Today on this All Saints Day, I want to begin with the words of a well-known saint, someone who is often regarded as the Father of Western Christianity, St. Augustine.
“What is perfection in love? Love your enemies in such a way that you would desire to make them your brothers…For so did He love, who hanging on the cross, said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Today, we look in Romans 12 at how the church, meaning you and me, should posture itself towards the world. Last week we looked at how we posture ourselves towards each other, today, how we as followers of Jesus should approach the whole world including our enemies. So, let us hold Augustine’s words in our minds this morning because both he and Paul are both pointing us in the same direction, which is to Christ and His example.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Now, any good Bible teacher is going to quickly point you to the context of this passage, which is the church in Rome. This text is not first about us; it is about them. If you’ve been with us, you know that the Roman Church was fairly small but growing. It was a melting pot of cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, and it was not only not culturally accepted; it was illegal in the Roman Empire. Thus, the church had enemies. That dynamic was true for many of the early Christian churches, especially as you got into the second and third centuries. In fact, there is a period of time in the early 300’s known as “the great persecution,” where many Christians were martyred for their faith. This was eventually stopped later in the 300’s by the Roman emperor Constantine who legalized Christianity in the empire. That was a major turning point.
Now, I’m going to divide these instructions of Paul into two basic groups. Then, we we’re going to consider the implications of one verse in particular.
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Love of Enemy:
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Now, here’s a big a takeaway for me. Even though the church had enemies and Christianity was illegal, Paul is not calling the church to retreat into hiding. Instead, he is calling the church to engage with the world, and these are instructions on how to do that. The assumption, I think, was not simply that the church had enemies, but perhaps that they would continue to gain enemies if they engaged with the culture. But, in no way is this a call to retreat; it is a call to press in. And, Paul is not coming up with this stuff all on his own, he’s actually pulling directly from the teaching of Jesus, namely the sermon on the mount.
Matthew 5:44 – But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
Matthew 5:39 – But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
So, Paul’s words are not only bathed in the teaching of Jesus, they are also bathed in the example of Jesus. Remember the Augustine quote? He mentioned Jesus’ words on the cross from Luke 23, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Even in the moment of his greatest agony the son is appealing to the Father on behalf of his enemies. Another great saint who has gone on, Dallas Willard, said:
“When Jesus hung on the cross and prayed, “Father, forgive them because they do not understand what they are doing,” that was not hard for him. What would have been hard for him would have been to curse his enemies and spew forth vileness and evil upon everyone, God and the world, as those crucified with him did, at least for a while. He calls us to him to impart himself to us. He does not call us to do what he did, but to be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him.” Dallas Willard “The Divine Conspiracy”
Don’t miss this: our natural mode when cornered is not to spew love; it is to spew hate. Our natural mode when threatened is not to bless but to curse. And, the call of Christ, as so eloquently put by Willard, is not to just try to do things he did; it is to become like him.
But, we live in a world where the concepts of love, blessing and cursing are so confused and all over the place that these teachings could be received in a variety of ways. Like, in your mind, what does it look like to bless another person. Well, in today’s world, most often blessing has to do with possessing things. I’m blessed to have this money. I’m blessed to have this fancy house. I’m blessed husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend. So, does blessing your enemy mean giving them things? If I gave you an assignment and said, “I want you to go and bless five people this week,” what would you do? Maybe give a $100 to the person waiting on you at a restaurant? “I just want to bless you today.” What would you do.
The Greek word for “Blessing” is the word εὐλογέω (eulogeó), and the most literal translation is something like “Well Words.” This is a compound word. Eu means “well” and Logos means “word.” So, a definition of eulogeo is something like “to speak well of.” In other words, in the Biblical context to be blessed is to be well-spoken of, and by association, if you are well-spoken of, life is good. So, how do you bless somebody? You speak well of them. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that in our text, verse 14, blessing is presented in opposition to cursing. And, and when we say cursing, we don’t necessarily mean profanity, we mean speaking a curse over someone.
So, Jesus blessed his enemies by praying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” He prayed for their good. “Pray for those who persecute you.” To curse them would have been to pray, “Father, I want you to kill them violently and then burn forever in a pit of fire.”
Now, here’s what’s strange about the times we live in: Our culture now thinks of enemies not as people who are trying to kill us, but just as people who think differently than us. Supposedly, we live in this very accepting, open, relativistic society, but, in practice, I’m really only willing to accept you if you think what I think. And, if you don’t think what I think, then you need to be silenced or canceled. You are now my enemy. Your lack of agreeing with everything I think or do is a sign not of love but of hatred.
Unfortunately, this way of thinking is just as true in the Christian community as it is everywhere else. And, let’s not even get started on the political division and vitriol that we see today. To be on one side is to be labeled a “baby killer,” and to be on the other side is to be labeled a “racist.” And, some of you may be thinking , well, hmm, I don’t feel like a baby killer or a racist so I’m not sure what to do here. This is because neither political party is the way of Jesus.
One theology student and blogger ( ) said: “Biblical Christianity will seem “centrist” at times because it will critique the ideologies of both the Left and the Right. But, it’s not politically “centrist.” It’s politically transcendent. It’s a category by itself. It’s the ethics of a kingdom that’s not of this world.”
So, what does it look like to “bless” your enemies today? It looks like following the example of Jesus, which is founded on the ethics of God’s kingdom.
- Praying earnestly for those who are opposed to or think differently than you. (If your mode is to call out or “clap back” or shut down those who think differently than you on social media or in real life without earnestly praying for their good is to not love them.) Again Augustine is helpful here.
“That your enemies have been created is God’s doing; that they hate you and wish to ruin you is their own doing. What should you say about them in your mind? “Lord be merciful to them, forgive them their sins, put the fear of God in them, change them!” You are loving in them not what they are, but what you would have them to become.”
Let me leave you with this. Paul’s summation statement is this:
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Don’t be controlled by evil, but, instead, control evil with good. In all of our interactions with those who are opposed to us or against us, our temptation will be to do them some kind of evil, whether in word or in deed. That is our natural go to. But, Paul’s counsel is this: whatever you most naturally want to do to your enemy, do the opposite. Overcome temptation by doing good.