Romans 12:19-21 “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.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is the fifteenth and the final time we will be considering this majestic chapter in the epistle to the Romans. In many ways it is the Everest of New Testament ethics. It has been quite breath-taking and very humbling to consider its demands, and yet it is clear that this is how the mere Christian is required to live. This is how it was in first century Rome and everywhere in the world today. That is why God has given us this chapter. Then how has this journey that I have led you on through Romans chapter twelve been for you? Most of you have been listening to these explanations of how we are to live; many have also taken the print-outs of the sermons and read them. I am now asking what difference has that made to your lives? How has the word of God impacted you? What effect has it had on me – and it should have had ten times the influence on me than you because of my preparation and thinking about these remarkable words? How have I been changed by this chapter? What a solemn question.
There is the famous exhortation written by our Lord’s half-brother, James. He was noticing some members of his congregation who were filled with curiosity and admiration, hearing the wonderful morality of Christianity preached day by day in meetings in the early church. Yet these people were continually walking off and living in the same way as they’d come to church. They were behaving just as they used to live before Jesus Christ rose from the dead. There was no difference in their lives from pagans who worshipped idols. So James addresses them and he says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22-25).
We will only be helped if we come, listen, try to understand and then actually do what these words in this chapter have been telling us to do. I mean by that that there will be a number of little changes taking place which will result in new patterns of behaviour in our lives. We will be less critical of others; more patient; more forgiving; we won’t retaliate; our words won’t be so sharp; there will be more self-denial, more thoughtfulness for others. We will learn to accept the fact that others go before us; there will be more humility; more gratitude; more service; less demands. We’ll become sweeter, stronger and more loving people. I am asking if that is what is happening with me. Is it happening with you? Are we better men and women from hearing the word of God each week? Aren’t we hypocrites if we claim that we are Christians but no one would guess that if they noticed how we lived? As they say, it’s not just talking the talk; you have to walk the walk, and it is this particular walk through Romans chapter twelve that is challenging us now. Are you walking through life like this? So, bearing that in mind, let us look at these closing verses of this chapter, Romans 12 and verses 19-21 “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.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
“Do not take revenge, my friends,” he says. He is talking to the entire congregation in Rome. He is not saying that there were some who had more of a temper than others, for example, the Roman legionaries, or the people whose personalities were more expressive and demonstrative, and that it was all right for them to cry for vengeance, that he’d make an exception for them to take revenge. They couldn’t help being what they were and so they were permitted to take revenge. No. They in particular were to change. There is no excuse for anyone taking revenge. There are no exceptions whatsoever; no pleas for extenuating circumstances will be accepted. For example, you cannot plead that the crime against you was so great that it was quite permissible for you to gather together a group of vigilantes and wreak vengeance. No. No. No. “Do not take revenge, my friends.” No maybes, no ifs, no buts. Revenge and retaliation are ruled out for the person who is in the family of God who has himself received mercy from God. Imagine the chief of sinners, the very worst man who ever lived, and he comes to God with his head hanging down looking at the dust, beating his breast and saying, “What a wretched mess I’ve made of my life. What people I have hurt. God be merciful to me a sinner.” God hears and pardons him! You say, “That’s not fair. He’s been a fiend.” Yet that is what God does to anyone, however bad he’s been, say, a serial killer, but he casts himself in his wretched guilt on the mercy of God. God doesn’t say, “You have sinned too deeply to receive mercy from me.” God forgives him. Of course he has to go to prison for the rest of his life, but God has pardoned him when he truly cried mightily to God for mercy and for the rest of his life knew that he was a debtor to the mercy of God. God forgives. God has forgiven us, and so we too are to offer forgiveness to those who have treated us shamefully. “Do not take revenge, my friends.” Vengeance is ruled out for ever if you are a believer in Jesus Christ. This is the great principle that is laid out for us here. Then the next verses give us three reasons for repudiating all attempts to take revenge.
1. VENGEANCE IS THE WORK
OF GOD; IT IS NOT YOUR WORK.
What Paul says is this; “Leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (v.19). Leave room for God to deal with it. Leave God plenty of room, plenty of time and space, and plenty of methods in which he will handle it. Don’t dictate to God how and when he must act. Leave room for God and he’ll deal with it. God will certainly deal with it. God will most certainly and inescapably deal with the depraved behaviour of men and women. You see the Crimewatch programme as these horrific unsolved murders are re-enacted before the public. Then you see and hear the wives and parents weeping and pleading with criminals and their families to come forward. “Own up to this. Give us closure for what’s been done to our darling daughter.” Many never do. Those murderers of women and children still walk the streets and grow old, but God is certainly going to deal with it. Paul quotes from Deuteronomy chapter 32 and verse 35, “for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” We are living in a moral universe, so that what a man sows that he also reaps. The murderer has to give account to God. “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after death the judgment.” We are not going to be snuffed out and simply extinguished. It is not that after death there is nothingness, nothingness for the victim and nothingness for the killer. You are not facing annihilation. You are not meeting eternal injustice. There is the God who made us, the God who has blessed us all our lives. There is the living Lord Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. There are those now dead who once loved and served the God. They are not today nothing but a fading memory. They live because Jesus Christ lives.
The God of the Bible is loving and good. He is the one who has given you every beautiful and worthy thing – your dear husband or wife, your parents, your children, your intelligence, your recovery from illness, your possessions and your long life. All are God’s gifts to you. It wasn’t luck or chance that gave you all that. It wasn’t that you were smart and so got stuff. It wasn’t a mindless fate that gave these things to you. All such good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. The one true and living God has loved you all through your life and given you everything you value most. How patient he’s been with you. He has brought you here today.
However, if you’ve rejected him and lived a life hurting those who love you best, the very people on whom you depend the most, and you’ve broken their hearts scores of times, then know this, that God is angry with you. He hears the weeping of the abused wife and the sobs of the abused child. He has seen your thefts, and heard your blasphemies and lies, and God will summon you to himself. Wives, you have to leave the revenge to God. I don’t think that any battered wife should remain in that little house and be a punchbag for her loathsome husband. We’ll help you to get to a refuge and see a solicitor, but I am pleading with you that you never go for the meat-knife in the drawer. “Do not take revenge, my friends.” Leave room in your thinking and your anger and reactions for God’s wrath.
What happens when we try to take vengeance into our own hands? The answer is, we almost always make a mess of things. We are either too harsh or too weak. We attack the wrong person in the wrong way. We say the wrong things and we end up making things worse and not better. A just vengeance is the specialty of God. How do we know? Paul shows us here. He quotes from the Bible and he says, “It is written.” So for Paul, as it was for the Lord Jesus, if it was written in Scripture than you can depend on it. It is reliable. It is true. There was a time when the devil came and tempted Jesus in the wilderness and to each of the three temptations our Lord responded by also quoting from the book of Deuteronomy and saying, “It is written.”
So what is written in the Bible about God? He is not like Buddha, indifferent to man’s depravity. He does not shrug his shoulders with an enigmatic smile at cruelty and pain. He cares. He says that it is wrong. This is his creation and all of us are made by him, and he has written the things of his law inside each person. He has given us a conscience and that voice of God in us tells us that things we do are wrong, I mean things like lying and boasting and threatening and seducing and breaking our promises. This God of ours is the God who condemned Cain for murdering his brother. The people whom God had delivered from Egypt constantly whinged and grumbled. They longed to return to captivity rather than go through the wilderness to the promised land, and when finally they made an idol, a gold statue of a calf and worshipped it God judged them for doing that. God didn’t shrug and say, “Just another road up the same mountain.” God repaid; God condemned their worship of an idol. When King David took the wife of a fine man to his bed and arranged for the murder of that man God expressed his deep unhappiness with what David had done. God repaid. When Peter told Jesus that he must not go to the cross and die Jesus judged him for his words and told him, “Get thee behind me Satan.” To die on the cross was the reason why our Lord had come into the world. He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. Christ is the Lamb of God come to take away the sin of the world. Peter was dissuading him from giving his life for us.
God is light; God is righteous and just. He sees things that we don’t see; he watches the motives of the heart. He knows our thoughts before we think them, our words before we speak them. He knows what we are going to do before we do it, and he knows the reason why. Judgment is God’s special ministry to mankind. You can never do it as well as he can – never! You can mess things up by trying to take vengeance on those who have hurt you and your loved ones. So leave it to God! He is perfect in his judgments. He is far better at it than you will ever be. So, vengeance is the work of God, not yours.
“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’” (v.20). “On the contrary,” says Paul. You are to do the very opposite of taking vengeance. Then do you see how the next words are written down in your Bibles? They are in inverted commas, and they are written out as if they were Hebrew poetry because that is what they are. They are a quotation again from the Bible, from the book of Proverbs, chapter 25 and verses 21 and 22 – you can see that at the foot of the page in your Bibles. You know that many of us don’t know our Bibles very well. We say something like this that in the Old Testament God is a God of anger and in the New Testament he is a God of love, but look what is here quoted from the Scriptures of the Old Testament; “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”
We are not to lynch our enemies; we are not to stick pins in dolls we’ve made that looks like them; we are not to send them anonymous poisonous letters; we are not to spread around nasty stories about them. I’m sure you don’t, but the point the Bible is making is this, that you must not even ignore your enemy, avert your eyes and pretend you have not seen her. There were a couple of religious Jews, a priest and
a levite, and each man was going on a journey and one by one as they were walking down a road they came across a man who had been beaten up, robbed and left half dead, groaning at the roadside. Neither of these religious men slowed down. Each one moved across to the other side of the road and kept walking without a glance at the victim lying badly injured on the ground. Then a Samaritan passed by and he stopped and helped the man, though the Jewish victim was his enemy. He put him on his donkey and took him to an inn and paid for overnight accommodation for him. If your enemy has fallen on hard times we’re not to chuckle with pleasure and think, “Well, he got what he deserved.” If he is without food then you make a sandwich for him, and you give him a carton of apple-juice to drink. Your enemy will get stronger if you do that, but that is not your worry. You must simply do your duty. If you are a Christian then you have to act contrary to your natural tendencies where your enemies are concerned.
Who is Paul talking about when he describes our enemies? I don’t think he is talking about anyone far away, like the people in Afghanistan or in Iraq. The enemies that we have are almost always people we know. We work with them, or we are in school with them, or they are members of our families, or we attend the same church. They are people who hurt us in some way or another. They are being silly, but don’t you be silly by your retaliation. My enemy is almost always someone close to me. I don’t have enemies in Iran; I don’t know anyone in Iran, but it’s not hard to have enemies in Aberystwyth because I know loads of people here, and they know me.
If I say that I know God and he has forgiven me my sins then I’m to be especially merciful in my dealings with my neighbourhood enemy. If he has a need then I must do what I can to help him, and if I should do something kind and loving to him then something remarkable occurs, I heap burning coals on his head. In other words he considers what I have given him, and he’s deeply ashamed of how he’s been treating me. His conscience burns away. Every time he sees the shoulder of lamb that I’ve given him he feels guilty and his whole attitude to me changes. You heap burning coals on his head, that is, you kill that old mean hateful self of his with your kindness.
You do loving things to those who’ve hurt you deeply and you change hearts. You can turn your enemy right around and he becomes your friend. That’s the best way of getting rid of an enemy – changing him into a friend. What are these ‘burning coals’ that Paul talks about? They can be many things, a gift, a kind word, a phone call, a brief note, a bunch of flowers, a meal, running an errand, a visit to the hospital, offering a ride, helping someone meet a deadline, stepping in at a time of need, putting in a good word with their superiors, assisting them with some unpleasant duty that has to be done. That’s the way you get even with your enemy, not looking for vengeance, not at all looking for vengeance, on the contrary serving them.
Let’s hear again the extraordinary words of the Son of God in the Sermon on the Mount; “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:39-48).
Jesus says, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” What the Lord is referring to here is a Roman custom. The Jews were in the Roman empire at this moment and they longed for freedom, hating to be their subjugation to Rome. One of the hateful inconveniences of being under Rome was a law allowing an official to lay his hand on someone suddenly and force him to do a job for him. If you were a Roman soldier or a Roman civil servant you could impress someone for imperial business – a sort of press gang. In other words, if there were an official going down the road while you were minding your own business on a corner your enemy could impress you into carrying his bags, taking them for a mile where he was going. He had the power to compel you to serve him, carrying his burden on the next stage of his journey. That’s what the Lord means when he says: ‘If he forces you to go one mile . . .’ You remember an occasion in the gospels when the soldiers taking Jesus to Calvary see him collapse in his weakness with his loss of blood. So they compel a man named Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross of the Lord Jesus. That’s the practice being referred to by the Lord Jesus.
What does the Lord say? Would you say to the soldier: ‘Who do you think you are? Who do you think I am? Do you think I’m a second class citizen, asking me to do the like of this?’ Our Lord doesn’t even say, “You must carry the burden of your enemy.” No, he says that your attitude is to go an extra mile! Do more than you have to do. Do more than what the law says, and so heap coals of fire on his head. Choose inconvenience! How many times are we unexpectedly called upon to help or to serve, and it’s very inconvenient? It’s bad enough going that single mile, isn’t it, let alone going the extra mile? But do you know something? We are under the authority of the Emperor of heaven and earth. Our compulsion to do right is more stringent than the imperial Roman government. It is Christ’s great love for us that constrains us to serve as he served. Don’t give in to your enemy grudgingly or out of necessity, because God loves a cheerful giver. Do you know what the Lord is saying? If you went out today and your enemy had a heavy burden then you would offer to help him, because Jesus has come alongside you. ‘Take my yoke upon you,’ he has said, and he is always getting under the burden with you, and giving you strength to cope. You can carry your enemy’s burden. You can be more than a mere conqueror. You can walk through life far ahead of your enemy, singing a hymn under your breath to the glory of God. Pour coals of fire on his head. So there is a better way of getting even than by vengeance.
So Paul ends this mighty chapter with these words; “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v.21). Don’t think that this is a little motto like, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” or “An apple a day keep the doctor away” – the sort of thing your grandmother would say. When Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil,” what he means is, “Don’t let revenge eat you up and destroy your life.” Think how vengeance destroys suicide bombers and their families. We too can look at life as a kind of competition. “He hit me so I had to hit him back;” “Sure, I said some awful things to him, but he said them to me first;” “I got in my retaliation first.” This happens in marriages everywhere. Partners pl
ay a game of tit for tat; “You hurt me so now I’m going to hurt you. You cheated on me, so it’s okay if I cheat on you. You slapped me, so I can slap you back. You raised your voice, so now I’m going to raise mine – a decibel louder than yours . . .” and on it goes.
Getting even doesn’t work. What happens when you try to get even? You unleash this whole cycle of retribution and violence. It never ends because someone else always wants to get the last word. There is a very practical reason behind Paul’s advice. You may win the battle, you may even get the last word or strike the last blow, but in the end, you’ve destroyed your own spiritual life. In the process of hurting another person, you’ve hurt yourself too. Anger has done its dirty work on the inside. You seethe with malice, rage, hurt feelings, and horrible thoughts that keep you up late at night. That’s one reason why many people are sick today. They aren’t sick because of some bug or a new flu virus. No, their souls are sick and as a result their bodies are sick. They are always depressed, and they can’t sleep. They have all sorts of problems, back problems, tension headaches, nightmares, stomach problems, and weight problems. I’m not suggesting that these things are unreal, or that you shouldn’t go to a doctor with them. Not at all. What I am suggesting is that in many cases the “hidden tormentors” have done their dirty work inside your soul and in the process of seeking to get even, you’ve lost your health. Albert Einstein was not a contented man. He once said, “It’s strange to be known universally and yet to feel so lonely.”
Here’s something else you have to consider. As long as you try to get even, you’re still living in the past. What happened occurred maybe years ago, but you’re still stewing about your divorce, or how unfairly your boss treated you, or how your father let you down or how your children disappointed you. You are living in the past, and yet you are grumbling at us Christians living in the New Testament and in the preaching and the life of a man who was crucified and rose from the dead for our redemption 2000 years ago.
Again, when you try to get even, evil destroys you because the other person keeps on winning. He still controls your life as long as you want revenge. Think about that. The only way to get free of your past is to let it go once and for all. But if you want to get even, you’re still chained to the past. To make matters worse, he’s probably sleeping like a baby while you are up half the night thinking of the terrible things you’d like to do to him. He’s won twice: once when he hurt you, and the second time because you’re still thinking about getting even with him. No wonder he’s smiling, and no wonder you’re not.
“Overcome evil with good,” is Paul’s conclusion. That’s the bottom line. Although we live in a world where evil seems to win out, it’s only a temporary situation. Almighty God will one day sort things out for his cosmos. He is going to overcome the evil of this fallen world with good. God has so arranged things that evil does well in the short run, but good always wins in the end. If life were like a hundred-metre race then you’d bet on evil winning, but it’s not 100 metres, life is a marathon, and because it is, good wins out in the end. That may not happen in one lifetime or in one generation, but over time, and across the generations, God moves to bring justice into the world. And if justice doesn’t come in this life, it always comes in heaven. Justice will be done. Evildoers will be punished and those who follow the way of Jesus will be rewarded. That’s the promise of God.
There are many great examples of good overcoming evil, but the greatest example in history occurred some 2000 years ago when God sent his Son into the world. The whole mission was fraught with difficulty from the beginning. He wasn’t born in a palace, but in a stable outside an inn in a tiny, forgotten little village in Judea. No one expected him, no leaders hailed his arrival, only some shepherds turned up and later the Wise Men from the East. In fact, when the local ruler heard of his birth, he ordered all the baby boys of that village slaughtered just to make sure the got the right baby.
That was a sign of things to come. Whispers and rumours abounded regarding his parents. When he grew up, his own family doubted his true identity. As he began his ministry, the common people heard him gladly, but not the religious leaders. They saw him as a threat to their interests. They feared the multitudes of people who flocked to hear him preach. Trying to trip him up, they sent their best scholars to ask him hard questions, but every time he made their people look foolish. That only infuriated them more.
Eventually they decided that he must die! Fueled by hatred, jealousy and blind rage, they schemed and plotted and bided their time. Surely, this upstart rabbi would make a mistake sooner or later. When he did, they would pounce on him like a fox on a rabbit. But he knew what they were thinking; he was aware of their evil plans, so he watched his steps, calculated every word, and he bided his time. The day came for the showdown in Jerusalem. The religious leaders penetrated his inner circle and bribed his treasurer with thirty pieces of silver. Late one night, they sprang their trap, sending out hundreds of armed soldiers as if he were a general leading an army. But he allowed himself to be arrested and taken away. Quickly he was tried and put in jail. Five times in six hours he stood before various judges. Some were cynical, some angry, some curious. None knew what to do with him. Witnesses appears to make absurd charges against him, claiming he was a right-wing extremist, a rebel, a troublemaker, an insurrectionist, a traitor to the nation. Lies, all of it, but the truth didn’t matter that night. The powers that be had decided, ‘This man must die!’
So in the course of time, he was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit. The Bible tells us that when he was questioned, he refused to defend himself. When he was attacked, he refused to answer in kind. As the old Negro spiritual puts it, “He never said a mumblin’ word.” Later on, they beat him with their fists, then ripped off his beard, then spat on him. Finally, they lashed him with a fearsome cat o’ nine tails, shredding his back. In the end, he could barely stand up from the torture he had taken.
They crucified him along with two thieves. As he hung on the cross, his first words were a prayer for his tormentors: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Shortly after that, he died. What a great man he was. Only God’s Son could have done what he did. Years later an eyewitness to his crucifixion wrote to his Christian friends exhorting them to be strong in the face of unjust suffering. This is what Peter remembered as he looked back some thirty years earlier to that awful day in Jerusalem. “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” ( I Peter 2:23). How did Jesus survive the most awful day in human history? How could he stand there and let himself be accused of crimes he didn’t commit? Why didn’t he strike back? Why didn’t he fight for his rights? The answer is found in the little phrase, “He entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” He believed that God was a God of justice, therefore he didn’t have to say a word in his own defense. He knew that God would take care of him in the end. And he did. On Friday
he was crucified. On Sunday he rose from the dead.
Aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t talk back? Aren’t you glad he didn’t retaliate? Aren’t you glad he submitted to God’s plan and went to the cross? If he hadn’t, we would still be lost in our sins. But he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven with all authority in heaven and earth. He can give us faith in him. He can give us new hearts. He can give us power to live the life of Romans 12, to go the second mile, to feed our enemies, to overcome evil with good. These things we can do by the strength that his Spirit gives us. That is real. What are you going to do about this chapter and about these verses that you have heard this morning. Are you going to shrug and think it was a long sermon and that there are other important things to think about like shopping or food or rugby?
I say, go from this place in the name of Jesus, and live at peace with everyone. Go and refuse to return evil for evil. Go from this service, and know that out where you live, and work, and study, and play, there are people who won’t like you, who will attempt to hurt you, who will mistreat you and then laugh about it. Go anyway, and carry with you the love of God. Go determined not to seek revenge against those who hurt. Above all else, go with a new determination to love your enemies no matter what it takes. Don’t let evil overcome you this week, but go out from this place and overcome evil with good. And know this much that when you go in that spirit, Jesus himself will go with you.
*I got much help from Ray Pritchard in this last section and gratefully acknowledge it.