Meditations in Romans, Ch.12-16 : 17: Bless the Opposition
Rom 12:19 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.
We have just seen Paul writing, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (v.18) and sometimes it is very difficult to leave at peace with everyone because there are sometimes those who seek to actively harm us and so, perhaps, it is with that in mind Paul continues, “Do not take revenge, my friends,” (v.19a) for if we do we become just like them but as we’ve already seen in other meditations our call is to not only live at peace but to pray for our enemies. How can you pray for someone and see to exact revenge on them?
But Paul has another reason for saying ‘don’t take revenge’ because if we try to we will be getting in the way of the Lord. He cites the Law: “for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” (v.19c) Revenge is the prerogative of the Lord. He knows when it is due and the right way it should come and thus if we interfere we will not “leave room for God’s wrath.” (v.19b) We are to leave any repercussions coming back on those who attack us to the Lord. He deals with them far better than we can. It is a hard stand to take but we are not to come back against those who attack and seek to harm us. It is a real place where faith is required.
Indeed, Paul goes on, rather than seeking to harm your enemy, seek to do him or her good: “On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” (v.20a,b quoting Prov 35:21) What a witness that is! This certainly comes into that category of actions that Jesus spoke about when he said, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) Helping your enemy is clearly one of those ‘good deeds’ that will reveal who you truly are and will reveal the Lord to watchers.
He concludes the quote with the next verse from Proverbs: “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (v.20c, quoting Prov 35:22) The origin of the phrase about heaping burning coals on a persons head was in respect of bringing a terrible punishment and pain on a guilty person. Here the good deeds returning to the attacker would strike his conscience and act as a form of punishment that would convict him. The Egyptians also had a similar thing where walking with such a bowl on your head was a sign of repentance and contrition, and so the same thing would be implied, that the good act being returned for the bad act would bring about repentance.
To summarise all this, Paul concludes, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (v.21) The temptation when bad is done against us is to retaliate but if we so do, as we said above, we become just like our attackers and we join in doing evil. Their evil would thus overcome us as we succumb to evil by doing the same. No, says Paul, there is a better way, a more positive way and it is by doing good back to them. Not only may we convict their hearts but we stay in the place of righteousness. Good responses, good deeds will act like salt and will purify the situation (Mt 5:13), changing it for good. Again and again in world politics we see nation against nation, nation responding to violent nation with more and more violence and all that happens is that it gets worse and more and more people die. Instead someone needs to have the courage to say, “We will not retaliate, we will do good” and break into the violent cycle.
So what have we seen in this chapter. Let’s summarise it:
v.1-2 A call to consecration of body & transformation of mind
v.3 A call to humility
v.4-8 Encouragement to operate gifts of grace
v.9,10 Mini-exhortations to maintain right relationships with others
v.11,12 Ditto your spiritual life with God
v.13-21 Ditto in respect of relationships with all others in the world.
This has not been a chapter of deep theology but of immense practicality. Paul has another of this exhortation-packed pieces in 1 Thes 5:14 onwards. They are a Christian behaviour spectrum and brilliant for anyone launching out in the ways of meditation. You can ponder on each little bit achieving much value. They push us back into the arms of God, either by the exhortations about the spiritual life, or for the grace to live in harmony with the rest of mankind and especially those in the household of faith. There will be even more of this ‘behaviour focused teaching’ in the following chapters in Romans and when we get to chapter 15 more reminders that most of us believers are Gentiles which is amazing. Well there are lots more wonderful things to see in Romans, so may I encourage you to press on with it.