We aren’t God. Our role is not to right all wrongs, especially personal wrongs. If we seek to pay people back for how they’ve treated us, we’re in God’s way. God is the Judge.
Paul’s message is relentlessly consistent: we should not put ourselves in the place of God. Be humble, do not be haughty. See ourselves and the world around us as it really is. Do not curse enemies. Do not take vengeance on anyone for anything, never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Never take your own revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God, it is His role to deal out judgment toward wickedness. We are not God, so we shouldn’t try to avenge ourselves; instead, we should get out of God’s way. So far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Paul was very harsh on those who slandered his message, but never sought vengeance himself; he leaves that to God. In verse 19 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35, where God makes clear to Israel that all deeds will be brought to justice: ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’ says the Lord. God will take care of all wrongs, and it is important that we not try to do God’s job for Him. In fact, if we try to do God’s job for Him, we might be getting in the way of justice being done.
Have peace with all men, Paul writes, if it’s possible, and it isn’t always totally possible, but as much as we can manage, be peaceful with other people, Christian or otherwise. We can control what we do, not what others do. Even if someone is committed to opposing us at every turn, we have the choice to not retaliate.
It’s important to remember that Paul is writing to a church body. If we live humbly with one another (v. 16), not arrogantly, and if we let God be God and recognize that He’ll be the one to right all wrongs, we won’t fall into petty conflicts. We won’t try to dominate others for the sake of our sinful pride, and if all of us Christians practice these principles, how could we not get along?
God’s will is that we live righteously (meaning living rightly, justly, correctly—as God designed life to be, which is harmonious living), and living harmoniously is not consistent with being arrogant (we are equal, no member is more valuable than any other). If we aren’t arrogant, then clearly we’re humble, meaning we know our low position relative to God, who is sovereign. When we look at God as the Judge and the King, and we look at one another as people to serve rather than control, our faith is in God, not ourselves. Living righteously is only accomplished by faith, as the theme verse of Romans says: For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17).
Paul is expressing transformative principles, not a to-do list. He began this chapter by speaking of being transformed by having a new way of thinking. He is endorsing attitudes, not rules to follow. If we follow the Spirit and live the way Paul is describing, we will continue to be transformed to the image of Christ. When called to contend for the truth, as Paul is doing in this letter, we are to avoid being personal and stick with the message. When called to serve other believers, we are to do so emphasizing our gifts, by meeting people where they are and seeking their best.
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.
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