"Revenge is Sweet" but it isn’t Christian
Text: Lk.11:4a&b "Forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us"
Achilles was furious. Hector had killed Patroclus and Achilles hadn’t been able to do anything to stop it. Still fuming, Achilles draws comfort from imagining all that he will do to Hector when he catches up with him. How sweet those thoughts of revenge were to him – sweeter than drops of honey!
The story is recounted by Homer in his book The Iliad one of the oldest existing literary works of the western world – it is usually dated to around the 8 th century BC.
The world was so different then and yet we don’t have the slightest problem understanding the theme of revenge. One of the reasons for that is that this is the way of the world - heathen philosophers even argued that revenge was lawful. In our own day it is not uncommon to hear of people taking the "law into their own hands" to exact vengeance on others when they think that justice has let them off too lightly.
And we can look on with a degree of pleasure and approval. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is perhaps the most famous example of what is called "revenge tragedy" but the genre lives on in film after film. Maybe you have seen or at least heard of these films where a, if not the major, theme is revenge: Taken, True Grit, Gladiator, Braveheart.
Why then is something that is so common in human life and something that is so popular so wrong?
Well I suppose we could look at the effects of revenge and think about the seemingly endless round of violence in the Mafia style vendetta where each wrong is met by a further wrong. The intractable problems in the Middle East would be another case in point as Israel and the Palestinians each want to have the last word when it comes to violent retribution.
But for us this morning it is important for us to realise that the Bible tell us clearly that this is wrong, and it does so in at least two different ways:
Because "Vengeance is mine, I will repay" says the LORD (Deut.32:35 and quoted twice in the NT)
Because revenge overlooks the fact of our own indebtedness to God. God himself is forgiving (Ps.86:5) and he expects us, when we have experienced his forgiveness, to be forgiving too. There is no weakness or dishonour about being ready to forgive. As the Message translates Prov.19:11 "Smart people know how to hold their tongue; their grandeur is to forgive and forget."
Jesus Links Prayer for Forgiveness to Our own Readiness to Forgive
A couple of weeks ago we thought about Jesus’ instructions to his followers concerning their need to pray for the forgiveness of their sins. We won’t therefore spend a long time on this again now though we must point out just how significant God’s forgiveness of our sins actually is.
Sin is serious because it leaves us in debt towards God. Indeed this is the very worst debt we can incur because:
It represents our futile attempts to un-god the infinite and infinitely majestic God
It is a debt we cannot pay
It is a debt that none of our friends or family can pay for us – the bank of mum and dad is of no help here
It is a debt that will send us to the worst of all prisons
But there is a solution to this awful problem and it is simple. We must ask God to forgive us our sins.
When God freely pardons sins he does so for the honour and glory of his own name and he does so on the grounds of Jesus’ death, resurrection and intercession on behalf of sinners. He is truly the forgiving God that Psalm 86:5 declares him to be!
When God forgives us our sins he fully annuls our debt towards him and transforms our very status so that the debtor’s prison of hell is no longer our destination but, covered by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, we are made citizens of heaven.
What a blessing and a privilege it is to know that your sins are forgiven – and it is all because of Jesus!
Just because sins are pardonable however does not automatically ensure that your sins are in fact pardoned. Have you repented or are you only presuming?
Jesus died for sinners but the remission of sins is limited to those who believe:
Acts 13:38 "Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man (Jesus) forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you,"
My friends don’t assume that all is well and all will be well – make sure of it:
Recognise your guilt
Confess your sin
Repent of it
Put your trust in Jesus who died and rose again
Ask for pardon – that is, pray.
But this is by now means the end but in reality the beginning of the Christian life and it is a life that you must live. When the LORD God has been so remarkably gracious, generous and kind to you he expects to see something of the same being produced in your life and shining forth in the way you relate to others and the way in which you treat them.
We are to imagine that Jesus is teaching that our forgiving others is the ground of our acceptance with God. A man or a woman becomes a Christian when they first come to God pleading for undeserved but desperately needed mercy and grace. This is an unrepeatable experience - we do not fall in and out of salvation. However having come to know God’s grace in Jesus Christ does not mean that we have attained the heights of perfection never ever to sin again. The Christian sadly does sin and must pray not this time for salvation as though he needs to be saved all over again but for restoration to the personal fellowship with his Heavenly Father which is hindered by his sin.
But how can he go back with confidence to his Heavenly Father and pray for fresh forgiveness, is there any indication at all that he is fundamentally a forgiven person?
That is where the second half of Jesus’ instruction fits in. "Forgive us our sins" he says "for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us".
The fact that the believer forgives others is not the ground of his own forgiveness but rather evidence that he has genuinely received forgiveness from God for his own sins. The prayer then is akin to calling upon God to continue the good work that he has already begun in the believer’s life.
Jesus is not teaching then that we must try hard to forgive others before we can be forgiven by God but he is most definitely is teaching that it is impossible to be genuinely forgiven by God and show no sign or evidence of it in the way we now live.
How utterly inconsistent it would be to claim to have benefitted from a full, free and totally undeserved pardon from God and then to refuse to reflect in some small way such generosity in our own behaviour towards others!
Christian salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone but such a salvation does not come to a man or a woman without bring with it those "good works for which we have been created in Christ, those good works which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (cf. Eph.2:10).
One of these good works that flow out of the reality of sins forgiven is the fruit of being ready and willing to extend forgiveness to others.
Do you hang on to grudges? Do you refuse to pardon freely? Are you itching, if not for revenge, but to see someone else who has done you some wrong get their comeuppance? If you do, what grounds do you have for imagining that God really has forgiven your sins?
God graciously forgives and gives his grace that our lives might be transformed – but if there is no evidence of transformation in a life grace must be absent. Such a person will be found to be fooling themselves, deluding themselves, having no true salvation.
God’s Forgiveness Produces its Effects
What I have asserted above is backed up in a number of places in the gospel narratives.
On one occasion Jesus had been visiting in the home of a Pharisee named Simon when a woman who was a renowned sinner in the town came in. Standing behind Jesus she wept such copious tears that she was making his feet wet at which point she hurriedly wiped them with her hair before anointing them with the expensive ointment she had brought with her. Simon wasn’t impressed. If Jesus was a real prophet then he would know what sort of woman this was and would want nothing to do with her. How different Jesus’ reaction was! How different his assessment of what was going on!
Jesus explained to Simon just why the woman had done what she had and he did so by telling him a little story:
Lk.7:41-48 "A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt." And he said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."
Jesus didn’t for one moment suggest that this woman was not the woman Simon thought her to be but he interpreted her action of love as being the fruit of the love and forgiveness she had already received. God’s forgiveness is never unproductive.
Later in his ministry Jesus made the same point in a different way again making use of a story.
This time it was in response to a question posed to him by Peter. Peter had taken onboard the need to forgive others but he wanted to know just how often this had to be done. He probably thought he was being generous in suggesting 7 times as the benchmark. Jesus’ reply must have stunned Peter because 7 wasn’t Jesus’ answer but 70 x 7!! To illustrate Jesus added his story by way of illustration:
Mt.18:23-35 "Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."
This unforgiving servant demonstrated from his churlish reaction that he had not taken to heart his forgiveness – he did not allow it to produce fruit in his life and ultimately he forfeited any claim to it.
Similarly if you steadfastly show no forgiveness towards others then it is a strong indication that you are a yourself a stranger to the gracious forgiveness of God however loud you might protest about it.
The united testimony of the Scripture is that when God forgives his forgiveness produce effects:
Generosity of spirit
If there is no sign of this sort of fruit we can only deduce that whatever else may have taken place God’s forgiveness has not been properly experienced and understood.
What do you see when you examine your own life?
To Truly Forgive is Not Always Easy
The true believer who has been forgiven his sins will experience changes in his life. He is born again and has a new life to live. The law is now written on his heart: he knows what he should do and he wants to do it. And yet, that does not mean that it is all plain sailing. Progress will require self-discipline and effort – Christianity is not a call to a comfortable easy believism that costs a man or a woman nothing. A Christian’s salvation is freely given to him but the outworking of that salvation in his daily living is demanding and will require serious endeavour on his part.
How down to earth the Bible is! It gives us just the kind of direction that we need!
We need to be told how we are to live and so we are instructed concerning our need to forgive others. And we are given this instruction precisely because the Christian is not yet perfect and doesn’t automatically do what is right at every turn.
Jesus had already given clear instruction about the need to forgive if one would want forgiveness for oneself:
Lk.6:37 "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven;"
The unforgiving heart is not itself in a condition to receive forgiveness. Jesus would later press this further when he said:
Mk.11:25 "And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses."
This aspect of not holding onto grudges but of forgiving the brother who sins is repeated over and over again:
Lk.17:3-4 "Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him."
Paul explicitly dealt with it in at least three of his letters:
In his second letter to the church in Corinth Paul referred to the way in which discipline was being applied to a member of the church who had been guilty of seriously immoral behaviour. The Corinthians, having humbled the guilty party, should now act in a different way:
2Cor.2:7 "you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow."
It seems that Christians were regularly falling out with one another in the early church and needed to be told what to do about it. The instruction is necessary for us to as we are probably just as adept at offending one another as in the days of the early church:
Eph.4:32 "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."
Surely there is an assumption here that hurts will occur and forgiveness called for.
Col.3:12-13 "Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."
How comprehensive the Christian life is and how demanding! Please don’t imagine that talk about prayer is other-worldly and impracticable or that it can be limited to a religious compartment nicely isolated from the rest of life. The prayer that Jesus urges upon his followers is prayer that must be accompanied by lifestyle changes and positive fruit-bearing.
The Christian life is challenging and I must ask you: "Are you up for it?"
I hope your answer is yes because given the stakes that are involved you can’t afford not to be.
May God give us in Christ all the grace we need.