(Romans 13:8-14) Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (NIV)
If you received inside information that the world (as we know it) will end in exactly one year from today, what would you do? Would you stockpile weapons? Would you stockpile food, or move to the wilderness and take up fishing, hunting, and raising vegetables? According to the Apostle Paul, this period of earth’s history is nearing its close, so what should we do? Our text offers an unexpected answer to that question.
In verse 11, St. Paul rings the alarm for Roman Christians: it is time to wake up. “The hour has come” – not the hour for a cataclysmic meteor strike or an alien invasion, but for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to planet earth.
Does that lift your spirits and excite your hope? It should. It is good news, both for us and for the planet. It heralds the fulfillment of our salvation and the overthrow of evil. It marks the beginning of what Jesus called the palingenesis – the second genesis – and both prophet and apostle refer to it as the new creation. This is not only good news; it is great news.
When Christ returns, the powers that produce evil in this world will be routed and destroyed. The change will be immediate. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah wrote: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
Think of it. No more war. No three-quarters of a trillion dollar annual defense budgets. No more twenty-year-old’s dying on the other side of the world for a cause they don’t understand. That day is coming.
Not only will there be no more war; there will be no violence. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9).
This is the future. No violence. No evil, No war. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, and “the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more” (Isaiah 65:19). God himself “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Fear, our constant, insufferable companion in life, will be gone. Sin, the burden of it, its clamoring demands, the confusion it brings, and the clinging guilt that accompanies it, will be forgotten like an unpleasant dream. For we shall wake up. The nightmare will be over, the day of the feast for which we have waited will arrive.
As wonderful as all this is – the absence of death and mourning and crying and pain – the best part will not be what is missing but what is present. The new age will not start as a blank slate: “The kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it” (Revelation 21:24). Both prophet and apostle say that the new heaven and earth will be the home of righteousness. Everything will finally be right – including us: We will be strong, glad, capable, joyful brothers and sisters of the great King Jesus!
Our loved ones who have died in Christ will arrive with him on the day he returns: “We … will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
On that day, we will not only see our best-loved friends and family in Christ who have died, we will see them as we have never seen them before. I once sat with a mother who had just lost her daughter in a car accident. She kept saying, “If only I could see her again.” But when we see our loved ones, we will not feel that we are seeing them again but that we are seeing them for the first time. We will recognize them, I have no doubt, but we will think: “What has happened?” That person we loved but always thought a little silly – or dull, or embarrassing, or weak – will appear to us like a god, as if Apollo or Aphrodite had stepped into view. We will not be able to take our eyes off them. But this is no Apollo or Aphrodite; this is our beloved, a human as humans were always intended by the great God to be. The only thing greater than our amazement will be our joy!
But there is more. On that day, we will not just see our loved ones glorified, we also will be glorified. This is the promise of God! “…the Lord Jesus Christ,who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21). St. John said, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
When he is revealed, we will be revealed in a sort of debutante ball for the entire universe. St. Paul writes, “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). No one will be more surprised at your revealing than you. The biblical descriptions are: “glorious,” “joyful,” “imperishable,” “honorable,” “powerful,” “pure” and “undefiled.” The only One who will not be surprised at the change in you will be God. He has been planning this all along.
You will think that you have seen it all when you see your friends and family, and especially when you see yourself. You will be stunned and overwhelmed. “After this,” you will think, “nothing will ever surprise me again.” And then you will see him – him who made the worlds – and in that moment, you will know why you were made, why everything and everyone was made, and you will know that the making was good, was “very good.” You were made for this. You were made for him. And you will know, in the words Lady Julian said the Lord spoke to her: “that all shall be well; that all manner of things shall be well; that all manner of things shall be very well indeed.”
And do you know what makes all this possible? God our Savior sent his only begotten Son; Christ our Lord was made flesh and dwelt among us; God the Spirit, the deposit guaranteeing our inheritance, entered our inmost being. God is our hope; he is our all in all.
The things about which I have been speaking for the last several minutes will happen, and the day on which they will happen is, as St. Paul said, “nearer than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). History is not, and has never been, pointless. All things in heaven and on earth have been moving toward a predetermined end. Neither the powers of hell nor the accidents of life can prevent it.
So, how ought we to live in the light of this future—that was Paul’s concern. He started off this section of Romans by telling us how to live in the light of the past – of God’s mercies expressed in the sacrifice of his Son – and now he tells us how to live in the light of the future –God’s mercies of expressed in our great salvation.
How should we live in the light of all this? What should we do? Should we go to church five times a week and pray for five hours a day? Should we tell everyone we see about Jesus, about God, and about judgment? Should we find everyone against whom we have ever done any wrong and ask for their forgiveness?
While I wouldn’t speak against any of these things, they are not what Paul tells people to do. Look again at verse 11: “And do this, understanding the present time.” And do what? The surprising answer lies in the preceding paragraph and can be summed up in two words: Love others.
That’s it? Love others? That a little overly spiritual, don’t you think? I listened to a podcast recently that was titled, “Why Christians Keep Losing: Overly Spiritual.” I get it. If the end is coming, we need to do something, like protest, or start a podcast, or go off the grid and become self-reliant—something!
But loving others – God and people – is not something; it is the only thing. As Paul says elsewhere, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). Love: it’s not just a warm feeling. It is sacrifice. It is truthfulness. It is thinking. It is action. There is nothing more demanding – or less practiced – than love. Love is not overly spiritual; it is the most practical thing in the world. Paul says, “And do this” – “love one another” – because the time is short, and this is the most important thing we can do.
Back in verse 8, Paul wrote that the person who loves his fellowman (literally, “the other, the one who is not like us, who has a different religion, speaks a different language, has different colored skin – the person who roots for Ohio State), the person who loves the other has fulfilled the law. He repeats the claim in verse 10: “love is the fulfillment of the law.”
There was an idea among Paul’s Jewish contemporaries that when God’s people finally fulfilled the law, the day of salvation would come. Paul, it seems, agreed. But he knew the way to fulfill the law was not by painstaking piety, but by genuine love. I may keep the law by not committing adultery or murder, but I will only fulfill the law by loving. Love is what God has been after from the very beginning.
It is urgent that we love because (verse 12) “The night is nearly over.” It has been a long night. The powers of darkness have held sway. But that is about to change. Morning is at hand. “Glory, honor, and immortality” await. It’s time to wake up. Do you know how to tell those who are awake from the vast majority of people who merely sleepwalk through life? They are the ones who love.
That’s all? Just love? That’s all. But if you think that is easy, you’ve never tried it. Love is not something you can pull off by personality or willpower. You cannot produce love – that is outside our human abilities – so you need to put yourself in a place where you can be supplied with it. Love has a supply chain, and you need to be in it. That doesn’t just happen.
How can we position ourselves in the supply chain of love so that we are ready to receive and extend it? Paul helps us understand this by a series of three contrasts in verses 12-14.
The first is between putting off the “deeds of darkness” and putting on “the armor of light” (verse 12). We take off the “deeds of darkness” those secret behaviors and thoughts that are a source of shame, and that we know will look ugly in the light of the day that is dawning. Instead, we put on “the armor of light,” the protection that genuine transparency affords, which fits the life of love very well. (As an aside: every Christian should have a secret life with God. No Christian should have a secret life from God – as if that were even possible.)
The second contrast is between behaving decently, which fits the life of love, and partying, getting drunk, and sleeping around (which is a pretty accurate translation of verse 13), which does not fit at all. It may seem odd to us that church people needed to be told this, but they did. They were new to following Jesus, and old habits die hard. Living in the party scene, Paul knew, removes a person from the supply chain of love.
The final contrast (verse 14) is between clothing oneself with Jesus and thinking about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature, which Paul thinks of as opposites.
What does it mean here (and in Galatians) to “clothe yourselves with” – or as many translations have it, “put on” – the Lord Jesus Christ”? It means to intentionally put on – as intentionally as one puts on a suit of clothes – Christ Jesus’s way of thinking, feeling, acting, and relating. These are the clothes of the new life, which God graciously provides us, but which must we put on. This is discipleship to Jesus.
Christianity has always been a “put-on” job. Many critics have said so, but they have missed the point. Human life is a put-on job; it’s only a question of what you are putting on. For many years, a debate raged among the intelligentsia regarding human development. Is it fueled by nature or by nurture? Do we become who we become because of genetics or because of training? After centuries of debate, most authorities have called it a draw. But they’ve missed the essential point: humans become. They develop; and they do so by “putting on” something – a way of thinking, perhaps, or of valuing, acting, feeling – that they hadn’t had before. All of life is a put-on job; that’s how people develop. Because of what God has done by giving us his Son and his Spirit, there is a way to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
To put on Christ is to arrange your life around him in such a way that you come to see reality as he sees it, to value what he values, and disdain what he disdains. This can only happen in people who believe in him – who are confident that he is the way, the truth, and the life. This does not happen because a person has learned a few theologically correct ideas about Jesus – as important as that is. It happens because they have faith in him. They trust him. They entrust themselves to him.
The phrase in verse 14 that the NIV translates, “Do not think” is more like, “Do not premeditate…” Once you begin meditating – for that is what it is – about doing something sinful, your foot is already in the trap. When that trap closes, as it surely will, you will be completely out of position to love.
Let’s wrap this up. Salvation with its glory, honor, and immortality is already on its way! Jesus Christ, who came once, is coming again—this time to bring salvation. When he does, the great thing is for him to find you loving others. Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink (or protest or podcast), do it as a way to love—or don’t do it. The way to be ready when Christ returns is to love. The way to change the world before he gets here is to love. There is no substitute. Love is God’s plan.
Have you taken your place in the supply chain of love? To do so, you need to be rightly positioned toward God – “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,” was how Paul put it – and rightly positioned toward people. That can’t happen when you are hiding sins or living a self-centered life.
So many people who are looking for love will never find it. But if they would stop looking for love and start looking to love, love would find them.
The point is that when Jesus – who is the point of it all – comes, we want to be awake – that is, we want to be loving. It’s time to wake up. The day is near, there is work – challenging work of love – to do, and we need to take our places in God’s supply chain of love.