Climbing on the Altar
Quarter 3, Lesson 4

Lesson Four

Christians Refuse to "Pay Back"

Text: Romans 12:17-20

The principle of "pay back" is internationally understood. It is an ancient principle acknowledged in Deuteronomy 19:15-21. It is the principle of "getting revenge." "If you cause me problems, I will find occasion to cause you problems." "If you cause me suffering, I will find occasion to make you suffer."

"Pay back" or "revenge" gives life to threats. People who endure suffering caused by the intentional evil acts of others often make threats. The threats are made because the sufferer wants revenge. A distinctive characteristic of Jesus occurred when he was unjustly executed. Jesus had the power to make threats happen. Yet, when he suffered as he died, he made no threats (1 Peter 2:23).

Genuine love destroyed the emotions and mentality that wanted revenge. Realizing their dependence on God's mercy, Christians in Rome were to destroy the hostility that existed among themselves. They were to replace that animosity with genuine love for each other. The combination of dependence on God's mercy and genuine love for each other would produce another result. Awareness of God's mercy combined with mutual love destroyed desires for revenge on enemies. Becoming people who lived in peace with each other also made them people who wanted to live in peace with all people.

Past events and soon to be events could create desires for revenge. For Jewish Christians, Claudius' order to leave Rome was more than a minor inconvenience. Given their national history, given Rome's control of Palestine, given Israel's loss of independence to the Roman empire, Rome was deeply resented by most Jewish people. When Claudius forced Jews (including Jewish Christians) to leave Rome, his act certainly did not improve their attitude.

Nero became Roman emperor after Claudius. During his first five years, Nero ruled well. His mother's involvement and interference motivated Nero to murder her in A.D. 59. Through carelessness and extravagance, he exhausted government funds. To replenish those funds, he used violence and oppression. Additionally, he was suspected of setting a massive fire in Rome. The fire destroyed buildings that prevented Nero from building a palace he wanted. To shift blame and suspicion from himself, Nero accused Christians of causing the fire. The fact that Christians could be blamed serves as evidence in two situations. (1) Christians were unpopular in Rome. (2) Existence likely was difficult for Christians in Rome.

As they lived in an environment of abuse and suspicion, Paul urged these Christians to conduct themselves by accepting three principles. (1) Never pay back evil for evil. No evil act can be justification for Christians using evil to respond to evil.

Understanding that they should not use evil to oppose evil was not enough. (2) Not only did they refuse to use evil, but they also respected right. Only one Christian response was appropriate to those who caused suffering through evil acts. Respect what was right. Paul said, "Do not just use your perspective to determine what is right. Respect what everyone recognizes to be right." They must not lose their commitment to what was right because they lived in an evil environment. They respected what was right even if it seemed that evil prevailed.

Why would they adopt these concepts, attitudes, and behavior? Why would refusing to do evil and respecting what was right become important? They were responding to God's mercy. Their existence formed around God's mercy. God's mercy gave them Jesus' blood, the resurrection, forgiveness through Jesus' atonement and redemption, existence as God's children, and an inheritance after death. Using a word in Paul's letter to Christians at Rome, God's mercy gave them salvation. Realizing their unworthiness of God's mercy caused them to become a people of mercy. Merciful people never use evil to respond to evil. Merciful people respect right. Who defines evil and right? The merciful God defines evil and right.

These principles produce a third commitment. (3) They are committed to live at peace with everyone, not just each other. They could not be at peace with everyone because some people would not live at peace with them. When peace did not exist, the absence of peace would not be their fault. They did what they could to make peace possible.

God's mercy motivated them to mature in their faith. They did not need to seek revenge. They needed to trust God. Let God's wrath care for vengeance. (1) God's mercy wanted to save those who did evil just as God's mercy wanted to save them. If God's mercy could save evil doers by leading them to Christ, so be it. When evil doers became brothers and sisters in Christ, the problem could be solved. (2) There is no injustice, no mistake, and no wrong motives when God's wrath takes vengeance. In revenge, humans frequently resort to using evil to oppose evil. God never opposes evil by doing evil. While God's retribution is certain for those who refuse His merciful forgiveness, God's vengeance is a just response of God's righteousness.

Faith in God's mercy produced faith in God's vengeance. Those who lived in God's mercy wanted no one to experience God's wrath. They trusted God's mercy, and it changed their lives. They trusted God's vengeance, and it changed their lives.

How did it change their lives? The God of mercy made them a people of mercy. They did not exist to defeat their enemies. They did not exist to make their enemies suffer for injustices. They existed to love each other and to be kind to their enemies. When they saw an enemy struggling with a basic life need, they addressed the need. They would give water and food to a thirsty, hungry enemy.

Why? Such action was right, and they respected right. What better way existed to declare that prevailing concepts of Christians were wrong? Few believed the words of Christians. Yet, the most avowed enemy could not ignore consistent lifestyles devoted to peace and good. The way they treated those who abused them was far more eloquent than anything they said.


  1. From your understanding, why was the admonition not to oppose evil with evil relevant to the Christians in Rome?

  2. Why is the same admonition relevant to us today?

  3. Why would the Christians in Rome find it difficult to trust God with vengeance?

  4. Why do we find it difficult to trust God with vengeance?

  5. Explain the relationship between God's mercy and each of these things: (a) refusing to respond to evil with evil and (b) seeking to live in peace with everyone.

Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 3, Lesson 4

Copyright © 2001
David Chadwell & West-Ark Church of Christ

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