One thing that the early Christians had to face, and Christians have to face to this day is hatred and persecution.
And Paul told the church how to handle it. He said,
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. (14)
Those words echo what Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount.
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)
Jesus himself, lived out those words. When he was on the cross, facing those who put him there, he prayed,
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)
We are to do the same. When we let bitterness consume us, it destroys us. So Paul says, “Let go of bitterness and resentment to those who hurt you. Instead, pray for them.”
He goes even further in verse 16, saying,
Do not repay anyone evil for evil.
Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.
The wording is perhaps not the best here. Paul is not saying, “Follow the moral standards of the people around you.” He’s saying, “In the eyes of the people around you, whether they persecute you or not, do what is right.”
And that of course means not giving into bitterness or anger and taking revenge.
He then says,
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (18)
Sometimes this means simply agreeing to disagree agreeably. Sometimes this means we need to apologize to someone even if we feel they shouldn’t have been hurt by something we did. Sometimes it means finding a middle ground in which you don’t have to compromise the Word of God. I have friends here in Japan, for example, that refuse to go to any Buddhist funeral or memorial ceremony, but they will go out of their way to serve their family or friends after the ceremonies in any way they can.
Finally, Paul tells us,
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.” (19-20)
In short, remember justice belongs to God, not you. God will bring all people to account for what they’ve done. So don’t give in the desire to “fight fire with fire.” And again, don’t hold on to bitterness. It will only eat you up. Rather, follow the example of Jesus and show his love to them.
Who knows? Through your actions, they may actually come to Christ. I wonder how much Stephen’s prayer (Acts 7:60) for those who were killing him ate at Paul before Paul himself finally came to Christ.
So as Paul concludes,
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (21)