At the request of a special friend who was unable to attend my class on Sunday, I am posting the basics of my lesson on Romans 12:17-21 which dealt with the Christian’s response toward those who are his enemies. This is a subject which I predict will become more and more important to those who desire to live faithfully for our Lord in a culture which is increasingly hostile toward believers.
It is quite characteristic of the American culture for people to feel like they are in the right to take vengeance upon their enemies. Movies and television shows glorify striking back at those who unjustly attack others and consequently, many Christians think such behavior is acceptable and right. It is a classic case of adopting the culture’s viewpoint rather than a biblical viewpoint.
But that is not what Paul teaches in this passage to be the standard for believers. First of all, he says, ”never pay back evil for evil to anyone.” Now, someone is bound to think, “But what about the OT law that said ‘eye for an eye, tooth for tooth’ (Ex. 21:24)? Isn’t that authorizing revenge?” No, it isn’t. That law pertained to civil justice, not personal revenge. Not only that, but its major purpose was to prevent the severity of punishment from exceeding the severity of the offense. In other words, someone guilty of destroying another person’s eye could not be punished with any greater penalty than that of forfeiting one of his own eyes.
A few verses later, in Rom. 13:4, Paul declares that civil authority “is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” But that authority, which is not only divinely permitted but divinely mandated for civil government, is divinely forbidden for personal purposes.
Paul gave this same instruction to the Thessalonian believers in 1 Thess. 5:15—See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.
Peter echoes this same truth in 1 Peter 3:8-9—To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.
So that old adage, “I don’t get mad, I get even,” isn’t biblical. Be very careful about your attitude in seeking revenge toward those who harm you.
Closely related to not returning evil for evil is the second exhortation about how to behave toward our enemies. Paul says, “Respect what is right in the sight of all men.” If we genuinely respect others, including our enemies, we will have a “built in” protection against angrily repaying them evil for evil and will be predisposed to doing what is right toward them.
The word “respect” literally means “to think beforehand.” Louw-Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon, a highly respected lexicon of biblical Greek, says that the idea is “to think about something ahead of time, with the implication that one can then respond appropriately.” And because “respect” is in the present tense, the idea is that of continually thinking ahead of time.” So it is valid to translate this word as “be preoccupied with thinking about that which is right.”
That kind of respect will help us develop the self-discipline necessary to prepare ourselves beforehand for responding to evil with what is good instead of with what is bad. Believers should respond instinctively and spontaneously with what is pleasing to God and beneficial to others.
The word “right” is the word kalos, which refers to that which is intrinsically and morally good, proper, and honest. It also carries the idea of being visibly, obviously right “in the sight of all men.” Paul is not speaking of hidden feelings but of outwardly expressed goodness. Our forgiving, gracious behavior toward our enemies should commend us to them and to others who witness that behavior.
One problem we face in our culture is that there has been a redefining of “right” and “wrong” so that many people struggle to know what things are inherently right and what is inherently wrong. For the believer, that’s easy. If the Bible commends something, it is right; if it condemns something, it is wrong. So we do what the Scriptures say and trust that the internal moral law which God has placed in the hearts of all mankind will be challenged by our behavior and acknowledge its “rightness.”
The next of Paul’s exhortations is conditional in terms of its fulfillment, in that it partly depends on the attitudes and responses of our enemies. In verse 18 he writes: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”
By definition, a peaceful relationship cannot be one-sided. But our responsibility as believers is to make sure that our side of the relationship is right, that our inner desire is genuinely to “be at peace with all men,” even the meanest and most undeserving.
From the perspective of the believer, there is to be no breach of peace. Short of compromising God’s truth and standards, we should be willing to go to great lengths to build peaceful bridges to those who hate us and harm us. We must forsake any grudge or settled bitterness and fully forgive from the heart all who harm us.
But this must also be qualified by the fact that the Christian is to bear witness to the truth and to live by Christian principles. Peace at the price of sacrificing the truth or compromising principle is never to be done. This means that there will be times, in our sin-fallen world, when it will be impossible because the unbelievers in our lost world will be unwilling to live in peace with us. But there must never be a reason why they can legitimately place the blame on us for being unwilling to be at peace with them.
Keep in mind that the principle of being at peace with others does not just mean that we only tolerate them on the outside and endure being around them, but rather that we are truly at peace with them as far as it is possible to be so. Now, I’ll admit that that isn’t always easy, but that is what this verse calls us to do. So we must guard our hearts against any kind of internal feelings of bitterness, hate, or disrespect toward them. If there is any kind of problem between us and those who oppose us, it must be entirely of them and none of our doing.
The last two characteristics Paul lists here are both reiterations. He again denounces returning evil for evil, stating, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God.” If a wrong has been done to us, no matter how serious and harmful it may have been, we are never qualified for or have a right to render punishment for the offense ourselves.
Why aren’t we allowed to take revenge for ourselves? Because, Paul says, “leave room for the wrath of God.” Now you may have noticed in your Bible (if you have an NASB) that the words “of God” are italicized, meaning that they are not found in the original language. This has caused some to interpret this as referring to the wrath of our evil persecutors, or to our own wrath, or to the wrath of the government in executing judgment on our behalf. But most interpreters, including virtually all modern Bible translations, see that it is clearly God’s wrath that is in view here because Paul then quotes Deut. 32:35, saying, “for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
It is not our job to execute justice on evil people; that is God’s prerogative, and He will visit His wrath on such people when He deems it right to do so. In his commentary on Romans, Bible teacher Gerald Cragg says that when we try to take the law into our own hands, “we are inept bunglers in a region where we do not belong.”
Perhaps the best biblical example we have of not taking our own revenge is David, who had two opportunities (1 Sam. 24, 26) in which it seemed like God had delivered Saul into his hands and it would have been easy for him to kill Saul. But instead David refused to take advantage of his enemy, recognizing that God had sovereignly placed Saul upon the throne of Israel, and decreed that he would not be the one who stretched forth his hand against him. He even said, “As the Lord lives, surely the Lord will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or he will go down into battle and perish” (1 Sam. 26:10). He allowed the Lord to execute justice on his behalf rather than taking things into his own hands.
Another example is Jesus Himself, when the authorities came to arrest Him in the garden, and Peter had his moment of bravado and cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. Jesus stopped Peter and said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:52-53). But instead of defending Himself and taking His own revenge on them, He willingly submitted to the Father’s will and let them take Him into custody. And throughout His trial before Herod and Pilate, He refused to defend Himself or fight against them.
So then, if we are not to take our own revenge, and must wait for the Lord to take revenge—which may not even take place in this lifetime—how then are we to respond to the evil things that our enemies do to us? Well, the answer is in verses 20 and 21, where Paul says overcome evil with good.
You see, merely not returning evil for evil does not fulfill our responsibility. And sometimes doing the positive thing that honors the Lord is the more difficult thing to do. To withhold vengeance is one thing; it requires only doing nothing. But to actually return good for evil is quite another. Yet that is our obligation if we desire to be godly in our behavior. In verse 20 Paul quotes from Prov. 25:21-22, “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Now the question which arises from everyone is, what does it mean to “heap burning coals on his head”? Well, this has been debated for many years, and several interpretations have been offered. Perhaps one of the more common interpretations is that this statement figuratively describes doing good that results in the conviction and shame of the enemy.
The expression supposedly alludes to the old custom of carrying burning coals in a pan. When one’s fire went out at home, a person would have to go to a neighbor and request hot coals that he or she would then carry home in a pan on the head. Carrying the coals demonstrated to others in the community that the individual who had to get coals from his neighbor was irresponsible (in that he let his fire go out) and thus he was shamed for his irresponsibility. At the same time, they were the evidence of his neighbor’s kindness and goodness.
In the same way, the person who receives good for evil demonstrates to others around them that he has behaved badly and he is shamed by the kindness of his enemy who was willing to do good to him even when it was not deserved.
That’s one interpretation and perhaps it is the most common interpretation. But I think there is a better interpretation. I take the burning coals as a figure of God’s judgment that will come on the enemy if he persists in his antagonism. The figure of “coals of fire” is used consistently in the OT to refer to God’s anger and judgment (cf. 2 Sam. 22:9, 13; Ps. 11:6; 18:13; 140:9-10; Prov. 25:21-22). Thus the meaning would be that the Christian can return good for evil with the assurance that God will eventually punish his or her enemy if he continues in his unrepentant behavior.
So what Paul is saying here is, “Keep doing what is good and kind, even to your enemies. Let God handle the business of executing vengeance. Your responsibility is to keep doing good to them, and if you keep on doing that, God will take care of executing judgment on them, and it won’t be pretty for them in the end. In fact, if you respond the way you should—with kindness and goodness to them—but they keep up their evil actions toward you, their judgment will heap up to an even greater degree.”
Paul concludes with these words in verse 21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The first part of this verse—“do not be overcome by evil”—has two meanings and applications. First, we must not allow the evil done to us by other people to overcome and overwhelm us. We must rest in the fact that “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4), and we need to remember that “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).
Second, and even more important, we must not allow ourselves to be overcome by our own evil responses. An evil response to an evil action only brings about more evil. Evil can overcome us when we allow the pressure put on us by a hostile world to force us into attitudes and actions that are out of keeping with the transformed life of God’s children. And our own evil is infinitely more detrimental to us than is the evil done to us by others. In each case, it is the evil itself that must be overcome, and that can be accomplished only with good. That is what Christ did, and we must do the same. When we display Christ-like character to a watching and skeptical world, we “overcome evil with good.”