MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 13, 2000 FROM ROMANS 12:16-21
This week, we come to the end of this section in Romans on Christian community. You’ll recall that this section on how we are to relate to each other within the church is actually part of a larger section where Paul treats the impact of the gospel. The gospel is not something a person believes mentally, but has no impact on them or the church. No, the gospel is powerful not only to save us from the penalty of sin, but also to free us from the power of sin. This freedom from sin’s power is clearly seen in how we live our lives individually and also together. As we close out this section on Christian community, if we were to make a summary statement of the section, we could say it this way, “The gospel makes true Christian community possible by enabling us to live out true Christian character.” Clearly, we have seen that true Christian community is built on the building blocks of Christian character.
Paul calls for sincere, unhypocritical love in verse nine. This love not only clings to what is good, but is strong enough to hate the evil in each other because evil dishonors God and destroys us. Love must hate evil or it is not biblical love. We saw that this love shows itself in devotion to one another in, “honoring each other above ourselves, being zealous for God, joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer.” Beyond this, we saw this love is expressed in sharing with those in the body in need and in pursuing opportunities to welcome strangers which Paul calls “practic[ing] hospitality.” We saw last week that Christian community is also seen as we share our joys and pains with each other. This sharing with each other is an expression of the very nature of Christian love and the nature of the body of Christ. This week, we conclude with verses 16-21. Let’s read this from Paul. He says, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. 20On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Notice that Paul begins this section with the virtue of humility. Verse 16 in the NIV is more literally translated in the NASB where it says, “Be of the same mind toward one another.” That’s much closer to the original than the NIV translation which says, “live in harmony with one another.” The call to be of the same mind toward one another is a call to not look down our nose at anyone regardless of their race, income, position or whatever. It is a call to humility. We see this even more in the rest of the verse. “Do not be proud…do not be conceited.” “…associate with people of low position.” Does that sound familiar? It should. You’ll recall when Paul began this section on Christian community, the first issue he addresses in verse three is “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” Then, in verse 10 we see humility highlighted again when Paul says, “…Honor one another above yourselves.” And here he begins this last section of the chapter with another call to humility—to shun pride. That ought to tell us something. Why does Paul, in a section on Christian community admonish us three separate times to humility? The reason is because humility, even more than love, is the foundational Christian virtue and the first building block of Christian community.
The reason we know that humility is even more basic than love is because if you are to love in a biblical sense, you first must possess some humility. Agape implies that you agree to lovsomeone as you much as you love yourself. It means counting other people more important than yourself. Philippians 2:3 tells us that this is the nature of humility, “ in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Our fallen inclination is to value and prize everyone less than ourselves and so to value someone as being as important, as treasured as we see ourselves is a powerful way of humbling ourselves. Love presupposes the presence of at least some humility because without humility, you cannot love someone biblically. The renewed mind Paul speaks of in 12:2 is always a humble mind.
Notice from verse 16 the connection between not being proud and conceited with how you view other people. If you want to know how proud you are, the quickest way to do this is to think honestly about how you view other people. Humility is most clearly seen NOT in how a person sees themselves, but in how they view others. The Greek word translated “proud” in the NIV literally means “high minded.” To be proud is think highly of yourself and how highly we think of ourselves is dependent upon how we assess ourselves in comparison to others. C.S. Lewis in his brilliant chapter on pride in “Mere Christianity” says this, “Pride is essentially competitive—it is competitive by nature…Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others…It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.”
When you see that element of pride, its pretty clear why humility is a must for the presence of true Christian community. How can you build community, a way of life which consists of giving preference and honor to one another, serving each other in love, if a driving force in our life is to be better than others. How can we sacrificially give ourselves away to someone with whom we are in competition? When Christ came to earth he came “as one who serves” and He was able to do that because he was not saddled with the sin of pride. He had no compulsion to be better than anyone and it wasn’t because He knew He really WAS better than anyone. Its because He just didn’t get His opinion of Himself based on how he stacked up against someone else. Most people today frame their opinions/beliefs about themselves on the basis of how they rate compared to others. This is disastrous and necessarily makes for a proud person.
Paul implies that a good way you can see how proud you are is to see how you look at others. If you are a person who is well known for being good at something—you are better at this then anyone else in your circle of friends or acquaintances and you are recognized as being the king of the hill in this area. What is your reaction when you a very fine golfer for instance, meet someone who is significantly better than you? He plays the game at a different level than you do. How do you, as an accomplished, much heralded cook respond to the person who informs you they are a graduate of the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park? Do you find yourself a bit uncomfortable around that person? Do you long for the day when YOU were the big fish in the small pond? When you are around them, do you feel that inner compulsion to showcase YOUR gifts and abilities—to share stories about YOUR OWN abilities that will impress them? Or, do you simply say to yourself, “Boy, they are good” and be happy for them? Are you able to be impressed with their gifts without comparing them to yours? That’s humility. Lewis rightly says humility is the freedom to FORGET about yourself and it is perhaps the hardest thing in the Christian life to do. The foundational Christian virtue upon which very other virtue rests is self-forgetfulness or humility. Christian community will never be anything more than a lofty, unrealistic ideal without it.
Paul says in verse 16 the antidote to this pride is to associate with the lowly.” That is, spend large blocks of time and learn to love those who are less educated, less attractive, less talented, less affluent, less honored and less blessed than yourself. When you do that if you are sensitive to the Spirit, you will be confronted with the blackness of your prideful heart. This is because the natural, fallen inclination of our flesh is to look down on these people in some way. The pride-soaked flesh always looks at others through the lens of self. The Spirit always sees people through the lens of Christ and reminds us that the ground is perfectly level at the foot of the cross. The first and primary building block of both Christian character and Christian community is humility.
A second and final building block of Christian community is seen in verses 17-21 we read earlier. In these verses, Paul again looks at an element of community that relates primarily to those outside the church. You’ll recall Paul gives six rapid fire exhortations here. 1. Don’t return evil for evil, 2. Do what is right in the eyes of all, 3. As much as it depends on you, be at peace with all men, 4. Do not take revenge on those who hurt you—leave that to God, 5. Bless your enemies and 6. “do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” This last exhortation is a summary statement for the five previous exhortations. This last building block of Christian community as it relates to dealing with the world is overcome the evil in the world with good.
Let’s take each of these exhortations and briefly unpack them. Paul tells us, do not repay anyone evil for evil.” Sin is so powerful and one of its characteristics is seen in its relentless drive to multiply itself. Think about it. If someone sins against you by, for instance, slandering you, that’s one sin. If you slander them back, then sin has just succeeded in using you to double itself. That process continues until someone ends it. Paul here is saying in essence, “if someone sins against you, absorb the sin into yourself and don’t give it back to the sinner—give it to God.” When you do that, you kill the power of sin by draining it of its power to intensify and spread. You say, “Yes, but he hurt me.” That’s right, but we, unlike them, have a Savior who knows what its like to be sinned against and taking it to him and trusting Him to heal our hurt is ultimately far more satisfying than playing tit for tat with someone. If all the Christians who were sinned against by the world were to be more like sin sponges and just absorb the sin instead of firing it back, do you know how much less sin there would be in the world? This is overcoming evil by draining of its power to spread.
Second, Paul tells us to “do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” This is not a call to be a people-pleaser and live to fulfill the expectations of others. This is merely a recognition that even the world admires the strength involved in, for instance, not firing back when fired upon. Even many unbelieving parents tells their kid not to hit back when someone hits him. Paul was anything but a people pleaser, but he modeled this virtue. In 2 Cor. 8:21 he says, “For we are taking pains to do what it right, not only in the eyes of the Lord, but also in the eyes of men.” Our lives are on display as the world watches us to see if there is a living reality in Christianity. They admire these interpersonal virtues, but they cannot consistently live them out. When they see someone genuinely practicing non-retaliation, when they know THEY WOULD have retaliated, God is honored.
Third, we are to overcome evil by, “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” As we said a few weeks ago, peace must never come at the expense of truth. Luther captures the spirit of this text, “peace if possible, truth at all costs.” Peace in this sense does not mean compromising the truth in our lives or in the content of the gospel, but there is so much that we can choose to overlook for the sake of peace and simply refuse to get bent out of shape over it. We can, by the grace of God, simply choose to not be bothered by any number of pesky things that don’t have any eternal significance. Your unsaved neighbor’s kid rides their bike through the back corner of your yard and is wearing a path in the grass. If you are praying for the salvation of your neighbor as you should be and seeking to establish a relationship with him, and if confronting him about your grass could interrupt that process, then FOR PEACE SAKE, let the kid dig a small canyon in your back yard. Interpersonal peace with others is the best context for the gospel to take root and that is a huge reason why we should live at peace with everyone as much as it is possible and depends on us. Your neighbor’s eternal destination is FAR more important than you maintaining an impeccable landscape. When we live in peace, we overcome evil by allowing the peace of Christ to rule our lives instead of allowing our behavior and attitudes to be dictated by someone else’s sinful actions.
Fourth, we are to overcome evil by, “not tak[ing] revenge…,but leave room for God’s wrath…” This is similar to Paul’s earlier prohibition against paying back evil for evil, but vengeance or revenge also carries with it the idea of punishment. It’s not just that you will return the evil back to him, but you will punish him for what he did to you. The reason this is wrong should be self-evident to the Christian. One convicted sinner has no right to punish another convicted sinner for sinning. There is only one Judge, God. He does the punishing in this universe. Wrath is HIS business, not ours. When someone sins against us, we can be assured there will be punishment. Our desire is that the person will repent and trust Christ. In that case, the punishment for that sin against us will go on Christ. If the person doesn’t believe and is condemned by God, He will take care of the punishment for the sin against us. We are NEVER to take satisfaction from the fact that, “You’ll get yours someday.” The gist of Paul’s point is we can be assured that all evil will be punished but it is not our place to do that. This is overcoming evil by refusing to allow it to wrongly make you a judge, but instead do the good thing in trusting justice to God alone.
A fifth way we are to overcome evil is (verse 20) “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” The first half of the statement just adds some detail to what Paul has already said in verse 14, “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse.” Here, Paul just gives legs to that and tells us that part of that blessing means to be on the look out for the needs of our persecutors and when one comes to our attention, be it hunger or thirst, meet their need. That’s a reiteration of verse 14. But Paul adds this quotation from Proverbs 25 that indicates our blessing of them as they are hurting us will “heap burning coals on their head.” What does that mean? We know that we are to love our enemies and that love should be expressed tangibly by blessing them in practical ways. That means this verse cannot mean that the reason we are to bless those who are bloodying us is so their punishment will be more severe. If we are to bless these people because we love them, then it would seem the motivation cannot also be to, by our blessing them to violently torture them.
The expression “heap burning coals” is probably a metaphor and means to help them see how shameful their sins against you are. If you are blessing the person who is persecuting you, that greatly increases the possibility that they will be ashamed of their actions. If they are beating up on someone who is loving them, that is a powerful tool to help them see just how evil they are. They are so evil they not only injure people who injure them, they also injure those who are actually doing good to them. That can be used powerfully by the Spirit to give them a wake up call as to their own depravity. God might just use the shame they feel as a way to open their eyes to their need for Christ and the cross. That is overcoming evil with good because the evil does not force YOU to change your course, but instead is unleashed to be used by God as a change agent in them.
Those five exhortations are simply ways of fulfilling the sixth, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This word translated “overcome” is a powerful one. In the New Testament it is almost always used in the context of battle or conflict between Jesus Christ and his army and Satan and his forces. The word has a strong military flavor to it. It means “to conquer.” Paul knows there is a battle constantly raging all around us between Satan and His forces and Christ and His and we are in that battle whether we know it or not. Paul tells us we are to conquer the evil with the good. We know this is possible because Christ has already won the decisive victory over Satan at the cross and we travel in the triumphant wake of that victory.
There is, in the church however, a troubling, if unspoken belief that this kind of militant, evil-conquering Christianity is not mandatory for all Christians. Most Christians, it is widely believed, will in fact probably NOT do much actual conquering of evil in the ways Paul spells out here in Romans 12. We know this is true because in the past several weeks as we have seen Paul’s treatment of Christian community, how many of us truly see this in the church on any kind of widespread basis. Yet, it doesn’t appear to be all that troublesome to many of us. Part of the reason for this lack of concern is surely because it is assumed Christian community, at the level Paul lays it out here in Romans 12 is a kind of graduate level Christianity for only those who are really serious about their faith. We should certainly celebrate those few who do live that way. Thank God for those few “green beret types” who are actively seeking to live this out, but this kind of community is not normative Christianity. So the thinking often runs.
That kind of thinking is a horrible lie. The truth is, the New Testament teaches ALL real Christians live this way—its part of the empowerment of the gospel through the Holy Spirit when you become a believer. John tells us in First John 5:4-5 “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world…” Now, in watered down evangelicalism, this is often taken to mean that this “overcoming the world” is positional or judicial and means simply believing in Jesus. That can’t be what this text means. What it means is the victory over the world is won through faith and all who truly have this faith will overcome the world with all its evil. There WILL be an “obedience that comes from faith” as we saw mentioned in 1:5.
I say this because in Revelation, also penned by John, Jesus uses this same word “overcomes” in each of the letters to the seven churches. In each of the churches, Jesus calls for an overcoming lifestyle from the church—a lifestyle that will indicate the supernatural power of God is present in them. To the church in Ephesus, He calls them to repent of their lack of love for Christ and then in 2:7 says on the heals of that, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life which is in the paradise to God.” That is clearly a reference to heaven. At Smyrna, Christ tells the church to be faithful as the devil persecutes them even unto death. After that he says, “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.” Overcoming means being willing to be faithful even unto death. To Thyatira, he says, “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations.” Overcoming is doing the will of Christ to the end. In Laodicea, Jesus says, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat with my Father on his throne.” Do you hear the way Christ compares OUR overcoming with HIS overcoming? This is not positional or judicial overcoming. This is, like Christ and through Christ, conquering the evil with the good in our lives and in our church.
Paul in Romans 12 says the good, perfect and acceptable will of God is overcoming evil, not allowing evil to overcome us. Is this the way we conceive of our Christian lives? Are we people who see ourselves as those commissioned and equipped by the gospel to conquer evil? If its not, we are horribly shallow in our thinking because the promise is repeated seven times in Revelation 2-3 that those who have eternal life are those who overcome or conquer evil. This is not graduate level Christianity. This is Christianity, period. And its no accident that Paul’s command to overcome evil with good directly follows his command to be humble because the way to overcome evil is through humility. It’s as we humbly choose to absorb the sin that is being thrown at us, that evil is drained of its power. This is the way of Christ. It’s as He “humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” that he won the victory over sin. As those called to follow Him, doesn’t it make sense that our victory over sin will come the same way?
Beloved, there is a word for people who do not overcome evil with good. There is a word for people who are unrepentantly proud and arrogant. There is a word for people who don’t possess any of the building blocks for Christian community….lost. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world…” Are you overcoming evil with good? Do we, as a church really hunger for true, Christian community? If we don’t then what does that say about us? Are we living a repentant lifestyle as we are regularly confronted with the blackness of our prideful hearts? This is nothing more and nothing less than the impact of the gospel on a person. This is what the gospel looks like in a person and in a church. May God give us the grace to know the truth about ourselves and this church. And may God give us the grace, individually and corporately, to repent of our sins and truly live out lives of Christian virtue in the context of true Christian community.
Page last modified on 1/1/2002
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