Paul is teaching the churches in Rome how to live successfully in a non-Christian society. Most of their neighbors and family were not believers and many were growing suspicious or even hostile. And with Nero as emperor the government was certainly no friend. In a few more years it would become a bitter enemy, so if believers werent careful their situation could deteriorate very rapidly. Yet just because they were vulnerable politically didnt mean they were weak spiritually. Paul doesnt for a moment counsel them to compromise or hide their faith. They were still called to reach that city for Christ. What he does is coach them on how to stay effective at winning souls in the midst of that dangerous environment. He explains how believers should respond when someone has treated them cruelly, how to guard the Lords reputation, and how to witness to the toughest opponent. He doesnt want them drawn into fights that dont really matter, so they can stay focused on what does.
Every lesson he gives them applies to us as well. We too need to learn how to live in peace in a non-Christian society, even with those who treat us cruelly. Why? So they too can find peace with God.
What does Paul say?
To believers facing hostility, poverty and abandonment he said:
(vs9-16) Care for one another like family. Find those who are suffering and provide for them.
(v14) Refuse to become bitter toward those who persecute you. Youve been called to minister redemption, not condemnation (2Co 5:18). Pray for them; dont curse them.
(v17) Think before you act. How will your response effect the community? Will what youre about to do harden people further toward the gospel or help build a good reputation for Christ?
(v18) Seek to live in peace with everyone. Try to reconcile every broken relationship. Do what you can to prevent forming enemies.
(v19) Resist the impulse to try to seek revenge. If they dont repent God will give them His justice (Dt 32:34-36). He wont forget the evil done to His people (Rev 6:9-11).
(vs20-21) Instead of hating them we watch for opportunities to show kindness (Lk 6:27-30, 35, 36). This isnt passivity, its a form of spiritual warfare which has the power to conquer the evil which has gripped them.
(13:1-7) Stay below the radar. Dont engage in a clash of wills with the civil government. As a Christian you must still obey laws and pay taxes, unless of course, a particular law or official demands you violate Gods Word. We dont want the government to target Christians as a rebellious sect that thinks its above the laws.
Lets listen again to what this passage might have sounded like had Paul been writing to us today. So how are we supposed to function in the midst of a hostile society? First, become an alternative family (vs9-16). If your natural family kicks you out, your spiritual family will take you in. Second, dont let the injustice of whats been done to you corrupt you. Its very possible for you to become infected with the same angry spirit as your oppressor and end up part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Third, please remember were all in this boat together. What you do affects the witness of all the rest of us. Dont make our job harder. Dont muddy the water so we have one more embarrassing event to explain when sharing Christ with someone. Fourth, introduce a different spirit into the situation. Interrupt the cycle of revenge and let that person experience Gods grace instead. Let them meet Jesus through you. And fifth, No! Making Jesus Lord does not mean you no longer have to submit to civil government or pay taxes. Jesus Himself made it perfectly plain to us. You render to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is Gods (Mt 22:17-22). If Christians are perceived by the community as thinking we are too good to submit to civil laws or pay taxes well bring police actions on ourselves and no one will want to become a Christian.
The corrupting power of persecution
We often think of persecution as something that refines a believers heart, and it certainly can. But it can also corrupt it. When anyone is treated unjustly there is a natural anger that arises, and because we know we were innocent victims, particularly if there has been serious injury, we feel totally justified in our anger, and in one sense we are. But the danger comes when we decide to even the score for ourselves, rather than wait for God to do it. We seek our own revenge and when we do we open ourselves to be controlled by the same angry, hateful spirit that attacked us in the first place. We return hatred for hatred and only make the situation worse. Hurting someone back may make us feel better for a moment, but it inevitably invites a reprisal and we end up in an escalating feud. And the real tragedy is that in the process we lose any concern for that persons soul. Our heart becomes as hard as theirs.
Paul tells us we should never try to get revenge for ourselves because thats Gods responsibility. He quotes a passage from Deuteronomy (Dt 32:34-36) that says God doesnt forget the evil done to His people (Rev 6:9-11). But if you really think about what will happen to those who hate Jesus, and hurt us because of Him, and dont repent before they die (2Th 1:6-10), the thought ought to stir compassion in us for our worst oppressor. No matter whats been done to us, no one in whom the love of God dwells can desire such an eternal destiny for anyone. Which is why we choose to love our enemies and seek to win them to Christ.
The problem with enemies
Paul literally says we should seek to live in peace with everyone. He wants us to try to reconcile every broken relationship. This is because he understands the danger that comes from even one enemy. Enemies dont stop being enemies without reconciliation
and its a small world (Alexander the coppersmith, Ac 19:30; 2Ti 4:13-21; Heb 13:23, 24). Bitter people dont forget. They keep talking and spread their bitterness to others which close doors to the gospel. The devil wants people to grow angry at Christians.
Encountering Jesus through you
When people hurt us they expect us to respond a certain way. Thats the way the world works. But Jesus asks us to respond in a radically different way (Mt 5:38-45). He tells us to treat our enemies kindly, the way God treats them. Instead of seeking revenge when they hurt us, we extend to them grace. Whats happening is through us, they are encountering Jesus, and they are forced to look at the cruel spirit that has gripped them. In the way we respond, God shows them that He will still give them mercy in spite of what they have done. His love for them has not died.
Truly, truly I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me (Jn 13:20).
In effect, by our actions we say to them, Im going to show you that God will give you mercy instead of the justice you deserve, that He still loves you in spite of your sin.
Dying to self
Jesus makes it clear that to follow Him means taking up a cross (Lk 9:23, 24), but there are many ways of dying, and this command to refuse to seek revenge is one of them. It calls us to put to death our claim to justice, the anger that surges through our emotions, the shame that longs to defend my dignity as a human being. Im choosing to say:
You are more important than my pride. I die to my right to justice so God can give you mercy, rather than what you deserve.
I understand you are deceived. I dont take what you do or say personally.
I want you to experience Jesus when you encounter me.
I realize everything I do affects Jesus reputation in this community in one way or another.
I simply refuse to let hatred take control of me.
We have communion before us today. How powerfully it reminds us of the mercy that has been given to us, and continues to be given. Jesus said, Freely you have received, freely give (Mt 10:8). As we take hold of Gods grace for ourselves, is there someone to whom we need to give grace, to release from any claim for revenge, and to pray for God to forgive them? And am I willing to be Jesus agent to allow that person to experience His kindness through me?
1) Have you ever been persecuted for your faith? How did you respond?
2) Have you ever reconciled with an enemy? Tell us what happened. What difference did that make in you?
3) Have you experienced mercy you didnt deserve from someone? How did that affect you?