Inscribing the Arches (part three)

Sunday, continuing in Romans 12, I preached on verses 17-21.

Romans 12 begins with the exhortation to be “living sacrifices” to the Lord (verse 1), and with commands to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (verse 2).  Paul then goes on to elaborate on what it means to be a living sacrifice.

I’ll afflict you with one more picture of the arch in Orange.  Previously we looked at verse nine: “Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.”  I talked of the three-fold instruction in this verse as three over-arching instructions, out of which flows all that follows.  I summarised that message in three parts, part one (Love Without Dissimulation)part two (Abhor Evil), and part three (Cleave to Good).  I used this arch as an illustration, and compared the remaining teaching in chapter 12, which gives some of the ways we live out those three main principles/instructions, to “inscriptions” on the arch — features that let us get a more complete picture of these three main principles in action. 

This week, I preached on verses 17-21 in Romans 12, which gives one aspect of how we should “abhor evil” and “cleave to good”.  Before getting into the details, I want to give you something I passed out in church.  Romans 12:9-21 is seen by some commentators as a series of somewhat unconnected commands.  Verses 17-21, though, are clearly a connected unit, and verse 21 as it deals with “good” and “evil” seems a direct tie-in to verse 9.  Thus, I have presented these verses as a unit elaborating on verse 9.


          • 9 Let love be without dissimulation.
          • Abhor that which is evil;
          • cleave to that which is good.


10 Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;


11 Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; 12  Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer;


13  Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality. 14  Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. 15  Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. 16  Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.


17  Recompense to no man evil for evil.

Pursuing Peace Provide things honest in the sight of all men. 18  If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

 When Attempts at Peace Fail 19  Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. 20  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.

21  Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

As we come, then, to verses 17-21, we have yet another “inscription”, one more way in which we are to hate evil and hold to good.  

The First Bookend — No Evil Paybacks

This section begins and ends with “marker” statements, bookends which mark out the section with memorable statements.  Both of these statements include the word “evil” twice.  Both are negative prohibitions, telling us not to do something.  Both begin with the Greek word me or a compound of me, which means “not”.  The first “bookend” tells us not to recompense evil for evil. 

“Recompense”.  This word means to pay back, to render what is due.  Right from the beginning, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, starts stripping away our excuses for disobeying.  Invariably, when we “get someone back” for something they’ve done, our excuse is, “He DESERVES it!  He’s got it coming, the bill is coming due, and I’m going to pay him back!”  Paul would say in response, “Of course he does.  So what?”  Of course, our tendency when we are hurt and angry is to pay back MORE than is due, but that isn’t what Paul is talking about.  We aren’t even supposed to pay back WHAT is due.  No excuses.  God knows what that woman did to you, He knows how that man treats you, He knows what all of them said, and He says, “Don’t pay them back.”

“To No Man”.  “Oh, good, she’s a WOMAN, not a MAN!”  That’s cheating, and you know it. 🙂  It is a generic, just like “mankind” — it includes everyone.  Not only is the “he deserves it” excuse ruled out, but so also are any exceptions.  We don’t pay back the evil that people deserve to anyone.  Not even that guy.

“Evil for Evil”.  In verse nine, a strong word for evil (poneros) was used, while here we have the more generic kakos, which is most often translated “evil”, but also “harm” or “bad”.  The translators used “evil”, I suspect in part to emphasise the connection between this verse and verse nine, but Paul’s use of the more generic term again strips away any excuses.  It won’t work to say, “What I did back to him isn’t really THAT bad, not as bad as he deserves,” because Paul used the generic term.  It’s very simple.  You aren’t supposed to do any kind of bad stuff to anyone who does any kind of bad stuff to you.  Full stop.  No excuses, no get-out clauses, nothing.  Don’t do it.  Don’t even think about doing it.

Pursuing Peace With All

Paul continues to “play on words” in this verse.  In the first half of the verse, he talked about not paying back kakos, evil.  In the second half, he refers to kalos, which means good, honest, or honourable.  Don’t do kakos, do kalos.  We need to have a positive response in our interactions with all people.

Plan Ahead for Honourable Appearances.  The word “provide” has the sense of taking thought for and and planning ahead, so that things will be honest, appropriate, or honourable in the sight of all.  This seems obvious in matters of finance — you have more than one person count the collection, for instance, so that no one can make accusations of impropriety.  It isn’t a matter of trust — you may have an individual who is entirely above reproach, but you protect him by establishing policies which make any accusation easily refuted.  Similarly, we should have policies in place in regard to any children’s ministries and counselling.  These are matters for the church, but this instruction goes beyond the church to matters in our personal life.

We should live in a way that everyone knows we are doing that which is honest and honourable.  We should always seek to avoid giving the impression that we are taking advantage of anyone or any situation to the detriment of others.  It is not just that we are to do right, but we are also to give thought to appearances, so that others can see we are doing right.

Although this says “honest in the sight of all men,” that does not mean that we let the views and opinions of others determine what is kalos (good, honourable, honest).  Rather, we do what is kalos in God’s eyes, but we give thought so that others will not think we are doing what is kakos, bad.  A comparable passage is Philippians 4:5:  “Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.”  We represent the Lord, and we should be mindful of that.  This is not about hypocrisy, pretending to be something we are not.  This is about being honourable, and visibly so.

If Possible, Peaceable.  Both this and the prior instruction finish with a reference to “all men”.  It doesn’t matter who they are or what they’ve done, if possible we should be peaceable.  There is a clear implication here that it isn’t always possible, an implication borne out in the verses that follow.  There are some people who just won’t be peaceable, no matter what you do.  The response to our peacemaking, the outcome, is not in our hands.  But that does not abrogate our responsibility to do all we can to pursue peace with all.

Sometimes, people will read, “As much as lieth in you,” to mean, “As much as you can endure.”  That is not the focus of the statement at all.  We can always endure more than we think we can, anyway, but that is not God’s standard.  He isn’t saying, “Be peaceable as long as you can stand it, and then when you can’t stand it anymore, BAM, let that horrible person have exactly what he deserves!”  Wrong, wrong, wrong. 🙂  “As much as lieth in you” means, “On your part” or “as much as lies with you.”  As much of the matter that you can control should be peaceable.  We can’t make the other person be peaceable, so we can’t always have peace, but we can make sure that our actions are always peaceable.

When our Pursuit of Peace Fails

No matter how faithful we are in pursuing peace, sometimes our efforts fail.  Even in this case, we are to hate evil and cleave to good.

Don’t Self-Avenge.  We aren’t to be those who are taking vengeance for ourselves.  This is clear and direct.  This isn’t talking about when we have a responsibility to protect others (note the next chapter where protective vengeance by government, and implicitly by government officials such as police, is specifically endorsed).  The point is not that vengeance is never appropriate, but rather that we aren’t supposed to be avenging ourselves when others wrong us.  Protect others?  Yes, where appropriate.  Personally avenge ourselves?  Never.

Give Place to Wrath.  At first look, this is surprising.  It means what it says — give wrath its place, or make room for wrath.  Let wrath have room to work.  This is what it doesn’t mean:  “He did that to me, so I’m going to let him feel my wrath!”  That’s what our own selfish pride wants it to mean, but the context makes it clear that this isn’t talking about our wrath — because God is going to avenge.  We need to make room for His wrath, not ours.

Vengeance is the Lord’s, not yours.  Don’t get in God’s way trying to get your own vengeance.  Make way for the wrath of God.  Just for a moment, think about the fact that He really can handle it a lot better than you can.  Whether it is your boss, your neighbour, that guy down the street, that woman who is gossiping about you, whoever it is, if you’ve really been peaceable and they’ve chosen war, they have trouble coming in a major, major way.  If they don’t repent, it’s going to be the wrath of God.  You DON’T want to get caught in that by taking vengeance yourself, and bringing His wrath on you, too.  Make way, give place, to God’s wrath.  You can be very sure, if you get in the way, that isn’t going to protect the other guy from God’s wrath.  It just means you get caught in the storm, too.  Don’t do it.

Not only that, if vengeance is the possession and right of God, then to be taking vengeance for ourselves is to exalt ourselves into the place of God.  It is a form of self-idolatry.  Lucifer said in Isaiah 14, “I will be like the most High.”  When we take self-vengeance, we effectively do the same — “I will be an avenger like the most High.”  God says in Deuteronomy 32:35 that vengeance is His purview, and Paul reiterates that here.  Don’t go there.

“Heap Coals of Fire”.  This verse is a citation of Proverbs 25:21-22:  “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.”  It is also, with several other verses in this section, reminiscent of The Sermon on the Mount, in this case Matthew 5:44.  We are commanded to do good to our enemies, meeting their needs.  It doesn’t say we are to do whatever our enemies want (often they may want things that are bad for them to have, after all), but it does say if they have needs, we should do good to them.

The exact meaning of the “coals of fire” isn’t clear.  I’ve heard different ideas suggested, from a vindictive “you’ll make them feel miserable, stick it to them” to an Egyptian tradition of carrying a tray of coals on one’s head as a token of repentance.  The best guess (in my opinion) is one which seems to be popular among many commentators, that it means you will be challenging your enemy’s conscience, making him feel guilty if he continues in his poor treatment of you.  It isn’t consistent with the whole tone of the passage to view this as a vindictive attitude.  Rather, it is better to see this as the best way to influence your enemy towards a positive change.  Undoubtedly when Proverbs was written the reference to coals of fire was well understood, and was still understood when Paul wrote Romans.  Our responsibility, in any event, is to do what the first part of the verse says and let God take care of the “coals of fire” side of things.

The Second Bookend — Will You Have Victory?

This section of Scripture, and the chapter, ends with another me (“not”) prohibition, again referring to evil, driving home that this whole discussion is an application of hating evil and cleaving to good.  Who (or what) is going to win?

If You do Evil Back, You’ve Lost to Evil.  Don’t be overcome by evil.  If we do evil to those who do evil to us, we’ve been overcome.  We’ve lost the battle, we’ve joined the losing side, the side that does evil and loses to it.  We’ve been overcome, we’ve let the evil of someone else drag us right down into the muck with them. 

If You Want to Win, DO GOOD.  Cleave to the good, do good, and evil is defeated.  The victory is yours through the power of God as revealed in Christ Jesus.  Sinners did evil in crucifying the Lord Jesus, but the power of good overcame as He paid the price for our sins and won the victory over sin, death, and Satan.  As He won over evil, so also can we.  When we do good, we win. 

It doesn’t hurt to notice that the victory is either ours, or it belongs to evil.  An enemy who has chosen evil and rejected peace never wins.  Never — they’ve already been defeated by evil.  Evil has taken control and is destroying them.  Through repentance and the salvation that is in Christ Jesus they can be rescued, but they are on the losing side, in the grip of sin, and in a desperate condition.

We wrestle not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6).  Our human enemy is not really the enemy we must hate and fear — he’s just another loser.  The enemy we must hate and fear is evil itself.  We must either conquer evil by doing good, or we will be conquered by it.  Who (or what?) will win?  It will be a victory for you, or a victory for evil.  There is no middle ground, no drawn match, no peace treaty with evil, no accommodation. 

Conquer or be conquered.  Overcome evil with good, or be overcome by evil.  Will you win or will you lose?

Navigation note:   First in the series:  “Service” in Romans 12:1;  Previous article:  Inscribing the Arches (part two).  Next article:  Still to come.

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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