This is another in a series of teachings on Romans 12 and will focus on the final two verses of the chapter, verses 20 and 21. These verses read as follows: ‘But if your enemy is hungry, feed him and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ (21) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
It has already been made clear that the book of Romans is about the gospel from beginning to end, and chapter 12 is no different. This chapter is also entirely focused on the gospel, but instead of presenting the doctrinal truths of the gospel, this chapter begins the section that talks about how the one who has received the gospel and who has been transformed by the gospel is to behave. The believer’s behavior is to be radically different than that of the world so that those who are still lost and are still living in the world will be attracted to the gospel. In other words, chapter 12 is primarily focused on the behavior that the believer is to exhibit, so that the way is prepared for the presentation and proclamation of the gospel.
From Romans 12:17-19 (see previous page of my writing), we learned that the believer is not allowed to retaliate against those who do him wrong. This is because the believer is not the judge, but he is the witness. The Lord is the Judge and it is His right to declare guilt or innocence and it is His right to pass a verdict. In this gospel court room, then, the believer is only a witness whose role it is to convince the accused that there is an Advocate for sinners, namely the Lord Jesus Christ.
Romans 12:20 can be misunderstood, because it sounds like the believer is heaping burning coals on the heads of unbelievers. But a careful and thoughtful reading of this verse will reveal that it fits perfectly into this context. Going back to verse 19, we see again that the believer is to forsake all retaliation and all revenge and is to give no thought to judging his persecutor, but rather is to consider how he can persuade his persecutor or how he can convince his unbelieving friend to believe in the Lord Jesus. In other words, retaliation and revenge are forsaken as intentional evangelistic tactics. I forsake revenge, so that I can have a better platform for proclaiming the gospel. How radical is this, that I refuse to take my revenge, but I feed my hungry enemy instead. (In Les Miserables, consider how confusing it was to Denardier and to Javaire when Jean Valjean not only spared them but actually rescued them.) What Paul is communicating to us is that the refusal to seek revenge and the intentional showing of mercy and kindness to our enemies is one of God’s approved means for bringing our enemies to salvation.
So, my brethren, when you have an enemy or an adversary or someone who hates you or despises you without cause, look for opportunities to show your enemy kindness. Do not respond or retaliate to any evil that is done to you, but instead actively seek ways to show this adversary kindness. If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink. Your enemy will be confused and may eventually be convicted of their own wicked behavior because of your goodness and kindness.
It is the believer’s responsibility to be so focused on winning others to Christ that all venom or hatred or malice from others is received as merely an attempt to distract. The distractions of venom and hatred are ignored and are met instead with kindness and compassion as Christ is proclaimed.
When the one who hates you receives from you mercy and compassion and kindness, it is confusing, for it is a dramatic witness to Christ’s power to change people.
This is pictured in the story in 2 Kings 6 where the enemies of Israel are taken into the city of Samaria and, instead of being killed, are treated to a feast. This is the same idea that Paul is expressing here in this passage.
No matter what evil or wrong or injustice is done to the believer, 1) he is to return kindness and goodness for that evil; and 2) he is to trust God for justice. (Job 1:21-22; 1 Peter 2:23)
There is a picture of this being done wrongly in 1 Samuel 25, where David was ready to seek his revenge on Nabal and would have done so if Abigail had not stopped him. The point here is that David, as a Christ figure, should never have been seeking his own revenge. David betrays his sin and thus reveals that he is not the Messiah, but is merely a fore-shadow of the Messiah who is to come later. Instead of his rage and revenge, David should have prayed to the Lord and should have trusted that the Lord would bring about justice. Again, the believer is to accept the evil from the evil person while seeking to find a way to preach Christ.
Paul concludes the chapter by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Thus the teaching of the chapter has gone full-circle, in that the believer is not merely to not return evil for evil, but the believer is to go all the way to the point where good vanquishes evil. Evil is received and overwhelming, conquering good is returned. This is the idea. (As a note on the Greek text used here, the verb for “overcome” is the same Greek verb that is used in Revelation and elsewhere in the New Testament for “conquer” or “vanquish.” It is the Greek verb ‘nikao,’ which you may recognize as the root for ‘nike.’)
How would the believer be “overcome by evil?” (12:21) Would that be when the believer was killed by his evil enemy? No, this is certainly not what it means to be overcome by evil, because martyrs are given a special place in heaven (Revelation 6:9-11) and because for the believer, “to die is gain (Phil. 1:21).” To be overcome by evil would be when the evil that was inflicted on you resulted in your retaliation against the perpetrator of the evil so that your witness for Christ is damaged. In other words, we are overcome by evil when our response to evil is not Christ-like. We are overcome by evil when we respond to evil with evil or we respond to evil with an act of revenge. Christ accepted the evil that was done to Him “like a lamb led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53)” and He “uttered no threats” (1 Peter 2:23) of revenge, and we are to respond the same way.
In conclusion, the believer is to respond to his enemy’s unkindness and hatred with extravagant kindness so that there is an opportunity for the proclamation of the gospel and so that the Holy Spirit might act upon the unbeliever to bring about conviction leading to repentance. RMB 4/14/2015