I find it helpful to view Romans 12 as four concentric circles – like ripples in water flowing outward from a central interruption.
At the core is the interruption – the in-breaking – of the one true God revealed as Jesus Christ. This core answers the central question “why?”
The “why” is answered as we stand with Paul glorifying God at the climactic conclusion of Romans 11 (11:33-36):
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be glory forever. Amen.
Put another way, Jesus Christ is the divine point of entry into this world. This is the reason and motivation for the life that is faithful to our God.
The first ring is being fully commitment to God. Around the core of the holy in-breaking of God is the response of offering oneself as a “living sacrifice” to God. (See: Three empowering stances for living faithfully).
The second ring is being incarnational. You are invited to acknowledge that God has uniquely equipped you as a follower of Jesus in a way that enables him to reach, touch, and bless others through you by the empowering of his Spirit. The call is to use that gift of his grace faithful to him for others. (See: Being INcarnational in an EXcarnational Culture (2)).
The third ring is being relational. Followers of Jesus should desire to live in community – a Jesus community – marked by expressions of life being lived together in grace. (See: 20 marks of a healthy church).
The fourth ring is being in the world. By ‘world’ I mean that environment beyond the Jesus community. An environment that is all-too-frequently living in opposition to God, populated by humans that God loves dearly (John 3:16-17).
Here is what Paul writes concerning this fourth ring (Romans 12:17-21 ESV):
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In many ways, this outer concentric circle is the place where followers of Jesus are most critically called to live in that healthy tension between faithfulness to our God and relevance to our Culture. Here Paul writes about “all” people (12:17, 18), “the wrath of God” (12:19), “your enemy” (12:20), and “overcoming evil with good” (12:21).
Here are five observations from this text -- five ways to treat your enemy:
1. (12:17) – Followers of Jesus are not to retaliate against evil by doing evil. Although this is a human reaction, the Christian is to “do what is honorable [good, beautiful] in the sight of all.” In Paul’s setting the general populous of the 1st Century Roman empire recognized certain behaviors as good, beautiful, and honorable; actions such as generosity, courage, and honesty.
It would seem that in each culture there is a recognition (whether conscious or unconscious) of good, beautiful, and honorable behaviors and attitudes that are consistent with the heart of God and with the heart of the “image of God.” I wonder whether Paul summarizes these in the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
2. (12:18) – Followers of Jesus are to live peaceably with all people. Paul recognizes this has limits when he qualifies this with “if possible, so far as it depends on you.” In other words, it may not be possible to live peaceably with some – but that is up to them, not you.
Thomas Schreiner expresses it in these terms:
"One cannot violate the truth of the gospel and devotion to Christ in order to make peace with those who resist the truth. Further, one may desire to be at peace with others, but they do not extend the same hand of charity back. In this instance peace is unattainable, not because we have failed to strive for peace but because the other person refuses to reconcile."
3. (12:19) – Followers of Jesus are not to avenge themselves. How difficult this is when you have been abused, or you suffer an injustice, or your rights are infringed.
In place of avenging ourselves, Paul draws from Deuteronomy 32:34 (NLT): “I [the LORD] will take revenge; I will pay them back. In due time their feet will slip. Their day of disaster will arrive, and their destiny will overtake them.”
There is ultimate justice; everything will be set right – but not now, and not by you and me. Our responsibility is to en-flesh or incarnate the life of Jesus by his Spirit to others.
For us the way to eliminate enemies of God is to introduce them to Jesus Christ so that they become children of God!
4. (12:20) – Followers of Jesus are to do good toward our enemies.
If they are hungry, give them food; if they are thirsty, give them drink.
What does it mean to “heap coals of fire on [an enemy’s] head”?
There are a number of ideas proposed, including: (a) doing good to enemies causes them to experience “burning shame and remorse for their despicable behavior toward Christians”; (b) it symbolizes repentance; or, (c) it is the building up of their judgment for the future time of God’s wrath.
In the final analysis, I’m not entirely sure what it means. Don’t let that get in the way of our clear responsibility to do good toward our enemies in intentional, loving, and tangible ways.
5. (12:21) – Followers of Jesus are to be counter-cultural.
It seems to be a cultural norm to repay in kind: if someone does us ‘bad’, we reciprocate with ‘bad’; if ‘good’, then ‘good’. That’s all-too-human.
Repaying ‘good’ with ‘evil’ – well that’s demonic, as someone has observed.
But repaying ‘evil’ with ‘good’ – think of the life of Jesus – that’s divine!
Reflection: Carefully review the text of Romans 12:17-21 remembering the preceding rings.
You may recall an incident or a person that stands out as an enemy or someone who has abused you, or done you an injustice.
In the presence of God, walk through the incident, or think about that person’s attitudes and behavior toward you.
By God’s grace, and in the context of a healthy Jesus community, how are you being called by God to deal with this incident and/or this person?
Take some time to pray about this. Here’s one suggestion:
“Father, when I recall this person (or this incident), it causes me pain, anger (name the emotions honestly).
“I thank you that you are ever present with me – and your grace is always available for me, and in me. I ask that you give me your heart for this person (for this incident). It may not be resolved yet – but I trust you to set it right ultimately.
“I desire to “walk as Jesus walked” (1 John 2:6) – may it be so in my life from this point by the power of your Spirit.”
Until next Friday,
John, a brother
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