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A Study of Exhortation - Romans 12:17

This article continues an on-going, verse-by-verse series on the exhortations in Romans 12.

Living Honorably

17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. (Romans 12:17).

Paul continues his series of exhortations that concern our behavior in the midst of a fallen world. In verse 16, Paul spoke about our relationships with others: living in harmony, not being conceited. In verses 17 and 18, he continues in the same vein, as he exhorts us to live at peace with those around us.

First, we are not to "repay anyone evil for evil." This exhortation seems redundant, given Paul's previous exhortations. Paul has said: "Bless those who persecute you" (vs. 14) and "live in harmony with one another" (vs. 16). Now he says: "Do not repay anyone evil for evil." Certainly, Paul's previous exhortations encompass this one, but it is worth repeating with the emphasis Paul gives it here. At times, retaliation can clothe itself with a "righteous" motive. Someone is "evil", and we think that we have a "God-given" right to retaliate. However, such retaliation is not in line with the teachings of our Lord. Christ said: "Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also...Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:39,44-45). Christ practiced what He taught and was a living example of this attitude. Peter points out: "When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly" (1 Pet. 2:23). Paul will speak more on retaliation in verses 19 and 20, so we will cover this subject in more detail in a later issue.

The next exhortation is one that many of us are lax in keeping: "Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody." Though we are concerned with pleasing God, we should also be concerned with living properly before men. We often fail in this, saying, "I am not under law, but under grace," or "I obey a higher law," or "I have `heavenly' things on my mind". While these statements are true, they should not be used as excuses to wantonly disobey the laws, or even the customs of men, unless (of course) the laws and customs of men come in direct conflict with the commands of God.

For the most part, the laws and customs of men do not conflict with the commands of God, and so, as Paul exhorts here, we should "be careful" to obey man's laws and follow man's customs. We must remember that our behavior is being watched by non-Christians; our lives are a constant testimony to the validity of Christianity. When those of the world see us flagrantly ignoring the laws and customs of men because (supposedly) we have "heavenly" things on our mind, they see us as kooks or (worse) religious snobs who set ourselves above the laws and customs of men.

In another epistle, Paul gave instruction to Titus (who was building up the churches that Paul planted in Crete) concerning how he should specifically teach others to live. Paul said:

Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. . .

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no-one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility towards all men. (Titus 2:6-10; 3:1-2).

The picture of our lives that we have here is one of respect for God and respect for men, obeying both heavenly customs and earthly customs, in order that "no one will malign the word of God" (Tit. 2:5), so that by our lives we may make "the teaching about God our Savior attractive" (Tit. 2:10).

In today's society, this means that we, as Christians, are to treat with respect and dignity those around us, Christians and non-Christians alike. We are to be polite and good-natured, greeting passers-by with a smile. We are to carry on our business honestly and forthright, following proper business customs. We are to work hard at our place of employment, being diligent and faithful employees, not maligning those who are in charge. We are to keep correct timecards and pay our taxes. We are not to slander our governing authorities, but to pray for them. We are to be scrupulous in obeying the laws of the land. We are to clean up after ourselves; we are not to litter; we are to be mindful of protecting the environment. All these things, I believe, and many more, are within the scope of the statement: "Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody". It is ironic that we can stand blamelessly before God (albeit through the blood of Christ), but many of us cannot stand honorably before men.

The great men and women of the Bible, though called by God, were careful to follow the proper customs of men whenever they did not conflict with the commands of God. For example, in Gen. 23 Abraham followed carefully the local customs in buying a plot of land for Sarah's burial from the Hittites. Though they were heathens, he treated them with respect, bowing before them (Gen. 23:7), and he was careful to pay a fair price for the land (Gen. 23:13). Joseph in Egypt did not take advantage of the king's favor, but honestly served him, as did Daniel in Babylon. Ruth, though a Moabite, carefully followed Jewish customs in seeking her redemption by Boaz. Christ Himself, though theoretically exempt from paying the temple tax, paid it anyway in order not to offend the religious leaders (Matt. 17:26-27).

And so, we too should "do what is right in the eyes of everybody", living respectably among men. To do so, serves a higher purpose, giving honor to the name of Christianity, and thus, glory to God.

Lord, guide us in carrying out this exhortation. Show us those areas of our lives that need improvement in this respect. May You be glorified as we live honorably among men, doing what is right according to the customs and laws of the land. May we also live at peace with those around us and be a light that shines for You. In the name of Jesus, we pray these things, Amen.

(In the next issue, we will continue our study in Romans 12)

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