Monday, April 23, 2012

Romans 12:17-21 – Faithful Justice

[Romans 12 began with the famous call to be a living sacrifice. First we studied the attitudes of service (humility, unity, and diversity). Then we looked at the process of living renewal, or how to behave in our bodies representing what Christ has done in our spirit. Most of the examples last week were about being a blessing to others. This week is a little more challenging as we look at bad relationships and bad people.]

17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.

[The Old Testament idea of "eye for an eye and tooth for tooth" was never meant for individuals, but rather was the guideline for human government regarding civil and criminal punishment. In modern terms we would say "make the punishment fit the crime". But because of our sinful human nature people then and now misused "eye for an eye" as the justification for personal retribution. But if we focus on our entitlement for revenge to each offense, where is the place for faith in that? More on this a little later.

The second idea here is our public regard for good things. Many studies have shown that people feel good after doing good deeds, but there is also a second hand effect. People who simply observe good deeds are also elevated in mood an attitude. In modern culture we have the idea of pay-it-forward; to respond to good that has been done to you, by rendering good to someone else. This is a Christian ideal; that we take all the good that God has rendered to us and use it as motivation to render forgiveness, grace, and mercy to the world around us. The Christian living a life of good works seeking virtue in all things can motivate the people around us to seek God and virtue as well.]

18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.

[One of the big problems with personal retribution is contentious people will always present you with offenses to repay. If we take-the-bait and allow ourselves to be drawn into these cycles of conflict with others, we can allow someone to steal our peace.

I've seen plenty of people who live life with a chip-on-their-shoulder always waiting to pounce on someone who offends them. What a terrible way to live! How insecure do you have to be to live a life of conflict just so everyone will "know who they are messing with"? If you questioned someone like that, they would probably say they are just demanding the respect they are entitled to. But who really respects that kind of insecurity? I would much rather be known as a peace maker than as someone you had better not cross.]

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.

[Now we can expand on the idea introduced in verse 17. Don't be one of these contentious people who have to avenge every wrong done to them. Now this was confusing to me at first because "give place to wrath" sounds like we are to allow ourselves room for wrath, to let ourselves be angry; but in context that doesn't make any sense. The conjunction "but rather" tells us this is a contrast or alternative to avenging ourselves.

Te answer to this paradox is the second half of this verse, the idea that justice belongs to God, quoted from Deuteronomy 32:35


"Vengeance is Mine, and recompense;

Their foot shall slip in due time;

For the day of their calamity is at hand,

And the things to come hasten upon them."


So here is our alternative; instead of avenging ourselves, we trust in the God of Justice. God has prepared a punishment for every offense and if we will trust in Him and are patient we don't have to avenge every wrong ourselves. One way we live by faith is by trusting in the perfect justice of God. Though God requires civil governments to punish crimes, he wants us as individuals to "wait on the Lord" and trust in him.]


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."

[Now to some this verse is just crazy; first we are told not to avenge ourselves, now we are asked to provide for the basic needs of our enemies. In addition to that I hear different opinions on the meaning of the last part of the verse, so lets dig in and figure it out. First of all this passage is quoting an Old Testament passage:


Proverbs 25:21-22

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;

And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;

For so you will heap coals of fire on his head,

And the Lord will reward you.


So if you had asked why you should give food and drink to your enemy; the answer is the promise that the Lord will reward you. Here we have a chance to work on our theology a little and learn that God gives us a choice in doing good; we can receive a reward from men now or a reward from God later.


Matthew 6:1-4

"Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.


So one of our principles in living by faith in God is to do things on earth that hold no promise of benefit or reward in this life; trusting only in the promise that God will remember all of the things we do motivated by faith.


So now let's tackle the other difficulty in this passage; what does it mean to say that "For so you will heap coals of fire on his head"? I have heard people say this means to make your enemy ashamed of his behavior, or to make them paranoid expecting they are being setup by your kindness. But really both of those are based on predicting the response of men, but this passage is talking about the response of God.


Our other clue is how this concept of burning coals is used throughout the Bible.


In 2 Samuel 22 David cries out to God to save him from his enemies, and God becomes angry at his oppressors including a "devouring fire proceeding from His mouth" that kindles coals of fire.


Psalm 11 speaks of the wicked oppressing the righteous and God responding by raining coals of fire on the head of the wicked.


Psalm 18 is almost a direct copy of 2 Samuel 22 where again the coals-of-fire is the anger of God against the wicked.


And finally in Psalm 140 David again cries out to God to deal with his oppressors and I want you to hear what he says.


Psalm 140:9-13

"As for the head of those who surround me,

Let the evil of their lips cover them;

10 Let burning coals fall upon them;

Let them be cast into the fire,

Into deep pits, that they rise not up again.

11 Let not a slanderer be established in the earth;

Let evil hunt the violent man to overthrow him."

12 I know that the Lord will maintain

The cause of the afflicted,

And justice for the poor.


So to put all of this together; every time you see burning coals used like this in the Bible it is the punishment of God against the evil. And David spells it out for us, expressing his faith that "the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted". Therefore we understand Romans 12:20 to mean that just as God does not reward acts already rewarded on earth; likewise God has no need to avenge those who avenge themselves. If instead we return kindness for abuse, trusting in the justice of God, we are rewarded and our adversaries are punished.]


21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

[Some people don't seek revenge because they feel helpless and week. But we can overcome evil with good, because we trust in the faithful justice of our God. We don't forgive others because we predict that they will change their behavior, we forgive because we have already been forgiven.


Those who are easily offended are giving control of their lives to people who don't really care about them. To allow others to steal your peace and waste your time plotting how to get even is wrong for anyone; but really dumb for people who know the God of all justice.


Psalm 140: 12 I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted,

and justice for the poor.




  1. Why is it wrong to seek revenge?
  2. Why do we need patience to trust in God's justice?
  3. How does kindness put burning coals on the wicked?

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