The apostle now switches his focus from love’s actions in the Church to love’s actions in the world. What we read should be interpreted from the perspective of one who is under pressure from the unbelieving world. We immediately know that a radical relationship with the world is in view from the supernatural injunction of verse 14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” This is the radical way of Jesus as given in His Sermon on the Mount. More than speaking well of one’s enemies; it includes praying for their forgiveness and blessing. This is supremely radical. It is one thing not to curse your enemies, but entirely another to pray for their blessing. This is a life-changing call. The Arabs have a custom that (though practiced with different levels of sincerity) symbolizes what is called for here. They touch the head, lips, and heart indicating, “I think highly of you, I speak well of you, my heart beats for you.” What a way to love the world! “Bless those who persecute; bless and do not curse them.”
Next Paul commands in verse 15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Believers are to identify with the world in the ups and downs of human life, to be a healing balm for a cold world. The world is characterized by indifference, non-commitment, disengagement, no sharing or caring. Enter the loving believer – he who weeps with those who weep and rejoices with those who rejoice. The believer is a tonic for life – a light leading to Christ! The call to love is radical indeed!
How perfectly this leads to the next thought: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight” (v. 16). Christians are to associate with everyone – the ordinary people, the unimportant, and the outcasts of society. Verses 14-16 call for a caring heart that is vulnerable to the world. A Christian who is an elitist, who only associates with people of the same intellectual or academic or professional interests, is not living up to what the Scripture mandates. We are to have a heart open to the world. We are to pray for those who persecute us, to enter others’ joys and sorrows, to associate with everyone regardless of their situation in life. What a way to go after the world!
In the final verses (vv. 17-21) we move into explicit counsel for loving a hostile world. This is supremely radical because it is supremely unnatural. Our conditioned reflex is to hit back. The world says, “Common sense demands getting even.” However, there is a better way, God’s way, and it has two elements. First, trust God. The apostle says: “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’” (v. 19). We must trust God to work in the life of the one who wronged us. Leaving room for His wrath is to leave the vengeance to God, knowing also that He smites in order to heal (Isaiah 19:22). God’s wrath may one day come in ultimate judgment to those who abuse us, but His wrath may also bring enemies to repentance in this life. Whatever happens, God will be perfectly equitable. We can trust Him implicitly for this.
Second, do positive good, as verse 20 exhorts us: “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on his head.’” Burning coals means: by doing good to our enemies, we will head burning pangs of shame and contrition of their heads that hopefully (not surely) will lead them to God’s grace. The best example of this in Scripture is the exchange between David and Saul after David had been so close to Saul in the cave that he cut off a corner of the king’s robe, but for conscience’s sake would not lift his hand against Saul even though the king was seeking David’s life (1 Sam. 24:8-19). Coals of fire were heaped on Saul’s head. Sadly, Saul never opened himself to God’s grace, but he well could have. The coals were meant to be a prelude to blessing.
We are never under any circumstances to avenge ourselves. Any plans we may have to the contrary are from the devil. Not only are we to not avenge ourselves, we are to do positive good to our enemies. Our text closes with, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21). Love in the Church and love in the world go together. They are the demands of commitment. Our minds have been renewed. Our lives have been transformed. And the Holy Spirit can do all this through us. Are we loving the Church? Are we loving the world?
Romans 12:14-21 Reflection Questions:
In verses 14-21 Paul does not intend to say that believers should “go soft on evil.” Saying you shouldn’t take revenge isn’t a way of saying evil isn’t real, or that it didn’t hurt after all, or that it doesn’t matter. Evil is real; it often does hurt, sometimes very badly indeed and with lasting effects, and it does matter. What does Paul say we are to do about evil?
What happens when people do start engaging in private vengeance? How can a society make sure this doesn’t happen?
How is Christ Himself an example of living out what Paul calls for in verses 14-21?
The early part of Romans 12 (vv. 1-13) deals with what we might call the inner life of the Church. This last section (vv. 14-21) is about how Christians behave within the wider public world. How would the wider world respond to seeing the Church live out what’s described in verses 14-21?
In what specific ways can you be a “living sacrifice” to those around you right now?