Romans 12, Part 3
Dec 29, 2010
In Romans 12:19-21 Paul reaches the climax of his exhortation, showing how "the renewing of your mind" (vs. 2) affects our behavior and the way we think. He writes,
(19) Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. (20) "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 overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul was quoting from Deut. 32:35, where we read,
(35) Vengeance is Mine, and retribution; in due time their foot will slip, for the day of their calamity is near. . . (36) For the Lord will vindicate His people. . .
Again, the Law tells us in Lev. 19:18,
(18) You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
There are many who mistakenly believe that vengeance is permitted by Moses, but banned by Paul. This is often used to show the superiority of grace over the Law. However, Paul's idea in Romans 12 did not spring from special revelation, but by his study of the Law. Vengeance is simply the retribution of the Law that God takes against those who have injured their neighbors.
The problem with vengeance is that when men "take the law into their own hands," it is normally done in the heat of anger or passion. For this reason, our English words vengeance and revengecarry emotional overtones that indicate anger and unforgiveness. But God's true vengeance is the application of justice as the Law prescribes. The "wrath of God" is His passion to uphold the Law and to restore the rights of the victims of injustice. God is not devoid of emotion, but His emotion is rooted in His righteous character, whereas man's emotion is usually rooted in the fallen Adamic Identity.
For this reason, the Law forbids Israelites from taking the law into their own hands. If they have a dispute with their neighbor, or believe that they have been wronged or injured, they are to take it to God--that is, the earthly court established in His Name--and lodge their complaint. God will then judge the case dispassionately through the judge.
In Paul's day (and in our day as well) we find ourselves in captivity, where the kingdoms of men have established man-made laws and have set up their own judges to administer those laws. We do not have (official) earthly judges to administer justice by the Law of God. Paul does admonish the Corinthian church for being unable to judge disputes between members (1 Cor.6:1-5). If the church had understood the Law of God sufficiently, they would have established their own court system.
The problem, of course, is that the one who loses a case often disagrees with the judge. If he disagrees with the judge of a man-made court, he has no recourse except perhaps to a higher man-made court. If he refuses to submit to the final verdict, the law has power to enforce the verdict. But if he disagrees with the judge of the church, there is little that the church can do to enforce the law, other than expel the member from the congregation. This has been the condition of God's people since the start of the captivity, when the Kingdom (as an organized, earthly entity) ceased to exist.
Our expectation, though, is to see the end of this long captivity, as Daniel prophesied. Then the Kingdom, which is within us today, will once again be manifested in the earth, having a King, citizens, laws, and territory.
Meanwhile, personal vengeance is prohibited by God's Law. Modern courts are required to enforce many laws which fall short of the character and glory of God. We all suffer from this, but we must view the situation as a God-ordained captivity, brought about when our forefathers rejected the Law of God and disagreed with His sense of justice. His verdict many years ago was that we would live under the laws of men that we desired, so that we would learn by experience that true justice ("vengeance") belongs to God, not to men.
During this time of captivity, we are not totally abandoned by God. We still have His Word and His promise of deliverance. The Church was ordained to judge any case that the people were willing to submit to it. The divine court has always remained with us. The problem is that the judges of the Church lost any real understanding of the Law of God and, like the Jews before them, began to judge by the traditions of men--that is, man-made laws.
There is, however, a final Court of Appeal for those who know the Law and are led by the Spirit. It is the heavenly Court, to which any man may appeal for justice or for mercy. Any time justice is not possible on earth, either because of corrupt judges, false witnesses, or even a simple lack of evidence (such as the double witness), an appeal can be made to this heavenly Court. In such cases, a person must give the case to God and then let the verdict rest with Him. If he takes it back and continues to hold a grudge, he is in essence taking the law into his own hands and avenging the case himself. In such cases, he cannot expect God to take the case.
The Hebrew word for "vengeance" is naqam. It is similar to nacham (pronounced nakam), which means "comforter" and is the origin of the New Testament concept of the Comforter in John 14:26. A "comforter" is an advocate in a court of law which helps and instructs a person in the law so that they can make their case before the judge. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit is our Comforter.
More than that, the Hebrew word literally means "to breathe forcibly." In a sense, it is like a sigh or the hard breathing while giving birth. There is a sense of pity and concern in this word. It is the desire to bring rectification, correction, and a just solution to a problem. Hence, Jesus "breathed" on His disciples to impart to them the Holy Spirit (John 20:22).
The Hebrew prophets understood that naqam and nacham were homonyms, and they connected them in their writings. Hence, the prophet Nahum, starts his prophecy by saying in verse 2,
(2) A jealous and avenging [naqam] God is the Lord; the Lord is avenging [naqam] and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance [naqam] on His adversaries.
The prophet's name influenced his prophecy of divine judgment upon Nineveh, which had taken Israel captive. He continues in Nahum 3:7, saying, "Nineveh is devastated! Who will grieve for her? Where will I seek comforters [nacham] for you?"
Obviously, without the true God, Nineveh lacked the Comforter to defend her in the heavenly Court. Hence, she received naqam, "vengeance" rather than nacham, "comfort."
Divine retribution upon Nineveh was based upon Law, not emotion. After all, God had sold Israel into the hands of Nineveh (Assyria) because of Israel's sins. But Nineveh would be judged later for refusing to comply with the terms of this "sale" that are found in the laws of slavery (Ex. 21:2, 20, 21, 26, 27, etc.). Nineveh's right to rule over the Israelites was based on biblical Law, and thus also Nineveh was bound to treat them according to the laws regarding the treatment of slaves. When they oppressed their slaves, then the "wrath" of the Law came down upon them as well.
God is the only true Judge. His Law is revealed by the Comforter to bring both impartial justice and mercy applied in Love.
This is the third part of a series titled "Romans 12." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones