Romans 12:17-21 Revenge: the End Game (Rev. Erik Veerman)
Rev. Erik Veerman
Revenge: the End Game
Our sermon text this morning is Romans 12:17-21 and you can find that on page 1127 in the pew Bibles This is the conclusion to our brief Romans 12 series. Next Sunday is what we call Reformation Sunday, so we’ll have a special focus for that. If you are not sure what that means, come next week. And then in November, we’ll jump into the book of 1 John.
Again, Romans 12:17-21.
It started in 1878 (allegedly). Rand’l McCoy accused his neighbors, the Hatfields, of stealing his hog. The Hatfields contended, though, that the hog was theirs, not the McCoys. After all, it had their earmark. And so it began.
You see, Rand’l McCoy, along with his wife and their 13 children, lived in Kentucky, right on the border of West Virginia. And just the other side of the Tug Fork river, in West Virginia, lived Anderson Hatfield, along with his wife and their 13 children. They called him Devil Anse Hatfield.
It seemed like a small quibble, but in the summer of 1880, two of Rand’l McCoy’s sons killed the man who testified against their ownership of the hog. But it didn’t end there, in 1882, three younger McCoy sons killed Ellison Hatfield, Devil Anise’s brother. In retaliation, all three of those McCoy brothers were kidnapped, tied up, and executed in brutal fashion by members of the Hatfield clan. As a result, 20 Hatfields were indicted but they all eluded arrest given they lived in West Virginia and not Kentucky. Tensions escalated. The feud continued in 1886 and 87 when friends of both families were killed.
Then in 1888, Cap and Vance Hatfield, sons of Devil Anse, along with other members of their family surrounded the McCoy house at night. They first opened fire with their guns. They then lit the house on fire. As the McCoy family fled, two McCoy children were shot and killed. Rand’l’s wife, Sara was captured, beaten, and let for dead. Two days later, Vance Hatfield was killed by the McCoys along with three Hatfield family supporters.
That led to a lawsuit. Kentucky’s governor and West Virginia’s governor both entered the fray. They weren’t trying to quell the violence, rather, they opposed each other. The lawsuit escalated to the US Supreme Court. Eventually, seven men were convicted. One executed for his crimes and the others imprisoned for life.
Over the 10-year period from 1878 to 1888, a dozen Hatfields and McCoys were killed. Young and old died, families were broken, anger reigned, and the skirmishes continued for the next 20 years.
Vengeance ruled the day. And it likely started over the ownership of a hog.
Revenge is a never-ending downward spiral. It often leads to escalated feelings of bitterness. It may not end in murder, but the offended party inflicts some sort of pay-back. Then the offended party becomes the offending, and the cycle continues.
There’s something deep down in us, in our natural state, that justifies our revenge. The parents here can tell you, revenge is not something taught. You hurt my teddy bear! …we’ll I’m going to pull the eyeballs off of your stuffed alligator. Hmf.
Well, along comes the Apostle Paul, and in a matter of a few verses, he rejects any and all vengeance. And did you notice? It’s a theme that he’s repeated multiple times. Go back up to verse 15. “Bless those who persecute you.” Not identical, but a very similar idea. Verse 17 and 19 are very similar. “Repay no one evil for evil.” And “never avenge yourselves.” Verse 21. “Overcome evil with good.” Do you see that repeated emphasis?
Now, we’re not told about any particular situation in the church in Rome, but I think the repetition here lends itself toward some situation. Maybe a couple of church members in Rome were at odds and it began to escalate. Or maybe there were some unbelievers who were provoking the Christians, and people in the church wanted to get revenge. Or maybe Paul was addressing a cultural propensity for revenge.
Roman society was very much oriented around reciprocity. You do something for me, and I’ll return the favor and do something for you. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back. In fact, recent academic studies have identified ancient Roman reciprocity as a significant part of the economic system of the day. So, if you lived in Rome in the first century, you had a responsibility to give to others and receive from others in return.
But the thing is, the negative reciprocation also applies. We call that retribution. You do something bad to me, well, then, you deserve something bad from me. Yes, seeking revenge is natural part of our sinful condition, but the cultural inclination of retribution only intensified the sinful desire for revenge.
So, whether Paul was addressing a specific situation or whether it was a broader concern (or maybe both), the apostle felt compelled to drive his point home: Revenge has no place in the Christian life.
Notice, there are no qualifications here? Does it say: “Repay no one evil for evil, except when someone slanders you behind your back?” Or does it say, “Beloved, never avenge yourself… well, except when someone insults you or makes you feel ashamed?” Not at all. “Repay no one for evil” and “never avenge.” That means setting aside all the ways that you try to get back at others.
Now, I don’t suspect that any of you have gone to extremes for revenge. But have you given someone the silent treatment? Or have you avoided someone or pulled back from your relationship? Have you decided to just dismiss all of their concerns or ideas? Or when interacting with someone who offended you, do you have an attitude that lets them know you don’t care for them? Or have you said to someone else, “you know, you should watch out for this [other] person?” Or have you taken some sort of legal action (in the church or in the civil courts)? Now, I’m not saying that a formal action is never necessary, but when you goal is just to make someone’s life difficult, then your motives need to be checked. I’m sure you can come up with several other ways that you take revenge.
But how does it all end? What, if anything, will stop the cycle of retaliation? That’s the big question here. These verses do a lot more than just tell us not to take revenge. They give us the path to end revenge. To end the cycle of retribution.
Let’s consider three parts that answer the question, How do we end revenge?
1. Our part in ending revenge
2. God’s part in ending revenge
3. Jesus’ part in ending revenge.
Our part, God’s part – meaning God the Father, and Jesus’ part, God the son.
1. Ending revenge: Our part (honor – 12:17; peace – 12:18; and goodness – 12:20-21)
So first, our part.
Really, there is so much in here for us. Every single verse here gives us a contrast. It’s not just a list of do nots, it includes a list of dos. What should we do instead of taking revenge?
Look at it. Verse 17. “Repay no one evil for evil, BUT give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.”
Verse 19 is very similar. “Never avenge yourselves, BUT leave it to the wrath of God.” We’ll come back later to what that means.
Verse 20 lists several things to do instead of taking revenge (it’s a quote from Proverbs 25). Feed your enemy, give him something to drink. And verse 21. “Do not be overcome by evil, BUT,” it says, “overcome evil with good.”
Our part is not just refraining from taking revenge, but instead, it’s honoring, it’s being peaceable, it’s loving our enemies. It’s doing good and not evil.
And, I think you know, these verses are not isolated in the Bible as a whole. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” That’s a phrase that means do not retaliate. Jesus continues, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
Or take Leviticus 19:18. It says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
Our responsibility is to love. It’s to turn the other cheek, it’s to give to those who steal from you.
In Victor Hugo’s well known novel, Les Miserable, the main character, Jean Valjean, had been imprisoned for stealing bread. His sister and her family were starving. Can you imagine? For years Valjean labored in chains. The punishment was way beyond the crime. He’s finally released, but no one would take him in. To many, he was still a criminal. Yet, a kind bishop took him in. This man gave Valjean food and a place to sleep. However, Valjean was still weighed down by his hopeless future. And so he stole the bishop’s silver plates and utensils. He put them in his bag and fled in the middle of the night.
But soon after, the police detained him. They found the stolen silver and dragged Valjean back to the Bishop. This, for sure, he thought, would be the end for him. For those of you that know the story, how did the Bishop respond? Did he say, “That man doesn’t deserve to be free. He stole my silver. Throw him back in prison!” No, no! Instead, the Bishop did the opposite. He said that Valjean had forgotten to take the silver candlesticks. They were also a gift, he said. And he puts them in Valjean’s trembling hands. And then the Bishop bids the Sergeant farewell.
Jean Valjean’s lyrics from the musical capture it well.
Yet why did I allow that man, To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other, He gave me his trust, He called me brother,
My life he claims for God above, Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world, This world that always hated me
Take an eye for an eye! Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for! This is all I have known!
One word from him and I’d be back, Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom, I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul, How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?
That undeserved grace transformed Valjean. He was no longer a prisoner, no longer a slave. He experienced goodness and love.
All those things that these Romans 12 verses speak of… overcoming evil with good, providing for your enemy, they all break the cycle.
Look at the end of verse 20, “for by doing so, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Now, no one is exactly sure what that phrase means, but I think what happened to Valjean captures it. The act of kindness and grace by the Bishop overwhelmed Valjean. In other words, he couldn’t get it out of his mind – like burning coals on his head. And it deeply changed him.
God, through the apostle Paul, is very interested in this peace and kindness affecting others. He’s very interested in our outward display of good and not evil. Both the end of verse 17 and the end of verse 18 emphasize that. He says, do what is honorable “in the sight of all.” He wants people to see a community that displays love, that does not repay evil with evil. It’s transformational. The end of 18 is similar. “Live peaceably with all.” Do you see that emphasis? Our actions should visibly demonstrate Christianity’s radical response to evil. Doing so, will impact those around us. To be sure, it may not lead to peace. That’s clear here, too. Verse 18. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Every circumstance is an opportunity to live at peace, but every circumstance may not result in peace.
Bottom line, retribution is not part of the Christian life. Rather than revenge, we’re to honor others, pursue peace, display love, and return evil with good. Instead of fostering conflict and allowing revenge to spiral out of control, we’re to break the cycle and do the opposite. And when we do, we’re doing our part to put an end to revenge.
2. Ending revenge: God’s part (wrath and justice – 12:19)
There’s a second emphasis here, though. God’s part. It is found in verse 19. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Then he goes on to quote Deuteronomy 32, which we’ve read earlier in our service. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”
The reason we should not take revenge, is because vengeance is God’s role. It’s part of his responsibility. We’re on point 2, by the way. God’s part in ending revenge is being the only one who justly and rightly avenges evil.
I was thinking about Anselm of Canterbury this week. He lived 1000 years ago – the 11th century. One of his most well-known works is titled Why the God Man? Cur Deus Home, in the Latin. He asks the question, why did God become man in the person of Jesus? Why? Why was it necessary?
It’s a critical question. And actually, a lot of his arguments pull out different theological points made in the book of Romans.
A very central part of Anselm’s argument is what he calls the retributive justice of God. In other words, retribution is central to God’s nature as a perfectly just being. Nothing in his character is unjust or unholy. Therefore, nothing unjust or unholy can be in his presence. And originally, humanity reflected God’s character – and so all was good. However, when humanity fell in Adam, the dishonor and rejection of God and his commands resulted in mankind’s corrupted nature. We became unjust and unholy in God’s presence.
Anselm demonstrated the incompatibility of God’s infinite holiness and justice with any and all unholiness. Even the slightest sin, as Anselm puts it, results in a debt to God greater than the value of all creation.
Think of the sun (s-u-n). The sun is 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. Anything that is close to the sun will burn up. It will be incinerated. It’s the very nature of the sun. That’s similar to anything unholy or unjust in God’s presence. It cannot withstand God’s presence. That’s like God’s justice. He will avenge any and all unholiness and injustice. The thing is, we are 92.5 million miles away from the sun. That’s why we don’t get burned up. But think about this, as big as the sun is, it is nothing compared to God’s infinite nature. There’s no safe distance to which we can flee from God’s holy presence.
That’s what Anselm was saying. Verse 19 validates that. God is the avenger. God alone is the one who is perfectly just in responding with vengeance on evil and sin.
And here’s the point: when you take revenge on someone else, you are playing God. You are putting yourself in the role that only God is to fulfill. He’s the only one to ultimately deal with any and all evil inflicted against you.
Now, God has ordained a role for the civil government to deal with injustice. But that is different from you, individually, trying to avenge injustice. In fact, Romans chapter 13 deals with the civil authority.
The point in these verses is that God will ultimately avenge wrongs. He will put an end to all unrighteousness, all evil, all unholiness, and all injustice. That’s his part in ending revenge.
3. Ending revenge: Jesus’ part (honor, peace, goodness, wrath)
So, our part in ending revenge is turning the tables on what’s done to us. It’s repaying evil with good. It’s showing honor and being peaceable. Our part also involves recognizing God’s part. Vengeance is his alone. As the Lord declares in his word, “I will repay.”
But the truth of God’s just retribution also comes with a harsh reality. If God in his infinite holiness and infinite justice will repay any and all unholiness and injustice, then we are all condemned. None of us can escape the wrath of God against sin. As Romans 3 says, “no one is righteous.” It says, “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.”
When we recognize that we’ve offended God, that we deserve his just judgment as well, it does two things. First, we see that we’re also guilty. It helps us see that our revenge will not accomplish justice – it will only further injustice. But second, it drives us to God.
Let’s go back to Anselm. He laid out a case for God’s retributive justice based on his character. He demonstrated that any sin or unholiness, no matter how small is deserving of God’s just punishment. Therefore, all humanity is condemned. And by the way, Anselm was merely conveying what the Scriptures teach about God, the fall, and us.
And then, Anselm answers the question, “why the God man?” Why did God need to come in the flesh? Why Jesus? Why? Because the only way that God’s divine retribution could be satisfied is by an infinite payment of the debt. Only a God-man could to that. In other words, Jesus, as God, and as man, perfectly holy and just, was the only way for the penalty to be paid. That is the hope of Christ. God’s vengeance satisfied by the infinite debt that Jesus paid on the cross for those who believe.
That is the Gospel.
Let me put it this way: Jesus’ part in ending revenge involved becoming the object of God’s just vengeance – his wrath.
But that’s not the only thing. Jesus part in ending revenge was not limited to being the substitute for those who believe. No, Jesus also perfectly fulfilled our part in ending revenge. Every part of our responsibility in these verses was accomplished by Jesus in his life and death.
Take Verse 17 and 21 – “repay no one evil for evil…” and “overcome evil with good.” Jesus responded to the evil committed against him with good. Instead of retaliating, he submitted to the suffering and torture and mocking. He prayed to his Father for those who were persecuting him. He suffered unto death so that the greatest good could be accomplished. Verse 18, Jesus lived in peace and brought peace. Jesus came near to sinners to call them to him. Verse 20, to his enemies, Jesus offered the bread of life and the water that would satisfy their thirst forever.
In those ways, Jesus has gone before us. He’s both the example of repaying evil with good and the reason we can repay evil with good.
In real life situations, whatever the offence is, we can look to Christ. Nothing compares to the rejection he underwent as God, or the death he endured, taking on God’s wrath. So, in the day-to-day evil and offences we receive, we can respond with honor and peace and goodness just as Christ did for us.
That is what will break the cycle of revenge. Pursuing our part to end revenge through Christ… and seeing God’s part, the only one who can justly avenge, fulfilled in Jesus.
I wish I could say that the Hatfield McCoy feud ended in the 1800s with an amazing reconciliation in Christ. No, it didn’t. The feuding continued for years. But in 2003, about 70 descendants of both Devil Anse Hatfield and Rand’l McCoy got together. They formally signed a peace treaty. No, they didn’t quote Romans 12 (although that would have been nice for my sermon illustration!). It was more of a social statement of unity. Their signed document say this: “injuries and wrongdoings to and by our ancestors in years past are now committed henceforth to history and that from this day forward the Hatfields and McCoys stand united.” But they did include these words: “We ask by God’s grace and love that we would be forever remembered as those that bound together two families...”
The offenses and evil that we each experience may not rise to the level of that fateful feud. But whatever we experience, may God’s grace in Christ help us to end the cycle of revenge. May we repay evil with good and seek peace and honor. And may we see God as the only who can justly avenge, and Christ Jesus who has received that vengeance for those who believe.