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Romans 12:18-20 – 18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Intro: There is a recurring admonition in these last verses of Romans 12. In fact it is so recurring that we cannot miss it.
- Verse 14: Don’t curse those who persecute you.
- Verse 17: Don’t return evil for evil.
- Verse 18: live peaceably with all.
- Verse 19: Do not avenge yourselves.
- Verse 21: Don’t be overcome by evil.
Taken in the context, Paul is giving clear emphasis to an element of spirituality that we may not give much attention to.
- – How do you react to evil, especially evil people?
Is there a way to respond to evil that reflects a renewed mind and a sacrificial life?
Albert Barnes describes these verses in Romans 12 as “…probably one of the most difficult precepts of Christianity, but the law of Christ on the subject is unyielding.” “It is a solemn demand made on all His followers, and it must be obeyed.”
I. “Beloved, Do Not Avenge Yourselves” – Paul addresses these Christians as “beloved”, or one who are loved. Who loved them? Everything that Paul revealed since chapter 1 clearly answers that question. God loved them, and Paul keeps that in view (as he did in verse one of this chapter). Those who are loved by God are in the right position to obey these commands.
A. What do you think of when you see the words, avenge, or vengeance. (a Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson movie) It brings up a connation of unbridled retribution. A person who is out of control, seeking personal revenge for wrong done to him. This is a hard word. We conclude that vengeance is morally and socially wrong.
1. The real problem with this is in the latter part of vs. 19 – “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay”. (a quotation from Deut. 32:35) How can God say this? Is the God of love also a God of revenge?
2. God describes Himself as a God of vengeance. Nahum 1:2, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies.” Deuteronomy 32:43, “He avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries.” Isaiah 59:17, “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.”
3. God’s vengeance against evil is woven into the fabric of reality. God has an absolute commitment that justice be done. It is the vindication of His own glory that is at stake.
a. The word for vengeance (ekdikesis – ek-dik-ay-sis) here means vindication or retribution. It comes from a root word (dike – dee-kay) that is translated justice. Now there is a word that we like. Justice simply means “what is right”. (the KJV translates dike as vengeance in Acts 28:4 – When the pagans on Malta witnessed Paul being bitten by a poisonous snake they were convinced that he was a murderer and some force of justice was at work and he was getting what he deserved, what was right).
b. If we would understand these verses correctly we need to think of vengeance as justice. God is a God of justice – He gives people exactly what they deserve.
2. The contrasting attitude and action in these verses is also a clear characteristic of God. Notice vs. 20 – “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; This is mercy – Giving someone better than they deserve.
II. Mercy and Justice. Here is the point I want to make at this point: Both justice and mercy are character traits of God. They represent how God has reacted and will react to evil. Paul calls upon us to react to evil with mercy and justice. But we must seek both of these in our lives by relying upon God, not ourselves.
A. Trusting God for Vengeance: Someone does you wrong – personal evil with all its pain. You did not deserve it, but there it is. You desire justice (vengeance) but God says here, Do not avenge. Does that mean there will be no justice? Does it mean there is no vengeance?
1. No. We can and must “Leave it to the wrath of God.” He will avenge for us. He will set all things right. How will God provide justice for me? I see a few ways:
a. In the very next chapter Paul says that the civil authorities are Gods’ agent for the distribution of His wrath against evil. Rom 13:3-4 – For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. God has given human governments the right to execute justice here on earth. Those who do evil should fear the punishment that God Himself has sanctioned. But some crimes do go unpunished here.
b. If my adversary escapes vengeance here on earth, he does not escape justice. If he refuses to repent and turn from his evil, God will punish him in an eternal hell and he will pay his debt there. Rom 2:4-6 – 4 Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? 5 But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who “will render to each one according to his deeds”: God’s wrath is real (whole lesson in itself). It is coming.
c. But if he does repent & trust in God, justice is still served. God will forgive him because Jesus will pay for his debt on the cross. Rom 3:24-26 – 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. All wrongs will be punished. God’s justice is comprehensive. Forgiveness does not mean some sins receive no punishment. “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). We will see our worst adversary in heaven, if he repents and obeys God.
d. Without God’s commitment to avenge all sin there would have been no need for the cross, and there would be no hell. But there was a cross and there is a hell, and they are a testimony to God’s vengeance.
2. Although this command against personal vengeance is difficult, God is not asking us to abandon justice. He has adequately provided for what we seek and we can count on Him. I must trust Him. That is the real spiritual challenge in these verses.
B. Trusting God for Mercy: these verses carry us further than we may be willing to go. “Okay, I will not seek revenge. I will just let it go and keep my distance from my enemies.” That is not enough. Rom 12:20 – 20 Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.
1. God is calling for active goodwill instead of revenge. God is calling for mercy. How can I do that? How can God ask me to do that?
2. God has provided for the mercy He requires of us. The command is a call for us to trust in God. Just as He has provided for justice, He has also provided for mercy. How?
a. Matthew 18 – Peter struggled with mercy.. How often must I forgive my brother? 7 times? Jesus’ answer went further than Peter ever expected. 70 x 7 – There is no limit. In another place Jesus said 7 times in a single day! How could Jesus require that?
b. The parable that followed in Matthew 18 makes it clear. Matt 18:24-33 – 24 And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. 28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ The man who owed 10,000 talents (15 million) had every reason to forgive the man who only owed him 100 denarii (15 dollars). He simply needed to trust in what had been given to him. He could fearlessly forgive the debt because it had worked out for him. I can feed my enemies because God fed me when I was His enemy.
3. “For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” – What does this mean? This is a rather disputed phrase in the text. Whatever it means it seems obvious that Paul is presenting it as a result and goal of not seeking revenge and doing good things for my enemies. If I give them something to eat and something to drink instead of seeking retribution from them I will “heap coals of fire on their head.” Coals on the head is an emblem of pain. But what kind of pain.
a. The O.T. usage of this picture seems to suggest a reference to God’s punishment of the sinner. The Psalmist uses these words to describe his request that God would avenge him and punish his enemies. Certainly this fits our context. Paul may simply be saying, “Do you have an enemy? Do him good. This is the only vengeance, the only coals of fire, allowed to a Christian.”
b. Others suggest that this phrase refers to the pain inflicted on the evil person through his guilty conscience. If you retaliate you will simply escalate his evil. But if you do him good, you may awaken him to his wrong and bring him to repentance. I believe this is the best understanding of the phrase.
1) This interpretation points us toward an ultimate desire or objective – the evil person is changed and his evil is forgiven. The evil is overcome with good. This is what God wants.. 2 Peter 3:9 – “He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” This is the why to much of what God asks me to do:
- – The wife is commanded to stay with an unbelieving husband and live in submissiveness toward him. Why? (won without the word)
- – The Christian who is stronger in faith should give up a liberty in order to protect the conscience of his weaker brother? Why?
- – The church is Withdraw fellowship from a rebellious brother (deliver him to Satan for the destruction of the flesh) Why?
III. Overcoming Evil with Good. ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) This admonition is profound. It is describes for us the work of God and the end result of sacrificial living.
A . This last phrase takes me back to the beginning of these admonitions. Romans 12:1- 1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. What is the value of a sacrifice? Throughout the scriptures, the call to sacrifice was a call to trust God.
- – Abraham was asked to offer his only son on an altar. How could he do that? He had to trust God to make it turn out all right – to give value to his sacrifice.
- – The Jewish sinner was commanded to offer the first & best animal of his flock. How could he do that? (“That is the future of my sustenance”). He had to trust in God.
- – And then in the N.T., when believers were persecuted and mistreated, and tempted to retaliate, God called for submission. Their submission was their sacrifice – as sacrifice of their own bodies to God. How could they do it? by trusting in God to vindicate them.
- – I don’t know if Stephen could have thrown the rock back at his accusers. He may not have had the opportunity. But I do know that he did not have to do what he did in response to their evil. He did not have to pray for their forgiveness and seek their salvation. But he did. That was his sacrifice. He could do that because he was trusting in God to make it right.
- – How could Jesus do that? (have you ever asked that question as you contemplated the suffering he endured?) Someone said “it wasn’t the nails that held Jesus on the cross it was His love me.“
- – He was able to do that because he trusted in His Father to make it right. 1 Peter 2:21-24 – 21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us,* leaving us* an example, that you should follow His steps: 22 “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”;* 23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness – by whose stripes you were healed.
Conclusion: Jesus overcame evil (ALL EVIL) with Good (THE HIGHEST GOOD). Paul says that through the cross Jesus disarmed the forces of evil and triumphed over them IT. (Col. 2:15)