Many in the world today look to gods and religions that are ultimately no greater than those who support them. Sadly, many who defend them often resort to violence when their theological presuppositions are threatened. Unlike those who feel they must rise in violence to defend their religious beliefs, the mature Christian knows that God needs no defense, for He is the sovereign Lord of the universe, the Creator of all things, and He never feels threatened by the activities of mankind. When people speak out against Christ or Christianity, Christians do not take up arms in violent defense of God. The Lord is able to defend Himself, and indeed He does. When men rise and take their stand against God, “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them” (Ps. 2:4), for “all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth” (Dan. 4:35). Christianity is inherently strong, because it is God who supports and defends the Christian, not the Christian who supports and defends God.
Unbelievers often attack God because they are totally depraved and reside in a state of spiritual darkness. Total depravity means that every part of man’s being (mind, will, and emotions) is corrupted by sin, so that his natural tendency is toward self and sin. Man, by his very nature tends toward evil. We should not think solely of the immoral man, but also of the moral degenerates who have substituted works-religion in place a genuine relationship with God. The Bible tells us men are lost, and the heart of man is wicked to its core, for “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, [and] slanders” (Matt. 15:19). It was not too long after the fall of Adam and Eve that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). The Scripture reveals that the heart of every man is bent toward evil and “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9a). Most Christians in America seem regularly surprised at the ungodly behavior of unbelievers in the world. This surprise is due to the poor theology that streams from our weak pulpits where ignorant or cowardly pastors fail to teach the dynamic truths of God’s Word that should give Christians a correct view of the world that helps them orient to reality as God’s Word defines it. Unfortunately, solid theology is traded for tinsel teaching set to organ music, theatrically presented with colorful lights, and an orchestra and choir.
The world is an evil place, and those who have given themselves over to Satan’s evil system often demand that others in their periphery do the same. Failure to conform brings pressure and persecution. Persecution often comes in stages and is defined as “the suffering or pressure, mental, moral, or physical, which authorities, individuals, or crowds inflict on others, especially for opinions or beliefs, with a view to their subjection by recantation, silencing, or, as a last resort, execution” (G. W. Bromily, “Persecution,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, 771). Evil men often employ pressure tactics of all sorts, including violence, in order to obtain their objective. Paul wrote to Christians who were facing evil persecution and told them they must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).
Because persecution was part of the normal Christian experience in the early church, Paul knew they would be tempted to retaliate against their attackers and return evil for evil. Unjustified attacks naturally stimulate the sin nature within the Christian. Because the sin nature is usually the first responder in evil situations, the Christian must be careful to exercise self-restraint and not act impulsively, but control his emotions. The Christian must be governed by God’s Word and never by his emotions, as the Scripture tells him to “be angry, and yet do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). The Christian will face evil his entire life, so he should prepare for it. More so, he should ready himself mentally to respond as God would have him to respond, as a dignified ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). And how should the Christian respond to evil?
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 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. (Rom. 12:17-19)
It’s easy to retaliate and kick the one who kicked you, or hit the one who hit you, or curse the one who cursed you. But this is not the Christian way. Jesus suffered unjustly many times throughout His life, and especially during the illegal trials which led to His crucifixion. And even though He was verbally reviled, “He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23).
As children of God, we must live on the highest level—returning good for evil. Anyone can return good for good and evil for evil. The only way to overcome evil is with good. If we return evil for evil, we only add fuel to the fire. And even if our enemy is not converted, we have still experienced the love of God in our own hearts and have grown in grace. (Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament, Vol. 1, 556)
As Christians, we cannot stop the injustice or violence that often comes our way, but we can control our response to it by thinking and living biblically. I cannot help but think of Stephen who, when being falsely accused and stoned by his attackers, cried out to the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” and then prayed for his attackers, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:59-60). God sovereignly controlled the circumstances of Stephen’s martyrdom, and Stephen glorified the Lord by facing his death with an attitude of faith and love, looking to the Lord and trusting Him in the face of violent opposition.
By faith, the Christian has confidence in the face of suffering because he knows “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose”(Rom. 8:28). Even if the Christian should face violent death, he knows he will leave this world and come immediately into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), have a new home in heaven (John 14:1-6), receive his resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:51-57; Phil. 3:21), obtain his eternal inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4-5), and enjoy the reality of the eternal life he received at the moment of he trusted Christ as his Savior (John 3:16; 10:28; 1 John 5:10). Jesus Himself stated “do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
Living in God’s will is not always easy, and it does not guarantee a positive response from those who follow worldly values. The teaching of Scripture is that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Sadly, there are many Christians who suffer for sinful reasons and it is good that they suffer, if it teaches them humility and respect for legitimate authority. The Apostle Peter tells Christians to “make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (1 Pet. 4:15-16). We cannot stop suffering in this life, but “it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong” (1 Pet. 3:17). We cannot control what other people think or how they behave, but we can control our response to them, and we can make sure that what we do is pleasing to the Lord by being obedient-to-the-Word believers. In this way, we can overcome evil by doing God’s will for our lives; and this is good.
The Christian cannot control much of the suffering that comes into his life, but he does not have to be overcome by that suffering, as he can look to God and maintain faith in His Word. Jesus was not overcome by the cruelty and suffering he endured, but showed love and forgiveness to His attackers (Luke 23:34), and “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Stephen, who spoke strong words of truth while filled with the Holy Spirit, prayed and asked God to forgive those who were stoning him (Acts 7:60). Paul and Silas demonstrated loving concern for the jailer who kept them in chains, sharing the gospel with him when given the opportunity (Acts 16:22-32). Our lives may be vulnerable to the unjust pain and suffering caused by others, but we must look beyond the suffering and be willing to love even our attackers for the sake of Christ in the hope that they may come to know the gospel and be saved.
Rejoicing in the midst of Christian suffering is an act of the will, not a natural emotional response. By faith the Christian chooses to praise God in the midst of his suffering because he knows God is using that suffering to produce the character of Christ in him (John 16:33; Rom. 5:3-5; Jam. 1:2-4). Even when the Christian faces death at the hands of violent attackers, he is to continually entrust himself to God as the keeper of his soul (Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59). The Christian overcomes evil when he adopts God’s will for his life and follows it, no matter the cost. The Christian overcomes evil by committing himself to doing God’s will according to Scripture and refusing to bow down to the evil pressures of weak people who have surrendered themselves to Satan’s worldly system. To be sure, overcoming evil is not a onetime event, but a lifetime activity that has application to every aspect of life wherever evil is encountered.
Turning now to the matter of God’s vengeance, let me be clear that God has not ignored the fact that His children are being wrongly treated everywhere. The above section was presented first to show the believer that God is aware of the unjust suffering that His people face and to make the Christian aware that the Lord has provided everything he needs to overcome every adversity this world will present, so that that he might face it with courage and honor (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:28; Eph. 1:3; Jam. 1:2-4). At the present, God is being patient with sinful men, withholding His wrath and graciously drawing them to Himself and saving many (2 Pet. 3:9). However, though the grace of God is infinite in scope, it is not eternal in its duration, and there will come a day when the Lord’s grace will largely be withdrawn from this world, and He will pour forth His wrath upon mankind (Rev. 6-19). In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John had a vision in which he saw underneath an altar, “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained” (Rev. 6:9). These are the souls of martyred saints who will be persecuted and put to death unjustly at the hands of violent men because of their faith in Christ. John heard them crying out to God and asking, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). The answer that came in heaven was, “…they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also” (Rev. 6:11). Patience was required. God has in His mind a set number of martyrs who must die for their faith before the measure of the world’s sinful cup becomes full, and then He will pour forth His righteous wrath upon the world and bring about the judgment it so richly deserves.
Christians who look to the Lord for justice have every right to call out to Him in expectation that He will judge and avenge them for their mistreatment in the world. Even though Scripture tells the believer, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God”, it also assures him that vengeance will come, for the Lord says, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY” (Rom. 12:19). God will execute vengeance on the earth, and that day of retribution will ultimately come when the Lord Jesus Christ personally returns to earth at His second coming. At this time He will put down all human rebellion and establish His millennial kingdom (Rev. 19:11-21; 20:1-6). John saw in a vision the return of the Lord Jesus Christ at His second coming and described it as follows:
And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He [Jesus Christ] who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations [who oppose Him], and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty [cf. Isa. 63:1-6]. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which fly in midheaven, “Come, assemble for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great.” And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. And the beast [i.e. the Antichrist of the Tribulation] was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword which came from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse, and all the birds were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:11-21)
Rest assured, there is a day of vengeance coming upon this world, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will personally bring it to pass (Rev. 19:11-21; cf. Isa. 63:1-6). After the millennial reign of Christ, all unbelievers of human history will stand before the Great White Throne of Christ and be judged because they had rejected Jesus Christ as their Savior (Rev. 20:11-15). Because their names were “not found written in the book of life,” they will be “thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15). A day of judgment follows a day of vengeance. Until then, believers must stay the course and be faithful to the Lord as His ambassadors to a lost and hostile world He desires to save (2 Pet. 3:9).
Dr. Steven R. Cook