Romans 12:14 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
I have often reminded you that the exhortations in this section were addressed to men and women who knew that they’d received the mercy of God. They were lost people, under the condemnation of God because of their sins, but they had come to see that in his mercy God sent his Son to become the Lamb of God who had taken away their sin. In their place he had died as a condemned man, hanging on a cross, choosing to suffer judgment in their place, as their loving substitute, and thus through him they had received pardon because he had received condemnation; the forgiveness that was theirs was all because of Jesus Christ alone. So I am saying to you again that Paul in this chapter is describing to the followers of Jesus Christ how they should be living their lives, day by day.
Living this new life is the most effective form of evangelism that Christians have or ever will have. Followers of Jesus seeking to live out these directives of Romans chapter twelve consistently day by day amongst their families, friends, neighbours and workmates has been God’s way for centuries of growing his church. This is how the gospel spread in the first century. This is how the ancient world was conquered, yes, but this is how China is being won for Christ today. Very often its churches have had to meet secretly; preaching has not been public, but the impact of the lives of individual Christians has shaken society. If they end up in prison then even there they live this life and tell others of their faith. If they are sentenced to death then their dying affects those who witness it – just as Stephen’s martyrdom affected those who stoned him to death. I am saying that this new life of people who are so thankful to God for the mercy that they have received is the best form of evangelism. Our family and our friends ask, “What is this that you have?” and they think, “I wish I could be like that,” and that has been demonstrated in the long history of the Christian church.
So when people criticize us for not evangelizing, and for not planting churches, then their judgments comes out of a strait-jacket of organized-meetings-evangelism, arranging yet more and more events and inspirational speakers. We do not think like that, and so we do not plan special speakers coming every month, and advertised events targeting the young or the teenagers or men or singles or married couple re-celebrating their marriages, and so on. We do not think in terms of events and meetings. We think in terms of the impact of a hundred lives enfleshing Romans chapter twelve in the streets and houses of our town 365 days a year. My task is to show you what is demanded of you in this chapter, and how it is possible for you to live like this by the power of grace. My calling is to exhort you never to give up. When you fall to pick yourselves up and keep on living this new life of credible godliness until the end. There is no alternative; there is no other way to joyfulness; there can be no more effective outreach, and without it there will be no true church growth. Theoretical Christianity is useless. Of course, knowing some basic Christian teaching is better than not knowing it, organizing days of training for sharing your faith and holding meetings can be helpful, but failing to understand what must be our daily conduct and not living that new life is to doom the church to sterility. Living our lives in the power of the Spirit of Christ is absolutely essential and paramount. Nothing can replace that. So in the text that is before us what does Paul tell these young Christians to do?
You can see from these words that Paul is clearly addressing religious people, because when they are persecuted Paul tells them that they are to bless their persecutors. He shows how important this is by repeating it and putting it in its negative form; “Bless and do not curse.” (v.14). In other words, in their hearts and in their private devotions and when they gather with other Christians on the Sabbath they are praying for their enemies. When their pastors lead them in prayer they say, “O Lord, bless Caesar who this year is covering Christians with tar and setting them on fire. Bless the magistrates who are condemning Christians to be torn apart by wild animals in the arena. Save those magistrates from hell. Bless the soldiers who are nailing preachers to crosses. Show them the truth. Convict them of their sin. Give them saving faith and repentance.” Christians were under obligation to respond to their persecution by praying for those who’d been giving them such a torrid time. I am saying that these words only make sense when we understand that they address a congregation of Christians in Rome, people who’d received mercy from God. This letter was not written to the whole city, but rather to those who had presented their bodies as living sacrifices to the God who had shown them such mercy, to those who were being transformed by the renewing of their minds.
You understand that these Christians are being persecuted for doing good. They keep their marriage vows, they work hard at their jobs; they honour their masters and all in authority; they render to Caesar what is Caesar’s; if they are slaves they don’t steal anything from their employers, but by their blameless lives and consistent conduct they stick to what they believe is right. It was that determination to live a pure life of total integrity that provoked the hostile response. We find that the apostle Peter also wrote to Christians who were being persecuted; it was obviously a common problem, the presence of this awkward colleague or workmate who followed Jesus Christ, who wouldn’t do what everyone else was doing and had always done. Peter puts it like this, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’ But
in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (I Pet. 3:14-17). Imagine you were the youngest slave in a household, and every other slave from the butler down to the gardener was engaged in pilfering and telling white lies, but you arrive in the household, or you get converted as the only Christian in the place, and you start refusing to do that sort of thing. You’d be the most unpopular person in the household. “Who is he? He thinks he is better than all of us. Let’s get rid of him.”
When my son-in-law, Gary, was a student here he had a summer job lasting three months in the Steel Company of Wales in Llanwern, and he was the youngest member of a team of men. On a Friday at 3 o’clock their foreman said, “That’s enough; we are going home. Write down on your clocking out card that you left at 4 p.m.” and everyone did that, and you can imagine the sensitivity of conscience experienced by Gary in thinking of going against all those steelworkers in their hard hats by refusing to write down a lie. I am saying that if we Christians seek to live a God-honouring life we face the possibility of being persecuted, but that behind that persecution lies the hostility of the world towards our Lord.
We’ve been prepared by Jesus for this to happen; “In the world you shall have tribulation” – not that in the world you shall have a Mercedes and a fat salary and live a healthy life until you are a hundred. No health and wealth gospel here. “In the world you shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). Jesus said repeatedly, “If they have treated me in this way, how much more are they likely to treat you like that” (See John 15:18-20). It was the message that the apostle Paul and his companions took around the churches, reminding people that “we must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God” (Roms. 14:22). Again he reminds Timothy, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). Of course if you live ungodly, or live just like men and women outside of Christ then it will be much easier during your lifetime. The world will not take offence at you because you are one of them.
The frequency of the Jesus’ warnings of coming persecution is significant – you remember how the beatitudes end on this note with two such warnings. He made the peril spectacularly clear; “If you become a Christian then expect to meet new troubles. It may even cost you your life.” The gospel does not mislead us, telling us that everyone is going to welcome us and our message, just longing to turn from their sins and follow Jesus Christ. No. It does not try to deceive or entice us into the kingdom by giving us a false prospectus. It is utterly, absolutely realistic. Living like Romans 12 will be tough. We are not a cult. There is an animosity towards our witness to the truth and to our godliness, and it will show itself in subtle persecution. It is bound to. Are we for real? People want to know, and that will be one reason why they’ll put us to the test. Our lives can be made unbearable by what is said about us and done to us. I know a senior lecturer in the science department of a university; he is a creationist and his colleagues at the university are bringing such pressure on the university to get him sacked because of his beliefs. He is coming to speak here later this year. I know of a Christian registrar of marriages, births and deaths in a London borough who has asked those over her if she may be exempt from being a registrar at the ceremonies of homosexuals plighting their troth, and as a result she has been suspended from her work. I know Christian adoption agencies which do not support two male homosexuals adopting a baby and so the agency is threatened and fined.
Let me describe to you what happened this week to Kwabena Peat, 54, a Christian teacher in London. He left a compulsory training session with several other Christian colleagues at their north London school after the speaker, Sue Sanders, invited by the School headteacher, openly questioned why people thought heterosexuality was natural.
Mr Peat says that Ms Sanders, who openly describes herself as a lesbian, told him and his colleagues that those who did not accept that being homosexual was ‘normal’ had "issues" they must deal with.
He said: “I expected the training session to help us by providing good information on how to handle bullying but she had another agenda. She started promoting homosexual lifestyles and suggesting those who had objections should sort out their prejudices. She clearly asked us ‘what makes you all think that to be heterosexual is natural?’”.
Mr Peat, who is a year-head on a £50,000 salary, and other staff were deeply upset that teaching staff, and others, who disagreed out of Christian conviction were given no opportunity to respond. It would seem that at the school only one position was acceptable, denying free speech and respecting staff’s human rights, in a training establishment which is intended to encourage students to think for themselves and claims to respect every individual’s moral convictions.
Following the training day Mr Peat wrote privately to three staff members involved in organising the session, including a deputy head, complaining about Ms Sanders’ "aggressive" presentation. Sue Sanders is the co-founder of the Schools Out organisation which campaigns for homosexual equality in education and last month attended a Downing Street reception hosted by Gordon Brown to mark Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender History Month. She was paid £850 for conducting training in the school.
The three staff complained to the school’s principal, claiming, although they were senior to Mr Peat, they felt "harassed and intimidated" by the letter. Following an investigation, Mr Peat was suspended and placed on paid leave pending outcome of disciplinary investigations hearings. He is now being supported by the Christian Legal Centre who have instructed the leading Human Right’s Barrister, Paul Diamond, to represent him.
Mr Peat, who has spent most of his teaching life working in inner city London Schools and is a father of three children said: “I’m not surprised by all this, but I am disappointed. I’m the one being harassed and intimidated – for expressing my religious views. As an experienced professional I am very supportive of "equality and diversity" programmes and have always got on well with colleagues who are well aware of my Christian beliefs.” Mr Peat has been suspended since January after the training day and has not been allowed to return to work.
The treatment is so unreasonable; these people do such good work. For example that university lecturer has brought millions of pounds into his faculty by his work with the space programme. You would think he would be tempted to be resentful, with thoughts of vindictive retaliation starting to fester within him. Do you remember how it was when Jesus and his disciples evangelized a Samaritan village? They preached in the open air and
they moved amongst the men, women and children of the town telling them the gospel. They met strong resistance. It was not that everyone there was just waiting and longing to hear the message of Jesus. They were not, and when they heard it they didn’t appreciate it. They ran Christ and his disciples out of town. What was the response of the apostles? Listen, “And when James and John saw this” – now this is John remember, the disciple of love – “they said, Lord wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, even as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:51-56). That was their response to the curses they met in that place – “Let’s curse right back; let’s call for napalm to destroy them!” – even though they had spent years in the presence of Christ, they wanted to retaliate, and he turned and rebuked them.
Maybe you are thinking that that was a bit extreme of James and John, that you wouldn’t want your opponents to be destroyed, and so you do nothing; you are silent and never respond, but, let me ask you, though you never show it, are you eaten up with bitterness within? Paul doesn’t merely say, “Don’t retaliate when you are persecuted.” The demand is not for abstinence; the exhortation is not simply to keep a stiff upper lip. The demand is positively to desire that good should come to these people from God. “Bless them!” Pray that the blessing of salvation and new life in Christ may come to these people.
So if you are a Christian you will never stop praying for the person who is making your life difficult, asking God to bless him, your boss, your father, the police, the politically correct movement, the social workers, the government, the Islamic terrorists, the white racists. You do not form another covert organization and plot to blow up houses and meeting places where Christians gather. You bless them; you may not curse them. You are too committed to crying to God for energy to bless them than finding time to curse them. Of course, when Jesus speaks of not ‘cursing’ he is not referring to swearing. Christians are not tempted to swear at people; that’s not our way; we are not foul-mouthed people. No, he means, “Stop calling down curses upon them, wishing that terrible things would happen to them.” That’s our danger, not using expletives and calling them ‘blasted so-and-sos’; we are not tempted to do that, but relishing imagined ugly things happening to them. That is so unhelpful and bitter. Paul is saying, “Summon earnestly the blessing of God to come on their lives, not calling on him to curse them.” Remember the Lord Jesus blessing those who nailed him to the cross; “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” and then see how that prayer was quickly answered even when Jesus breathed out his last and died. The centurion in charge of the execution praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man” (Lk. 23:47).
Paul is urging you to keep yourself free from the great wickedness of cursing people by always blessing all men. Bless them! Your unpleasant boss – bless him! The atheistic lecturers or members of your family who have nicknamed you ‘Holy Joe’ – you bless them. Be ever blessing lest you should in a fit of pique, curse them, for either you must be blessing men or cursing men. Just one of those attitudes you must adopt. One of those frames of mind must always be uppermost in your life. You are either going to be first and foremost a blesser of men or a curser. One of those attitudes you must cherish at every moment. There can be no mixture; there must be no compromise. “Bless, and curse not.”
How can we do this? It is very demanding, isn’t it? It is one of the most difficult things in life to have a man always on our back, sniping at us, complaining about us, going to other people and running us down, making our lives miserable, and in return, from our hearts, we bless that man. Of course none of us does this perfectly. When I preach these things to you I am not suggesting that this comes easy to me. I fail horribly here, and so why am I teaching you these things? There are two reasons, the first is that I am teaching myself too and drawing myself under this word, but the second is more interesting; I have noticed that there are some rugby coaches who were never in the first rank of rugby players. They never played for their country, but yet they became excellent coaches, drawing out the best in others. What would have been a second class talent actually became first class under the coach’s influence – that is what I would seek to be for you Sunday after Sunday. So let me give myself and yourselves some coaching tips in blessing those who curse us. [I found Dr. Lloyd Jones helpful here in his study of this verse in Exposition of Romans 12, Banner of Truth, p. 434ff.].
2. SOME ENCOURAGEMENTS IN BLESSING THOSE WHO CURSE US.
i] Remember how God treated you when you persistently offended him. You were once an enemy in your mind towards God (Romans 5:10). You were alienated from the life of God (Ephesians 4:18), in other words, it was not some intellectual choice you made not to get involved in religion. It was more primitive than that; there is a gut feeling of personal hostility to God for being the Sovereign holy one, your creator, sustainer and judge. You would not have God tell you how to live your life, that you were a sinner and needed mercy through Jesus Christ his Son, and so you cut him right out of your life. You were “hateful” and hating one another (Titus 3:3). That is how you started out, and yet today what a change, you are worshiping him, and you love him and serve him. What an extraordinary change! What could be the explanation for this? God loved you! He loved you so much he sent his Son to save you, and he sent his Spirit to apply that deliverance to you, changing your whole heart and life. It was all of his grace that he did this. You were resistant, reluctant to change, at times full of enthusiasm for the faith and then luke-warm, but he never gave up on you and finally triumphed. Where would you have been if he had treated you the same way you once treated those who’d been mean to you, cutting them out of your life totally, refusing to have anything to do with you? But God kept loving you.
Think of the Prodigal Son, and what a selfish boy he had been, and yet how his father refused to let him go, often looking down the valley every day to see if there would be a familiar form with that characteristic walk coming back home. When he did spot him far off he ran out of the farm to meet him, afraid that he would panic at the last moment and turn back overwhelmed with shame. He ran to his son and crushed him in his arms kissing and weeping all over him. “You are my son; you were dead but you’re alive again; you were lost but now I’ve found you! I’ll never let you go again. The best clothes and slippers and ring are yours. Come back not as a servant but as my son and let’s rejoice that you’ve come to your senses and come back to us.” That is how God was to you.
So when you find yourself tending to react violently to the treatment being dished out to you for being a Christian, and when you feel like crying, “Lord arise and put them to shame,” then pause and think, “What if God had treated me like that?” You can only bless God that he was so patient to you. Be an imitator of God!
ii] Realise how it is that those people behave as they do. You’ve sought to do them good and yet they do you ill. Why? Because of their ignorance.
Paul tells us that there was a time in his life when he knew people “after the flesh” (2 Cors. 5:16). In other words, he made judgments based on the most superficial bits of information and prejudice he’d heard. He asked his circle, “Who is this Jesus that people are talking about?” They said, “He’s a healer, we acknowledge that, and he’s a teacher, but he also has such crazy delusions about himself. He has said that he existed before Abraham – we actually heard him say that – and that he could build the temple by himself in three days if it were destroyed. We heard him say that too.” So Saul of Tarsus made judgments after the flesh and he came to the conclusion that the Nazarene was a dangerous fanatic and blasphemer and he ought to be stopped. The people around us have never read the Bible; they have never sat under gospel preaching; they have never had a respectful conversation with real Christians. To them the whole matter is ‘religion’ and beyond contempt. They believe in science, they say. In other words they sin in their attitude to you because they are sinners. That is their problem; a spiritual ignorance which they do nothing to be rid of; a built-in bias against God and his Son Jesus Christ which only a mighty inward work of the Spirit can change.
Realising that helps you show more patience towards your persecutor. He is a person who has a certain syndrome and when you know this you can understand certain aspects of his character, how bizarrely he can behave. Then you can even thank God for him, that he is as normal and earnest in so much of his life as he is, but that he’s a man with a certain spiritual deficiency. There but for the grace of God are you. You make these allowances, you ‘answer a fool according to his folly” (Provs 25:5) as it were. So it is with persecutors, there seems to be a veil between them and the message of Jesus Christ and when they look at our Lord through this veil they can only see the faintest outline of his great life. Consider Paul’s words: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cors. 4:3&4). They cannot see; they cannot know; they cannot understand even though there was a time when you brought them to church and spelled things out to them – they still do not see it. They are quite blind to the truth and will be until the Spirit of God works in their heart and mind. Don’t get angry with them any more than you would get angry with a person in a wheelchair taking up the pavement, or get angry at the tapping of the white stick of blind man. You are compassionate towards them aren’t you? They are victims, and so you feel pity to those who despitefully use you.
iii] Be encouraged that you long for their salvation. You have been delivered from that mindset of hating them, and now you desire that they would know this mercy too. You think, “What a tragedy that such fine, intelligent, moral people should not appreciate the most beautiful life there ever has been. Why do people who so value the truth not listen to one who said, “I am the truth”? Was he deceiving us – the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount? He laid down his life refusing to withdraw a word of what he believed. Was he sincerely deluded or are they? If we have to choose, and we do, we reckon they are the deluded ones because for us the one who rose from the dead never said anything wrong. So you pray for them that they might be delivered from their prejudices and ignorance, saved from hell. You will long that they will be delivered from condemnation and be granted a new beginning, and the slate wiped clean of what they once were. You bless them by longing for the blessings of salvation to be theirs. So those are three coaching tips to help you bless them that curse you.
These words are not simply a wonderful but unattainable ideal. Millions of Christians persecuted for their love for Jesus Christ have offered forgiveness and salvation to those who were so hateful to them. They have blessed their persecutors, and that has been such a fragrant offering to God. Consider Stephen, kneeling down as the jagged rocks came thudding into his body, and crying to God for the stone throwers – his cruel executioners – “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
Consider that atrocity in Turkey two years ago this month, April 18 2007, in Malatya, about 300 miles northeast of Antioch, the city where believers were first called Christians. Two years ago three brave Christian men were slowly tortured to death. They went to a Bible Study, 46 year old German missionary and father of three, Tilman Geske, who was preparing notes for the new Turkish Study Bible, 35 year old Pastor Necati Aydin, father of two, and Ugur Yuksel. On the other side of the town ten young men all under 20 years of age put into place final arrangements for their ultimate act of faith, living out their love for Allah and their hatred of infidels whom they believed were undermining Islam. On Easter Sunday five of these men had been to a by-invitation-only evangelistic service that Pastor Necati and his men had arranged at a hotel conference room in the city.
Now the five had arrived in time for a Bible Study; it was around 10 o’clock, and so the Bible Study began. Reportedly, it was after Necati read a chapter from the Bible the assault began. The boys tied Ugur, Necati, and Tilman’s hands and feet to chairs and then began to video their work on their cellphones. They tortured our dear brothers for almost three hours. Tilman was stabbed 156 times, Necati 99 times and Ugur’s stabs were too numerous to count. They were disemboweled, and their intestines sliced up in front of their eyes. They were emasculated and they watched as those body parts were destroyed. Fingers were chopped off, their noses and mouths and anuses were sliced open. Possibly the worst part was watching as their brothers were likewise tortured. Finally, their throats were sliced from ear to ear, heads practically decapitated. The five youths have been arrested but still have not been brought to trial. Their defence team has been systematically blackening the reputations of these three fine men.
Necati’s funeral was a moving event. Thousands of Turkish Christians and missionaries came to show their love for Christ, and their honour for this man who had been chosen to die for Christ. Necati’s wife Shemsa told the world, “His death was full of meaning, because he died for Christ and he lived for Christ. Necati was a gift from God. I feel honoured that he was in my life, I feel crowned with honour. I want to be worthy of that honour.”
Then in an act that hit the front pages in the largest newspapers in Turkey, another widow, Susanne Tilman spoke in a television interview and expressed her forgiveness. Her words hit the front pages of the largest newspapers in Turkey. She did not want revenge, she told reporters. “Oh God, forgive them for they know not what they do,” she said. In a country where blood-for-blood revenge is as normal as breathing, many reports came to the attention of the church of how this comment of Susanne Tilman has changed lives. Several of my friends have met her and they have been mightily impressed with her lack of bitterness and her trust in the Lord. Mark Pickett of W.E.S.T. was in a conference in Germany two weeks ago and she spoke there like that with no bitterness, and when they cheered her to the rafters after she had finished she did not appreciate that, pointing upwards. Give God praise and glory. One
columnist wrote of her words of forgiveness, “She said in one sentence what 1000 missionaries in 1000 years could never do.” Christians can bless the persecutors who curse them. She did that for those who had murdered her husband and you are able to do this also for the bitter-sweet troubles you must endure in this fallen world. The indwelling power of the Holy Spirit can enable you to respond like this. You have illimitable access to an indwelling Saviour. You cannot say, “But I could never live like that. You alone could not, but through the power of the love of God in your life you could. You can do all the things that God asks you to do through the help and example and presence in your life of Jesus Christ. You can bless those who give you such pain. That is the wonder of the Christian life.
26th April 2009 GEOFF THOMAS