Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.Romans 12:17-21 RSV
The child of God may not set himself to “get even” with another, nor retaliate in kind against any who might slight or wrong him.
Such reaction to evil is the grand strategy of God who will overcome evil with good; and the announcement of that strategy, to be made at the end of the chapter, had been in Paul’s mind throughout the enumeration of the admonitions listed here.
This has no reference at all to the duty of a magistrate commissioned under the law to render the required penalty against an evil doer as the just recompense of a crime.
Misunderstanding of these admonitions arises from a failure to see that they are concerned with our private, individual, personal relations lo one another and not with magisterial and judicial administration.
It is noteworthy that the apostle proceeds immediately after these admonitions to deal with the prerogatives and functions of the magistrate and therefore with the judicial, and penal institution.
“Take thought for things honorable in the sight of all men” is a restriction of Christian conduct to exclude anything held to be disreputable, dishonorable, reprehensible, or detestable by human opinion in society as a whole, or as officially expressed through the regulations imposed by government.
All illegal activity is forbidden, being here condemned and proscribed, whether or not the law may be based upon absolute truth, the mere fact of a thing’s being illegal under the laws of the state being sufficient disqualification to deny it as permissible for a Christian.
Gambling, for example, will never be permissible for any Christian, as long as it is illegal in some states.
It is not honorable in the sight of all the police establishments in North America.
Further, churches which stoop to finance their activities by gambling, even if legally permitted, fall under the judgment of this apostolic ban, because, despite the legal exemption sometimes grafted churches, vast numbers of enlightened people still consider it evil.
Murray is correct in underscoring this verse as an additional principle of Christian behavior, thus:
For the first time in this chapter, this type of consideration appears, namely, the need for maintaining a deportment that approves itself to men.
The close parallel, “We take thought for things honorable not only in the sight of the Lord but also in the sight of men” (2 Corinthians 8:21), points up this consideration.
Such a decent respect to the opinions of mankind was frequently noted by Paul, who commended himself to “every conscience of men” (2 Corinthians 4:2), and who required that a Christian elder “must have a good report of those who are without” (1 Timothy 3:7).
If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men.
This instruction to be at peace with all people is conditioned upon the objective possibility of being so.
The subjective impossibility of the Christian’s being unable to restrain himself, or some such thing, is not in view here at all.
The impossibility allowed by Paul as a negation of this precept would lie only in the kind of a situation where truth and sacred duty would require resistance.
An apostle said:
The wisdom which is from above is first pure, then peaceable (James 3:17).
But, while allowing theoretical situations where peace could not honorably be maintained, we should strictly heed the principle of avoiding discord.
Christ taught that people should give the cloak also, go the second mile, turn the other cheek, and avoid conflict by any honorable means whatsoever.
What a shameful contrast is the conduct of some persons, allegedly Christian, who are ever spoiling for strife, and who, far from avoiding it, actually seek and enjoy all kinds of confrontations that lead to bitterness and contention.
Avenge not yourselves, beloved; but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord.
Vengeance is not a Christian prerogative, this being true for a number of reasons, such as:
(1) God has forbidden it
(2) it is illegal in any civilized state
(3) it is contrary to the Christian principle of overcoming evil with good, the latter being the master strategy against evil.
The quotation here is from Deuteronomy 32:35, where the text has:
VENGEANCE IS MINE, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.Deuteronomy 32:35 RSV
Significantly, Paul did not use the exact words of Deuteronomy, but stated the thought in a form found nowhere else in scripture except in Hebrews 10:30, where the appearance of exactly the same words strongly suggests Pauline authorship of Hebrews.
Who but Paul, of all the people of that generation, could have paraphrased a portion of Deuteronomy in exactly the same words?
There also seems to be a different meaning from that of Moses, as similarly in other passages of Romans (Romans 10:6-8), thus still further tying the peculiar arrangement of these words to Paul alone.
In Deuteronomy, the emphasis is upon the occurrence of some disaster, accident, or calamity to check the evil-doer, with the implication that God’s agency might cause such to occur; but here Paul’s thought pointed to the function of the magistrate and the legal system as the agency through which God will execute vengeance upon wrongdoing, which is exactly the subject Paul was about to take up (Romans 13)
Paul’s quoting that statement (Deuteronomy 32:35) did not change its meaning nor its application. It does not refer to the vengeance God will take on sinners at the final judgment.
Under the law of Moses, God took vengeance upon evil-doers by the agency of chosen authorities.
Paul’s quoting that part of the law did not change its application, and the vengeance here mentioned will be taken in the same way.
A little later, Paul will show how this is to be done.
Whatever is the full meaning of the question of God’s taking vengeance upon wicked men, the use of constituted authorities is surely one way it is accomplished (see Romans 13:4); but this writer believes that God may, for sufficient reason, bring disaster upon a sinner, as surely implied in the Deuteronomic passage cited.
The fact of God’s taking vengeance is here revealed, as in the Old Testament; and at least three manifestations of that vengeance are visible:
(1) in the matter of direct providence (the case of Herod in Acts 12)
(2) through legal authorities
(3) at the final judgment. There are also possibly other ways in which God executes vengeance which lie totally beyond our human knowledge or understanding.
The fact that vengeance will truly be taken is a truth to be held in humility and awe.
But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.
This is an amazing scripture. The writer once heard of a woman involved in bitter quarrels with her husband.
Seeking counsel, she was asked, “Have you tried heaping coals of fire on his head?” She replied, “No, but I tried a skillet of hot grease!” She, like many others, failed to realize that Paul here used a figure of speech, a style of rhetoric often found in the sacred scriptures.
The original meaning of this figure of speech has been lost, but Paul suggests that the enemy will burn with shame for his abuse of one who loves him.
If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: for thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee (Proverbs 25:21,22).
Rather than delving into the strange and even bizarre interpretations people have suggested for this passage, it seems that it would be better to accept that the actual meaning of the figure is lost.
Whatever might have been the meaning, the motive of providing food and drink for an enemy cannot be that of increasing his punishment, nor of aggravating his guilt, the true purpose, or motive, being the effective discipline of the Christian’s own spirit and likewise the subduing of enmity within the adversary. This alone would fit the strategy announced in the next verse.
Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
Here appears the real reason for extending kindness to enemies. If the child of God should retaliate in kind for all acts of enmity against himself, he would shortly find himself engaging in all kinds of shameful and wicked conduct.
Here in Romans 12:21 is the grand strategy of God with regard to human evil.
The natural man finds himself living and operating in a world where one rotten apple can make a barrel of good apples rotten; but the spiritual man, having the mind of the Spirit, proceeds upon the premise that one good apple might make a barrel of rotten apples sound!
The divine nature of this priceless precept has elicited the most extravagant praise, as well it should.
This is a noble strain of Christian courage, prudence, and goodness, that nothing in Epictetus, Plutarch, or Antonine can vie with. The moralists and heroes of paganism could not write and act to the height of this.
Thus, in view of the foregoing consideration, the spiritual instinct of the humble Christian, as represented by such congregations as the one mentioned at the head of this chapter, is demonstrated to be correct by focusing upon this magnificent chapter of practical Christian living.