WALKING IN LOVE
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord’.
We have been studying about walking in love. In that regard, we are studying about the actions and reactions of a Christian’s life and how they must be God honoring and God glorifying. Last week, we saw that when evil is done to us, we must not retaliate in an evil manner. Rather, we must respond in a manner that reflects the love of God shining through us.
Today, we are going to deal with another aspect of facing injustice from Romans 12:19. In order to do that, we must first understand the basic meaning of the words and phrases used in this verse.
DECODING THE VERSE
Let’s unpack the verse.
The word ‘beloved’ or ‘dearly beloved’ as some versions use is an endearing term. Before he addresses them on a very significant topic, Paul reaches out to the church in an affectionate and affirming manner. He is concerned that the worldly spirit of vengeance might make them miserable. He is aware that the devil would subtly prod them to take revenge on others and even if they did succeed, it would leave them feeling unhappy in the long run. The problem is that when we are wronged, our natural, sinful instinct is to hit back. But as a Christian, we are expected to do exactly the opposite. Sensing the urgency of this issue, Paul lovingly implores them not to give room to the devil.
Let’s look at the way he addresses the issue. He first tells them what they should not do, that is, not to avenge themselves. Paul is teaching them that the instinctive thirst for retribution that arises in us is sinful. But as a Christian we cannot give in to such an attitude. Last week, we saw that instead of repaying evil for evil, we must think ahead of a God honoring response. The transformed mind of a Christian enables him to react differently from the world. That’s why Romans 12:2 tells us not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. When we get saved, our outward body does not change. The real change happens in our thoughts, beliefs, outlook and approach to life. Our mind gets a makeover. God’s Word begins to guide and shape our mind and helps us to live a successful life. It is this renewed mind that tells us not to retaliate but to let God deal with it.
- GIVE PLACE TO WRATH
This phrase has often been misquoted and misunderstood. Some people think that it refers to cooling ourselves down and refraining from lashing out. Some others think that if someone comes raging in anger towards us we must just bear it and let them get on with it. But that is not really what Paul means by this statement.
Let us examine couple of other places where this expression ‘give place’ is used.
- Luke 14:8 says, ‘When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him, and he who invited you and him come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place’. In other words, Jesus is saying that when we are invited to a wedding, we mustn’t go straight for the highest place of honor. Or else, when a more honored guest arrives, our host would ask us to vacate the seat and give place to the other important guest.
- Ephesians 4:27 says, ‘do not/nor give place to the devil’. It means that we mustn’t give any opportunity to the devil to come in to our lives and operate.
So it is in this sense that the phrase ‘give place’ has been used. Coming back to Romans 12:19 that talks about wrath, it is pertinent to note that there is one absent word that would have otherwise made things clear. It is the word ‘the’ that would make the phrase read as ‘give place to the wrath’. The term ‘the wrath’ refers to the wrath of God. This is made even clearer when we look at the next part of the verse where it says that ‘God has said – vengeance is mine’. So, in a nutshell, the phrase ‘give place’ means that we mustn’t take personal revenge. Instead, we must leave it to God to right the wrong meted out to us.
- VENGEANCE IS GOD’S
God says in Deuteronomy 32:25 that vengeance is His. And Paul quotes this verse when he says that instead of us taking revenge, we must make room for God to avenge the wrong done to us. Now, interestingly, many people squirm at the idea of God taking vengeance. They can’t wrap their minds around the fact that God avenges, because vengeance in their opinion is bad. But vengeance is simply God’s way of making right the things that have been done unjustly to us. God has so many ways of making things right. Yes, it might mean that we have to wait patiently for it. We can’t grumble and take matters into our own hands. God will do it in His own time; not just at final judgement but also here on earth.
That’s why Galatians 6:7,8 says, ‘Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life’. So we will reap good or bad things depending on what we have sowed. Another verse says that ‘with the same measure you measure it shall be measured unto you. Give and it shall be given unto you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over shall men pour into your bosom’. Further, the first couple of verses in Romans 13 say that all law is derived from God. So when we disobey an official, we are disobeying God because he gets his orders from God ultimately. Or when a magistrate orders a criminal to be punished it is administration of vengeance through the government. Similarly, when God takes vengeance, He is administering justice.
PUTTING THEM ALL TOGETHER
Well, we have taken apart the different phrases in this verse and understood their meaning. Let us now put them all together and discern what God means.
Paul says that we must not seek personal vengeance. But then we might wonder why. After all, we are the ones that have been wronged, right? So isn’t it only fair that we fight for ourselves? But God says that we are not fit for the job. In fact, no human being is qualified for it since not one of us is perfect. We will not do it righteously or justly. Left in our hands, there will be law and order chaos. Our scales of justice are skewed and controlled by selfishness. For example – we blow up other’s mistakes easily but cover up our own wrongs. We are so biased in our thinking and approach. So how can we administer justice or vengeance appropriately? God is the only one qualified to do it since He alone is holy, righteous and correct. While our judgement is passionate and vindictive, God’s is always controlled and judicial.
We see this modeled in a small way in the court system of this world. When a judge gives a judgement, he does it impartially. If he even has the slightest personal interest in the matter, he will step down from overseeing it and hand it over to another judge. God, on the other hand, is completely holy and judges impartially. So He wants us to hand over our hurt to Him so that He can make things right.
JESUS – OUR ROLE MODEL
Let us now look at how Jesus modeled it for us. 1 Peter 2:21-23 say, ‘For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously’.
Jesus who did no wrong was reviled, threatened and mocked. It was the heights of injustice! But He committed Himself to God. He trusted that God would righteously and justly deal with the injustice meted out to Him. Jesus modeled perfectly for us as to how to respond in the face of injustice even at the point of being crucified.
CLEARING THE AIR
Now, the devil often plays havoc with this truth and causes misunderstandings. He tricks people into thinking that Christians are passive and weak people who can be ill treated in any way and who won’t seek recourse. It tempts people to think that they have a license to do anything to Christians. That’s not true. Let me clarify what real Christian teaching is all about.
- Never seek personal vengeance
As Christians, we must never seek personal vengeance because it’s always wrong to avenge ourselves.
- Never desire harm to fall on our enemy
On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that we must love our enemy. We love our enemy by intentionally refraining from wishing harm on our enemy.
- Desire God’s justice and glory to prevail
However, we must be concerned about truth, righteousness, justice, and the glory of God. Even though we don’t seek personal vengeance, it doesn’t make the wrong or crime or injustice done to us any better. God’s truth, righteousness and justice must prevail and His name must be glorified.
- Desire for God’s reign to be manifested on earth
People who go on doing wrong begin to feel that they are powerful and invincible. It is our duty to desire God’s reign to extend over all the earth and for His glory to be manifested. We must desire that evil people recognize that God is the ultimate Judge and that they must give an account before the Supreme Court of Heaven and receive fair punishment for their crimes.
- Comfort of God’s eternal supremacy
God reigns over all and He will ultimately vindicate. His reign and rule will be established one day. If not today, then definitely there will come such a day in the future. On that day, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is the Lord. As we live in an evil world, we can take comfort of this assurance.
Let us now look at some Biblical examples in this regard.
- PAUL AND SILAS
Paul and Silas were preaching in Philippi when they were tied up, flogged and imprisoned. But the ever joyous duo praised God, sang songs and worshipped Him. At night, an earthquake shook the jail up and the fetters were loosened. The Roman guard got scared thinking that the prisoners had run away and reached for his sword to take his own life. But Paul called out and stopped him saying that they were all still there. The guard was so amazed by this miracle and realized that this was the work of God. He took Paul and Silas home, and he and his household got saved. The following day, the authorities sent word that the charges were dropped and they could leave town. But Paul refused to sneak out. He said that he was a Roman citizen who was unjustly and publicly beaten and arrested and so now he was unwilling to leave secretly. He wanted the magistrate to come and publicly send them away. Now was Paul being vindictive? No. The authorities had wrongfully misused the law on a Roman citizen. Since all law comes from God, they had violated God’s law by unjustly punishing him and Silas. He was not concerned about himself but wanted to uphold God’s laws, righteousness and truth.
- PAUL AND THE HIGH PRIEST
Another time, Paul was being examined by an enquiry council led by the High Priest. Suddenly the High Priest got very angry and ordered Paul to be struck. Paul responded sharply saying, ‘you whitewashed wall, God will strike you!’ Paul was saying that the High Priest was appointed by God to administer justice according to God’s laws. But by ordering Paul to be unfairly punished, the High Priest was violating God’s laws and therefore he said that God would strike the Priest!
- PAUL AND ALEXANDER
2 Timothy 4:14 says, ‘Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works. You also must beware of him. For he has greatly resisted our words. At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them’. Alexander was an opponent of the Gospel and caused a lot of trouble to Paul. When Paul went for his first trial, many Christians abandoned him but only because they were new believers who were scared. Paul was forgiving and gracious towards them. But Alexander had done so much more harm and Paul left him to God’s vengeance.
- The Psalms
Psalm 69:22-24 say, ‘Let their table become a snare before them,
And their well-being a trap, or their prosperity a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see; and make their loins shake continually. Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let Your wrathful anger take hold of them’. Psalm 104:35 says, ‘May sinners be consumed from the earth, and the wicked be no more! Bless the Lord, O my soul! Praise the Lord!’ When we read these Psalms we might be struck by the vindictiveness that comes through. In fact, these are called imprecatory Psalms that means vindictive Psalms.
Now, we might wonder why the Psalmist prayed like that. Psalm 69:9 helps us understand it better. It says, ‘Because zeal for Your house has eaten me up, and the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me’. In other words, the Psalmist feels upset by the way God is being reproached. The wicked aimed their persecution and injustice on God but it fell on him. Seeing the way they are desolating God’s house and His name, the psalmist is asking God to avenge and to make it right.
Young David was God’s anointed king. Yet, Saul sought to kill him out of pure envy and malice. There were many occasions where David could have killed him. For example – one day Saul went to relieve himself in the cave that David was hiding in. David could have killed him. Instead, he cut a small piece of Saul’s robe and went after him later saying that even though he could have killed him, he would not lay hands upon God’s elect. That’s because David knew that it was not his place to avenge, rather it was God’s. Finally, when Saul died on the battlefield, two soldiers came running to tell David the news. They thought that they could win some favors with David if they told him that his enemy was dead. But instead David had them killed for their flippant attitude about the death of God’s elected king. David wasn’t seeking personal vengeance. So when he heard the news, David and his men wept bitterly and fasted.
We may think that God is silent and does nothing about all the wrongdoings in the world. But we can be certain that He is watching and taking account. One day He will judge and punish every crime and injustice. His vengeance will be perfect. Meanwhile, he wants us to refrain from seeking personal vengeance. We are called to walk in love and peace and desire God’s justice.