March 24, 2018 Afternoon Verse Of The Day

never avenge yourself (12:19)

The last two characteristics Paul lists here are both reiterations. He again denounces returning evil for evil, declaring, 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. We are to leave that to the wrath of God. Quoting from the Mosaic law (Deut. 32:35), the apostle reminds his readers that it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (cf. 2 Sam. 22:48; Nah. 1:2; Heb. 10:30). In His divine time, the wrath of God will come (Col. 3:6), and just retribution awaits the unforgiven.[1]


Keeping the Peace

Romans 12:18–20

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Whenever the subject of peace comes up Christians tend to get a bad rap, because the people discussing it think immediately of the Crusades of the Middle Ages or Protestants fighting Catholics in Northern Ireland today. We are supposed to be people of peace. Jesus is the “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). Yet Christianity seems to go hand in hand with political disruptions, internecine strife, and war.

These associations are not entirely fair. The Crusades were not really Christian. And in any case, they are only examples of the many thousands of wars that have scarred the face of human history. One writer has estimated that in the last four thousand years of human history there have been only three hundred years of peace. Human nature is vindictive, and the fights in which Christians have been involved are merely examples of the innumerable battles that have divided and continue to divide nations, races, families, and people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and dispositions. One of the songs I remember from my college days had this verse:

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.

The French hate the Germans. The Germans hate the Poles.

Italians hate Yugoslavs. South Africans hate the Dutch.

And I don’t like anybody very much.

Neither United Nor Reformed

There is some truth to the complaint that Christians have not always been a peace-loving people. Wars among nations are seldom in our control. But what about the battles that have divided Christians from Christians? In 1054 the Eastern Orthodox church divided from the Catholic church over one word in the Nicene Creed, filioque. It means “and the Son,” and it had to do with whether it is right to say that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son” or whether the Holy Spirit proceeds only “from the Father.”

The leaders of the Reformation divided over how Jesus was present in the communion service, Martin Luther insisting on a literal physical presence (“This is my body,” Matt. 26:26) and Zwingli on a mere remembrance (“Do this in remembrance of me,” Luke 22:19).

And what of today? One writer tells of a crossroads in a small town where there were churches on three of the four corners. When a stranger asked what churches they were he was told, “Well, that one is United Presbyterian. This one is Reformed Presbyterian. And this one,” pointing to the third, “is for Presbyterians who are neither united nor reformed.”

Some divisions are based on important matters of theology and practice, of course. But many are not, and the self-righteous, antagonistic, fighting spirits that lie behind these unnecessary divisions and perpetuate them are a scandal among those who profess to follow Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). He asserted, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Paul gets to this important matter in Romans 12:18–20, when he says:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

These are important statements about what it means to be a peacekeeper, especially because this is the first time in the letter that Paul has discussed the subject of peace between human beings. He discussed what it means to have peace with God in the first chapters of the letter (see Rom. 5:1). But this is the first consideration of what it means to be a peacemaker. There are three verses in this section, and they make three important points.

Realism

The first thing we notice about Paul’s challenge to Christians to live a life of peace is his sobering realism. He begins, “If it is possible” and “as far as it depends on you… ” (v. 18).

This way of speaking recognizes two potential sources of difficulty: (1) the behavior of other people may negate peace and (2) there may be issues at stake that will make peace impossible even from the side of the Christian. For example, truth cannot be bartered away or sacrificed just to maintain peace. Purity cannot be violated. Injustice cannot be condoned. James 3:17 says, “The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, then peace-loving.…” So a prior, necessary Christian commitment to purity, truth, honesty, justice, and other indispensable matters may make peace unattainable.

Realism recognizes that this is a very wicked world. It knows that evil exists and affirms that it must be resisted by all right-thinking people, sometimes even to the point of armed conflict.

In September 1938 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich following his much-watched meeting with Adolf Hitler and greeted enthusiastic London crowds with the promise of “peace in our time.” He had just signed the infamous four-party agreement giving Germany the right to invade and occupy portions of Czechoslovakia. To maintain peace he had gone against his better judgment and had betrayed an ally. But it was not Chamberlain’s motive that was at fault. He was a man of peace who wanted to avoid a threatened bloodbath. What was lacking was his judgment. He was not sufficiently realistic about evil, and World War II was the result.

We also need realism of a positive nature: We should realize that some things contribute to peace just as other things cause conflict and that, if we are Christians, we need to be on the side of the one rather than the other.

Here is some practical realism from the Book of Proverbs:

  1. “Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers all wrongs” (Prov. 10:12).
  2. “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult” (Prov. 12:16).
  3. “Fools mock at making amends for sin, but goodwill is found among the upright” (Prov. 14:9).
  4. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).
  5. “He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (Prov. 17:9).
  6. “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out” (Prov. 17:14).
  7. “An angry man stirs up dissension” (Prov. 29:22).

These verses tell us many things we can do to promote or encourage peace even if the other person does not want it.

Forbearance

The second important point Paul has to make about keeping peace is forbearance. He says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (v. 19). This is categorical teaching. It does not say, “Do not avenge yourselves except under the following three or four conditions” or “except under extreme circumstances.” It says, “Do not avenge yourselves.” That means never. Fighting back is not Christian.

“But surely I have to stand up for my rights,” you say. Do you? If you want to stand up for someone’s rights, I’ll tell you what to do: Stand up for someone else’s rights, fight for them. Do not fight for yourself, at least not if you are serious about obeying God and following Jesus Christ.

This verse tell us something else we should do as well, but it is no more acceptable to our natural way of thinking than what I have just said: Leave room for God’s wrath.

In the Greek text of Romans these words are literally, “Give place to wrath,” which is how the King James translators rendered the verse. In other words, there is no specific reference to God, which means that there is some question as to what the verse actually teaches. It could mean four things:

  1. Give place to your enemy’s wrath. That is, step aside and let it pass by you. If there is to be wrath, let it be his rather than yours.
  2. Give place to your own wrath. That is, give it time to expend itself. Don’t do anything hasty. Let the pressure in you dissipate.
  3. Give place to the wrath of the civil magistrate. That is, let the case come before the courts. That is what they are for.
  4. Give place to God’s wrath. This is the view of the translators of the New International Version, who have added the word “God’s” to clarify what they believe the text is teaching.

Of these four interpretations, the middle two can probably be eliminated quickly. The second, giving place to your own wrath, is just a modern idea. We speak of “letting it all hang out” or “getting it off your chest,” but that is hardly biblical. In fact, the point of this passage is the precise opposite. We are not to let our wrath out. We are to forego it. The third interpretation, giving place to the proper function of the civil courts, is not in view either. It is true that the next chapter begins to talk about the role of the civil magistrate, but it does not develop the government’s role in providing justice for us when we are wronged but rather the state’s role in either punishing or commending us for our behavior.

That leaves either the first or fourth interpretation: (1) that we are to give place to our enemy’s wrath, allowing it to work or (4) that we are to leave vengeance to God. The choice here is difficult, because both are true and both have something to commend them. Those who argue for the first view note that stepping back to allow something to pass by is the natural meaning of the Greek verb. Donald Grey Barnhouse says, “Here we are being told simply to endure patiently the wrath of the man who does us wrong. If evil rushes toward us, we are to love the evildoer and stand aside while he strikes out in blind selfishness; for we know that he cannot hurt us in the citadel of the heart where Jesus Christ holds sway.” Jesus’ command, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39), is along this exact line.

On the other hand, since the verse goes on to speak of God’s wrath, saying, “For it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord,” most commentators feel that the idea of giving place to God’s wrath is almost inescapable. John Murray says, “Here we have what belongs to the essence of piety. The essence of ungodliness is that we presume to take the place of God, to take everything into our own hands. It is faith to commit ourselves to God, to cast all our care on him and to vest all our interests in him. In reference to the matter in hand, the wrongdoing of which we are the victims, the way of faith is to recognize that God is judge and to leave the execution of vengeance and retribution to him. Never may we in our private personal relations execute the vengeance which wrongdoing merits.”

The statement “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” is from Deuteronomy 32:35, but it is also quoted in Hebrews 10:30. It is an essential truth to keep in mind, but it is difficult, especially when we are under attack. Times of attack are a profound test of faith and of whether or not we really do have an otherworldly perspective.

When we were studying the “pattern of this age” in our exposition of Romans 12:1–2, I contrasted the Christian worldview with that of secularism. Secularism rejects a beyond or a hereafter and sees life only as the now. So, for the secularist, to suggest leaving vengeance to God is utter foolishness. If the secularist is going to get what he wants, it will have to be now. And if justice is going to be done, it will have to be done in this life. Hence retaliation is the answer. It is only a person who sees beyond the now and is willing to trust God to establish justice and meet out punishments and awards hereafter who can be forebearing and hence be a peacemaker.

Remember these words: “ ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” They are important.

Active Goodness

The third verse dealing with what it means to “live at peace with everyone” is verse 20, which develops a contrast with the thought of taking vengeance into our own hands. “On the contrary,” it says,

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

The thrust of this verse is clear enough. We are to do good even to those who do evil to us. This is the positive way in which we are to work toward peace or be peacemakers. Moreover, it is a third step in an obvious progression. First, we are to forebear doing evil, not retaliating for wrongs done. Second, we are to do good instead of doing evil. Third, we are to do good even to our enemies. The quotation is from Proverbs 25:21–22.

The difficult part of this is the last line, which as Leon Morris notes in a classic understatement, is “a metaphorical expression whose meaning is not obvious.” What does it mean to “heap burning coals” on our enemy’s head? And why should we want to?

Charles Hodge suggests three possible interpretations.

  1. Increasing the enemy’s guilt and thus his eventual punishment. This is the oldest and probably the most widely received interpretation of the metaphor. But this is hardly the thrust of this passage, not to mention that it is also a revolting idea. It amounts to using good as a weapon. That is, “Be good to your enemy, because in the end your good will harm him more than if you were mean.” It is hard to imagine Jesus or even a nice worldly person seriously saying that.
  2. Kindness will cause your enemy to become guilty and feel shame. This is not much better. To be sure, shame might lead to repentance and thus eventually to salvation. But initially it is pain itself that we would be trying to inflict, and this hardly sits well with the idea of doing good to one’s enemies or blessing those who curse us, which Paul has expounded just a few verses earlier.
  3. Doing good to one’s enemy is the best means of subduing him or winning him over. Hodge calls this the simplest and natural meaning, saying, “To heap coals of fire on anyone is a punishment which no one can bear; he must yield to it. Kindness is no less effectual; the most malignant enemy cannot always withstand it. The true and Christian method, therefore, to subdue an enemy is to ‘overcome evil with good.’ ” This is where the next verse takes us, of course. For the end of the matter is that evil is to be overcome by good, not good by evil or even evil by evil. Hodge says, “Nothing is so powerful as goodness.… Men whose minds can withstand argument, and whose hearts rebel against threats, are not proof against the persuasive influence of unfeigned love.”5And isn’t that exactly how the Lord Jesus Christ subdued us to himself? No one was ever reviled so much or as unjustly as Jesus. Yet, as Peter wrote, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:23–25).

It was by his conduct in suffering and before his enemies that Jesus won us, and it is by his death and the power of his resurrection that he enables us to live like him.

His Mind in Us

This leads me to the last point, a very important one. I have been working through what Paul is teaching about peacekeeping or peacemaking, and I have stressed that it requires realism, forbearance, and active goodness to those who do wrong. But perhaps you have been thinking—I know the thought comes to me—“But I can’t do it. I don’t care if this is the Christian way or is the example of Christ, I can’t do it. Nothing is ever going to get me to the point of wanting to do good to those who hate me.”

Fair enough. You have to start where you are, and if that is where you are, you have to recognize it. But also recognize that those who belong to Jesus Christ do not have a choice about whether they are going to follow and obey him or not. We must, if we are Christians. Therefore, we must be peacekeepers and peacemakers. We must be like him.

So the question is not Will you? The question is merely How? Let me make two suggestions.

First, you will never make any progress in making peace between yourself and other people until you have first found peace with God. You must be a Christian. Our relationship with God is the most important of all relationships, and if we are not at peace with him, we will never be at peace with others. We will be fighting constantly. That is why Peter went right on to discuss Jesus’ death. On the cross Jesus made peace between rebellious sinners like us and the sovereign, holy God against whom we have rebelled. It is by believing that and trusting in Jesus’ finished work that peace with God may be found.

Paul told the Colossians, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:19–20).

Second, if you are to be a peacemaker, you must be at peace yourself, and this means you must have experienced what Paul in Philippians calls the peace of God. “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:5–7).

First, peace with God. Second, the peace of God. Then, at the last, you will be able to start being a peacekeeper and a peacemaker. For when you are at peace with God and when the life of the Prince of Peace is in you, Jesus will be doing through you what he himself was doing when he was in the world. And while you are at it, do not forget the seventh of the eight Beatitudes, which promises a blessing to peacemakers, adding, “For they will be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9).[2]19 This peace-loving attitude may be costly, however, because some will want to take advantage of it, figuring that Christian principles will not permit the wronged party to retaliate. What is to be done in such a case? The path of duty is clear: We are not to take vengeance. This would be to trespass on the province of God, the great Judge of all: “Leave room for God’s wrath.” Such matters are best left with the God who always does what is right. Here Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35, where the context indicates that the Lord will intervene to vindicate his people when their enemies abuse them and gloat over them. God’s action will rebuke not only the adversaries but also the false gods in which they have put their trust.[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 2, p. 202). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The New Humanity (Vol. 4, pp. 1621–1628). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[3] Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 192). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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