Certain verses can capture your imagination in a new way. For instance, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17). We can unpack this verse a bit, including what it means to be “noble”, and the surrounding verses give us plenty of ideas. We should also consider what Paul means by saying that this ‘nobility’ should play out “in the sight of all”. We should note too, that this verse sits within a context of the existence of ‘evil’, and so, it needs to be applied in conditions that, at the very least, are other than what we would consider to be the best or most convenient.
There was obviously quite a bit at stake here in Paul’s time? Could it be any less so now!? We are well aware that we cannot repay evil nor exact revenge … we know this well. Yet, we can be easily caught up in the cultural assumption behind every second Hollywood movie as it promotes the rightness of revenge. So, how do we proactively respond to adverse conditions in redemptive ways? It is in this context, that we are to consider living in a “noble” way. Once again, when it comes to light flooding the darkness, we need to come back to the life of Jesus, to fully understand how “evil” is overcome.
The Context of ‘Evil’
This Scripture is a letter written by Paul, late in his life, to the Christians in Rome (in the mid first century of the Christian era). It was likely written from jail, where Paul was sent due to the disruptive nature of his preaching of the Gospel. Paul had encountered enough evil, persecution and violence, to write with personal credibility in these matters. Paul’s own character and faith was such that he often impressed people, especially given the situations he found himself in – persecuted for his proclamation of Jesus, and often at risk through crossing dangerous seas following God’s call to mission in various places. So, the encouragement to be “noble”, in the face of threat, had already been a challenge to this writer, before it would be to any reader.
Paul felt that this issue of good character, would be how the Christians in Rome could effectively promote the effectiveness of the Gospel of Jesus. If they, with all the benefits of what Jesus had done for them, could not live with more hope, more peace and more productivity … than their ‘unchurched’ neighbour, then this would call their faith and love into question. To put this in the positive – good character will leave its mark in very real ways across a local community.
So, in the context of ‘evil’, or less than best circumstances, the proper response … is NOT disengagement (nor hiding away), and is NOT a ‘higher-ground’ mentality – where we only look askance with judgment upon the scene around us. The proper response is actually ‘redemptive engagement’ i.e. a personal and relational engagement within society that brings about change for the better. We would certainly pray for God’s enablement and provision in these circumstances, but we would NOT ONLY pray … but be prepared to be part of the answer to those prayers!
The accumulating emphasis in this passage is shunning “evil” and avoiding revenge. But it goes further, to overcoming “evil”, to turning “evil” around – changing the reality in which we live … where there will be a greater degree of ‘repentance’ for wrongdoing, where there will be LESS thought of vengeance, and where the cycle of violence can be broken.
We might pause to consider what sort of “evil” exists around us. Anywhere and anytime any part of God’s good creation is marred, abused, wasted, hurt; or where human community finds itself under oppression, or curtailed by injustice – that’s “evil”! In our local context, there may be only relatively small pockets of such issues, but this would still be problematical for people’s well-being and relationships, and potentially block their pathway to spiritual renewal.
In what ways can this “evil” be overcome, and how can we be part of this? Paul is seeking to address this; and in so doing, impresses upon us a certain way of thinking. Do we ever underestimate the power of the words of Scripture, when applied in everyday life, to make a real difference?! The words at the end of verse 20 … certainly take a little unpacking! Verse 20 in totality … provides a magnificent picture of the impact of providing a ministry to those who might be regarded, fairly or unfairly, as our “enemies”.
The impact of this radical ministry of hospitality will bring about sincere ‘repentance’, and thereby changed outcomes: “… for by doing this, you will heap burning coals on their heads” (v 20b). Paul is quoting here from Proverbs 25:21-22. The background to this, seems to be the ancient Egyptian ritual in which someone seeking forgiveness would carry a pan of burning coals on his head as evidence of the reality of their repentance. “In this case, the “coals” are a dynamic symbol of [a] change of mind, which takes place as a result of a deed of love” (William Klassen, John Stott, Krish Kandiah).
In the book "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo - the second best book on 'repentance' after the Bible - we hear the story of Jean Valjean who has been imprisoned for 20 years for a minor crime, now released and looking for help at a bishop's residence. Having received the mercies of food and a bed for the night, his brokenness still cuts in and Jean Valjean steals the silverware. When he returns the next day in the company of the police who have arrested him, rather than seeing him imprisoned again, the 'noble' bishop asks Jean Valjean why he didn't take the silver candlesticks that he had given him as well! Having had these "burning coals heaped on his head" (so to speak), Jean Valjean had his life turned around toward being an instrument of grace in the world.
We are being reminded that, even the darkest heart can be brought into the light, and even the worst situation can be transformed. But it doesn’t just happen … not unless the cultural assumptions of the world are put under a biblical microscope … not unless God’s people, who live under that Word, provide an alternative vision of the way to live. We do NOT curse, repay evil, incite conflict, or exact revenge! We stop building barricades! Rather we bring a blessing of some type to others, live positively, be active peace-makers, and offer hospitality.
When it comes to judgment - as we are NOT well-skilled in allocating blame … NOT necessarily reacting to the right person, at the right time, in the right way, for the right purpose – this is best left with God – so Paul thinks, so God thinks! We could only make matters worse! As verses 14 & 20 state, when we are opposed, we are to find ways in which to bless (NOT curse), and offer hospitality. When the purpose in this seems obscure to us, and difficult for us to do, we need to consider how an alternative positive response could actually make a difference – by convicting the persecutor of their wickedness, and ultimately defeating the evil. For this is the Word of the Lord!
So, let’s now go back to the words in verse 17: “… take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17 - NRSV). What does all this mean? First, what does being “noble” mean? The NIV translates, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody”. So, there is the element of doing the ‘right’ thing. NLT: “Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honourable”. The ‘honourable’ thing – that which builds the ‘honour’ in which we are held. The Oxford Dictionary includes definitions like "impressive and admirable".
The Greek original is literally, “providing for good things before all people”. We could sense here the possible translation – “… making space for good things to happen across the community”. NKJV: “Have regard for good things …”. So, this idea of ‘nobility’ includes having a view for what is good for (or in the best interests of) the collective community, and being committed to that. Whereas actions will be involved, this is firstly about character – the sort of character that in itself challenges “evil” and proposes other options. It is because of who we are, and who we are becoming, in Christ, that we are making space for good!
This whole passage, in Romans 12, actually deals with good character. We have read about genuine love, which includes respect, care and concern. There is also references to sacrificial service, and efforts toward harmony and peace-making. There is a real feel of positivity, patience and perseverance conveyed in these verses. This is how we are to engage with the world!! And we understand that character cannot be separated from behaviour or lifestyle, as Paul’s antidote to “evil” moves from being simply “noble” (in v 17), toward the radical hospitality (conveyed in v 20). And as said earlier, the practical output of good character can bring remarkable and life-altering outcomes (v 20b). "The way we live should astound the world" (K Kandiah).
Verse 17 says, “… take thought for …”, suggesting that we have to consider carefully, and bring into reality, this good character. We might even decide that it would be wise to prepare ourselves in advance for how we shall rightly react to certain behaviours that seem to ‘get in our face’. We might need to work through our particular vulnerabilities, and plan beforehand how we can cope when our ‘soft spots’ are irritatingly touched or exposed. We may even want to sort of mentally ‘role-play’ situations, either in hindsight or preparation, with our common responses (that don’t produce such good outcomes) being replaced by more helpful or “noble” reactions. We would want to limit any betrayal of the standards of the Gospel.
This verse concludes with, “… in the sight of all”. Who are the “all”?? Let’s say … anyone we encounter, especially those we encounter often. So this, apart from any workplace we travel to, would be our neighbourhood, our local community. Included in this would be our family at home, as well as our church family. Good character involves consistency of behaviour wherever we are, as if we are always being watched. This is like one big universal ‘Truman Show’. This is just like there was a big CCTV camera displaying and recording our every movement. We would want to reduce the instances of unfavourable reflections on Jesus ... that turn people away!
Character Leaving its Mark
What conditions are required before the Gospel can spread broadly across our land? What pre-conditions might there need to be before the Holy Spirit is fully released?? Chris Conlee (and the other pastors in Memphis Tennessee) determined that there needed to be more work done in combating and defeating racism (and other divisions within their community), before there would be adequate space for mass acceptance of the Gospel in that city.
Following the great example of their mentor from 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr, those pastors and their people would need people to “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” – and then lead the way in overcoming evil. Us too!
Our major reference point for overcoming evil is of course Jesus. By his perfect character, and ultimate goodness, he cast out demons and overturned injustice. And then to make a permanent mark on the world, Jesus, in all his innocence, took a large measure of evil upon his own shoulders to the cross – in his mercy releasing us from ever needing to be defined by that evil.
When this was understood by the criminal on the cross next to Jesus, he received the promise of ‘paradise’. When a Roman Centurion observed the humble way in which Jesus died, in the face of a mocking and scornful crowd, he publicly identified Jesus as the Son of God. And then, as God raised him from the dead, in the ultimate act of overcoming evil, Jesus empowered and equipped us (through the Holy Spirit) to live life in the way that he had. It is through receiving Jesus’ mercy, that we can offer a blessing of mercy to others.
There is a wonderful example of a 'noble' person - Nicholas Winton - and his 'noble' act during the second world war - where he saved many refugee children - covered in Krish Kandiah's fine recent book "God Is Stranger".
May our character leave a mark for good where we walk and live. May the character of Jesus that lives through us … overcome evil, and see many people coming to know their Creator God. May our expressions of worship and prayer in this place, combined with practical offers of hospitality and loving care, mean that this community can thrive in experiencing hope, peace, faith and purpose. Amen.