Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 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. “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.
Be at peace with all men.
This is a conditional command. We are to make every effort to have peaceful relations with everyone, even our enemies. But it does take both sides to agree to peace. “By definition, a peaceful relationship cannot be one-sided. Our responsibility is to make sure that our side of the relationship is right, that our inner desire is genuinely to be at peace with everyone,” (MacArthur commentary on Romans II). Some people will not make peace with you even though you do everything in your power to effect it. That’s why Paul says, if possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
We should, Mac continues, go to great lengths to “build peaceful bridges to those who hate us and harm us,” (Mac p. 202). We must wipe the slate clean in our own hearts of past wrongs and grudges because that is what God through Jesus Christ has done for us. God will not hold the believer’s sins against him. Can we do any less for our fellow man without defiling ourselves, holding a root of bitterness in our heart, and weakening our relationship with the Savior?
Looking at the balance, William Barclay notes that we cannot be at peace with those who would have us abandon our godly principles: “We are to live at peace with all men. But Paul adds two qualifications. (a) He says, ‘if it be possible.’ There may come a time when the claims of courtesy have to submit to the claims of principle. Christianity is not an easy-going tolerance which will accept anything and shut its eyes to everything. There may come a time when some battle has to be fought, and when it does, the Christian will not shirk it.” (William Barclay, commentary on Romans)
“Peaceableness and a life so ordered as to render us beloved by all, is no common gift in a Christian. If we desire to attain this, we must not only be endued with perfect uprightness, but also with very courteous and kind manners, which may not only conciliate the just and the good, but produce also a favorable impression on the hearts of the ungodly.
“But here two cautions must be stated: We are not to seek to be in such esteem as to refuse to undergo the hatred of any for Christ, whenever it may be necessary. And indeed we see that there are some who, though they render themselves amicable to all by the sweetness of their manners and peaceableness of their minds, are yet hated even by their nearest connections on account of the gospel. The second caution is, — that courteousness should not degenerate into compliance, so as to lead us to flatter the vices of men for the sake of preserving peace.
“Since then it cannot always be, that we can have peace with all men, he has annexed two particulars by way of exception, If it be possible, and, as far as you can. But we are to conclude from what piety and love require, that we are not to violate peace, except when constrained by either of these two things. For we ought, for the sake of cherishing peace, to bear many things, to pardon offenses, and kindly to remit the full rigor of the law; and yet in such a way, that we may be prepared, whenever necessity requires, to fight courageously: for it is impossible that the soldiers of Christ should have perpetual peace with the world, whose prince is Satan,” (John Calvin’s commentary on the Bible).
“Paul here realizes that all men will not permit us to have peace with them. Some men will refuse reconciliation, others will refuse to depart from their sins, others will refuse to forgive. This verse does suggest hard work in trying to bring about peace. Not a peace-talker, or a peace-wisher, or peaceable, but a peace-maker (Matthew 5:9; 1 Peter 3:11),” (Mark Dunagan’s commentary on the Bible).
Never Avenge Yourself
These last two characteristics are reiterations. Paul once more denounces evil for evil, saying to all believers that we are never to take our own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God. We are not judges over other people. Scripture tells us there is only one judge, and that is God. We are to leave room for the wrath of God. This is nothing new. Going back to Deut. 32:35 Paul quotes the Mosaic law, reminding his readers that it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (cf. 2 Sam. 22:48; Nah. 1:2; Heb. 10:30). God’s divine wrath and judgement will come upon all the unrepentant ungodly and wicked in due time (Col. 3:6; Jude). But Jesus did not come to judge but to save sinners, and we believers need to give full attention to the same God-given mission.
Calvin says, “The precept; then is, — that we are not to revenge nor seek to revenge injuries done to us. The manner is added, a place is to be given to wrath. To give place to wrath, is to commit to the Lord the right of judging, which they take away from him who attempt revenge. Hence, as it is not lawful to usurp the office of God, it is not lawful to revenge; for we thus anticipate the judgment of God, who will have this office reserved for Himself. He at the same time intimates, that they shall have God as their defender, who patiently wait for his help; but that those who anticipate him leave no place for the help of God.”
“Christians need to realize that when someone is sinning, the wrath of God is already on the move. (2 Peter 2:3 …their judgement from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep). We tend to be vindictive, when we forget or never have grasped how bad hell is. If we really realized what the unrepentant will face, we would make every effort to save them and not desire their destruction. Bitterness, spite, vindictiveness are attitudes that creep into my life, when I have forgotten the horrible fate that my enemy stands daily in danger of, with only the thin thread of life keeping him/her from it. (Jude 1:22-23). (Mark Dunagan commentary on the Bible)
Overcome evil with good
Now it is one thing to withhold ourselves from returning evil for evil. But challenging as that may be, the Lord requires further that we overcome evil with good. Yet, as Mac comments, this was the obligation of godly people even under the Old Covenant. Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22: 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.
Take positive action! If your enemy has a need, meet it if you can, seeking to show the love and mercy of Jesus Christ for unbelievers. True agape love is the greatest force in the universe. When poured through our lives it is unbelievably magnetic and powerful.
“The phrase heap burning coals upon his head referred to an ancient Egyptian custom. When a person wanted to demonstrate public contrition, he would carry on his head a pan of burning coals to represent the burning pain of his shame and guilt. The point here is that, when we love our enemy and genuinely seek to meet his needs, we shame him for his hatred.” (Mac commentary on Romans vol. II) This is powerful righteous living!
There are two applications here. First, we must not be overcome by the evil others might do to us. Second, and more important, we must not let ourselves be overcome by our own evil responses. The Lord is glorified not by what is done to us, but in how we handle it. If our faith, hope, and love remain intact, God gets the glory, others cannot help but witness such a powerful testimony, and the believer maintains the peace God gives to His obedient children. Mac teaches, “Our own evil is infinitely more detrimental to us than is the evil done to us by others,” (Mac p. 203). We must not let a root of bitterness spring up in our heart.
Beloved, at its core, any challenge we face, no matter how big, shows, by how we handle it, how much or how little we trust God. Abraham trusted God, and it was account to him for righteousness. When our enemies mock us, spit on us, ridicule us, or even render physical harm to us, as they did to our Lord, what will our response be? As always, Jesus sets the example:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.…, (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Next time, Lord willing, we begin with a new chapter! Whew! Bet you thought we’d never get there. I hope you are as excited as I am! Until then, God bless all with His manifold mercies and great love…mike.
P.S. May our hearts and prayers go out to the victims and families of those who were hurt or killed in Manchester, England by the senseless terrorism of godless people. I have great sorrow for these victims. I hope it is clear according to Scripture how to treat the enemies of humanity who perpetrated this and other horrific acts. What will your heart do?