NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XLVI)
Spurgeon also asks us to listen, especially if we claim that Christ is our Master, in order to do what He is telling us to do. Instead of cringing in fear because we think His commandments are too challenging for most believers, go to Him in prayer and ask Him: “Lord, please increase my faith, and give me more of Your Spirit.” To forgive seventy times seven was not too hard for His disciples, so why should it be that hard for us? Also, while hanging on the cross, didn’t our Lord ask His Father to forgive those who beat Him and were crucifying Him because they really didn’t know it was all part of God’s plan? If this was in Christ to do it, and Christ is in us, then let Him help us do the same. Take this as part of our calling. This requires a sanctified attitude, that’s why we need Divine grace to make it possible. If we claim that we want to be nearer to God, then for this reason alone we should desire to become a more worthy follower of Jesus. It is something we should all aim at with all our heart.
Professor F. F. Bruce also has something to say about piling hot coals someone’s head. He begins by pointing out that in Paul’s quote from Proverbs 25:21–22, he omits the concluding clause: “and the Lord will reward you.” The original intent of this admonition may have been: “Treat your enemy kindly, for that will increase their guilt. It will also ensure for them a more terrible punishment and for you a better reward from God.” But another view is that the proverb actually refers to an Egyptian ritual in which a man testified publicly to his remorse by carrying a pan of burning charcoal around on his head.
I found another reference that portrayed it this way: When someone realized they were in error, they would take coals from a fire, put them in a pan, put a towel upon their head, and carry the pan throughout the village, declaring they were burning out the bad thinking of the past. It was another way of admitting their wrong, repenting of their past failure, and pledging never to do it again. In any case, by placing the proverb in this context and omitting the last clause, Paul gives it a nobler meaning: “Treat your enemy kindly, for that may make him ashamed and lead to his repentance.” In other words, the best way to get rid of an enemy is to turn them into a friend, and so overcome evil with good.
Verse 21: Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil by doing good.
After saying all this, Paul now points to the effect of returning good for evil, kindness for rudeness. He says it will be a win-win situation. You will be victorious and evil will be defeated. This same idea was expressed by Solomon when he said: “He who controls his temper is better than a war hero, he who rules his spirit better than he who captures a city.” It reminds us again of what Jesus taught: “Love those who work against you. Do good to those who hate you. Respect and give thanks for those who try to bring bad to you. Pray for those who make it very hard for you. Whoever hits you on one side of the face, turn so he can hit the other side also. Whoever takes your coat, give him your shirt also. Give to any person who asks you for something. If a person takes something from you, do not ask for it back. Do for other people what you would like to have them do for you.”
Early church scholar Origen admits that it is the nature of evil to increase and grow by adding similar acts to its inventory. He says it’s like throwing fuel on the fire. Ambrosiaster agrees. He advises that it is always best for believers to refrain from even thinking about doing something in retaliation for any wrong done to them. However, there are some who are overcome because of jealousy, envy, anger, pride, etc., and giving in to retaliation is just too easy. We must all remember that our Savior overcame evil by letting it take its course. Evil often works against itself, and when it thinks it has accomplished its intended goal it declares victory. But often, persecution and harassment are meant to divert the believer from their stated purpose. Some critics are only looking for an opportunity to make believers do wrong. Therefore, if they try to provoke us into doing so, don’t retaliate by returning the favor. Rather, respond by doing something good. That way we are doing something good by ignoring any demand for justice through retribution.
Then early church preacher Chrysostom takes it another step further. As he sees it, after we have let the offending person have their say, we step up to higher ground. Paul was convinced that no adversary was so inhumane that they would continue being an enemy once they were fed with kindness. To overcome evil with good is a true victory. Also, Augustine points out that not all strife is started by external factors. If we are successful in helping our enemy to turn away from evil thoughts and deeds, they are thereby set free from any future guilt they might have accrued by continuing. But their freedom is not from some external force but from an inward inclination and tendency. In other words, it was a personal problem. It is the type of virus or disease that does more harm to a person’s emotions and self-respect than viruses and diseases do to the flesh. And Bishop Theodoret gives us this motto: “Revenge is mean-spirited. True victory is returning good for evil.”
Martin Luther believes that because of what Paul says here we should see to it that anyone who hurts us does not turn us into a person like themselves. That we should not let their disrespectful actions overcome our good manners. Luther feels it should be in reverse. Our kindness should be a force that helps them become a better person. In Proverbs we read: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.” Luther says that someone who tries to argue with a fool may permit themselves to be misled and end up developing the same foolish behavior. But he who overcomes evil with good, answers the fool in such a way that he no longer regards himself as wise, but recognizes his folly and detests and regrets it.
John Calvin makes the point that once we realize that the person we are dealing with is doing all the evil they can imagine against us are altogether depraved and immoral if we try to retaliate it would require that we descend to levels of maliciousness that no believer should ever consider. Remember, this may be more than two children arguing over who hit who first. By staying on the path of holy living we win two victories. First, we do not degrade ourselves by acting like our enemy does. And secondly, we are giving God’s love, grace, and mercy an opportunity to really make a difference in the person who is trying to do us harm.
Robert Haldane offers his advice on how to overcome evil with good. As he sees it, it’s not our anger that we should fear, it’s yielding to our own anger that will allow us to be conquered by the opposition. For some people, when they are offended or feel insulted, it is only proper to respond with resentment. But Paul is telling us that the opposite is true. When believers fight back it already spells defeat. Christians do not give into angry responses. To remain calm without rage under insult and ill-treatment is characteristic of Christ. When Jesus instructed His disciples to forgive their offending brethren, knowing how difficult that would be, they immediately prayed, “Lord, increase our faith.”
Being willing to admit weakness in this area and praying for the help of the Holy Spirit in keeping our anger and resentment under control is one of the most courageous things any believer can do. When it comes to neutralizing evil with acts of kindness, Haldane says that this frequently happens. Also, that even though it may not achieve its initial goal, it will certainly have some positive effect. Nevertheless, we should make every attempt at following this principle. Haldane thinks that any effort we make to turn an enemy into a friend may still fail to change them but it will not fail to change us. As he sees it, our Christian character will be more perfected, our happiness will be increased, our ways will be pleasing to the Lord, and our reward will be sure. Those who cannot respond positively to kindness and goodness are probably beyond help anyway. However, when God gives up on them they will dread their punishment.
Albert Barnes concludes that what Paul says here is one of the most noble and grand sentiments of the Christian religion. We cannot find this in the pagan classics, and nothing like it ever existed among heathen nations. Christianity alone has given birth to this lovely and mighty principle. It is designed to advance the welfare of mankind by promoting peace, harmony, and love. Barnes says that the idea of “overcoming evil with good” never occurred to people until the Gospel was preached. This is true to a certain degree. For instance, in the Buddist “Dhammapada” we find where it reads: “Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness.” But when compared to all the other quotes on overcoming evil with good, it is always the good and evil in the individual, not between individuals.
Barnes also implies that on this principle God reveals genuine kindness. It is on this principle our Savior came, bled, and died. It is on this principle that all Christians interact with their enemies, and in so doing bring to the world’s attention to the knowledge of the Lord Jesus. By being known as kind, loving, and caring people, believers will shine the light of God’s love to the ends of the earth. This will show evil for what it really is. What purpose is there in trying to convert villages, towns, cities, or nations to Christianity if once they become believers this principle is not part of their faith? Christians should have the reputation of always returning good for evil.
Always keep this in mind: when someone ridicules you for your faith in Christ, or calls you names or makes disparaging remarks concerning your relationship with God, do not respond by telling them how unfair or ridiculous they are being to make fun of your religion. Instead, shake their hand and say with great joy, “Thank you for giving me such a great honor. There is nothing more that I cherish than to suffer for the name of Christ and be cursed because of my faith in Him as my Lord and Savior!”