(This is a little long, only because I thought it necessary to "wrestle with the text" of verse 20.)
Romans Bible Study # 41
16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. 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 ON HIS HEAD.” NASB
14-16Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down. Get along with each other; don't be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don't be the great somebody.
17-19Don't hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you've got it in you, get along with everybody. Don't insist on getting even; that's not for you to do. "I'll do the judging," says God. "I'll take care of it."
20-21Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he's thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don't let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. The Message
Verse 16 - All that stuff you are doing for your enemies, do it for each other in the church too. You are not too good to do any job that needs done. Look for the ‘lowly job’ and do it. Be the one who feels driven inside to take care of the small, unseen stuff, serve out of love. Realize that you can learn from anyone at anytime, and you will.
Verse 17 - Evil for evil is not the way of the Master. He hung on a cross for you, are you better than He is? The things that your conscience says to do, the things common to all men, by the ‘spark of the Divine’ that God put in them, be one who is known for doing ‘life’ that way.
Verse 18 - Paul who was stoned, imprisoned and passionately hated by many, realizes first hand that you cannot be at peace with everyone, but you can ensure that you are not the cause of the battle. You can be bending over backwards to keep peace. You can pick and choose the times when you are ‘completely truthful’ and watch the tone of your voice that often pushes people over the edge.
Verse 19 - “Never,” strong word; there goes the plot of most of the, guy movies, out there. The thing is because we are not sovereign or omniscient, there is always something about a person or a situation that we do not know. God, perfectly just, and all-knowing will determine the time and the amount of vengeance that is needed.
Verse 20 - We are going to go in to depth on this verse because it is worth wrestling with.
This section speaks of things that the mercy of God leads us ‘not’ to do. What we don’t do in choosing not to be like the world, can reveal God to the world. What Barth calls negative ethics. But he is very aware that we could then become a religion defined by what we don’t do, and he says that can not be, because what we don’t do, only has value in God’s eyes if it was led by His Spirit. The action itself is not the revealing of God, it is when that action is inspired by God that it can lead to a revealing of Him.
Verse 16 - High things in the world are open to grave suspicion in God. Power, riches, wealth, in this life are given many cautions and warnings. Weakness, littleness, deprivation and lowliness are more attractive to God, because they leave more room for Him to work and for Him to receive glory. When I am weak then I am strong, when the flesh dies true life comes, when our power gives out, His power comes in. All the high things of this world eventually come down and Christianity sees that clearly. Christianity does not put its ultimate confidence in art, science, religion or state. In the Old Testament there was frequent mention of ‘high places’ that were not torn down even when a King or prophet would lead a revival. I have often thought what is the New Testament equivalent of these high places. and this is it. Christianity does not have a ‘pollyanna’ view of the world. It sees men moving but toward greater deprivation and rebellion against God. Christianity, like Christ, is attracted to those who ‘need a physician’ to the insoluble problem, to sadness. Thus after 9/11 there was a noticeable change in the culture, but as soon as we started to regain our balance and become confident and strident again, the ‘need’ for God disappeared as we turned back to our ‘high places.' God needs to be our motive in helping the poor, or even that can become twisted. Just like God needs to be the motive for peace, because in the end times, the desire for peace will fuel the rise of the anti-Christ who will promise, and deliver temporary peace. We are all patients in one hospital in need of one Doctor. This knowledge allows us to be of the same mind one toward another.
“By breaking down all individualism, Christianity establishes the Individual.”
Verse 17 - “evil for evil" Good is not a second possibility contrasted with evil. Good is the dissolution of evil, its judgment. God is the justification of men by God. We render evil for evil in our thoughts long before it becomes an action when we “hold him liable for being what he is. Abiding by our neighbor’s visible aspect, and content with observing him directly, we judge him to be utterly lost to the good.” Only when we see ourselves as equally evil and equally as in need of God’s grace to blow the ‘spark of the divine’ into a flame, can be ‘love.' In overlooking evil there is “demonstrated in this world what is in fact invisible, namely the One in the other and the overlooking of sin by God.
Verse 18 - Our conflict with others whether one-on-one or in war, tends to drown out the struggle within ourselves. “It is not for us to impose as it were an additional burden upon this or that man. It is not for us to make known to him that he too is --a man!"
Verse 19 - When we ‘take up arms’ to act, in answer to the pressing question, “What shall I do?" The haste of the moment is taking us to a place we should not go. When men angrily propose to occupy the field which is already occupied by the wrath of God, they are taking the scepter from His hand. If I come to a place of understanding that the wrath of God is against all men, which includes me, then, I have no rational for acting in the ‘normal way.'
Verse 20 - I must surely do the irrational, impossible, and altogether unpractical thing. We truly see his suffering as our suffering. This action announces a coming world and announces that we are living in it, more than we are living in this world, and in announcing that world brings the receiver to a crossroads.
Time to wrestle with ‘heaping burning coals on his head.'
A good principle when seeking a deeper understanding is to let scripture interpret scripture.
Find another passage with the same words or thought and see what it is saying in context.
The burning coal of Isaiah 6 is for cleansing, our actions of totally overlooking the behavior of the enemy and serving the ONE in him, could definitely lead him to a moment of cleansing.
"May burning coals fall upon them; May they be cast into the fire, Into *deep pits from which they cannot rise. Psalm 140:10 The burning coals are definitely judgment here.
It is a quote from Proverbs and it pretty much stands alone Prov. 25:21,22, but there is one interesting thought that I had. How would you know your enemy was hungry unless you cared about and were concerned for him. So love is at the foundation of your action.
Very long quote from a sermon by John Piper
So what does Paul mean when he says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”? In the context, coming right after saying be good to your enemy, I think he means “Don’t let your enemy’s hostility produce hostility in you. But let your love triumph over his hostility.” Don’t be overcome by evil means. Don’t be overcome by his evil. Don’t let another person’s evil make you evil. Oh, how crucial that is.
When you let your adversary make you evil he is the victor. If you let a person’s sin govern your emotions so that your sinful anger or your misery or your depression is owing to their evil, then you are being overcome by evil. And Paul says, You don’t have to be overcome that way. Paul is addressing here the whole victim mentality of our day—people who feel or do evil things and then blame it on someone else’s evil. They let themselves be overcome by someone else’s evil so that they now do evil also. And then they blame the other person.
But Paul says, Don’t be overcome by evil. Don’t let another person’s evil provoke you to evil thoughts or evil attitudes or evil deeds. Don’t give them that kind of power. You don’t have to. Christ is your king. Christ is your leader, your champion, your treasure. Christ governs your life, not those who do evil. When someone does evil to you, you should say, “You are not my Lord. I will not be controlled by you. I will not have my attitudes and thoughts and actions dictated by your evil. Christ is my Lord. Christ dictates my attitudes and thoughts and actions.
Oh how different this is than the way most people react. We let our emotions and our thoughts and our actions be reflexes to what people say and do to us. And the corollary is that we can then blame them for our evil—our anger, our bitterness, our discouragement, our depression, our vengeance. But Paul says, No. When Christians encounter evil, they don’t merely respond to evil, they respond to Christ who deals with the evil. He died for it, or he will punish it in hell. Christ is the dominant reality in our lives, not other people’s evil. Therefore, do not be overcome by evil. Do not be governed by it. Do not let your enemy’s hostility make you hostile.
Rather overcome evil with good. Which, in the context means “let your love triumph over your enemy’s hostility.” But what does that mean? Does it mean that, if you give him water when he is thirsty and food when he is hungry, he will always repent and become your friend? No. We know Paul doesn’t think that. Jesus’s enemies do not all respond positively to his love for them. One thief on the cross repented and the other cursed. Peter repented. Judas hanged himself. The centurion said, “This was the Son of God.” The Pharisees said good riddance. The love of Christ does not produce repentance in everyone. And your love won’t either.
Paul says in verse 18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” In other words, you will do everything you should, and still some will not make peace.
“Overcome Evil With Good”
So what does “overcome evil with good” mean? It means either you triumph through the repentance of your enemy or you triumph through the judgment of your enemy. In other words, if you will love your enemy, and bless those who curse you (v. 14), and not return evil for evil (v. 17), and not avenge yourselves (v. 19), you will be the overcomer, the conqueror, the victor no matter how your enemy responds.
We saw this in 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’”), and we see it again in verse 20 in the words, “coals of fire.” “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.”
“You Will Heap Burning Coals on His Head”
What does this mean, “you will heap burning coals on his head”? There is no evidence that I am aware of that would suggest burning coals heaped on the head is a symbol of blessing or repentance (which is the way most people take it). I have heard people talk about a custom in Bible times of going to your neighbor when your fire goes out and borrowing glowing coals and carrying them in a basket on your head back to start your fire. I can find no evidence of such a practice in Bible times at all. It seems to me that someone probably made that up to solve this problem. Nor is there any use of the phrase to refer to remorse or repentance.
On the contrary, every use of terms like “coals of fire” in the Old Testament and outside the Old Testament is a symbol of divine anger or punishment or evil passion. The only reason that so many interpreters give it the meaning of repentance or remorse is because they believe it fits the context better. So the question is—and you can answer it as well as a scholar can—is that true?
Verse 14 is clear. Yes, our aim in loving our enemy is to bless him not curse him. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Our first and most urgent longing for our enemies is that they be blessed—that they repent and that they trust Christ and that his ransom pay all their debts and give them salvation. Yes, that is the goal. It’s the goal of this whole chapter. Live so as to lead people into an enjoyment of the mercy of God.
But that’s not the whole picture. Because we saw in 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 means that when you love your enemy and they don’t repent and receive the blessing of your love, evil does not triumph. God’s justice triumphs. “I will repay says the Lord.” You don’t need to be the judge. God will. You don’t need to win on earth. God will win for you in the last day.
So when we get to verse 20 and we hear that loving our enemies will bring “burning coals on their head,” there are two realities in this context, not just one. One is mercy and blessing if they repent. And the other is justice and wrath if they don’t. I am saying that “you will heap burning coals on his head” refers more naturally to the justice reality, not the mercy reality.
Here is a passage that helps us see the way love works with judgment, Romans 2:4-5. Watch the effect of God’s love for his enemies when it is rejected. The result is very much like coals of fire.
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
This is the way God’s love works for his enemies, and it is the way our love works for our enemies. Our desire is that they would repent and come to a knowledge of the truth. But if they don’t, the very love that we are showing increases the weight of wrath on their head. The more of God’s mercy that people reject, the more wrath they heap up upon themselves.
And so it is with you and the enemies you love: the more mercy they reject, the more coals of fire will be heaped on their head. This is not our desire or our aim. Our aim is in verse 14: Bless and do not curse. Pray for your enemies. Be like Paul in Romans 10:1, “My heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.”
For this we are willing to lay down our lives—that our enemies will be saved. Thousands of missionaries have done it. But what verse 20 is saying is this: If it looks like your love has failed, and instead of converting your enemy, your enemy kills you, be assured, you have overcome evil. It has not overcome you. God will have the last word. Not your enemy. You will be vindicated in the resurrection of the just. For this Christ died and rose again. For this there was Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and especially Easter Sunday.
Be strong, Christians. Don’t be overcome by evil. Overcome evil with good.
Is the heaping coals of fire on his head something good in the eyes of our enemy or is it something bad? It most likely refers to a “burning conviction” that our kindness places on our enemy. Or, some think it refers to the practice of lending coals from a fire to help a neighbor start their own - an act of kindness that would be appreciated.
Nevertheless, we see that we can destroy our enemy by making him our friend.
Now, it isn't always possible. There are some people there is just no way you can live in peace with them. But let it be their fault not yours, as much as lies in you live peaceably with all men.
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; and I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head (Rom 12:19-20).
This is a quotation actually out of the Proverbs, and just exactly what it may mean has been a matter of conjecture, but it probably means that you would bring him to burning shame. In other words, your good treatment, your kind and loving treatment would bring him to a burning shame.
Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21).
20. if thine enemy hunger, &c.--This is taken from Pro 25:21, 22 , which without doubt supplied the basis of those lofty precepts on that subject which form the culminating point of the Sermon on the Mount.
in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head--As the heaping of "coals of fire" is in the Old Testament the figurative expression of divine vengeance ( Psa 140:10 11:6 , &c.), the true sense of these words seems to be, "That will be the most effectual vengeance--a vengeance under which he will be fain (willing) to bend" (So ALFORD, HODGE, &c.). Rom 12:21 confirms this.
So I guess I can see the point that is being made, that it is showing love toward your enemy, when your kindness puts him under the judgment of God, and that is the place where he is likely to be changed, to turn to God. My biggest disagreement with that interpretation is that it seemed like I was the one pushing God’s vengeance on the person. But that is not the “last word” I am putting them into a place where they can be saved. The temporary ‘bad place’ is actually a ultimate good place.
That is how we “wrestle with the text.”