Romans 12, Part 4
Dec 30, 2010
In the divine Law, "revenge" was a court-ordered mandate, not a personal vendetta. For this reason, our English word "revenge" does not accurately convey the biblical idea being expressed. Today we think of "vengeance" as something that people do outside of the legal system, whereas the Bible forbids such personal vengeance, for the sentence of the Law was to be determined only by the judge after the trial was completed and all the evidence presented.
God's justice, however, does not exclude the victim or his guardian (representative). Once the court has determined guilt, the power of enforcement is given to the guardian, or to the witnesses, or both. The guardian is called (in legal terms) "the avenger of blood" (Deut. 19:12) or "the revenger of blood" (Num. 35:19).
The actual Hebrew word used in both cases above is ga'al, which means "redeemer." The redeemer is the guardian of the victim, called to represent his family member in the court of law. He is called to restore the lawful order and "redeem" the rights of the victim that had been trampled.
The judge is called to render a just verdict according to the specifications of the Law. The victim (or his guardian) then has the right to extract the full penalty of the Law, or to forgive any portion of the penalty. That is his legal right. The victim may forgive a thief part or even ALL of the restitution penalty that the judge determined according to the Law. I believe that the guardian even has the right to forgive a murderer, if he discerns that this is the right thing to do.
Such forgiveness does not put away the Law. The Law itself gives the victim the right to forgive.
The judge determines guilt or innocence. Once the verdict is given, the victim or guardian has the right of enforcement. The benefit of this divine arrangement is that justice is not dispensed without an opportunity for mercy. If the Law retained both the right of determining guilt as well as the right of enforcement, then there would be no opportunity to extend mercy to a repentant law-breaker.
It is only because we have not understood this principle of Law coming from the mind of God that we have mistakenly thought of the Law as being "vengeful" and devoid of love. In fact, the Law deals with rights, but leaves room to the victim to apply love when appropriate.
Hence, when Paul quotes the Law saying, "vengeance is Mine," we ought not to think of God as being "vengeful" in the modern sense of the English word. When God acts as a Judge, He judges according to His own Law, rather than by the laws of men or even by Church law. As a righteous Judge, He certainly will not acquit the guilty; however, the victims always possess the right of forgiveness.
In fact, this is the secret behind God's way of causing the remnant of grace to be victimized by others in this present age. Romans 8:36 says, "For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered." We are made victims in order to give us certain rights that are not otherwise given to men. Jesus, too, was led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7), in order that He might have the right to forgive all sin. We are His Body, and so it is often given to us to experience the same crimes, though in smaller portions. Being victimized gives us the right of forgiveness as well as prosecution, but as the character of God is instilled into our hearts, we learn the art of forgiveness as intercessors of the Most High God.
For this reason, Paul says in Romans 12:20,
(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.
It is the right of the victim to feed his hungry enemy and to give drink to him if he is thirsty. It is the right of the victim to show love and mercy. This New Testament principle is rooted in the Law of God, though few have seen it there. Old Covenant religions tend to teach that justice is one's duty, without realizing that it is only a duty insofar as the judge is concerned. To the wronged party, justice is actually a right that may be exercised either in love or in hatred. The Law is duty-bound to uphold the victim's right to justice, but the victim is not bound by the Law to extract the last farthing of restitution.
It is for this reason that the creditor who was owed ten thousand talents (Matt. 18:27) had the right to forgive the entire debt--or to retain it at his discretion, if the debtor refused to forgive his own neighbor. This principle of Law is perhaps the greatest secret of the Spirit-led Christian life.
Many have also misunderstood the idea of heaping coals of fire upon the head of the enemy. In those days, people often traveled and would be out of town for a lengthy period of time. The fire on the hearth would be gone by the time they returned home, so the woman normally went to the neighbor to obtain a few coals of fire with which to start a new fire at home.
Now, it was often the case that neighbors did not get along very well. If an "enemy" neighbor asked for a few coals, the neighbor might be stingy and give grudgingly a few small coals. However, if the neighbor had the mind of Christ, he or she would "heap burning coals upon his head." (They would have carried the coals in clay jars on their heads in those days.) In this manner, Paul says in Romans 12:21,
(21) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Feuding neighbors could often be reconciled, if one of them was generous in this small way. This is Paul's example of not paying back evil for evil (12:17) and being at peace with all men, if at all possible (12:18).
This is the final part of a series titled "Romans 12." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones