Dr. Richard L. Strauss
August 11, 1991
Purpose: To help us love our enemies.
For many years Dr. Richard C. Halverson has written a weekly devotional letter for business and professional men called Perspective. I pulled one from my file dated March 21, 1973, which sums up the next section of Paul's letter to the Romans. I'd like to read it to you:
"There are many ways to fight....You may fight with your fists...but what does it prove--even if you win? It certainly doesn't prove you are right...it just proves you have more muscle, or can duck better...or maybe you've got a harder skull. In fact, chances are the guy who uses his fists knows he's wrong--that's why he resorts to muscle instead of brains...he bluffs his way through life with a strong arm instead of intelligence.
"A man may fight with words...even win the argument. But what does that prove? Except that he is smarter with the king's English--more adept at language. Or maybe it just proves that he is a loud mouth!
"Love is a way to fight, too! Love is a mighty force--the mightiest force in history! This does not mean that love never loses--it often loses on the short-term basis...but it always wins ultimately! Jesus loved...and they put Him on a cross--crucified Him like a common criminal. The man who fights with love must be prepared to lose--temporarily! He'll be invincible in the long run--but he must be willing to suffer setbacks. That's why only strong men can fight with love. Weak men don't love--love requires strength, courage, fortitude! Weaklings must use fists--or arguments--or guns. But they are no match for love! 'Love outlasts anything.'"
LOVE! That's the major theme of Romans 12:9-21. Unhypocritical love! In Romans 12:9-13, it was love for other Christians. In Romans 12:14-16, it was love for all human beings generally--believers and unbelievers. And now in Romans 12:17-21, it is love particularly for people who hate us and persecute us. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "...love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Paul briefly echoed that command of Christ in Romans 12:14, when he wrote, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse." Now he wants to amplify it and show us how love can help us win our battles, for love is THE ULTIMATE WEAPON!
Christians in first century Rome were occasionally singled out for special threats, intimidation, or outright persecution because of their faith in Christ. They were asking, "How does God want us to respond?"
Some of us may be facing opposition, antagonism, harassment, or persecution for our faith in Christ. How does God want us to respond? Or maybe it's simply that somebody who doesn't like us is trying to make life miserable for us--for any reason, not just for our faith in Christ. How does God want us to respond?
Paul has an answer to that question--a shocking and surprising answer. His answer is, essentially, LOVE THEM! Because love is the ultimate weapon. Love conquers all. But our love will include negative elements as well as positive elements. There are some things we won't do, and there are some things we will do. They're all mixed together in this passage. So let's see if we can separate them out.
The Negative Commands
(Romans 12:17a, 19, 21a)
There are three negative commands.
Don't Repay Evil for Evil (Romans 12:17a)
The evil that people do to us may be unintentional, such as a thoughtless remark that hurts our feelings, or a careless act that creates more work for us and adds pressure to our lives, or an accidental slight when we needed support and encouragement. But the evil Paul is talking about is more likely intentional. Somebody is mocking us for our Christian testimony, or trying to deny us our rights, or keeping us from getting the honor we deserve, or undermining our authority, or spreading lies about us and ruining our reputation, or trying to take something away from us, or even trying to hurt us physically.
What is your first reaction when somebody does something like that to you? It's to pay them back. That's the normal human response. To give them what they deserve. "If that's the way they want to play, two can play that game as well as one." So we begin to ignore them just as they have ignored us. We tell the boss what they did wrong, just as they told on us. We spread some malicious stories about them just as they did to us. We counter-sue for everything they've got. But that's exactly what God tells us not to do. Love will not repay evil for evil. He repeats the same negative command in verse 19, but in slightly different words.
Don't Seek Vengeance (Romans 12:19)
Romans 12:19. "Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord."
Why shouldn't we avenge ourselves? Why shouldn't we even the score? That would only seem to be fair. Because, says Paul, that's God's job. When he says "...give place to wrath," he's talking about God's wrath (orge is preceded by a definite article). God keeps perfect score. He knows how to balance the books. And He will do it, one way or another, in this life or in the life to come. Paul has assured us of that several times in this book already (Romans 1:18; 2:5,8; 9:22). So let Him do it. Don't get in the way. If we try to even the score ourselves, we may just mess up what He has planned. He can do it far better than we can, so let Him do it.
Do you know why it's God's job to judge rather than ours?
1. He is omniscient. He knows all the facts and we don't.
Can you imagine a judge who listens to part of the evidence and then says, "That's enough. I don't need the rest of the facts. I can decide the case on the basis of what I've already heard." We would cry, "Unfair!" And yet when we try to pay people back for what they've done to us we are judging them on the basis of partial evidence. We don't know their hearts, or their motives, or all that was said or done. So let God do it. He knows all the facts.
2. He is unselfish and unbiased. When we try to even the score, we're usually looking out exclusively for our own interests.
Can you imagine a man being tried for breaking into a house and stealing some valuables, only to learn that the judge who is going to try the case is the owner of the house and the man's accuser? There's no way for him to get a fair trial under those circumstances. So how can we think that we are capable of judging fairly when we are the ones who have been wronged? We'll probably judge too severely, and that will only escalate the conflict. So let God do it. He can be fair and impartial. Love will not seek revenge.
Don't Be Overcome by Evil (Romans 12:21a)
The word overcome is a military word that refers to getting beat in battle. We're in a war, and it's not a war with people who hate us or are out to get us. It's a war with evil itself. When someone does something to hurt us, our instant reaction is to hurt them in return. But when we do that, we've lost the battle. Evil has won by getting us to act in an evil way. The enemy has caused us to sink to his level, and his evil has now been compounded by our evil. So the only winner is EVIL. Don't let that happen. Don't repay evil for evil. Don't seek revenge. Don't let evil win the day. Love will not be overcome by evil.
Well then, what should we do if we truly love? Let's go back and pick up the positive commands.
The Positive Commands
(Romans 12:17b, 18, 20)
Do What People Consider Good (Romans 12:17b)
The KJV says, "Provide things honest in the sight of all men." But that seems to miss the point. The text says, literally, "Taking thought for things excellent in the sight of all men." That doesn't necessarily mean that we're supposed to do what the people of the world think is good. Their opinion is distorted by sin. But it does mean that we are to do what people generally will be forced to admit was honorable and excellent. That's going to give the gospel good press and maybe even open some hearts and minds to receive it.
So, when somebody does something unkind or unfair to wrong us and hurt us, instead of reacting with the first thing that comes into our heads, like "What can I do to get back at him?" stop and THINK! The word "have regard" (pronoeo) means "to give careful, deliberate forethought." Think, "What can I do for that person that others will have to admit is noble and good?" Then do it!
You may have heard the story of the young army private who came to know Christ and soon began to get down on his knees for prayer every night before turning in. His hard-boiled sergeant didn't like that at all, and one night picked up his muddy boot and hurled it at the praying soldier, hitting him on the side of the head and stunning him. He finished praying without a word. But the next morning, when the sergeant reached for his boots, he found them cleaned and polished, and discovered that the private had done it. Nobody could deny that what he did was noble and good. And it eventually drove the godless sergeant to put his faith in the One who would cause a man to do a thing like that (SP, p.171). That's love, the ultimate weapon in our battle against evil.
Do What Contributes to Peace (Romans 12:18)
Romans 12:18. "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men."
God puts a high priority on us living in peace and harmony with the people around us, even with unbelievers who hate the gospel and harass Christians. But He recognizes that it is not always possible to do that. Did you notice that Paul puts two conditions on this command?
1. "If It is Possible"
There are times when we may do everything we can to build good will and a good relationship with an enemy, but he refuses to respond. He remains an enemy in spite of our best efforts to win his friendship. There's no reason to put ourselves on a guilt trip over that. We cannot determine the actions of others. We are only responsible for our own. That's why Paul adds a second condition.
2. "As Much as Depends on You"
We are to keep doing everything we can, without sacrificing Biblical truth or compromising Biblical principles, to encourage a peaceful relationship with those who are hostile to us. We need to make sure that nobody can ever point the finger at us and say that a conflict exists because we failed to do what we could to resolve it, or because we failed to return good for evil. Maintaining peace is an expression of love, the ultimate weapon against evil.
There's a third positive command, and it's a quotation from Proverbs 25:21-22.
Do What Ministers to People's Needs (Romans 12:20)
Romans 12:20. "Therefore 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.'"
Giving food or drink are representative of any number of things we could do to minister to the needs of people who have wronged us. There are many other things we may be able to do as well. Maybe they need something fixed and you know how to do it. Maybe they need help with a move. Maybe they need transportation and you can provide it. Maybe they need you to put in a good word for them to a friend of yours, or maybe they just need a kind word spoken to them in a time of discouragement or grief or loss.
Those of you who were here on a Sunday night back in November, 1989, heard a dramatic illustration of this principle. When missionary Bruce Olson was captured by the communist guerrillas in Columbia, he spent his time teaching his captors to read and write, teaching them how to cook, teaching them basic principle of personal health and hygiene. By the time they finally released him months later, several had come to know Christ, and a large number defected from the communist cause. He showed them the love of Christ by ministering to their needs, and love won the victory.
So whatever the need is, be there to meet it. Paul adds, "For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on their heads." Now what does that mean? That it will set their hair on fire and burn them good for what they did to us? No! Our goal is not to punish them. Our goal is to win them over and restore the relationship--possibly even win him to Christ. Heaping coals of fire on their heads probably refers to an ancient Egyptian practice where a repentant person would come to ask forgiveness and give public evidence of his penitent spirit by carrying a pot of burning charcoal on his head.
In other words, when we lovingly minister to their needs, in spite of how badly they have hurt us, they may be brought to see their wrong, to experience sorrow and shame over what they have done, and come seeking reconciliation. That's the goal: reconciliation. And when that happens, we will have "overcome evil with good," as Paul concludes the chapter (Romans 12:21b). And now we're back to the battlefield again. We get victory over our enemies, not by hurting them, but by helping them, and turning them into friends.
More than 200 years ago, during the American Revolution, there was a pastor named Peter Miller who enjoyed a personal friendship with George Washington. But Miller also had an antagonist, a man named Michael Wittman, an enemy of the gospel who did everything he could to oppose and humiliate the pastor. As it turned out, Wittman was also secretly working against the American national effort. He was discovered, arrested, tried for treason by a military court, and sentenced to die.
Peter Miller traveled by foot 70 miles to Philadelphia to seek an audience with his friend, George Washington. Washington was glad to see him, but when Miller pleaded for the life of the traitor, Washington responded, "No, Peter. I cannot grant you the life of your friend." "My friend!" exclaimed the pastor. "He's the bitterest enemy I have." "What?" asked Washington. "You've walked 70 miles to save the life of an enemy? That puts the matter in a different light. I'll grant your pardon." Peter Miller and Michael Wittman walked back home together, friends, and with the foundation established for a relationship that would eventually bring his former enemy to faith in Christ.
How would you have reacted when you heard that your bitter enemy had been sentenced to death? "Serves him right! Now he'll get what's coming to him." That's probably the way I would have reacted. But Peter Miller fought with love, the ultimate weapon. He did the most obvious good thing he could do, something everybody had to agree was noble and honorable. He heaped on him the coals of red-hot love, and it led to repentance and reconciliation, and ultimately, redemption.
Think of the one person who has brought more harm and hurt to your life than anyone else. Right their name on a piece of paper. Would you have that much courage? Write it down? Now, what good thing could you do for that person as an expression of Christlike love? What tangible needs could you meet? Could you drop them a note, telling them you care about them and are praying for them, or something? Would could you do to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ to that person who has hurt you? Decide right now that you're going to do those things through God's power, that you're going to minister to those needs. Let's take the Word of God at face value; that's why God gave it to us: to show us how to live. I know it's antithetical and contrary to everything the world teaches, but it's God's will for our lives.
Will you do it? Will you purpose that you're going to reach out and minister to those needs? You will win a great victory over evil! You will be wielding the ultimate weapon. You will be fighting with love. And you will be overcome evil with good. God will be glorified and God's blessing will be on your life.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
I guess the best illustration of this is really the Lord Himself. Back in Romans 5:8, Paul wrote, "But God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." In Romans 5:10, he says, "For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more having been reconciled we shall be saved by His life."
Enemies. Oh, maybe it wasn't conscious, but it was true. Before we knew Christ, we were His enemies. If you haven't believed what God has to say about your need for eternal salvation and you haven't put your faith in Christ alone--rather than your good deeds and your fine life and your religious activities--if you have not done what God says, then He paints you as His adversary.
But even though you are His adversary, He sent His Son to Calvary to die for you. You! You, who have yet to trust Him as your Savior from sin. Even when you were His adversary--what a demonstration of love. Will you respond to that love today? Will you acknowledge your sin and your need of a Savior--the only source for salvation: Jesus Christ and His finished work on Calvary's cross, where He bore the punishment you and I deserved. Will you put your faith in Him?
Let's bow together in His presence, prayerfully. With our heads bowed, let me ask you again: Have you put your faith in Christ alone for your eternal salvation? If you're not certain, would you settle it right now? That's why Jesus came. That's what the Christian faith is all about. He is the sacrifice for our sins. He satisfied God's just demands against sin, and there isn't any other way we can avail ourselves of God's forgiveness and the life He offers us other than to come His way by faith in His Son.
Would you trust Him now? Tell Him so in the quiet of your own soul right now, please. Don't put it off.
"Lord, I'm a sinner. I believe Jesus died for my sin. Come into my heart and save me, Lord Jesus."
Now, Christian, did that person come to your mind--the one who hurt you? Did you think about what you could do to demonstrate the love of Christ to them? Oh, you'll have to forgive. You won't be able to do this until you forgive in your own heart, but then, will you tell God right now that you're ready to reach out in love and minister to those needs, whatever they are? Tell Him, will you?
Father, this is hard. You never said the Christian life would be easy but You did promise us help. Thank You for Your Spirit who lives in us. I pray that He will melt down our resistance right now and mold us into His very image, fill us, take control of our lives, so that He can express His character of love through us. For we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Continue to ROM 28: You and Your Government