What does it mean…
If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head”?
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21;cf. Proverbs 25:21–22).
5 ways burning coals are understood
- Punishment – (Psalm 18:13, Psalm 140:10-11). But anything aimed to hurt our enemy violates the context of Romand 12.
- Conviction – Symbolic burning in the sense of bringing mental conviction.
- Protection – (Leviticus 16:12-13). Like the high priest on the Day of Atonement who took a censor full of burning coals and incense so the smoke would cover him.
- Blessing – Near-Eastern practice of carrying burning coals to distribute for the benefit of others (warmth, cooking).
- Melting – As burning coals melt hard metals, perhaps your kindness will melt your enemy’s hardened heart.
My view – I view it as a proverbial saying indicating that our acts of kindness have the potential to powerfully affect others, especially enemies. Win them with kindness – not kill them with kindness.
- Romans 2:4 – “God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance”
- Romans 5:10 – “while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.”
- Titus 3:4 – “when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.”
- II Peter 3:9 – “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
- Luke 6:35-36 – “the Most High, … is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
- Luke 23:34 – And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Six guidelines (when you feel like getting revenge)
- Recognize God’s place as judge (Romans 12:17-21; Gen.18:1-11; 50:14-20; Acts17; I Pet.2:22-23).
- Remember Jesus’ example (I Pet.2:22-23; Heb.12:1-4; Phil.2:5-11. Revisit his arrest, trial and crucifixion). (cf. I Corinthians 9:12).
- Refuse to multiply evil (Romans12:17-21).
- Return a blessing instead (Prov.25:21; Mt. 5:44; Ro.12:20; Prov.24:29).
- Respect God-ordained authority (Rom.13:3-4; Eph. 6:1; I Pet. 2:13-14).
- Recall God’s forgiveness of your sin (Eph. 4:31-32; Titus 3:1-5).
The command not to seek revenge (as with Jesus’ call to non-resistance in Matthew 5:38-42) is meant for one’s personal life, not not for the necessary judicial procedures of Church and State. When Jesus said, “But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil,…” it should be applied on the personal level for how Jesus’ disciples respond to mistreatment. But, on the official levels, of both church and state, “resisting him who is evil” – is an ordained purpose of God (for the Church: I Corinthians 5:13, Matthew 18:15-17; for the State: Romans 13:4; I Peter 2:13-14). It is significant that Romans 13 about the role of the state in punishing evil doers follows Romans 12 about not seeking revenge.
- Proverbs 15:1 – A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.