurks beneath in our broken and selfish heart. We are talking frankly about our spiritual health in this series, and I want our thoughts to probe deeply inside us. I need reflection and self-testing (as well as a healthy dose of the Spirit’s conviction and the Word’s testing), and I am certain some of you do as well.
In our last study, we began examining the last part of Paul’s letter to the Roman church in the first century, looking for direction on gaining and maintaining spiritual health. We noted that:
- Healthy habits are individually attained. No one can monitor your intake like you can, and no one can force you to take the stairs instead of the elevator should you choose to ignore your need for regular exercise. You can always sneak a cookie others don’t see.
- Making rules on healthy habits doesn’t produce as much health as it does guilt. A guilty heart hides behind the bushes when God shows up in the Garden. Since that isn’t what we desire to produce, we need to find another way forward than to simply list laws of health and send you out feeling like failures.
Here is the key to this study:
Key Principle: God has not only told us how we can be rescued from sin, He has told us how we can accomplish in this life the mission He gave each of us.
As you may recall, the letter was designed to answer five big questions:
What happened to mankind? Why is sin rampant and why is the world full of troubles. Paul answered with essentially one word: mutiny. Man’s rebellion caused his troubles (cp. Romans 1-3).
What did God do about man’s rebellious and languishing state? The second question was answered by a single word as well: gift. God gave His Son to remedy sin’s hold on man (cp. Romans 4-5).
How can I cast off sin’s hold on my life as a follower of Jesus? Through Paul’s quill, God instructed Jesus followers that the prison doors of sinful behavior have been unlocked by God, and we can be free to walk in God’s Spirit (cp. Romans 6-8).
Is God really trustworthy in keeping His promises? A large part of the Epistle deals specifically with the history of God and His promises to Israel, as a case study in Hi trustworthiness (cp. Romans 9-11).
What should a healthy walk with Jesus look like in practical and daily lifestyle? This is the section we begin in our study today.
Walking back into the dialogue of Romans 12, we looked last time at three statements that Paul made to set the stage for walking in health. We noted:
• A healthy Christian regularly seeks a heart inspection by Jesus (12:1). His intense gaze helps me remember that I need to be careful how I allow my heart to entertain itself.
• We also learned that a healthy Christian learns to think differently than the fallen world from which they emerge (12:2). It is easy to get pressed into the mold the world tries to impose when it comes to moral thinking and values systems.
• Third, a healthy Christian thinks accurately about self (12:3). We may be tempted, because we have a relationship with God, to think WE are more than others around us. We aren’t – HE is.
Let’s journey past the first three verses and keep reading, while we look for evidences that God is doing a transforming work in us. Listen to these words for a moment:
Romans 12:4 For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly:
Romans 12:4 and 5 compare our relationships as believers to the body in which we live.
He established that our body is made up, by God’s brilliant design, of many parts that not only look different from one another, but he was pushing to the idea at the end of verse four that all the parts perform different and complimentary functions. You aren’t one big eyeball, and you shouldn’t be. That’s just weird to think about. Your body is designed with each part doing what it does. When one doesn’t, you quickly realize something’s missing. Here is the truth: because the body functions as a unit, any part that fails to operate properly hurts the function of the whole.
As God designed your body, so God designed a believer to function in connected relationship to other believers. You needn’t look for some deeper truth in the passage than this: body parts are connected, and so believers should be. It is how God designed us to work – as ONE UNIT.
Christianity is wholly incompatible with radical individualism. We are designed to follow Jesus TOGETHER.
I CANNOT OVEREMPHASIZE the point, because we have been thoroughly Americanized. We believe we were meant to drive down the street in our “wheeled living rooms” with a stereo entertaining us in a closed and personal environment, as we sing aloud with our favorite band or worship leader. We walk on the street with headphones on that say “unapproachable, please don’t BUG me.” Our people take countless “selfies” and buy one product after another that begins with the most used pronoun in the English language – “I.”
Paul wrote simple words: “The Christian life is NOT designed to be lived in disconnection from other believers.
We need to check our attitudes when we can show up at church only when there is “something designed for me” and when the music “touches me.” If we can easily quit and move on when we don’t like what the band plays, as if that is at the heart of what we came for – we are missing something. If we come and sit with people we don’t know and (if the truth were told) don’t really have time to get to know – something is wrong with our concept of the body.
Some of us honestly think: “After all, I have enough friends. I have TV. I have my golf partners. I have my bridge club. What do I really need the rest of these people for? I came for what I need, to get instruction in the Bible so I can grow, and I can be, and I can have, and I can honor… wait? Is that what the Bible teaches?
Here is an important question: Can I consider myself a mature believer and still act as though I entirely miss the point of the basic body concept of Romans 12:4?
Beloved, we are SUPPOSED to live a life connected to other believers. Yet, here is the secret we don’t often acknowledge: We must learn to WANT to be connected. It isn’t “natural” anymore.
Remember, the mere fact that Paul was teaching about this, indicates it is not innate in us to know the truth of our vital connection to one another. We must learn to care about the other parts, just as we learn to care about body parts that perform different functions.
The truth is that many parts of my body that I only acknowledge when they hurt. The rest of the time I just expect them to do their job. When they don’t, I want to help them. If it happens too often that they hurt, I get annoyed at them. The same can happen in a church if we aren’t careful. Rather than feel compassion for those who hurt more often than the norm, we can actually project that we are annoyed at them. Dear ones, we must want connection and we must remember we need it – even when it is difficult. Let’s say it this way: A healthy Christian recognizes the value of others in the body and tries to get connected to them.
Paul moved to a very specific way of sharing how we can learn to be connected in the use of our gifts. Here, Paul noted… A healthy Christian desires to understand and operate in their gifting, using it to the fullest for the body’s good.
He wrote it this way:
Romans 12:6 Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; 7 if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Paul offered a number of details in this passage about gifts of the Spirit.
The words “since we have” in the beginning of verse six remind us that believers possess the Spirit of God from the moment of their salvation, and with the seal of the Spirit comes a unique package of gifts for Divine enablement to help us accomplish our assignment from God both individually and as one body.
The word “differ” in verse six tells us that we don’t all get the same gift package. God gives what God knows will work best, and we receive what we are given before we even identify what it is.
The last part of verse six is written in our English Bible in italics. That means the words are not a translation, but are inferred in the original. Most of the time the translator gets it right, but it isn’t foolproof. Here, it appears the best linguists feel Paul was making the point that we have the gifting of God, but we need to use each gift according to its unique purpose.
What are these gifts?
The New Testament divides the gifts into “ministry” or “service gifts; “manifestation” gifts or “special signs that “God is at work.” In one place, Ephesians 4, God also revealed there are “men” gifts (in the generic sense), that is gifted people who are suited to the work in one place and then dropped into another place by God’s grace and power.
Seven gifts are listed here. This isn’t the only list in the New Testament (another companion list is found in 1 Corinthians 12).
Here we have seven gifts mentioned:
• Romans 12:6b “…prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith;
• Romans 12:7 “…if service, in his serving”
• Romans 12:7b “… he who teaches, in his teaching”
• Romans 12:8 “… or he who exhorts, in his exhortation”
• Romans 12:8b “… he who gives, with liberality”
• Romans 12:8b “… he who leads, with diligence”
• Romans 12:8b “… he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.”
Several have no word about the gift except to use it to its fullest, with zeal to help others in the body. Four of the gifts on the list have a description of HOW to best use the gift. Let’s look at each “up close” for a moment, and be sure we understand each of them.
The Prophetic Gift
Let me ask you as I begin to consider the list, “Are you a prophet?” It is a legitimate question. Some of the body has been gifted for the special task of giving Divine truth. God may have suited you to be someone who can research, examine, study and then deliver a careful explanation of what God said in His Word. Before we go further, I should say that in the early church, this often took a form that was combined with a manifestation sign of the Spirit (sometimes a tongue or a word like that) because they didn’t yet have God’s Word in writing. Today, it exists, I believe, in a different form.
The term is pretty broad in its meaning. It is more than just a white-bearded guy standing on a box on a street corner proclaiming the coming of an asteroid. Consider the term prophecy as it used here. The word is prophēteía (from pró or “before” and phēmí which is to “make clear or assert something as a priority.” It is something clarified beforehand or spoken with clarity in the front of a meeting. If you are terrified to speak in public, this probably isn’t your gift. If, on the other hand, you are honestly checking other passages while I am speaking and putting together the places prophecy as a word appears, you may be one of who is a prophetic voice that hasn’t been activated yet.
If that is the case, my best advice to you is to study to show yourself an approved workman. Do the work in the text before you look for an audience to listen to you. We should also remember that Paul made clear this gift was to me exercised “according to the measure (analogia) of your faith (pistis).” A person so gifted is to teach what God has made known to him from the revelation of His Word according to the measure of what they have already studied. In other words, we are to teach what we know from our labors. When it comes to the Word of God, don’t “shoot from the hip.” Don’t speak above what you know. Study and deliver the best that you can, but don’t go beyond what your real work. That is a big part of his point. We have to take the work seriously. We aren’t doing brain surgery, but the stakes are often higher than that! One more thing: remember prophetically gifted people spend more time preparing themselves in the Word and prayer than preparing the message. If you have ever seen this at work, you know exactly what I mean.
The Gift of Service
Paul turned his attention to another gifted ministry partner, the one with the gift of service. This is the word diakonía (which came from the term “waiter” in the ancient world and is translated “ministry”). We get the title of “Deacon” from it. The word specifically refers to gift of a Spirit-empowered desire and ability to serve guided by a specific knowledge of God’s Word. A person gifted for service delights in caring for the practical needs of others, but knows the difference between meeting a need and enabling someone, because they have the Spirit and have learned from God’s Word. They find joy in making a difference in the lives of others, even if it is by doing the most menial of things. My picture of this, ever-present in my mind, was Tom Solyntjes singing to Anita Byng as she lay dying in her bed. He shows love like few other men I have ever seen, and I have never forgotten it. Tom didn’t sing because he thought he sounded like a rock star – he did it out of a love for Jesus that he expressed in a quiet voice for a sister who was leaving this earth.
The Gift of Teaching
Maybe you have the gift of teaching? The word used for this in the NT, is didáskō, which nearly always refers to teaching the Scriptures in the Bible, but was used more broadly in literature of that time. Deep within someone with this gift is a special joy that is reserved for watching those you have worked to impart knowledge to work it out for themselves. Teachers LOVE to see students pick up the truth and “run with it.” It isn’t the gift of incessant studying to look like the smartest in the room, it is the gift of imparting, modeling and releasing. It is exciting and challenging, because you can invest years and the student may never become what they could be. Ask any parent about that disappointment, and they will tell you they have either seen it happen, or experienced it themselves. I have to admit to you that has been my chief motivation for many years. I would rather see others take what I have tried to teach and model and put it into practice than I would like to see people watch me do it. It isn’t a sign of old-age or laziness, it is a joy of watching others walk in truth and become what they were made to be for Jesus’ sake. Didasko isn’t about becoming famous for being good at something; it is about building up others and watching with joy as they launch out.
The Gift of Exhortation
Deeply embedded among the troops of the Lord are those who have the gift of exhortation. They are sometimes “encouragers” and at other times “prodders” to those around them. In my life, I have needed some who would make clear what God wanted me to do, and others who would give me that extra little “push” to get it done. The term “parakaléō’ is take from pará, “from close-beside” and kaléō, “to call.” It is, properly, “beckon” from “close-up.” If you are one of these, you probably have been enabled to see through problems faster than most of us. You grasp the nature of oncoming problems, and you have a deep compulsion to cry warning and prepare us. You want, out of love and because of your gift, to warn us about what we aren’t seeing and doing. The problem is, without close relationship, you can easily sound caustic to the rest of us. You are valuable, even vital to the body – but you must learn to be careful. You can easily lose track of when your counsel is Biblical, and when it is about deeply held opinions based on personal biases and ideas. You must bathe in the Word and prayer, or the gift meant to build will crush others. Be careful with it, but don’t deny it. Foster the Biblical use of it! Make sure there is relationship beneath it, so you don’t presume to sound like an uninvited authority in someone’s life. Be very careful about using this gift on social media platforms. What is very clear to you may not be clear to the people to whom you want to give warning!
The Gift of Giving
Some in the body of Christ have a burning desire to supply others with what they want. Think of this gift like you think of parenting a small child. You see them struggling to carry the trash bag, so you want to go and help. You watch them trying to learn to ride a bike and you want to buy training wheels to make it easier. That impulse to provide things for you’re your children to help them, when pressed into the specific “gift of giving” as it is found here is the Spirit nudging you to spread that impulse into others around you. The term giving is literally translated “I offer so that a change of owner is produced; I give mine and make it yours. In the text, this is to be done with haplótēs , a strange word that translates literally “singleness, without folds, like a piece of cloth unfolded.” In this context, it denotes “not over-complicated or needlessly complex. The text argues that if you have the gift of giving, don’t get caught up in complexity – just do it. Take care of what God puts in your heart is a need. Don’t announce it. Don’t make fanfare and parade it about. Just do it. Get it done. Keep it simple.
The Gift of Leadership
Perhaps you have been gifted with leadership. You may not yet have the place to lead, but you have the gift, and God is developing you. The word comes from two other words: pro and histémi. They simply mean “to put before, to set over, to manage.” God has gifted some in the body to feel responsible for what goes on, and when they are affirmed and put in a place of responsibility, they show they are both capable and gifted in this area. The text makes clear this is to be done with spoudḗ (quick movement or swiftness to show zealous diligence). It is as though someone gifted with leadership is pushing us forward to “speedy diligence” to cause the body to quickly obey what the Lord reveals is His priority. Leaders help us elevate the best over the good – the most important over the important – and they press us to do so with earnest swiftness and true intensity.
The Gift of Mercy
Perhaps you are someone who hurts for people in a powerful way. You cannot help but be concerned for the welfare of anyone who is hurting. You might be one of the people with the gift of mercy. The term “eleéō” as God defines it, is helping only on His terms. This gift is to be used with hilarótēs form the word for “already won over” and in this context means with “cheerful readiness.” If you have the gift of mercy, helping mustn’t become hassled. The word hides in it a caution that you not overwork yourself until you are unable to be cheerful about the work.
Here is the important truth behind the passage: