“1 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. 12 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. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Romans 13:11-14
When I was at boarding school, I often used to wake up early on summer mornings as the daylight came streaming in from four or five o’clock onwards. I often used to think how silly it was not to get up then. Frequently the day would be bright and sunny until about the middle of the morning, when clouds would roll in and spoil it. Often it would rain later on, despite the bright early sunshine. As a keen sportsman, I used to get cross at having games spoiled by rain when I knew that, if we’d been out playing before breakfast, we might have had several hours in the sunshine. We could always have done our school work once the rain set in. Why wouldn’t my friends wake up so that we could go out and start the match?
This sense, that it’s important to be waking up and getting ahead of the day, is what Paul is picking up in this passage, rather as he does in 1 Thessalonians 5. He is expanding what he said quite densely in 12:1–2. The old world, the ‘present age’, is rumbling on. Most people are ordering their lives in accordance with its style and habits. But the new world has already broken in. God’s new age has begun, and will shortly come to fulfilment. Those who follow Jesus, whose life, death and resurrection inaugurated that new age, are commanded to live already according to the rules of the new world. The day has begun, even though most people are still asleep.
Paul’s instructions for what this daytime behaviour will mean are quite specific and very bracing. Night-time is when people get drunk, go to wild parties and do all kinds of things they would be ashamed of in broad daylight. Very well; that kind of behaviour must go, however fashionable it may be. Night-time is when people feel free to indulge in shameless sexual immorality. That must be ruled out as well.
By this point in verse 13 Paul is heading for a list of types of bad behaviour rather than a list of nocturnal activities. He contents himself with one more double prohibition which has nothing to do with the ordinary contrast of night and day: bad temper and jealousy, alas, can be just as common during the day as the night, perhaps more so. The analogy, but not the point, has broken down. For the Christian, anger and bitterness are just as much forbidden as drunkenness and off-limits sexual activity, though you wouldn’t think so from many churches.
But he doesn’t just tell people what to avoid. He shows them how to avoid it. ‘Put on the Lord Jesus, the Messiah’, he says. What does that mean? How can we do it?
‘Putting on’ comes from the night/day contrast once more. Here we are, getting up while the rest of the world still thinks it’s night-time; we must put our clothes on. The Christian’s ‘clothing’—which two verses earlier he has referred to as ‘armour’, the ‘armour of light’, the clothing we need when the light has begun to shine—consists of Jesus himself, Jesus the Lord, Jesus the king. I know some Christians who in their private devotions each day make a conscious effort in prayer to ‘clothe themselves’ with the very character of Jesus. Some people do this by reading, slowly, a story from the gospels, and praying that the character of the Jesus they meet there will surround them, protect them, and be the thing that other people see when they meet them. For other people it’s a regular discipline of remembering their baptism, the time when they were plunged into the water as a sign of dying with the Messiah, and brought up out of it as a sign of rising again with him, so that (as in Romans 6) they are no longer living in the old world, but in the new. This, indeed, is the heart of what is sometimes called Paul’s ‘ethic’: the new world is here, those who belong to Jesus belong to it, therefore they must live by its standards rather than by the present ones of society.
Excerpt from Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 2: Chapters 9-16 (pp. 88–91).