Romans 12:17-21 - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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Romans 12:17-21


Pay Back


Most of you, I guess, are not part of the Mafia and so I hope you are strangers to the murky world of the vendetta, the blood-feud that can destroy families and run and run through generations.

But even if you have no personal experience of the vendetta you still know what is involved – one act of violence leads to another in a tit for tat manner and lives are spoiled if not destroyed. Some of you may well have experienced something similar, albeit to a lesser degree, when an argument, a disagreement, a falling-out, over something that now seems quite trivial but which has led to a long-standing separation or division.

How easily these things can happen and how difficult to bring to an end!

In the Middle East no-one seems to have any idea just how to break into the spiral of violence that frustrates all efforts to secure a lasting peace between Israel and her Arab neighbours. No-one seems to want to break the cycle and each side requires pay-back for wrongs they believe they've suffered. Everyone wants to have the last word.

It is because we all know how intractable such problems can be that the world was amazed when Nelson Mandela didn't turn on the white South African population when he had the chance. There were many others who were fully expecting, even hoping, that he would.

Yes, we all know what pay back time means. When we talk about it or think about it we do so in terms of getting even with someone who has wronged us but even then we don't really mean that, we want to get one up on them. How easily we can fall into this sort of trap and before we know it there we are in a right mess.

This is no new phenomena – Paul knew all about pay-back when he wrote to the church in Rome and those folk knew all about it too!

Relating to our enemies
Paul has been explaining to the Christians in Rome how their faith in Jesus Christ should affect the way they lived their everyday lives. He has already written explaining they should behave towards each other as fellow believers but now his focus shifts somewhat to address the matter of their relationships with those outside the church circle who are hostile to Christians and their faith.

(Sadly what he has to say is also sometimes relevant to our relations with other folk who profess the same faith that we do. Christians can and sadly do treat each other as enemies from time to time, though this should never be.)

Paul's concern in these closing verses of ch.12 is with individual and personal relations he is not dealing with judicial and administrative questions – he will turn to that in ch.13. This is an important factor to keep in mind. He is not laying down instructions here as to how a society should organise itself but he is telling Christians how they must organise their individual behaviour within whatever society they might find themselves.

In fact Paul is still explaining how that genuine love that he mentioned back in v.9 is to show itself in the life of the Christian believer. As he deals with this question of how to respond to the evil perpetrated against them by hostile folk outside the church, Paul gives a set of three negative instructions:

  • repay no-one evil for evil v.17

  • do not avenge yourselves v.19

  • do not be overcome by evil v.21

The three commands are very similar to each other and Paul has probably repeated them because human nature finds these prohibited things so easy to do.

But Paul is not happy to be purely negative. So he doesn't merely ban certain types of behaviour but he adds to them some more positive elements which help both to fill the details of what Christians are to do and to explain why this is the way for them to go.

Paul wanted his readers in the first century to adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour by the quality of the lives they lived. It is no different for us. We are called in the 21 st century to make the faith that we profess with our lips attractive and beautiful by the lives we lead. We're not to be naïve and imagine that if only we did this then everyone would become Christians – this is no magic bullet – but it is true that others can be put off Christianity and dissuaded from following the Lord Jesus by the poor quality of the lives of professing Christians.

May the way we live our lives not turn anyone away from the Lord Jesus!

No vindictive retaliation

v.17 "Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all."

It's very straightforward isn't it. It wasn't new either – Paul had already written something very similar to the church in Thessalonica some years before:

1Thess.5:15 "See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone."

And Peter would pen the same sentiment in later years:

1Pet.3:9 "Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing."

Paul begins by saying that it is not for the Christian to repay evil. It might be tempting to try to justify reacting in a tit for tat manner on the grounds that justice is being done implying that without such a reaction injustice would reign. But in just a few verse Paul will explain tell us that the Lord himself will see to it that justice is done when quoting the OT he writes:

v.19 "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."

And indeed it is most fitting for the Christian not to try to take things into his own hands because the Lord he serves teaches:

Mt.5:39, 44 "But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also… But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,"

And this was teaching that Jesus himself put into practice – but we'll come to that in a moment.

Instead of such retaliation the Christian is called upon to think of a better way in which to respond, a way which will secure a wider approval from the world that looks on.

This does not mean that the world is allowed to set the agenda for the Christian – right and wrong is never to be decided upon by a majority vote but is God-given – but it means rather that Christians are not to conduct themselves in ways that are needlessly awkward and offensive.

Men, even fallen men, still retain something of the divine image and so are capable of appreciating at least some of what is good and wholesome. Paul uses the same principle in a couple of other circumstances. Paul says that when choosing an elder in the church he should have a good reputation amongst men in general (1Tim.3:7). Paul also wanted the way in which he handled church finances to be exemplary – leaving no ground for accusation (2Cor.8:21).
So the Christian must react – he is not to be merely passive when confronted with evil but his response must be a reasoned and careful one, a response which others can understand as honourable and above board.

Paul goes further and urges the Christian to do all that is in his power to live at peace with others though realising that sometimes this will not indeed be possible. The Christian must not place peace above truth and holiness – if truth and holiness are abandoned what remains does not deserve to be called peace! But let the Christian be sure that his own behaviour be not so boorish and rude as to itself be the cause for strained relations.

Even when truth and holiness are the issues at stake it is becoming of the Christian to conduct himself with politeness and respectfully. We have no one to blame but ourselves if we react to others in a hostile, aggressive manner – it was our Master after all who declared that the peacemaker is blessed!

Never avenging yourselves
The thought in v.19 is very similar and yet takes us a little further:

"Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."

What Paul is saying here is that the Christian is not to take the law into his own hands. The Christian might well suffer evil at the hands of another but he is not to respond by inflicting punishment to avenge himself.

The Christian believes in an all-seeing, all-knowing God and is called upon to leave matters entirely with him. If the Christian were to act otherwise and seek to inflict his own retribution then this would really be tantamount to him playing God and usurping God's rightful authority! If vengeance does indeed belong to the Lord what on earth does the Christian think he is doing if he seeks to exercise what is the prerogative of God himself?

This principle should be very clear to us because it is applied in the laws of our own land. If I suffer wrong at the hand of a person and discover who that person was I will not be protected by the law if I try to settle scores in my own way – and I may well find myself being arraigned before the courts if I do!

Paul argues here that by not seeking to carry out our own vengeance we are honouring God and making place for his wrath to be expressed against wrongdoing.

So the Christian is to restrain any personal feelings that might well-up within him that would press him so as to give place to the wrath of God – but that is not the end of the matter! Paul goes further and gives some extremely demanding advice. What he is about to say seems to cut across the grain of our human nature but we must remember that that grain is warped by sin. He is about to tell us nothing that Jesus had not already told his disciples when he told them to love their enemies. He tells them that the Christian way is to seek the well-being and benefit of the wrong-doer!!

Just listen to v.20 again:

"To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.""

It is easy enough to understand the bits about giving food to a hungry person or a drink to another who is thirsty but what are we to make of that bit about burning coals?
Well the first thing that we can say is that the whole context is about the Christian treating his enemy well. So we can and must dismiss any suggestion that interprets these words as encouraging the Christian to do things in order to make things worse for his enemy! Paul is not saying that we can hope to make life worse for our enemy by being kind to him!!
There are two interpretations of these words that harmonise with the context and in the end amount to very much the same thing.

  • in semitic languages the idea of heaping something on the head is a blessing rather than a curse. But how could that be? Well in a world where there was no instant gas or electricity directly entering the house people were dependent upon live coals for heating and for cooking. A person would be in a sorry state if his fire were to go out and he would have to go to a neighbour for help – he would go hoping that he would receive some live coals with which he could restart his own fire. So heaping live coals on the head would indicate real generosity on the part of the neighbour giving what was needed and in considerable quantity. Such the Christian is called upon to do – to provide the help that is needed and without skimping.

  • Such generous giving – food, water, fire – would also come as a challenge to the recipient and under God could cause the pain of shame. Shame for having so badly treated a person who so undeservedly generously gives to him when he is in need.

That this seems to be along the right line of interpretation is confirmed by what Paul writes to draw the chapter to a close.

Do not be overcome by evil
If we respond to evil, matching evil with evil, it will be like fighting fire with fire! It is also evidence that we have ourselves been overcome by evil. (Cf.Gen.4:7)

Nor is it any better for me to do kind acts if all the time my deepest desire is that these very acts of kindness will intensify the woes of my enemy. That will simply be one more way of allowing evil to conquer me – after all to do one thing, while desiring another, smacks of hypocrisy which itself is an evil.

No these various responses will only serve to foster evil and increase it rather than overcome it and that is what Paul is aiming at.

The Christian is to behave well towards his enemy seeking not only not to do him any harm but positively to do him good. He is called to live like this because it is the right thing to do. It is also the way that is most likely to be used of God to touch the heart of our enemy, shaming him and bringing about repentance.

Let me read to you an incident in the OT that illustrates what is involved – it comes from the Book of Kings and is about Elisha. The King of Syria was an enemy of Israel but he was frustrated in his attempts to battle Israel because Elisha, acting as a prophet, kept on revealing his plans to the King of Israel who could then get out of trouble. The King of Syria decided to try to finish with Elisha:

2Kings.6:14-23 "So he sent there horses and chariots and a great army, and they came by night and surrounded the city.
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, "Alas, my master! What shall we do?" He said, "Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them." Then Elisha prayed and said, "O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see." So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. And when the Syrians came down against him, Elisha prayed to the LORD and said, "Please strike this people with blindness." So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Elisha. And Elisha said to them, "This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek." And he led them to Samaria.
As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, "O LORD, open the eyes of these men, that they may see." So the LORD opened their eyes and they saw, and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria. As soon as the king of Israel saw them, he said to Elisha, "My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?" He answered, "You shall not strike them down. Would you strike down those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master." So he prepared for them a great feast, and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel."

Of course this is not the only story that illustrates the teaching that Paul has laid before us this morning. We also have the example of our Lord Jesus who lived just this sort of life:

Listen as we close to the way in which Peter summarised this aspect of Jesus' life:

1Pet.2:21-25 "For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls."


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