Menu Close

“Others First”

Romans 12:9-16
Bob DeGray
September 22, 2002

Key Sentence

The practical principle of Christian love is to put others first.


I. The Practical Principles (Romans 12:9-10)
II. The Practical Foundation (Romans 12:11-12)
III. The Practical Practices (Romans 12:13-16)


        Lee Iacocca once asked legendary football coach Vince Lombardi what it took to make a winning team. Lombardi said: "There are a lot of coaches with good ball clubs who know the fundamentals and have plenty of discipline but still don't win the game. If you're going to play as a team, you've got to care for one another. You've got to love each other. Each player has to be thinking about the next guy and saying to himself: "If I don't block that man, Paul is going to get his legs broken. I have to do my job well so he can do his." "The difference between mediocrity and greatness," Lombardi said, "is the feeling these guys have for each other."

        I think the same thing is true in a church or a family. The difference between mediocrity and greatness is that attitude of ‘thinking about the next guy.’ In Scripture the general command that describes this attitude is ‘love one another’. We studied that last week, in John 13, as the first installment in this series on the ‘one anothers’ of the New Testament. But the command to ‘love one another’ feels very general, and we all want more specific information to help us live out that command. So this week we are turning to one of the most practical texts in Scripture, to Romans 12:9-16 and here we will find a number of commands that can be summarized this way “The practical principle of Christian love is to put others first.”

        Some years back when preaching through Romans I called Romans 12 one of the hardest passages in the whole book. It’s not hard to understand, but it’s hard to live. These intensely practical passages on what love looks like in daily life are the hardest to live out. You can’t just leave it on the page: your understanding of this passage has to show up in your actions and attitudes and behavior. It shows up as you put others first, which is the practical principle taught here, the application of Christian love.

I. The Practical Principles (Romans 12:9-10)

        The first two verses of the passage give some key principles. Let’s read the whole passage and then look at the first two verses. Romans 12:9. Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

The passage starts with principles for living, as believers in community or as members of a family. First, we learn that our love for one another must be sincere. We mentioned this last week, and Paul reinforces it here.

        Love must be anhupokrites. Literally that means ‘without hypocrisy.’ It’s easy to put on a face and say the right words, while thinking negative thoughts and being inwardly critical. You’re calm on the outside but you’re seething on the inside. Such hypocrisy stains your love. The answer of course is to take that criticism and anger to the Lord as sin, confess it to him, and find forgiveness and strength for the inner person so that love comes from a pure heart. That’s what the Cross is for - the place to leave our sin, past, present and future because on the cross Jesus died for all of our sins, not just those we committed before we were saved. In Jesus we begin to love without hypocrisy - sincerely desiring what is best for our loved ones.

        Love’s sincerity is a principle to be followed, but it also has a practical application. As a Marine, Capt. David Rilling was required to attend a parade in Washington, D.C., at the Marine Barracks. He got lost driving in the city, so he and pulled in to an Army installation to ask the sentry for directions. The soldier seemed friendly and gave him precise instructions. He was impressed with the soldier's helpfulness toward a member of another armed service _ until he arrived at the National Zoo.

        Verse 9 contains a second principle: hate what is evil, cling to what is good. This is a reminder that love must be tough. Love is not a sickening sweetness that accepts and condones all behaviors on the part of the loved one. Instead love strives to amend evil behaviors and it encourages others to hang on to what is good. Amy Carmichael, missionary to India, addressed this directly in her little book If: “If I am afraid to speak the truth because I might lose someone's love, or am concerned someone will say, "You don’t understand", or because I fear to lose my reputation for kindness then I know nothing of Calvary love. If I am content to heal a hurt slightly, saying peace, peace, where there is no peace; If I forget the command, "Let love be without hypocrisy" and blunt the edge of truth, speaking not right things but smooth things, then I know nothing of Calvary love.” I’ve said it before, the old cliche is true: we must hate the sin and love the sinner.

        The next verse has the ‘one anothers’ of our text: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” The notion of being devoted to one another means considering fellow Christians to be your true family. In Greek, the word translated ‘be devoted’ carries a deeper meaning which describes the natural affection between relatives. We should have a relationship like family with other believers. We are to constantly care about, think about and serve each other. Maybe you know someone who is greatly devoted to others. Watch them. Imitate them.

        The second ‘one another’ in our text tells us to honor one another, to ‘outdo one another in showing honor.’ This means “considering others better than ourselves" as it says in Philippians 2:3. We should make a special effort to build each other up, and to treat each other in a manner that shows great respect and even admiration.

        There are a number of direct ways we can apply this principle. Children, you can show honor by obeying your parents the first time; not waiting to be asked twice to do things. Husbands and wives, you can show honor by truly giving your spouse first place, after Jesus, in your life - not second to your work, not second to your kids, but first place in ways that will benefit your spouse. You can do this with words, letting your spouse know how privileged you feel to know them. Gary Smalley says he still occasionally jumps from bed crying "Wow!! I can't believe it!!" He honors his wife by letting her know he is still awestruck that she married him.

        We can show honor by the words we use in front of others. Often we'll hear someone gossiping or spreading rumors about someone else; we can refuse to participate, or better yet, strive to speak well, especially of fellow believers. When unbelievers see us dishonoring one another with our words they see us as hypocrites. We aren't loving like we say we do. A final way we can honor each other is by not pointing out each other's faults in public; not even jokingly. Careless comments made, even in fun, can wreck a relationship. Instead we should take our public opportunities to build each other up. Gently correct each other in private. That’s sincere love.

II. The Practical Foundation (Romans 12:11-12)

        So those are the principles: Be un-hypocritical in love, be discerning so that you hate evil while clinging to good, be devoted to each other and outdo each other in showing honor. In other words, put others first. Give them first place after Jesus in your life. The remainder of the passage shows practices that support this behavior.

        Verse 11 focuses on the necessary spiritual foundation. “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” Our relationship with God is the only thing that makes it possible for us to even come close to expressing true, un-hypocritical, love. Such love is unnatural for us. We are naturally selfish. Only the Spirit of God living in us can empower us to love without hypocrisy and without expectation. Eugene Peterson’s translation says “Don't burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame.” The Spirit of God as the fuel that sustains our love. A radio preacher once said people don’t burn out because they have too much work, they burn out because they lack sufficient fuel. Neglecting our relationship with God cuts us off from our fuel supply, but keeping our zeal for the Lord keeps us plugged in so we'll have the strength to put others first.

        This may not sound practical, but it truly is. You and I won’t love others adequately unless we maintain a vital relationship with God. We do that through practical disciplines like time in the Word of God, prayer, worship, and fellowship. Those who don’t regularly practice these things will face, among other problems, much greater difficulties in loving and caring for others. This is so true that you could almost make a great excuse out of it. “I’m sorry, I can’t be devoted to you and honor you today dear - I missed my quiet time.” You’re supposed to be devoted and honor anyway, but it’s a lot easier if you don’t miss your quiet time on a regular basis.

        Verse 12 adds to this picture of the spiritual foundation that undergirds our love for others. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” When we put others first, in the Body of Christ and in our families we can easily get discouraged because the people we are putting first don’t respond to our love in the ways we hoped. They may not walk with Christ as we would hope, they may not love others as we would hope, they may not care for us as we would hope. The strength to continue loving comes when we find our joy, our hope, our endurance and our resource in God alone: not counting on others to change or to provide for us.

        We find joy in God when we hope for what He has promised, especially for me lately the promise of home, the promise of freedom from the sinful nature, resurrection and eternal life with Jesus. The joy that comes from this hope isn’t dependant on human performance, either ours or someone else’s, but is based solely on what God has done and has promised. This joy, when we have it strengthens our attempts to love.

        Patience in affliction is also a key to love. Every one of us has some burden of our own we’re carrying - physical, mental, emotional. The people around us have the same burdens. As those who love in practical ways we have to learn to keep on giving even while bearing these loads. But Godly patience is not just gritting your teeth and bearing it. It is a confident resting on God, a confidence that though affliction comes, God’s love will bring us through it, His Spirit will teach us through it and He will produce his character in through it. We see this in Romans 5: “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

        So we become joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer. When we love others we pray for them. Often we will know of no other way to help people, and we’ll never find a better way. If we want to be people who love practically, we must be people who love prayerfully. We pray for ourselves, that we would have spiritual fuel and strength to love, and for others that God would meet their needs.

III. The Practical Practices (Romans 12:13-16)

        The text gets even more obviously practical in 13: “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” We are called to be generous. Kent Hughes says: “Our care for our brothers and sisters in Christ should reach right into our wallets and cost us. We give to meet another’s need.” By the way, one of the ways you can do that here at Trinity is to give some small amount to the benevolence fund. It gets used to meet real needs in the lives of people here. This sharing is important, because both churches and families can be called dysfunctional if people are not meeting other people’s needs, putting others first. “My needs, your needs. I choose to meet your needs.” It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

        The other phrase is just as simple, practical and difficult: ‘practice hosptitality’. Whole books have been written on those two words. The Greek means more than just practicing hospitality, though I’m sure we all need the practice. It’s means pursuing hospitality and comes from a root that could be translated ‘prosecute hospitality.’ It’s calling for fanaticism about practical tasks like inviting people to come over to your house, cooking and cleaning so that you are ready for those people and then caring for them graciously. I know some of you don’t feel gifted in this area. That’s OK - you don’t have to make it your key ministry. But just as those not gifted in evangelism still have a responsibility for evangelism, so those not gifted in hospitality still have a responsibility to practice it from time to time.

        Verse 14 addresses our attitude in putting others first. “Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse.” When Paul wrote this he was probably remembering Christ's words in the Sermon on the Mount, "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." It’s incredibly difficult to have good will toward those who do not have good will toward you. It’s common for someone under stress, at home or at work, to begin heaping abuses and even curses on the one they feel is causing their pain. Mike Rice had some good thoughts on this a few years back “Sure, we can be nice to our enemies while they're standing there, but as soon as they leave we curse them under our breath. If a police officer issues you a traffic ticket, you'll smile; you'll even say, "thank you," but secretly you hope that he'll get his car stuck in a ditch somewhere. God isn’t interested in that kind of love. If we call down blessings on someone to their face, yet curse them behind their backs, that is not sincere love. We ought to honestly desire good for our enemies.” Mike added, “only through the help of the Holy Spirit is this even remotely possible.”

        Verse 15 adds another practical practice for those who want to put others first: “Rejoice with those who rejoice: weep with those who weep.” John Stott says of this “Love never stands aloof from other people’s joys or pains. Love identifies with them, sings with them and suffers with them. Love enters deeply into experiences and emotions, laughter and tears.” Jesus wept with Mary and Martha at the tomb of Lazarus. He celebrated at the wedding in Cana. He rejoiced with his disciples. In the same way we ought to be a church where everyone has someone to join in their joys and sorrows. This is what binds us together. But it takes commitment - a commitment of time to small groups and to fellowship, a commitment to asking how others are doing and a willingness to share how we are doing. Men: I think women are better at this than we are. But that doesn’t give us an excuse, does it?

        All this applies equally well to the family. Our families should be a place where everyone has someone to join in their joys and sorrows. But it takes the same commitment. It takes a willingness to ask our wives, our husbands, our children how their hearts are, and to be really willing to listen and care about the answer. Often it means not offering a solution but simply being willing to care.

        Finally, in all of this we are need to practice humility Paul says: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” If we are to live in harmony with one another, it will mean consistently giving up something that I may want in order to be one in spirit and purpose with my brothers and sisters in Christ. It will mean tuning myself to the song others are singing, rather than choosing my note on my own.

        Paul says: “be willing to associate with people of low position.” Jesus shocked the Pharisees because he was willing to associate with the lowest people in society; tax collectors and sinners. I, on the other hand, don’t shock anybody because I am rarely willing to step out of my middle class comfort zone. But this is to my loss - to our loss. We miss fellowship with true and faithful believers when we reject them because of their raw edges. Some are young believers - and babies naturally make messes - but they need to be helped to grow. Some are spiritual giants who have been rescued from places we can’t imagine. They bear the scars, but they could teach us much about the love of Jesus if we would sincerely fellowship with them.

        The final command in the sequence is: don’t be conceited. If we are humble, and if we are willing to associate with those in lowly positions, and most of all if we can get our thoughts off ourselves and put others first, we won’t be conceited. It’s only when we turn our eyes on ourselves that our selfish pride bursts forth.

        All of which is to say that the practical principle of Christian love is to put others first. This is how we honor one another, this is how we practice devotion to one another, in our homes and families, or in our church. This is how we live out love.

        Babe Ruth, who hit 714 home runs during his career, was playing one of his last major league games. The aging star was no longer agile. He fumbled the ball and threw badly, and in one inning alone, his errors were responsible for five opposing runs. As the Babe walked off the field after the third out, booing and catcalls came from the stands. Just then a young boy jumped over the railing onto the playing field. With tears streaking his cheeks, he threw his arms around the legs of his hero. Ruth didn't hesitate. He picked up the boy, hugged him, and set him down on his feet with a playful pat on the head. Suddenly the booing stopped. In fact, a hush fell over the park. In those brief moments, the crowd saw a different kind of hero; a man who in spite of a dismal day on the field could still care about a little boy.

         Charles Kuralt, in one of his ‘On the Road’ books tells the story of Agatha Burgess, who at the time lived in the small mill town of Buffalo, South Carolina. “She gets up every morning to cook at five o'clock. Eighty year old Agatha has been doing this five days a week for fifteen years. She gets up and cooks food for Meals on Wheels, which is picked up by volunteers at 11:00 a.m.

         By noon another group of people come, mill workers and judges and truck drivers, and the guy who runs the Ford agency. Agatha feeds anyone who comes to the door, and she makes them feel welcome. She encourages them to fill their plates and go back for seconds. For all this, they pay $2.75. She knows that's too much for some people, and she doesn't ask them for anything. When asked why she does what she does, Agatha replied, "I love it." She always wanted "to be a person that lived by the side of the road, and be a friend to man." She was asked why she didn't stop and rest. "Wouldn't have anything to live for," she replied. "Because these people coming everyday, they mean so much to me."

        Finally, Dan Clark tells a story that is supposed to be true, but even if it’s an urban myth, it illustrates putting others first. “A friend of mine named Paul received an automobile from his brother as a Christmas present. On Christmas Eve when Paul came out of his office, a street urchin was walking around the shiny new car, admiring it. "Is this your car, Mister?" he asked. Paul nodded. "My brother gave it to me for Christmas." The boy was astounded. "Boy, I wish..." He hesitated.

        Of course Paul knew what he was going to wish for. He was going to wish he had a brother like that. But what the lad said jarred Paul all the way down to his heels. "I wish," the boy went on, "that I could be a brother like that." Paul was astonished. He asked the boy, "Would you like a ride?" After a short ride, the boy turned and his eyes aglow, said, "Will you stop where those two steps are?" He ran up the steps. Then in a little while Paul heard him coming back, but he was not coming fast. He was carrying his little crippled brother. He sat him down on the bottom step, then sort of squeezed up against him and pointed to the car.

        "There she is, Buddy, just like I told you upstairs. His brother gave it to him for Christmas and it didn't cost him a cent. And someday I'm gonna give you one just like it ... then you can see for yourself all the pretty things in the Christmas windows that I've been trying to tell you about." Paul got out and lifted the lad to the front seat of his car. The shining_eyed older brother climbed in beside him and the three of them began a memorable holiday ride. That Christmas Eve, Paul learned what Jesus meant when He had said: "It is more blessed to give..."

        It is more blessed to put others first. Say to yourself “I want to be a brother - or a sister - like that.”