Vengeance Is the Lord’s
When Jesus uttered these familiar words, to whom was He speaking? Who was Jesus telling to endure evil and resist retaliation?
It may seem simple, but this question gets at an important distinction that was in the mind of the apostle Paul as he penned his letter to the Romans. In chapter 12, he exhorts his readers to “repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17) and to “overcome evil with good” (v 21), echoing the Lord’s teaching: that we should turn the other cheek. And yet, just a few verses later in Romans 13, he says that God has established civil authorities as His servants for the purpose of approving what is good and punishing what is evil (13:1-4). Sometimes, then, evil is repaid, and at other times it is not—at least not immediately.
Both Paul and Jesus recognized an important distinction that we must remember between the way individual Christians ought to respond to evil done to them (dealt with in Romans 12) and the execution of the rule of law (dealt with in Romans 13).
Christians are not to take justice into their own hands. Rather, we are to entrust the repayment of evil to the authorities God has put in place. Civil authorities are one example. When they fulfill their roles rightly, they serve as a terror to bad conduct but not to good. They are there to faithfully execute the rule of law and to punish those who violate it.
Understanding that God is perfectly just will free us to obey Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek. This is not a call to pretend that the evil done to us is not evil or to embrace a despairing outlook that says there is no justice. Nor is it a call to accept, when we are victims, that we must not make recourse to the civil authorities. No, Christians are called to and can endure evil because vengeance belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:19). On occasion, He permits that vengeance to be carried out in this life as He authorizes human governments to “bear the sword” (13:4). But on the day of the Lord, He will be the one directly carrying out justice, and every evil done in His world will be repaid in full.
You and I, then, are free to seek justice from the authorities that God has instituted to protect people and punish wrongdoing. Equally, we are free to turn the other cheek, resisting the all-too-natural urge to take matters into our own hands and enact our own vengeance. Justice will come, and not from our hands.
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic,8 let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
Love Your Enemies
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers,9 what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
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