“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:19-21)
While we have a new nature in Christ through salvation, we’re reminded every day that our sin nature is still within us. Day after day, we wake to the same battle line drawn between this old and new nature, but some days it seems that we so easily cross that line as we lose just as many battles as we win. The ratio of wins and losses remind us that we are but flesh, where most of us can contest to the words of Jesus, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)
The context of Romans 12:19-21 is revenge. Revenge is a natural instinct of the sin nature making these verses among the most difficult verses for the born again believer to fulfill with the new nature.
Jesus is only One with pure vengeance, and it is unto His perfect vengeance that we are to surrender our vengeance. The fact is, the world does not simply hate the born again believer, they hate the One that we live for, putting us in the cross-hairs of their evil deeds towards Him. Jesus said, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). As a result of their hatred and our closeness to Christ, “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (II Timothy 3:12).
Paul gives us guidance in Romans 12:19-21 as to how we are to deal with the evil brought upon us for Christ’s sake – how we are to control our natural instinct for vengeance.
What is vengeance? By definition it is “retaliation for harm done, to give out justice.” Our natural human reaction is retaliation when evil is done to us. In the heat of our emotions, the sin nature instantly seeks vengeance and not perfect justice. We then justify this retaliation by taking verses out of context, like, “Eye for eye” in Exodus 21:24. Contextually, Exodus 21 is dealing with capital punishment, and not personal vengeance.
1) AVENGE NOT YOURSELVES (12:19-20)
We are to “give place unto wrath,” that is, to God’s wrath and not our own. WHY? God’s wrath is perfect while ours is not. When evil comes our way, it hurts us! Then, our hurt turns into anger! Then, our anger turns into wrath! Our wrath is sin, as “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
Understand, anger and wrath are not the same. Anger is an emotion that God gave to us, it is not a sin. Wrath, on the other hand, is the sinful reaction to this heated emotion. God tells us clearly that anger is OK, while wrath is a sin. Ephesians 4:26-27 says, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil.” Here, when we “give place to the devil” it is our sinful wrath that is unleashed. However, Romans 12 is dealing with us holding back our wrath and allowing the wrath of God to be unleashed. In Romans 12, “give place unto wrath” is not allowing the Devil to have his control, but rather, allowing God to have His control as we “avenge not yourselves.” Thus, “give place unto wrath” is not our sinful wrath, but the pure and perfect wrath of God.
Remember what I said in introduction, Romans 12:19-21 are probably the most difficult verses to fulfill in the life of the born again believer. To fulfill these verses, we must subdue our flesh and submit to God. This takes faith on our part, even as we may question, “Does God forget to avenge us?”
Think about it, does God really forget to avenge us?
Paul answers this by saying, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” Vengeance belongs to God and not to us – and yes, God said that He will repay. The question we should ask ourselves, “Is God a liar?” We know the answer to this. So, where do we get into trouble? We get into trouble as soon as we decide to control God’s timetable. We presume God’s mercy or longsuffering is allowing evil to proceed at the expense of our vengeance.
We must trust God, regardless if His repay is not in our timeline. We must trust that God will not forget to avenge us!
In God’s time, He will judge sin! It is only for His mercy and longsuffering that all of us are not burning in Hell today, yet His longsuffering never excuses sin or cancels His perfect wrath and justice upon unrepentant men.
2) BE NOT OVERCOME WITH EVIL (12:21a)
We all know what evil is, but what about overcome?
The Greek word for “overcome” is where we get our English word “Nike.” Nike comes from Greek mythology, the Greek goddess of victory. The Nike branded logo, on sports apparel is the wing of the Greek goddess Nike. Nike became a common Greek word for victory, conquer and overcome throughout the New Testament. Nike was honored by Romans as the victory over death. The Roman city Corinth was in Greece, where Paul was sure to declare Jesus as their Nike, victory over death, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory [Nike] through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:55-57)
“overcome” by definition can clearly be seen in the word Nike, meaning “to win in the face of obstacles, to conquer.” Remember, the context of Romans 12:19-21 is all about our reaction to evil that has been done to us – our revenge. So, how exactly are we “overcome of evil?.” When we give into the temptation for revenge, that is, when we force our own vengeance and not allow God to have His.
We have to remember, we have no control over how we are treated by others. However, we have absolute control over how we respond to others. Our uncontrolled response is to be “overcome of evil.” So, what Paul is teaching us, we are not to avenge ourselves by being “overcome of evil.”
3) OVERCOME EVIL WITH GOOD (12:21b)
This is where the rubber meets the road.
What is “good?” By definition, it is “beneficial, of good constitution, joyful, happy.” Good is contrasted with evil throughout the Bible, which is the only place we learn God’s definition of good and evil.
Anyone can return good for good, or evil for evil. This is accomplished in our natural, instinctive retaliation. However, to defuse evil rather than fuel it, we must give it a healthy dose of good. The wisdom of this is seen in a Proverb that Paul is obviously quoting in Romans 12, “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).
Jesus, as our example, instructs us in Matthew 5 to render good for evil:
- If someone gives you a right hook, Jesus said, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)
- If someone takes your coat, Jesus said, “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.” (Matthew 5:40)
- If someone forces you to go a mile, Jesus said, “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” (Matthew 5:41)
Matthew 5 tells us exactly why we are to render good for evil. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) When it comes to our witnessing for Christ, the world is brought under conviction by God’s Word, yet, they do not know how to respond. Often times their response is verbally abusive, and occasionally physical, yet in either case they are not responding to us but to the Spirit of God.
If we retaliate evil for evil, then the world will not see the light of the Gospel in us. Peter put it this way, “Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.” (I Peter 2:12). Therefore, our retaliation must be good for evil, pointing the evildoer to Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, as difficult as Romans 12:19-21 is to fulfill in our lives, Jesus implores us to do so by following what we have coined as “The Golden Rule”
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them…” (Matthew 7:12)
“And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” (Luke 6:31)
We can do this if we follow the example Jesus left for us. Consider all the evil and injustice that He endured for us, facing it all alone, abandoned by His closest friends. He was mocked and spit upon, whipped, stripped, and beaten over the head again and again. None of us has endured such evil as Jesus did! Yet, Jesus was not “overcome of evil” but rather He “overcome evil with good” as that only good gift from Heaven, where “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” (James 1:17).
Following the example Jesus left for us:
- God does not want us to avenge ourselves
- God does not want us to be overcome of evil
- God wants us to overcome evil with good
There is hope for us ALL in Jesus Christ today. Why? Because, evil did not overcome Jesus. Thus, if Jesus is in you, evil will not overcome you either!