Grace For The Journey
We have been studying Romans for the past two months. I trust that you now understand that when a person places their faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, there are radical changes that take place. When a person is justified through faith in Christ, they have a change of masters . They are freed from bondage to sin and the devil and made slaves of God and righteousness. They are then progressively changed to be conformed into the image of Christ as they present themselves as living and holy sacrifices acceptable to God and are transformed by the renewing of their minds.
We have been concentrating on this last mentioned aspect of the radical changes that are made in the life of a Christian as we have been studying Romans 12 for the past several days. I have gone slowly over the first 13 verses in order to emphasize that Christians take on a completely different worldview from what they had as non-Christians.
Life is now centered in God instead of self.
You are now part of Christ’s Body
With a purpose in building up His kingdom
Instead of building up your own.
When a person becomes a Christian,
Their relationship with God,
Themselves and others all change.
Several days ago we looked at the key principle given in Romans 12:9 that is to govern all our relationships.
We are to love others without hypocrisy
In abhorring what is evil
And clinging to what is good .
This “love” is “agape,” the love of choice and commitment that sacrifices itself for the best interest of the one loved, and which reflects the holy character of God.
We have also seen over the last few days the outworking of this kind of love within the fellowship of other Christians. Paul says in Romans 12:10-13, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.”
In today’s blog we will be examining verses 14-21 and the relationships we are to have with other people including those that would be considered our enemies. While the nature of the brotherly love that is to exist between Christians is so radical that Jesus said that others would know we are His followers by that love (John 13:35), the love we are to have for people who even persecute us is even more radical. Before we examine what Paul says here in Romans 12, lets first see the foundation for it in what Jesus said in Matthew 5:43-48, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Paul’s description of the kind of brotherly love believers are to have for one another because of their common love for Jesus Christ is beyond what non-Christians would normally have, but in essence, it is not that radical to love people that are like yourselves. It is easy to love someone that loves you. What is very radical is to love people that are very unlike yourself, and even more so to love people that not only do not like you, but consider you to be their enemy. That is the foundation for what Paul says in Romans 12:14-21.
It is important to keep in mind as we study these verses that they form one passage. Too often these verses, as well as the ones preceding them, are viewed as independent statements and as such are taken out of context. The flow of Paul’s thought must be maintained in order to correctly understand them.
Verse 14 forms the foundation of how we are to deal with other people. Verses 15-18 are a series of prepositional and infinitive phrases expanding on this foundation, and verses 19-21 tie this principle back to the Old Testament.
Being a Blessing – Verse 14.
The foundational principle in our dealing with other people is that we are to be a blessing, even to those who are against us. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not.” I have already pointed out from Matthew 5:44ff what Jesus said about our need to love our enemies instead of hating them. This is opposite the natural reaction people have to those that treat them in a way other than how they want to be treated. Whether it is something as simple as being discourteous on the road, or something serious as a violent crime, the normal reaction is to curse the offensive person. On what basis can someone actually put this into practice?
Recall what Jesus had said earlier in Matthew 5:10-12 at the end of the section we usually refer to as the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you”
The basis of being a blessing is living
For the correct purpose in life.
It really is not about you
And the here and now.
It is about God and eternity.
If your goal in life is to be like Jesus and please God, then when people persecute you because of righteousness, you can rejoice because you are reflecting God. When people lie about you and seek your harm on account of Jesus, then your goal of having Christ live in and through you is being fulfilled. Evil people do not like holiness because it exposes their sinfulness. When people are evil towards you, then you are suffering for the same reason that the prophets of old suffered. If your goal in life is holiness and usefulness to God, then being equated with His prophets is a great honor. If that is not your goal, then persecution will cause you to curse.
The word “blessing” here comes from a compound Greek word literally meaning “good word” and hence “to speak well of” or “invoke blessings.” We get our word “eulogy” from it. The word “curse” here is the opposite. It comes from another compound Greed word, which means to “pray against.”
Jesus’ life was an example of this. Jesus gave extremely strong warnings to his enemies (Matthew 23). He even declared to them that the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit could not be forgiven, but we do not find Jesus cursing them. In fact, we find the opposite even towards those who had placed Him on the cross of Calvary. Luke 23:34 records Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Stephen said a similar thing in Acts 7:60 in behalf of those that were stoning him to death.
So it must be with us. This does not preclude strong warnings of God’s judgement to come, nor does it preclude taking action against those who are doing evil. Jesus did both (Matthew 23; John 2:15). It does preclude us from praying that God would damn them.
Our greatest desire should be that they would repent and turn to the Savior and become a brother or sister in Christ. Again, this does not preclude us from giving strong warnings or taking action against evil. This is the attitude that enables the Christian to stand strongly against the evil that people would do without hating the evil doer.
Be a blessing to others, and when you pray for them, seek God’s grace and mercy for them instead of their judgement. They may be deserving of God’s condemnation, but at one time, so were you.
Being Other Centered – Verse 15.
The Christian can bless instead of curse
Because there has been a heart change.
As the believer becomes more focused
On living for God, there is a corresponding
Change from self-centeredness to
A genuine concern for other people.
It is for that reason that the Christian can “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Verse15 is a practical way in which being a blessing can be expressed.
The natural response to our enemies is to be upset when things are going well for them and to be happy when bad things happen to them. All of us understand this. We cheer the part of the story when the hero finally gets his revenge on the bad guy. We are glad when the irritating co-worker gets fired. We are happy to see the guy who just went rocketing by us get pulled over by the State Trooper. Certainly, there is a proper sense of rejoicing in justice, but there is also that part of being glad that the guy is suffering. This verse tells us that the Christian is not to do that. Instead, we are to rejoice with them when good things happen and cry with them when bad things happen.
In the film “Gods and Generals” there was one scene from that film that very well expressed the meaning of this verse. A young woman had barely managed to escape Fredericksburg as the town was shelled and then the Union troops came in. She could see the destruction her hometown was suffering, and she was currently helping with the soldiers that were wounded in the defense of her city and state. Yet, when she looked out on the fields that were now covered with Union dead after the battle, her heart was full of compassion and saddness, not glee.
We are not to rejoice at the woes that come upon our enemies. Proverbs 24:17-18 says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the Lord see it and be displeased, and He turn away His anger from him.” Proverbs 17:5 adds, “He who rejoices at calamity will not go unpunished.”
This principle should be lived in all areas of our lives, and if it is to be applied in the more difficult situations of being this way toward an enemy, then it must start in the simple things. We need to teach our children to be good losers who congratulate the winner of a game; we need to teach them to be good winners who will not gloat but instead will encourage those who lost; we need to congratulate our rival at work who got the promotion instead of us, and if you got the promotion instead of your rival, don’t rub it in his face. When your enemy suffers, even if it is from justice, weep for them that their evil should bring such pain on themselves and others.
The Christian is to seek to be a blessing from God, and in doing so they become less selfish and more compassionate for others, including their enemies. That is why they can rejoice with those that rejoice, and weep with those that weep. It is part of our being living sacrifices. Take note as well that it is this compassion that can impact an enemy with the Gospel of Jesus Christ because it reflects His love for us.
Being Humble – Verse 16.
In verse 16 we find another exhortation for Christians to be humble people. “Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.” Humility breeds unity while pride causes division. The Corinthian church was marked by divisions caused by the pride of the various factions within it. Paul called on them to overcome this by being, “Made complete in the same mind and same judgement” (1 Corinthians 1:10). Paul closed his second letter to them calling on them to, “Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11. Philippians 2:1-4 shows the connection of unity and humility saying, “If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” Paul then went on to point out Jesus as the great example of such humility.
We are a blessing to other people when we strive to find common ground upon which we can be unified. This is not to say in any way that we are to ignore truth in order to have unity. The ecumenical movement seeks unity at the expense of truth. Paul is clear on this subject in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 saying, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord. And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you.”
The problem Paul addresses here is the common practice in which minor issues related to personal views become the point of division. The heart of that problem is pride. Arrogance demands that “it must be my way or no way” and that “only fools would hold to a view other than the one I have.” Too often Christians lose their ability to either win over those who are lost or even gain an audience for the truth they want to speak because of their haughty attitudes. Instead of exhibiting righteousness in Christ, they exhibit self-righteousness that looks down on other people. That self-righteous attitude among professing Christians turns many people away from Christ.
Some of this attitude can be held over from the social group that the Christian came from. Most societies pay close attention to social standing, for it is the basis upon people of various classes are divided. It sets the unwritten rules about whom is supposed to be able to associate with whom and on what basis. Those societal rules are not to apply to the Christian. We are not to consider ourselves to be wise in our own eyes. We are not to be people who seek out the societal elite while shunning the lowly. We are to treat all people with the same dignity and respect. As Paul points out in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek , there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.“
Being Respectful – Verse 17.
As a living sacrifice the Christian strives to do what is right which includes being respectful. Verse 17 says, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.” The two phrases in this verse are contrasts with each other. Evil and good are opposites of each other. What is good is “right, proper, fitting; better; honorable, honest; fine, beautiful, precious.” What is evil is “bad, wrong; injury, harmful, foul, troublesome.”
Paul says almost the exact same thing in 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men” You cannot be a blessing if you are returning evil for evil. That would be trying to put into action a curse you wanted to come upon them.
God’s will is not accomplished by His people
Doing what is contrary to His holy nature.
God is so powerful that He can
Bring good out of evil, but God is not evil
Himself nor the cause of it (James 1).
The blessing comes when the Christian does
That which reflects God’s character.
The apostle Peter also speaks to this issue. In 1 Peter 3:8-12 he says, “To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. For, let him who means to love life and see good days refrain his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile. And let him turn away from evil and do good; Let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and His ears attend to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
We seek to be a blessing instead of a curse and so we do what is good for men instead of returning the evil they have evil done to us.
Being Peaceful – Verse 18.
In verse 18 Paul addresses a very practical aspect of trying to be a blessing and sets a balance for us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” The reality is that there are people that will not let peace to be established no matter how much you want it and no matter what you do, and peace is a two way street. The point in this verse is that we are to take seriously our responsibility in striving to establish peace with others. As long as we do not compromise any of the principles of God’s Word, we should do whatever we can to bring about peace. We honestly seek reconciliation, but we do not compromise the truth, nor do we sacrifice the rights or safety of others. Peace is not purchased with appeasement. However, we do forsake our own pride which is the foundation of grudges. We do freely offer forgiveness which removes the basis of any bitterness.
Being Patient – Verse 19.
In verse 19 Paul reveals the reason a Christian is to strive for peace and be a blessing instead of cursing or repaying evil with evil. Our desire for revenge is tempered by our submission to God, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.“ There are two essential truths in this verse that cause the Christian to be patient instead of seeking revenge on those who are evil towards him.
First, vengeance is something that belongs to God and not to us.
We do not have the right to carry out acts of revenge.
Second, by refraining from taking our own revenge, we leave room for God’s wrath to come upon evildoers.
We must remember that God is judge, not us. We must also remember that things need to be done in His timing and not ours. We must not take God’s patience and forbearance as any sign of injustice on God’s part. Romans 2:4 tells us that those aspects of God’s kindness should lead to repentance. Psalm 73 records Asaph’s struggle with this as he noticed that the wicked were at ease and had increased in wealth while he suffered. It was not until he went into the sanctuary of God and regained his eternal perspective that he remembered how God’s justice works. The same is often true for us. We must keep the eternal perspective. God will bring about complete justice in His time even if that does not occur until this life is over. No matter how the wicked faired in this life, they will stand before God at the Great White Throne and all those whose names are not written in the Book of Life will be judged according to their deeds and then be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15).
Judgement and vengeance belong to the Lord because only He can bring about true justice. Only the Lord Himself can make the correct application of His mercy and grace as well as full measure of His wrath. No man can do that. In Exodus 34:6-7, the Lord proclaimed Himself to Moses saying, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave [the guilty] unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” We are to be patient and leave judgement and vengeance in the Lord’s hands.
Overcoming Evil – Verses 20-21.
What Paul says in verses 20,21 often confuse people because it is taken out of the context of the passage, “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Verse 20 is often taken by people to mean that in doing good to my enemy I will in some way increase his punishment. Some say that punishment will occur in this life, and others say it just increases their punishment in hell. That is an interpretation that appeals to us because it clothes our desire for revenge with good works. We rationalize, “I can be good and still get revenge,” but such an interpretation is contrary to the context.
The theme of this chapter is the manner in which the Christian should live as a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to God. The flow of the passage puts this verse in the section of living in relationships with others by loving without hypocrisy, abhorring what is evil and clinging to what is good. This section of the chapter is based on the theme of blessing our enemies instead of cursing them, and the verses immediately before and after stress not taking our own revenge but overcoming evil with good including feeding our enemy when they are hungry and giving them a drink when they are thirsty.
In addition, verse 20 is taken directly from Proverbs 25:21-22 which also adds the phrase, “And the Lord will reward you” at the end. Clearly then, the context here demands that the phrase “in doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head” must mean something other than some form of revenge upon the enemy.
The most common interpretation of this phrase is that it was a reference to the burning shame that we place upon our enemies by doing good to them. John MacArthur traces this to an Egyptian custom in which a person who wanted to show his contrition would place burning coals in a pan on top of his head to represent the burning pain of his shame and guilt. This argument has some merit both from the fact that it was a common interpretation even in the early church and from a parallel thought Peter gives in 1 Peter 3:16-17. He says there, “And keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.”
However, in my own mind I still find this idea somewhat contrary to the passage since in essence it means that I am to do good to my enemy so that I may shame him. That may be the consequence, but it does not seem to be a motive that matches blessing those who persecute me. My own view of this may be somewhat speculative and rare in commentaries, but I think the context here is still stressing being a blessing. Fire in the ancient world, even as it is today, could be a blessing or a curse. It could hurt you or destroy your property, but it could also warm you, cook your food, and provide light. They did not have gas lighters or matches as we do now, so if the fire in your house went out, you had to do some work to try and get another one started, or you could get it from your neighbors house. An easy way to transfer it would be in the form of hot coals carried in a pot. How did they carry pots then? On their heads, even as is still commonly done in many places around the world. Now again, this is a speculative idea and perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t think I am wrong in stressing that this passage is about our blessing our enemies instead of responding in the natural sinful manner of cursing them.
I think what Paul says in verse 21 as he ends this thought also stresses this idea, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I am to resist the temptation to respond in the same manner that is common to sinners. I am not to let the evil done by others against me prod me into responding with more evil. Instead, I am to overcome such evil by doing good.
An example of this is in 2 Kings 6 when the prophet Elisha captured the army that was sent by the king of Aram to capture him. It would have been easy for Elisha to have had them all killed. Instead he had a great feast prepared for them and then sent them back to their king. The result was that the Arameans stopped coming into the land of Israel. We are not told why, just that they stopped. Perhaps it was shame, or perhaps it was fear of the God of Elisha who was so powerful that He could even afford to free His enemies after capturing them. A lessor power would have had to kill the army in order to increase his relative strength against his enemy.
The point of this passage is simply this.
Christians are to be living and holy
Sacrifices that are acceptable to God.
Our purpose in life has radically changed
And so our lives change accordingly as we are
Transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Our lives as believers are now to be
Increasingly marked with agape love
Which is without hypocrisy, abhors
Evil and clings to what is good.
That love is practically applied in all our relationships including our enemies. Instead of returning evil for evil and curse them for what they do, we now seek to bless them with our godliness. We can do this because we can trust God to not only take care of us, but to also bring about justice to evil doers which is tempered with His mercy and grace to those that repent.
Have you received God’s forgiveness for your evil deeds? If not, you can today through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who paid the penalty of your sin on your behalf. If you have, then live accordingly as a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to Him.
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”