Six Marks of an Excellent Ministry
The Spirit-Led Church in its Labor of Love (3)
“See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”
1 Thessalonians 5:15
Revenge is the normal and expected response. The world loves it. To avenge oneself for an injustice – a wrong suffered, a personal injury caused by another – is a natural reflex. The entertainment industry banks on the craving for men to get even. I need not tell you that movie and television producers make their living creating shows and storylines dripping with vindictive spirits and vengeful characters. And the world eats it up!
But such behaviour is not fitting for those in Christ. We are not to return wrong when wronged, insult for insult, hurt for hurt. Personal revenge is not an option for those led by the Spirit of Christ! The fruit of the Spirit is not revenge. The fruit of the Spirit is love (Galatians 5:22), not payback! For those in whom Christ has been formed (Gal. 4:19) and are Spirit-led (Gal. 5:18) and are thus keeping in step with the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:25), personal revenge and retaliation is out of the question. It is simply not on the menu of choices. We are not to be avengers. The only just and rightful avenger is the Lord Himself. The apostle has just written of this very thing. You remember how he says to the Thessalonians, speaking of things concerning our sanctification and sexual immorality, “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things” (1 Thessalonians 4:6). So, we must take care and be mindful of our place before the Lord. He will make things right. He will balance the scales of justice. That is God’s right, not ours. Remember Paul’s own fine example and teaching elsewhere. The apostle wrote to Timothy: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Timothy 4:14). The apostle did not retaliate but left justice to the good and righteous Judge.
Of course, avenging oneself may indeed be a temptation; the Christian in this life will always do battle with sin. In fact, he must do battle with sin (cf. Rom. 8:13; Gal. 5:17; 1 Pet. 2:11). We must be killing sin by the Spirit of Christ. Our salvation from sin, though won and purchased in full by Christ on the cross, is not yet fully experienced. On that glorious day when we see Christ face to face, our full salvation from sin will be known. We will be completely free from all sin and dwell in that place where only righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). We have been saved from sin. But now we merely sip of that salvation which one day we will drink in fullest measure! We are freed from sin’s eternal penalty; Jesus “delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). But one day we shall be completely free from its presence and its power!
But we must return to our present Scripture text and verse. The apostle urges that we not avenge ourselves, that we not return evil for evil. Instead, Paul instructs the church to return evil with good. “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” Let’s unpack this and take a closer look.
Make Sure Everyone Returns Evil with Good: A Group Project
When one looks at the first phrase closely, he discovers that the apostle is not merely urging a response that is radically different than what characterizes most men and women. The apostle is also instructing that everyone in the church take responsibility in the matter. In other words, everyone in the church – not just church leadership – is to do what he or she can to ensure fellow believers not avenge themselves and return evil for evil. Do you hear it? The apostle says, “See to it!” “See to it that no one repays anyone evil for evil…” He is addressing the entire church, all of its members, not just a specific group of men in the church. This is a group project, not the task of the elders and pastors only.
But let’s be abundantly clear. Everyone of us ought to take responsibility in this for his own soul first. We must keep watch over our own hearts first and foremost. This must be our primary concern in the matter, for if we do not keep ourselves from revenge, what right do we have to tell another to do so? Of course, we have no right at all. We would fail in the attempt if we tried for we would have no credibility. So, we must see to ourselves first. We must keep watch over our own souls. And then we are to see that no one else in the church fellowship avenges himself.
But how is this to be done? How are we to go about seeing that the fellowship not retaliate, returning wrong for wrong, evil for evil, pain for pain, and so on? The first thing we need to acknowledge is the power and influence of example. When you refuse to avenge yourself, your example speaks. In fact, those who do not respond with revenge, though suffering the greatest of injustices and evils committed against them, are the most powerful influences. They speak tremendous volumes to us, do they not? How unknown is it today that a man turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39)! Is it not true, more often than not, that relationships operate in ‘an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth’o mode? Where is the one who radiates this kind of mercy? Where are the excellent examples, men to whom we can look for instruction and after whom we can pattern our lives?
Beloved, we need not waste time looking for illustrations. Yes, we could look at any number of godly men and women in the history of the church. But we only need to gaze at Christ and learn of Him. Why? This is why: We become like what, or who, we behold. And if we behold Christ, we shall become Christlike, even in the matter which is before us. This is to say, brethren, that if we desire to be a sanctifying influence concerning this labor of love, seeing that no one repays evil for evil, we must look away from ourselves and to Christ alone.
We don’t need self-help books. We don’t need some kind of course on leadership. Neither must we look at ourselves to see where we need improvements. All we need is Christ! He is the Excellent Exemplar! No other man suffered so unjustly and so severely and so innocently. Christ Jesus – the righteous and just and pure and blameless and innocent and perfect Son of God – died a death he did not deserve. Consider him who endured such hostility from sinners! He endured much evil, countless wrongs, unspeakable pain and monumental injustice! Why? O, what a question! The Scriptures tell us why. Jesus laid down his life on the cross because it was the will of his Father in heaven for him to do so (John 10:18; 14:31; Hebrews 10:5-7).
However, perhaps the better question at this point is “how?” How did Jesus endure the cross? Again, the Scriptures tell us. They tell us that Christ endured “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2)! Jesus endured his many profound sorrows, and even the pain of crucifixion “for the joy that was set before him!” All the joys of heaven, of being at God’s right hand, reigning over all things as King of the universe and Lord of all, were waiting for Jesus. And we, dearest brethren, we who hold fast to Jesus, must fix our eyes on future grace. We must fix our eyes on Jesus and “consider him who endured such hostility against himself, so that [we] may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3). We must consider him who suffered for our sake, and is our example. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
Beloved, we magnify Christ when we bear the sins of others without “pay back” and getting even. So, when we’re wronged, when somebody mistreats us, remember Jesus. Remember Jesus! Let’s keep entrusting ourselves to the just Judge. And let’s always be mindful and never forget this sweet future, that in his presence is fullness of joy and eternal, everlasting pleasures (Psalm 17:11). Whatever injustice we now face is temporary and pales in comparison to the splendour of his majesty and the sweetness of the place where only righteousness dwells!
There is, of course, something else for us to do in this matter of seeing that our fellow brethren not return evil for evil. We can influence by our own example, even as we follow Jesus in his example. But we must not leave it at that. We must also be ready to give a word of counsel and even exhortation when the need arises. How advantageous it is to not only know where certain verses and passages of Scripture are, but have them memorized! Among them are “…if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”( Matthew 5:38-42), “Repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17), and “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). And I urge you, brethren, that you take care how you go about using your lips and tongues in this ministry of loving counsel. Our mouths are small, but they are powerful. We must not use them as weapons; how awful is it when our lips injure our brothers and sisters in Christ! “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21)! We may very well desire the best for them. We may wish that our fellowships be free from personal retaliations. But we must not be harsh or condemning or anything of the sort when addressing the matter. In our teaching and counsel let’s be kind! Love is patient and kind! Let our speech be seasoned with grace and gentleness! O, how we need to be aware and keep watch over ourselves in this very thing! I have seen the destructive effect of the tongue in my years of ministry, and I wish to spare you all from being the instrument of destruction. So, when you seek to help your brethren by way of words and Scripture and counsel, speak with a spirit of gentleness.
The Negative: Not Repaying Evil with Evil
The point we need to address next concerns the root of the matter. If we were all honest with ourselves, we would confess to having two things: an inner lawyer, and a sense of entitlement. Our first and natural impulse, when wronged, when reviled, when misrepresented, when hurt by another in some manner, is to defend ourselves. We get angry. And we get defensive. Of course, we must defend ourselves in certain situations where our very lives are at stake. I am not talking about that. What I am talking about is the compulsion to respond unkindly and ungraciously because we think we deserve much better treatment than people give us. We forget that, in and of ourselves, we deserve far more pain and torment than we actually get. We forget that in view of our sins, we ought not complain. We forget all too quickly that anything short of the fires of hell is mercy. Do we not know these things? Do we not know any wrong we suffer is small stuff compared to the everlasting torment we in fact deserve? If we only keep these things in our minds’ eye, we would not be so quick to “get even.” Let us then keep these things in perspective, remembering “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
But let’s imagine for a moment we’ve been wronged. Perhaps a longtime and therefore trusted friend betrayed our trust. We shared with him or her some of our struggles and now learn everybody in the church seems to know about our personal and private hardships. Or, what if we discover our friends are spreading lies about us? Or, what if we become targets of malicious slander? What do we do when the police find and arrest our daughter’s rapist? We could go on and on. There is no limit to the number of personal, and painful, injustices in life!
We may not lash out at those who wrong us. But we might. And if we do, it would not be right. It would be wrong and sinful to repay wrongdoing with wrongdoing. We might aim to “get even” somehow. Maybe we strike back by name-calling or spreading false rumours of our own. But that would not be fitting for those in Christ. That’s just plain wrong. It’s a sinful reaction. But equally sinful, and arguably a lot more dangerous, is to do nothing, be quiet, and hold a grudge. Is it not true that holding grudges against those who injure us are nothing but gunpowder kegs? We hold on to the hurt for days, weeks, or even years. Perhaps circumstance keeps us from retaliation. Perhaps we simply fear the consequences of “payback.” Or, perhaps we have managed to deceive ourselves into thinking all is well. But all it would take for a blow up at the offender is a spark! How deceitful the human heart can be! And O how we who call upon the name of Christ need to keep watch over our souls!
Now, to press this upon our souls, I wish to remind you of David of old. You know about his life. He was a shepherd, a musician, a giant killer, and a King of Israel. Before he was crowned king, David became very popular with his people. All Israel and Judah loved him. As the commander of King Saul’s army, he knew great success. But King Saul eventually sought David’s life. At the very first, as the king’s personal musician and armour-bearer, David knew the King’s favour; Saul loved him. But David’s success on the battlefield was too much for Saul. As David was returning from one such victorious military campaign, he and his men were greeted by crowds of dancing women with various musical instruments singing joyful songs. As they sang, they shouted to each other:
“Saul has struck down his thousands,
and David his ten thousands.”
Understand what was happening. Not only is a mere subject the object of much praise, this subject is being credited with a much grander accomplishment! The king struck down thousands (which is a great feat). But David struck down ten times as many men! David is the object of praise here, not the king. David is the glorious one! Of course, this angered King Saul a great deal. It comes as no surprise to learn then, that from then on, Saul “eyed David” (2 Samuel 18:9). In other words, “Saul looked on David with suspicion from that day on” (NASB). The Scripture records what happened next:
“The next day a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand. And Saul hurled the spear, for he thought, ‘I will pin David to the wall.’But David evaded him twice” (1 Samuel 18:10-11).
Game on. Saul and David were enemies. Though David did nothing wrong, the king would soon seek to kill Him.
And so it happened that as Saul was chasing David in the wilderness of Engedi, he had need to relieve himself. He entered a cave to do so unaware that David and his men were hiding inside. As Saul relieved himself, David quietly cut off a corner of Saul’s robe without detection. Just imagine! David had a grand opportunity to rid himself of someone out to get him. But David did no harm to his sovereign. And when David later called out to King Saul outside the cave, David said to him:
“‘Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Behold, David seeks your harm’? Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.’ See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it. May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes wickedness.’ But my hand shall not be against you. After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! May the Lord therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand” (1 Samuel 24:9-15).
Saul sought David’s life for no good reason. David’s response ? Do you not love it? “May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.” David never repaid Saul evil for evil. Never.
And then there was the time Shimei cursed David. You can read about it in 2 Samuel 16:5-14. As King David walked the road to the Jordan with his men, Shimei, a Benjamite (Saul’s tribe), cursed David continuously, hurling stones and kicking dust. David’s response is highly noteworthy. When one of his men offered to put an end to the verbal abuse by killing Shimei, David said:
“Leave him alone, and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will look on the wrong done to me, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing today” (2 Samuel 16:11-12).
So Shimei taunted the king all the way to the Jordan. And the king did not repay him with evil. As King David endured the road to Jordan, King Jesus, the Son of David, endured the path carved out for him. He did not repay anyone evil for evil, insult for insult, or thorn for thorn, but for the joy set before him, endured the cross! We must never forget, dear Christian, that though Christ died in our place on the cross for our salvation, he also left us an example “so that [we] might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Therefore, let us do likewise and not repay evil for evil.
The Positive: Repaying Good for Evil
That is the negative part of Paul’s instruction. He has told us what not to do. But he does not stop at that. The Christian life is not just about not doing certain things. We fail to understand Christian living if we see it in prohibitions and negatives only. In fact, Christian living is not about a list of “do nots” or “do this.” Christian living is about keeping in step with the Spirit of Christ who indwells the believer by faith. How do we know we are keeping in step with his Spirit? We know because the Scriptures confirm or deny it. Returning evil for evil is to not keep in step. “Getting even” is out of step with the Spirit of Christ who indwells us and leads us. And here is the astonishing thing: Simply not getting even is not keeping in step with him. Not necessarily! Perhaps there are times when wisdom dictates the best action is no action. Maybe. But the apostle hastens to add a positive instruction to his negative: “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil,” Paul writes, “but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”
Repay Evil with Good
How are we in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells to respond to injustices done against us? When people, anyone – even fellow Christians – harm us in some way by some evil deed or word, our response is to be a simple one. We must “always seek” to do good to those who do us bad. We must always be about the business of looking to bless the one who wrongs us. We are to be intentional about it. We are to pursue, from the heart, ways of doing good and being gracious and kind to those who are unkind and ungracious to us. As far as it depends upon us, upon you and me, let us do good to those who treat us unfairly and torment us. That’s the idea. And notice we are not to exclude anyone. Everyone who pays us evil, who injures us in some way, is in view. Whether they be a fellow Christian or not, we must always seek to repay them with good.
How might this look? Listen to these Scripture verses and hear the Spirit of God speak:
“You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same” (Matthew 5:43-47)?
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly…Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:14-20).
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13).
Don’t forget forgiveness. Repay evil with forgiveness. Forgive those who wrong you. Forgiving those who wrong us is actively repaying good for bad.
David had made a covenant with Jonathan, son of King Saul. Before David was made king, when Jonathan warned David of his father’s hostility towards him, Jonathan said to David: “…’show me the steadfast love of the Lord, that I may not die, and do not cut off your steadfast love from my house forever, when the Lord cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.’ And Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying ‘May the Lord take vengeance on David’s enemies’” (1 Samuel 20:14-16).
Fast forward. King Saul was dead. Jonathan was dead. Both were killed in battle. David is now king. And it so happened that David sought for someone left in the house of Saul, one of Saul’s descendants, that he would “show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake” (2 Samuel 9:1). And there was someone left. Jonathan had a son, Saul’s grandson, who remained. David sent for Saul’s grandson, Mephibosheth, and upon his arrival, David said to him something that is outrageously gracious! King David said to Mephibosheth, grandson of King Saul, David’s enemy, “…I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always” (2 Samuel 9:7). So, that’s what Mephibosheth did. He always ate at the king’s table. And David gave Saul’s grandson everything that belonged to Saul.
Amazing, isn’t it? Saul sought to kill David. But David repaid Saul, both during Saul’s reign and after, with nothing but kindness. David actually prepared a table for the grandson of one who wished to put him in a grave! Can you imagine a modern day movie producer writing a storyline like this? Would Hollywood ever dream of making a profit on a movie with a main character who does not avenge himself, but instead leaves vengeance with God Almighty while returning good for evil?
Jesus, Son of David: Men hate him. Men verbally abuse his name. Men hurl insults at him. They falsely accused him, gave him a mock trial, stripped him, flogged and whipped him, burdened him with cross wood, then drove nails into his feet and hands before lifting him up on a Roman cross. Though he knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), and therefore did nothing wrong at anytime to anyone, and was without fault and reason for punishment, Jesus repaid evil with good. Just think on it! Behold Christ on the cross! Remember what he said as he hung there in scorching, unspeakable pain? He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Humanly speaking, every other injustice committed in the history of the cosmos pales in comparison to the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus! And yet, do you see him? Though the radiance of God’s glory and perfect righteousness, he “was numbered with the transgressors” and “bore the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12) . Did Jesus repay them evil for evil? Or did he entrust himself to the just Judge and Avenger who dwells in eternity, looking for the joy set before him?
But there’s something more for us to consider here. We must always be mindful of the nature of the relationship between God and those for whom Jesus died. The Scripture tells us that God showed “ his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We must understand, dear brethren, that Christ Jesus did not die for those free of guilt before God. Not at all. Jesus died for sinners! He died for those charged with serious, numerous, and profound offences against the Almighty! Indeed, he did not die for us as friends, but “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). We must not make light of the Scriptural teaching that before God reconciled us to himself by the cross, we “were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col. 1:21).
That is the truth of our situation outside of Christ. Outside Christ, we were not friends with God. We were enemies and hostile toward him. How incredibly gracious is it then, that in Jesus Christ, God set a table for us who necessitated his grave! We who believe in Christ, and yet sin against him in a thousand ways everyday, are not repaid evil for evil. Because of Jesus, our deep offences against God are repaid with Heaven’s riches. Think on this: To those in Christ by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, God does not condemn or lash out in anger or try to get even when sinned against, but instead returns evil with compassion and mercy and forgiveness and all things in keeping with the tender, wise love of a Father for his children. Dear Christian, O how he loves us! And O how could we ever fathom the depths of our many offences against him! And yet, God does not forsake us or leave us or abandon us or give up on us. Since this is true, since we have been the receivers of such unsearchable grace and mercy, should we not extend grace and mercy and kindness and all things good to those who wrong us? He forgives all our sins, heals the sicknesses of our souls, redeems our life from the pit, crowns us with steadfast love and mercy, and satisfies us with good (Ps. 103:2-5). In other words, beloved, in Christ, God repays evil with good! And nothing but good!
Therefore, I exhort you this day, when someone wrongs you or defrauds you or offends you unjustly, when someone harms you and does evil to you, pay him back with nothing but goodness. Seek to do good to each other and to everyone. May we excel in this more and more for the glory and exaltation of Christ, the speedy advance of the Gospel, and the intoxicating joy in pursuing the labour of love. Amen.
Pastor Braye studied at Canadian Theological Seminary and the University of Alberta. Presently he labors for “Pastoral Leadership Development at Action International Ministries” In the past he served as pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church and Beckwith Baptist Church. He is From Edmonton, Alberta