Bless Those Who Persecute You
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 lowlyNever be conceited. 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 itto 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." 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul says the same thing over and over in this paragraph. Verse 14: Don’t curse those who persecute you. Verse 17: Don’t return evil for evil. Verse 19: Do not avenge yourselves. Verse 21: Don’t be overcome by evil. And then the positive side—Verse 14: Bless those who persecute you. Verse 18: live peaceably with all. Verse 20: Give food and drink to your enemy. Verse 21: Overcome evil with good.
So I am tempted to lump all those similar commands together and treat them all under the banner of loving our enemies. But I resist this temptation for at least two reasons. One is that there are differences among all these commands with concrete implications for our lives that might get lost if I lumped them all together and spoke more generally about a theme instead of looking carefully at each one. And the other reason is that there are other commands thrown in among these that don’t seem to fit the mold, and we might miss what Paul is trying to say by weaving them in.
So we are going to move straight through taking the verses as they come. Today we will try to understand and apply verses 14 and 15. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
How Do Verses 14 and 15 Fit Together?
Taking the two verses together immediately raises the question what they have to do with each other. Anything? More than you may think. For example, what would be one reason that you wouldn’t weep with those who weep? One reason would be that you are glad they are weeping. In other words, you were angry at them for the way they treated you, and then something bad happened to them and you are glad. Does that have anything to do with verse 14: Don’t curse those who persecute you. Don’t want them to be cursed. Don’t be glad when they weep. Bless them. So it looks as if there may be a very close connection between verses 14 and 15.
Do We Rejoice With All Rejoicing and Weep With All Weeping?
But another question rises: Do we rejoice with all rejoicing and weep with all weeping? Aren’t there are distinctions that have to be made between different kinds of weeping and different kinds of rejoicing? Some weeping we should be very glad about. And some rejoicing we should be very sad about. We know this because Jesus said in Luke 6:25, “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” This is a laughter that we share with simple empathy. This is not a laughter that grieves us.
On the other hand, is there not a weeping that we should rejoice over—a weeping that leads to life? Paul said in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret.” Therefore, godly grief is surely a wonderful thing. Painful. But oh, so full of hope and life! Our tears may flow in that moment, but they will be like the tears of a mother looking on her newborn child. So we don’t weep the same with all weeping and we don’t rejoice the same with all rejoicing.
There is a root connection between verses 14 and 15—between heartfelt sympathy on the one hand, and blessing those who curse you on the other. We will see it if we step back and make clear the specifically Christian context and root of these commands in verses 14 and 15.
What Is the Root and the Meaning of This Radical Behavior?
Virtually all the commands in verses 14-21 assume that something deeper has happened. All these commands are rooted in freedom from self-preoccupation and self-infatuation and self-exaltation. And, much more than that—though that is crucial—they are rooted in Christ-preoccupation and Christ-infatuation and Christ-exaltation. Now I could make a case for that the same way I did last time. We could go to verse 1, look at the words, “I appeal to you by the mercies of God” and show how all of this chapter is the fruit of being overwhelmed by the mercy of God in Christ spelled out in Romans 1-11. That would be exactly right.
But instead let’s remind ourselves of how Paul prepares us for these commands in verse 3. He has just said that the way to live as a Christian is to be transformed in the renewing of our minds so that we can discern and embrace the will of God. Then he opens for us the most profound level of transformation and renewing that has to happen if we are going to do the will of God in this chapter—like: bless those who persecute us and weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.
And here’s what he says in verse 3: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
We spent a lot of time on this. So I will only give the summary. What is the alternative in Paul’s mind to thinking too highly of ourselves? The answer isn’t thinking lowly of ourselves (though that is a good place to start to come back to now and then). The alternative is to think “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” The alternative to thinking too highly of ourselves (self-preoccupation, self-infatuation, self-exaltation—the roots of all sin) is not a different sight in the “mirror, mirror on the wall.” The alternative is turn the mirror into a window through which we see the glory of Christ.
That’s what faith is and does. When faith stands in front of a mirror, the mirror becomes a window and sees on the other side the glory of Christ. The decisive alternative to saying, “I am all,” is not to say, “I am nothing,” but to say, “Christ is all.” Faith looks to Christ, not self, not even the new self. In fact the definition of the new-self is the self that looks to Christ as its Savior and Lord and Treasure and Joy and Satisfaction.
And notice one other thing in verse 3 that is so relevant to the commands like, “Bless those who persecute you,” and, “Weep with those who weep.” It says, in the second half of the verse, “Think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” In other words, the measure of faith we have is a gift of God. God has assigned it. It is the act of our soul. But our inclination to do that act is a gift of God. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
So now two great grounds of boasting are stripped from the proud human heart. First, the boast that I can save myself or satisfy myself is shattered, and Christ is found by faith to be my all—my Savior, Lord, Counselor, Friend, Treasure, Joy. I look away from myself and am satisfied in him.
Then, second, the other ground of boasting is stripped away also: I discover by the Word—and experience it in my heart—that this faith, this looking away from self to Christ—is a gift. I can’t even boast that I was smart enough or wise enough or spiritual enough or godly enough or humble enough to believe in Jesus. No. He was simply kind enough and strong enough to overcome all my resistance. Praise be to his mighty mercy.
God the Father planned to rescue us from sin and hell before the foundation of the world. God the Son purchased our forgiveness and transformation by his blood on the cross. God the Spirit overcame all our self-preoccupation and self-infatuation and self-exaltation and opened our eyes to see the beauty of Christ as our all. Now in this condition we meet today three kinds of people: those who persecute us, those who rejoice, and those who weep.
And Paul tells us, with God’s authority, how to treat them. Here is the way a person lives for whom Christ is all and for whom self is dethroned. Romans 12:!4-15: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
Notice how radical this behavior is. It does not just say: Don’t retaliate. You might use your willpower to do that. You might have all kinds of hateful and resentful and vengeful and prudential motives for not striking back. But the point is not only behavior. The point is your heart, and you can see it in the words, “Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse them.” This is a partial quotation of Jesus’ words in Luke 6:28 where Jesus says, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” The word “pray” shows that behavior is not the only issue. Prayer is the expression to God of what you long for. So blessing someone is not just the way you treat him. It includes the longings that you have for someone. And Jesus says they are to be longings for good, not longings for a curse. That’s what “bless” means. Bless them and pray for them. Pray for what? Their good—now and forever. And the greatest good is seeing and savoring and showing Christ without end.
So the Christian life is radical. It cuts to the root of who we are and what we long for. And now we can see where this kind of radical behavior comes from and what it means. It comes from faith in Christ. And it means that Christ is all-sufficient. It comes from not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but thinking with sober judgment each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned (v. 3).
If we are going to be treated unjustly, and even hurt unjustly for Christ’s sake, and yet bless our adversaries and pray for them, then our natural obsession with self-preoccupation and self-infatuation and self-exaltation must die. But that death will accomplish nothing by itself. It must be replaced by Christ-preoccupation and Christ-infatuation and Christ-exaltation. That’s what faith is: beholding and embracing the all-satisfying treasure of Christ.
How Does Faith in Christ Motivate Us to Bless Our Enemies?
Therefore this faith in Christ is the root of this radical behavior. It’s the root of not cursing our persecutors and the root of blessing them and praying for them and longing for their everlasting good.
It works like this: Faith in Christ involves turning from our natural self (including even our bodies) as the source of our main contentment and security. So the self (even the body), in that sense dies. Threatening this self with belittling speech or with pain or with death is no longer an ultimate threat. That old self is not our life, not our treasure, not our greatest and durable joy. So we are free from the raging impulse to retaliate that once rose up in this old self.
At the same time faith in Christ does something even more important. Not only does it turn from our natural self as the source of our main contentment and security, it turns to Christ. It sees Christ and embraces Christ as our all-sufficient contentment and security. This looking to Christ motivates in three ways us to bless our adversaries and make us tender-hearted to those who weep and rejoice.
First, the Christ that faith beholds and embraces blessed those who cursed him. As he hung on the cross he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Since faith savors everything it sees about Christ, it savors this. You cannot say, “Christ lived a beautiful life, but blessing those who persecute me is stupid.” If you see and savor mercy in Christ, you will love being merciful.
Second, the Christ that faith beholds and embraces did not just bless his enemies in the abstract, he did this for me. For me. And for you. Romans 5:6, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” You cannot rejoice that your life hangs totally on the undeserved mercy of being blessed by Christ when you were his enemy, and then turn around and curse those who persecute you.
Third, the Christ that faith beholds and embraces has made our future absolutely secure forever, by dying for us and rising again. Therefore, our persecutors cannot destroy us, and we do not need to have the last word on earth. God will.
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:28-31)
The root of radical, Christ-like love is death to self and invincible delight in the person, the performance, and the promises of Christ. If you struggle with feelings of bitterness and revenge, go deeper with Christ, until you know him and love him the way he really is.
How Does Verse 15 Relate to Persecution?
And what about verse 15? “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Perhaps we’ll say more next time. But if you think it’s foreign to the situation of persecution, and just dangles here after verse 14, listen to these words from the February issue of Voice of the Martyrs, reporting the situation of Khun, a woman of the Khmu ethnic group in Laos. Her husband is in prison today for preaching Christ.
Khun urges Christians in the West to pray for her husband Khamsay and their family. She also asks us to pray for the people of Kasy district and for greater freedom for Christians to practice their faith openly without hindrance from local government officials. Even though our cultures are different, we are one in the Body of Christ. Khun boldly shared, “Our business is your business, our hurt is your hurt, our happiness is your happiness.”
The apostle Paul wrote, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). As Khmu family members suffer for Christ, we suffer with them. When Khamsay rejoices in prison because he’s won another inmate for Jesus, we rejoice with him.”1
That may be the most eloquent exposition of verse 15 I can give. I leave it there for now. In the situation of persecution, bless those who persecute you, rejoice with those who triumph in suffering, and weep with those whose suffering makes them weep.
1 Nate Gary Lane, “Walking With Christ in Laos,” Voice of the Martyrs (Feb. 2005): 4-5.