Do Not Avenge Yourselves, but Give Place to Wrath

We have grown accustomed in the modern Western world to take for granted that we have the inalienable human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We assume that our rights should be protected by law and by force if necessary. And we feel a bewildered, almost speechless, rage when our rights are violated and nothing is done about it.

Such rights do exist, and they exist largely because of the Christian worldview that once permeated much of Western culture and to this day is the fading reason why so much freedom endures in the world. But we need to make clear that such rights were not assumed in the first century.

Christianity was born in a world of totalitarianism. For three hundred years there was no legal legitimacy or protection for Christianity. To convert from one of the pagan religions and say Jesus is Lord was to risk your life. This was not strange. This was the world in which the New Testament was written. Peter puts it like this — and the same thing could be written over every first-century church: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). In other words, it was not strange to be persecuted. What is strange historically, is that we are not.

Persecution Around the World

But in many places in the world — most perhaps — to be an open Christian is to be persecuted. Here are some news reports from around the world.

India: February 18 — New information has emerged regarding last year’s kidnapping of Manulaben Dinana, the wife of an Indian pastor. Dinana, married to Pastor Dharmesh Ninama, was kidnapped in May 2004 by a group of Hindu fundamentalists.

Iran: February 17 — Yesterday a Tehran military court sentenced Iranian Christian pastor Hamid Pourmand to jail for three years, ordering his immediate transfer to a group prison cell in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.

Eritrea: February 16 — Another 31 Eritrean Christians have been jailed over the past ten days, making a total of 187 arrests for illegal Christian activities since the beginning of the year. Fourteen members of the Kale Hiwot Church in Adi-Tekelzan were apprehended February 4 during a Bible study at the home of their pastor.

“It was not strange to be persecuted. What is strange, historically, is that we are not.”

Indonesia: January 11 — More than thirty churches in West Java, Indonesia, are still searching for approved worship facilities after objections from Muslim neighbors forced them to close last year.

Nigeria: February 3 — Muslim militants pronounced a death sentence on five Christian students expelled from public schools in November for conducting an evangelistic outreach. The families of two of the students, Miss Hanatu Haruna Alkali and Abraham Adamu Misal, were attacked on January 26 when militants went to their family homes intending to kill them.

Columbia: January 19 — Guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) remain firm in their refusal to hand over the body of a beloved Roman Catholic priest they abducted, shot and buried last month.

Oh, how we should pray for the persecuted church around the world. These are our brothers and sisters. We are more closely linked to these loved ones than to our unbelieving American neighbors and colleagues. We should pray especially that they have the grace to obey Romans 12:17 — “Repay no one evil for evil,” and verses 19–20:

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.” 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.”

Oh, how we should pray for them and for ourselves that we would have the transforming grace, the humble faith, the Christ-like love to be this radical for Christ’s sake.

Graham Staines

God has given us some amazing portraits of Romans 12 historically and in our own day. For example, most of you remember that in January 1999, Graham Staines and his two sons, Phillip (age ten) and Timothy (age six) were mobbed by radical Hindus, trapped inside their vehicle in Monoharpur, Orissa, India, and burned alive. The three charred bodies were recovered clinging to each other. Graham Staines had spent 34 years serving the people of India in the name of Jesus. He was the director of the Leprosy Mission in Baripada, Orissa.

He left behind his widow Gladys and daughter Esther. And you may remember that her response was in every paper in India to the glory of Christ. She said, a few days after the martyrdom of her husband and sons, “I have only one message for the people of India. I’m not bitter. Neither am I angry. But I have one great desire: that each citizen of this country should establish a personal relationship with Jesus Christ who gave his life for their sins . . . let us burn hatred and spread the flame of Christ’s love.”

Everyone thought she would move back to Australia. No. She said God had called them to India, and she would not leave. She said, “My husband and our children have sacrificed their lives for this nation; India is my home. I hope to be here and continue to serve the needy.” Then, perhaps most remarkable of all — listen to this all you who are teenagers — her daughter Esther was asked how she felt about the murder of her dad, and the thirteen-year-old, said, “I praise the Lord that he found my father worthy to die for him.”

Bethlehem, do we not want to be like this and to grow young people like this, and to spread a passion for this great sovereign God of mercy and justice everywhere!

How to Mingle Mercy and Justice

Mercy and justice. The great challenge for us is to learn how they mingle in human life and history. Read with me again starting at verse 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.” 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.”

Do you see both mercy and justice here? You who are mistreated do not take justice into your hands. Do not seek vengeance. Does that mean there will be no justice? Does it mean there is no vengeance? No. Verse 19 says, “Leave it to the wrath of God.” There is vengeance. There is justice. All things will be set right. Either your adversary will pay his debt in hell. Or he will repent, and trust Christ, so that his debt was paid on the cross.

All wrongs will be punished. In God’s universe forgiveness does not mean that some crimes receive no punishment. It means that some crimes are punished in the suffering of a substitute. “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). We will see our worst adversary in heaven, if he repents and believes in Jesus. Oh, let us not nurse hatred for such adversaries.

But what about those who have wronged us terribly — killed our father and our brothers — and do not repent and believe? Their sins — their penalty — is not suffered by Jesus. They have rejected their substitute. They will have to suffer the wrath of God on themselves. Jesus absorbed the wrath of God for all who are in him. But these who have turned away from Christ will bear their own guilt. And oh, what a dreadful thing that is!

We will spend a whole message on that soon — the wrath of God. For now just notice that it is real and it is coming, because it is promised. Leave vengeance to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” It is written. God has spoken. This is our rock-solid assurance: justice will be done. Punishment will be meted out. Wrongs will be addressed. Vengeance will come.

“All wrongs will be punished — either in hell or on the cross.”

Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35: “Vengeance is mine.” God has the sole prerogative of vengeance in the universe. He is the sole rightful judge, jailor, and executioner. If anyone else has this responsibility it will be because God — and only because God — has given it to him. And in a few weeks, that is exactly what we will find. Look at Romans 13:4 where Paul describes the civil authorities that are “instituted by God”:

He is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger [there’s the word from verse 19, vengeance] who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

In other words, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, and I share it in various ways and measures with certain institutions that I have ordained.”

Don’t miss how profound this is — that vengeance belongs to God. It means that woven into the fabric of reality — the fabric of the universe and this world — is God’s absolute commitment that justice be done. That every dishonor done to his glory by our sin will be punished in order that the infinite worth of God’s glory might be upheld and displayed as the ultimate good and the ultimate value — the ultimate worth and excellence and treasure — in the universe. This ultimate commitment to bring vengeance on all sin flows from God’s very being.

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. (Nahum 1:2)

He avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries. (Deuteronomy 32:43)

He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. (Isaiah 59:17)

This is God’s nature, his righteousness — his unswerving commitment to take vengeance on all that dishonors the infinite value of his glory. Without God’s commitment to avenge all sin there would have been no need for the cross, and there would be no hell. But there was a cross. And there is a terrible prospect of everlasting torment for all who refuse it.

In Revelation 6:10, the martyrs in heaven — including Graham Staines and his sons Phillip and Timothy — cry out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will . . . avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And Revelation 19:2 says, “His judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute [the great center of godless power] who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” So it is coming. Oh, how certainly and terribly it is coming.

How Does the Certainty of God’s Coming Wrath Function

Now notice the present moral function in your own soul of this terrible certainty. Notice the word “for” in the middle of verse 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.’” This word “for” means that one of the motivations for not returning evil for evil, but rather blessing and serving your adversaries, is the certainty that they will be punished by God, if they don’t repent.

How does this work? This doesn’t mean that you rub your hands together with subtle hatred, feeling glad that God will get them. Proverbs 24:17–18 warns against that. It says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him.”

No the way it works is this. All of you have been wronged at one time or another. Most of you, probably, have been wronged seriously by someone who has never apologized or done anything sufficient to make it right. And one of the deep hindrances to your letting that hurt and bitterness go is the conviction — the justified conviction — that justice should be done, that the fabric of the universe will unravel if people can just get away with horrible wrongs and deceive everyone.

That is one of the hindrances to forgiveness and letting grudges go. It’s not the only one. We have our own sin to deal with. But it is a real one. We feel that just to let it go would be to admit that justice simply won’t be done. And we can’t do it. So we hold on to anger, and play the story over and over again with the feelings: It shouldn’t have happened; it shouldn’t have happened; it was wrong; it was wrong. How can he be so happy now when I am so miserable? It is so wrong. It is so wrong!

“When you lay down the burden of vengeance, God will pick it up as his own.”

This word in Romans 12:19 is given to you today by God to lift that burden from you. “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” What does this mean for you? Laying down the burden of anger, laying down the practice of nursing your hurt with feelings of being wronged — laying that down — does not mean there was no great wrong against you. It does not mean there is no justice. It does not mean you will not be vindicated. It does not mean they just got away with it. No. It means, when you lay down the burden of vengeance, God will pick it up.

This is not a subtle way of getting revenge. This is a way of giving vengeance to the one to whom it belongs. It is taking a deep breath, perhaps for the first time in decades, and feeling like now, at last, you may be free to love. I long so much for you to know the freedom to love.

A Personal Example

In 1974, as many of you know, my mother was killed in Israel. The story, as I was able to piece it together from others who were with her is that a VW Minivan full of drunken Israeli soldiers swerved out of their lane and hit the bus in which my mother and father were sitting near the front. The death certificate that I read ten days later, when her body arrived in Atlanta from Tel Aviv, said, “lacerated medulla oblongata.” Unless you understand the circumstances of my growing up, you can’t know what a loss that was to me at age 28.

But as a tribute to the mighty mercy of God I bear witness from my heart: I don’t hate those soldiers. I do not wish them evil. In fact, it has occurred to me that they are probably today about my age or a little younger, and if any of them, were reached with the gospel and believed in Christ, I would count it a great joy to be with them in heaven forever. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. I am happy to leave it with him. This, I commend to you, is a wonderful way to live. This is freedom. And in this freedom, there are great open spaces for love.