WE ARE TO SERVE GOD BY OVERCOMING EVIL WITH GOOD –
7 WAYS TO FIGHT YOUR ENEMIES
Frank Thielman: This passage teaches Christians that the love God expects them to show to others arises from God’s transforming work within them, not from outward coercion. It also contributes to Christian teaching on nonretaliation and provides a strategy for practicing a kind of love for the church’s enemies that does not excuse or perpetuate injustice.
Grant Osborne: Paul now broadens his perspective to the world where the believers live—in this case, the capital of the empire, Rome itself. The community of believers was a tiny segment, vulnerable to the edicts of pagan emperors and persecution by any who disagreed with them. Paul, aware of these realities, counsels believers to avoid trouble by refusing to retaliate when persecuted and to respond with good when they are treated with evil.
Douglas Moo: As we noted at the outset, the commands in verses 9–21 do not follow any strict logical order. In keeping with the style he uses, Paul moves rapidly from one subject to another. But we can discern a single underlying concern in verses 14–16: the need to live in harmony with other people, both unbelievers (v. 14) and believers (vv. 15–16). We pursue this goal with unbelievers by meeting their scorn and hatred with love; we display the deep-seated harmony that the Spirit creates among believers by making other believers’ joys and sorrows our own.
Steven Cole: vv. 14-16 — There is another connection between these three seemingly disjointed verses: they all are rooted in selflessness or self-denial. We can only bless our persecutors and not curse them if we are more concerned about their eternal welfare than we are about our suffering. We can only rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep if our focus is off ourselves and on their situation. We can only be of the same mind with one another and not be haughty or wise in our own estimation if our eyes are on the Lord and others, not on ourselves. Selflessness is the thread that ties all three verses together.
I. (:14) BLESS THEM –
DETERMINE TO BRING YOUR ENEMY GOOD NOT HARM
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not.”
Frank Thielman: The participial expression “those who persecute” (τοὺς διώκοντας) echoes the participle “pursue” (διώκοντες) at the end of the previous sentence. Now, however, the tables are turned, and Paul depicts believers as the object of hostile pursuit. In such a situation, he says, believers should respond in a radically unnatural way and wish their persecutors well with kind words rather than wishing their destruction with words of abuse. As the quotation of Proverbs 25:21–22 in Romans 12:20 shows, this approach to those who actively seek one’s harm arises from the OT (Exod 23:4–5; Job 31:29–30; Prov 24:17–18), probably as it was reformulated in the teaching of Jesus (Matt 5:43–48; Luke 6:27–29, 31–35). Paul acted on this principle himself (Acts 16:25–33; 1 Cor 4:13), and it was a consistent feature of his ethical teaching (1 Thess 5:15).
Thomas Schreiner: the injunction to bless those who persecute us is one of the most revolutionary statements in the NT and can be carried out only by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Michael Bird: As to what kind of persecution the Roman Christians may have been experiencing at this point, before the Neronian persecution, it is hard to say. It could have included a mixture of social ostracism, slander, boycott of business, and legal action. If the epistle to the Hebrews has a Roman provenance, the believers may have experienced the various hardships described therein, including public insult, imprisonment, and confiscation of property (see Heb 10:32 – 34). Such things may have happened to them when they came to faith and during the expulsion occasioned by the Edict of Claudius.
Steven Cole: Regarding the imprecatory psalms, it is important to realize that they were judicial and national, rather than personal cries for vengeance. On a personal level, David often refrained from taking vengeance on his enemies. But as the king over God’s people, David was crying out for God to bring justice on evildoers. Also, they reflect the fact that one day Christ will bring judgment on all who do not repent. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we are praying that He will either save or judge the wicked. So an appropriate prayer for those who have persecuted us may be, “Lord, would You please save him, but if not, I know that You will judge him righteously.” The transformed attitude that we are to reflect is: because God was merciful to me while I was His enemy, I need to bless those who have treated me wrongfully.
II. (:15) EMPATHIZE WITH THEM –
SHOW CONCERN FOR YOUR ENEMY’S GAINS AND LOSSES
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”
Frank Thielman: Believers should not be self-absorbed but empathetic with the joys and sorrows of others. . . Paul was perhaps already thinking of the unity and humility that he would advocate in the next sentence. To share in the joy and sadness of others requires regarding their circumstances as more urgently in need of attention than one’s own circumstances and seeing others as more important than one’s self (cf. 1 Cor 12:26).
Thomas Schreiner: Rejoicing with those who are rejoicing and weeping with those who are weeping are concrete indications of love in the Christian church. Oakes (2009: 120) is probably right in suggesting that the social elite would not typically join in with the sorrows and joys of slaves, and thus the family character of the church again emerges. John Chrysostom (Homilies on Romans 7 [on Rom. 3:31]; [on Rom. 12:15]) may well be right in remarking that the admonition to rejoice with those who rejoice occurs first because it is more difficult. We are all inclined to shed a sympathizing tear with those who are suffering (cf. Sir. 7:34), but envy and a sense of competition often hinder us from truly rejoicing with those who rejoice.
Grant Osborne: Following Jesus will mean that believers will pass through a kaleidoscope of experiences in life. Christianity is neither denying life’s hardships, or dulling life’s excitements. Our perspective of eternity in Christ can free us to enter into the full variety of living. Both laughter and tears are appropriate before God. Each has an important place in representing our feelings. Identifying with the joys and heartaches of others is also an important way to show them our love.
III. (:16) SHOW HUMILITY –
DO NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO THINK YOU ARE BETTER
“Be of the same mind toward one another;
do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly.
Do not be wise in your own estimation.”
Michael Bird: The focus is not on uniformity in thought, but on a single-minded pursuit of harmonious relations. They are to be thoughtful for how they treat each other.
Thomas Schreiner: The redeemed community should be marked by humble concern for one another, and all should be treated as valued persons made in the image of God and redeemed by him.
Michael Gorman: The practice of associating with the lowly is grounded in the reality that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:27–29). This divine preference for the weak is grounded still further in the reality that the weakness of Christ crucified is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18–25).
IV. (:17) AVOID RETALIATION –
DO NOT ALLOW ANOTHER’S EVIL TO DETERMINE YOUR RESPONSE
“Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.”
Thomas Schreiner: The desire to retaliate almost overwhelms us when we have been treated unjustly. Oakes (2009: 123–26) says it was quite common for the injustice to be physical violence of some sort, and then the temptation to round up one’s own group and inflict the same on the perpetrator would be significant. Perhaps the difficulty of resisting revenge provoked Paul to add the word ἀγαπητοί (agapētoi, beloved) here. Even though believers are severely mistreated by others, they should never forget that they are dearly loved by God and chosen to be his own. Rejection by others is a deep wound, but the salve of God’s love for us is the best healing for it. . .
The second command in verse 17 should probably be related to the command to avoid retaliation. Thus when Paul says, “Think beforehand what is good in the sight of all people,” his point is that all people, even unbelievers, recognize that refraining from getting even is good.
V. (:18) MAINTAIN PEACE –
ALWAYS TRY TO MAINTAIN AN ATMOSPHERE OF PEACE
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”
Frank Thielman: The caveat that believers should do this “if possible” and “to the extent that it is up to you” recognizes that some people refuse to live at peace with others until everyone under their power has become complicit in their wickedness. In this situation, Paul implies, the believer must forgo peace and remain faithful to the “good and pleasing and perfect” will of God (12:2).
Thomas Schreiner: One of the marks of Christians is a winsome and friendly spirit that delights in peace and harmony, not arguments and division. Nonetheless, Paul recognizes that the goal of peace with all people cannot be realized perfectly.
VI. (:19) LEAVE VENGEANCE TO GOD –
LET GOD “WORRY” ABOUT REPAYING EVIL
“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.”
Thomas Schreiner: This text suggests that believers will not be able to conquer feelings of revenge unless we recognize that God will eventually set all accounts right. We would fall prey to retaliation in the present if we did not know that God would vindicate us in the future. Thus the recognition that God will judge our enemies is crucial for overcoming evil with good. Believers can leave the fate of their persecutors in God’s hands, knowing that he is good and just and that he does all things well. Believers are also to pray that God will bless those who persecute them (Rom. 12:14). This means that we pray for the salvation of our oppressors, hoping that they will turn from their evil and be rescued from the wrath to come. Nonetheless, we need to know (cf. 2 Thess. 1:3–10 for the same theme) that those who do not repent will experience judgment.
VII. (:20) MEET PRACTICAL NEEDS –
GIVE YOUR ENEMY WHAT HE NEEDS NOT WHAT HE DESERVES
“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.”
Frank Thielman: It may be best to admit that we do not know precisely what the imagery means. Paul’s basic point, however, is clear, and Lagrange has described it succinctly: “ ‘To have burning coals on the head’ constitutes a most painful situation, and a situation that is easy to exit, if one wants to. The idea is that the enemy would feel defeated by such generosity and disposed to better sentiments.”
Michael Bird: By showing unexpected and undeserved kindness we can make our opponents become friends and break down hatred, prejudice, and ignorance. However, for those who do not change, who wish to continue their hatred for hatred’s sake, such kindness does have a negative impact. A brutish response to kindness demonstrates their fitness for divine recompense and is tantamount to piling coals of fire on their head, symbols for God’s coming in judgment (see Pss 18:8, 12; 120:4; 140:10).
Thomas Schreiner: Paul’s point is that the actions of believers serve as the basis for God heaping coals on unbelievers. To put it another way, through their actions believers become the means of God’s punishment.
Most scholars today reject this view, asking How can one do good to others if one’s ultimate motivation is that God will heap coals of fire on them in the eschaton? The difficulties of this interpretation are exaggerated by most scholars because the reference to God’s judgment here parallels the promise of God’s vengeance in verse 19 (so Piper 1979: 116; Day 2003). Indeed, that verses 19–20 are parallel strengthens the case for “coals of fire” being a reference to God’s judgment. Just as readers are to refrain from revenge because God will judge (v. 19), so too they are to do good because he will punish their enemies (v. 20). Dunn (1988b: 751; cf. Byrne 1996: 384) says that ἀλλά indicates that verse 20 stands in contrast to verse 19 so that God’s judgment cannot be in view in both cases. But he misses the point of the contrast. The contrast between the two verses is found in the actions of believers, not in the judgment of God. In verse 19 believers are commanded not to take vengeance, but in verse 20 they are now commanded to do good. Yet is it not psychologically improbable that the promise of God’s judgment would free believers to do good to their opponents? Not any more improbable than the argument found in verse 19, where God’s future vengeance frees believers from taking revenge on their enemies. In both cases, believers are liberated from taking justice into their own hands and are free to do good because they know that in the end God will right all wrongs. Those who continue to resist repentance must experience God’s wrath, for otherwise God cannot remain faithful to his name (cf. Piper 1979: 117–18). Similarly, Jesus could refrain from cursing his adversaries because he entrusted himself to God, “who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). The sure realization that God will vindicate us frees us to love others and to do good to them, and even to pray that God will bless them (Rom. 12:14) and bring them to repentance. Believers will not chafe at any oppressor being brought to repentance, because they trust the goodness and justice of God, knowing that he does all things well and that they themselves were deserving of wrath (1:18 – 3:20).
(:21) SUMMARY – OVERCOME EVIL WITH GOOD
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Thomas Schreiner: Believers should not let the evil they experience at the hands of others master them so that they fall prey to evil themselves (v. 21a). They are called on to surmount every evil by doing good, and what gives them the courage and strength to do so is the belief that God is a righteous judge who will set straight every wrong that is done.
Douglas Moo: Though redeemed and citizens of heaven, we believers still live in a world soaked in evil. We must battle constantly against the tendency to conform our behavior to this world (see 12:2). But more than the purely negative quality of resistance to evil is needed. God calls us to be active in using the grace of the gospel and the power of the Spirit to win victories over the evil of this world.