I heard a story about two little boys—little third graders, playing on the playground during recess. So there they are, playing with their trucks in the sandbox, or whatever, when the prettiest girl in third grade walked past them. The two little boys watched her walk past, and one boy turned to his friend and said, “You know, whenever I stop hating girls, I’m gonna stop hating that one first.”
I’ve got a question for you. Who is it you need to stop hating first? Now, I know that question seems harsh. Your first thought is, “I don’t hate anybody.” And that may be true. I hope it’s true. But the fact is, we all have some biases and prejudices and some outright contempt for some groups and some people that are outside the walls of the church, and today’s Scripture passage forces us to take a hard, honest look in the mirror and confront those attitudes. So I’m going to ask you again at the end of the message, “Who do you need to to stop hating first.”
We are in part two of looking at Romans 12:9-21, which we are calling the Love Manifesto. If you were here last week, you’ll remember that A manifesto is a radical statement of beliefs that call for visible action. Radical doesn’t mean out there or fanatical; it means fundamental, at the root of things. And “Manifesto” comes from the word “manifest,” which means visible. So a manifesto is a radical/fundamental statement of beliefs that translate into visible, obvious, demonstrable action.
This passage gives us four words, four attitudes, and four questions. The four words we covered last week, when we talked about our love for one another inside the church from verses 9-13.
There’s agape, which is Christilike, sacrificial, self-giving love.
Philadelphia, which is friendship or brotherly love;
Philostorge, or family love.
These are the ones that many of us who’ve been around church for a long time have heard before. But in verse 13 Paul throws out a bonus word for love: philoxenia—Love for outsiders. Love for people who are different from us. We don’t always think of it as love, because it’s translated as hospitality. But it sets the stage for this pivot Paul makes, from talking about love on the inside of the church to love on the outside. Let’s read verses 14-21 again. If you are physically able, please stand to honor the reading of God’s Word:
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.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Let’s pray
You may be seated.
We touched on this last week, but its worth repeating: in these 13 verses, Paul gives us no less than 29 commands. Do this, don’t do that. 29 exhortations, all dealing with love, the very heart, the very motive of the Christian life. And these last seven verses deal with our relationships with people outside the church.
Paul begins with talking about four attitudes believers are to have toward those who have a general hostility toward Christians. They don’t know you personally, but they have formed an opinion about how “all Christians are,” and so they treat you accordingly.
The first is in verse 14: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rome was becoming a hostile environment for believers. Paul wrote Romans in AD 57. Three years into the reign of Emperor Nero, who became Emperor at the age of 16 after the death of Claudius. Now, at the time, there was not yet widespread persecution of Christians in Rome. There was in other places. Paul himself had been responsible for a good bit of it. And Paul knew it was coming. Sure enough, just seven years after Paul put his letter to the Romans in the mail, a massive fire broke out at the Circus Maximus in Rome. It burned out of control for six days destroyed as much as 75% of the city. And while there is a lot of mystery over how the fire got started, Nero pinned the blame on the growing community of Christians. And from that time on, Christians were systematically rounded up and tortured. They were fed to lions, torn apart by dogs, and set on fire to light Nero’s garden parties at night.
So what is Paul’s advice? What kind of attitude should Christians have toward those who are persecuting them? Paul says to bless those who persecute you. Bless AND do not curse them. It doesn’t say Bless “OR,” at the very least, don’t curse them. This isn’t like your mom saying, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone don’t say anything at all.” It’s bless AND do not curse. The word for bless is “eulogeo.” It means to speak a good word about them. It’s where we get our word eulogy.
How in the world are you supposed to do that? This is even a step beyond what you read in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” Now, it’s “Blessed are those who persecute for the sake of righteousness.” How in the world are you supposed to do that? How are you supposed to seek good for someone who opposes everything you stand for?
It’s not just difficult; it’s impossible. We can’t do that. What we can do is remember the example of Jesus. What was Jesus’ attitude toward the people who were nailing Him to the cross? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
Listen, church: people who hate you because you are a Christian don’t know what they are doing. They either oppose you because they have had a bad experience with a harsh, unloving, legalistic, dogmatic, oppressive version of Christianity, or they oppose you because they have been so blinded by Satan that they think anyone who questions their choices or their lifestyle or their behavior is just trying to limit their freedom.
They aren’t your enemy. And if all they can take is your life, they aren’t even that much of a threat. It’s that perspective that allows us to say, father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.
Let me say it again. The Black Lives Matter activist is not your enemy.
- The Pro choice Democrat is not your enemy.
- The Pride Parade marching, rainbow flag waving, flamboyant member of the LGBT community Is not your enemy.
At best, they are fellow Americans who are just as patriotic as you, but they have a different idea of how to solve our country’s problems. At worst, they are not your enemy, but they are captives of your enemy.
You know what the most powerful prayer you can pray for someone who is captive to sin? “Lord, bless them.”
You’re like, what in the world? Shouldn’t you pray that they would feel the consequences of their actions so they would repent?
Well, that might be what makes sense to us, but the gospel isn’t about what makes sense to us. And the Bible says that it’s God’s kindness that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). So our prayer for the most militant atheist should not be, God, smite them, but God, bless them.
Now that sounds good on paper. But let me say this. That is impossible. Apart from being plugged into Jesus Christ. If you try to do this on your own, you’ll fail.
But here’s the good news. When you’re plugged into Jesus, you’re abiding in him, you’re connected to him, you have an endless capacity to show love. You’ll never get to a place where you go, I’m out of love. It just ran dry.
God pours his love into us, and that never stops, so that the love we pour out to others can never stop. We have an endless capacity to show love because we endlessly receive it from his capacity.
The Second Attitude is empathy for those who are different from you.
Verse 15: Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep.
I want to make sure you understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is feeling for. Specifically, feeling sorry for. It’s pity, but at the same time, there’s relief. “I feel so bad for her, but thank God that hasn’t happened to me.
But empathy is feeling with, instead of just feeling for. When you empathize with someone, we enter into their pain with them. Sympathy moves into problem solving. Empathy is problem sharing.
And Paul says “Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep.
Now, how many of you, if you are being really honest, have an easier time weeping with those who weep than rejoicing with those who rejoice? (Remember, we are talking about our relationships outside the church). Somebody is suffering. Somebody is crying. Somebody is in anguish. It’s not a hard thing to walk up to them, put your arm around them, and I’m so sorry. Let me pray for you. It’s going to get better, and encourage them. Even if they aren’t a Christian, you generally don’t have a hard time expressing empathy for that person. And by expressing concern and compassion for them when they are grieving, you get an open door to display Christlikeness to them. So weeping with those who weep is actually pretty easy.
But what about rejoicing with those who rejoice? A coworker gets a raise, and you didn’t. The two of you are both wanting the same promotion. She gets it. You don’t. How hard is it to rejoice with them? What if it’s someone you don’t like? What if it’s someone whose lifestyle goes against everything you believe? What if it’s the obnoxious, hard drinking, dirty-joke telling, racist bigot that gets the promotion? How hard is it to rejoice when good things happen to them?
Here’s the reason it’s so important to rejoice with those who rejoice. Because God is much more concerned with what is happening on the inside of one of his children than he is with what is happening on the outside of someone who is not one of His children.
Here’s what I mean. When you hear of something good happening to someone that you don’t think deserves it, there’s two sin triggers that are tripped in your spirit. The first is envy: I want what he has. And I want what he has so badly that I would wish bad things for him in order for good things for myself. That’s envy.
The second is pride. “What did she do to deserve this?” I’m the one that been putting in the hours. I’m the one that never misses a day of work. She missed three Mondays in a row last month. And I know it’s just because she was hung over from partying all weekend. Doesn’t my boss see how much more deserving of this promotion I am instead of her?
You know, pride and envy are what got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden in the first place! Adam and Eve became convinced that they deserved more than what we were getting. They wanted what God had. And when pride and envy took root in Eve’s life, she was easy pickings for Satan to tempt her. Don’t you see how these sinful attitudes are so much more important than this other person’s circumstances?
So what if the command to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep is more about what God is trying to cultivate in you than whatever is happening to the people around you?
Here’s the third attitude: Harmony with those who disagree with you. (v. 16)
Verse 16: Live in harmony with one another.
Raise your hand if you have any kind of musical knowledge whatsoever. I’m doing this for Mike, because he’s always recruiting choir members. Some of you aren’t raising your hands—you’re in the “make a joyful noise” crowd. I get that.
But even if the only musical instrument you play is the radio, you know the difference between unison and harmony.
Unison is what: When everybody is singing the same thing. So what is harmony? Harmony is when everyone is singing something different, but it sounds really good together.
Can you imagine how dull music would be if there were no parts? What if Simon and Garfunkel was just Garfunkel? What if there was just one Everly Brother? What if the Hallelujah Chorus was just altos? (Sorry, altos).
Now, remember that this whole section deals with how believers relate to people outside the church. So this isn’t really about agreeing with one another in the church. This is about how Christians will benefit from hearing and respecting the perspectives of people outside the church. I’m not saying you have to agree with them. That would be unison. But it is possible to live in harmony with people who don’t agree with you. In fact, I think it’s vital. Part of the reason our culture is so divided today is that its so easy to completely surround yourself with people who agree with you. Social media populates your feed with people that are watching the same things as you, going to the same places you go, voting for the same politicians you vote for. You choose news sources that confirm all your biases, to the point that when you hear a different opinion, your first thought is, “How could any intelligent person believe that?”
And verse 16 says, Live in harmony with one another. That doesn’t mean you need to agree with them. It just means you don’t have to be so quick to turn down their voice. Maybe don’t unfriend them right away. Maybe think twice about posting something where the language you use or the images you share are deliberately designed to provoke or offend people who don’t agree with you. Listen: if your sole motivation for posting or retweeting is to “own the libs,” then you are part of the problem. You are being disobedient to Scripture.
Verse 16 says “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” And that brings us to our fourth attitude we are to have toward people who have a general hostility towards us simply because we are Christians. We are to bless those who persecute us. We are to have empathy toward those who are different from us. We are to live in harmony with those who disagree with us. And fourth, we are to fellowship with those who have less than us.
The word haughty literally means to be “high minded.” It is the attitude of self satisfaction that comes from enjoying the success that comes from your own hard work. It’s what makes us want to yell “Get a job” to people we see asking for money at intersections. Or makes us self-righteously angry whenever people talk about student loan forgiveness. Or causes us to be suspicious of any immigrant asking for political amnesty.
I understand these are all hot button issues. I know we have problems with border security, and I know that there are people who can work but don’t work, and I know that somebody somewhere has to pay the bills whenever there’s talk of student loan forgiveness or anything else that looks like free money for people that didn’t work for it.
Still, Scripture says “Do not be high minded, but associate with the lowly. Don’t be wise in your own sight.” It’s worth remembering that none of us chose the color of our skin, or the place of our birth. There is nothing we did to not be born in Chennai, India, or Port Au Prince Haiti or South Central LA or the projects in Montgomery. All we have, we have by grace.
So what does it mean to associate with the lowly. “Associate” means spend time with, but it also means identify with. Even if you don’t agree with their politics, seek to understand. Seek to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Don’t be haughty, and don’t be wise in your own sight.
So those are the four attitudes that will help us deal with people who have a negative attitude toward Christians. Cultivating these attitudes will help build bridges instead of walls, and they will create more opportunities for gospel conversations. Because here’s the truth: You will never convince someone that Jesus loves them if they are convinced that you don’t like them.
But now let’s make it personal. What if someone doesn’t like you? What if this isn’t about general animosity, but specific hostility? Let’s look at what Paul says about how Paul says we are to respond. I want to give you four questions to consider.
The first question: What is honorable?
Verse 17: “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.”
Revenge is fun. We like revenge stories. We love The Count of Monte Christo, and the Shawshank Redemption, and The Terminal List. There’s a reason there was a popular series a few years back called Revenge, but there’s never been one called Reconciliation. We’ve all heard the phrase “Fight Fire with Fire.”
But God’s word says just the opposite. It says to do what is honorable in the sight of all. At the very least it means taking the high road and refusing to stoop to the level of those who are attacking you. But maybe it means not just “doing what is honorable” but actually showing the other person honor. Listen: you may have every right to be angry, or hold a grudge. And you might talk to your friends and they will affirm you that they would have done the exact same thing in your shoes.
But what if you sought to honor the person that was unkind to you? What if you acted in a way that was different from what everyone expected? If you act the same way anyone without a relationship with Christ would act, that’s just normal. I think sometimes God calls us to be weird.
Second question: What depends on me? Verse 18 says
18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
This is one of my go-to verses when talking about conflict resolution with people, because it acknowledges that sometimes it’s not possible, and it doesn’t always depend on you to live peaceably.
But your obligation as a Christian is to do everything possible to make things right with the person you are in conflict with. That starts with asking the question “Is this my fault?” Ask it to God. Psalm 139: Search me O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there be any offensive way in me. Take the conflict to God. Then, take it to the other person. Make the first move.
Sometimes you aren’t going to going to be able to make peace. But never let the possibility of reconciliation stay on your side of the fence.
Verse 19 and 20 says.
19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it[i] 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.”
What’s all this about heaping burning coals on the head of your enemy? Paul is quoting Proverbs 25:22, and there’s two possibilities that are given in the NIV study Bible about this verse. One is that it is talking about horrible punishment. In Psalm 140, King David prayed that “the heads of those who surround me be covered with the trouble their lips have caused. Let burning coals fall upon them.” So it’s possible that this is in line with Paul saying, do not avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.
Another possibility is that this may reflect an Egyptian ritual in which a guilty person, as a sign of his repentance, carried a basin of glowing coals on his head. This was meant to be a sign of public humiliation and shame, sort of like being put in the stocks in the public square. And the idea would be that when you feed your enemy and don’t seek revenge, you shame them, and it will be like hot coals being piled on.
Maybe it really is one of these. But maybe the idea is that the best way to deal with your enemies is to make them stop being your enemy.
[Les Miserables clip]
Fourth Question: How is evil overcome?
Verse 21: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
God’s strategy has always been to destroy his enemies. Sometimes it’s through judgment, but sometimes it is by making them not His enemies anymore.
Isn’t that what Jesus did? On the last night Jesus was with his disciples, did He know what Judas Iscariot was about to do? Scripture says he did. John 13 says that
2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
And He washed His enemy’s feet. In less than an hour, those feet, having just been washed by Jesus, would carry Judas Iscariot to the temple courts, where he would arrange for Jesus’ betrayal, and then to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he would kiss Jesus—what was supposed to be a sign of love—but what was instead a sign to Jesus captors to move in and arrest Jesus.
Who will you stop hating first in the hostile world that we’re in?